Twilight Story (濹東綺譚, Shiro Toyoda, 1960)

Director Shiro Toyoda, closely associated with high minded literary adaptations, nevertheless had a talent for melancholy comedy and for capturing the everyday reality of ordinary people. A fierce condemnation of the patriarchal society at a moment of intense masculinity, Twilight Story (濹東綺譚, Bokuto Kitan), an adaptation of the novel by Kafu Nagai, follows an ambivalent author as he covertly observes the life and love of a former geisha daring to dream of romantic salvation while fully aware of the world’s cruelty.

Set in 1936, the film opens with an author on a research trip who guides us into the world of the Tamanoi pleasure quarter which he seems to disdain but is drawn to all the same. Whilst there he runs into a nervous middle-aged man, Junpei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), who is later accosted by sex worker Oyuki (Fujiko Yamamoto) for use of his umbrella during a violent storm. A mild-mannered sort, Junpei is unused to the ways of the red light district and quickly makes his escape after being invited into Oyuki’s home. After a swift drink, however, he returns and the pair begin an awkward semi-romantic relationship.

Despite his affirmation that he is single, Junpei is in fact already married if (for the moment) unhappily. Though he knew his future wife Mitsuko (Michiyo Aratama) had given birth to an illegitimate child fathered by her employer, Junpei chose to marry her anyway because he was in love. The pair married, they say, for “genuine” reasons but the father of Mitsuko’s son continues to send maintenance money for the boy’s education and his constant presence has begun to play on Junpei’s mind especially as his teacher’s salary is dwindling in this age of militarism in which educational hours are decreasing in favour of compulsory military drills. Meanwhile, Mitsuko also seems to have got religion and spends most of her time reciting sutras with the implication that she has begun to neglect her husband, emotionally, spiritually, and most particularly physically. In order to escape his depressing home life, Junpei hangs out in the Tamanoi where men’s hearts are lighter and people talk frankly about love.

This is, of course, not quite the case, but the fantasy the pleasure quarters sell of themselves. Our jaded author is perfectly aware of that and broadly sympathetic towards the women caught in its web. Oyuki, a former geisha, has “debased” herself in order to earn extra money to send home to her family and pay the medical fees for her sickly mother. Her uncles constantly pressure her for more and she wonders if they are not merely exploiting her, using her money for their own benefit and refusing to chip in for her mother’s care. Nevertheless, she is trapped. On meeting Junpei with whom she seems to develop a genuine emotional connection, she dares to dream that one day they might marry, that she could leave this life behind and build a stable family home of her own.

Of course, it’s not to be. Like all men in the Tamanoi, Junpei is misrepresenting himself for his own ends. He is only using Oyuki as an idealised point of refuge from the unhappy marriage he shows no other signs of leaving. As the author points out, the men think they’re using women but the women are also using them though they do so without calculation. Denied power or agency of their own, the women of the Tamanoi have no other option than to manipulate that of men, though the author sympathises with them so strongly that to expose the hidden “vulgarity” seems to him an act of intense cruelty.

Junpei falls in love with the world of the Tamanoi because he thinks it’s more emotionally honest, but the truth is quite the reverse. Wandering through the narrow streets at night, the author pities the women in the windows, knowing that men come here to escape their isolation but there is no escape for these women who are forced to delude themselves that a better future is waiting in order to go on living. Meanwhile Junpei’s colleague, looking back over his shoulder towards the young men in uniform, declares that he too has lost all hope for a promising future. With militarism on the rise, hyper-masculinity has led to a further decline in the already woeful status of women with even the girls’ sympathetic pimp lamenting that the army, who have been rounding up sex workers for forced service in Manchuria, regard them as little more than products to be poked and prodded and giggled over as they are cruelly bought and sold.

Reuniting with his wife, Junpei is forced to face his emotional cowardice, that he was just playing with Oyuki’s feelings in indulging the fantasy of an idealised romantic union. Oyuki, meanwhile, faces the destruction of all her dreams when she realises her uncle has betrayed her, her mother is dead, and all her sacrifices have been for nothing. On some level she may have known Junpei had another woman, but needed to believe in the fantasy of his love for her in order to make her life bearable. Even so, she now sees no other future for herself than a return to work shorn of all her hope. Toyoda’s condemnation of the red light district is bleak and total, even as the jaded author himself becomes an ambivalent part of it, but the Tamanoi is only a symptom of longstanding social oppression exacerbated by militarist fervour as the lights go out all over town.


An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化, Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

An Actor's Revenge blu-ray cover“Revenge is difficult even for an actor” our secret observer tells us, watching quietly from the rooftops like a spectator at a play. In celebration of his 300th screen appearance, Kazuo Hasegawa stars once again as vengeful onnagata Yukinojo in another version of An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化, Yukinojo Henge), this time directed by Kon Ichikawa with a script written by his wife, Natto Wada, which was itself based on the earlier film with minor adaptations. Recasting the scope frame for the Kabuki stage, Ichikawa shows us a maddening world of theatricality, defined by artifice and governed by the rules of narrative determinism.

Orphaned after his parents were driven to suicide, Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) was taken in by an actor at a young age and trained as an “onnagata” – an actor specialising in female roles on the kabuki stage where women were forbidden to tread. Years later Yukinojo is one of the most popular actors of the age and lives more or less as a woman on stage and off. Having brought his Osakan theatre company to the Edo capital he finally sees his chance for revenge against the trio of corrupt and ambitious merchants who conspired to ruin his father for personal gain. He is, however, conflicted – not in his desire for vengeance but in the strain it continues to place on his mental state as well as the moral corruption need for it provokes.

Despite his feminine appearance, Yukinojo is regarded as male and most assume that his (volitional) romantic attachments will be with women. His gender ambiguity is, however, a problem for some such as the spiky pickpocket Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) who describes him as “creepy” in being neither male nor female. Then again, Ohatsu’s gender presentation is also atypical in that though she dresses and acts as a woman, most regard her as inappropriately masculine in the independence and authority which make it possible for her to act as the leader of a gang of street thieves. Lamenting her tomboyishness, some of her minions make the suggestion common in these kinds of films that Ohatsu will rediscover her femininity on falling in love (with a man). Despite her supposed hatred of men, Ohatsu finds herself falling for Yukinojo possibly precisely because of his gender ambiguity in that she is in some sense permitted to fall in love with him as a woman because he is a man.

Meanwhile, Yumitaro (also played by Kazuo Hasegawa) – another street thief only a much more egalitarian one, has no desire for women and has also developed some kind of fascination with Yukinojo as man who presents as female. Yukinojo is remarkably uninterested in Ohatsu, but seems drawn both to the mysterious Yumitaro and to the pawn in his revenge plot, lady Namiji (Ayako Wakao). The daughter of Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), the ambitious lord who orchestrated the plot against Yukinojo’s father, who has sold her to the Shogun as a concubine in order to buy influence, Namiji develops a deep fascination with the feminine actor which is then manipulated both by Yukinojo who plans to break her heart solely to get at Dobe, and by Dobe who intends to indulge her fascination in order to persuade her to return to the Shogun. Namiji is entirely innocent and effectively powerless. Involving her in the plot weighs on Yukinojo’s conscience but he refuses to look back, preparing to sacrifice her solely in order to a strike blow towards her father.

Meanwhile, chaos reigns in Edo as the corruption of the ruling elite provokes a rebellion by the ordinary people fed up with their persistent profiteering. This too Yukinojo harnesses as a part of his plot, setting his greedy merchants one against the other as they weigh up the benefits of making themselves look good to the people and the Shogun through engineering a crash in the price of rice by dumping the stocks they’ve been hoarding. The theatrical world and the “real” begin to overlap as Yukinojo performs the ghosts of his parents to bring the merchants’ crimes home to them, but his revenge plot has devastating and unforeseen consequences which perhaps begin to eat away at his carefully crafted chameleonism. Possessing no true identity of his own, Yukinojo passes into legend, retreating back to his natural home of the stage the shadow of an avenger disappearing over the horizon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ghost Soup (Shunji Iwai, 1992)

Christmas is a little different in Japan. Fried chicken takes the place of turkey with all the trimmings and even if Santa still makes his rounds for excited children, it’s couples who invest the most in the big day. That doesn’t mean however that you can’t still take time out for a spooky tale or two in the best European tradition though Ghost Soup turns out to have a more melancholy if ultimately heartwarming intention than your average round of Christmas ghost stories. Shunji Iwai, later a giant of ‘90s Japanese cinema, got an early start with this seasonal tale which runs just under an hour and was made for television as part of a series of food themed dramas but even if the production values are minimal and the camera work unremarkable, Ghost Soup exists firmly within Iwai’s wider cinematic universe.

The tale begins on Christmas Eve. Families are eagerly walking home with treats and Christmas trees, but poor old Ichiro (Hiroyuki Watari) is in the process of trying to move apartments. He was supposed to be moving in mid-January, but he’s been bumped from his current accommodation after the person who was supposed to be taking over his lease was forced out of their current apartment because the person they were renting from has come back from abroad and needs his house back. Luckily, the apartment Ichiro is moving into is already empty so he’s moving in early, but there’s a hitch. It’s not just that it’s very inconvenient to move house on Christmas Eve, Ichiro’s new apartment has already been earmarked for an annual Christmas party hosted by a bunch of ghosts and they don’t take kindly to having their venue so rudely invaded.

The first half of the film revolves around the comical actions of the ghosts as they try to keep Ichiro out of their party though it also provides the opportunity to introduce other vaguely ghoulish elements of the business of moving including a visit from the NHK man and a tenacious newspaper salesman not to mention a Jehovah’s Witness. Despite the fact that Ichiro has apparently landed himself in this situation by being “too nice” he manages to get rid of most of his unwelcome visitors by forcing himself to close the door on them even if he seems to feel bad about doing it. The ghosts are a slightly different matter.

Nana (Ranran Suzuki), a feisty teenage girl, and Mel (Dave Spector) – an American with excellent Japanese and a very strange speaking voice who seems to be dressed like world war two bomber crew, are having a Christmas Party for the area’s local ghosts of which there seem to be a few including Private Sakata (Ken Mitsuishi) who has been patiently standing guard ever since he passed away during the war. Nana’s “Ghost Soup” has become a Christmas fixture and is filled with warmth and happiness designed to help vengeful spirits move past their various grudges so that they can finally “move on”.

When the ghosts dress up like Santa and put Ichiro in their sack to dump him in an unfamiliar part of town in the hope he won’t make it back before their party, he ends up wandering through sections of his memory, remembering paths and houses from some forgotten time and noticing other “ghostly” presences he might not normally pay much attention to. As it turns out, Ichiro has tasted Ghost Soup before, long ago in childhood when he himself had a conversation with one recently deceased on a melancholy Christmas Eve.

Little Ichiro seemed very puzzled that so many people were lining up for just a cup of soup when they don’t even get any toys, but was somehow moved by the curious warmth of the small gathering. Despite his protestations of being “too nice” in agreeing to move early, Ichiro has not been a very good neighbour so far – despatching each of his visitors and trying to evict the ghostly presence intent on colonising his new flat, but eventually gets into the Christmas Spirit and agrees to help the ghosts make sure the soup gets those who need it. Tokyo it seems is a city of lonely souls, both living and dead, in which a bowl of hot soup might be the only highlight in a cold and unforgiving (after)life.

Made for television on a low budget and with a poor quality video camera, Ghost Soup is of its time but also bears out Iwai’s cheerfully surreal world view in which the city is peopled with the melancholy but protected by friendly guardians fostering a community spirit which might help to exorcise some of that existential loneliness. Ghost Soup is in many ways the perfect Christmas confection – a little bit sad, but sweet if strange and ultimately heartwarming in its embracing of the true Christmas spirit of compassion togetherness.


Closing scene (no subtitles)

Ten Dark Women (黒い十人の女, Kon Ichikawa, 1961)

Ten Women in BlackKon Ichikawa, wry commenter of his times, turns his ironic eyes to the inherent sexism of the 1960s with a farcical tale of a philandering husband suddenly confronted with the betrayed disappointment of his many mistresses who’ve come together with one aim in mind – his death! Scripted by Natto Wada (Ichikawa’s wife and frequent screenwriter until her retirement in 1965), Ten Dark Women (黒い十人の女, Kuroi Junin no Onna) is an absurd noir-tinged comedy about 10 women who love one man so much that they all want him dead, or at any rate just not alive with one of the others.

Kaze (Eiji Funakoshi) is a TV producer by profession, though it might be better to think of him as a professional ladies’ man. He’s married to woman who owns a bar, but is also carrying on affairs with nine (!) other women plus occasional one night stands with 30-50 others he meets through his work. His wife knows about his affairs and, while not happy about it, is putting up with things like decent wives are supposed to do. However, many of Kaze’s “mistresses” have inconveniently discovered each other’s existences and bonded in their mutual frustration with him. Strangely they all think he’s a great guy and remain very much in love with him but the situation being what it is the entirety of the betrayed wife and mistress support club eventually comes to the same conclusion – Kaze must die!

However, the women are all so devoted to Kaze, they don’t quite want him to disappear so much as for him to pick them and only them to live with happily ever after. One of the women foolishly warns Kaze about their plot as leverage for her marriage proposal but unfortunately for her he still turns her down and returns home to ask his wife what’s going on. She doesn’t deny her murderous intentions and in fact tells him in great detail how they intend to do him in. Kaze, to his credit, says he doesn’t mind very much and only worries about his wife’s future life as a murderess. Together they hatch a plan to fool the other women involving a pistol loaded with blanks and a tomato but nothing quite goes to plan.

An absurdist satire about the intense vanity of the womanising male, Ten Dark Women looks forward to Fellini’s similarly themed 8 1/2 or City of Women though here the idiotic husband at the centre becomes both prey and foil for the group of plotting women seeking revenge against his disloyal ways. Kaze, as he himself admits, is not particularly appealing to women though his position at the TV studio undoubtedly proves useful to some of them. He’s a curiously passive presence, not so much seeking out female company as acquiescing to it. It’s not quite clear if his concern for his wife should she decide to kill him is genuine or a means of manipulative self preservation but at any rate he takes the threat to his life extremely calmly.

Each of the women has their own claims on Kaze but the other thing they all have in common is being the prisoner of an extremely sexist society. Some of the women are with Kaze for careerist reasons, but it’s clear that there is a definite limit placed on a woman’s potential both inside and out of the creative industries. The commercial model makes a play for a more official relationship by bringing up the fact that Kaze’s wife has a job and therefore cannot devote herself entirely to Kaze’s wellbeing as proper wife should (as by implication would she after marrying and retiring from the modelling world). Kaze helped his wife set up her bar which she runs herself though constantly plays hostess to her husband’s industry friends. It appears what Kaze wants is less a devoted wife than an indifferent one who will permit his frequent “indiscretions” whilst also providing him with a conventional “home”.

Another of the women tries to get herself a promotion but her boss, though broadly sympathetic and dangling the idea of a raise, brings up the oft repeated notion that there’s no sense in giving her the job because a woman should leave at some point to marry and have children. When the woman criticises the behaviour of her male colleagues, her boss simply shrugs and admits men in TV aren’t “serious”, yet when she points out that she is serious and works hard she is told that women are better off at home. Women, he says, express themselves through their children whereas men make their mark through a career. The woman says that she believes everyone should try to reach their own potential in whatever way they can but her pleas fall on deaf ears. This notion is repeated later on when the women try to take revenge on Kaze by tricking him into resigning from his job – a man is his work, he claims. A man without a job is nothing at all and a man who is kept by a woman is less than nothing – Kaze is suddenly panicked, losing his occupation and social position is much more frightening to him than losing his life.

The women couldn’t kill the system or the TV, but they could kill Kaze so who can blame them for trying. Another of the women states that the imposed isolation of a man’s working life has cost him the ability to connect with other people on a human level and so his erasure is simply the end of a long process of social death. If some of the women triumph, others retreat as one does in suicide only to return as a ghost longing for the murder plot to succeed so that she and Kaze can be alone together at last. Kaze thinks he’s using each of them, but they have all been using him in one way or another and his only way out lies either in death or becoming a trophy for the most needy of his paramours.

Cynical in tone, Ten Dark Women is an amusingly absurd look at gender roles in early 1960s Japan as each of our women attempts to usurp male power for their own ends, some with more success than others. Ichikawa employs beautiful noir lighting in his elegantly composed black and white photography which, along with its jazzy score, gives the film a familiar feeling of crime laced modernity. An early instance of the feminist revenge film, Ten Dark Women is very much a comedy which avoids making its group of frustrated, resentful women mistreated by a buffoon of a TV exec the butt of its own joke, neatly highlighting the precarious nature of their existence which obliges them to rely on so hollow a support.


Original trailer (no subtitles)