Night Drum (夜の鼓, Tadashi Imai, 1958)

night-drumThe works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon continue to have a large influence over Japanese drama even if not as frequently and directly adapted as they were in the immediate post-war period. Famous for tales of tragic love suicides and romantic heroes who risk all in the service of deep emotion, Chikamatsu’s works perhaps found even greater resonance in the turbulent years in which individual freedom and adherence to tradition found themselves in even greater conflict than ever before. Tadashi Imai makes the most of Chikamatsu’s melancholy fatalism to take a sword to the samurai order itself with all of its arcane rules and the essential hypocrisy which underlines its cruelty.

Hikokuro Ogura (Rentaro Mikuni) has been in Edo for a year with the shogun and is now on his way home. Stopping at an inn, he has a low level argument with his brother-in-law who warns him the men are getting restless and need to blow off some steam – preferably with some sake. Hikokuro is in charge of the purse strings and knows all of this pageantry costs money the clan do not quite have – hence, he’s reluctant to fritter it away on alcohol no matter how much the men might resent him for it.

That’s not to say Hikokuro is a particularly officious person, he’s kind and cheerful by nature but also tired and eager to get home after such a long time away. His wife, Otane (Ineko Arima), is very happy to see him but something seems different about her and there’s a tension in the air among some of the other women. It seems, there are rumours about Otane and a travelling musician (Masayuki Mori) who frequented the house during the summer while Hikokuro was away. Rumours are often just that, especially in these petty circles of nobility, but female adultery is punishable by death and so is not something to be gossiped about idly.

Night Drum (夜の鼓, Yoru no Tsuzumi) begins with the ominous sound of the drum itself, beating out the inevitably tragic fate of all concerned with a melancholy fatality. The tale proceeds in a procedural fashion as the authorities become involved, hearing witness testimonies and trying to discover if there could be any truth at all in these unpleasant rumours. Matters are further complicated by the pecuniary difficulties the clan currently finds itself in – the elders are half hoping it is true because it would be a good excuse to expel the Ogura household and thereby save the money which goes on its upkeep. They are aware, however, that they’re talking about the life of a previously unblemished woman as well as the ruin of her extended family.

The life of a retainer is not as easy as it sounds and we’re constantly reminded of just how much money is necessary to keep up appearances. The clan authorities are dismayed when they hear of Otane earning money on the side through needlework though other retainers are quick to confess their wives also help out – they just can’t survive on such meagre stipends. Each lord is required to hire servants as befits their status but they aren’t given the money to do so. Hikokuro is also required to serve the shogun in Edo every other year for at least twelve months meaning Otane is left alone at home with almost nothing other than her needlework to do except wait patiently for her husband’s return.

Given these circumstances, it’s easy to understand how such pernicious rumours might begin. The sole basis of the evidence seems to rest on a tip off that Otane is thought to have been alone in a room with a man who is not her husband. That she may be put to death solely for the crime of sharing the same space as someone of the opposite sex seems extreme, but this is the feudal world where rules and propriety are all. The men can cavort with geishas to their heart’s content, but Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

The action unfolds piecemeal as each of the various witnesses offers their testimony of events. Given the gravity of the situation, few are eager to recount their suspicions – especially the other women who fear the rumour may be true but are also unwilling to believe it. Hikokuro does not want to believe it either but faced with such convincing, if circumstantial, evidence doubt creeps into his mind and finds an anchor in Otane’s guilt ridden behaviour. Ironically, this entire situation developed only because of Otane’s attempts to avoid it – remaining at an inn rather than travelling with a man on the road only for one of her husband’s friends to attempt to rape and blackmail her. Having had far too much to drink in an attempt to steel her nerves and cover up the embarrassing assault, Otane finds herself at the mercy of man who should have known better than to take advantage of another man’s wife in such a moment of weakness.

One stupid mistake born of alcohol, loneliness, and a series of male betrayals is enough to bring down the social order all on its own. Rentaro Mikuni plays the part of the previously affable wounded spouse with an exceptional level of nuance as he accepts his part in his wife’s downfall thanks to the the circumstances of their lives which have kept them apart and left her at the mercy of untrustworthy lords. There is anger here, and shame, but there is still love too which only makes the inevitable outcome all the more painful for everyone concerned. Hikokuro plays the part he’s expected to play, but it pains him and you can’t wipe a slate clean with blood. Imai has his eyes firmly on the civilised society with all of its rigid yet often cruel and unfair rules for living. Shot with a kind of hypnotic dreaminess in which each of our unfortunate players is swept along by events they are powerless to influence, Night Drum beats out the death knell of those who allow their individual desires to overwhelm their “civilised” conformity but it does so with a rhythm that is filled with anger rather than sorrow, for those who are forced to leave half their lives unlived in maintenance of the very system which oppresses them.


 

Dolls (ドールズ, Takeshi Kitano, 2002)

dolls posterOutside of Japan where he is still primarily thought of as a TV comedian and celebrity figure, Takeshi Kitano is most closely associated with his often melancholy yet insistently violent existential gangster tales. His filmography, however, is one of the most diverse of all the Japanese “auteurs” and encompasses not only the aforementioned theatre of violence but also pure comedy and even coming of age drama. Dolls is not quite the anomaly that it might at first seem but perhaps few would have expected Kitano to direct such a beautifully colourful film inspired by one of Japan’s most traditional, if most obscure, art forms – bunraku puppet theatre.

After opening with a bunraku performance featuring an excerpt from the Chikamatsu play Courier For Hell, Kitano moves on to his overarching narrative which connects the tripartite structure in a tale inspired by the classic story The Bound Beggars. This first pair of lovers, Sawako and Matsumoto, wander blankly through the ever changing landscape tied together with a long red rope. The two had previously been a young couple, very much in love, but Matsumoto was pressured into abandoning Sawako to accept a semi-arranged marriage to his boss’ daughter. Distraught, Sawako attempts suicide only to survive but in an almost catatonic state.

The second pair of doomed romantics consists of an ageing yakuza who looks back on his life which has forced him to act in a way that he is not always proud of and now finds himself remembering the girlfriend he parted with thirty years ago after fearing he was about to lose his job. She promised to wait for him, he promised to return a fine man but he became a yakuza and never saw her again. All these years later, she’s still exactly where she said she’d be, waiting.

Story three is strange tale of modern love as a young man becomes obsessed with an idol star who only ever notices his rival. After she is injured in a car accident and decides to retire, the young man takes drastic action to be able to meet with her on what he sees as a more equal footing.

Fools for love, each and every one of them. Love has ruined them, removed rational choice from their field of vision, yet there’s something noble and beautiful in the way in which it has penetrated each of their lives. They love as if possessed by an incurable madness, Sawako tries to kill herself because her heart is broken, a woman grows old spending each Saturday lunch time sitting on a bench with a second lunch box which is going to go to waste, and a young man maims himself to finally get his love’s attention. Was it worth it, in the end? Perhaps not if the desperately sad outcomes of each of these stories is anything to go by.

Kitano rejects his idiosyncratic blue colour palate for a world of vibrant colours. Travelling through a year we move along the seasons as punctuated by their symbolic scenery from cherry blossoms to green verdant landscapes, the overwhelming redness of autumn leaves and finally the purity of the winter snow. We travel one way, but also in circles as we navigate the story of love as it too changes with its seasons yet remains unchanged in essence. Each of the lovers is no more free than a bunraku puppet, manipulated by forces outside of their control and forced into a desperate unhappiness that is in part vindicated by their romantic bonds.

Love is tender, love is cruel. Each of the men, in particular, makes terrible choices which cause only pain to the women they supposedly love and, in their pride and arrogance, they fail to realise the consequences of their actions until it is far too late. The tragic inevitability of life’s suffering and the inability to escape it are the foundation stones of Chikamatsu’s world.

Working with fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto Kitano has created a beautiful, theatrical world of hyper realistic colour and life. Like much of Kitano’s work, Dolls amounts to a sad collection of tales coloured by melancholy and a resignation to the pain and suffering inherent in being alive. The lovers are inexorably bound to each other for all eternity because of the suffering they have each endured at the other’s hand. This is a sad world, but it’s a beautiful one too and even if hurts one must try to live.


Dolls is re-released in the UK on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window films.

(This is an original release trailer and does not reflect the quality upgrade of Third Window Films’ blu-ray release)

I first saw this film I guess almost fifteen years ago (!) and I still occassionally get this song stuck in my head:

Review of Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (ドールズ) – first published by UK Anime Network.