Three Loves (三つの愛, Masaki Kobayashi, 1954)

three-lovesMasaki Kobayashi had a relatively short career of only 22 films. Politically uncompromising and displaying an unflinching eye towards Japan’s recent history, his work was not always welcomed by studio bosses (or, at times, audiences). Beginning his post-war career as an assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi’s first few films are perhaps closer to the veteran director’s trademark melodrama but in 1953 Kobayashi struck out with a more personal project in the form of The Thick-Walled Room which dealt with the fates of lower class war criminals. Based on a novel by Kobo Abe, the film was sympathetic to the men who had only been “following orders” but was careful not to let them off the hook. Still far too controversial, The Thick-Walled Room could not be released until 1957 and Kobayashi went back to more conventional fare such as this Christianity infused tale of three kinds of frustrated loves – romantic, spiritual, and familial, Three Loves (三つの愛, Mittsu no Ai).

Ikujiro is riding into town on a donkey cart, playing his flute which attracts the attention of a strange boy who exclaims that he is a butterfly. Following the death of his father, Ikujiro’s mother has apprenticed him to a man who owns a sake brewery but is also a member of the school board and has promised that he will get his education. Riding the same cart in is a down on his luck artist, Nobuyuki (Ko Mishima) – the lover of the town’s new music teacher, Michiko (Keiko Kishi), who has travelled to this remote country spot both for the benefit of her health and to help provide for her struggling artist boyfriend. This slightly unusual town is also home to a humble church whose Holy Father, Yasugi (Yunosuke Ito), came to the town as an evacuee alongside the now professor father of the little boy with a pigeon obsession, Heita.

Somewhat unusually, Three Loves opens with a choral rendition of a Christian hymn followed by a brief voice over and intertitle-style caption bearing the message that only those who live sincerely and seriously will be granted true joy but that this same joy is born from the bitterness and sadness of life. There are certainly an array of bitter circumstances on offer but Kobayashi choses to focus on them as filtered through three very different stories of love as children are separated from their parents, lovers are kept apart by cruel twists of fate and the love of God is both keenly and invisibly felt by those who take refuge at the underused church.

Ikujiro has been “sent away” by his mother who has been convinced to allow her oldest child to be raised by foster parents given that it will now be difficult for her to support all of the children in the absence of her husband. Feeling alone and unloved though missing his family, Ikujiro does not quite fit in at the local school but faces even more problems at his new home where it transpires that his foster father is not quite as altruistic as he originally claimed. Forming an odd friendship with Heita, Ikujiro begins to find some comfort in the place but nevertheless continues to suffer.

Heita, is, in many ways the heart of the film though his status as a kind of holy fool is perhaps uncomfortable from a modern standpoint. Yasugi, who has developed the closest relationship with the boy outside of his mother, describes him as beautifully sensitive and someone who requires especial care. Yet, his mother found it difficult to connect with him until he was allowed to return to nature, and his scholarly father mostly ignores him, describing his work as a kind of “atonement” for the way his son has turned out. Even given Heita’s unorthodox relationship to his environment in which he feels himself more bird or butterfly than human, he experiences only warmth and occasional exasperation from those around him rather than outright hostility.

These kinds of frustrated familial or social loves feed back into the intertwined romantic melodrama as tortured artist Nobuyuki has an attack of male pride in partially rejecting Michiko over her decision to become the major breadwinner despite her failing health. Professing love but remaining unwilling to marry because of his lack of financial security, he only wounds the woman he loves who wants nothing other than for him to go on painting and thinks of what he regards as a “sacrifice” of herself in working to support them both as part of their shared struggle. Becoming gloomy and depressed, Nobuyuki posits giving up on love, but eventually comes around, realising some things are more important than pride though old fashioned ideas about illness still pose a problem.

This in turn drives the central spiritual dilemma as Father Yasugi is forced to face his own emotional pain which he has long been trying to sublimate with service to something higher. Ten years previously, his wife left him for another man but his continuing love for her is the very reason he cannot bring himself to do what his own religion requires and forgive her for the pain and suffering which now cloud his heart. God is love, but love is pain and suffering without end. Thus he councils the romantically troubled couple against a marriage which may end suddenly creating even more heartbreak and everlasting sadness, which seems at odds with his own, and the film’s, insistence on the joy that life brings even whilst filled with sorrow and regret.

An early effort from Kobayashi, Three Loves is not as successful as his other work from the period offering none of the rawness or innovation of The Thick-walled Room, falling back on established melodrama techniques though making interesting use of montages and dissolves even if coupled with familiar horizontal wipes. The tone is more forgiving than Kobayashi’s later angry social tirades, but the muddled structure and strange use of religious themes make for a frustrating experience which ends in a traditionally melodramatic way offered abruptly and without further comment. A death of innocence may be Kobayashi’s concession to his own bleaker world view but feels like a standard Shochiku tearjerker ending, an afterthought tacked on as a concession to studio requirements. Still, an interesting meditation on the nature of love in all its different forms, Three Loves is an unusually contemplative piece even if frustrated by a slight clumsiness of execution.


 

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (港の日本娘, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933)

japanese girls at the harbourHiroshi Shimizu made over 160 films during his relatively short career but though many of them are hugely influential critically acclaimed movies, his name has never quite reached the levels of international renown acheived by his contemporaries Ozu, Naruse, or Mizoguchi. Early silent effort Japanese Girls at the Harbor (港の日本娘, Minato no Nihon Musume) displays his trademark interest in the lives of everyday people but also demonstrates a directing style and international interest that were each way ahead of their time.

A classic melodrama at heart, Japanese Girls at the Harbor begins with two school girls living their humdrum lives of commuting back and for to school in early 1930s Yokohama. Dora and Sunako attend a Catholic school in the “foreign quarter” of the city and are devoted best friends who swear they’ll stick together for ever. However, motorcycle riding bad boy Henry rips right through their friendship in the way that only a bad boy can. Sunako abandons Dora at the harbour to ride off with Henry (later apologising to her understanding friend) but it turns out that Henry likes hanging round with gangsters and also has something going with an older lady called Yoko.

Dora tells Sunako if she really loves Henry she’ll just have to accept him for what he is before going off to find the cheating louse herself and give him a piece of her mind. However, when Sunako catches Henry and Yoko together she loses the plot entirely and ends up running off out of the city. Time passes and Sunako returns but in shame as she’s become a prostitute living with a painter whom she doesn’t seem to care for very much at all. Can she repair the damage with the now married Dora and Henry and get herself out of the hell her existence has become, or is she forever doomed to the life of a fallen woman?

Made in 1933 just as Japan was heading into its militarist era, Japanese Girls at the Harbour has an oddly international mindset with its Western houses, names and a Christianising atmosphere. An international port, there’s plenty of the outside world to be found in Yokohama where things seem to leave much more often then they arrive. Sunako says watching the boats leave makes her feel sad, but it’s she who will go off on one of Shimizu’s trademark travels, running from a crime of passion and the ache of a breaking heart.

A true friend, Dora has not abandoned Sunako and is willing to welcome her back into her home. Henry, the first to meet Sunako (at her place of employ) is torn between the old attraction, feelings of guilt over what’s happened to her, and his responsibility to Dora as her husband. Shimizu introduces an interesting metaphorical device as Henry and Dora wind a ball of wool whilst sitting together in their Western style house but as soon as Sunako arrives it falls onto the floor and begins to unravel, eventually becoming tangled up around the feet of Henry and Sunako who dance in the living room while Dora prepares a meal. Suddenly seeing her married life unravel just like this shaggy ball of wool, Dora, though still devoted to her friend, begins to feel a little afraid that Sunako may be about to jump back on the bike with Henry, just as she did all those years ago.

Shimizu’s interest is much more with the two young women than it is with Henry who remains very much a prize not worth winning. This is Sunako’s fallen woman story – eventually she comes to feel that she’s bringing too much disruption into the lives of her old friends who were getting on so well before. Henry and Dora were her last lifeline to her old self, the only old friends she could still count on, but if she wants to save them (and herself) she will have to stay away and lose them forever. Her redemption lies in self sacrifice, in giving up something that made her profoundly happy for its own good despite the immense amount of suffering she will incur in doing so.

Shimizu was one of the earliest proponents of location shooting and he does make good use of the atmospheric Yokohama streets before heading indoors for the seedy, smoky clubs and cheap tenement housing. He also introduces a series of strange jump zooms at two moments of unusually high emotion which add a degree of panic to the scene as well as heightening the nuanced reactions of the characters in question. This, coupled with his use of dissolves which often sees characters simply evaporate from the frame like unwelcome ghosts of memory, lends to the almost noir-ish, melancholic tone with its dream-like blurring of the real and the merely recalled.

An interesting example of international cross pollination in the early 1930s before hard line militarism became entrenched, Japanese Girls at the Harbor is a pregnantly titled story of a wronged woman abandoned on the shore and left with the choice to board a boat to fairer climes or remain behind and risk destroying what she most loved. The past becomes something to be absorbed and then put to rest. Ghosts cannot travel by water, and so you must leave them behind, like girls at the harbour staring sadly at departing ships.


Japanese Girls at the Harbor is the first of four films in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu box set.

Video clip of a climactic scene which showcases Shimuzu’s jump zoom technique (presented without musical score but does have subtitles for the really quite amazing intertitles which are a definite highlight of the film).

(Video clip courtesy of Mubi)

Dead Run (疾走, SABU, 2005)

Dead run posterSABU might have gained a reputation for his early work which often featured scenes of characters in rapid flight from one thing or another but Dead Run both embraces and rejects this aspect of his filmmaking as it presents the idea of running and its associated freedom as an unattainable dream. Based on the novel by Kiyoshi Shigematsu, Dead Run (疾走, Shisso) is the tragic story of its innocent hero, Shuji, who sees his world crumble before him only to become the sacrifice which redeems it.

The story begins in a voice over narration offered in the second person by Shuji’s older brother, Shuichi. Shuji, it seems was a curious, if shy, little boy full of the usual childish questions and a curiosity about the way his world works. The boys live with their parents in an area they call “the shore” which is next to a settlement created through reclaimed land which the shore people refer to as “offshore” and somewhat look down on. One day, Shuji gets marooned offshore when his bicycle chain snaps and is rescued by the unlikely saviour of “Demon Ken” (Susumu Terajima) – a local petty gangster whom everyone is afraid of, and his girlfriend, Akane (Miki Nakatani), who is some kind of bar hostess. Soon after, Demon Ken is found buried in a shallow grave dead of a gunshot wound to the stomach, but somehow this improbable act of kindness has stuck in Shuji’s mind.

Moving on a few years, a creepy looking priest moves into the offshore area and opens up a church in a small hut complete with shiny silver crosses. Just like with Demon Ken, there’s a rumour about town that the priest, Father Yuichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), is a former criminal and murderer. Shuji becomes intrigued by the strange figure of the priest and a young girl his age, Eri (Hanae Kan), who likes to spend time in the church. However, more gangsters soon turn up wanting to buy up the offshore area to build an entertainment complex and even though most of the other residents have agreed to be resettled elsewhere, Father Yuichi won’t budge. Akane returns to the area as one of the higher ranking gangsters trying to force the church out and is happy to realise that Shuji, at least, has not forgotten Demon Ken. This won’t be the last time the pair meet again as circumstances conspire against the young boy to drag him ever deeper into the darkness of the shady adult world.

As a young boy, Shuji’s life is the ideal pastoral childhood full of bike rides through green fields and under cloudless blue skies, yet his once happy family dissolves and though he tries to run from his destiny he can not escape it. After his over achieving older brother Shuichi is caught cheating at school and is suspended, he begins to lose his mind becoming obsessed with the idea of the priest as a murderer and is fixated on exposing some dark secret about him. Of course, it turns out not to be exactly as he thought it was and Shuichi becomes increasingly disturbed before becoming a suspect in a series of local crimes which see him sent away to reform school. After this string of tragedies, Shuji’s parents start to fall apart too – his father disappearing and his mother mentally absent. Eventually even Eri leaves as the relocation programme finally kicks in.

Around this point our narrative voice shifts to that of Father Yuichi who becomes Shuji’s only responsible adult figure. However, Father Yuichi’s decision to take Shuji on a trip proves to be a disastrous one as it backfires massively forcing him onto the run and, coincidentally, straight into the arms of Akane. Though Akane had originally seemed an austere and difficult woman, she harbours an affection for Shuji as one of the few people to remember Demon Ken and to remember him for his kindness. Though she wants to help Shuji she ends up pulling him into a the darkness of her own world filled with violence and exploitation. Shuji runs again and eventually makes his way to Tokyo and to Eri who is just as broken as he is but there’s no salvation here either. Even when the pair attempt to travel back to their once idyllic childhood town, their problems follow them and destiny catches up with everyone, in the end.

Early on Father Yuichi and Eri are having a discussion about the difference between fate and karma and which might be more frightening. Eri says fate is better because you can’t change karma but perhaps you can change your fate. The film seems to disagree with her. You can try to run but somehow or other something will always stop you so the cold hand of fate can stretch its icy fingers around your heart. Different in both tone and style from SABU’s previous work, Dead Run is a bleak tale filled with loneliness and melancholy which, though it offers a glimmer of hope for those who are left behind, is not afraid to make a sacrificial lamb of its holy fool of a protagonist.


The Hong Kong R3 DVD release of Dead Run contains English subtitles.

Based on the book of the same name by Kiyoshi Shigematsu (as yet unavailable in English).

Unsubbed trailer: