Five Scouts (五人の斥候兵, Tomotaka Tasaka, 1938)

five scouts still 3War, in Japanese cinema, had been largely relegated to the samurai era until militarism took hold and the nation embarked on wide scale warfare mixed with European-style empire building in the mid-1930s. Tomotaka Tasaka’s Five Scouts (五人の斥候兵, Gonin no Sekkohei) is often thought to be the first true Japanese war film, shot on location in Manchuria and trying to put a patriotic spin on its not entirely inspiring central narrative. Like many directors of the era, Tasaka is effectively directing a propaganda film but he neatly sidesteps bold declarations of the glory of war for a less controversial praise of the nobility of the Japanese soldier who longs to die bravely for the Emperor and lives only to defend his friends.

The film opens with an exciting action sequence playing behind the titles featuring impressive scenes of battle with mortar shells exploding while soldiers run over trenches before entrenching themselves with a light machine gun. Eventually the day is won – after a fashion. Having lost 120 men, the 80 surviving of the 200 strong company settle-in to a fortified position awaiting further orders.

The excitement of the battlefield soon gives way to behind the lines boredom. Danger lurks around every corner, but there is work to be done. The men dig trenches, clean their weapons, draw water, cook and eat but they also try to live, chatting or enjoying the “spoils of war” which in this case amount to stolen watermelons and captured ducks. In quiet moments they dream of sukiyaki and of home, but are content in each other’s company and as cheerful as it’s possible to be given the seriousness of their circumstances.

When two enemy soldiers are detected on the perimeter, a squad of five scouts is sent out to investigate but find themselves lost in the confusing Chinese terrain and eventually come under heavy fire. Worryingly enough, only one of the soldiers makes it back in good time with the others remaining unaccounted for until they eventually arrive save one who no one can remember seeing since the beginning of the attack and whose helmet has been found in an abandoned trench.

Tasaka refuses to glorify the business of war. What the men experience is rain and mud and sorrow, not an exultation in male virility and the politics of strength. He does however fulfil his propaganda requirements in demonstrating the army’s dedication to the Emperor. The commanding officer’s final rousing speech reminds his troops that now is the time they are expected to “repay the benevolence of the Emperor” whilst also emphasising that the hopes and dreams of the Japanese people are invested in them and, even if their families at home are worried for their safety, they are also proud of their sons fighting proudly for their homeland so far away from home.

The men too display the appropriate level of patriotic fervour, breaking off to wave at a Japanese plane before dragging out a giant banner to show their support and each remaining committed to serving even when physically compromised. One soldier with a bullet lodged in his arm, violently rejects the idea of going to a field hospital even though there is a strong chance that his arm will need to be amputated if they do not remove the bullet in due time. The soldier pleads to be allowed to stay on the front line, claiming that he does not mind losing an arm if it means he gets to stay and help his comrades. His comrades, touched by his dedication, nevertheless urge him to get his arm seen to by subtly suggesting that his desire to remain on the frontline is a kind of vanity when his effectiveness is compromised. His arm, technically speaking, does belong to the army and the Emperor after all. Another soldier, not so lucky, exclaims he can see Japan as he lays dying, singing the first verse of the national anthem before finally giving up the ghost.

As the men march off towards the final battle following the rousing speech from their commander who warns that many will die, they do so melancholically rather than with eagerness to sacrifice themselves on an imperial altar. Tasaka stages the battle scenes with impressive realism, drawing inspiration from news reel footage to capture the immediacy and energy of the live battlefield, filming on location behind the lines in Manchuria for added effect. The behind the lines sequences are intentionally less dynamic and conventionally captured, allowing the tedium and the anxiety of a soldier’s life of waiting to take centre-stage. Tasaka’s film may seem naive and perhaps lacks the initial impact of the shock of seeing such visceral action scenes portrayed on screen for the first time, but it is also mildly subversive in its subtle rejection of the militarist lust for glory even whilst heaping praise on the ideal soldier’s love of Emperor, comradeship, and strong sense of duty and honour.


Her Brother (おとうと, Kon Ichikawa, 1960)

ototoPerhaps oddly for a director of his generation, Kon Ichikawa is not particularly known for family drama yet his 1960 effort, Her Brother (おとうと, Ototo), draws strongly on this genre albeit with Ichikawa’s trademark irony. A Taisho era tale based on an autobiographically inspired novel by Aya Koda, Her Brother is the story of a sister’s unconditional love but also of a woman who is, in some ways, forced to sacrifice herself for her family precisely because of their ongoing emotional neglect.

Oldest daughter Gen (Keiko Kishi) is still in school though she’s more or less running the household seeing as her invalid step-mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) spends most of her time bedridden with rheumatism and the rest of it pontificating about religion and listening to her poisonous friend (Kyoko Kishida) who likes to stir up trouble in this already difficult family environment. Gen’s father (Masayuki Mori) is a well known writer who needs a lot of quiet time for his work. As fathers go he’s very laid back and content to think his kids will be OK because they’re his kids, which isn’t to say he doesn’t care but he’s not exactly present most of the time. It’s no surprise then that care of the family’s youngest, Hekiro (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), has largely fallen to his sister. Where Gen is naturally responsible and practically minded, Hekiro is reckless and always in search of adventure. Eventually this lands him in trouble when he gets involved with a bad crowd but whatever his family might have been feeling towards him, everything changes once they discover that he’s facing a serious illness.

Because of the family’s odd arrangement, Gen has become almost a maternal figure towards Hekiro despite only being a couple of years older than he is. In fact, the pair have an almost comically childish physical fight at one point which is quite undignified considering their ages, especially when it involves staining their tatami mat floor with a puddle of bright red ink. Gen does her best but like her father she more often than not lets Hekiro off the hook by bailing him out, much of the time with her own rather than her father’s money. Not having the kind of authority a parent, uncle, or aunt might have all she can really do is ask him to think about behaving better, but Hekiro constantly pushes the boundaries to get a more concrete form of attention than his sister’s well meaning attempts to help are able to provide.

Hekiro’s stunts  eventually threaten to pull his sister into his darkening world, especially when a man claiming to be a detective starts more or less stalking Gen before pulling her into a shrine on the pretext of talking about her brother’s case before trying to have his wicked way with her. Luckily Gen is saved by a flock of geese cunningly released by some of her brother’s friends which gives her enough time to escape and finally get rid of the odious little man.

Similarly, Hekiro deliberately introduces his sister to the local pool hall. Though Gen seems to enjoy the game and is even good at it, she quickly realises she’s been brought as a sort of guarantor for her brother’s mounting debts. Add in other expensive and dangerous hobbies like his boat habit (he can’t swim) and it’s not surprising everyone’s had enough of Hekiro before he’s even left school. When he has an accident which results in the death of a horse (again, very expensive), it does at least lead him to reflect on the negative effect his actions can have on those around him, even if all he wanted and continues to want is an escape from his boring and miserable family life.

Even Hekiro’s illness fails to arouse very much in the way of concern from his well meaning father and grumpy step-mother who is hellbent on marrying Gen off against her wishes. Gen is, again, the only one to nurse Hekiro in hospital, managing the household as well as looking after her brother on his sickbed. When the illness becomes more serious it provides a last opportunity for the family members to bond and make amends for the various ways they’ve failed each other. The step-mother’s visit is not as altruistic as it seems when it transpires she’s only really come to “convert” Hekiro to her religion, but she begins to feel something more for him on believing that Jesus has already saved him thanks to his outwardly calm and polite manner. The final irony is that the idealised family is only born as it is destroyed, Gen puts her pinny back on and takes the reins from her stepmother who is presumably headed straight back to bed.

Gen’s devotion can’t save her brother either from himself or his fate and it may even be the end of her too. Vowing never to marry and rising from her own sickbed stopping only to instruct her stepmother to rest, she’s very clearly chosen her path even if Ichikawa’s camera and musical cues seem to find the ironic comedy of the situation rather than the sadness of her possibly tragic plight. Ichikawa and his cinematographer invented a whole new technique for this picture – the bleach bypass, which appropriately robs the environment of its vibrancy, dulling even bright colours with a sort of heavy leaded effect perfectly reflecting Hekiro’s increasingly depressed mindset as he reflects on being someone who has no firm anchor or place to feel at home. A strange, comically melancholic piece, Her Brother is a characteristically sideways swipe at the family drama from the master of irony though one which does not altogether escape his taste for the sentimental.


Original trailer (not subtitles)

Where Chimneys are Seen (煙突の見える場所, Heinosuke Gosho, 1953)

vlcsnap-2016-07-07-01h01m06s792Where Chimneys are Seen (煙突の見える場所, Entotsu no Mieru Basho) is widely regarded as on of the most important films of the immediate post-war era, yet it remains little seen outside of Japan and very little of the work of its director, Heinosuke Gosho, has ever been released in English speaking territories. Like much of Gosho’s filmography, Where Chimneys are Seen devotes itself to exploring the everyday lives of ordinary people, in this case a married couple and their two upstairs lodgers each trying to survive in precarious economic circumstances whilst also coming to terms with the traumatic recent past.

Ryukichi Ogata (Ken Uehara) is our primary narrator, introducing us to his humble circumstances and, for the moment, happy home. He’s married to a cheerful and kindly woman, Hiroko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who was widowed during the war, and the couple rent out their upstairs to a man, Kenzo (Hiroshi Akutagawa), and a woman, Senko (Hideko Takamine) , who aren’t a couple but each rent a room separately. They’re desperately poor, so much so that they have complicated measures in place to try and avoid having any children – a luxury which they can in no way contemplate. However, unbeknownst to Ryukichi, Hiroko has taken on a part-time job outside the home by working at the bicycle races. He’s upset by this because he resents feeling as if his wife has been hiding things from him, though his pride is wounded too. The worry planted in his mind by the idea of not knowing everything there is to know about his wife’s past is brought to the fore when a baby is suddenly abandoned on their doorstep with a note claiming to be from Hiroko’s first husband which states this is “her” child and she ought to look after it from now on.

The titular “magic” chimneys belong to a large scale factory and, in truth, there are four of them, but depending on where you stand they blend into each other, increasing or decreasing in number. This rundown, backwater town is a three chimney sort of place – not quite rock bottom, but almost. All anyone can think about is trying to keep their head above the water and food on the table. Upstairs lodger Senko works as a public announcer in the shopping district along with another woman who has a rather different approach to life and is in some kind of compensatory relationship with a businessman whom she’s apparently going to marry. Senko is a little upset about this, possibly envious, but at any rate is going to lose a friend at work and in a way she doesn’t entirely approve of. At one point she declares that she envies the baby in one sense – children are allowed to cry whenever they want and make as much noise as they please, but adults are expected to grin and bear it no matter how painful it might be.

Kenzo, by contrast, is a government official in that he’s a kind of bailiff trying to enforce taxation fines and threatening to seize the property of those that can’t pay. This kind of work contrasts strongly with his sense of social justice as he can see that most of the people he visits just don’t have the means to pay but do have plenty of other problems of their own, what good will it serve turning them out onto the streets? Predictably he’s developed a bit of a crush on Senko though given both of their dire financial circumstances, he’s afraid to pursue it. His need for “justice” sends him out on a quest to track down Hiroko’s former husband and find out what’s really going on though his investigation takes far longer than expected and soon begins to depress him. When eventually uncovered, the facts of the matter shock and upset, leaving Kenzo wishing that he’d never bothered in the first place.

Having gone to so much trouble to avoid having children (they have a very prominently marked calendar hanging on the wall), that Ryukichi and Hiroko should be saddled with an abandoned child is especially ironic though the baby serves as more than a physical burden, becoming a manifestation of a hitherto buried past. Both of the women in the film have suffered heavily in the war. Hiroko lost her entire family and was reduced to stealing scraps of discarded food behind the evacuation centre. After losing everything she came to resent the whole of humanity for becoming involved in this senseless war and just wanted to live alone, but came to feel a life of mere subsistence was not worth living. She got herself a new family register and started again planning not to look back. She didn’t tell Ryukichi much about her former life because she wanted to forget it, it was painful to her.

Senko had similar experiences, losing family members in extremely cruel ways leaving her with a degree of resistance to forming new bonds. The baby, perhaps a temporary visitor, perhaps not, forces them to reconsider their choices, reawakening an emotional connection that had been severed due to the war’s hardships. The past is quite literally visited upon them, but how they decide to deal with it is very much a matter for the present. In the end, this extreme stress test on the various relationships of the central characters proves effective as their bonds eventually strengthen rather than break.

Using the four chimneys as an effective, if occasionally overworked, metaphor, Gosho remains resolutely non-judgemental, reminding us that things often look very different depending on where you stand. Everybody here is struggling, but everyone is trying to survive. If the film has a central message, it’s that you have to let the past go. The “right time” may never come, so you just have to make the best of things now. Happiness is fragile, but possible, if only you can learn to accept the various compromises which necessarily accompany it.


Giants & Toys (巨人と玩具, Yasuzo Masumura, 1958)

91C6JzGDYTL._SL1500_Less acerbic than Masumura’s later Black Test Car, Giants & Toys (巨人と玩具, Kyojin to gangu) is an altogether more humorous, if no less piercing look at post-war consumerism. This time the battle ground is confectionary as the Japanese sweets industry laments the all powerful American candies taking over the Japanese landscape. Three sweet companies are duking it out for the hearts of Japanese consumers and the hard working salarymen in the PR & marketing departments are becoming ever more desperate to find the key to becoming Japan’s top selling sweet maker.

The three companies are Giant, Apollo and World. Each of whom are currently trying to come up with an advertising campaign which has a competition element that will really hook in the populace. Our main focus is with World whose top PR man, Goda, is currently stumped when he spots quirky hillbilly Kyoko in a bar and hatches on an idea to make her the central poster girl of his ad campaign. Kyoko is 18 with gap teeth and a childlike innocence that makes her a great fit for selling their confectionary products to the adult market. At the same time, Goda’s assistant Nishi meets an older female executive from Apollo who’s trying to shift a set of spacesuits. This fits in neatly with another of Goda’s space themed ideas and a suitably bizarre campaign is launched with the gangly Kyoko dressed up in a kitsch spacesuit and pointing a ray gun which is somehow supposed to encourage people to buy sweets. Kyoko is a hit! However, the more popular Kyoko becomes the more her innocent charms begin to dissipate. What will become of her, and of the campaign, as the competition mounts?

For an area that’s supposed to be so totally frivolous and cheerful, confectionary sales are serious business. Goda is working himself into an early grave just to sell sweets to grownups and old people. It’s advertising and marketing but like everything else in life it’s just so much spin. What they’re really trying to sell is frivolous fun and a return to childhood’s freedom all packed into a momentary suck on a salted caramel. In the Japan where “everyone works all the time” this may be quite an attractive idea, especially to the put upon members of the confectionary marketing board.

However, trivial as sweets are, they represent the fleeting unimportance of pop culture memes. During one of Kyoko’s recording sessions we meet one of the solitary female producers (labled a “machine” by two of the other women waiting to be seen) who laments that a has been star keeps hassling her for work though her time has passed and no one’s interested. This is most likely how things will wind up for Kyoko, five minutes of being everywhere followed by a lifetime of being nowhere at all. After signing with World for their TV and radio advertising she becomes a break out personality attending events as a celebrity in her own right and later even becoming a pop star complete with a totally strange, South Pacific themed musical number referencing some kind of cannibalistic genocide where they’ll sell back the remains of the men they’ve killed to the native wives. Pointed satire in more ways than one.

Goda wants to build a kind of mass media dictatorship, cleverly controlling the public mood through all pervasive advertising (a prescient thought, if ever there was one). Having taken things too far, he’s taken to task by his underling, Nishi, who’s had a bit of a rethink following a series of heartbreaks involving friends and lovers. “I won’t sacrifice my dignity” he says, only to be shown doing just that a couple of minutes later as he himself dons the ridiculously camp space suit, takes the ray gun in hand and wanders out into the streets to be met by a series of bemused stares from the passersby. Eventually, the woman from Apollo with whom he’d been having an affair spots him and with an equally amused expression instructs him to “smile warmly”, at which point he grimaces before managing to turn it into a robotic grin.

Still oddly current, Giants & Toys is an absurdist’s guide to corporate politics where personal integrity is sacrificed on the altar of commerce. Everyone runs round in circles working hard to sell things no one really wants or needs to other hardworking people just to keep the wheel spinning. Kanban Musume come and go, one ridiculous meme follows another and we all just fall over ourselves to chase whichever unattainable ideal they pitch us. It would be nice to think the world has moved on since 1958, however…


Giants & Toys is available on R1 DVD with English subtitles courtesy of Fantoma.

No trailer but here’s the beautifully bizarre cannibalistic genocide themed music video