Ikiru (生きる, Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

The Japanese economy may have embarked on a path towards recovery thanks to the stimulus of the Korean War, but in the early 1950s many might have thought it too soon to ask if survival in itself was enough yet this is exactly what disillusioned civil servant Kenji Watanabe finds himself asking after receiving the devastating news that he has advanced stomach cancer and year at most to live. “To live” is apt translation of Akira Kurosawa’s intensely moving existential melodrama, Ikiru (生きる), which tackles the compromises of the salaryman dream head on along with those of the contradictions of the sometimes dehumanising post-war society. 

As the opening voice over reveals to to us, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is man who died long ago or perhaps has never truly been alive. In some senses, he is nothing more than an embodiment of the seal he uses to stamp documents day in day out, a mere piston in an ever turning machine of relentless bureaucracy. A young woman, Miss Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), working in the Public Affairs department loudly reads out a joke someone has written about their boss, Watanabe, who has taken not a single day’s holiday in 30 years suggesting that it’s less that he fears city hall will grind to a halt without him than they’ll suddenly figure out city hall has no need of him at all. The irony is city hall does indeed grind to a halt in Watanabe’s absence as he, unthinkably, fails to turn up for work for days on end as the papers pile ever higher on his desk. “Nothing moves here without his seal” one of the workers admits, bewildered by this sudden break with protocol while salivating over its implications in the possibility that Watanabe’s chair may soon be empty. 

Yet Watanabe’s crisis is that he’s realised he’s wasted his life on a pointless bureaucratic career that’s done little more than keep a roof over his head. Even the roof is a fairly modest one and it’s clear that his grown up son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) considers him to be a stingy old miser, unable to understand why he’s never spent so much as a penny on himself and lives in a kind of self-imposed austerity. Perhaps to Watanabe this is what constitutes properness. He’s done everything he was supposed to do, got a steady job at city hall and eventually became the head of department, but now he feels foolish and lonely. Mitsuo and his wife seem to resent him and talk openly about their plans to use their inheritance, along with Watanabe’s retirement bonus, for a downpayment on a “modern” home the polar opposite of the pre-war townhouse where the family continue to live. 

Mitsuo and Kazue (Kyoko Seki) are perhaps emblems of the increasingly empty consumerism of the post-war era, emotionally disconnected from Watanabe and seeking only the flashy and new. Miss Odagiri, the young woman from work, immediately says that she’d love to live in a home like Watanabe’s rather than the crowded multiple occupancy flat she currently inhabits with her family. Cheerful and outgoing, Odagiri is on the other hand a symbol of a new generation that wants something more out of life than simple material comfort and might even be willing to trade it for a small amount of happiness. Having worked at city hall for all of 18 months, she decides that she just can’t take it anymore and is quitting to get a job in a factory making toy rabbits that she says allow her to feel as if she’s making friends with all the babies in Japan. 

To that extent, Watanabe is himself also a baby craving Odagiri’s company admitting that he envies her youth and vitality in realising he squandered his own and will never get it back. How uncomfortable it must be for her, their final meeting in a restaurant sandwiched between a loving couple and teenage girl’s birthday party as Watanabe, gaunt and shrunken, claws at the air and begs her to help him live. Yet even within the grotesquery the tone is ironic, the strains of “Happy Birthday” accompanying Watanabe down the stairs as a the high school climbs up to meet her friends signalling his (re)birth as a man with purpose and determination. Just as Odagiri had found meaning in the rabbit, Watanabe finds it deciding to get a playground built over a post-war swamp in the slums filled with raw sewage and mosquitos that left the local children ill. 

Yet children’s parks aren’t particularly profitable which is presumably why the petition to build one had been kicked all round city hall in the infernal wheel of bureaucracy in which Watanabe too is trapped. “You call this democracy?” one of the women bringing the petition asks, taking the clerk to task complaining that all they do is fob them off insisting it’s someone else’s responsibility to help while determined only to guard their own turf. “You’re not supposed to do anything at city hall” someone ironically adds, “the best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all”. Watanabe did nothing at all for 30 years and it got him nowhere, his dedication to his job disrupting his relationship with his son though Watanabe is ironically one of the most emotional men and engaged fathers seen on screen in the post-war era. 

After his death, in the park he helped build for which the deputy mayor has taken credit, his colleagues put him on trial at the wake trying to work out why he did it and whether or not he even knew he was dying seeing as he told no one close him not even the son whom he felt he could no longer trust. They deny his role while both praising and condemning his passion as somehow improper, disrupting the dispassionate rhythms of the bureaucratic machine with human emotion. It was only coincidence, they say. The deputy mayor wanted an election and the yakuza wanted to turn the swamp into a red light district. “Did he think he could just build a park?” someone adds, bemused by his effrontery as a man from Public Affairs straying into the Parks Department’s territory. You have to protect your turf after all. Finally moved by Watanabe’s last ditch bid to make his life mean something, to feel alive and know he has lived, the the drunken salarymen, all but one who retreats to look at Watanabe’s photo above the altar, swear to follow his example. 

But of course the bureaucratic wheel keeps turning, another dangerous sewage problem diverted to another department continuing the literal pollution of the capitalistic post-war society. A kind of ghost story, Kurosawa lights Shimura from below, shadows cast across his gaunt face even by his “rakish” new hat while his huge eyes have a somehow haunted, grotesque quality filled with hungry desperation. Yet it’s to childhood that Watanabe eventually returns, “perfectly happy” sitting on a swing singing a song from his youth about the price age while surrounded by snow and at last painfully, absurdly alive. 


Ikiru screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 4th & 15th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Lower Depths (どん底, Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

“How can you go to hell if you’re already there?” quips a stoical gangster, perhaps the only denizen of a rundown tenement block no longer looking for escape in Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of the Gorky play The Lower Depths (どん底, Donzoko). In general, much of Kurosawa’s post-war work decries deliberate falsehood but paradoxically suggests that some degree of self-delusion is essential for surviving an otherwise hopeless world. The wandering pilgrim who arrives like some kind of emissary from the land above says as much as he offers what may turn out to be false promises of a better world to come, but as one of his charges points out he does so “out of pity for those beyond hope.”

Then again, perhaps spirituality won’t save you either. As the film opens, it’s two monks who are seen throwing leaves over a cliff describing the settlement below as “just an old rubbish dump”, which in a sense it is if that were not such a cruel thing to say. In any case, the people who live here are all those who have already fallen into desperation, exiled from mainstream society and caught between a fierce desire to claw their way back up and the despair of knowing that in all likelihood they never will. A man who claims to be a former samurai waxes on his illustrious past, while a melancholy sex worker meditates on the lost love that reduced her to current position, and a stage actor laments his failing memory his mind now fogged by years of alcohol abuse that he says have already poisoned his “bitol organs”. A tinker secretly thinks he’s better than those around him. He’s only been here six months and insists that he’s a skilled craftsman who can continue working, but blames his desperate circumstances on the sickly wife whose death he quietly awaits assuming it will free him of this burden and thereafter this place.

It doesn’t, of course. He sells his tools to pay for her funeral, and otherwise appears lost no longer a husband to a dying wife. In essence the film revolves around a confrontation between the pilgrim who offers what may well be an illusion of salvation and the thief Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune) who challenges him but begins to believe that it really may be possible for him to leave this place and take the woman he loves, Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa), with him or else fall further and remain trapped in this mortal hellscape. The problem there is that Sutekichi had previously been having an affair with the landlord’s wife Osugi (Isuzu Yamada) who is Okayo’s sister. Though Osugi, whose hope of escape through romance is dashed, first takes against her sister, she later offers to surrender her to Sutekichi if only he will assist her by killing her greedy husband Rokubei (Ganjiro Nakamura). 

In this cold and austere place which is in effect a living hell, there is a sense that many of the residents are already dead. Rokubei’s face is the palest of them all, suggesting that he is already too far gone ever to be saved and most likely doesn’t want to be anyway for in this terrible place he is in effect the king. Osugi is the queen, but often framed behind bars now a prisoner already too corrupt to leave the tenement behind. Her uncle, Deputy Shimazo (Kichijiro Ueda), has a largely illusionary sense of power in his position in a policeman which he prosecutes selectively and mostly at the service of the landlord. In the climactic closing scenes, his policeman’s baton is stolen by the drunkard Unokichi (Yu Fujiki) who dances through the streets with it demonstrating just how little authority he actually wields finally losing his position when the landlord is deposed and his familial connections become irrelevant. He inherits the landlord’s residence, but is reduced to the husband of the sweet seller Otaki (Nijiko Kiyokawa) whose status as a working woman is perhaps higher than his. 

Yet the pilgrim seems to think there is still time to save Sutekichi who at heart wants to go straight but is also resentful admitting that in a world where swindlers prosper perhaps it is foolish not to be a swindler. The pilgrim promises all of them a “better place”. “As long as you believe you’ll find it, you surely will”, he explains telling the actor about a temple that can help him cure his alcoholism while simultaneously urging the tinker’s suffering wife to give in to her fate and go to Buddha’s embrace as soon as possible. Perhaps he sincerely believes these things to be true, but also seems to have a sense that even if they weren’t these hopeless people could not go on if they knew there was no way out. They all say they’ll leave, but discover there are only two means of escape, to die or fall still further in banishment from this already banished place. Only Okayo whose final whereabouts remain unknown may finally have been able to free herself. Staying almost exclusively with the claustrophobic confines of the drafty tenement as wind the whistles through it, Kurosawa frames the space of one of existential purgatory but perhaps suggests that in the absence of salvation a comforting falsehood is the only means of survival.


The Lower Depths screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th & 30th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

No Regrets for Our Youth (わが青春に悔なし, Akira Kurosawa, 1946)

“Freedom is something you have to fight for” a young woman is ironically reminded by her progressively-minded father as she finds herself torn between the conservatism of her upbringing as an upper middle class daughter of an academic family and a bid for independence in the freedoms of the post-war society. In part a lament for a lost generation whose resistance towards rising militarism had been all but forgotten, No Regrets for Our Youth (わが青春に悔なし, Waga Seishun ni Kuinashi), is also the story of a post-war woman seeking new directions which in this case eventually send her back to the land.

Then again, there’s no denying that Yukie’s (Setsuko Hara) dilemma is framed as romantic, torn between a dynamic communist and a spineless conservative while otherwise in her youth fairly vacuous. As the film opens, she frolics with some of her father’s students at a local mountain that overlooks Kyoto University. Caught on a stepping stone she awaits help from either the charismatic Noge (Susumu Fujita) or the diffident Itokawa (Akitake Kono) before Noge boldly dashes forward and carries her to the bank. Seeing Itokawa looking sheepish and embarrassed, she tugs on his student cap as if she hasn’t quite yet made up her mind which path she will take. “If I married you, my life would be calm and peaceful,” Yukie later reveals to Itokawa, “but it would also be a bit boring”, whereas if she married Noge “my life would burn so brightly that I might be blinded.” 

Even so, her outlook as the professor’s daughter leans towards the conservative. During the picnic on the mountain, the students suddenly hear the sound of cadets training with firearms Yukie exclaiming that it makes her heart race before ominously discovering the body of a wounded solider in the overgrowth. She declares that she hates “leftists” and that her father is a “liberal” not a “red” but will any case eventually be vindicated. Though attracted to Noge’s passionate nature, she seems to find him dull company, “boring” in his constant conversation about the rise of fascism while visibly bristling when he all but calls her a vacuous socialite and says she needs a “slap in the face to grow up” which is in a sense what he’s just given her. Her life had been that of a privileged upperclass girl cosseted from the world, engaging with refined pursuits such as playing the piano and learning traditional flower arrangement. Her epiphany seems to come when she realises she’s been doing as she’s told, reminded that flower arrangement is a means of self-expression suddenly tearing the heads off chrysanthemums and crafting something truly avant-garde that is in its own way quietly shocking. Notably her flower arrangements while living with Noge are much more harmonious. 

Still she wavers, wondering if she should give in to the quiet life she’d have with a man like Itokawa, a man with no ideology who sides with the militarists and becomes a prosecutor because it is expedient to do so, or continue to wait for Noge who by this point has been in prison and ostensibly renounced his socialist beliefs to join the army. What she chooses independence, breaking with the conventional life her mother wanted for her to support herself with a job at a trading company in Tokyo. Running into Itokawa in the city, he strongly hints to her that Noge is, from his point of view, up to no good running a kind of think tank as an expert on China. 

When Yukie chooses Noge she implies it’s because she wants “something I can throw myself into body and soul”, hoping to join him in his new cause prepared as her father had warned her to make sacrifices in the struggle for freedom. In the one sense, it’s Yukie making up her own mind to abandon her privileged background to live her life with no regrets, but it’s also impossible to ignore that the cause she dedicates herself to is that of her husband. Committed to making Noge’s parents, both peasant farmers, understand that he was not an “ungrateful” son but a man who did his best to oppose the war and fight for peace and prosperity in Japan, she commits herself to the land and wins them over with the strength of her resolve. The hands that once played piano are now rough with work and it is in this she has found her purpose. Yet it’s difficult to say if the austerity of her new life represents ultimate freedom or only further constraint in the imperative of her continued suffering. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, if as she says she has no regrets for her youth as she joins hands with the peasant farmers leaving her privileged upbringing behind her even as her mother remarks that with her father reinstated at the university it’s as if nothing had changed. There is then something quite poignant as she sits by the stream and sees the students file past her singing their song of protest that in the end went unheeded while she prepares to reject modernity in its entirety and return to the simplicity of the land.


No Regrets for Our Youth screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 10th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Untamed (あらくれ, Mikio Naruse, 1957)

“Don’t let guys control you. You have to make them men” the heroine of Mikio Naruse’s Taisho-era drama Untamed (あらくれ, Arakure, AKA Untamed Woman) advises a former rival, yet largely fails to do so herself in the fiercely patriarchal post-Meiji society. Based on a serialised novel by Shusei Tokuda published in 1915 but set in late Meiji rather than early Taisho, Naruse’s adaptation essentially drops a contemporary post-war woman into a by then almost unrecognisable Japan but finds her hamstrung firstly by feckless and entitled men and then by complicit women who themselves cannot accept her transgressive femininity. 

As the film opens, a teenage Shima (Hideko Takamine) has just married wealthy grocery store owner Tsuru (Ken Uehara) but the marriage is already a failure. Though Shima is compared favourably with Tsuru’s previous wife who was apparently in poor health, presumably suffering with TB which required a sojourn by the sea, it soon becomes clear that Tsuru is as trapped by the archaic patriarchal social system as she is. He was apparently in love with a woman from a higher social class he was too afraid to pursue and despite still seeing her also has a mistress near their factory in Hokkaido whom he often visits under the guise of a business trip. Yet when Shima tells him she thinks she may be pregnant, he is unimpressed immediately questioning the paternity of the child while harping on about her having been married before which it seems is not quite true. Perhaps the reason that she has ended up a second wife despite her youth and beauty, Shima ran out on a marriage to a childhood friend arranged for her by her adoptive parents the night before the wedding not realising they had already registered the union without her knowledge or consent. 

This transgressive act at once signals Shima’s total disregard for conventionality and insistence on her own autonomy, yet it is also indicative of the fact she married Tsuru in search of a better life, knowing that to marry her adoptive parents’ choice meant only a life of servitude on the family farm. She is not always a terribly likeable figure, coldly explaining that she didn’t mind being fostered out because the adoptive family were wealthier and could give her a better life than she had with her birth parents yet it’s this sense of familial dislocation and the liminal status it gives her that allow her to take agency over her life in the way other women might not unwilling to lose the familial security Shima may not feel she ever had. Tsuru is also an adopted son, but the price for disobedience for him may be even higher and indeed as we later hear his inability to sort out his love life eventually sees him out on his ear. His pettiness in refusing to accept the child is his leads to an argument which causes Shima to slip on the stairs and miscarry the implication being that she may not be able to bear more children leaving her unlikely to remarry and thereby spurring her desire for a tempered independence. 

The fall is the last straw, Tsuru divorces her citing her inability to play the role of the proper wife while her birth family, from whom she is emotionally estranged, refuse to take her back as do the adoptive parents because of the embarrassment she caused them with the marriage stunt. She is often described as “like a man”, unable to win as Tsuru at once insists she wear the frumpy kimonos left behind by his previous wife who was a decade older, complains she wears too much makeup, and tells her to loosen her kimono belt to de-emphasises her figure, while criticising her for being unfeminine in her refusal to simply put up with his bad behaviour as is expected for a wife in this era. Shima fulfils all her wifely duties and as we see is in fact running his business as the women of the family are often seen to do while their husbands spend the money they earn for them on other women whether drinking with geishas or supporting mistresses in second homes. When her husband hits her, she fights back rather than shrinking away chastened as intended. 

Yet she cannot overcome the sense that a man is necessary for her success which cannot be accomplished alone. Cast out from her family, her brother installs her in the mountains to work in a geisha house if only as kitchen staff but soon does a flit to reunite with his married lover who has left her husband for him. While there she falls for the quiet and sensitive inn owner Hamaya (Masayuki Mori), also an adopted heir, whose wife is again ill with TB. Hamaya may be treating his wife a little better than Tsuru did his, but quite clearly assumes she’ll die in starting an affair with Shima who is then sent away to an even more remote inn to avoid a potential scandal. As Tsuru did with the woman he apparently loved, Shima continues to see Hamaya until he too succumbs to TB as an ideal of an impossible love while simultaneously accepting that he failed her in being too weak and cowardly to fight for their romance outright refusing to become his mistress. 

This may be one reason she is determined never again to be an employee but to own her own store which is why she ends up marrying tailor Onoda (Daisuke Kato) who introduces her to textiles and seamstressing at which she quickly proves adept having mastered the modern sewing machine. She marries Onoda in believing him “reliable”, but soon comes to regard him as lazy and feckless. The first shop fails because he can’t keep up with her. The male employees are always taking breaks to drink tea and play shogi, Onoda complaining that he’s tired while she does all his work for him and the housework too. Yet he also criticises her for a lack of femininity, snapping back that it must be her time of the month when she berates him in front of their employees while later after they’ve become successful complaining it’s “embarrassing” that his workhorse wife doesn’t know the things a sophisticated society woman would such as ikebana while flirting with the teacher he’s hired ostensibility to teach her. He even forces her to wear a frumpy and already somewhat dated classically Edwardian dress with a fancy bonnet which more resembles something a country girl might wear to church than the latest in Western fashions in an attempt to advertise their tailoring which seems primed to backfire. 

That she learns to ride a bicycle in this rather ridiculous outfit is again a symbol of her desire to seize and manipulate modernity even giving rise to a piece of innuendo from her much younger assistant Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai) as to the pounding she’s been getting from the saddle. Kimura seems to think the problem with the business is that Onoda’s patterns are outdated, offering her a new modernity while she prepares to cut Onoda out on catching him with his mistress taking their best employee with her to ruin his business and start another of her own. Though once again she cannot leave alone only with a man the ending is perhaps more hopeful than might be expected from a Naruse film allowing Shima to commit herself fully to the sense of industry she embodies always ready to start again, work harder, and achieve her desires unwilling to be bound by conventional ideas of femininity or to simply put up with useless men who refuse to accept her for all she is. Yet she largely fails to make men of them, each of her various suitors failing to live up to her, ruined by an oppressive social system that encourages them to exploit female labour while taking it for granted in their intense sense of patriarchal entitlement. 


Ghost Cat of Nabeshima (鍋島怪猫伝, Kunio Watanabe, 1949)

When is a ghost cat not a ghost cat? Drawing inspiration from classic folklore and kabuki theatre, the ghost cat movie had been a popular genre of pre-war cinema yet thereafter fell out of favour before a brief resurgence in the 50s and 60s. Inspired by the classic vampire cat legend, 1949’s Ghost Cat of Nabeshima (鍋島怪猫伝, Nabeshima Kaibyo-den) was part of a wave of post-war kaibyo yet in a slightly meta touch features no actual “ghost cat” leveraging instead the superstitious fear of their existence along with a mild prejudice towards otherwise supernaturally cute kitties. 

Set in the feudal era, the central drama revolves around a weakened lord, a supposedly cursed Go board, and local hysteria about a dangerous ghost cat lurking round the palace that has the townspeople nervous enough to have organised a patrol on the look out for suspicious-looking felines. A store owner has recently taken in an ornate Go board which has sent his wife into a minor frenzy because it looks just like the one from the local temple which she knows to be haunted by the vengeful spirit of a man who was killed during a dispute over a particularly heated game. As such, she pushes him to sell it as quickly as possible which he does to a lower level samurai whose gaming companion is so weirded out by the bad vibes emanating from the board that he gives it away to villainous retainer Tanuma (Ureo Egawa). Tanuma then gifts it to the rather effete lord ignoring the advice of his noble rival Komori (Denjiro Okochi) that Go is bad for the lord’s health both mental and physical. 

Komori may in a sense be proved right when, lacking a companion, the lord decides to summon Matashichiro (Haruo Tanaka) who is reputed to be a good player. Matashichiro is something of a Go obsessive and had been planning to leave for Edo in order to train with a true master partly it seems because he is carrying a chip on his shoulder as his family has been reduced in circumstances leaving him with few opportunities. On seeing the board, however, he appears to have something of an episode repeating the earlier tragedy in insisting the lord is playing “unfairly” before starting a fight during which the lord accidentally kills him, Matashichiro’s adorable black kitten Kuro leaving tiny bloody footprints as he scuttles away to relative safety glaring at the lord as he goes.

The lord thereafter develops an intense fear of cats, half-believing Kuro has become a bakeneko out to get him. All of this plays directly into the hands of Tanuma who is secretly plotting against the lord and hopes to capitalise on the ghost cat rumours while simultaneously making the lord seem mad in order to usurp and manipulate him. Tanuma had rejected concern over the cursed nature of the board insisting that “supernatural things don’t exist” while suggesting “weak government” is the reason such rumours were allowed to arise in the first place though it later becomes clear he too is manipulating them later sending out one of his minions in a ghost cat outfit with the instruction to cause trouble to keep the townspeople afraid. Komori, meanwhile, the good samurai later reminds the lord that he brought some of this on himself in his selfishness, failing to properly care for his subjects such as the rebellious Sanpei (Yataro Kurokawa) who openly disparages him while encouraging a peasant revolt in the face of samurai indifference. 

In this, there is perhaps a message for the immediate post-war world in the peasants’ frequent mistaken assertion that greed is good and a necessary tool for survival, Sanpei and the others half-heartedly taking part in a cat cull ordered by the increasingly paranoid lord which creates further animosity towards the samurai authorities from local people who love their cats and won’t stand for their beloved pets being sold off and killed because of a bizarre rumour about a vengeful feline spirit. One of the reasons cited for the decline in popularity of the ghost cat film is that post-war audiences simply no longer took such things seriously and some of that flippancy is indeed seen in the attitudes of some of the townspeople who are quick to dismiss such ridiculous superstition. Yet there are ghostly apparitions only they’re very much human if perhaps mildly linked to feline activity, a dishevelled Matashichiro appearing in front of the lord to remind him of his crime while Tanuma does his best to cover it up. Here more than most, there’s a heavy implication that the spirits of the deceased are mere hallucinations of a guilty mind, but could the Go board really be responsible, it did provoke a violent rage in the otherwise dejected Matashichiro after all?

Then again, when the townspeople regain it, they realise the Go board is just a Go board experiencing very few supernatural incidents despite having it in their possession for over two months and as any cat owner knows, footprints on the tatami are hardly an unusual occurrence. “Did anyone actually see the ghost that everyone was fussing about?” a woman asks to confused silence before someone jokingly points at Matashichiro’s former girlfriend Otoyo (Michiyo Kogure) now guardian to the adorable Kuro looking like butter wound’t melt. Order has in any case been restored, the disruptive Tanuma’s schemes unmasked, the lord reminded of his proper responsibilities whether by supernatural intervention or not, and the townspeople laying aside their “greed” while rediscovering a sense of mutual solidarity not to mention affection for their feline companions. Playful to the last, Watanabe closes with a handheld zoom into the cute kitten sitting innocently atop the cursed board while the drunken townsmen snooze all around him in ominous tranquility. 


The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Kihachi Okamoto, 1959)

By 1959, Japan was well on the way towards economic recovery but this transitionary period brought with it its own dilemmas and particularly for those whose main line of business had in a sense depended on instability and desperation. The first of Kihachi Okamoto’s early crime capers, The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Ankokugai no kaoyaku) finds the yakuza at just this moment of crisis, prescient in a sense in perhaps prematurely implying that post-war gangsterdom was already on its way out. 

The film opens, however, with a piece of yakuza thuggery as a mysterious man guns down an industrialist before barreling down the stairs and into a waiting car occupied by getaway driver Mineo (Akira Takarada) who is inconveniently spotted by a passerby, 16-year-old ramen restaurant waitress Kana (Rumiko Sasa). As we discover, Mineo is the younger brother of veteran gangster Ryuta (Koji Tsuruta), a middle-ranking member of the newly rebranded, rapidly corporatising yakuza outfit Yokomitsu Trading who seem to specialise in legal debt collection and running the entertainment district. Torn between their desire for a degree of legitimacy and their thuggish instincts, Yokomitsu have evidently knocked off a rival using an external hitman but now have a problem on their hands especially as Mineo has apparently embarked on a career as a singer in a teen jazz bar located in the same area as Kana’s restaurant which is at the very least unwise. 

Mineo is in many ways the “innocent” seen in many other similarly themed yakuza dramas, still too young to have been corrupted by the underworld and only an accomplice in the crime for which he is being asked to pay. He wants to get out of the yakuza life and sees singing as his escape route, adopting the persona of “Eddie Mineo” and styling himself as a teen idol in the vein of the rock ’n roll American pop culture which seems to be dominiating the late ‘50s youth scene. Yet Okamoto is also clearly evoking the world of Hollywood crime cinema, the environment open and dusty while everyone seems to drive massive Cadillacs and his gangsters behave much more like those in American movies than traditional yakuza even as the traditional yakuza is also changing. 

“I can’t stand it anymore” Ryuta finally exclaims, “There’s neither righteousness nor rules among mobsters”, tipped over the edge by the gang’s plan to kill the teenage witness. He wants out too, but considers himself already too far gone while pulled in two directions in his desire to save both his brother and his young son who has a lame leg and is being cared for in a hospital. Ryuta wears his wedding ring throughout though there’s no mention of what happened to his wife, while he’s also pulled between two potential love interests in the sympathetic doctor who cares for his son, Sumiko (Yumi Shirakawa), and the brassy cabaret girl, Rie (Mitsuko Kusabue), who does her best to save him, but in the end is never very much interested in either of them. He’s constantly haunted by his crimes, knowing what happens to yakuza who fall from grace in his murder of a man who limped and walked with a crutch just like his son. 

The clan are also planning to off a former foot soldier, Ishiyama, who in fact commits suicide immediately after his release from prison realising the futility of his position. Ishiyama’s suicide note directly references that of notorious post-war gangster Rikio Ishikawa whose life inspired Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor 15 years later “I took too big a gamble. lt’s a big laugh. It’s been a thirty year long spree.“ Ryuta realises there’s no way out of his life of crime, but finds himself conflicted even in his desire to ensure his brother and son remain free of it. His sense of futility is however wider, witnessing the death and decline of the traditional yakuza in itself the film climaxing in a moment of yakuza apocalypse as those apparently sick and tired of violence and intimidation finally fight back making it clear that organised crime is no longer welcome in the increasingly prosperous society. 

Skewing darker in tone than Okamoto’s subsequent entries into the “ankokugai” or “underworld” series, The Big Boss is lighter on his characteristically absurdist sense of humour but does feature a little of the exaggerated, cartoonish violence otherwise his hallmark while adding a note of irony as in his use of a sign outlining the numbers for police and ambulance or the sight of a bunch of children playing with guns while a hitman has a go on the swings. There is perhaps a sense of resistance to the conventionality of the material or that his relative inexperience, this being only his third film (the first two both romantic comedy vehicles for Izumi Yukimura) prevented him from fully embracing his anarchic spirit but The Big Boss nevertheless sows the seeds of his later career in its insistence on the absurdity of violence. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Early Spring (早春, Yasujiro Ozu, 1956)

By the mid-1950s, Japan’s economy was beginning to improve but now that the desperation that went with hunger had dissipated it freed those who’d managed to climb out of post-war privation to wonder just what the point of their ceaseless toil was. Yasujiro Ozu’s primary subject matter remained the modern family, but 1956’s Early Spring (早春, Soshun) sees him heading in a darker direction as he weighs up the delusions of the salaryman dream and discovers that whichever way you swing it, life is disappointing. 

So it seems to be for salaryman Shoji (Ryo Ikebe). He and Masako (Chikage Awashima) married for love a long time ago, but it’s clear that there is distance in their relationship. They sleep in the same room but their futons are slightly too far apart, and the few words they exchange with each other in the morning are terse in the extreme. The truth is that for many a salaryman for whom long hours and interoffice bonding sessions are compulsory, work is the new family. Wives are welcome to join the Sunday hiking outings but it seems few do. Masako too declines, telling her mother she felt it to be too expensive, already irritated with her husband’s irresponsible spending on mahjong games and drinking with friends. 

Money is certainly a constant worry for her and as we learn from her mother they’re behind on the rent despite it being “very cheap”. Masako had made a visit home in part to ask for another loan, which her mother seems reluctant to give, offering her daughter a takeout of the oden her restaurant sells which is first declined but then accepted. Her mother also flags up the other problem in their marriage which is that they sadly lost a child in infancy and have had no more. Sorrow may have killed their love, but the fact her husband stays out all hours and wastes the little money he earns while failing to win promotions only makes the situation worse. 

As for Shoji, he is becoming very aware of the delusions of the “salaryman dream”. He is one of thousands of men identically dressed in white shirts and grey trousers that board the packed rush hour trains every day heading into the city. His life is one of pointless drudgery and its only victory is that keeps hunger from the door, not even quite stretching to a roof over his head. “All that’s waiting for us is disillusion and loneliness” according to a veteran salaryman growing close to his retirement and realising that he has little left to live on, his dream of buying a small stationary shop all but unobtainable. He was dead set against his own son joining the ranks of the salaryman, but in the end failed to prevent it.

It is perhaps this sense of frustration and impotence that draws Shoji into an affair with a younger woman, Chiyo (Keiko Kishi), who is admittedly very pretty but seems to hold little interest for him aside from her youth and beauty. Chiyo openly pursues her older colleague, declaring that she doesn’t care he has a wife but has come to hate her after the first time they slept together. Shoji meanwhile remains guilty and conflicted. He evidently continues seeing Chiyo, lying to Masako that he’s visiting a sick friend, but otherwise regards her as an irritation. When his co-workers figure out what’s going on they try to stage an intervention, but Shoji doesn’t show up and Chiyo angrily denies everything before arriving at Masako’s looking for Shoji only this time he really is out visiting a sick friend. 

Miura (Junji Masuda), the sick friend, is a true believer in the salaryman dream. Now that he’s ill, he misses the packed trains and elevators, not to mention his old workplace friends. All he wants is to be well enough to return to the office and his predicament perhaps has Shoji thinking that at least he has his health and things aren’t so bad for him after all. Masako, meanwhile, turns to other women for advice. The woman across the way recounts how she caught her husband out with his mistress and made a scene that’s rendered him docile and obedient ever since (a rare man in an Ozu film putting his socks neatly in the laundry basket and hanging up his own coat rather than throwing it on the floor for his wife to deal with). Her widowed friend is more sanguine, admitting that caution is necessary but it’s a little dark to envy the life of a widow for its “freedom”, while her mother thinks she’s overreacting because that’s just how men are in this generation or any other. 

Shoji’s old mentor agrees that “everyone’s disappointed” and all that remains is to try and make the most of it, but still he sees that Shoji has been reckless and inconsiderate in his treatment of both women. He avoids his wife because of the emotional distance between them born of grief, and only really has an affair with Chiyo because it was easier than refusing her. He didn’t even enjoy it, and doubtless it did not quite quell the sense of despair he feels with the utter pointlessness of the “salaryman dream”. Masako, in turn, is disappointed with married life, with her husband’s emotional cowardice, and with her own lack of options. Ultimately, Ozu sides with the mother, not quite condoning Shoji’s behaviour while perhaps excusing it as a direct consequence of dullness of his life while forcing Masako to accept complicity in her husband’s weakness. They may reunite, the stressors of their Tokyo life from the high cost of living to the lure of mahjong now absent, but there is a sense of futility in their eventual insistence that they will “make it work” through starting over in a new place while gazing at the train that, they assume, will eventually carry them back to the city and all of its false promises of a brighter future. 


Early Spring screens 19th/20th/21st October & 20th/23rd November at London’s BFI Southbank as part of BFI Japan. It is also available to stream in the UK via BFI Player and in the US via Criterion Channel.

Repast (めし, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

“Must every woman grow old and die feeling empty?” asks the unhappy heroine of Naruse’s 1951 melodrama Repast (めし, Meshi) only to conclude that yes, she must, but that this in fact constitutes “happiness” as a woman. The first of Naruse’s Fumiko Hayashi adaptations Repast arrived in the year of the author’s death and is inspired by a short story left unfinished at the time of her passing. Screenwriter Sumie Tanaka was apparently convinced that the film should end with a divorce, as Sound of the Mountain would two years later, and consequently left the project after the studio mandated a more “sympathetic” ending. Superficially happy as it might seem, however, the conclusion is as bleak as one might expect from Naruse in which the heroine simply accepts that she must recalibrate her idea of happiness to that which is available to her and learn to find fulfilment in shared endeavour with her husband. 

As she explains in her opening voiceover, Michiyo (Setsuko Hara) married her husband Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara) five years ago in Tokyo against her family’s wishes and has been living on the outskirts of Osaka for the past three. Marital bliss has quite clearly worn off. As we see from the repeated morning scenes of the local community sending their sons off to school and husbands to the office, every day is the same and all Michiyo ever seems to do is cook and clean. The only words Hatsunosuke says to her are “I’m hungry”, and the only source of solace in her life is her cat, Yuri. Yet even this constant state of unhappy frustration is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Hatsunosuke’s spoilt and immature niece Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki) who has apparently run away from home in rebellion against an arranged marriage. 

There is obviously a blood relation between Hatsunosuke and Satoko, but Michiyo’s jealously is not exactly unreasonable given the young woman’s childish flirtation with her uncle, perhaps an adolescent extension of her propensity to pout and preen to get her own way. Aside from all that, finances weigh heavily on Michiyo’s mind. Other than her drudgery, the constant source of friction in the relationship is Hatsunosuke’s low salary and lack of career success. Satoko’s family are a little wealthier and having been brought up in relative comfort she has little idea of the real world and is often tactless, remarking on Hatsunosuke’s worn out tie much to Michiyo’s chagrin. Hatsunosuke is happy enough to have her, but Michiyo is wondering if there’s enough rice in the jar to see them through and Satoko never stops to consider that they’re feeding her for free even falling asleep when Michiyo enjoys her one and only day off reuniting with old friends rather than preparing dinner as she’d been asked. Perhaps aware of the disruptive effect of her presence, Satoko pours salt on the wound by constantly asking her uncle if Michiyo doesn’t like her or is angry, further placing a wedge between husband and wife. 

For all that, however, Hatsunosuke would not be accounted a “bad” husband for the time save perhaps for his lack of career success. He is not cruel or violent, merely insensitive and distant, taking his wife for granted and unable to see that she is deeply unhappy while otherwise internalising a sense of guilt and failure in his inability to adequately provide for her. She meanwhile sometimes takes her dissatisfaction out on him in barbed comments about his low salary, her barely hidden contempt never far from the surface. Yet as her mother later points out in encouraging her go back to him he is “reliable, discreet, and honest”, qualities borne out by his later refusal to go along with a dodgy scheme organised by the old elite along with his nervous rebuttal of the attentions of the “mistress” from across the way. 

At heart a conservative woman, Michiyo too looks down on Ms Kanazawa (Kumeko Otowa) for her taboo status as the illicit lover of a wealthy man which is only in a sense her way of seizing her future as an independent woman running her own bar. Satoko, a woman of the modern era, sees less of a problem with it and is far less judgemental, though her own attempts are destined to end in failure thanks to her inability to work out that her present lifestyle is far above her current reach. Retreating to her Tokyo home, Michiyo looks for other options, admiring the apparently happier relationship between her younger sister and brother-in-law who now run the family shop. She asks a sympathetic cousin, Kazuo (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) who provides an alternate love interest, to help her find work but encounters the brutalising line outside the local employment office and then an old friend now a war widow desperate for employment because her benefits are about to run out and she has a young son to support. Later she spots the same woman handing out flyers, suddenly realising the fallacy of her fantasy of starting again as an independent woman. She pens a letter to her husband admitting that she’s realised how vulnerable she is without his protection, but remains undecided enough to avoid sending it. 

Hearing that Satoko, still childish but perhaps not quite as naive as she assumed her to be, has been laying her claws into Kazuo the final nail seems to have been struck. Michiyo knows she will return to Osaka, but does so not because she has rekindled her love for her husband but because she has accepted there are no better options. Hatsunosuke is dull, but he is in a sense reliable, and honest to the extent that he may be about to be rewarded for his moral unshakability. He cares enough about her to show up in Tokyo hoping, but not insisting, she will return with him which is perhaps as close to a declaration of love that one could hope for. On reflection she decides that a woman’s happiness is found in sharing the journey with her husband, accepting that she must subsume her own desires into his and cannot hope to expect emotional fulfilment other than that found in his satisfaction. Even for a Naruse film, and one as peppered with moments of slapstick humour as this one is, it’s an extraordinarily bleak conclusion subtly hinting at the iniquities of life in a patriarchal society in which the best a woman can hope for is a life of unrewarded drudgery. 


Snow Country (雪国, Shiro Toyoda, 1957)

Closely associated with literary adaptation, Shiro Toyoda had been wanting to adapt Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (雪国) since its serialisation and apparently spent four years preparing his treatment ahead of the 1957 film starring Ryo Ikebe as the solipsistic aesthete at the novel’s centre. Characteristically, however, he takes several liberties with the source material, notably introducing an entirely different conclusion which perhaps helps in re-centring the tale away from the hero Shimamura to the melancholy geisha who apparently falls for him because of his intense loneliness. 

A brief reference to a failed military insurrection in Manchuria sets us firmly in the mid-1930s as do repeated mentions of the ongoing depression which causes additional anxiety to local business owners in a small holiday resort town. Mimicking the novel’s famous opening, Toyoda opens with a POV shot of a train exiting a tunnel into the snow-covered landscape, the hero Shimamura (Ryo Ikebe) sitting sadly gazing out of a window and eventually captivated by the reflection of a young woman devotedly caring for a young man who appears to be in poor health. Meanwhile, another young woman, Komako (Keiko Kishi), gazes at her own reflection in a train station window, waiting once again as if unable to depart. As we discover, Shimamura has returned with the intention of seeing Komako with whom he’d struck up a relationship during a summer trip but is somewhat disappointed to learn that she has since become a geisha.

In a flashback to their first meeting, Komako asks Shimamura if he has come for “escape”, a question he doesn’t exactly answer while petulantly complaining about his lack of artistic success as someone who paints pictures apparently out of step with his times. When the head of the local commerce association tries to involve him in conversation about the failed insurrection, he bluntly tells him that he’s an artist and as such has no interest in such things, but it does indeed seem that he is looking for some kind of escape from the turbulent times, expressing that here the war seems very far away as does “the depression”. Komako, a more modern and perhaps prophetic figure than it might at first seem, is the only one to bring up the war directly speculating that it may be about to intensify while the frustrated affair between the two seems to be informed by the mounting tensions against which they are attempting to live their lives. 

Rather self-absorbed, Shimamura in a sense may even identify with Komako explaining that he too has a “patron” and implying that his flight is perhaps a response to his sense of powerlessness, that he feels constrained by his financial dependency presumably on his father-in-law though his relative economic superiority which leads Komako to frequently remark on his “extravagance” obviously affords him the freedom to make these random solo trips to ski resorts and indulge his career as a painter regardless of its capacity to support himself and his family. Komako must know on some level that the relationship is a fantasy, yet she believes in it enough to end her connection with an elderly patron on suspecting that she is carrying Shimamura’s child only to have her hopes dashed when he does not turn up for a local festival as promised with the consequence that all of her dependents are turfed out of the home he had provided for her. 

Komako is not “free” in the same way that Shimamura evidently is, her entire life dictated by the fact that she is poor and female. Fostered by a shamisen teacher, she may have been technically engaged to the young man, Yukio (Akira Nakamura), Shimamura saw on the train being cared for by Yoko (Kaoru Yachigusa), Komako’s foster sister in love with him herself, but intensely resents the burdens she is expected to bear quite literally with her body. She later tells Shimamura that she didn’t become a geisha for Yukio in order to pay his medical bills but out of a sense of obligation, while she is also responsible for her birth family, the now bedridden shamisen teacher, and Yoko who intensely resents her for her callous treatment of Yukio and generally “dissolute”, selfish way of living. During the famous fire in a cinema that closes the novel (but not the film), Komako even exclaims that her life would be easier if Yoko burned to death, but on witnessing her either fall or jump from the burning building she can do nothing other than run to her side. 

Indeed, the novel’s climax finds Shimaura standing alone indifferent to the fate of Yoko, a young woman he had come to admire if only for her contrary qualities, admiring instead the beauty of the night sky. In Toyoda’s characterisation, Yoko is in one sense the conventionally good woman whose selfless devotion to the sickly Yukio so captivates Shimamura, but her goodness is nevertheless undercut by the degree of her animosity towards Komako even as the two women remain trapped in a complex web of frustrated affection and intense resentment, each perhaps knowing they neither can have the man they want and are condemned to an eternal unhappiness as the snow mounts all around them in this perpetually cold and depressing moribund resort town. Switching between studio matte paintings ironically mimicking Shimamura’s art and on-location footage of the deepening snows, Toyoda’s sense of near nihilistic melancholy evoking the atmosphere of Japan in the mid-1930s hints at grand tragedy but finds resolution only in stoicism as the heroine picks up her shamisen and trudges onward amid the quickening blizzard.  


Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Yasujiro Ozu, 1957)

Closely associated with the family drama, Yasujiro Ozu is perhaps the most socially conservative of golden age directors. Unlike Naruse or Mizoguchi, he cheerfully reinforces patriarchal social norms and foregrounds the paternal experience while upholding the primacy of the traditional family in a rapidly modernising society. In his later career he’d come to sympathise more strongly with the young, but 1957’s Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Tokyo Boshoku), perhaps his bleakest take on familial failure, is essentially a treatise on the legacy of corrupted motherhood and rebuke to growing post-war freedom in which a young woman is made to feel that her future is impossible because of maternal betrayal while her sister is forced back into an unhappy marriage to an abusive husband in order to avoid the same fate befalling her own daughter. 

Unlike most Ozu families, the Sugiyamas do not seem to be particularly happy in each other’s company, living in superficial politeness rather than true intimacy. This may partly be because the sisters had a brother who passed away young in a mountain climbing accident, but it also seems that Mr. Sugiyama (Chishu Ryu), though kind and polite, is a typically authoritarian, distant father. Oldest daughter Takako (Setsuko Hara) has returned home declaring herself unable to go on living with her professor husband Numata (Kinzo Shin) who, she says, has become increasingly erratic, taking out his petty professional disappointment on their small daughter Michiko whom he seems to resent. Younger sister Akiko (Ineko Arima) meanwhile is sullen and introverted. Unmarried, she lives at home and is studying to become a stenographer. 

As we later discover, the girls’ mother Kikuko (Isuzu Yamada) left the family during the war after falling in love with the junior officer Mr. Sugiyama enlisted to look in on the family while he was away in Seoul. Akiko was only three when their mother left and barely remembers her. Takako attributes her wayward behaviour to “loneliness”, that she has been forever corrupted through never knowing a mother’s love. Mr. Sugiyama admits he tried his best, but both agree that children need two parents and no matter how much he wants to a father cannot make up a mother’s share. 

This atmosphere of alienation is perhaps why Akiko feels as if she has no one to turn to in her own moment of maternal crisis. She has become pregnant by her college student boyfriend who has been avoiding her and even has the audacity to ask if the baby’s his when Akiko finally manages to pin him down. Trying to borrow money for an abortion, Akiko visits her aunt who declines to give it to her without knowing why, eventually turning to a family friend who apparently provides no questions asked. The woman at the clinic assumes she is a bar girl, as does a policeman who eventually “arrests” her for loitering in a sleazy cafe where her boyfriend has obviously stood her up which is quite openly being used as a place for men to pick up call girls. All of this contributes to Akiko’s increasing sense of shame and worthlessness. She sees herself as a fallen woman, convinced that she is all her mother’s child contaminated by her “bad blood” which makes a conventionally successful life as an ordinary wife and mother an impossibility. 

Akiko’s aunt wants to set her up with arranged marriage matches, but Akiko declares she has no intention of marrying or having children. Without knowing anything of Akiko’s circumstances, Takako assumes this is because of her obviously unhappy marriage, trying to convince her sister that there are plenty of happy couples she is merely unlucky. Mr. Sugiyama attempts to talk to his son-in-law but finds him strange and indifferent, offering treatises on familial love while implying that he has little of it. He regrets pressuring Takako to marry him when he knew that she preferred someone else while Takako is once again haunted by the spectre of corrupted maternity in her mother’s decision to leave the family for emotional fulfilment and is fearful of making the same mistake creating another troubled daughter just like Akiko in denying her a father’s love (which seems a moot point given that Numata does not care for the child). 

Neither woman is able to escape paying for their mother’s transgression. Akiko is punished firstly for embracing her sexuality and secondly for the rejection of motherhood in choosing to have an abortion. Alone and humiliated by her unreliable boyfriend, she is denied the opportunity to start over, while Takako meditates on female failure and believes that her only option is to live in misery with a cruel and narcissistic husband because that is the “proper” thing to do and the only way to bring her daughter up “right”. The absent mother, meanwhile, is denied reconciliation and left only with the painful separation from her daughter who finally rejects her in order to reclaim the image of the good wife and mother by returning to her unhappy home. Bleak as it is, all of this is presented as a kind of happy ending in that it restores the idea of the traditional family, increasingly threatened by post-war modernity, to its original primacy. We leave with Mr. Sugiyama rehiring his maid and heading cheerfully back to the male world of work, making the fresh start that his daughters have been so cruelly denied.  


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.