I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Tai Kato, 1968)

Nephew of Sadao Yamanaka, Tai Kato joined Toho as an apprentice in 1937, returning after the war training under Daisuke Ito and Akira Kurosawa, but later moved to Toei where he became closely associated with ninkyo eiga yakuza movies and jidaigeki. From the mid-1960s, however, he made several movies at Shochiku which had, it has to be said, a house style that was almost the polar opposite with a clear focus on polite, family-friendly melodrama. 1968’s I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Minagoroshi no Reika) meanwhile is a surprisingly dark affair even among the grittier examples of Shochiku’s similarly themed B-movie thrillers, an avant-garde noir and proto-giallo in which the fugitive, serial killer antihero sees himself as an agent of divine justice in a hellish and immoral post-war landscape. 

Kato opens with a shocking scene of sexualised violence in which a woman is knocked unconscious, stripped, bound with telephone cord, and finally revived, forced to write down the names of four other women before being brutally raped and murdered by a killer whose voice we have not yet heard nor face seen. The police are mystified, attributing the woman’s death to the fact that she had worked as a bar hostess and maybe things like this are an occupational hazard for women who are surrounded by too many men. Her landlord, however, laments that hers is the second death to occur recently after a laundry boy threw himself off the roof. All things considered, he wishes the boy had picked somewhere else. 

The police have no reason to connect the two unfortunate events and so remain largely clueless, but we gradually become aware that the killer, Kawashima (Makoto Sato), is targeting the women because he holds them directly responsible for the boy’s death. He is the inspector that calls, avenging the death of this young man who, he has learned, like him hailed from Hokkaido and had come to the city at only 16 years old to earn money to support his family, saving almost all of his wages in the hope of opening a shop. Kato shows us scenes of a city under construction, a land of girders casting shadows on the ground like prison bars trapping men like these who are building the new Japan but will be discarded as soon the job is done and their labour no longer so much in demand. Kawashima has another reason for living like this, but he perhaps admires something pure and innocent in the desire of a young man leaving home to seek his fortune so that he might take care of those he loves and that this world betrayed that desire is something he finds impossible to forgive.

The five women have apparently done quite well for themselves, despite the fact that more than one of them has worked on the fringes of the sex trade. Their treatment of the boy is attributed to their boredom in the relative ease of their lives as monied women with little to occupy their time other than getting their kicks abusing the less powerful. It’s an uncomfortable role reversal that places women in a position of power and then sees them abuse it in the exact same way that men do, slinging back the same pithy justifications that men offer for sexual violence while the police meditate on the relative connotations of rape when the word is applied to a man at the hands of women rather than the other way around. If it were their sister, they could understand the desire to kill the men who had done it but a part of them struggles to see that a teenage boy may still find unwanted sexual contact a traumatic enough experience to push him towards suicide. 

Yet Kawshima appears to have no real connection to the boy, and his “revenge” is also a product of his misogyny in that as we later learn he also has reason to feel betrayed by womanhood and is already on the run from previous crime. Nevertheless, he is drawn to the innocent Haruko (Chieko Baisho), a girl-next-door type who works in his favourite ramen restaurant, only to discover that she too has a dark and violent past which may be why she seems to be drawn to him. He struggles with himself, but believes that he is taking revenge on a brutalising society defined by violence and abuse while sublimating his sense of emasculation in the face of women’s growing social and sexual freedoms in the post-war era. It is perhaps the post-war era which is cast as the major villain, one of the women later escaping her protective custody to dance furiously a hip nightclub only to return to the scene of her crime while refusing to see that she has done anything so “wrong” as to merit this kind of persecution. 

“The cycle of divine punishment must be fulfilled” Kawashima finally laments, acknowledging his grim place within this series of post-war tragedies. Surprisingly avant-garde, Kato experiments with blown out negatives, extreme close up, and deep focus mixed with his characteristic low angle composition to add to the sense of noirish dread which paints the modern city as an inescapable hellscape while even the romantic place of refuge shared by Kawashima and Haruko is a gothic moorland lit by moonlight and filled with eerie mist. Lurid and sweaty, the film has a grim sense of humour even in its oppressive atmosphere with a running gag devoted to the lead investigator’s painful case of piles, but its overriding fatalism nevertheless offers the hero a sense of redemption if only in acceptance of his narrative destiny. 


Our Marriage (私たちの結婚, Masahiro Shinoda, 1962)

Like many directors of his age, Masahiro Shinoda had to serve his apprenticeship at Shochiku contributing to the studio’s particular brand of light and cheerful melodramas though 1962’s Our Marriage (私たちの結婚, Watashitachi no Kekkon) did perhaps allow him to explore some of his persistent themes in its ultimately empathetic exploration of the romantic and existential dilemmas of two sisters who ultimately find themselves taking different paths in the complicated post-war society. Co-scripted by Zenzo Matsuyama, Our Marriage is essentially a chronicle of changing times and the crises of modernity, but it’s also surprisingly even-handed in its refusal to judge or indeed to sugarcoat the “romance” of a working class life. 

Keiko (Noriko Maki) and her younger sister Saeko (Chieko Baisho) both have jobs in the local factory with Keiko working in the accounts department which is where she first meets the brooding and self-righteous Komakura (Shinichiro Mikami) when he marches straight into the office to complain that he’s been shorted on his pay-packet to the tune of 10 yen. The ladies are non-plussed, it’s only 10 yen after all so perhaps there’s no need to be so unpleasant about it, but Komakura insists on having it looked into even after they give him the single coin in an effort to make him go away. Getting so upset about 10 yen is perhaps disproportionate, but then it is Komakura’s 10 yen and he has a point that if a mistake has been made it needs to be acknowledged and corrected especially when you’re dealing with people’s livelihoods to ensure that everyone is being paid fairly. On the other hand, marching in and shouting at people is unlikely to help the situation. 

It just so happens that Komakura is a good friend of Saeko’s who perhaps reads more into the mild embarrassment he and her sister each experience on meeting in another context to assume that they are romantically involved, immediately swinging into action to get them together. Meanwhile, another potential suitor has turned up at home in the form of Matsumoto (Isao Kimura), apparently an old friend dropping in on their parents out of courtesy. Matsumoto is very good looking and apparently now has a well paying job in the textiles trade, but despite their politeness to him the parents later have their doubts because it turns out that he was their blackmarket dealer during the dark days of the immediate post-war era. 

The Hibino family make their living as seaweed farmers and live in a small two-story home in a fishing village. Times are hard because the sea is dying. Increased industrial pollution, land reclamation, and the new airport have reduced the harvest to almost nothing and the girls’ father (Eijiro Tono) can no longer make ends meet. The union hasn’t paid him and he can’t ask about it because he’s still in debt from a previous loan, which is why Keiko’s mother (Sadako Sawamura) is always asking her for extra money to help with household expenses. Keiko intensely resents this, especially as her father’s irresponsible drinking habits continue to adversely affect the family’s finances. They haven’t really been thinking about her marriage perhaps partly because they need her salary but are now forced to because of all the sudden and unexpected interest. On top of Matsumoto and Komakura, it seems that the union leader’s widowed son is also interested which would, admittedly, be quite beneficial to the family. 

Keiko, however, is insistent that her husband must have a decent salary and that her married home must have a refrigerator and a washing machine. Quite the consumerist, Keiko has had enough of poverty and of feckless men like her authoritarian father who waste all their money on drink while relying on female labour to keep them out of trouble. When Matsumoto writes a formal letter proposing marriage, the parents decide to push the union leader’s son instead hoping to avoid embarrassment all round. Keiko immediately assumes the worst, that her father is trying to sell her to the union leader in exchange for the cancelation of his debts. She insists that she will decide her own future, leading Saeko to make a disastrous intervention revealing Keiko’s relationship with Komakura which only has the effect of enraging her father who brands her an ungrateful “whore” while shouting that a mere workman is not good enough for his daughter despite having previously stated that the union leader’s son was really “too good” and they were only in the running because it’s a second marriage. 

Both women still implicitly feel that marriage will define their futures, they do not have an expectation of living independently. Nevertheless, marriage itself may not be an answer. Everyone keeps talking about how happy Miyoko (Fumiko Hirayama) is with her new husband and she herself is forever extolling the joys of married life even in poverty, insisting to Saeko that “a woman’s happiness lies in marrying and having babies”. It’s a cruel irony then that we later see her arguing with her husband who is trying to force her to have an abortion against her will because they cannot afford to raise a child. Keiko has had enough of poverty, she wants to be more than comfortable, enjoying the new consumerist age. Re-encountering an old schoolfriend who has become a glamorous social butterfly she is mildly scandalised when she tells her that she obtained all her treasures through a complex network of compensated dating arrangements with foreigners, but later decides to check it out for herself when directly faced with the hopelessness of her situation. 

The fact remains, however, that no matter the initial attraction and her sister’s earnest attempts to make it work, Keiko and Komakura are fundamentally unsuited. They have entirely different ways of thinking about the world and want completely different things. Komakura is an angry young man but committed to his working class roots. He isn’t trying to get on, he’s happy with working in the factory for the rest of his life and just wants a quiet, honest existence. Keiko wants more, she thinks that people who say they’re poor but happy have merely given up on life. Revealing himself, Matsumoto says that he was struck by Keiko’s harsh words to him when she was a child, her calling him a blackmarketeer to his face apparently showing him what he was. He claims to have reformed and now fears the various ways that poverty can corrupt, something Keiko feels herself after her brief brush with the shady world of compensated dating. They are very much on the same page, both intent on seizing the benefits of the consumerist age but hoping they won’t have to stoop too low to get them. 

Saeko meanwhile is a little younger, still naive, and unlike her sister completely resistant to the corruptions of consumerism. Part of that might be because Keiko has shielded her from some of the harsh consequences of the way their family lives such as the financial burden of her father’s drinking, leaving her with a rosier view of poor but honest life which has her taking notes from Miyoko on how it’s easy to be happy even when you don’t have enough to eat. She and Komakura are in fact perfectly suited and perhaps she is already in love with him but either afraid of her feelings or unable to recognise them, pushing him towards her “prettier” sister instead. Then again, is there anything to say that Komakura will not turn into another man like her father, embittered and old, trying to drown his disappointment in sake? There’s no guarantee Keiko will be happy with Matsumoto, or perhaps with anyone, but they are at least moving forward in the same direction, as are Saeko and Komakura even as they blend back in with a hundred other cheerful youngsters making their way towards the factory. Our Marriage offers no judgment on its heroines’ choices, merely stating that people make their own paths in life pursuing their particular ideal of happiness and it happens that those paths might necessarily diverge but the people are still the same ones they always were and perhaps you don’t need to reject them for choosing differently than you might have done. Isn’t that what post-war freedom is all about after all?


Sing, Young People (歌え若人達, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

Keisuke Kinoshita has sometimes been dismissed by Western critics for his supposed sentimentality, but his mid-career comedies can be surprisingly cynical. Scripted not by Kinoshita but Taichi Yamada, 1963’s Sing, Young People (歌え若人達, Utae Wakodotachi) is in someways an exception to the rule, a breezy take on the student comedy updated for the present day, but underneath all the absurdist humour and jibs about youthful ennui is a real sense of adolescent hopelessness as these aimless young men ponder their “pitch-black” futures in a rapidly changing Japan where the best they can hope for is fulfilling the salaryman dream.  

Shooting in glorious colour, Kinoshita opens with a lengthly pan over contemporary Tokyo which the jaunty voice over describes as “the number-one city in the world” before homing in on the incongruous figure of a strangely dressed man holding a sign advertising “sensual massage beauties”. A relic of an earlier advertising age, the wandering sign man nevertheless catches sight of someone even “weirder” than he is, a student wearing a student’s cap! Kinoshita then takes us on a brief detour through Japan’s major universities demonstrating that no one is so uncool as to wear a student’s cap in the age of protest, drawing a direct contrast to the student comedies of old while showing us a series of scenes of students “playing” hard with part-time jobs in bands or as models, training hard in preparation for the upcoming Olympics, fomenting the revolution, or fighting in the streets. In the first of many meta touches, our hero, Mori, is eventually woken by the narrator after falling asleep in class, his eyes “gleaming with hopes for the future”. 

Or, perhaps not, he’s just tired. Mori (Tsutomu Matsukawa) is as he describes himself a man without hopes or dreams who believes that the road ahead of him is “pitch black”. Dropping a brush from the window washers’ platform at one of his part-time jobs, he asks himself if there shouldn’t be more to life than this. The only son of his widowed mother, he’s pinned everything on graduating from a top university but feels powerless and empty, adrift in the post-war landscape. Where his calculating friend Miyamoto (Yusuke Kawazu) fills the void with romance and a determination to “get lots of As” and then land a top job, his roommate Okada (Shinichiro Mikami) earnestly studies hard afraid to disappoint his austere family but also quietly resentful in his lack of autonomy, and the dopey Hirao (Kei Yamamoto) simply goes about being nice to people more or less forcing them to eat the traditional treats his loving mother is forever sending. 

Yet for all the bleakness Mori seems to see in his future, he only ever falls up. Luck follows him and he’s presented with ever more fantastic opportunities at every turn. In fact, it’s his slightly grumpy expression as he cleans the windows of an office building that leads to them snapping a picture and making him a cover star without ever bothering to ask his permission though they do eventually pay. Still Mori remains indifferent, telling a reporter who tries to interview him that he had nothing to do with the cover, he has no dreams or aspirations for the future but lives his life day by day. He describes himself only as “nervous”. His words run ironically over the magazine literally becoming tomorrow’s chip paper, used by a stall owner to wrap her croquettes, as a stand for a hot pot, and otherwise bundled up to be pulped. Nevertheless, the cover leads to great opportunities from a TV network looking for a fresh face to front their new youth-orientated drama serial. 

Despite all the promise, Mori remains indifferent, later irritating a new colleague and potential love interest (Shima Iwashita) when he idly suggests he might just give up acting and fall back on the salaryman dream. As she points out, she had to fight all the way to achieve her dreams of becoming an actress so hearing someone say they’re going to throw away a tremendous opportunity that came to them entirely by chance is mildly offensive. Miyamoto meanwhile is growing lowkey resentful, realising that maybe nothing matters after all it’s all just dumb luck. Mori deliberately didn’t do anything because he thought his life was pointless but everything has landed right at his feet while Miyamoto’s life is crumbling. He’s lost all his girlfriends and endured a lonely New Year alone in the dorm, coming to the conclusion that his future really is “pitch black”.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to remain resentful about a friend’s accidental success and so each of the men eventually finds direction in even in directionlessness. Mori realises that he might as well ride his wave of fame for as long as it lasts, accepting in part at least his sense of powerlessness, while Okada does the reverse in deciding to rebel against his authoritarian family by marrying in secret. Miyamoto resolves to make a success of himself in his own way, and Hirao seemingly accepts the hand fate has dealt him with good humour. Kinoshita ramps up the meta comedy with Mori joining Shochiku, encouraged to try and work for that “excellent” director Keisuke Kinoshita, later referencing Garden of Women, while Mariko Okada and Keiji Sada turn up as onstage guests at an event launching him as a young actor. Playfully using outdated, quirky screen wipes and opening with an artsy title sequence featuring colourful confetti falling up, Kinoshita perhaps adopts a slightly ironic tone in satirising the all pervasive sense of confusion and hopelessness among the younger generation but does so with only sympathy for those coming of age in uncertain times. 


Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (男はつらいよ50 – お帰り 寅さん, Yoji Yamada, 2019)

From 1969 to 1996, travelling salesman Tora-san appeared in 48 films, a 49th movie special appearing after star Kiyoshi Atsumi’s death brought an unavoidable end to the series. Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (男はつらいよ50 – お帰り 寅さん, Otoko wa Ysurai yo 50: Okaeri Tora-san) arrives to mark the 50th anniversary of the first film’s release, and as the series had done in its later stages, revolves around Tora’s neurotic nephew, Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), who is now a middle-aged widower and father to a teenage daughter. Feeling somewhat wistful, Mitsuo’s thoughts turn to his now absent uncle, wishing he were still around to offer some of his trademark advice along with the gentle warmth and empathy which proved in such stark contrast with his otherwise anarchic and unpredictable personality.  

Yamada, who directed all but two of the series in its entirety, opens with another dream sequence this time of Mitsuo as he finds himself overcome with memories of his first love, Izumi (Kumiko Goto), who is now married with children and living abroad working for the UNCHR. Mitsuo’s wife passed away from an illness six years previously and he’s so far resisted prompts from his relatives to consider remarriage though it seems fairly obvious that his editor, Setsuko (Chizuru Ikewaki), has a bit of a crush on him. Having taken a gamble giving up the secure life of a salaryman to become a novelist, Mitsuo’s first book is about to be published and it’s at a signing that he serendipitously re-encounters Izumi who just happened to be in the store that day on a rare trip to Japan and spotted the poster. 

Like many Tora-san films, Wish You Were Here is about the bittersweet qualities of life, the roads not taken, the misdirections and misconnections, and the romanticisation of a past which can no longer be present. At a crossroads, Mitsuo ponders what might have been recalling the shattered dreams of his first love which seems to have ended without resolution because of the unfairness of life. He wishes that his crazy uncle was still around to make everything better, offering more of his often poetic advice but most of all a shoulder to cry on as he’d been for so many women throughout the series. But Mitsuo himself has always been more like Tora than he’d care to admit, if tempered by his father Hiroshi’s shyness. He too is a kind man whose bighearted gestures could sometimes cause unexpected trouble. What he’s learning is in a sense to find his inner Tora, embracing his free spirit through his art if not the road, but also coming to a poetic understanding that sometimes the moment passes and there’s nothing you can do to take it back, only treasure the memory as you continue moving forward. 

That’s a sentiment echoed by Lily (Ruriko Asaoka), one of Tora’s old flames, who now runs a stylish bar in Tokyo. The beauty of the Tora-san series was that it aged in real time. The actor playing Mitsuo played him as a child and we saw him grow up on screen just as we saw Shibamata change from post-war scrappiness to bubble-era prosperity and beyond. The family’s dango-shop has had an upscale refit and there is now a modern apartment complex behind it where the print shop once stood. Seamlessly splicing in clips from previous instalments as Mitsuo remembers another anecdote about his uncle, Yamada shows us how past and present co-exist in the way memory hangs over a landscape. Once or twice, the ghost of Tora even reappears hovering gently behind Mitsuo only to fade when he turns around to look while there’s an unavoidable sadness as we notice the Suwas’ living room is now much less full than it once was. 

Aside from his uncle, it’s the warm family atmosphere that Mitsuo recalls from his childhood, something which, like Tora, he might not have always fully appreciated. Driving Izumi to a potentially difficult reunion with her terminally ill estranged father (Isao Hashizume), he refers to his own parents as “annoying” in the “pushy” quality of their kindness, something which irritates Izumi who points out that she’d have loved to have such a warm and supportive family and if she had she might never have gone to Europe, implying perhaps that their fated romance would been fulfilled. The Shibamata house was Tora’s port, he could wander freely because he had somewhere to go back to where they’d always let him in no matter what kind of trouble he caused.

A fitting tribute to the Tora-san legacy, Wish You Were Here is also a joyful celebration of the Shitamachi spirit. Tora might be gone, but the anarchic kindness and empathy he embodied lives on, not least in the mild-mannered Mitsuo and his cheerful daughter who seems to be continuing the family tradition of meddling in her loved ones’ love lives as her lovelorn father prepares to move on in memory of Tora, the free spirited fool.


Tora-san, Wish You Were Here streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Yoji Yamada, 1989)

“My uncle was born a kind man, but his kindness is intrusive. He’s short tempered too, so often his kindness ends up causing a fight” according to the introduction given by Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), nephew of the titular Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) in the 42nd instalment in the long running series, Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Boku no Ojisan). People may say he’s “an oddball”, but just recently, Mitsuo claims, he’s learned to appreciate his uncle’s peculiar charms. Up to this point, the series had followed a familiar pattern in which Tora-san has an encounter on the road and returns home to visit his family in Shibamata falling in love with an unattainable woman along the way. My Uncle, as the title perhaps implies, shifts the focus away from Tora directly towards his wayward nephew Mitsuo now a moody teenager studying to retake his university entrance exams. 

The problem is, Mitsuo is having trouble concentrating because he’s fallen in love. Izumi (Kumiko Goto) was a year below him in high school but after her parents got divorced she moved away and is currently living with her mother (Mari Natsuki) who runs a hostess bar in Nagoya. Mitsuo has been wanting to go and visit but his father, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), has banned travel until after his exams and his authoritarian ruling has placed a strain on their relationship while Sakura (Chieko Baisho), Mitsuo’s mother and Tora’s younger sister, is getting fed up with his moodiness. That might be why she asks Tora to have a word with him on one of his rare visits, hoping Mitsuo will be able to talk frankly to his uncle about things he might not want to discuss with his parents. Only when Tora’s uncle (Masami Shimojo) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) point out the dangers does she realise her mistake. Perhaps you might not want your son to receive the kind of advice a man like Tora might give. Their misgivings are borne out when Tora brings him home a little the worse for wear after teaching him how to drink sake (and flirt with waitresses). 

Rather than Tora it’s Mitsuo we follow as he ignores his parents and goes off to find Izumi on his own. Mitsuo is not Tora, however, and he’s still fairly naive, unaware of the dangers inherent in a life on the road which is how he gets himself into a sticky situation with a man who helped him (Takashi Sasano) after he had a bike accident but turned out to have ulterior motives. After discovering that Izumi has gone to live with her aunt (Fumi Dan) in the country and finally arriving, Mitsuo begins to have his doubts. She wrote to him that she was lonely so he jumped on his bike and came, but now he wonders if that was really an OK thing to do or if she might find it a little excessive, even creepy. Her neighbours may gossip after seeing a (slightly) older boy from Tokyo suddenly turn up on a motorbike, maybe like Tora he’s acted on impulse out of kindness but has accidentally made trouble for her?

Meanwhile, Sakura and Hiroshi are at home worried sick, aware their son has grown up and evidently has some important rite of passage stuff to do, but it would have been nice if he’d called. Everyone’s used to Tora breezing in and out of their lives and it’s not as if they don’t worry, but it’s different with Mitsuo. Luckily and through staggering coincidence Mitsuo ends up running into Tora who, perhaps ironically, gets him to phone home and then starts helping him out with his youthful romantic dilemma. Though some of the advice he gives is a little problematic, there’s a fine line when it comes to being “persistent” in love, he is nevertheless supportive and proves popular with Izumi’s mild-mannered aunt and lonely grandfather-in-law (Masao Imafuku) who subjects him to a day-long lecture about traditional ceramics which he listens to patiently because as he says, old people are happy when someone listens to them. The problems are entirely with Izumi’s extremely conservative school teacher uncle (Isao Bito) who appears to terrorise his wife and objects strongly to Mitsuo’s impulsive gesture of love, bearing out Mitsuo’s concerns in implying that he’s endangering Izumi’s reputation, though apparently more worried about how it looks for him as a school teacher if she’s caught hanging out with a motorcycle-riding “delinquent”. The final straw is his telling Mitsuo off for neglecting his studies, insisting no one so “stupid” could ever hope to go to uni.

Left behind, Tora tries to defend Mitsuo to the snooty uncle, telling him that he’s proud of his nephew for doing something kind even if others don’t see it that way, but the uncle simply replies that they obviously disagree and abruptly walks off. Perhaps there’s no talking to some people, but Tora does what he can anyway. Mitsuo gains a new appreciation for his kindhearted family, not to mention his eccentric uncle. “Trips make everyone wise”, Tora tells Hiroshi, well except for some people, he later adds before once again getting literally cut off from everyone waiting for him back in Shibamata. The signs of bubble-era prosperity are everywhere from Mitsuo’s motorbike and comparatively spacious family home to the increased mobility and the upscale interior of Izumi’s mother’s “snack” bar, but Tora is still a post-war wanderer bound for the road, drifting whichever way the wind blows him.


Tora-san, My Uncle streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Yoji Yamada, 1975)

Spanning 48 films and almost 30 years from the middle of the economic miracle to the post-Bubble depression, the Tora-san series provided a certain kind of comforting stability with its well established formula that saw the titular travelling salesman alternately hit the road and return home to his wholesome family waiting and worrying in Shibamata, always glad to see him but also anxious as to what kind of trouble he’ll be causing this time around. Among the most melancholy of the series, Tora-san #15, Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Torajiro Aiaigasa, AKA Tora-san’s Rise and Fall) sees him flirt with the idea of settling down while others wrestle with the costs of the salaryman dream and the contradictions of the post-war era. 

Yamada opens, however, with an exciting dream sequence in which Tora (Kiyoshi Atsumi) re-imagines himself as a heroic pirate saving his family members, and all the residents of Shibamata, from enslavement by some kind of evil capitalist villain. He wakes up and leaves the cinema, but Shibamata is perhaps on his thoughts once again acting as it does as a kind of “port” in his life of perpetual wandering. For the moment he’s travelling with a depressed salaryman, Hyodo (Eiji Funakoshi), whom he rescued at a train station fearing he may have been about to take his own life. Meanwhile, back in Shibamata, Tora’s old friend Lily (Ruriko Asaoka) has come looking for him at the dango shop apparently now divorced, tearfully explaining to Tora’s sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) that she wasn’t well suited to being a housewife after all and is planning to head back out on the road as an itinerant singer. 

Perhaps ironically, Tora is angry with Hyodo for causing worry to his family by disappearing without notice, eventually ringing Sakura to tell her to ring Hyodo’s wife and let her know he’s alright (why he doesn’t just ring himself is a mystery, and in any case he only has the one coin for the payphone so runs out of time to explain). What we can infer is that Hyodo has in a sense achieved the “salaryman dream” but it’s left him feeling empty and unfulfilled. Mrs. Hyodo appears to be very prim and proper, their home spacious and tastefully decorated. When Sakura calls two men from her husband’s company are with her trying to figure out where Hyodo could have gone. She explains that her husband is a timid man and earnest, it’s unlikely he’s gone off with another woman and it’s out of character for him go AWOL from work so she’s at least very relieved to learn he’s alive even if Tora ran out of time to say where they were. Hyodo isn’t really sure anyone’s missing him, and as we later discover his flight is part mid-life crisis in that he’s heading to the hometown of his first love. He assumes she also will have married and has no illusions of a romantic reunion but simply wants to make sure she’s happy (as he, presumably, is not). Discovering she’s a widow gives him pause for thought, but on seeing her he realises the futility of his situation and resolves to return home to his dull and conventional salaryman life. 

It’s a huge source of irony to Tora that anyone might envy him. Indeed, Mrs. Hyodo quite snobbishly insists on asking Sakura about Tora’s company joking that “he can’t just be a pedlar” much to Sakura’s embarrassment. But that sense of freedom and the open road appears to be something Hyodo is looking for, childishly romanticising hardship, finding sleeping on park benches and helping Tora pull salesman’s scams in the street exciting rather than worrying (he could after all always just go home). Yet he also envies Tora for having such a loving and forgiving family, explaining that his now look down on him because he’s been demoted at work, as if they only value him for what he represents an embodiment of the salaryman dream. Lily too is as much in love with Tora’s family as anything else, though the complex relationship between the pair begins to scandalise the conservative local community. Sakura frames it as a joke but puts it to Lily that it would be nice if she and Tora could marry so she’d be a part of their family. Lily unexpectedly agrees, overcome with emotion, but Tora is his old insensitive, if perhaps perceptive self, declaring that they’re too alike. Like him she’s a bird meant to wander. She’d only stay until she felt ready to fly. 

Tora-san and Lily are wandering souls cast adrift in the post-war era, unable to find firm footing while Hyodo’s existential angst suggests the salaryman dream is not the answer either. Only Sakura and the Kurumas seem to be doing well enough, living their ordinary, wholesome lives in Shibamata. “She probably has problems we don’t know about” Tora’s aunt remarks watching Queen Elizabeth II waving gracefully on the television, lamenting that it must be tiring to have to stand around so long. Everyone has problems but they carry on. In Shibamata they try to be kind and especially to big-hearted men like Tora no matter what kind of trouble they may cause.


Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (男はつらいよ, Yoji Yamada, 1969)

“It’s tough being a man” according to the Japanese title of the long running series affectionately known as “Tora-san” to its many fans. Tora-san began as a TV drama broadcast in 1968-9 in which the hero died of a snakebite in the very last episode much to viewers’ disappointment. Director Yoji Yamada then resurrected the loveable travelling salesman and made him the star of a reboot movie which proved so popular that it spawned a 48-film series which lasted until the death of star Kiyoshi Atsumi at the age of 68 in 1996. 

Yamada directed all but two instalments in the series each of which broadly follow a similar pattern to that introduced in the first film following the eponymous Tora as he gets himself mixed up in some kind of trouble, returns home to visit his family in Shibamata, and falls in love with a beautiful but unobtainable woman known as the “Madonna” in the series’ “mythology”, if you can call it that. At the beginning of Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (男はつらいよ, Otoko wa Tsurai yo), Torajiro Kuruma (Kiyoshi Atsumi) or “Tora-san”, explains that he’s been in a wistful mood thinking about his hometown while viewing the cherry blossoms and has decided to go back to Shibamata for the first time in 20 years having left swearing never to return after arguing with his father who has since passed away as has his brother. Tora-san’s only remaining family members are his younger sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho), a small child when he left but now a grown woman in her mid-20s, and an uncle (Shin Morikawa) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) who’ve been looking after her and run a small dango shop. 

Being away for 20 years necessarily means that Tora has been on the road since he was a young teenager back in 1949 when Japan was still very much in the throws of post-war chaos, in contrast to the increasingly prosperous nation it has since become. On his return to town he is relieved to discover that the local priest (Chishu Ryu), as well as his aunt, still remember and recognise him but shocks them all with an incongruous, and frankly over the top, show of politeness as he expresses gratitude and filial piety towards his uncle and aunt for having raised his sister but then immediately afterwards tries to sell them some of his tacky sales goods including some kind of electronic bracelet with supposed health benefits. Nevertheless, the family, including his sister Sakura who works as a typist at an electrical goods company, are very glad to seem him after all these years. 

Hardly in the house five minutes before peeing in the garden instead of using the bathroom like a regular person, Tora is already undercutting the image he first presented and causing trouble with the neighbours. The major drama occurs when he ends up accompanying Sakura to an omiai arranged marriage meeting set up by her boss in a fancy hotel. Sakura hadn’t been keen to go to the omiai, her uncle and aunt assume because arranged marriages are already outdated, but as we later discover she’s developed a fondness for factory worker Hiroshi (Gin Maeda) who lives in the house directly behind theirs. The uncle and aunt encourage the match because it’s an opportunity to marry up, viewing it as better than Sakura could otherwise hope for as an orphan with no dowry. Tora agrees with them, encouraging his sister not to write off tradition, but he has little understanding of the etiquette for these kinds of situations and quickly scandalises the refined, upper-class family by drinking far too much, making bawdy jokes about the composition of Chinese characters, and using vulgar language. As expected the suitors decide not to take things further, though luckily Sakura’s boss does not seem to mind or hold Tora’s behaviour against her.

On the road since he was little more than a child, perhaps it’s no wonder that Tora struggles when trying (or not) to adapt to the rules of civilised society though as he later tells us, he also had a traumatic childhood beaten by his father who resented him for being illegitimate, conceived during a drunken indiscretion with a geisha (Sakura is a half-sister born to his father’s legal wife). At one point he loses his temper completely and finds himself slapping Sakura, accidentally starting a mass brawl in their courtyard, though it’s obvious afterwards that he deeply regrets his behaviour and despite being forgiven by his ever patient sister feels as if it might be better to leave again before he makes even more trouble for his family. 

Tora is, however, perhaps good trouble in that his heart is (broadly) in the right place even if he makes a lot of mistakes. He meddles in Sakura’s love life and almost destroys her chance of romantic happiness, but it all works out in the end and he might have a point in implying that without his mistaken intervention she and Hiroshi would have just gone on in silent longing. Nevertheless, he remains a romantically naive figure, falling for the elegant daughter of the local priest (Sachiko Mitsumoto) who surprises him by expressing a fondness for low entertainment but in real terms is never going to marry a man like Tora. “Mine’s a hard world” he explains to a boatman, sadly making his way back towards the road filled with a deep sense of despair but pressing on all the same, trying his luck wherever he goes just another plucky, though no longer so young, guy, left behind by the rapid pace of the post-war economic miracle.  


Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Station (駅, Yasuo Furuhata, 1981)

The thing about trains is, you can get off and wander round for a bit, but sooner or later you’ll have to go where the rails take you. You never have as much control as you think you have. The hero of Yasuo Furuhata’s Station (駅, Eki) is beginning to come to that conclusion himself, addressing the various stations of his life, the choices he made and didn’t make that have led him into a dejected middle-age, defeated, and finding finally that any illusion he may have entertained of living differently will not come to pass. 

In 1968, police detective Eiji Mikami (Ken Takakura) sends his wife (Ayumi Ishida) and son away for reasons which aren’t entirely clear. At this point in his life, he’s an aspiring marksman on Japan’s shooting team intensively training for the Mexico Olympics, which is perhaps why he felt he could no longer be a husband and a father, or at least not while also being a policeman. All that changes, however, when his friend and mentor is gunned down during a routine job, shot in the chest at point blank range by a man in a white Corolla while operating a check point to catch a killer on the run. In 1976, he goes to see his sister (Yuko Kotegawa) marry a man she might not love to escape a violent boyfriend and investigates a serial killer of women who rapes and murders girls in red skirts. In 1979, he’s haunted by the serial killing case coupled with his cool execution of hostage takers during a siege. Holing up in a small fishing village waiting for a boat home for New Year, he strikes up a relationship with a barmaid who is just as sad, lonely, and defeated as he is. 

When Mikami’s friend is shot, his wife tells the reporters that she thinks shooting at targets, which her husband had been training others to do, is a different thing than shooting at living beings. “One shouldn’t shoot at people” she tearfully insists, accidentally forcing Mikami into a double dilemma, knowing that his marksmanship skills were on one level useless in that they couldn’t save his friend while paradoxically told that they shouldn’t be used for that purpose anyway. But what really is the point in shooting holes in paper targets just to test your skill? Wandering into the hostage situation while posing as a ramen deliveryman, he cooly shoots the two bad guys without even really thinking about it, as if they were nothing more than paper. 

The Olympics overshadow his life. He gave up his wife and son for them, but no matter how hard you train, the Olympics eventually pass. Mikami is told he’s supposed to bring honour to Japan, representing not only the nation but the police force. He’s not allowed to investigate his friend’s death because they want him to concentrate on his shooting, but he is and was a policeman who wants to serve justice. While he’s waiting for the funeral, he sees a report on the news about a former Olympic marathon runner who’s taken his own life because he got injured and fell into a depression feeling as if he’d let down an entire nation. Mikami perhaps feels something the same, drained by responsibility, by the feeling of inadequacy, and by the potential for disappointment. After the Olympics he feels deflated and useless, wondering what the point of police work is while quietly rueful in suspecting the committee is about to replace him on the team after all. 

When he wanders into the only bar open on a snowy December evening, that is perhaps why he bonds so immediately with its melancholy proprietress, Kiriko (Chieko Baisho). The conversation turns dark. Kiriko tells him that a friend of hers who worked in a bar in the red light district killed herself last New Year, that it’s the most dangerous time for those who do this sort of work, not for any poetical reason but simply because it’s when their men come home. She tells him that she’s a lone woman, no virginal spinster but weighed down by the failure of old love. Swept up in the New Year spirit, Mikami starts to fall for her, but is also called back to the past by an old colleague who passes him his wife’s phone number and tells him she’s now a bar hostess in Ikebukuro. He starts to think about leaving the police and getting a local job, but fate will not allow it. Kiriko too sees her dream of love destroyed precisely by her desire to escape the pull of toxic romance. Back in 1976, Mikami had been party to a similar dilemma as the sister of his suspect kept her brother’s secret but secretly longed to escape its burden. Suzuko (Setsuko Karasuma) too lost love in trying to claim it and now works as a waitress in a small cafe in this tiny town, only latterly making an impulsive decision to try to leave and make a new future somewhere else. 

Mikami tears up the letter of resignation that declared him too tired of life to be a good policeman, once again boarding a train back to his rightful destination, knowing that a policeman’s what he is and will always be. He watched his wife wave goodbye from a station platform, saw a man betrayed on the tracks, and finally boarded the train himself, letting go of any idea he might have had about going somewhere else. Stations are after all transitory places, you can’t stay there forever. 


Original trailers (no subtitles)

Aki Yashiro’s Funauta which plays frequently throughout the film

Weathering with You (天気の子, Makoto Shinkai, 2019)

weathering with you poster 2Some might say much of life is learning to weather the storm, but when the storm is literal as well as metaphorical it’s easier said than done. Following his 2016 mega hit Your Name, Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering with You (天気の子, Tenki no Ko) opts for much of the same but grafts an additional layer of anxiety onto the lives of his precarious teen heroes who are left largely adrift, betrayed by corrupt adult society and plagued by doubt and despair in a world which, it seems, is trying to drown them in existential hopelessness.

16-year-old Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo) has run away from his parochial island home for the bright lights of Tokyo. Beyond disconnection from his parents and small-town ennui, he never gives much of a reason why he’s so determined not to go back, but tries to make a go of it in the city with all the prideful naivety of an adolescent young man. What he discovers is that, because of laws in place to protect him, he can’t support himself honestly as an independent teen, ironically placing him firmly at risk in shady Kabukicho but it turns out that you can’t even get a job as a host in a sleazy bar without proper ID. Just when he’s hit rock bottom, Hodaka is given new hope when a friendly employee at McDonalds decides to gift him a burger just because she can see that he’s hungry.

Hodaka describes the BigMac as the best meal he’s ever tasted, because he’s tasting kindness in an environment which has turned out to be far more hostile than he’d anticipated. He tries to repay that kindness when he spots the girl out in Kabukicho being manhandled by a gangster trying to coax her into a love hotel, threatening him with a gun he picked up from the rubbish bin outside a club. The girl, Hina (Nana Mori), ends up saving him again, but the rescue originally backfires because of Hodaka’s problematic adoption of the gun. He regains Hina’s sympathy by throwing it away, allowing a genuine connection to arise between them, especially when he discovers that Hina has an unusual power – she can stop the rain with the power of prayer.

It’s the height of summer, but it hasn’t stopped raining since Hodaka arrived in Tokyo. In fact, it’s just about time for Obon when the departed souls of long gone relatives are able to return. Hina apparently became linked with the sky after praying at a shrine during her mother’s illness, but if the gloominess of the heavy skies and constant rain is a reflection of her unhappiness, it’s one belied by superficial cheerfulness even though her life is just as hard as Hodaka’s. In addition to trying to support herself on the kind of money you can make as a teenage part-timer, she’s also responsible for her younger brother Nagi (Sakura Kiryu) which is why, perhaps, she was tempted by that gangster’s offer of big bucks to be made in Kabukicho.

Hodaka too looks for familial connections, moving in with a middle-aged man who saved his life during the storm that brought him to Tokyo. Like Hina, Keisuke (Shun Oguri) is also drowning in grief, in his case for a beloved wife killed in an accident, while dealing with separation from his daughter who has been taken in by her grandmother in disapproval of Keisuke’s scrappy lifestyle. It’s working for Keisuke’s occult-themed magazine that leads Hodaka to recognise Hina as a “Sunshine Girl”, but also to learn that such “weather maidens” were once common in ancient Shinto Japan and mostly met a bad end. A fortune teller makes it clear that exercising the kind of power that Hina has is likely to deplete her capacity for life, a mild irony in that it’s the inability to feel alive that these rains seem to symbolise.

Ironically enough, both teens met their destiny because they were chasing the light – Hina drawn to a rooftop shine illuminated by an improbable ray of sunshine in the rain, and Hodaka longing to find his place in the sun and resolving to live inside the light that Hina casts. Eventually, Hodaka is forced to make a decision and comes to the conclusion that he can accept Hina for all that she is, that she doesn’t need to be the “Sunshine Girl”, she can feel what she feels and the world will cope. He will weather the storm along with her.

Meanwhile, the spectre of real world climate change looms in the background. Hodaka’s decision necessarily means he has chosen to drown the world to save his love. Faced with the gradual submergence of the city of Tokyo, an old woman waxes philosophical, remembering that back in Edo most of this land was underwater so perhaps it’s just going back to the way it’s supposed to be. Hodaka is swayed but unconvinced. Still young, he is very invested in the idea that he has changed the world, for good or ill, seizing his agency as path out of his despair. But Shinkai’s messages are mixed. Hina continues to pray, but Hodaka comes to the conclusion that the world has always been messed up so perhaps all you need to do is learn to live in it and the rest will figure itself out. As much as it’s true that the problems of climate change should not rest on the young, who are blameless, it is perhaps irresponsible to advocate cautious indifference. Hodaka remains wedded to the idea that he’s made a choice and his choice has changed the world, while beginning to realise that changing the world is not his responsibility, or at least not his alone and not in that way. He has, however, found a way at least to live with all his choices, undefeated by the rain.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Only the Cat Knows (初恋 お父さん、チビがいなくなりました, Shotaro Kobayashi, 2019)

Only the cat knows poaterThe disappearance of a beloved cat has sparked many a crisis in Japanese cinema. In Shotaro Kobayashi’s* Only the Cat Knows (初恋 お父さん、チビがいなくなりました, Hatsukoi: Otosan, Chibi ga Inaku Narimashita), the disappearance is as metaphorical as it is literal in that this particular cat has come to symbolise the faded love of a couple married for fifty years whose relationship has begun to disintegrate if in a very ordinary way.

Chibi had been a constant companion to Yukiko (Chieko Baisho) who often feels neglected by her salaryman husband of 50 years, Masaru (Tatsuya Fuji). Now that he’s (semi-)retired, she hoped they might be able reconnect, perhaps even travel, but he is just as disinterested in domestic life as ever and mostly spends his days popping back into the office or playing shogi in a nearby club. An awkward, conservative man, Masaru aggressively ignores his wife, even irritatedly blanking her when she spots him out and about, while she dutifully waits for him at home to take his socks off for him in the hall and pick up the jacket he so casually throws to the floor for her to deal with. Chibi’s disappearance is then another blow to her already lonely world and Masaru’s extremely unsympathetic reaction to her fears eventually provokes her into wondering if she should leave him.

Masaru, it has to be said, is not an easy man and it’s easy to imagine that much of Yukiko’s married life may have been difficult or even unhappy. This is perhaps why though youngest daughter Naoko (Mikako Ichikawa) is originally panicked by her mother’s mention of divorce, all three of the couple’s grown-up children are eventually on her side and claim they can completely understand why she might feel that way. As if trying to fill a very real void in her life, Yukiko has taken to watching romantic Korean dramas dubbed into Japanese while reminiscing on her own romantic past which led her to marry Masaru all those years ago.

Nevertheless, despite her own dissatisfaction, she remains perturbed by Naoko’s disinclination to marry even at the comparatively late age of 37. Avowing that she doesn’t think a woman needs a career, Yukiko tries to push her daughter towards the socially conservative choices of home and family. Yukiko may worry that Naoko will end up all alone in her old age, but then as Naoko points out, Yukiko did everything “right” and feels alone anyway. Tellingly, Naoko was once engaged to man who jilted her right before the wedding because he was insecure about her career success which had exceeded his own and apparently needed to be master in his own home. Unfortunately, the world has not quite moved on enough and it seems many men still only want women who will take their socks off for them at the end of a busy day.

Naoko doesn’t want to get married just for the sake of it which, ironically, seems to be the same way Yukiko felt when she was young though as it turned out her courtship with Masaru was an awkward mix of arranged and not. Having fallen for him at her job on the milk counter at the station, she was slightly stunned to spot his picture in an omiai book and agreed to the meeting only for Masaru to tersely tell her he’d decided to take the first offer and didn’t even open the envelope to peek inside. In true Masaru fashion, this may turn out to be a lie of awkwardness but it’s left a note of anxiety running right through their decades long marriage which only is now bubbling the surface. Yukiko worries she “stole” Masaru from her friend on the counter who liked him first and whom she spots him secretly meeting all these years later. A lack of emotional honesty has created a widening gulf between husband and wife with Yukiko left wondering if her husband ever really loved her at all.

The search for the missing cat becomes a quest to rediscover the smouldering love of a longterm couple that a lack of communication has all but smothered. Yukiko tries everything she can to find Chibi, even hiring a pet detective, while Masaru irritatedly tells her to give up – that Chibi has most likely gone off to die and wanted to spare Yukiko the pain of watching him suffer. Masaru may be somewhat casting himself as the wandering cat, the strong and silent type who thinks he’s protecting his wife by making her miserable, but deep down he too wants to save their love even if it means he will finally have to find the wherewithal to talk about his feelings without embarrassment. A charming late life love story, Only the Cat Knows is careful not to sugarcoat the the destructive social codes of a bygone era but allows its pair of former lovers to rediscover what it was they once had while allowing them to move forward into a happier future.


Only the Cat Knows was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

*Director Shotaro Kobayashi’s name is also romanised as Syoutarou Kobayasi

Original trailer (no subtitles)