It Was a Faint Dream (あさき夢みし, Akio Jissoji, 1974)

It was a faint dream posterFollowing his ultramodern Buddhist Trilogy, Akio Jissoji casts himself back to the Kamakura era for a tale of desire and misuse in It Was a Faint Dream (あさき夢みし, Asaki Yumemishi, AKA Life of a Court Lady). Taking its name from a Heian era Buddist ode to transience, Faint Dream follows its melancholy heroine on a fleeting path of love, loss, romantic disappointment, and finally spiritual rebirth while the nation faces the external threat of putative invasion by warlike imperialists hellbent on domination and conquest.

Shijo (Janet Hatta), an orphaned young woman taken as a concubine by the lord Tameie (Kotobuki Hananomoto), has returned home to await the birth of her child. The baby she is carrying, however, is not Tameie’s but that of another young noblemen, Saionji (Minori Terada), with whom Shijo had fallen in love before being taken by the lord. Hoping to pass the baby off as merely premature, Shijo has been deceiving Tameie and remains fearful she will be found out. Meanwhile, Saionji’s wife is also pregnant. When Saionji’s legitimate child is stillborn, an obvious solution presents itself and Shijo loses the first of her children.

A young woman without means or protectors, Shijo finds herself forced to indulge the whims of men in order to survive. Yet Tameie, falling ill, apparently thinks only of her when he pushes Shijo towards sleeping with other men in order to keep the peace, so that their resentment doesn’t become an all consuming evil. Thus it is that Tameie’s own brother, the high priest Ajari (Shin Kishida), falls for Shijo with a burning passion which Tameie fears could drag her down to hell with its implacable intensity. Reluctant and half disgusted, Shijo follows her lord’s advice, falling for the priest as she goes, and becoming pregnant with another child she must also lose.

Ajari’s radical Buddhist philosophy insists that chanting sutras is enough for salvation. It doesn’t matter if you’re high born or low or whether you believe or not, simply saying the words gets you into paradise. It’s a philosophy that appeals to Shijo for obvious reasons, but still she finds it near impossible to reconcile herself to her position of powerlessness within the court. A figure of desire, she is “courted” by just about every man she meets but has little right to refuse their attentions, especially as they often hold financial as well as social power over her. Tameie’s warning, ironic as it is in insisting that hell hath no fury like a man scorned, has its merit in bearing out the intensely destabilising properties of romantic love in a highly regimented society.

For all of that, however, Tameie is a romantic man, himself embittered by the disappointments of his life. Born to be a king, he prefers music and poetry to the sword but still laments his “betrayal” at the hands of the older generation who crowned him at three only to depose him at 16 and hand power to his 10-year-old brother with only a promise, apparently now broken, that his son would inherit the throne. Abandoned as a child, he has little sympathy for Shijo’s maternal pain on repeatedly having her children taken from her because of social propriety, merely reminding her that children and parents walk different paths and hers is evidently here, with him, at court.

Even so, men are content to have it both ways. Romance is a transient thing, Shijo is told, a flower which blooms in an instant of truth but then scatters. Attachment is the enemy of love, the wise man admires the flower as its falls but does not mourn its loss forever. Shijo finds this hard to understand, but continues to live her life as an object of desire rather than an active participant until she finally stops and makes a firm decision of her own in choosing to reject it. She becomes a nun and wanders the land looking for serenity despite being told that no woman can become a Buddha because of the five obstacles in her way no matter how nobly she might seek it.

Ironically enough, Shijo’s life is in itself a “faint dream”. She chooses to reject her desires, but admires other women for embracing theirs, and remains seemingly ageless while the fleeting loves of her youth grow old and fade. The lords sit around perfecting their poetry while boys are pulled off their farms to combat a Mongol invasion, and a deadly disease ravages the country. Shijo turns to ask her former lover about the child they conceived together, but it’s as if she were asking about someone else in another time. Having received her answer, she walks off into the distance, a nameless nun, free of the cares of the world and no longer burdened by desire.


It Was a Faint Dream is the fourth of four films included in Arrow’s Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy box set.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Twilight Story (濹東綺譚, Shiro Toyoda, 1960)

Director Shiro Toyoda, closely associated with high minded literary adaptations, nevertheless had a talent for melancholy comedy and for capturing the everyday reality of ordinary people. A fierce condemnation of the patriarchal society at a moment of intense masculinity, Twilight Story (濹東綺譚, Bokuto Kitan), an adaptation of the novel by Kafu Nagai, follows an ambivalent author as he covertly observes the life and love of a former geisha daring to dream of romantic salvation while fully aware of the world’s cruelty.

Set in 1936, the film opens with an author on a research trip who guides us into the world of the Tamanoi pleasure quarter which he seems to disdain but is drawn to all the same. Whilst there he runs into a nervous middle-aged man, Junpei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), who is later accosted by sex worker Oyuki (Fujiko Yamamoto) for use of his umbrella during a violent storm. A mild-mannered sort, Junpei is unused to the ways of the red light district and quickly makes his escape after being invited into Oyuki’s home. After a swift drink, however, he returns and the pair begin an awkward semi-romantic relationship.

Despite his affirmation that he is single, Junpei is in fact already married if (for the moment) unhappily. Though he knew his future wife Mitsuko (Michiyo Aratama) had given birth to an illegitimate child fathered by her employer, Junpei chose to marry her anyway because he was in love. The pair married, they say, for “genuine” reasons but the father of Mitsuko’s son continues to send maintenance money for the boy’s education and his constant presence has begun to play on Junpei’s mind especially as his teacher’s salary is dwindling in this age of militarism in which educational hours are decreasing in favour of compulsory military drills. Meanwhile, Mitsuko also seems to have got religion and spends most of her time reciting sutras with the implication that she has begun to neglect her husband, emotionally, spiritually, and most particularly physically. In order to escape his depressing home life, Junpei hangs out in the Tamanoi where men’s hearts are lighter and people talk frankly about love.

This is, of course, not quite the case, but the fantasy the pleasure quarters sell of themselves. Our jaded author is perfectly aware of that and broadly sympathetic towards the women caught in its web. Oyuki, a former geisha, has “debased” herself in order to earn extra money to send home to her family and pay the medical fees for her sickly mother. Her uncles constantly pressure her for more and she wonders if they are not merely exploiting her, using her money for their own benefit and refusing to chip in for her mother’s care. Nevertheless, she is trapped. On meeting Junpei with whom she seems to develop a genuine emotional connection, she dares to dream that one day they might marry, that she could leave this life behind and build a stable family home of her own.

Of course, it’s not to be. Like all men in the Tamanoi, Junpei is misrepresenting himself for his own ends. He is only using Oyuki as an idealised point of refuge from the unhappy marriage he shows no other signs of leaving. As the author points out, the men think they’re using women but the women are also using them though they do so without calculation. Denied power or agency of their own, the women of the Tamanoi have no other option than to manipulate that of men, though the author sympathises with them so strongly that to expose the hidden “vulgarity” seems to him an act of intense cruelty.

Junpei falls in love with the world of the Tamanoi because he thinks it’s more emotionally honest, but the truth is quite the reverse. Wandering through the narrow streets at night, the author pities the women in the windows, knowing that men come here to escape their isolation but there is no escape for these women who are forced to delude themselves that a better future is waiting in order to go on living. Meanwhile Junpei’s colleague, looking back over his shoulder towards the young men in uniform, declares that he too has lost all hope for a promising future. With militarism on the rise, hyper-masculinity has led to a further decline in the already woeful status of women with even the girls’ sympathetic pimp lamenting that the army, who have been rounding up sex workers for forced service in Manchuria, regard them as little more than products to be poked and prodded and giggled over as they are cruelly bought and sold.

Reuniting with his wife, Junpei is forced to face his emotional cowardice, that he was just playing with Oyuki’s feelings in indulging the fantasy of an idealised romantic union. Oyuki, meanwhile, faces the destruction of all her dreams when she realises her uncle has betrayed her, her mother is dead, and all her sacrifices have been for nothing. On some level she may have known Junpei had another woman, but needed to believe in the fantasy of his love for her in order to make her life bearable. Even so, she now sees no other future for herself than a return to work shorn of all her hope. Toyoda’s condemnation of the red light district is bleak and total, even as the jaded author himself becomes an ambivalent part of it, but the Tamanoi is only a symptom of longstanding social oppression exacerbated by militarist fervour as the lights go out all over town.


Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1961)

vlcsnap-2019-03-15-00h18m28s351Working from a Keisuke Kinoshita script, Kinuyo Tanaka’s first film as a director, Love Letter, made a point of exploring the often hypocritical and contradictory attitudes towards women who had engaged in sex work or become the mistresses of American servicemen in the immediate aftermath of the defeat. For her fifth film, Tanaka returns to the same subject but this time adapting a novel by Masako Yana scripted by Sumie Tanaka (no relation) with whom she’d previously collaborated on The Eternal Breasts. Somewhat suggestively retitled Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Onna Bakari no Yoru), Tanaka’s adaptation tones down the novel’s sensuality but dares to ask a series of subversive questions regarding female agency and sexuality in the rapidly changing post-war society.

Set in the contemporary era, the film opens with reportage-style voiceover and newspaper clippings highlighting the enforcement of the anti-prostitution laws of 1958. According to the voiceover, the red light districts of Japan may have all but disappeared but streetwalking and other forms of casual sex work are still very much a part of the post-war economy. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the old ways and new, those arrested by the police are divided into two camps – those deemed beyond “redemption” sent to prison, and the rest to reform centres such as the Shiragiku Protective Facility for Women which is where we find our heroines.

The reform centre itself is a fairly progressive place and much more forward looking that seen in the earlier Women of the Night though perhaps sometimes patronising even as it makes a strenuous attempt not look down on the women who enter its care. Our first entry into the facility is in the company of a similarly well meaning women’s association whose misplaced pity only reinforces their innately privileged position. They are as far from many of these women as it is possible to be and struggle to understand how it is possible that they found themselves engaging in a practice they find both shameful and degrading. Having got to know many of the women through trying to help them, the school’s headmistress Nogami (Chikage Awashima) and her assistant are better placed to understand even if they also apologise that many of the women in their care are of “low IQ” and fail to convey the kinds of pressures that many have been subject to from desperate poverty to bad family situations and abusive relationships.

Abuse and the trauma of abuse remains one of the barriers to the women moving on, as in the reason many of them found themselves in sex work was because of their relationship with an exploitative partner who either forced them to sell their bodies or left them with no other choice in order to support themselves through being unable or unwilling to work. Nogami, a compassionate and understanding woman, is at pains to insist that the reason many of these women see nothing wrong in sex work is that they have an insufficient level of self respect and value their bodily autonomy too cheaply in allowing others to buy and sell access to it without full consideration of everything that implies.

Then again, asked by one of her most promising cases, Kuniko (Hisako Hara), what is actually so “bad” about sex work, Nogami is forced to admit that she doesn’t know – only that it is now illegal and her job is to help these women live “honest” lives within law. It is difficult to evade the hypocrisy that Nogami is telling these women that they should exercise full agency over their bodies while simultaneously telling them what they shouldn’t be doing with them, but then for all the centre’s talk about “purity” Nogami herself is refreshingly frank and practical in her approach to helping these women towards reintegration into mainstream society in the assumption that that is something they would want rather than out of any quasi-religious ideas of moral goodness.

Shame and social stigma, however, become another barrier as Kuniko finds to her cost in her attempts to move on from the centre. At her first placement as a live-in assistant at a grocer’s, she is quickly outed by a nosy deliveryman already acquainted with the true nature of the Shiragiku centre. The exposure of Kuniko’s past provokes not only mild disgust and suspicion among “respectable” people but also unwanted male attention from those who assume her former life as a sex worker means that they are already entitled to her sexuality with or without her consent.

Thinking the direct approach might be better, Kuniko decides to share her past with the ladies in the dorm at her next job in a factory but they are not quite as supportive as she might have hoped. Despite the fact that many of these young women are sexually active and in fact involved in what might be thought of as acts of casual sex work, they collectively look down on Kuniko while also seeking to exploit her both for the practical knowledge they assume she must have and by attempting to pimp her out to other men they know. When the attempt fails (Kuniko humiliates the three men who try to pressure her into sex by frightening them off with nothing more than confidence and self-possession), the women turn on her and enact an extremely violent and sadistic revenge.

Despite what she observed at the centre, Kuniko learns to her cost that she cannot necessarily rely on female solidarity as a bulwark against male exploitation. Nevertheless, it is to female communities and friendships that she ultimately returns. The leader of the women’s group from the beginning turns out to be less of a dilettante than she first seems and eventually takes Kuniko in with a promising job in a rose a garden which seems to suit her perfectly. Roses, however, have thorns – this one’s being her tentative relationship with gardener Hayakawa (Yosuke Natsuki) who is aware of her past but falls in love with her anyway only for her romance to hit the barrier of entrenched social mores when she discovers that Hayakawa is in fact a member of a noble family. In another instance of women not helping women, Hayakawa’s mother puts the kibosh on her daughter-in-law being a former sex worker which both reinforces Kuniko’s sense of being irreparably damaged and makes her feel as if she has become a problem for a man with whom she has fallen in love. Vowing to live up to Hayakawa’s vision of her as a “pure” woman, Kuniko retreats once again to a supportive community of women – this time of pearl divers in what seems to be an act of spiritual cleansing.

In Kuniko’s final identification of the “disgracefulness” of her past and declaration that she does not hate the world but only herself, Girls of the Night shifts into a more conventional register than the broadly empathetic, subversively positive attitude it had hitherto adopted towards the idea of sex work and the women who engage in it, opting to blame the woman rather than engage with the various forces of social oppression which attempt to micromanage female sexuality. Nevertheless, Tanaka’s deft touch remains as sympathetic as it’s possible to be in affirming that there is a path forward for those who might feel trapped by past transgression even if it simultaneously insists that its heroine save herself only by rejecting her happy ending in atonement for her past “sins”.


Love in the Mud (泥だらけの純情, Sokichi Tomimoto, 1977)

Love in the Mud posterJapanese youth cinema was in a strange place by the late 1970s. Angsty seishun eiga had gone out with Nikkatsu’s move into Roman Porno and the artier, angry youth films coming out through ATG were probably not much for a teen audience. The Kadokawa idol movie was only a few years away but until then, films like Love in the Mud (泥だらけの純情, Dorodarake no Junjo) arrived to plug the gap. Based on a novella by Shinji Fujiwara which had been previously adapted by Ko Nakahira in 1963 in a version starring Sayuri Yoshinaga and Mitsuo Hamada, Love in the Mud is a classic tale of poor boy meets rich girl and ends in a predictably hopeless way but in deep contrast to the prevailing culture of the time, the film takes the “junjo” or “purity” in its title literally in its innocent chasteness.

As the camera pans over a rapidly developing city, it settles on a bright red, flashy sports car being driven by Mami (Momoe Yamaguchi), the daughter of the Japanese Ambassador to Spain, with her friend sitting cheerfully in the passenger seat. Disaster strikes when the pair are run off the road by a biker gang who taunt them from outside the car, threatening rape and robbery. Luckily for them another gangster turns up, beats up the bad guys and saves the girls but alarm bells should have been ringing when he asks Mami to step out of the car and “thank him properly”. Mami, stupidly, does what she’s told and the girls are hijacked by gangsters round two. When they reach the shady place the gangsters are planning to have their wicked way with them, a third wave of gangster appears, disapproves of the goon’s intentions and heroically fights them off. However, the girls’ saviour is stabbed in the stomach and then later stabs and kills the leader of the aggressors.

The noble gangster, Jiro (Tomokazu Miura), tells the girls to run – which they do, but somehow Mami can’t quite bring herself leave him. A thoroughly middle-class girl, Mami is at university studying English literature but her dream is to open a hat shop in Paris and she spends most of her spare time working with a hat designer. In the absence of her father, Mami’s uncle (Ko Nishimura) has been looking after her but is the classic upperclass male who thinks the hat stuff is just a hobby and what Mami needs is a good husband as soon as possible. Accordingly he’s set her up with a pleasant enough business contact he hopes will both support Mami in the manner to which she’s been accustomed and his business dealings too.

Your average teenage girl might not be in such an extreme situation as young Mami, but most can certainly sympathise with her lack of agency. The life her uncle has planned for her is not what she wants but more than that, she’s acutely aware of being denied a choice in her future. She may be rich, but she’s never been free. Jiro, by contrast, grew up poor in tragic family circumstances and enjoys his own kind of freedom even if he feels himself constrained by his social class and lack of opportunities following a life in care with no real education. Not actually a yakuza but a gambler and petty punk living on the fringes of the underworld, Jiro has been content to live a meaningless life of empty gains but as his rescuing of Mami and her friend shows, he has a kind heart which extends to delivering presents to the daughter of a melancholy bar hostess currently living in an orphanage.

Jiro’s nobility is of a true and pure kind. After Mami comes forward to testify in Jiro’s defence, she tries to strike up a friendship but Jiro rebuffs her. He’s too smart not to know posh girl and poor boy never ends well, but then they do have a real connection which proves hard to kill. Their social differences are made apparent when Mami makes the naive decision to invite Jiro to a party at her fancy mansion. He buys a nice suit and an expensive necklace as a present, but Mami’s nanny doesn’t want to let him in and when Mami introduces Jiro to her uncle he whips out a checkbook causing Jiro to leave enraged. Nevertheless Mami chases Jiro through the shadier parts of Shinjuku, taking her first taste of gyoza, frequenting underground nightclubs and mahjong parlours, and swapping her elegant outfits for the casual jeans and T-shirts of Jiro’s world.

While all of this is going on, Jiro is also embroiled in the gang trouble which started with the stabbing in the beginning. A “friend”, almost, of the local policeman, it’s not surprising suspicion falls on Jiro and he faces a bleak future if he chooses to remain in Shinjuku. The courtship of the pair is a stuttering, nervous affair in which the emboldened Mami chases Jiro whose sense of honour teaches him to try and avoid her all the while he too is smitten. This is, however, a chaste and innocent love. Jiro and Mami spend a night together gazing at the moon but all they do is talk and the climax of the romance is met firstly with an innocent hug, and then a troubling slap from Jiro which is designed to show the depth his love in his desire to push Mami away, rather than anything more explicit.

A tragic tale of love across the class divide, Love in the Mud indulges the worst aspects of its genre in the fetishisation of doomed romance and extreme dedication the idea of “pure” emotion. The force that keeps Jiro and Mami apart, rather than entrenched social mores and differing forms of oppression is a kind of fatalistic pessimism which says the only true love is death. Perhaps too innocent and too chaste, Love in the Mud never earns its melodramatic ending but does what it needs to in appealing to its teenage target audience, neatly anticipating the genial edginess of the idol movie but failing to move much beyond capturing its moment as a snapshot of late ’70s youth culture.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Akio Jissoji, 2005)

Summer of the UbumeAkio Jissoji has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director to date. In a career that also encompasses the landmark tokusatsu franchise Ultraman and a large selection of children’s TV, Jissoji made his mark as an avant-garde director through his three Buddhist themed art films for ATG. Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Ubume no Natsu) is a relatively late effort and finds Jissoji adapting a supernatural mystery novel penned by Natsuhiko Kyogoku neatly marrying most of his central concerns into one complex detective story.

Freelance writer Tatsumi Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) and occult expert Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) become intrigued by the bizarre story of a woman who has apparently been pregnant for twenty months. If that weren’t enough weirdness, the woman’s husband also went missing a year ago and now her sister has approached the pair hoping they can investigate and figure out what’s really going on. Unbeknownst to him, Sekiguchi has a longstanding connection with several of the people involved and himself plays a role in the central mystery. Demons foreign and domestic, past trauma, infanticide and multiple personality disorder are just some of the possible solutions but as Kyogokudo is keen to remind us, there is nothing in this world that is truly strange.

The mystery conceit takes the form of a classic European style detective story complete witha drawing room based finale in which each of our potential suspects is assembled for Kyogokudo so that he can deliver his final lecture and tick them all off the list as he goes along. The tale takes place in the summer of 1952 and so the spectre of Japan’s wartime past, as well as its growing future, both have a part to play in solving this extremely complex crime. The original supernatural question concerns two otherworldly entities which have become conflated – the Chinese Kokakucho which abducts children, and the Japanese Ubume which offers its child to passersby. Needless to say, the answer to all of our questions lies firmly within our own world and is in no small part the result of relentless cruelty masked as tradition.

The opening scene includes a lengthy discussion between Kyogokudo an Sekiguchi debating the nature of reality. We only experience the world as we perceive it, seeing and unseeing at will. Everybody, to an extent, sees what they need to see, therefore, memory proves an unreliable narrator when it comes to recalling facts which may run contrary to the already prepared narrative.

Jissoji brings his trademark surrealist approach to the material which largely consists of interconnecting flashbacks often intercut with other dreamlike imagery. Filming with odd angles and unusual camera movements, Jissoji makes the the regular world a destabilising place as the strange mystery takes hold. The canted angles and direct to camera approach also add to a slight hardboiled theme which creeps in around the otherwise European detective drama though this mystery is much more about solving a series of puzzles than navigating the dangerously dark world of the noir. That said this is a very bleak tale which, for all its frog faced children weirdness, has some extremely unpleasant human behaviour at its roots.

Supernatural investigator Kyogokudo quickly dispenses with the demonic in favour of the natural but the solutions to this extremely complicated set of mysteries are anything but simple. Making space for the original novel’s author to show up as a travelling picture storyteller with some Shigeru Mizuki inspired illustrations on his easel, Summer of Ubume is not entirely devoid of whimsy but its deliberately arch tone is one which it manages to make work with its already bizarre set up. The enemy is the unburied past, or more precisely the unacknowledged past which generates its own series of ghosts and phantasms, always lurking in the background and creating havoc wherever they go. Occasionally confusing, Summer of Ubume is a fascinating supernatural mystery which takes its cues much more from European detective stories and gothic adventure than from supernatural horror or fantastical ghost story.


Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s source novel is available in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith (published by Vertical in the US).

Original trailer (no subs):