Oshin (おしん, Shin Togashi, 2013)

Oshin posterBack in the 1980s, an “asadora” named “Oshin” proved so popular with Japanese television viewers that its title became a byword for tenacity and perseverance, attached to any underdog who battled bravely against insurmountable odds. The “asadora”, as its name suggests, is a 15 minute drama serial broadcast in the mornings and therefore mainly targeted at housewives. As such it often focusses on the lives of women and particularly on women who work hard to triumph over adversity. Oshin is no different in this regard except that it also recounts the painful history of 20th century Japan through that of its stoical heroine who travels from a life of poverty in snowy Yamagata to becoming the owner of a supermarket chain in the bustling consumerist economy of 1983. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the TV series, Oshin graduated to the big screen. Shin Togashi’s Oshin (おしん) movie focusses exclusively on Oshin’s childhood at the tail end of the Meiji era in which she suffered all the downsides of lingering feudalism and benefitted from few of the new freedoms of the age.

The winter of 1907, Yamagata – snow country. Oshin (Kokone Hamada) lives with her parents, grandmother, and siblings and looks forward to finally being allowed to go to school when spring arrives. Sadly, Oshin will not be going to school after all. Her father has arranged for her to work for another family who own a timber yard a few towns over for the period of one year. Only seven years old, Oshin pleads not to be sent away but her father will not back down. There is not enough food to feed the family and, unbeknownst to Oshin, her mother (Aya Ueto) is pregnant again.

Finally agreeing to go after her mother takes drastic action to try and reduce the burden on the family, Oshin arrives at the timber yard but is treated cruelly by the head housekeeper who refuses to recognise that Oshin is only a child and will of course lack basic knowledge as to how to run a household. Though Oshin bears the constant hardship for her family she eventually runs away when falsely accused of theft.

The world of 1907 is harsh and cruel. Women have few rights and almost no say in their lives or destinies. Oshin might count herself lucky that she’s merely been contracted as a household servant in an age where selling one’s daughter to a brothel to feed one’s sons was not an unusual event, but nevertheless her life at the timber yard is hard. Bright and curious, Oshin longs to learn to read and write but because of her lowly “peasant” birth, she is constrained into a life of drudgery where her labour will only ever be in service of her family and never herself.

A “peasant” background is, as a kinder mistress reminds Oshin, a burden in that she is always likely to be viewed with suspicion. This is doubly true when she runs away and is rescued by a fugitive deserter hiding in a mountain shack. Shunsaku (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a sensitive young man marked by service in a war he no longer believes in, teaches Oshin how to read and write as well as giving her a grounding in humanitarian politics. He is, however, a problematic figure for going against the martial culture of the age and having “betrayed” his nation by deserting. Oshin is tainted by her association with such a radical young man, but boldly comes to Shunsaku’s defence when others seek to discredit his memory.

This boldness is a part of Oshin’s essential “goodness” in which she refuses to give in to injustice even whilst stoically bearing all of the troubles that come her way. Eventually she finds herself a servant in a much nicer house where the staff take pity on her and welcome her warmly into their extended family. Treated with such kindness, Oshin works even harder to repay it and impresses all with her earnestness and morally upright character. She does, however, clash with the spoilt daughter of the house, Kayo (Manami Igashira), who has her own share of troubles though hers are those of the privileged classes. Lonely and bored, Kayo resents the attention golden girl Oshin seems to get from the staff but the two eventually become friends when Kayo realises Oshin is the only person willing to treat her as an equal rather than the young mistress.

Though the overall arc of the TV series painted a more positive picture of female resilience and capability, the film’s focus on the late Meiji childhood era is unavoidably more conservative in its pointed message that a woman’s life is served in dedication to others with the unpleasant undertone that she must keep nothing back for herself and that she is not entitled to personal happiness but only that of repaying the sacrifices that have been made on her behalf by other women (and especially by mothers – biological and surrogate). Nevertheless, Oshin’s earnestness and deep love for her family are admirable qualities and when she trudges back out into the snow again, always waiting for the spring, she does so with hope and determination.


Oshin is screening in London on 18th August as part of the Japan Foundation London’s Summer Explorers season of free film screenings.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Night’s Tightrope (少女, Yukiko Mishima, 2016)

night's tightrope japanese posterKanae Minato is known for her hard-hitting crime stories from Confessions to Chorus of Angels, The Snow White Murder Case, and Penance but in adapting her second novel, Shojo (少女), Yukiko Mishima has moved away from the mystery for a no less penetrating look at the death of childhood in the story of two best friends each dealing with traumatic pasts and presents. Childhood is a place of tightly controlled powerlessness, but adulthood offers little more than corruption and selfishness with its predatory teachers, abusive parents, and dirty old men so obsessed with school uniforms they barely see the girl inside them. Adolescent anxiety provokes a fascination with the idea of death which perhaps reflects this transitionary stage, but at its centre is the fracturing of a friendship which has endured all else.

The film opens with a strange avant-garde play being performed in a church by a group of girls in austere school uniforms. The monologue offered by the collective reads like an instruction booklet for the birth of fascism with its calls for genetically engineered test tube babies and universal childcare in which each child is “equal” and receives “exactly the same” education and resources. The girls are students at a strict Christian fundamentalist school where they’re also expected to participate in strange rituals including dancing round the maypole (incongruous as that may seem).

Atsuko (Mizuki Yamamoto) – a former kendo champion with a limp, and Yuki (Tsubasa Honda) who has a large scar across her hand resulting from domestic abuse, have been lifelong friends but have recently begun to drift apart. Given the overriding survival of the fittest atmosphere in the school, it’s not surprising that the other girls have turned on Atsuko and proceeded to make her life a misery by telling her to die either in person, on line, or in one particularly grim episode by shoving a sanitary towel into her locker with the message written on it in blood. Yuki is trying to help her but doesn’t know how and has taken to writing everything down in a book instead.

The world of teenage girls can often be a vicious one but there’s a strange kind of mania in the way Atsuko’s schoolmates set about pushing her towards the edge. Formerly a top kendo player, Atsuko has vivid, panic attack inducing flashbacks to her life changing accident in which she recalls her teammates prentending to comfort her but secretly hurling accusations under their breaths while Yuki looks on in horror from the stands.

Yuki has been writing their story in the form of a novel she calls Night’s Tightrope but the completed manuscript goes missing. The girls’ teacher who has longstanding dreams of literary stardom steals it, sends it to a magazine, and even wins a prestigious literary prize for brand new novelists. Yuki’s revenge is swift but has terrible, unforeseen consequences which add to her obsession with death and dying, eventually culminating in the worrying desire to see someone die in order to fully understand the nature of the “phenomenon”.

While Yuki develops a friendship with a boy she met in a library while she was destroying copies of the teacher’s stolen story, Atsuko goes in a different direction by falling under the spell of troubled transfer student Shiori (Ryo Sato). Recently witnessing a dead body herself, Shiori is just as death obsessed as the other girls but her vision is darker. Shiori introduces Atsuko to her world of blackmail and exploitation, pulling her into a high school girl scam in which they accuse a nearby salaryman of groping them and then blackmail him. Shiori may think she’s taking revenge on venal older men who lust after school uniforms – there are plenty of these on offer from skeevy old men luring school girls to abandoned houses and then trying to get them to do laundry, to teachers visiting love hotels with their students – but actions have consequences and ramifications can be severe.

The girls are caught in a kind of limbo, walking a tightrope into adulthood but doing it blind and alone. Splitting up they take similar paths with Atsuko volunteering at an old people’s home, and Yuki spending time with terminally ill children but soon enough their death obsession changes form as their twin causes eventually overlap. Stepping away from Minato’s sometimes nihilistic pessimism, Night’s Tightrope leaves a space for hope in the reconciliation of the protagonists who rediscover their shared pasts once the message buried in the novel is finally delivered. The adult world may be mired in the dark of night but the girls have recaptured the sunlight, taking solace in the depth of their friendship and stepping off the tightrope and into the world of adulthood hand in hand.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

University of Laughs (笑の大学, Mamoru Hoshi, 2004)

warainodaigakuUniversity of Laughs (笑の大学, Warai no Daigaku) is certainly an apt name for a film which aims to teach the universal power of comedy. Based on a 1997 stage play by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani and directed by Mamoru Hoshi, the film is set in 1940 at the height of Japan’s militaristic fervour. With the annexation of Manchuria only three years previously and the war in full swing, there is no room for such petty bourgeois pleasures as slapstick comedy shows. The censor’s stamp rules all and if the piece doesn’t exult the glorious nature of the empire, then what good is it?

Or so thinks recent Manchurian returnee Sakisaka (Koji Yakusho) – the newly appointed occupier of the censor’s chair. Sakisaka has been appointed because he has no sense of humour at all and very little in the way of human feeling. In fact, he even thinks this censorship business is a little pointless and it would be better to just ban everything outright. Then, one day, he encounters quite the stupidest piece of low comedy he’s ever come across in the form of the latest play by a company called “University of Laughs” written by their company director, Tsubaki (Goro Inagaki).

Tsubaki is a nervous, neurotic young man. “Don’t worry, we very rarely use torture” Sakisaka reassures him. Still, Tsubaki tries to talk him through his parodic play script called “The Tragedy of Juleo and Romiet”. However, Tsubaki’s play is no good at all! It’s full of foreigners! And there’s romance, and no one talks about how amazing Japan is, what the hell sort of play is this!? Sakisaka tells him to bring it back tomorrow with the requisite changes. However, tomorrow’s effort is only a little better. Maybe another day? Gradually over the course of a week the pair become uneasy collaborators as Sakisaka eventually rediscovers his sense of humour.

The central irony being that in trying to eliminate all subversive elements in the script, Sakisaka actually ends up in the position of editor – all of the changes he suggests only succeed in making the play funnier and more coherent. The more advice he receives from Sakisaka, the better a writer Tsubaki becomes. However, Sakisaka is the representative of everything the true artists abhors as the tool of an oppressive state which seeks to repress all independent thought. In going along with Sakisaka’s recommendations, isn’t Tsubaki becoming just another government lapdog? Is it better to compromise, go as far as you can go, and stay open or should you staunchly refuse and boycott the regime in its entirety?

For Tsubaki, comedy is a religion. He’s a comedy writer, if he can’t write comedies he may as well not exist at all and the way he sees it, this stuff is making the work better so who cares what it’s all about, really, so long as the work is good. His actors, though, feel differently and Tsubaki is paying a heavy price for his awkward quasi-friendship with the government stooge. Nevertheless, the two develop a strange bond with the previously stiff Sakisaka bucking his rigid adherence to government doublespeak in opening up to Tsubaki’s comedic education. However, their friendship may not be as deep as Tsubaki hopes when he unwisely reveals his real feelings about the regime causing Sakisaka to remind him where his loyalties lie. This is 1940 after all and the spectre of war lies all around. In the end, even if Tsubaki’s now near perfect work is passed for presentation, he may be unable to realise it in person.

Consciously old fashioned, University of Laughs has echoes of Fellini though perhaps filtered through mid period Woody Allen. The Nino Rota-esque score further enhances the association as does the idea of the fascist state as a mad circus where one is forced repeat the same actions over and over again until the ringmasters finally applaud. Warm, witty and surprisingly engaging for a film that is essentially two guys in a room for two hours, University of Laughs is another impressive effort from the pen of Mitani which offers both a cutting critique of oppressive censorship, a defence of the artist and an exultation of the universal power of laughter.