The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Masaki Kobayashi, 1985)

The Empty TableJapanese cinema of the 1980s is marked by an increasing desire to interrogate the idea of “the family” in an atmosphere of individualist consumerism. Yoshimitsu’s Morita’s The Family Game had blown the traditional ideas of filial piety and the primacy of the patriarch wide open in exposing his ordinary middle-class family as little more than a simulacrum as its various members sleepwalked through life playing the roles expected of them free of the true feeling one would expect to define familial bonds. A year later, Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family took a different, perhaps more positive approach, in depicting a family descending into madness through the various social pressures of maintaining a conventional middle-class life in the cramped environment of frenetic Tokyo. Masaki Kobayashi, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not so much interested in families as in individuals whose struggles to assert themselves in a conformist society became his major focus. The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Shokutaku no nai Ie) is not perhaps “a family drama” but it is, if indirectly, a drama about family and the ways in which the wider familial context of society at large often seeks to misuse it.

Set in 1973, The Empty Table is also among the earliest films to tackle the aftermath of the 1972 Asama-Sanso Incident. For ten days in February, the nation watched live as the police found themselves in a stand off with five United Red Army former student radicals who had taken the wife of an innkeeper hostage and holed up in a mountain lodge, refusing to give themselves up to the police. The discoveries surrounding the conduct of the United Red Army which had descended into a cult-like madness involving several murders of its members (including one of a heavily pregnant woman) shocked the nation and finally ended the student movement in Japan.

Kidoji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the father of one of the student radicals, Otohiko (Kiichi Nakai), who took part in the siege. In Japanese culture, it’s usual for the parents of a person involved in a scandal to come forward and offer an official apology to the nation on behalf of the their children. During the siege itself the family had also been weaponised as mothers, particularly, were enlisted to shout from outside the inn, offering poignant messages intended to get their sons to give themselves up and come home. Kidoji, unlike the other fathers (one of whom hanged himself in shame), refuses his social obligation on the grounds that the actions of his grownup son are no longer his responsibility. 

As a scientist, Kidoji is used to thinking things through in rational terms and outside of Japan his logic may seem unassailable – after all, it is unreasonable to hold the conduct of a family member against an otherwise upright and obedient citizen. In Japan however his actions make him seem cold and unfeeling, as if he has disowned both his son and his position as the father of a family with whom rests ultimate responsibility for those listed on his family register. This way of thinking may be very feudal, but it is the way things work not just in the late 20th century, but even in the early 21st.

Kidoji’s refusal to do what is expected of him eventually leads to the crumbling of the family unit. Far from the cheerful scene we see of Kidoji, his wife, and their three children seated around a dinner table in celebration, the family now eat separately and Kidoji returns home to cold meals and an empty table. Kidoji’s wife, Yumiko (Mayumi Ogawa), has had a breakdown and had to be hospitalised, while his daughter Tamae (Kie Nakai) is forced to break off her engagement only to resort to underhanded methods to be allowed to marry the man she loves. While Otohiko languishes in prison, only his younger brother Osamu (Takayuki Takemoto) remains at home.

Kobayashi’s central concern is the conflict in Kidoji’s heart as he faces a choice between maintaining his principles and saving his family pain. It’s not that Kidoji feels nothing – on the contrary, he is profoundly wounded by all that has happened to him, but ironically enough, puts on the face society expects but does not want in maintaining his composure in a situation of extreme difficulty. Kidoji’s deepest anxieties rest in the need to “take responsibility”, something he must do in acknowledging that it’s not his son’s disgrace which has destroyed his family but his own rigidity in refusing to bend his principles and obey social convention. What Kidoji wants is for his son to take responsibility for his own choices as an individual rather than expecting his family to carry his load for him. He must, however, also take responsibility for the effect his choices have had on others, including on his family, and accept his role both as an individual and as a member of a society with rights and obligations.

Kidoji’s refusal to apologise on behalf of his son looks to the rest of society like an abnegation of his paternal authority, and without paternal authority the family unit crumbles like a feudal household whose lord has been murdered. Yet Kidoji, like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, refuses to compromise his principals no matter how much personal pain they eventually cause him. Where the rules of society make no sense to him, he will ignore (if not quite oppose) them, remaining true to his own notions of moral righteousness.

In many ways, Kidoji is the archetypal Kobayashi hero – standing up to social oppression and refusing to simply give in even when he knows how beneficial that may be to all concerned. He is also, however, just as problematic in allowing his family to continue suffering in preservation of his personal beliefs. Kobayashi’s final feature film, The Empty Table is extremely dated in terms of shooting style with its overly theatrical dialogue and frequent use of voice over and monologue which were long out of fashion by the mid-1980s. Kobayashi does, however, return to the more expressionist style of his earlier career, moving towards an etherial sense of poetry as his hero contemplates his place in a society which often asks him to behave in ways which compromise his essential value system. The family, broken as it is, is also (partly) mended once again as Kidoji begins to reconcile his various “responsibilities” into a more comprehensive whole as he prepares to welcome a new generation seemingly as determined to live in as principled and unorthodox a way as he himself has.


Gojoe (五条霊戦記, Sogo Ishii, 2000)

gojoe-2Not your mama’s jidaigeki – the punk messiah who brought us such landmarks of energetic, surreal filmmaking as Crazy Family and Burst City casts himself back to the Middle Ages for an experimental take on the samurai genre. In Gojoe (五条霊戦記, Gojo reisenki), Sogo Ishii remains a radical even within this often most conservative of genres through reinterpreting one of the best loved Japanese historical legends – the battle at Kyoto’s Gojoe Bridge . Far from the firm friends of the legends, this Benkei and this Shanao (Yoshitsune in waiting) are mortal enemies, bound to each other by cosmic fate but locked in combat.

Following a war between the Heike and Genji clans, the Heike have assumed power sending the Genji into retreat and exile. All should be well, but a mysterious force is taking the lives of Heike guardsmen. Around this time, former bloody warrior turned Buddhist monk Benkei (Daisuke Ryu) has received a prophecy that his path to enlightenment lies in vanquishing the “demon” which is killing soldiers in needlessly bloodthirsty ways. The Heike are not so much afraid of a supernatural threat as they are of a predictable one – the first son of the Genji whom they intended to murder as a child but later set free. Shanao (Tadanobu Asano ), only just come of age, wants his right and just revenge to restore his clan to its rightful place, but this is a dark time and there are more powerful forces at play than traumatised monks and disinherited princes.

The world of the jidaigeki, though often violent, has its own degree of careful order – rules which must be followed, pledges which must be honoured, and causes which must be seen through at any cost. The world of Gojoe is a necessarily chaotic one in which a fragile peace has been forged through violence and trickery but the sins of the past weigh heavy on those trying to forge ahead in the new era.

The Benkei of the legends is fiercely loyal to his lord, but this Benkei is very much a lone wolf, standing apart in his desire to expiate his sins. Though his fellow monk tries to convince him that the prophecy he’s been given is nothing but a delusion, Benkei is determined to find his peace through killing a literal demon rather than tackle the ones inside his mind. Nevertheless, the past is ever present through flashbacks, even at one point revisiting one of the darker elements of the Benkei story – the killing of a child who might be his own.

The “demon” which Benkei seeks turns out to be three orphaned children who have been trained by the remnants of their clan to seek nothing other than revenge. Shanao is more killing machine than man, thinking of nothing other than assuming his rightful role as the head of the Genji and restoring his family honour. When the two meet, each regards the other as “demonic” but Shanao has a point when he asks Benkei if it’s not his own heart which is unquiet. Where Benkei is contained rage, Shanao is calmness and refinement personified.

Benkei is joined for some of his journey by the comparatively more everyman presence of Tetsukichi (Masatoshi Nagase), formerly a master sword maker who’s taken to robbing corpses after growing disillusioned with his craft which often saw his beautiful handiwork in the hands of hypocritical warrior monks. “What’s so great about being alive anyway?” he asks at one point, not long after reminding Benkei that “this hell” is all of his making. Hell this is, Ishii’s world is bathed in fire and blood as petty clan conflict burns the villages of ordinary peasants who are so far removed from this sword bearing society as to be otherwise unaware of it. The peasants have their own problems to deal with as a shaman calls for the brutal beating to death of a pregnant woman supposedly infected by a “demon” and about to give birth to a “demon child”, but even if Benkei is moved to counter this instance of injustice, he is not willing to follow through when it comes to the larger implications of his decision.

The supernatural elements are more a means of cosmological explanation than they are of real threat yet Ishii conjures a dark and creepy world of ominous shadows and ever present danger. Fantasy tinged action allows for giant blood sprays as heads come off with abandon, but the sword fights themselves are both beautifully choreographed and filled with intensity. The final battle between Shanao and Benkei heads off in an unexpectedly experimental direction as swords spark against a starless sky until a cosmic event allows their fierce conflict to erupt into a raging fire, destroying the bridge and everything it stands for. There is no resolution here, only a passage of one state to the next as Benkei and Shanao live on in altered forms. Conducted to the pulsing, warlike drumbeats of a typically exhilarating Ishii score (composed by Ishii’s own band, Mach 1.67), Gojoe is jidaigeki reimagined for the modern era bringing all of the genre’s anxiety and spiritual conflict with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ran (乱, Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

ran posterAkira Kurosawa is arguably the most internationally well known Japanese director – after all, Seven Samurai is the one “foreign film” everyone who “doesn’t do subtitles” has seen. Though he’s often thought of as being quintessentially Japanese, his fellow countryman often regarded him as too Western in terms of his filming style. They may have a point when you consider that he made three different movies inspired by the works of Shakespeare (The Bad Sleep Well – Hamlet, Throne of Blood – Macbeth, and Ran – King Lear) though in each case it’s clear that “inspired” is very much the right word for these very liberal treatments.

In the case of Ran (乱) – a loose adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa moves the story to feudal Japan and an ageing king who this time has three sons rather than three daughters. This leaves Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) with a smaller problem than Lear’s though in his original idea of making his eldest son his heir with the other two inheriting smaller roles it’s clear things aren’t going to end well. Just as in the original play, the oldest two sons Taro and Jiro sing their father’s praises with cynical glee but the youngest and most sincere, Saburo, refuses to play this game as his respect for his father is genuine. Unfortunately, Saburo’s honesty sees him banished from his father’s kingdom and his share of responsibility given over to his treacherous brothers. Predictably, neither is satisfied with what they’ve been given and it’s not long before a familial conflict has sparked into a bloody civil war.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child….Hidetora is not quite as far gone as Lear in Shakespeare’s original text at the beginning of the film yet he is still unable to see that his oldest two sons have placed personal ambition ahead of filial piety. Hidetora was once a fearsome, if cruel, warrior, famous for burning enemy villages and creating peace only through destruction. He’s old now, and tired and so he proposes to hand over the running of the kingdom to his eldest son, yet – he wants to remain the de facto leader until the very end. Of course, that doesn’t sit well with Taro, or more to the point his ambitious wife Lady Kaede. Hidetora is thrown out of Taro’s castle and then also from Jiro’s before all out war erupts between the two leaving him totally isolated – a king without a kingdom.

Hidetora’s true madness begins when he realises not only how little regard his eldest two sons hold for him, but also that his failure to recognise the true nature of the situation has lead to the deaths of the people in his care that have remained loyal to him to the very end. As the enemy begin to engulf the castle, concubines begin helping each other to commit suicide in order to avoid ravishment while others try to escape but are cut down by arrow fire. This is all his own fault – his ruthless cruelty has been filtered down to his two oldest sons who, as he did, will stop at nothing in the pursuit of power. What is a king if not the father of a nation, and as a father he has failed. Neither Taro or Jiro are worthy of the offices afforded to them and lack both basic humanity and the princely power one needs to become the unifying force of a people.

Only too late does Hidetora see the wisdom in Saburo’s words and finally understand that he has alienated the only one of his children that truly loved him. From this point on his madness increases and Nakaidai’s performance becomes increasingly mannered and theatrical as if Hidetora himself is acting in another play which only he can see. Wandering and lonely, the once great king is reduced to the estate of a beggar led only by his fool and sheltered by the ruins of a castle which he himself burned down.

However, as great as Nakadai is (and he always is), he’s very nearly upstaged by the young Mieko Harada as one of the all time great screen villainesses with the Lady Macbeth a-like Lady Kaede. Filled with a vengeful fury, Kaede is unafraid to use every weapon at her disposal to achieve her goal. No sooner is she brought the news of her first plan’s failure in the death of her husband than she’s embarking on a plot to seduce his brother which includes getting him to execute his wife. Vile as Kaede’s actions often are, her desire for revenge is an understandable one when you consider that Hidetora was responsible for the deaths of her family leaving her to become a trophy bride for the son of the man that killed them. Viewed from another angle, it would be easy to sympathise with Kaede’s desire to rid the world of these cruel and tyrannical lords were it not for her insistence on the death of Lady Sue – a woman in exactly the same position as herself whose death would not actually advance her cause very much at all.

Kurosawa films all of this from a distance. We, the audience, almost become the gods he speaks of – the ones who weep for us, watching silent and helpless, unable to save us from ourselves. We see the world for what it is – chaos, horses and men and blood. The battles aren’t glorious, they are frenetic, frightening and ultimately pointless. Though for all that there is a beauty to it too and the sheer scale of the production with its colour coded princes and immense armies is one the like of which we will never see again.

Ran presents us with a prognosis which is even more pessimistic than that of Lear. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, as profoundly tragic as it is, there is at least the glimmer of hope. There is a new, rightful king and the idea that something has been restored. Here there is no such resolution, we are the blind man casting a stick around the edge of a precipice, entirely alone and unable to see the gaping chasm which extends before us into which we may plunge headlong driven only by the chaos in our own hearts. In the end, Kurosawa’s message is not so different from Shakespeare’s – all the weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Fathers and sons must strive to understand each other, and themselves, lest we fall into the eternal chaos which leads us to build our very own hell here on Earth.


Ran is currently playing in UK cinemas in a brand new 4K restoration courtesy of StudioCanal!