Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (男はつらいよ50 – お帰り 寅さん, Yoji Yamada, 2019)

From 1969 to 1996, travelling salesman Tora-san appeared in 48 films, a 49th movie special appearing after star Kiyoshi Atsumi’s death brought an unavoidable end to the series. Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (男はつらいよ50 – お帰り 寅さん, Otoko wa Ysurai yo 50: Okaeri Tora-san) arrives to mark the 50th anniversary of the first film’s release, and as the series had done in its later stages, revolves around Tora’s neurotic nephew, Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), who is now a middle-aged widower and father to a teenage daughter. Feeling somewhat wistful, Mitsuo’s thoughts turn to his now absent uncle, wishing he were still around to offer some of his trademark advice along with the gentle warmth and empathy which proved in such stark contrast with his otherwise anarchic and unpredictable personality.  

Yamada, who directed all but two of the series in its entirety, opens with another dream sequence this time of Mitsuo as he finds himself overcome with memories of his first love, Izumi (Kumiko Goto), who is now married with children and living abroad working for the UNCHR. Mitsuo’s wife passed away from an illness six years previously and he’s so far resisted prompts from his relatives to consider remarriage though it seems fairly obvious that his editor, Setsuko (Chizuru Ikewaki), has a bit of a crush on him. Having taken a gamble giving up the secure life of a salaryman to become a novelist, Mitsuo’s first book is about to be published and it’s at a signing that he serendipitously re-encounters Izumi who just happened to be in the store that day on a rare trip to Japan and spotted the poster. 

Like many Tora-san films, Wish You Were Here is about the bittersweet qualities of life, the roads not taken, the misdirections and misconnections, and the romanticisation of a past which can no longer be present. At a crossroads, Mitsuo ponders what might have been recalling the shattered dreams of his first love which seems to have ended without resolution because of the unfairness of life. He wishes that his crazy uncle was still around to make everything better, offering more of his often poetic advice but most of all a shoulder to cry on as he’d been for so many women throughout the series. But Mitsuo himself has always been more like Tora than he’d care to admit, if tempered by his father Hiroshi’s shyness. He too is a kind man whose bighearted gestures could sometimes cause unexpected trouble. What he’s learning is in a sense to find his inner Tora, embracing his free spirit through his art if not the road, but also coming to a poetic understanding that sometimes the moment passes and there’s nothing you can do to take it back, only treasure the memory as you continue moving forward. 

That’s a sentiment echoed by Lily (Ruriko Asaoka), one of Tora’s old flames, who now runs a stylish bar in Tokyo. The beauty of the Tora-san series was that it aged in real time. The actor playing Mitsuo played him as a child and we saw him grow up on screen just as we saw Shibamata change from post-war scrappiness to bubble-era prosperity and beyond. The family’s dango-shop has had an upscale refit and there is now a modern apartment complex behind it where the print shop once stood. Seamlessly splicing in clips from previous instalments as Mitsuo remembers another anecdote about his uncle, Yamada shows us how past and present co-exist in the way memory hangs over a landscape. Once or twice, the ghost of Tora even reappears hovering gently behind Mitsuo only to fade when he turns around to look while there’s an unavoidable sadness as we notice the Suwas’ living room is now much less full than it once was. 

Aside from his uncle, it’s the warm family atmosphere that Mitsuo recalls from his childhood, something which, like Tora, he might not have always fully appreciated. Driving Izumi to a potentially difficult reunion with her terminally ill estranged father (Isao Hashizume), he refers to his own parents as “annoying” in the “pushy” quality of their kindness, something which irritates Izumi who points out that she’d have loved to have such a warm and supportive family and if she had she might never have gone to Europe, implying perhaps that their fated romance would been fulfilled. The Shibamata house was Tora’s port, he could wander freely because he had somewhere to go back to where they’d always let him in no matter what kind of trouble he caused.

A fitting tribute to the Tora-san legacy, Wish You Were Here is also a joyful celebration of the Shitamachi spirit. Tora might be gone, but the anarchic kindness and empathy he embodied lives on, not least in the mild-mannered Mitsuo and his cheerful daughter who seems to be continuing the family tradition of meddling in her loved ones’ love lives as her lovelorn father prepares to move on in memory of Tora, the free spirited fool.


Tora-san, Wish You Were Here streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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)

The Little House (小さいおうち, Yoji Yamada, 2014)

the-little-houseIf there is a frequent criticism directed at the always bankable director Yoji Yamada, it’s that his approach is one which continues to value the past over the future. Recent years have seen him looking back, literally, in terms of both themes and style with remakes of films by two Japanese masters – Ozu in his Tokyo Story homage Tokyo Family, and Kon Ichikawa in Her Brother. While he chose to update both of those pieces for the modern day, 2008’s Kabei sent him back to the traumatic years of militarism and warfare for a story of maternal sacrifice and national tragedy. The Little House (小さいおうち, Chiisai Ouchi) brings this recent meandering around the past full circle with its deliberately Ozu-esque aesthetic and flashback tale of atonement as one woman leaves the truth she could never bear to speak on paper as a last dying confession.

After the death of his great-aunt Taki (Chieko Baisho), who never married and has no other family besides himself, his sister, and father, Takeshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) discovers a biscuit box with his name on it filled with keepsakes and the conclusion of a kind of autobiography he’d been encouraging Taki to write in the last few months of her life. Cutting back and forth between the contemporary interactions of the older Taki and her great-nephew, and the younger Taki’s (Haru Kuroki) life as a Tokyo maid from the mid-1930s to the end of the war, The Little House takes its cues from The Go Between as an innocent bystander becomes the unwilling guardian of a secret the holding of which will prove to be a lifelong burden.

An 18 year old girl in 1935 from a poor family in Japan’s frozen North, Taki’s options are few – early marriage, geisha house, or maid. All things considered, maid is the best option and Taki is thrilled to be travelling to the big city with all of its untold excitements. After a spell working for a famous novelist, Taki becomes the housekeeper of the “Little House” – a curiously cute Western style cottage with a bright red roof out in the suburbs. Her mistress, Tokiko (Takako Matsu), is an oddly flighty woman, fiercely independent of spirit but living within the confines of her time. Crisis approaches the family not with the onset of war but with the arrival of Mr. Hirai’s sensitive, artistic, colleague, Shoji (Hidetaka Yoshioka), whose softly spoken ways quickly find their way into Tokiko’s heart.

In fact, The Little House, is not a million miles away from an expansion of a similar narrative device previously employed in Kabei but this time Tokiko is no pillar of strength, singlehandedly upholding the traditionally saintly virtues of the Japanese mother but a flesh and blood woman caught in the storm of a turbulent era. Taki becomes our passive observer as she sits, almost invisibly, in the corner of every scene, unwilling chaperone or accidental accomplice. As she witnesses the growing attraction between Tokiko and Shoji begin to spark into something more dangerous she finds herself conflicted, not knowing the best way to help her mistress. Should Tokiko be discovered, it wouldn’t just be a scandal leading to the end of a marriage, but considering the stringency of the times the outcome could be far more serious for all concerned.

When Takeshi eventually meets Tokiko’s son Kyoichi (Masakane Yonekura), he echoes many of the older Taki’s sentiments but adds that it was an era in which everyone was “forced to make an unwilling choice”. Taki finds herself forced to choose between action and inaction and does something she thinks is for the best, but is then forced to live with the suffering of wondering if she did the right thing.

The film does not seem entirely clear on her motives for her choice – it half commits to a possible love triangle between Taki, Tokiko, and Shoji by emphasising Taki and Shoji’s shared Northern roots and by Shoji’s subsequent inclusion of both women in his artwork. Taki, however, seems to be looking more to her mistress than her suitor, wanting nothing other than to stay in the Little House with Tokiko and Kyoichi for evermore. A later scene featuring a “mannish” university friend of Tokiko seems to reinforce the directions of Taki’s unspoken desire, though if her declaration of loyalty to the Little House following a disastrous marriage proposal was intended to voice it, it falls on deaf ears.

This being the case, Taki and Shoji become almost mirrors of each other – each somehow on pause, still living inside the Little House long after it ceased to exist. The loss of the Little House is not just the destruction of a building but the obliteration of everything it stood for, not only in terms of Taki’s investment in the family who live there, but in its evocation of early Showa dreams, individuality and innocence.

As the well educated Takeshi points out, Taki’s memories are often too rosy to tally with the history books, but even given the grimness of the times as they seem in hindsight, she has a right to the romanticism of her youth. The increasingly difficult political circumstances rarely impinge on the female centred domestic environment, but are made felt firstly through the husband’s toy business which begins by chasing the Chinese market and then is reduced to making wooden toys only and trying to marry off its eligible employees to woo more investment, and through the family’s excitement about the upcoming Tokyo Olympic games which are subsequently canceled. Tokiko’s later exclamation of “Isn’t it awful everything’s disappearing” does not just refer to the sudden absence of luxury from soaps to previously ordinary foodstuffs, but to her whole bourgeois way of life suddenly brought crashing down by a series of events she has no control over.

Yamada channels Ozu with initially distracting obviousness both in the contemporary and period sequences, matching his famous compositions from the straight to camera dialogue to the mid level tatami mat view and propensity for shooting through corridors and doorways. The world of the Little House is a curiously artificial one as Yamada shoots on an obvious stage set complete with tiny twinkling lights for stars which both looks forward to the artwork at the film’s conclusion and signals its nature as an unreal, constructed, environment existing only within Taki’s memory. Were it not that the Ozu compositions creep into the contemporary sequences, it could almost be read as a representation of Takeshi’s internal dramatisation of Taki’s memoirs as mediated through classic cinema.

The Little House is, indeed, resolutely old fashioned. Far too subtle for its own good, The Little House is an exercise in restraint in which the central love triangle never even hits the simmer, let alone the boil. Given the well trodden nature of the narrative, even the most inattentive viewer will have correctly guessed the big reveal well before Takeshi puts two and two together, rendering the final explanatory segment entirely redundant. Never quite as affecting as it would like to be, The Little House is a muted experience, perpetually pulling back each time it approaches doing something more interesting with its material. Nevertheless, it does provide an interesting perspective on its period setting as its collection of tragically romantic heroes march forward blindly into a maelstrom of oncoming destruction.


HK trailer (English/traditional Chinese subs)

Golden Slumber (ゴールデンスランバー, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2010)

golden-slumberYoshihiro Nakamura has made a name for himself as a master of fiendishly intricate, warm and quirky mysteries in which seemingly random events each radiate out from a single interconnected focus point. Golden Slumber (ゴールデンスランバー), like The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker, and Fish Story, is based on a novel by Kotaro Isaka and shares something of the same structure but is far less interested in the mystery itself rather than the man who finds himself caught up in it.

30 year old delivery driver Aoyagi (Masato Sakai) is all set for a nice day out fishing with an old college buddy, Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka), but he’s about to discover that it’s he’s been hooked and reeled in as the patsy in someone else’s elaborate assassination plot. After grabbing some fast food, Morita takes Aoyagi to a parked car near the closed off area through which the Prime Minster is due to be paraded in an open topped car. Waking up after a brief period of drug induced sedation, Aoyagi is made aware that this has all been a trick – badly in debt thanks to his wife’s pachinko addiction, Morita has betrayed him to a set of undisclosed bad guys with unclear motives and is taking this brief opportunity to give him as much warning as he can. Sure enough, a bomb goes off at the parade and Aoyagi just manages to escape before Morita too is the victim of an explosion.

Aoyagi is now very confused and on the run. Inexplicably, the police seem to have CCTV footage of him in places he’s never been and doing things he’s never done. If he’s going to survive any of this, he’s going to need some help but caught between old friends and new, trust has just become his most valuable commodity.

At heart, Golden Slumber is a classic Wrong Man narrative yet it refuses to follow the well trodden formula in that it isn’t so much interested in restoring the protagonist to his former life unblemished as it is in giving him a new one. The well known Beatles song Golden Slumber which runs throughout the film plays into its neatly nostalgic atmosphere as each of the now 30 year old college friends find themselves looking back into those care free, joyous days before of the enormity of their adult responsibilities took hold. That is to say, aside from Aoyagi himself who seems to have been muddling along amiably before all of this happened to him, unmarried and working a dead end delivery job.

As Morita tells him in the car, it’s all about image. The nature of the conspiracy and the identity of the perpetrators is not the main the main thrust of the film, but the only possible motive suggested for why Aoyagi has been chosen stems back to his unexpected fifteen minutes of fame two years previously when he saved a pop idol from an intruder with a nifty judo move (taught to him by Morita in uni) after fortuitously arriving with a delivery. Those behind the conspiracy intend to harness his still vaguely current profile to grab even more media attention with a local hero turned national villain spin. The Prime Minister, it seems, was a constantly controversial, extreme right wing demagogue with a tendency for making off the cuff offensive statements so there are those who’d rather congratulate Aoyagi than bring him to justice, but anyone who’s ever met him knows none of this can really be true despite the overwhelming video evidence.

Throughout his long odyssey looking for “the way back home” as the song puts it, Aoyagi begins to remember relevant episodes from his life which may feed back into his current circumstances. Although it seems as if Aoyagi had not seen Morita in some time (he knew nothing of his family circumstances, for example) his college friends with whom he wasted time “reviewing” junk food restaurants and chatting about conspiracy theories are still the most important people in his life. Not least among them is former girlfriend Haruko (Yuko Takeuchi), now married and the mother of a little daughter, who seems to still be carrying a torch for her old flame and is willing to go to great lengths to help him in his current predicament.

The film seems mixed on whether these hazy college days are the “golden slumber”, a beautiful dream time enhanced by memory to which it is not possible to return, or whether it refers to Aoyagi’s post college life which impinges on the narrative only slightly when he asks an unreliable colleague for help, aside from an accidental moment of heroic celebrity. It could even refer to the film’s conclusion which, departing from the genre norms, resolves almost nothing save for the hero’s neat evasion of the trap (aided by the vexed conspirators who eventually opt for a plan B). Once there might have been a road home – a way back to the past and the renewing of old friendships, but this road seems closed now, severed by the new beginning promised to Aoyagi who has been robbed of his entire identity and all but the memory of his past. Whether this means that the golden slumber has ended and Aoyagi, along with each of the other nostalgia bound protagonists, must now wake up and start living the life he’s been given, or that the old Aoyagi has been consigned to the realm of golden slumbers, may be a matter for debate.

Though the resolution may appear ultimately unsatisfying, the preceding events provide just enough interconnected absurdity to guide it through. During his long journey, Aoyagi is aided not just by his old friends but new ones too including a very strange young serial killer (Gaku Hamada) and a hospital malingerer with one foot in the “underworld” (Akira Emoto). It speaks to Aoyagi’s character that all of those who know him trust him implicitly and are ready to help without even being asked (even if they occasionally waver under pressure), and even those who are meeting him for the first time are compelled to come to his defence.  An elliptical, roundabout tale of the weight of nostalgia and inescapability of regret, Golden Slumber is the story of a man on the run from his future which eventually becomes a net he cannot escape.


Original trailer (English subtitles – select via menu)

Grasshopper (グラスホッパー, Tomoyuki Takimoto, 2015)

grasshopperThe best revenge is living well, but the three damaged individuals at the centre of Tomoyuki Takimoto’s Grasshopper (グラスホッパー) might need some space before they can figure that out. Reuniting with Brain Man star Toma Ikuta, Takimoto moves away from the more overtly sci-fi elements but maintains a level of everyday strangeness that adds weight to this standard B-movie affair. A revenge thriller in which revenge itself is shown to be a fallacy, Grasshopper manages to mix its grimy grind house violence aesthetic with an oddly hopeful view of human nature.

One tragedy connects three very different people. Halloween, Shibuya – a crazed man at the wheel of a 4×4 receives a phone call instructing him to “crush all those bugs”, because he’s “the saviour”. The man obeys and plows into the holiday revellers crushing them like insects under his wheels. One victim, Yuriko (Haru), who died pushing a child out of harm’s way happened to be the fiancée of middle school science teacher, Suzuki (Toma Ikuta). Revisiting the spot where she fell, Suzuki unexpectedly receives a letter informing him that the events which occurred at Halloween were not as straightforward as the media asserts and he should set about investigating the father and son working at “Fraulein”. His mind burning with thoughts of vengeance, Suzuki abandons his old life and launches himself headlong into the criminal underworld in search of answers.

Meanwhile, the evil kingpins at the centre of things have sent their ace hitman with a difference, Kujira (Tadanobu Asano), to silence a troublesome reporter. Kujira’s unusual assassination method involves a kind of hypnosis in which he forces his victims to acknowledge their darkest sins and eventually commit suicide. Though this sounds like the ideal plan for evading detection, the gangsters are nervous that Kujira has learned to much through his near death conversations with his targets and send a duo of slightly less competent killers on his trail. This leads us to our third strand – sociopathic blade wielding killer, Semi (Ryosuke Yamada), and his stray cat rescuing handler, Iwanishi (Jun Murakami).

Suzuki finds himself out of his depth in the murky, crime ridden underworld. Talking to yet another hitman he crosses paths with, Suzuki is offered the grasshopper analogy which lies at the centre of the film. Pusher (Hidetaka Yoshioka) tells him that unlike regular migratory locusts which are generally green, there is a mutant breed which undergoes a “swarm phase” in which their wings grown darker and longer, becoming ever more destructive in the quest to feed themselves in a crowded environment. People, Pusher claims, are no different. The film is filled with these mutant insects, crushing their fellow humans like roaches under boots, yet there’s something to be said for the migratory guys who keep moving and oppose the mutant breed through stealth and cunning.

Each of the three men is looking for a kind of revenge even if it’s ultimately self inflicted. Unusual hitman Kujira has hit the assassin’s version of angel wings in that he can see the faces of all the men and women he has killed, quite literally haunting his every move and offering a running commentary on his life. Setting out for vengeance against the men who’ve ordered his death, Kujira knows he’s nearing the end of his path yet before he gets there he will have to face off against Semi with whom he has no particular quarrel despite having just given Semi a reason to seek vengeance against him. Semi’s quest for revenge is pointed at Kujira but their mutual need for satisfaction will destroy each of them whilst also bringing them together as equals.

Everything prior to the fateful Halloween is bathed in golden light where warm colours predominate in Suzuki’s fond memories of his fiancée, but everything after is dark, reds and blacks tinged with insect green as grasshoppers swarm like harbingers of a great evil. Revenge itself is constantly frustrated and ultimately swept away from each party by shadowy forces secretly working against the darkness. Nothing is quite as it seems, no one is quite telling the truth. Yet as deep as the original conspiracy goes, the counter conspiracy consistently exceeds it.

Filled with impressive action sequences from Semi’s well choreographed balletic knife displays to large scale crowd scenes and good old fashioned fist fights, Grasshopper owns its down and dirty origins but reinvigorates them with a degree of modern sophistication. Yuriko, a soup chef, insists that the true secret ingredient in her cooking is genuine emotion – that this is what’s left behind when everything else is gone. Suzuki could choose to dive inside his cocoon of unresolved vengeance for the rest of his life but that would not have been what Yuriko wanted for him. In this anti-revenge drama, vengeance is the fallacy that detracts from the truth – that the ultimate form of revenge is learning to live with the past rather than wasting time settling scores.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Kei Kumai, 2002)

The Sea is WatchingAkira Kurosawa’s later career was marred by personal crises related to his inability to obtain the kind of recognition for his films he’d been used to in his heyday during the golden age of Japanese cinema. His greatest dream was to die on the set, but after suffering a nasty accident in 1995 he was no longer able to realise his ambition of directing again. However, shortly after he died, the idea was floated of filming some of the scripts Kurosawa had written but never proceed with to the production stage including The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Umi wa Miteita) which he wrote in 1993. Based on a couple of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto, The Sea is Watching would have been quite an interesting entry in Kurosawa’s back catalogue as it’s a rare female led story focussing on the lives of two geisha in Edo era Japan.

Throughout this tale of love bought and love lost, we mainly follow the kindly geisha Oshin (Nagiko Tono) who ends up helping a nervous young man one night when he crashes into her geisha house in an attempt to avoid being picked up by the police. It seems he’s been out drinking with friends for the first time and, after having drunk far too much, may have stabbed another customer (though he can’t quite remember). Oshin comes up with a plan by cutting off his topknot and passing him off as one of her regular customers but Funosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) is not a born dissembler and remains sitting bolt upright before heading home at the first light of day.

Something passes between the two in the night and Oshin unwisely begins to fall in love. Though she begs him not too, Funosuke repeatedly visits her claiming to enjoy her company. However, though the other girls at the geisha house are in favour of Oshin’s love across the class divides romance and go to great lengths to help her, Funosuke is just a feckless boy completely unaware of the way he’s been toying with people’s hearts. Later, Oshin meets another damaged man, Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), and begins to fall in love again but can a put upon geisha ever believe the words of men who think they can trade money for love?

Kurosawa has sometimes had the charge of misogyny thrown at him, somewhat unfairly, as his films are often very masculine in nature. The Sea is Watching, conversely, is the story of two women, Oshin and her fellow geisha Okikuno (Misa Shimizu), who claims to have come from a wealthy samurai background. Oshin is still young, her kindness and softness have not yet been eroded by the often harsh and cruel world in which she lives. She contents herself with romantic dreams of finding a man who will rescue her from this unpleasant way of life. Okikuno, by contrast, is older, harder, more experienced in the ways of the world, and therefore more inclined to towards pragmatism. She finds her salvation in self deception about the past whereas Oshin’s fantasies are all focussed on her future. In many ways the women are mirrors of each other but they also have a tight, sisterly bond in which each seems to understand the other perfectly without the need for explanation.

Structurally, the film feels unbalanced as it focusses more heavily on Oshin in the early stages only to gradually shift through to Okikuno by the end. The thematic split between Oshin’s twin tales of love doesn’t quite help, though it does add a degree of pathos to the situation as Okikuno can see that Oshin’s happy ever after is an unlikely prospect, but still somehow wants to make it happen. Oddly, Kumai chooses not to emphasis the relationship between the two women until the very end, preferring to deal with each of their disappointments and dead end romances separately, but the film does finally come together when they are trapped alone in the geisha house following a freak flood.

In many ways, filming the unfinished work of a great director is an entirely thankless task – every fault is because you aren’t him and every success is down to the departed genius, but Kumai does what he can to both honour Kurosawa’s memory and put his own stamp on the material. There are frequent Kurosawa-esque compositions and the final, deliberately unreal scene of the geisha house underwater framed against the starry sky also has a suitably Kurosawan feeling. That said, something about The Sea is Watching never quite catches fire, its symbolism feels underworked and the final, climactic scene lacks the power it seems to want to have despite Misa Shimizu’s impressive performance. Not drowning, but waving, The Sea is Watching is an uneven experience but makes up for its tonal problems through the strong performances of its cast and powerful, expressionist imagery which allow it to successfully ride the waves of the emotional storms at its centre.


The Sea is Watching is available on DVD with English subtitles in the US and UK from Sony Pictures Entertainment.

US release trailer:

Poppoya (鉄道員, Yasuo Furuhata, 1999)

img_0The late Ken Takakura is best remembered as cinema’s original hard man but when the occasion arose he could provoke the odd tear or two just the same. 1999’s Poppoya (鉄道員) directed by frequent collaborator Yasuo Furuhata sees him once again playing the tough guy with a battered heart only this time he’s an ageing station master of a small town in deepest snow country which was once a prosperous mining village but is now a rural backwater.

Otomatsu Sato has spent his life in service to the railway. Like his father before him who believed the key to the modernisation of Japan after its defeat in the second world war was in its transportation network, Sato started as an engineer before being promoted to station master. Morning and evening in the freezing cold he bid in and sent out each passenger and freight train travelling through his one track station. However, though he clearly loves his job Sato has experienced a great deal of personal tragedy in pursuit of his career. He wasn’t there when his baby daughter died, nor was he there when his wife lay dying in hospital. He was where he always is, on the platform until the last train goes out. Now, however, the mine has closed, the town is full of old people and there are no passengers on the train so the line will be closing. Having given his life to something which will be so unceremoniously erased, what is a man like Sato to do now?

In true Takakura fashion, Sato appears tough and fairly unapproachable on the outside but actually he’s quite well respected in the town and even if some of the other residents bemoan his rigid ways, they grudgingly respect him for being the way he is. He takes his duties seriously and would never countenance breaching them for something as trivial as personal concerns, even when those concerns are something as understandable as the death of a family member. The way he sees things, this is his duty and must be fulfilled, properly each day no matter what. This may seem a little obsequious in Western eyes, though many of the other (particularly female) characters also agree Sato takes things much further than he needs to, but dedication to one’s duty is, after all, an admirable trait.

However, now it’s all been for nowt. The railway line is to be closed, the land will engulf it once again erasing the years of Sato’s work just as if he were never there. He’s sacrificed final moments with his wife and child – not even that, just sacrificed moments. He’s given all to the railway and now there’s no place left there for him. His best friend, the father of a son also in the railway business, is to take another job at a hotel complex but Sato is a railwayman through and through – he’ll work on the tracks or not at all.

Around this time Sato also starts seeing some strange new children around. He assumes they’ve come to stay with grandparents in the village, this being the time of the New Year holiday. The little one has a strangely old fashioned looking doll that reminds Sato of one he bought for his infant daughter only she never really had the chance to enjoy it. Then he meets an older sister who’s kind of a live wire before meeting the oldest – a high school student dressed in an old fashioned looking uniform who really reminds him of someone he used to know. All these strange encounters force Sato to further re-examine his past, reliving old regrets and assessing a life lived in service to an ideal at the expense of the joy he might have felt as a happy family man.

Beautifully photographed with picturesque shots of trains against the deep snows of Northern Japan, Poppoya was Japan’s submission for the 1999 Oscars and does have all the trappings of a prestige melodrama. It unabashedly pulls at the hearts strings and even if the rather sentimental score takes things too far, Poppoya does nevertheless manage to draw the odd tear for Sato’s lonely, regretful old age. Sentimental yet genuinely affecting, Poppoya is an effectively crafted weepy which serves as a timely reminder to embrace the things which are most important to you while there’s still time.


The Hong Kong blu-ray release of Poppoya includes English subtitles (though they are a little “imperfect”).

Only trailer I can find has Korean subs: