Untamagiru (ウンタマギルー, Go Takamine, 1989)

“My country is not part of America or Japan! I am a child of Ryukyu!” the hero of Go Takamine’s musical fable Untamagiru ( ウンタマギルー) finds himself shouting after having unexpectedly acquired godlike powers and used them to aid the Independence Movement. Apparently inspired by a legendary local figure, Takamine’s quasi-musical like his earlier Paradise View finds the Okinawan islands at a turning point considering three possible futures: to maintain the status quo under American rule, to return to Japanese sovereignty, or finally to acquire their independence though the last of these seems to be nothing more than an idealistic pipe dream. 

Takamine begins and ends with the same scene changing only the location and the identity of a key player while the hero, Giru (Kaoru Kobayashi), drives a tiny truck in a small circle to turn the grinder that presses the sugarcane. Giru is however mainly casting looks at Mare (Chikako Aoyama), the voluptuous daughter of his taskmaster boss Nishibaru, as she languishes under a small shelter smoking pigweed from a shisha pipe. Giru later finds the courage to ask her to accompany him to a beach party, which she does, the pair sneaking off to a secluded cove near the forest where they make love. The problem is that, as Giru discovers, Mare is actually an anthropomorphised pig that Nishibaru was raising as a wife for the Forest God so now Nishibaru has it in for him. Framed for starting a fire at the plantation he’s encouraged to flee to the forest by his sister, Chiru (Jun Togawa), who has a knack for animal dream divination, and is aided by a tree spirit whose child he once saved who grants him special demi-god powers that enable him to survive the curse which otherwise falls on all who sleep with Mare. 

It’s these new powers which give Giru a new sense of possibility allowing him to become a kind of Robin Hood playing both sides off against each other from the middle of the forest, pinching meat from Japanese companies and redistributing it to the local community, and pilfering weaponry from the American bases to give to the independence movement. The two sides are represented in the two respective bosses, the blind and castrated Nishibaru, and the American commissioner Kamajisar who as Chiru puts it cares for animals more than people but is also seen injecting himself with the blood of dogs and pigs. “I am absolute” Kamajisar insists, claiming that Okinawa is a possession of the American military pointing out that 90% of the population feels themselves to be different from the Japanese while simultaneously describing the possibility of independence as nothing more than a fairytale. 

Yet Untamagiru comes to represent the face of rebellion, resisting not just political oppression but social and economic in targeting Japanese businesses and redistributing their goods to the local poor becoming a folk hero in the process. Not everyone is as immediately happy about this, the owner of the brothel where his sister works asking him to stop giving money to the poor because their business can’t cope with the sudden demand while she personally looks down on their new clientele and fears they’re damaging her upscale brand. Even so even Untamagiru eventually falls victim to his own hubris, struck down while ironically enough agreeing to play himself in a traditional stage performance inspired by his life and deeds leaving only the idea of himself behind as a kind of talisman for those who had in him found a sense of hope and possibility. 

Then again could all of this have been a dream? “Poor people are terrible, aren’t they? They’ll even try to steal the end of people’s dreams” turncoat Utou chides Giru on catching him napping assuming that he dreams of Mare though her words have a degree of sense to them in the elliptical passage of time in which we move from one “dream” to another just as Okinawa itself shifts between two states, two different rulers, and finds itself in the middle once again driving round in circles looking at something it wants but can’t have and in the end it seems may be destroyed out of spite. A magical realist fable filled with its own strangeness in its dream divinations, ethereal forest deities, shapeshifting pigs, and the constant refrains of the barbershop band who narrate the whole show with caustic wit through traditional Okinawan musical performance Takamine’s oneiric tale ends in symbolic apocalypse, “From now on Okinawa is Japan”. 


Untamagiru screens at Japan Society New York May 21 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Gohatto (御法度, Nagisa Oshima, 1999)

Nagisa Oshima once said that his hatred of Japanese cinema extended to absolutely all of it, decrying the hackneyed nativism of “foggy beauty and stupid gardens”, yet his final film is filled with Mizoguchian mist and almost a paen to Japanese aesthetics which ends with a cherry blossom tree in full bloom cut down in its prime. Burdened by the slightly more salacious title “Taboo”, Gohatto is less about love between men in an intensely homosocial world even as it asks what it might mean by “forbidden” or “against the law” than it is about idealism and aesthetics as its band of contradictory conservatives unknowingly approach the end of their world in a coming modernity ushered in by dangerous beauty. 

Set in the Kyoto of 1865, a scant three years prior to the Meiji Restoration, the film opens with an audition of sorts as the Shinsengumi search for promising new recruits among talented swordsmen. Already a mess of contradictions, the Shinsengumi is, loosely, a kind of official police force dedicated to defending the Shogunate against the revolutionary forces set on restoring power to the emperor. Nevertheless, in an odd way and in contrast to the elite Mimawarigumi which was staffed only by direct retainers to the Shogun, the Shinsengumi was noted for its lowkey egalitarianism in that it made a point of admitting those of ordinary birth as well as lower level samurai and ronin. Of course, the notions of equality only went so far and perhaps only fuelled its reputation for merciless savagery, but also make it a strangely progressive force fighting against progress in defence of the feudal status quo. 

Only two of the hopefuls are thought to be any good, one a young ronin, Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), and the other a beautiful boy, Kano Sozaburo (Ryuhei Matsuda), the third son of a wealthy merchant whose line were once samurai but are no longer counted among the noble retainers. A talented swordsman, Sozaburo’s dangerous beauty presents an existential threat to the Shinsengumi order, the steely Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano) looking on conflicted in witnessing the way his commander, Kondo (Yoichi Sai), looks at this vision of androgynous beauty remarking that he had not known him to be “that way inclined”.

Being that way inclined does not seem to be a particular issue within the Shinsengumi, it is not against their draconian rules and in fact appears to be tolerated at least as long as it causes no further problems. Kondo is however mindful of the chaos caused by a similar wave of homoerotic lust which took hold shortly before a climactic battle which would prove to be their last success. What Sozaburo seems to arouse in them is something more dangerous than the accepted patterns of love between military men which is in a sense sublimated as a mentor/student relationship, loyalty more than romance. Tashiro, who is of a similar age to the apparently 18-year-old Sozaburo, lets his desire be known, vowing to sleep with him before he dies ironically acknowledging Sozaburo for what he is, an angel of death. 

For his part, Sozaburo remains curiously passive in each of his encounters, aroused only it seems by the act of killing. Yet Hijikata discerns that he has indeed become Tashiro’s lover on witnessing them fight, Sozaburo losing clumsily despite being the more skilled in a dynamic that mimics their relationship in which Tashiro is the dominant partner. Aware of the danger in Sozaburo’s allure, Kondo suggests having a superior take him to the red light district to show him the delights of woman hoping to guide him back towards a less dangerous path, only the attempt backfires on several levels. Firstly, Sozaburo has no interest in women and continues to decline believing his commander is also hitting on him (like everyone else), thereafter determined to seduce him after all. Another retainer does indeed succeed in seducing Sozaburo, developing a mild obsession, but later ends up dead, Tashiro a main suspect in his murder with the motive of sexual jealousy though all of this additional violence is perhaps only an expression of Sozaburo’s dangerous beauty. 

As so often, sex if not love becomes the force which destabilises the social order only here it’s equated both with death and with an alternative mediation of male violence. Perhaps reflecting the way they look to the 18-year-old Sozaburo who makes a faux pas in accidentally suggesting at least one of them is of pensionable age, the ranking members of the Shinsengumi are played by actors already well into their golden years as if relics of a bygone era though in reality most were in their 30s. As Soji (Shinji Takeda), a filial figure like Sozaburo wearing long hair, puts it, there are no old men in their unit which is in essence an anti-revolutionary force. Nevertheless, the Shinsengumi is on the wrong side of history and already living in its end times, perhaps ushered towards its doom by the figure of the beautiful boy. “You were too beautiful”, Hijikata eventually laments as he finally perhaps understands the nature of the revolution he is witnessing. Perverse to the last, Oshima sets his ethereal finale in a stygian fog and pays an ironic tribute to the Mizoguchian classicism he so railed against in his youth, taking a sword to the cherry blossoms as he like Hijikata severs his own legacy in a moment of destructive beauty. 


Gohatto screens at Genesis Cinema on 25th September as part of this year’s Queer East

International trailer (English subtitles)

Au Revoir, Mon Amour (何日君再來, Tony Au Ting-Ping, 1991)

Love and Resistance go to war in Tony Au’s noirish romance, Au Revoir, Mon Amour (何日君再來, AKA Till We Meet Again). The evocative title sets the scene for a tale of love betrayed by changing times, but ultimately asks if love is a question of priorities and if you have the right to put your romantic destiny on hold to serve a greater good, even if that greater good is a shared ideal. Predictably, the answer may be no, because in the world of the movies at least love is an absolutist choice and you won’t be forgiven for resisting it. 

One fateful evening in the Shanghai of 1941, Resistance operative Sum (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) is an accidental witness to the murder of “notorious Japanese monks” which he later learns may have been set up by the Japanese authorities themselves. Chasing the perpetrator, Shirakawa (Jun Kunimura), through a series of back allies where he slices and dices his now redundant Chinese mercenaries, Sum is brought to a smoky nightclub where the singer, Mui-Yi (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), is none other than his one true love whom he met thanks to the Resistance movement some years earlier but was forced to leave behind with only a heartfelt letter explaining that he would return when the battle was done. Returning the favour Sum had done her in saving her life when she was about to be hit by a car, Mui-Yi tosses him a gun that allows him to defend himself against a crazed Shirakawa and thereafter shelters him in an abandoned garage until he is well enough to return to his mission. 

Heartbroken and embittered, Mui-Yi is still lowkey anti-Japanese and seemingly unafraid of telling the local goons where to get off despite her father’s attempts at collaboration. Her aunt Jing (Carrie Ng Ka-Lai), however, finds herself succumbing to the dubious charms of violent and thuggish turncoat Tit Chak-Man (Norman Chu Siu-Keung) who is working with the Japanese apparently because he thinks China is weak and unsophisticated. Tit Chak-Man thinks nothing of blowing up little children and blackmailing suspects which is how he begins to manipulate Mui-Yi after seizing her father’s bar and having him put in prison on a trumped up charge. Meanwhile, she flip flops in her relationship with Sum, at once resenting him for his tendency to disappear and then longing for his return, while he berates her in a mistaken assumption that she has decided to collaborate but promises that he will be hers and hers alone once the war is over. 

Unlike many similarly themed movies from both the Mainland and Hong Kong, the big bad is not the Japanese themselves but the Chinese who betrayed their country and sided with the enemy. Somewhat two dimensional, Tit Chak-Man is a thuggish brute who is prepared to do anything and everything to stamp out the Resistance but is at once humanised by his intense romance with Jing which continues even after she attempts to assassinate him and eventually proves his weakness when he refuses to abandon her to escape from a baying mob. Though Shirakawa is indeed crazed and bloodthirsty, we’re shown his opposite in the gentle, sensitive Noguchi (Hidekazu Akai) who has also fallen in deep and selfless love with Mui-Yi and is willing to facilitate her romance with Sum while doing everything he can to keep her safe. 

Years later, Sum irritably points out that Noguchi had a choice in serving his country and was therefore free to choose love instead which seems extremely disingenuous seeing as he was most likely (in some way) a conscript too but was in his own way resisting in order to serve the best interests of his country. Sum chose China over Mui-Yi. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to wait in line until you’ve finished being a revolutionary hero and have the proper time to devote to love, no one likes being second choice even if you’re right behind “freedom” when it comes to priorities. To save his love, Sum sent it into the arms of the enemy but failed to realise that she might also find a home there or at least a sense of relief in no longer needing to wait for someone who might never return. Can there be love in time of war? Yes, but love like revolution is a choice and it won’t wait for you forever, if you betray it you may not be forgiven. 


Fortune Star trailer (no subtitles)