Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Yoji Yamada, 1989)

“My uncle was born a kind man, but his kindness is intrusive. He’s short tempered too, so often his kindness ends up causing a fight” according to the introduction given by Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), nephew of the titular Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) in the 42nd instalment in the long running series, Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Boku no Ojisan). People may say he’s “an oddball”, but just recently, Mitsuo claims, he’s learned to appreciate his uncle’s peculiar charms. Up to this point, the series had followed a familiar pattern in which Tora-san has an encounter on the road and returns home to visit his family in Shibamata falling in love with an unattainable woman along the way. My Uncle, as the title perhaps implies, shifts the focus away from Tora directly towards his wayward nephew Mitsuo now a moody teenager studying to retake his university entrance exams. 

The problem is, Mitsuo is having trouble concentrating because he’s fallen in love. Izumi (Kumiko Goto) was a year below him in high school but after her parents got divorced she moved away and is currently living with her mother (Mari Natsuki) who runs a hostess bar in Nagoya. Mitsuo has been wanting to go and visit but his father, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), has banned travel until after his exams and his authoritarian ruling has placed a strain on their relationship while Sakura (Chieko Baisho), Mitsuo’s mother and Tora’s younger sister, is getting fed up with his moodiness. That might be why she asks Tora to have a word with him on one of his rare visits, hoping Mitsuo will be able to talk frankly to his uncle about things he might not want to discuss with his parents. Only when Tora’s uncle (Masami Shimojo) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) point out the dangers does she realise her mistake. Perhaps you might not want your son to receive the kind of advice a man like Tora might give. Their misgivings are borne out when Tora brings him home a little the worse for wear after teaching him how to drink sake (and flirt with waitresses). 

Rather than Tora it’s Mitsuo we follow as he ignores his parents and goes off to find Izumi on his own. Mitsuo is not Tora, however, and he’s still fairly naive, unaware of the dangers inherent in a life on the road which is how he gets himself into a sticky situation with a man who helped him (Takashi Sasano) after he had a bike accident but turned out to have ulterior motives. After discovering that Izumi has gone to live with her aunt (Fumi Dan) in the country and finally arriving, Mitsuo begins to have his doubts. She wrote to him that she was lonely so he jumped on his bike and came, but now he wonders if that was really an OK thing to do or if she might find it a little excessive, even creepy. Her neighbours may gossip after seeing a (slightly) older boy from Tokyo suddenly turn up on a motorbike, maybe like Tora he’s acted on impulse out of kindness but has accidentally made trouble for her?

Meanwhile, Sakura and Hiroshi are at home worried sick, aware their son has grown up and evidently has some important rite of passage stuff to do, but it would have been nice if he’d called. Everyone’s used to Tora breezing in and out of their lives and it’s not as if they don’t worry, but it’s different with Mitsuo. Luckily and through staggering coincidence Mitsuo ends up running into Tora who, perhaps ironically, gets him to phone home and then starts helping him out with his youthful romantic dilemma. Though some of the advice he gives is a little problematic, there’s a fine line when it comes to being “persistent” in love, he is nevertheless supportive and proves popular with Izumi’s mild-mannered aunt and lonely grandfather-in-law (Masao Imafuku) who subjects him to a day-long lecture about traditional ceramics which he listens to patiently because as he says, old people are happy when someone listens to them. The problems are entirely with Izumi’s extremely conservative school teacher uncle (Isao Bito) who appears to terrorise his wife and objects strongly to Mitsuo’s impulsive gesture of love, bearing out Mitsuo’s concerns in implying that he’s endangering Izumi’s reputation, though apparently more worried about how it looks for him as a school teacher if she’s caught hanging out with a motorcycle-riding “delinquent”. The final straw is his telling Mitsuo off for neglecting his studies, insisting no one so “stupid” could ever hope to go to uni.

Left behind, Tora tries to defend Mitsuo to the snooty uncle, telling him that he’s proud of his nephew for doing something kind even if others don’t see it that way, but the uncle simply replies that they obviously disagree and abruptly walks off. Perhaps there’s no talking to some people, but Tora does what he can anyway. Mitsuo gains a new appreciation for his kindhearted family, not to mention his eccentric uncle. “Trips make everyone wise”, Tora tells Hiroshi, well except for some people, he later adds before once again getting literally cut off from everyone waiting for him back in Shibamata. The signs of bubble-era prosperity are everywhere from Mitsuo’s motorbike and comparatively spacious family home to the increased mobility and the upscale interior of Izumi’s mother’s “snack” bar, but Tora is still a post-war wanderer bound for the road, drifting whichever way the wind blows him.


Tora-san, My Uncle streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Yasha (夜叉, Yasuo Furuhata, 1985)

In melancholy gangster movies, the hero often dreams of leaving the city for an idealised rural paradise to start again as a righteous man redeeming himself through hard work with a good woman by his side. Usually, they don’t make it, their goodness is nothing but a weakness in the harsh post-war environment, but even if they did could they really lay their violent souls to rest and live as the rest of us do? Once again played by a manfully stoic Ken Takakura, the hero of Yasuo Furuhata’s Yasha (夜叉, AKA Demon) tries to find out, but discovers that sooner or later the past will always catch up with you. 

15 years ago, fisherman Shuji (Ken Takakura) was the notorious Osaka yakuza known as “Yasha”. A war orphan given refuge by a gangster brotherhood, two things happened to change his way of life, the first being innocent country girl Fuyuko (Ayumi Ishida) whom he met by chance and rescued on the dangerous streets of the city. The second is the death of his younger sister who had become addicted to heroin. Fiercely resistant to the traffic of drugs, Shuji quit the clan, married Fuyuko, and retreated to her fishing village home to take over her late father’s fishing business. Well respected in the community as a steady hand, he now has three children and a settled happy life though one tinged with anxiety in the need to keep his back covered lest anyone find out about his violent past. 

The violent past is brought home to him when a young woman, Keiko (Yuko Tanaka), arrives in kimono with her young son in tow to take over the local bar. Keiko is a bar hostess from Osaka hoping to make a new start far away from the city, not so much for herself it seems as her no-good boyfriend Yajima (Takeshi Kitano) who is a drug-addled thug and openly hostile to her little boy. It’s Yajima who threatens to disrupt the gentle rhythms of the town, firstly getting the fishermen hooked on all night games of mahjong which damage their daytime productivity, and then selling them heroin to keep them propped up. Unused to such urban vices as hard drugs and serious gambling, the fishermen are lambs to the slaughter, handing over their hard earned savings to the thuggish Yajima to keep their heads above the water. 

Shuji wants to keep the town clean, but he can’t exactly admit just how familiar he is with things like drink and drugs which are, as his friend Keita (Kunie Tanaka) points out, not things “normal” people should know about. After realising an old friend is the middle-man, Shuji has a quiet word with Yajima as one thug to another but it only makes the situation worse. He tries talking to Keiko instead, but her decision to get rid of the drugs has disastrous consequences for all when Yajima goes on a crazed, knife-wielding rampage through the town which only Shuji can end. During the fight Yajima slashes Shuji’s fisherman’s jumper right through to the expose the demon beneath, leaving his colourful tattoos on show for all to see. 

You’d think that Yajima’s rampage would have taught the town a lesson, shown them that they were in over their heads and Yajima was not the sort of person it was good to be associated with, but their animosity overwhelmingly turns to the demon Shuji whom they unfairly begin to blame for their many misfortunes. The fishwives begin to avoid Fuyuko, telling their kids not to hang out with her kids and suggesting that it must have been Shuji who got the guys playing mahjong. Shuji meanwhile doubts himself, drawn to Keiko as to Osaka and the sleeping demon within. Yasha reawakens and he wonders if he has the right to live here after all. 

Fuyuko’s mother tells her that it’s a good wife’s job to quell the demon, but she struggles to maintain hold on Shuji while Yasha is pulled towards the city. He makes a manly choice, attempting to redeem Yajima in redeeming himself by returning to his point of origin. The widow of his old boss warns him off, reminds him that he’s a fisherman now, and that should he move against her she will have to act in accordance with the rules of the underworld, but privately mutters to herself that he hasn’t changed at all, “stupid man”. In the end, Yasha’s manly gesture ends in futility. He cannot escape himself but neither can he solve his problems through violence as he might have before, not least because the code is no longer secure motivating those he thought he could trust towards betrayal. He still has a choice, leave with Keiko to be Yasha once again accepting the futilities of a violent life (and its inevitable end), or stay to be a peaceful fisherman with the “good wife” Fuyuko. One man cannot possess two souls, but the given the chance the demon can be subdued if there is the will to subdue it and the belief that the man himself is good enough for the world in which he wants to live.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

School in The Crosshairs (ねらわれた学園, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1981)

Still most closely associated with his debut feature Hausu – a psychedelic haunted house musical, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s affinity for youthful subjects made him a great fit for the burgeoning Kadokawa idol phenomenon. Maintaining his idiosyncratic style, Obayashi worked extensively in the idol arena eventually producing such well known films as The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (starring Kadokawa idol Tomoyo Harada) and the comparatively less well known Miss Lonely and His Motorbike Her Island (starring a very young and extremely skinny Riki Takeuchi). 1981’s School in the Crosshairs (ねらわれた学園, Nerawareta Gakuen) marks his first foray into into the world of idol cinema but it also stars one of Kadokawa’s most prominent idols in Hiroko Yakushimaru appearing just a few months before her star making role in Shinji Somai’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun.

Set once again in a high school, School in the Crosshairs is the ultimate teen movie for any student who’s ever suspected their place of education has been infiltrated by fascists but no one else has noticed. Top student Yuka (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is the archetypal Obayashi/idol movie heroine in that she’s not only bright and plucky but essentially good hearted and keen to help out both her friends and anyone else in trouble. Her life changes when walking home from school one day with her kendo obsessed friend Koji (Ryoichi Takayanagi) as the pair notice a little kid about to ride his tricycle into the path of a great big truck. Yuka, horrified but not quite knowing what to do, shouts for the little boy to go back only it’s time itself which rewinds and moves the boy out of harm’s way. Very confused and thinking she’s had some kind of episode, Yuka tests her new psychic powers out by using them to help Koji finally win a kendo match but when a strange looking man who claims to be “a friend”  (Toru Minegishi) arrives along with icy transfer student Takamizawa (Masami Hasegawa), Yuka finds herself at the centre of an intergalactic invasion plot.

Many things have changed since 1981, sadly “examination hell” is not one of them. Yuka and Koji still have a few years of high school left meaning that it’s not all that serious just yet but still, their parents and teachers have their eyes firmly on the final grades. Yuka is the top student in her class, much to the chagrin of her rival, Arikawa (Macoto Tezuka), who surpasses her in maths and English but has lost the top spot thanks to his lack of sporting ability. Koji is among the mass of students in the middle with poor academic grades but showing athletic promise even if his kendo career is not going as well as hoped.

Given everyone’s obsession with academic success, the aliens have hit on a sure thing by infiltrating a chain of cram schools promising impressive results. Grades aside, parents are largely laissez-faire or absent, content to let their kids do as they please as long as their academic life proceeds along the desired route. Koji’s parents eventually hire Yuka as a private teacher to help him improve only for her to help him skip out to kendo practice. Her parents, by contrast, are proud of their daughter and attentive enough to notice something’s not right but attribute her recent preoccupation to a very ordinary adolescent problem – they think she’s fallen in love and they should probably leave her alone to figure things out her own way. A strange present of an empty picture frame may suggest they intend to give her “blank canvas” and allow her to decide the course of her own life, but she has, in a sense, earned this privilege through proving her responsible nature and excelling in the all important academic arena.

School is a battlefield in more ways than one. Intent on brainwashing the teenagers of Japan, “mysterious transfer student” Takamizawa has her sights firmly set on taking over the student council only she needs to get past Yuka to do it. Takamizawa has her own set of abilities including an icy stare which seems to make it impossible to refuse her orders and so she’s quickly instigated a kind of “morality” patrol for the campus to enforce all those hated school rules like skirt lengths, smoking, and running in the halls. Before long her mini militia has its own uniforms and creepy face paint but her bid for world domination hits a serious snag when Yuka refuses to cross over to the dark side and join the coming revolution. Asking god to grant her strength Yuka stands up to the aliens all on her own, avowing that she likes the world as it and is willing to sacrifice her own life for that of her friends. Accused of “wasting” her powers, Yuka asks how saving people could ever be “wasteful” and berates the invaders for their lack of human feeling. Faced with the cold atmosphere of exam stress and about to be railroaded into adulthood, Yuka dreams of a better, kinder world founded on friendship and basic human goodness.

Beginning with a lengthy psychedelic sequence giving way to a classic science fiction on screen text introduction Obayashi signals his free floating intentions with Yuka’s desaturated bedroom floating over the snowcapped mountains. Pushing his distinctive analogue effects to the limit, Obayashi creates a world which is at once real and surreal as Yuka finds herself at a very ordinary crossroads whilst faced with extraordinary events. Courted by the universe, Yuka is unmoved. Unlike many a teenage heroine, she realises that she’s pretty happy with the way things are. She likes her life (exam stress and all), she loves her friends, she’ll be OK. Standing up for the rights of the individual, but also for collective responsibility, Yuka claims her right to self determination but is determined not to leave any of her friends behind.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bloom in the Moonlight (わが愛の譜 滝廉太郎物語, Shinichiro Sawai, 1993)

bloom-in-the-moonlightAll those songs and rhymes you learnt as a child, somehow it’s strange to think that someone must have written them once, they seem to just exist independently. In Japan, the name behind many of these familiar tunes is Rentaro Taki – the first composer to set Japanese lyrics to European style “classical” music. It’s important to remember that even classical music was once contemporary, and along with the opening up of the nation during the Meiji era came a desire to engage with the “high culture” of other developed nations. The Tokyo Music School was founded in 1887 and Taki graduated from it just four years later in 1901. However, his career was to be a short one as his health gradually declined until he passed away of tuberculosis at just 23 years old. Bloom in the Moonlight (わが愛の譜 滝廉太郎物語, Waga Ai no Uta: Taki Rentaro Monogatari), also the title of one of his most well known and poignant songs, is the story of his musical career but also of the history of early classic music in Japan as the country found itself in a moment of extreme cultural shift.

Defying his father’s wishes and travelling to Tokyo to pursue a musical education, Rentaro Taki (Toru Kazama) becomes fascinated by the piano and is determined to become a high level pianist. Even knowing how hard it is to conquer the instrument and that many of his contemporaries have been studying since early childhood, Rentaro refuses to lose heart and pushes himself to become the best piano player that he can possibly be. Always a sickly child, Rentaro’s intense devotion to his instrument begins to threaten his health but his ambition knows no limit. The purpose of the school leans more towards the study and dissemination of Western music among ordinary people but soon Rentaro and some of his fellow pupils grow tired of the idea that their role is that of teachers and scholars and begin composing their own work. Rentaro’s songs become what is really the first kind of modern folk music, marrying the European classical music of the foreign elites and the more egalitarian, everyman quality of the accompanying lyrics to create a new kind of Japanese music.

The tale is narrated at times by a fellow pupil, Yuki Nakano (Isako Washio), who encounters Rentaro at the same time as he encounters the piano. The star pupil at the school and sister of an already internationally famous concert pianist, Yuki is nevertheless insecure about her own skills. Rentaro quickly surpasses her though the two become close and eventually a source of mutual inspiration. Adding to the melancholy nature of the tale, Yuki falls in love with Rentaro and his musical intensity but the pair are separated when she is selected as one of the first pupils to be sent abroad to learn from the classical music masters in Germany. A year later, Rentaro is also permitted to go and the pair are briefly reunited but it will be for the last time as Rentaro’s illness intensifies and brings an early end to his musical career.

Times being what they are, Rentaro and Yuki are denied the possibility of pursuing a romance, adding to the theme of poignancy and missed opportunities running through the film. Indeed, the final piece Rentaro composes and which he is still working on right up to the end is for Yuki and is titled “Regret”. Dedicating himself to music above all else, Rentaro leaves behind him a musical legacy but still, as one of his songs puts it, longs for the “brightness of bygone days”.

Rentaro was from a wealthy family, and even if his father did not approve of his decision to study music, he continued to support him even whilst worrying about his constant ill health. Many of his fellow pupils were not so lucky including his good friend Suzuki (Ryo Amamiya) who is forced to leave the school when his father becomes ill leaving him responsible for each of his siblings. Eventually Suzuki is able to return to the world of music as a teacher, playing Rentaro’s folk songs for the local village children and helping to make his friend’s work some of the most well known in Japan.

Little is seen outside of the rarefied world of wealthy students and their internationally focussed cultural pursuits but at times the other world is allowed to slink in, particularly in the case of an inn girl who is charged with looking after Rentaro during one of his periods of convalescence. The girl, Fumi (Miki Fujitani), also becomes fascinated with Rentaro’s intense love music but any attachment on her part can only lead to tragedy. All else aside, Rentaro is the oldest son of a wealthy family and not seriously considering a formal arrangement with someone like Fumi. Eventually she will be sold off as a concubine to a wealthy man, there are no better options for her even in the bright new Meiji era.

As in much of his other work, Sawai neatly avoids the more sentimental elements of the story even if melodrama is a necessary part of its appeal. Bloom in the Moonlight is among his more straightforward efforts sticking to the prestige picture approach without any of the stranger or more expressive sequences which often crop up in films such as W’s Tragedy or Maison Ikkoku. As a neutral biopic, the treatment of its subject is at times superficial, skipping other interesting details of Rentaro Taki’s life such as his late conversion to Christianity preferring to focus on the tragic love story which becomes the genesis of his final, unfinished work. Nevertheless, Bloom in the Midnight succeeds in telling the sad story of a musical genius who poured all of his intensity into a few short years leaving a body of work behind him likely to outlive us all.


Rentaro Taki’s songs are still very popular today and if you’ve spent any time at all watching Japanese films you will definitely have heard them.

One of the most recognisable – Hana

And one of the most well known – Kojo no Tsuki (with footage from Throne of Blood!)