Room for Let (貸間あり, Yuzo Kawashima, 1959)

room for rent poster“Life is just goodbyes” exclaims a tenant of the small, rundown boarding house at the centre of Yuzo Kawashima’s Room for Let (貸間あり, Kashima Ari). Best remembered for his anarchic farces, Kawashima takes a trip down south to the comedy capital of Japan for an exploration of life on the margins of a major metropolis as a host of eccentric characters attempt to negotiate the difficult post-war economy, each in someway having failed badly enough to end up here. Though the setting is perhaps depressing, the lively atmosphere of the boarding house is anything but and the residents, depending on each other as a community of solidarity, know they have the ultimate resource at their disposal in the form of infinitely kind hearted, multi-talented fixer Goro Yoda.

Our introduction to the boarding house follows the passage of an outsider, Yumiko Tsuyama (Chikage Awashima) – a ceramicist who wants to make use of Goro’s printing facilities, but to find him she’ll first have to run the gamut of eccentric residents from the batty bee keeper to the geisha currently trying to fumigate one of her patrons by riding him around the room and the henpecked husband who responds to his wife’s frequent shouts of “Darling!” with a military style “yes, sir!”. On her way to Goro’s jam packed annex, Yumiko notices a room to let sign along with a kiln in the courtyard which catches her eye. Taking a liking both to the room and to Goro, Yumiko moves in and subsequently gets herself involved in the oddly exciting world of an old-fashioned courtyard standing on a ridge above a rapidly evolving city.

Played by well known comedian Frankie Sakai (who played a similar role in Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyoden of two years earlier), Goro is an awkward symbol of post-war malaise and confusion. Goro, a jack of all trades, is the man everyone turns to when they run into a seemingly unsolvable problem, and Goro almost always knows a way to solve them (for a price). His sign in the marketplace proclaims that he speaks several languages and is available for tutoring students, he’s written “how to” books on just about everything you can imagine, he knows how to make the perfect cabbage rolls and konyaku, ghostwrites serial fiction, and runs a small printing enterprise, yet Goro is not a scholar, (licensed) lawyer, doctor, or successful businessman he’s a goodhearted chancer living on his wits. He runs away from success and eventually from love because he doesn’t think he deserves it due his continuing “fakery”.

Despite his minor shadiness, Goro’s kindness and sincerity stand in stark contrast to the evils of his age. Like Goro, many of the boarding house residents are trying to get ahead through somewhat unconventional means including the bawdy lady from upstairs whose main business is blackmarket booze, the peeping-tom street punk who peddles dirty pictures near the station, and the sad young woman working as an independent geisha (Nobuko Otowa) to save enough money to marry her betrothed whom she hopes is still waiting for her at home in her tiny village. That’s not to mention the mad scientist bee keeper who can’t help describing everything he sees in terms of bees and has attempted to turn their apian secretions into a cream which increases sexual potency, or the enterprising landlady who realises she could charge a few more pennies for patrons who want to sit in a fancy seat or watch TV while they eat dinner.

Yumiko isn’t the only outsider sending shockwaves through the community, a young student armed with a camera and the determination to avoid parental disapproval, intends to petition Goro to take his exams for him. The aptly named Eto (Shoichi Ozawa) is a dim boy with seemingly infinite wealth who’d rather scheme his way to the top than invest his energy in getting there the honest way. In this he’s the inverse of Goro whose simple sincerity and easy going nature are, it is subtly suggested, partly the reason he hasn’t made his way in the increasingly duplicitous post-war society. Goro does, however, give in to Eto’s nefarious plan even if it conflicts with his otherwise solid honour code which also sees him turn down the “opportunity” of sleeping with his neighbour’s seemingly insatiable wife in one of the stranger requests coming in to his do anything shop.

Kawashima’s true mastery lies not in the myriad moments of small comedy that pepper the main narrative, but in the glorious way he brings them all together as a perfectly constructed farce. The residents of the boarding house (one of whom is so proud of the “room to let” sign he made that he doesn’t want to rent the room because then he’d have to take the sign down) each face their own difficulties and disappointments but even when darkness creeps in (suicides, arrest, sexual assault, and animal cruelty all raising their ugly heads) the absurd positivity and warmth of these ordinary Osakans seems to be enough to combat it. Life may be a series of goodbyes, but it must still be lived, at least to the best of one’s ability.


 Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Also screening at:

Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

Mothra (モスラ, Ishiro Honda, 1961)

mothra-poster.jpgJapan’s kaiju movies have an interesting relationship with their monstrous protagonists. Godzilla, while causing mass devastation and terror, can hardly be blamed for its actions. Humans polluted its world with all powerful nuclear weapons, woke it up, and then responded harshly to its attempts to complain. Godzilla is only ever Godzilla, acting naturally without malevolence, merely trying to live alongside destructive forces. No creature in the Toho canon embodies this theme better than Godzilla’s sometime foe, Mothra. Released in 1961, Mothra does not abandon the genre’s anti-nuclear stance, but steps away from it slightly to examine another great 20th century taboo – colonialism and the exploitation both of nature and of native peoples. Weighty themes aside, Mothra is also among the most family friendly of the Toho tokusatsu movies in its broadly comic approach starring well known comedian Frankie Sakai.

When a naval vessel is caught up in a typhoon and wrecked, the crew is thought lost but against the odds a small number of survivors is discovered in a radiation heavy area previously thought to be uninhabited. The rescued men claim they owe their existence to a strange new species of mini-humans living deep in the forest. This is an awkward discovery because the islands had recently been used for testing nuclear weapons and have been ruled permanently uninhabitable. The government of the country which conducted the tests, Rolisica, orders an investigation and teams up with a group of Japanese scientists to verify the claims.

Of course, the original story of the survivors was already a media sensation and so intrepid “snapping turtle” reporter Zen (Frankie Sakai) and his photographer Michi (Kyoko Kagawa) are hot on the trail. Zen is something of an embarrassment to his bosses but manages to bamboozle his way into the scientific expedition by stowing away on their boat and then putting on one of their hazmat suits to blend in before anyone notices him. Linguist Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) gets himself into trouble but is saved by two little people of the island who communicate in an oddly choral language. Unfortunately, the Rolisicans, led by Captain Nelson (Jerry Ito), decide the helpful little creatures are useful “samples” and intend to kidnap them to experiment on. Refusing to give up despite the protestations of the Japanese contingent, Nelson only agrees to release the pair when the male islanders surround them and start banging drums in an intimidating manner.

The colonial narrative is clear as the Rolisicans never stop to consider the islanders as living creatures but only as an exploitable resource. Nelson heads back later and scoops up the two little ladies (committing colonial genocide in the process) but on his return to Japan his intentions are less scientific than financial as he immediately begins putting his new conquests on show. The island ladies (played by the twins from the popular group The Peanuts, Yumi and Emi Ito) are installed in a floating mini carriage and dropped on stage where they are forced to sing and dance for an appreciative audience in attendance to gorp.

Zen and Michi may be members of the problematic press who’ve dubbed the kindnapped islanders the “Tiny Beauties” and helped Nelson achieve his goals but they stand squarely behind the pair and, along with linguist Chujo and his little brother Shinji (Masamitsu Tayama), continue to work on a way to rescue the Tiny Beauties and send them home. The Tiny Beauties, however, aren’t particularly worried because they know “Mothra” is coming to save them, though they feel a bit sad for Japan and especially for the nice people like Zen, Michi,  Chujo, and Shinji because Mothra doesn’t know right from wrong or have much thought process at all. 100% goal orientated, Mothra’s only concern is that two of its charges are in trouble and need rescuing. It will stop at nothing to retreive them and bring them home no matter what obstacles may be standing in the way.

The island people worship Mothra like a god though with oddly Christian imagery of crosses and bells. Like many of Toho’s other “monsters” it is neither good or bad, in a sense, but simply exists as it is. Its purpose is to defend its people, which it does to the best of its ability. It has no desire to attack or destroy, but simply to protect and defend. The villain is humanity, or more precisely Rolisica whose colonial exploits have a dark and tyrannical quality as they try to insist the islands are uninhabited despite the evidence and then set about exploiting the resources with no thought to the islanders’ wellbeing. The Japanese are broadly the good guys who’ve learned their lesson with this sort of thing and very much do not approve of the Rolisicans’ actions but they are also the people buying the tickets to see the Tiny Beauties and putting them on the front pages of the newspapers. Nevertheless, things can conclude happily when people start respecting the rights of other nations on an equal footing and accepting the validity of their rights and beliefs even if they include giant marauding moth gods.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sharaku (写楽, Masahiro Shinoda, 1995)

SharakuEvery once in a while an artist emerges whose work is so far ahead of its time that the audience of the day is unwilling to accept but generations to come will finally recognise for the achievement it represents. So it is for Sharaku – a young man whose abilities and ambitions are ruthlessly manipulated by those around him for their own gain. Brought to the screen by veteran new wave director Masahiro Shinoda, Sharaku (写楽) is an attempt to throw some light on the life of this mysterious historical figure who comes to symbolise, in many ways, the turbulence of his era.

The Edo of 1791 is a world of extreme austerity. All art is suspect and all “pornography” outlawed. Any sign of extravagance is frowned on, including the “frivolous” arts leading to a decline in the world of classic entertainment as kabuki artists struggle to survive. Tombo (Hiroyuki Sanada) was one such kabuki performer but after an onstage accident leaves him with a damaged foot he joins a rag tag group of street performers. Whilst there he begins drawing bringing him to the attention of an art seller, Tsutaya (Frankie Sakai), who has an idea to create prints of famous actors as a way of promoting local theatre shows.

Rechristened with the artist’s name of Sharaku, Tombo’s artwork creates a sensation with its never seen before style which places a new emphasis on realism rather than flattery. Popularity brings its own problems as Sharaku finds himself a virtual prisoner of Tsutaya whose demands are ever expanding, as well as facing the intense opposition of Tsutaya’s former cash cow – renowned artist Utamaro, who is prepared to go to great lengths to ensure his traditional painting style is the one that wins out.

This is a time of extreme conservatism and Sharaku’s work is a risky proposition as it rejects accepted stylisation in favour of undoctored reality. Dynamically posed, his portraits of kabuki actors display no pandering but reflect all of the subject’s less flattering qualities. Striking and unusual, Sharaku’s insistence on capturing internal truth is entirely at odds with the need for compliance with the “truths” handed down by the government. The public aren’t ready for such radically honest art and even champions of a more naturalistic style such as the universally lauded Utamaro also reject it (though largely out of fear and self interest).

Sharaku is, of course, an artist’s name and not a man’s and therefore is easily manipulated. Held a virtual prisoner by Tsutaya, Tombo begins to resent his new life of exploitation by his master who wants him to work in a more commercial fashion yet took him on precisely because of the novel, aggressive nature of his untrained drawing. Sharaku’s commitment to artistry over conformity is at odds with the era which is entirely founded on everyone obeying the accepted order of things. The times are changing, but not fast enough for Sharaku.

Shinoda paints an exciting vision of Edo era Tokyo filled with colour and energy despite the supposed austerity of the times. He brings kabuki out into the streets with beautifully balletic street brawls and strange acrobatic feats that appear extremely incongruous in the off stage world. However, Sharaku attempts to juggle a number of themes and subplots which never manage to coalesce into something whole. The side story of a depressed geisha and her star crossed love for Tombo even whilst she finds herself the favourite misteress of Utamaro is the most interesting but is never satisfactorily resolved.

After beginning with some oddly old fashioned on screen graphics, Shinoda opts for a stately directing style though makes frequent use of freeze frames and dissolves. The film takes on an appropriately etherial quality with sudden interruptions of theatre and the rhythms of classical drama yet even the free floating dream-like atmosphere can’t quite makeup for its central lack of coherence. Tombo himself, as played by Hiroyuki Sanada, is too much of a cypher to lead the picture yet the attempt to branch out into an ensemble drama doesn’t take hold either. A late, flawed effort from an old master, Sharaku has a lot to say about the nature of art, about artists, about reception and legacy, and also about its era but much of the message is lost in the faded paper on which it is painted.


Unsubbed trailer:

I Want to Be a Shellfish (私は貝になりたい, Shinobu Hashimoto, 1959)

shellfishAfter Japan was defeated and later occupied by the Americans, there came the painstaking exercise of examining what exactly had happened during the conflict and assessing is who, if anyone, could be held accountable for any wrongdoing. The so called “war criminals” were divided into classes according to the severity of their crimes with Tojo himself at the top who eventually paid with his life. However, many of the men who were given the same Class A rating were just rank and file soldiers who had been “following orders”, often because they feared for their own lives if they refused. The debut directorial effort from writer Shinobu Hashimoto who provided scripts for some of Akira Kurosawa’s most famous works, I Want to be a Shellfish (私は貝になりたい, Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai), examines just one of these tragically absurd cases.

Barber Shimizu has finally started to make headway in his very own shop where he lives happily with his wife and son when he’s unexpectedly drafted into the army towards the end of the war. Unused to heavy physical labour and a fairly gentle man, he doesn’t take well to the soldier’s life and gets himself into trouble with his C/O. Stationed near Tokyo, Shimizu’s squad is charged with searching for a pair of US airmen thought to have bailed out after their plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid over the city. When they eventually find the pilots, both have already died of their injuries.

At this point Shimizu’s captain makes a cruel and rash decision – rather than sending the bodies back to HQ or burying them there, he decides to use them as target practice for his raw recruits. When ordered to pick out the two weakest soldiers, the NCO picks Shimizu and another man, Takita, who are then ordered to bayonet the corpses to prove what fine soldiers they have become. Though they both fail the first time the captain berates them until they finally comply.

The war ends and Shimizu goes home to his family only to receive a knock on the door from the war crimes commission who drag him off to Tokyo for trial. The trial itself is a farce, Shimizu is charged with executing a prisoner of war – the fact the pilots were both dead when found and therefore were never executed and were never even prisoners is never revealed by anyone. Finally classified as a Class A War Criminal, Shimizu is sentenced to death for having stabbed a corpse.

It goes without saying that, yes, terrible crimes were committed during the war and some of them deliberately and wilfully. However, in Shimizu’s case his crime is an absurd one. Though the way in which his superiors have treated the fallen soldiers of their enemies is far from humane, Shimizu has committed no murder and was just following the orders of his superiors. Improper as it may have been, it hardly warrants the loss of his own life and that he’s being placed in the same category as members of execution squads and those who wilfully participated in crimes against civilians is more than a little disproportionate.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the film is that Shimizu seems to have been denied a fair trial. To those who can understand both languages, or even just from the subtitles provided for the translation of the American prosecutor’s questions, it’s obvious that the way in which his questioning is being conducted is far from ideal. The translation gap between the two languages is immense and leads to a series of misunderstandings which in no way aid Shimizu’s case.

It’s also clear that the panel in charge of the trial have very little understanding of how the Japanese military works and how this might differ from American military law. Shimizu is repeatedly questioned about how he feels about the order he was given – a strange question given that the idea of not following an order is not one which immediately presents itself. Shimizu repeats the credo he was taught that an order from his C/O is the same as one coming directly from the Emperor. However, when translated, the prosecutor infers that Shimizu thinks his order came from the Emperor himself and stupidly asks if Shimizu actually met the Emperor in person. Likewise, they ask why he didn’t simply refuse to follow the order and when he replies that he believed he would be shot, they ask why he didn’t ask to be referred to a military court which is just not something that would have been reasonably feasible for a Japanese soldier in this sort of situation.

The fact that the soldiers were already dead to begin with is never even mentioned, by anyone. The highest ranking officer who ordered the search is held responsible even though his orders were to bring the men in alive. Shimizu’s captain has since killed himself, conveniently, leaving everyone else to take the fall for his inhumane decision.

At the end of the film as Shimizu is faced with saying goodbye to a world which has dealt him nothing but hardship other than the wife and son he will be forced to leave behind, Shimizu utters the film’s title. He wishes he were a shellfish buried deep at the bottom of the ocean far from humans and their capacity for cruelty. No poverty, no draft, no war, no absurd trials – free from this world of torment. A lament for the little guy paying the price for world gone mad, I Want to be a Shellfish is a bleak and tragic tale which is filled with universal quality of melancholic absurdity which continues into its heartbreaking final moments.


Bonus trivia – Frankie Sakai (more usually seen as a singer or in comedic roles) also played Shimizu the previous year in an enormously successful TV drama. This story has in fact been filmed several times, most recently as a feature film in 2008 and was inspired by the book by Tetsutaro Kato who was sentenced to death as a war criminal though later had his sentence commuted and was released for “good behaviour” in 1952 (but may not have been quite as innocent as poor old Shimizu).