Fire Festival (火まつり, Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985)

By 1985 the Japanese economy was approaching its zenith yet along with increasing economic prosperity had come social change of which small-town Japan was either casualty or sacrificial victim. “Nigishima will stay as it is” declares the last holdout of an increasingly obsolete way of life in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s intense modernity drama, Fire Festival (火まつり, Himatsuri), a manly mountain man and animalistic force of nature by several metrics unsuited to life in the contemporary society into which he is ultimately unable to progress. 

There are many things which it seems have not changed in Nigishima for generations, one being the animosity between the cohorts of its bifurcated community, those who live by land and those who live by sea. Rural depopulation may have forced them to come closer but it has also increased their sense of mistrust while both industries continue to suffer in an economy which no longer prizes their humble rural output. Despite being catapulted into a promised modernity by the advent of the railway to great fanfare in 1959, it now seems that Nigishima cannot survive without a new road which could be paid for by the development of a marine park only mountain man Tatsuo (Kinya Kitaoji) owns the property right in the middle of the earmarked area and has hitherto refused to sell further increasing the tension between the two communities. 

Tatsuo is thought of, and thinks of himself, as a big man in the area quite literally it seems as part of the reason he enjoys this status is down to his being unusually well-endowed. He believes himself to have a special relationship with the mountain goddess, often joking to the other men about having a sexual relationship with her while sometimes describing her as his girlfriend. Several times he is mistaken for an animal, firstly by the boatman bringing his childhood sweetheart and sometime mistress Kimiko (Kiwako Taichi) back to the island who assumed he was a monkey crawling along the cliff edge thoughtlessly throwing rocks at them, while he often gambols through the forest whooping like some kind of Tarzan. Entirely unreconstructed, his worldview is patriarchal and misogynistic. All of his banter with the other men is sexual, constantly referring to his penis while greeting his friends with lewd hand gestures thrusting his fist into his pocket as if waving with an erection. The cure for offending the goddess he tells his young protege Ryota (Ryota Nakamoto) is to drop his trousers and display his manhood, Tatsuo strangely believing this would appease her for taking wood from a sacred tree or killing without permission. 

Smearing the blood of a sacrificial animal over his chest and forearms he dedicates the death to the goddess, a gesture he will repeat in the film’s violent and tragic conclusion yet there is also arrogance in his conduct as if he believes himself above natural law, protected as the goddess’ favourite even as he describes himself as “suffocated” by the women in his life from his mother and five older sisters all of whom indulge him to his wife, kids, and mistresses. He has trained his dogs to hunt wild boar without the use of guns in a method he admits even other hunters describe as “cruel” while breaking a local taboo shooting monkeys in the forest well aware of nature red in tooth and claw. As such, there is little nobility to be seen in his determination to preserve this already obsolete way of life. His virility maybe contrasted with that of the ageing land broker Yamakawa (Norihei Miki) and his failed attempts to bed sex worker Kimiko who tricks him into paying off her debts, but he at least knows the way the wind is blowing explaining to her that towns such as Nigishima survive only through things like marine parks or hotels or even nuclear power plants. Without the road, the town will die. 

Yet in 1959 they were told the railway would save them and it seems it did not. Tatsuo’s love making with Kimiko in a boat borrowed from a treacherous fisherman who later agrees to sail it transgressively into sacred waters is intercut with memories of the rail line’s opening ceremony, two teenagers who might have been them or at least of around the same age ride an elephant on the jetty while the townspeople arrange themselves into the formation of the character for “celebration” captured by the aerial photographer above. For Tatsuo as a boy, was this a rebirth of Nigishima or the beginning of its demise as the coming modernity began to eat away at its foundations? 

The fire festival is “for men”, according to Tatsuo, “to drive out evil spirits”, his manliness getting the better of him as he disrupts the proceedings to attack a man he accuses of having brought “false fire”. These are the lessons he teaches to surrogate son Ryota whose devotion to him borders on the homoerotic, Tatsuo cradling him during the climactic rain storm and he seeming to develop a fascination for Kimiko as a kind of indirect fixation. Ryota has learned Tatsuo’s chauvinism mimicking his lewd hand gestures and swaggering walk, his cruelty in sacrificing 1000 yen to trick Yamakawa into injuring his hand in a bear trap, and his arrogance ensuring that his problematic masculinity will survive into another generation presumably no more capable of halting the march of modernity than he has been. Tatsuo poisons the waters with fuel oil which as one of the greek chorus of fish wives points out does not catch fire, Tatsuo himself smouldering until an inevitable explosion. Receiving some kind of epiphany during a mystical congress with the goddess in the middle of a storm, he knows what he must do and accepts that he cannot progress into the modern society. Smoulderingly intense in its small-town animosity and primeval sensibilities, Yanagimachi’s poetic tragedy of futility and the broken promises of a badly distributed modernity may accept the the sacrifice but mourns it all the same. 


Fire Festival screens at the BFI on 20/27 December as part of BFI Japan.

Clip (English subtitles)

A Fishwife’s Tale (魚河岸の女石松, Eiichi Kudo, 1961)

A Fishwife's Tale VHS coverWho better to take on post-war corruption and personal injustice than Hibari Misora? In another of her typically feisty roles, Hibari stands up for her friends, her community, and her family when they are threatened by the exploitative forces of the tabloid press, rubbish boyfriends, and evil corporations all while accidentally falling in love with Ken Takakura in an early role as cynical reporter with a heart of gold. Eiichi Kudo may be best remembered for a string of samurai movies in the ‘60s including 13 Assassins and The Great Killing, but like many of his generation he made a fair few programme pictures including several starring Hibari Misora of which A Fishwife’s Tale (魚河岸の女石松, Kashi no Onna Ishimatsu) is one.

Kudo opens with stock footage of a small fishing harbour which is all aflutter with the arrival of some unusual outsiders. A photographer from a “magazine” has arrived claiming that he wants to document the lives of ordinary working class people from the fishing industry. While some of the young women doll themselves up and plead with the photographer, “Lady Ishimatsu”, Keiko Kano (Hibari Misora), steals all the attention by defiantly rolling through in her truck ready for a day’s work. As predicted Keiko doesn’t want anything to do with this photography nonsense, and as it turns out she was right not to. The guys aren’t from the Sundays or National Geographic, they’re a scandal rag and they’ve bulked out their story with a lot of made up rubbish about the “sexy lives of fishwives” which paints them all as predatory nymphomaniacs. Matters come to a head when Keiko’s friend Yoko (Yukiko Nikaido) tries to kill herself in shame because of the paper’s implication that she’s a loose woman which causes her wealthy boyfriend to dump her (luckily, she’d mixed up tummy tablets with sleeping pills so thankfully survived even if feeling a little sick and silly).

The newspaper business has a second unforeseen consequence. When Keiko stands up to the achingly cool reporter, he realises she’s connected to another case he’s working on. Across town, a canned food magnate is facing ruin thanks to a standards scandal and is also earnestly searching for his long lost daughter, born to a geisha 20 years earlier and then adopted by another family. Dogged reporter Kitagawa (Ken Takakura), recognising the necklace around Keiko’s neck, wonders if she might be the girl Tachibana’s looking for. When it turns out that he’s right, Keiko’s world turns upside-down. Tachibana (Eijiro Yanagi), overjoyed to have found his daughter, goes about everything the wrong way and tries to take her back from her loving home with the promise of wealth and comfort, but Keiko loves her parents even if they aren’t hers by blood and resents the attempt to drag her away. 

Nevertheless, when the two cases turn out to be even more connected thanks to Yoko’s terrible boyfriend being the no good son of one of the conspirators, and Mr. Tachibana falling ill though the stress of his situation, the entire family reconsiders if they haven’t perhaps been selfish in resolutely rejecting a lonely old man trying to make up for a past mistake. Keiko becomes committed to standing up to the bullies. “We’re still young, as long we’re alive we’ll resist you” she tells her biological father’s arch enemy in what might as well be a rallying cry for post-war youth fed up with the corrupted older generation.

Then again perhaps things don’t change all that much. Rather than a salt scam or rice profiteering, this time it’s fiddling with the labels on tin cans but ordinary people are still having their food supply tampered with by those with enough money not to need to worry so much about food security – the amoral petty samurai of the Edo era have merely become amoral businessmen in the dog eat dog post-war world.

Comparatively light on song and dance – Hibari sings the title track as she drives in on her truck, hums a few tunes, and gets one dramatic musical number when she goes undercover as a nightclub singer to spy on the bad guys, Kudo ups the action quotient as Hibari makes herself the chief of the fishwives and takes on the photographers, sneaks around investigating, and then starts a full on brawl with goons in the final showdown. This time around the romance between frequent co-stars Hibari Misora and Ken Takakura is spiky and sparky, fuelled by Keiko’s strange positioning as a “tomboyish” bossy boots more at home in her truck and wellies than prancing around for the camera like the other girls. Oddly warm and filled with rebellious energy, A Fishwife’s Tale is, in its own quiet way, perhaps subversive in allowing a little political spirit of the age to creep in around the edges as Keiko steps forward to stay true to her roots, opposing injustice wherever she sees it and always acting on her own initiative.


Selection of scenes from the movie including Hibari’s big club number (no subtitles)

Maintitles song – Hibari no Dodonpa

The Catch (魚影の群れ, Shinji Somai, 1983)

the-catchSome men become their work, the quest for success consumes them to the extent that there is barely anything left other than the chase. The Catch (魚影の群れ, Gyoei no Mure), Shinji Somai’s 1983 opus of fishermen at home on the waves and at sea on land is a complex examination of masculinity but also of fatherhood in a rapidly declining world filled with arcane ritual and ancient thought.

Fusajiro (Ken Ogata) is a middle aged man who looks old for his years. Man and boy he’s spent his life at sea, hunting down the elusive tuna fish which can be sold for vast amounts of money in the rare event that one is actually caught. This “first summer” as the title card refers to it, marks a change in his life as the daughter he’s been raising alone since his wife left him many years ago, Tokiko (Masako Natsume), has found a man she wants to marry. Her boyfriend, Shunichi (Koichi Sato), owns a coffee shop in town and Fusajiro has his doubts about a city boy marrying into a fisherman’s family. However, Shunichi isn’t just interested in Tokiko, he wants to set sail too. Though originally reluctant, Fusajiro eventually agrees to take Shunichi as a kind of apprentice but is dismayed when he gets seasick and seems to have no hint of a fisherman’s instinct.

Fusajiro is a legend among his peers – a big man of the sea, a true sailor and top hunter. He’s the one people turn to whenever anything goes wrong on the waves. However, he’s also a gruff man who speaks little and seems to prefer his own company.  In the rare event that he is speaking, it’s generally about tuna. When Shunichi first meets Fusajiro he remarks that he knew it must be him because he “smells of the sea”.

A later scene sees Fusajiro catch sight of a woman caught in the rain who immediately starts running away from him. Chasing her  just like one of his ever elusive tuna he eventually pins the woman down and takes her back to his boat to complete his conquest. The woman turns out to be his ex-wife, who left him precisely because of this violent behaviour. After momentarily considering returning to him, she realises that he hasn’t changed and accuses him of being unable to distinguish people from fish – he hooks them, reels them in, and if they don’t come willingly he hits them until they do so he can keep them with him. This overriding obsession with domination also costs Fusajiro his daughter when Shunichi is gravely injured on the boat and Fusajiro delays returning to port until he’s secured the tuna he was chasing at the time. Shunichi’s blood and the fish’s mingle together on the deck, one indistinguishable from the other, both victims of Fusajiro’s need to reign supreme over man and fish alike.

Fusajiro tried to warn Tokiko not to marry a fisherman, it would only make her miserable. Shunichi is warned that a fisherman’s life is a difficult one and the seas in this area less forgiving than most, but his mind is made up. Finally acquiring his own boat after selling his cafe, Shunichi, just like Fusajiro, starts to fall under the fisherman’s curse – endlessly chasing, living only for the catch. Unlike Fusajiro, however, Shunichi has little instinct for life at sea and fails to bring home his prey. Little by little, the mounting failures eat away at his self esteem as he feels belittled and humiliated in front of the other sailors culminating in an attempt to reinforce his manhood by raping his own wife. These men are little better than animals, consumed by conquest, permanently chasing at sea and on land. To be defeated, is to be destroyed.

Somai never shies away from the grimness and brutality of the work at hand. Ogata catches and spears these magnificent fish for real and the unfortunate creatures are then carved up right on the dockside before our very eyes. As we’re constantly reminded, physical strength is what matters for a fisherman and Fusajiro is a strong man, duelling with the tuna fish and straining to hold the line with all his might. Yet he’s getting old, his body is failing and like an aged toreador in the ring, his victory is no longer assured. The Japanese title of the film which translates as crowds of shadows of solitary fish expresses his nature more clearly, his fate and the tuna’s are the same – a lonely battle to the death. Unable to forge real human connections on land Fusajiro and his ilk are doomed to live out their days alone upon the sea wreaking only misery for those left behind on the shore.


Original trailer (No subtitles, graphic scenes of animal cruelty)