Apart from Life (地の群れ, Kei Kumai, 1970)

By 1970, Japan had more or less cemented its economic miracle and in terms of cinema at least memories of the war were beginning to recede with the young keen to address other concerns such as dissatisfaction with increasing consumerism or resistance towards American foreign policy in Asia. Unjustly neglected by international scholars, Kei Kumai by contrast refused to turn away from issues others might have found taboo or at least unpleasant enough to avoid mentioning. Like A Chain of Islands, Apart of From Life (地の群れ, Chi no Mure) has an overt anti-American sentiment but in essence criticises a society in which people are dying of guilt and shame though essentially blameless while those marginalised continue to oppress each other and fight amongst themselves rather than unite to resist their marginalisation. 

Based on a novel by Mitsuharu Inoue, the film opens with a brief prologue set in 1941 before jumping forward to the mid-1960s in the naval port town of Sasebo, the naval facilities now operated by American forces. An ensemble drama, the tale revolves around a drunken doctor, Unan (Mizuho Suzuki), though this one is far from an angel merely another wounded and compromised soul of the post-war era wracked by guilt over his various moral failures which began with the incident in the prologue in which he attempted to weasel out of his responsibility after getting an ethnically Korean girl pregnant as a young teenager working in a coal mine. He is the first of many to insist “I know nothing” that he’s “responsible for nothing” firstly denying the child is his then trying to smooth it over with money before coldly telling the woman’s sister to take her to a hospital in nearby Sasebo where no one will know them in order to get an abortion and avoid the social stigma of unwed pregnancy. The sister can only look at him with contempt. Later he discovers that the young woman lost her life while trying to provoke a miscarriage. 

Hako died, in a sense, out of shame. Many of Unan’s patients face the possibility of something similar. One woman comes to him about her teenage daughter, Yoshiko, who is bleeding continuously as if constantly menstruating. Unan asks the mother if she was in Nagasaki at the time of the atomic bombing as the symptoms are similar to the effects of the radiation poisoning he observed while working as a doctor in the city. She continues to deny it, but flashbacks to conversations with her now absent husband and daughter suggest she may not be telling the truth at least in its entirety even though her daughter’s life is at stake. She doesn’t want to be associated with “those Kaito Shinden people”, referring to the industrial slumland where many refugees from Nagasaki have settled which is treated as a kind of plague town by the rest of the local area. If her daughter survives but is unmasked as a second generation A-bomb victim her mother fears she will never be able to marry and that she will have “no future”. 

Yet they are not the only ones facing marginalisation. A young woman, Tokuko, comes to Unan’s office wanting a certificate that proves she has been raped, but Unan doesn’t help her firstly for the understandable reason that she is, understandably, unable to explain the exact circumstances to him, and secondly because he just isn’t very invested in her wellbeing bizarrely suggesting she come back with a relative or the person responsible. As she later explains, the rapist threatened to expose the fact that her family are burakumin in order to keep her quiet while she clearly remembers that he wore a glove on his left hand which she believes probably hides a distinctive keloid skin lesion marking him as an A-bomb victim and probable resident of Kaito Shinden. Tokuko’s father had also been a victim of workplace discrimination presumably because of his burakumin heritage, his wife told that he had stabbed himself while confronting the workers who were harassing him advised to keep quiet rather than attract the attention of the authorities. Tokuko is originally shamed into silence not by her violation but by her marginalisation, later deciding to track down her assailant by herself after someone else reports the crime to the police who arrest a local Kaito Shinden troublemaker and attempt to frame him for the crime. 

The confrontation however leads to a small war between the Kaito Shinden A-bomb survivors and the burakumin community which results in the death of a burakimin woman after they tactlessly insist that Kaito Shinden is a buraku below the buraku and that their blood is “rotten” and will be for generations. Discussing the case, some had even suggested that the rape was itself a result of prejudice towards the A-bomb survivors seeing as they are unable to find wives. Yet Tokuko’s mother had asked if being burakumin means it’s OK to rape her daughter, in much the same way Hako’s sister might have asked if being ethnically Korean made it OK for Unan to so casually discard her. Explaining that the locals regard Kaito Shinden as a “sick village” Yoshiko’s mother says she doesn’t think the people there are any different from anyone else despite her determination not to be associated with the A-bomb “disease”. “If Kaito Shinden is sick, the whole of Japan is sick!” Unan fires back revealing that he himself was also in Nagasaki shortly after the bomb dropped, apparently objecting to these baseless prejudices but seemingly unwilling to cure them even while his patients quite literally die of shame. 

In his own case, however, it’s not prejudice or wartime trauma that have led to Unan’s alcoholism but his many moral failures and their resulting guilt. His wife (Noriko Matsumoto) wants to divorce him, partly because of the drinking, but also because of his longstanding guilt over the death of a friend who retreated to the mountains with the communists during the Red Purge of the early 1950s of whom he is also jealous in that he was previously his wife’s lover and he can’t get over wondering if he’d lived his wife would have chosen him. Guilt over Hako, perhaps mixed with the fears of his radiation exposure, have also led him to emotionally blackmail his wife into several abortions as if he thinks it improper to father a child. 

Meanwhile, we seem to see pregnant women everywhere. Nobuo (Mugihito), orphaned by the A-bomb, sees a pair of them walking ahead of a gaggle of nuns which he later decides to freak out by creepily staring at them before lunging wildly like a dog among geese. The film’s conclusion finds him on the run from a gang of burakumin boys looking for revenge, running far out of the slums into the suburbs and through one of those nice new danchi housing complexes where a row of pregnant housewives sits silently knitting, something almost creepy in the vacant way they smile at him as he runs past before tripping over a child’s toy car. Boys like Nobuo are it seems cast out from the newly consumerist society of the economic miracle while just about everyone is in some way marginalised and in some cases several times over: rape victim, burakumin, A-bomb survivor, troublemaker, orphan, divorcee, communist, Christian. Nobuo wonders why God chose Nagasaki for an A-bomb when it’s where all the Christians live while the head of a Virgin Mary statue is repeatedly smashed as if to imply there’s no more mercy to be found here. 

Kumai regularly cuts back to a disturbing visual motif of a cage filled with rats who kill a live chicken and fight over the scraps of rotting meat until ignited by a gust of fire, the survivors scrabbling over each other blindly looking for an exit. Meanwhile, US jet planes fly constantly overhead and all Unan can think to do is throw a rock at a flag flying on the base. “She was killed by everybody” Tokuko exclaims of the burakumin woman, suddenly seeing the webs of prejudice, oppression, and selfishness which created the circumstances which led to her death by stoning. Shot in a crisp black and white and academy ratio, Kumai’s steely drama lets no one off the hook implying that all of Japan is indeed “sick” wilfully leaving these marginalised people to fight amongst themselves for the scraps of a newly prosperous society. 

DVD release trailer (no subtitles)

Humanity and Paper Balloons (人情紙風船, Sadao Yamanaka, 1937)

Humanity and Paper Balloons

That Humanity and Paper Balloons (人情紙風船, Ninjo Kami Fusen) would turn out to be the final film of its director is just one of its cruel ironies. Sadao Yamanaka was one of the most promising young directors of the 1930s, but his career was ultimately cut short by historical circumstance as, despite his leftist views, he found himself drafted into the army and dispatched to the Manchurian front where he later died in a field hospital at only 28 years old. The film both begins and ends with suicide – an acknowledgement of the crushing hopelessness of the feudal society in which humanity itself is as fragile, transient, and often overlooked as a paper balloon. Necessarily bleak, but not absent of humour (at least of the gallows kind) Humanity and Paper Balloons neatly reframes the Edo era not as one of a glorious lost past where honourable men presided over a carefully controlled social order but one where the elites were absent, crime was rampant, and and promises were always “a series of possibilities”.

The scene opens with panic. A down on his luck samurai is dead by his own hand. So destitute was he, that he’s hanged himself – armed only with a bamboo sword he couldn’t even die in a manner befitting his social class. People are beginning to wonder if this is an “unlucky” street – this has been the third such suicide of recent times. Meanwhile, barber and upstart Shinzo has been conducting secret gambling sessions in local kingpin Yatagoro’s territory so his guys are out for blood. Neighbouring ronin Unno, whose wife manufactures the titular paper balloons, is convinced that a low level samurai who owes his status to the support of Unno’s now deceased father will help him as soon as he reads the letter his father wrote on his deathbed. Mori, however, is in no way interested and is currently in negotiations to “adopt” the daughter of a local merchant so she can be married to a noble samurai who otherwise would lose face in marrying down. Said daughter, Omoka, is not happy about this arrangement as she is in love with her father’s clerk, Chushichi. When Shinzo decides to kidnap Omoka, getting Unno involved by hiding her at his house, a series of unfortunate consequences ensue.

The world of the jidaigeki is often an idealised one. Centring on the higher echelons, they paint a picture of noble warriors bravely standing up for honour and justice whilst displaying fearsome loyalty to their feudal lords. This is no such idyll – this is a slum where the social classes mingle freely but with invisible barriers still dividing one from the other. The samurai were already in decline and so it was not unusual for the men who grew up in rarified halls to suddenly find themselves cast down into the lower orders without the means to support themselves. The former samurai who hangs himself at the beginning has had enough, evidently, having sold even his sword he finds himself unable to go on.

Unno is in a similarly desperate situation, reliant on the pittance his wife earns making the paper balloons. He still thinks Mori will obey ancient social codes and repay his father’s kindness by supporting him, but Mori has no use for him now and no inclination to follow the ideals of honour which underpin the samurai word. Unno is experiencing a rude awakening to Edo era hypocrisy. In making a rash decision to go along with Shinzo’s scheme, he damns himself in every conceivable way – by dishonouring himself as a samurai, by indulging in illegality, and in merely being a party to someone’s else’s underhanded scheme. “Samurai are wicked these days” say some of the neighbourhood women, not noticing Unno’s wife is just returning from a few days away, unaware of what her husband has been up to in her absence.

The verdict on the samurai class is damning. Honourable men without honour, they use and misuse each other but are entirely unwilling to help out even one of their own fallen on hard times. Yet men like Unno are also victims of their class, suddenly ejected from a life of comfort but with no skills to survive in world of “normal” people. Single men can become wandering ronin, drinking, fighting and whoring their way through life but married, mild mannered men like Unno are left with nothing to live on but resentment.

Yamanaka’s final feature is once again far ahead of its time more resembling the films of twenty years later than those of the mid 1930s. Aiming for a highly detailed approach closer to naturalism than the general trend of the time, Yamanka paints a vivd picture of a claustrophobic world, alive with the struggle of those desperately clawing over each other in order to survive while the landlords enjoy a life of ease in vast mansions surrounded by peace, quiet and open air. Pointedly a comment on the present more than the past, Yamanaka is getting away with much more than you would think possible in the highly pressured world of 1937 following the previous year’s failure of a complex military coup seeking to return power to the emperor in the hopes of a return to feudal style paternalistic socialism. Humanity here is a paper balloon – cheap, fragile, and often unnoticed. That it exists at all is something to be thankful for, but like a paper balloon, humanity requires careful construction and committed maintenance. The plea to the people of 1937 was clear but it is often hard to recognise the importance of so commonplace an object let alone ensure its survival.

Unsubbed clip: