Poem (哥, Akio Jissoji, 1972)

Poem dvd coverThere might be a temptation to view Akio Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy” as an intensely Japanese affair given its obvious preoccupation with Eastern religious thought and background dialogue with the political confusion of the day, but like fellow New Wave outsider Kiju Yoshida, Jissoji had studied French literature and there is something classically European about his nihilistic ennui in the midst of a decaying social order. Poem (, Uta), the trilogy’s final instalment, bears this out most of all as the servant boy of a noble house, secretly its spiritual heir, alone attempts to resist the march of time to save the natural essence of a culture about to eclipse itself in consumerist emptiness.

Jun (Saburo Shinoda), a strange young man, is a servant/legal clerk to a lawyer, Yasushi (Shin Kishida), who is the oldest son of the Moriyama family. Though he has inherited stewardship of the house and mountains, Yasushi and his wife Natsuko (Eiko Yanami) long to break free of its traditionalist constraints by ripping it apart and replacing tatami mat comfort with Western modernity. They can’t do that, however, because old Moriyama (Kanjuro Arashi), Yasushi’s father, is still alive and Yasushi doesn’t particularly want to have to talk to him. Meanwhile, the spacious mansion is also shared by a legal student, Wada (Ryo Tamura), who is kind of interning with Yasushi while repeatedly failing the bar exam, and the family’s maid Fujino (Hiroko Sakurai).   

Unlike Yasushi, Jun sees his life’s purpose as serving the Moriyama family. Intensely worried that a fire may engulf this fine house built with only the best Japanese cedar, Jun gets up every night at midnight and patrols with an electric torch, looking for loose sparks. One night he finds some, though not the kind he was expecting, on accidentally witnessing Wada make love to Fujino. Apparently uninterested, Jun looks it over and moves on while the lady of the house, Natsuko, starved of affection by her impotent husband, finds herself stirred by such unexpected eroticism.

Yasushi’s physical impotence is perhaps merely a manifestation emasculated powerlessness as the oldest son of a noble house who, nevertheless, wields no real power and is entirely unable to make decisions for himself. Yet his big case at work is thrown into confusion when his social climbing client suddenly tries to have his partner, Arita (Haruhiko Okamura), removed days before the court hearing because it might look nicer to have someone of Moriyama’s standing representing him. Even so, Yasushi is so clueless with the modern world that he needs Jun, a calligraphy enthusiast and advocate for the old, to operate the photocopier because he doesn’t know how (and neither does Wada). Only Jun, in another contradiction, insists on working to rule and leaving at 5pm because his “main job” is protecting the house and serving the Moriyama family, not Yasushi. Jun allows himself to be seduced by Natusko on the grounds that if she does not receive sexual satisfaction inside the house she will need to look for it outside which could bring shame on the Moriyama name. Finding out his wife is sleeping with another man, the weird servant boy no less, Yasushi doesn’t even care (besides being mildly turned on), as long as she doesn’t do anything which might arouse “rumours”.

The dirty secret that neither Yasushi or his debauched brother Toru (Eishin Tono) know is that Jun, whose name means “pure”, is their illegitimate half-brother that their father had with a maid. As we later discover, old Moriyama plans to divide his estate not in two but three, believing that it hardly matters anyway because division, in a break with the system of traditional succession by the oldest son, will be the end of the Moriyama family. He may well have a point as neither Yasushi, who eventually abandons the house to Toru and escapes to Kyoto, or his brother are interested in legacy. Once Moriyama passes, they plan to sell the entire plot, mountains and trees and all, to developers. In fact, the house already technically belongs to someone else because as soon as he moved in Toru started taking out exorbitant loans to fund his wastrel playboy lifestyle and has already figured out the jig is up and they’re all broke. Only Jun, who hears the voice of the mountains as if it were the voice of existence itself, is desperate to save the family name though he is at this point almost beyond saving himself.

Looking for the “absolute” in tombstones, Jun is told that only darkness exists inside. Yet he is certain that as long as form survives, content can return. He sees the Moriyamas’ forests as the essence of an older Japan and their untouched natural beauty the rock on which their souls are anchored. Yet his half-brothers oppose him. For them, Japan, even the world, is already ruined and nothing worth protecting remains. Existence itself is nothing more than a dream, and suicide no different. They no longer feel they can live “in such an age”.

Yet Jun, his father’s spiritual heir even if he doesn’t know it, keeps reaching, perhaps not quite hoping but demanding even in his powerlessness which may, in a sense result in a kind of transcendence in its purity. Unlike the ambiguously hopeful ending of This Transient Life, or the urgent ominousness of that of Mandala, Poem ends in defeat and futility, suggesting that time cannot be stopped or progress arrested even by those who seek the eternity of enlightenment. And so Jissoji brings us full circle by showing us a world in entropy unsalvageable in the cruelty of its contradictions.


Poem is the third of four films included in Arrow’s Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy box set which also features an introduction and selected scene commentaries by scholar of the Japanese New Wave David Desser plus a 60-page booklet with new writing by Tom Mes and Anton Bitel.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり第41雑居房, Shunya Ito, 1972)

scorpion-2Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり第41雑居房, Joshu Sasori – Dai 41 Zakkyobo) picks up around a year after the end of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and finds Matsu (Meiko Kaji) tied up in a dingy prison basement, apparently left bound and in solitary confinement for the entire interval. Once again directed by Shunya Ito, the second instalment in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series is another foray into the women in prison field but Ito resolutely refuses to give in to the exploitative genre norms, overlaying his tale of individualistic rebellion with an arthouse sensibility that has a much wider scope than its ordinary vengeance driven narrative may suggest.

Matsu may have been lying bound and gagged in a dingy underground hole for the best part of a year but today is a special day and sadistic prison warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) is going to let her out to be shown off in front of a visiting inspector who’s paying a final visit before Goda is promoted to a top job in Tokyo. When Matsu makes a lunge for Goda, the inspector is so afraid that he wets himself, sending the other woman into a frenzy and resulting in a riot. Once again the entirety of the prison is punished, but this time Matsu is singled out for a public punishment gang rape by Goda’s goons. This kind of humiliation is too much for her fellow prisoners who instantly turn on her, but their violence provides an opportunity for escape and before long Matsu is on the run, again.

At the end of the first film, Matsu had accomplished her first round of vengeance – against the man who orchestrated her downfall and the men who secured it, but ultimately she wound up a female prisoner once again. Though Goda may have had her hidden away because of her habitual escapism, Matsu had not given up as we see from her attempts to scrape the floor away with her spoon held tight in her mouth. Barely speaking, Matsu is an unstoppable column of pure rage but an elegant one, supported by her self contained restraint.

Her anger this time is directed towards Goda himself, especially after his despicable organised punishment rape that was designed both to break her own spirit once and for all and also to damage her in the eyes of her fellow inmates who are intended to see her defeated and destroyed. The guards are a stand in for society at large, using sexual dominance and social position to keep their women in line. The visiting prison inspector makes a point of telling Matsu that “they” don’t hate her personally – they’re there for her, to help her “recover” and become a functioning member of society. Which is ironic because Goda does hate her personally as he holds her responsible for the damage to his eye sustained in the previous film. His last act before moving on is one against Mastu – an attempt by the forces of authority to crush her individual rebellion and use their victory as a coercive tool to force others to conform.

In this way, Matsu’s position as a member of a subjugated class is less important than her status as an agitator but these are women who have each suffered at the hands of men. As an extremely theatrical sequence sung in the traditional form informs us, the women who escaped with Matsu committed their crimes out of love or jealousy. Poisoned rivals, dead lovers, even children murdered to get back at their philandering father in some Medea level psychotic rage which ruins the perpetrator even more than the intended victim.

Later while the women are enjoying their brief taste of freedom, one of them is brutally raped and murdered by a troupe of feral men who boast about the wartime atrocities they committed before descending on a lone woman like a pack of rabid dogs. The others take their revenge for their friend, but also for all the women who have met a similar fate inflicted by a male dominated society which sees them as something to be controlled and then made use of, little more that cattle hemmed in and milked until dry.

As in the first film Ito makes use of expressionist techniques and strange angles to give his film a more elevated feeling that might be expected but this time he adds in a surrealist, spiritual dimension as with the old woman who sings the stories of our heroines and then dies only to bury herself in leaves and disappear into the ether, like some forgotten deity of misused women. Likewise, when one of the prisoners is raped and murdered, the men throw her body into a nearby river like an empty beer can but the waterfall behind her suddenly runs with blood as an expression of the violence which pollutes the natural world. A bus suddenly splits in two, separating our subjugated women from the violent men who mentally sentence them, given free reign simply because of their sex. Ironically enough, our last glimpse of of Matsu takes place in the reflection of Goda’s glasses and then in his false eye when she is suddenly rejoined by her compatriots for a triumphant dance of freedom on a city rooftop.

Even stronger than in the original Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion, Jailhouse 41 further advances its ideology of free individuals battling the conformist authority of the state all filtered through the prism of the patriarchy. Matsu’s vengeance is personal, she keeps her distance from the other women who do not seem inclined to band together to oppose the forces which oppress them so much as seek a wary, temporary alliance of necessity, but seeing them all reassembled in spirit at the end brings a larger dimension to Matsu’s victory which now seems much less like solving a practical problem than a deliberate strike at a wall which was solely designed to keep a certain group of people in their place. The jail is broken, all that remains is to choose to escape its restraints.


Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW/gore)