Muddy River (泥の河, Kohei Oguri, 1981)

The post-war era refuses to die in Kohei Oguri’s heartbreaking exploration of childhood friendship and the costs of experience, Muddy River (泥の河, Doro no Kawa). Adapted from the novel by Teru Miyamoto and situating itself in the Osaka of 1956, Oguri’s realist drama takes place at a moment of transition not only in the life of the young hero but also of the nation which was at long last beginning to leave post-war privation behind thanks to increasing economic prosperity. Yet for men like young Nobuo’s father Shinpei (Takahiro Tamura), the traumas not only of the war itself but its aftermath will not be so easy to escape. 

A shy child who often wets the bed, 9-year-old Nobuo (Nobutaka Asahara) lives with his parents Shinpei and Sadako (Yumiko Fujita) above a small riverside noodle bar mainly frequented by sailors and workmen such as Shioda (Gannosuke Ashiya), a regular who pulls a horse and cart for a living. Nobuo can’t stop staring at Shioda’s ruined ear, presumably a battlefield injury though the avuncular gentleman tries to raise his spirits with false cheerfulness explaining that he’s seen the writing on the wall and the days of cart pullers are coming to an end. He jokes about giving his horse to Nobuo as a pet though obviously he has no need for or ability to keep a horse, explaining that he’s going to buy a second-hand truck so he won’t be left behind in the race for modernity. Unfortunately, however, as Nobuo follows him out Shioda’s cart gets stuck in the mud. Somewhat bluntly he violently beats the horse to make him free it, but the cart ends up blocking the bridge and the horse is spooked by oncoming traffic. Crushed by his falling load, Shioda is pulled under the wheels and killed, his hopes for the future dashed while his wife and child are left without economic support. 

Emulating the visual imagery of silent cinema, Oguri frames this sequence perfectly with an inescapable anxiety that captures the inevitability of the moment. This is Nobuo’s first glimpse of death, running confused back to his father to tell him that the cart man’s dead, Shinpei at first not quite comprehending but later reflecting that he was like him another casualty of the post-war era as if his death were merely delayed remembering that he’d once said the war had already killed him and so he’d never die again. On an awkward train journey Shinpei opens a newspaper and reads that “the post-war period is over”, but of course for him it isn’t and perhaps never will be. Reflecting on the last 10 years of his life, he wonders if it was worth it, there must be many people who think it would have been better to die in the war than suffer as they did afterwards. Young Nobuo, born to him in his 40s, is his only achievement. Sadako meanwhile harbours her own guilt in feeling as if she wronged another woman with whom Shinpei had previously been involved after the war by stealing him away and building this life together in burned out Osaka which, while far from perfect, is comfortable enough and happier than most. 

That Nobuo learns for himself when he befriends another boy staring at the abandoned cart. 9-year-old Kiichi (Minoru Sakurai) and his sister Ginko (Makiko Shibata) live on a houseboat recently moored opposite, something which Nobuo finds unusual and mysterious but not itself bad. Still innocent and too young to have incorporated moral judgement, Nobuo simply befriends the other boy bonding over a strange tale of a monstrous carp in the river though perhaps also feeling sorry for him on noticing his ragged clothes and the holes in his shoes. On visiting their houseboat, he only hears only the voice of Kiichi’s mother Shoko (Mariko Kaga) a mysterious disembodied presence who lives in a separate area of the boat accessible only via a different entrance. When she instructs Kiichi to give him some raw sugar and tell him not to come back too often, he takes it that he’s unwanted later confused when his father tells him that it’s fine for his new friends to visit but he shouldn’t go near the boat after dark. 

Understanding people, neither Shinpei or Sadako, instantly grasping the situation, reject the family because of the stigma of sex work realising that people do what they have to to survive and in any case it isn’t the children’s fault or responsibility. On hearing Kiichi enthusiastically singing an old imperial song about losing friends in Manchuria, Shinpei begins to feel a kinship with his late father as another old soldier claimed by the muddy river of the post-war society. Like the cart man, and an old fisherman Nobuo witnessed “disappear” from his boat never to be seen again, he was simply a casualty of the times one of many unable to enter the new society promised by rising economic prosperity. Shinpei fears he may also be one of these men, left behind unable to break free of wartime survivor’s guilt and the traumas of what came afterwards. He also disappears from his son’s life abruptly and without warning if only temporarily, but accidentally deserts him at the time he needs him most allowing his fragile new friendship to fracture as the two boys fatefully return to the boat after dark and Nobuo encounters a loss of innocence on several levels Kiichi realising that something is now broken between them. 

Something is perhaps broken in the times, the end of Nobuo’s childhood coinciding with the the dawning of a new era free of post-war privation but one that also threatens to leave those who can’t catch up to it behind Kiichi’s boat bound for further down the river while Nobuo remains firmly on land his own foundation perhaps more secure now that his father has exorcised some of guilt over the recent past. Shot with a nostalgic realism in black and white and in academy ratio, Oguri’s quietly devastating drama sets one boy’s loss of innocence against the lingering affects of another as the adults all around him struggle to acclimatise themselves to a changing society but all he sees is the muddy river flowing past him taking his friend away because he saw something he shouldn’t have leaving him with nothing but sorrow and loneliness on the other side of an unbreachable divide. 


Muddy River screens at the BFI on 12/23 December as part of BFI Japan.

Opening sequence

Inferno of Torture (徳川いれずみ師:責め地獄, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

“There’s no hope for us anymore” cries the hero, redeeming himself with one last act of humanity before allowing himself to be consumed by the flames of Edo-era barbarity. Another tale of feudal exploitation, Teruo Ishii’s Inferno of Torture (徳川いれずみ師:責め地獄, Tokugawa Irezumi-shi: Seme Jigoku) opens with an otherwise unrelated scene of female crucifixion followed by an elaborate beheading, presenting both of these events with a degree of historical authenticity they do not perhaps possess. Nevertheless, his central tale which turns out to be less about two women than two men, turns on the exploitation of female bodies, subtly suggesting that the modern society is itself founded on female exploitation. 

Though dropping the portmanteau structure frequently employed in the Joys of Torture series, Ishii returns from the prologue with the end of the first arc in which the presumed heroine, Yumi (Yumiko Katayama), makes a stealthy visit to a ghostly cemetery in which she trashes the grave of a man named Genzo (Shinichiro Hayashi), digs him up and dismembers his body to retrieve a key we later see him swallow which she hopes will unlock her womanhood currently imprisoned by an ornate chastity belt, only the key doesn’t fit. 

Flashing back again, we see Yumi forced into sex work in payment of a debt and imprisoned in a labyrinthine brothel which specialises in bondage and torture under the guidance of lesbian madam Oryu* (Mieko Fujimoto) and her samurai fixer Samejima (Haruo Tanaka). The brothel’s USP is in its tattooed women which neatly leads us into the main narrative as Yumi’s body becomes a battleground contested by two men, top tattoo artists in search of the perfect canvas in order to win, ironically, the hand of their master’s pure and innocent daughter Osuzu (Masumi Tachibana). 

Horihide (Teruo Yoshida) and Osuzu are in love, but the dark and brooding Horitatsu (Asao Koike) is determined to frustrate his rival’s desires by becoming the successor to Osuzu’s dying father, the tattooist Horigoro. The “hori” which prefixes each of the men’s names relates to the process of tattooing and comes from the verb to chisel, hinting at the way they prick and channel their desires into the canvas which is human skin. Horihide is our “hero”, described by Horigoro as the light to Horitatsu’s dark, Horitatsu currently making more of an impact with his designs of violent intensity, but each of them is in a very real way content to use and exploit the bodies of women without their full consent in order to practice their art. It is essentially an act of violence if not of “torture”. 

Meanwhile, Oryu and Samejima are profiting off their “merchandise” more directly in participating in the trafficking of tattooed ladies to lecherous foreigners displaying an early fetishisation of Asian women. This being late Edo, Japan is still in its isolationist period in which fraternising with foreigners was illegal which is why the action eventually takes us to Nagasaki and the Dutch trading port of Dejima, here presented as a nexus of corruption, where Samejima and Oryu prove themselves very much in league with foreign powers dealing with powerful businessman Clayton (Yusuf Hoffman), despite his name apparently a Dutchman, and his Chinese associates. Like Nikkatsu’s borderless action films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Inferno of Torture indulges in an unpleasant Sinophobia which culminates in a chase through a crowded Chinese wet market in which we catch sight of dogs hanging bound ready for the slaughter in similar poses to those of the women in the brothel, not to mention thrusting snakes, before being confronted by a basket full of adorable puppies presumably headed for a dark destination, while we finally rediscover Hidetatsu collapsed in an opium den after being forcibly addicted by Oryu as a means of control. 

“This is a house of horrors” the Chinese gang leader tells a group of women bought by Samejima from a prison and promised a life of wealth and ease as geisha catering to high class clients. It’s difficult to tell if Ishii is critiquing Edo-era misogyny or that of the present day, or merely revelling in it with increasingly perverse scenes of sexual violence and degradation which continually imply that women have no role or value outside of reflecting the desires of men while those who try to claim their own agency are brutally put down by an inherently misogynistic, patriarchal society. After a Count of Monte Cristo-esque subplot in which Horihide is framed for murder but escapes to plot his revenge, the psychedelic final showdown returns us to the tattooists’ artistic face off as they again weaponise female bodies to embody their own ambitions, Horihide turning a blameless young woman into an iridescent peacock to get back at her father. Nevertheless, he finally reassumes his humanity in ending his mission of vengeance before it takes more innocent lives while accepting that he may now be too corrupted to return to his former life. Elegantly composed often unconsciously recalling the keyhole in Yumi’s chastity belt as it imprisons women within the peephole of the frame, Inferno of Torture ends exactly as it began, with a scene of grim and ironic punishment in which the female form is itself obliterated. 


Inferno of Torture is available on blu-ray from Arrow Video in a set which also includes an in-depth commentary from Tom Mes discussing the treatment of the various actresses involved with the series, Ishii, and Toei in general; Jasper Sharp’s Miskatonic lecture Erotic Grotesque Nonsense & the Foundations of Japan’s Cult Counterculture; and a booklet featuring new writing by Chris D.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

*This character’s name is rendered as “Oryu” in the subtitles but “Otatsu” (different ways of reading the same character which means “dragon”) in the accompanying booklet.

Alone Across the Pacific (太平洋ひとりぼっち, Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

Alone Across the PacficKon Ichikawa made two sorts of movies – the funny ones and the not so funny ones. Despite the seriousness of the title, Alone Across the Pacific (太平洋ひとりぼっち, Taiheiyo hitori-botchi) is one of the funny ones. Like many of Ichikawa’s heroes, Horie is a man who defies convention and longs for escape from the constraining forces of his society yet is unable to fully detach himself from its cultural norms. Based on the real life travelogue of solo sailor Kenichi Horie, Alone Across the Pacific is less the story of a man battling the elements, than a cheerful tale of a man battling himself in a floating isolation tank bound for the “land of the free”.

Kenichi (Yujiro Ishihara) is a strange man. He has few friends (aside from the family dog, Pearl) and is obsessed with the idea of running away to sea. Inspired by the tales of other intrepid sailors, his dream is to sail all alone across the Pacific Ocean from Osaka to San Fransisco. Despite the fact that it is illegal for small boats to leave Japanese waters (and that he is too impatient to wait for his passport to come through), Kenichi has custom made his own yacht, one without an engine, and has set off on his longed for voyage under the cover of darkness.

Rather than filming Kenichi’s journey naturalistically, Ichikawa opts for an adventurer’s tale as Kenichi provides an ironic voice over detailing some of his naive failings as a rookie sailor undertaking such a daunting mission. Each of Kenichi’s crises links back to a memory from his shore life, reminding us why he’s on this journey in the first place. Kenichi’s struggles are the same as many a young man in post-war Japan and, in fact, many of those previously played by the poster boy for youthful rebellion, Yujiro Ishihara.  Unwilling to live a life hemmed in by the predetermined path of a job for life, wife, children and total social conformity, Kenichi longs to be free of his cultural baggage by abandoning his civility during a long process of isolation therapy free of overbearing fathers, fretting mothers, indifferent sisters and a generally noisy world.

Kenichi’s father (Masayuki Mori) is the very personification of authority, berating his son for his fecklessness and pointless obsession with sailing – a sport a working class boy like Kenichi can barely afford. Kenichi’s determination to achieve his goal sees him leave school early, take a job in his father’s workshop only to quit suddenly for a more lucrative one delivering luggage for a travel agents, and quitting that too to work full time on his boat. While his father huffs and puffs his mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) worries, hoping her mad son won’t really go through with it but knowing that he will.

When Kenichi finally reaches San Fransisco, he’s assaulted by congratulatory voices from all directions. Towed into harbour by a motor boat, Kenichi first has to deal with mundane problems like the customs patrol wanting to know if he’s got any fruit left on the boat before a crowd gathers to shake his hand asking where he’s come from and why, what he wants to do now, and praising him for his daring feat of solo sailing glory. In Japan however, things are different. Dragged out for an interview by the press, Kenichi’s worried mother avows that she’s just happy to know her son is safe while his father bows deeply and reassures everyone that he will absolutely put a stop to any such random acts of individualism his wayward son may attempt in the future. 

Kenichi evades the twin pulls of his mother’s apron strings and his father’s handcuffs by taking off alone but even at sea he’s never free of his cultural programming, checking the wide empty ocean before removing his clothes and then stepping back down into the cabin to finish the job. Kenichi’s failure to acquire a passport is an ironic one seeing as part of what he’s running from is being Japanese but even as his quest is one for self determination it is also intensely selfish and self involved. In this Kenichi commits the ultimate act of individualism, caring nothing for the thoughts and feelings of others in the all encompassing need to achieve his goal. Kenichi may have found a home at sea, but on land he’s caged once again, a prisoner both of social conformity and his own need to defy it.


Available on R2 DVD from Eureka Masters of Cinema.

Original trailer (no subtitles)