Tsukigata Hanpeita (月形半平太, Kokichi Uchide, 1952)

Tusgikata Hanpeita still 1In the midst of post-war confusion, Japanese cinema increasingly looked back to Meiji in all of its chaotic possibility in order to ask what went wrong and what lessons it might have for a second kind of revolution as the nation tried to rebuild itself after decades of militarist folly and chastened wartime defeat. “Tsukigata Hanpeita” (月形半平太) is a “legendary” fictional character first imagined for a kabuki play in 1919 who finds himself swept up in Bakumatsu intrigue as he tries, along with daring revolutionaries Sakamoto Ryoma and Katsura Kogoro, to forge an alliance between the clans of Choshu and Satsuma in order to take on the corrupt shogun in defence of the Emperor and foster a new era of peace in an increasingly uncertain world.

When we first meet him, Tsukigata Hanpeita (Utaemon Ichikawa) is on the run from Kyoto-based special police force the Mimawarigumi but also making time for his mistress, Umematsu (Chizuru Kitagawa) – a geisha. This in particular is a problem which has left him dangerously exposed, even the Mimawarigumi leader Okudaira (Joji Kaieda) seems to be aware of the relationship and is apparently not above using it to his advantage. Meanwhile, he’s not only threatened by shogunate defenders, but by his own side – both by those who remain unconvinced by Sakamoto’s (Jotaro Togami) internationalist philosophy, and by those who simply hold a grudge against Satsuma because of a previous conflict and regard Tsukigata as a traitor for daring to talk to them at all. Despite everything, Tsukigata hides in the shadows and commits himself to living, and if necessary dying, to bring about a better world free of shogunate oppression.

Unlike other revolutionary legends, however, Tsukigata’s fervour has not made him cold or cruel even if he must sometimes act in ways which are mysterious and confuse those around him. Meeting a young man on a bridge, he applauds his studious nature, agreeing that “nothing is more important than to understand advanced civilisation”, and is as polite as he could be when the man tells him he has just joined the Mimawarigumi. Rather than attack or berate him, Tsukigata cheerfully wishes the young man well, allowing him the space to see that his present allegiance to the shogunate is perhaps misguided and out of line with his personal beliefs.

Indeed, his compassion extends even to Okudaira – his mortal enemy. Offering his condolences to a grieving Somehachi (Isuzu Yamada), Tsugikata laments that in a better world he and Okudaira may have been friends, that he had no personal grudge against him despite the fact that they clearly lived on different sides of an ideological divide. He could perhaps even harbour a kind of professional respect for him in his dogged defence of his duty for all he believes it to be misguided. “It’s so unfortunate”, he exclaims, “We have to make the world a better place”.

His desire to change the world is what keeps Tsukigata alive. Several times he faces certain death, but declares but he cannot die now with his great work left unfinished. He is not afraid of death and would gladly give his life in the service of his cause, only not just yet. “Would you please spare my life until I change the world?” he begs of someone he fully believes has a right to kill him, eventually winning their support and unexpected allegiance solely through his guileless goodness.

Yet for all that, his moral austerity does at times perhaps cause him problems in giving rise to emotional confusion. So it is that he winds up in an accidental love triangle with the smitten Somehachi – a former geisha turned madam whose patron is none other than Okudaira, and Umematsu an ageing courtesan with whom he has developed a more or less settled relationship. This is clearly the story of Tsukigata Hanpeita, but more than that it’s the story of the three women who support him without whom the revolution may even be impossible. Somehachi, despite her allegiance to Okudaira, has been a longstanding Tsukigata ally several times helping him escape from the oncoming Mimawarigumi, while Umematsu provides him with safe harbour and occasional message carrying services which is where teenage geisha Hinagiku (Hibari Misora) comes in, acting as a revolutionary go-between with deep-seated political passion.

Speaking strongly of female solidarity, the fallout from the love triangle is eventually minimised by the sisterly geishas who later bond in their shared support of Tsukigata and resolve to put past pettiness behind them. Meanwhile, Tsukigata is deceived by male treachery, only to finally receive the message he’s been waiting for which seems to make everything worthwhile. “I can see the dawn of a new era”, he exclaims, “the new era will be peaceful”. Suddenly he’s not just talking of himself anymore, but directly to the post-war era as he begins to see the way out of a “chaotic society” towards a prosperous future in the faces of his friends united in mutual support and the belief that his better world will soon be a reality.


Apostasy (破戒, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)

Hakai still 1For all his good hearted humanism and intense belief in the simple power of human goodness, the films of Keisuke Kinoshita can also be surprisingly conservative, most particularly in their attachment to the old, pre-war Japan which they often see as unsullied by the corruption and ugliness of the militarist era. A new constitution film, Kinoshita’s adaptation of the Toson Shimazaki novel The Broken Commandment, The Apostasy (破戒, Hakai), opens with a series of bold titles proclaiming “Freedom and equality”, and “respect for human rights” before breaking into an attack on the persistent feudalism which has managed to survive into the new era along with prejudice and contempt. Zooming back to the missed opportunity of Meiji-era liberation, Kinoshita too remains somewhat ambivalent about the the decline of a social order in a Chekhovian lament for the rise of the petty middleman and the fall of noble aristocracy.

In Meiji 35 (1902), despite the advent of the Meiji Restoration and abolishment of the class system, prejudice against the “burakumin” – untouchable “outcasts” who lived in isolated settlements and (historically) made their living in occupations connected with death, was still very much in existence. This is all too apparent to Segawa (Ryo Ikebe). A bright young man, Segawa’s father sent him out of their village to make something of himself with the solemn promise that he must never reveal his burakumin origins to anyone. The world being as it is, however, Segawa is conflicted especially as he has fallen in love with his mentor’s daughter Oshiho (Yoko Katsuragi) and wonders if it would be fair to marry a non-burakumin woman without telling her truth and live with the threat of discovery forever over their heads.

The Broken Commandment would later be adapted again by Kon Ichikawa whose focus is, perhaps quite surprisingly, very different to that of Kinoshita who, uncharacteristically, chooses to prioritise class concerns over the right to live freely and honestly in a compassionate society. Ichikawa’s adaptation deliberately widens the implications of Segawa’s dilemma, making it plain that he is talking not just about burakumin rights but directly to all oppressed peoples and most particularly to those who feel obliged to keep their true natures a secret in an oppressive and conformist society. Strangely, Kinoshita chooses not to engage with this theme which might otherwise seem tailor made for his persistent concerns if perhaps a little close to home, preferring to focus not on Segawa’s gradual shift into accepting his own identity and hearing the call to activism but on the reactions of the changing world around him which seems to be imploding while besuited upstarts enact their petty revenge on the chastened nobility.

This is most clearly seen in the unfair treatment of Segawa’s mentor and landlord, Kazama (Ichiro Sugai) – a former samurai and until recently the local school teacher. Mere months away from his retirement, Kazama has been instructed to resign so that the school will not need to pay his pension while his position has been taken by a pushy local man with limited education whose sole claim to the job is being of the people. Kazama is understandably resentful but stoic. Segawa’s liberal colleague, Tsuchiya (Jukichi Uno), takes the school board to task for its unreasonableness and underhanded attempt to save money by forcing an old man out of his position with no thought for his 30 years of service. Though Tsuchiya might be broadly in agreement with the changes taking place in Meiji-era society, he too worries about the greedy upstarts usurping privilege rather than seeking to eradicate it.

Stepping back for second, Apostasy is a post-war film designed to echo the egalitarian philosophies of the new constitution drawn up under the American occupation. It is then somewhat subversive that our villains are the Westernised lower middle classes of Meiji-era society who seem to have embraced “modernity” by dressing in suits but refuse to abandon ridiculous ancient prejudices such as that towards burakumin, doubtless because those prejudices largely work out in their favour. It would be tempting to read these prejudices as foreign imports, but that against the burakumin is wholly Japanese and truth be told somewhat backward in contrast to (the kimono’d) Tsuchiya’s forward looking socialist beliefs which superficially at least seem more in keeping with the age.

Yet it is in some senses Segawa himself who struggles to emerge from the feudal yoke. His promise to his father is a sacred vow underlined by loss and sacrifice. He feels it is his duty to live as his father wished, as a “normal” Japanese citizen in success and comfort, but also begins to become acutely aware that to do so may be cowardly and selfish. If he chooses to keep his promise to his father and never reveal himself as a burakumin, he will be complicit with the systems which oppress him and thereby ensure those like him will always be oppressed. His awakening comes, in a sense, from a second father – Inoko (Osamu Takizawa), a burakumin who has come out of the closet and loudly fought for burakumin rights along with the general liberty of all oppressed people. Caught between two fathers and his growing love for Oshiho, Segawa remains lost while one of the suited proto-militarists threatens to out him leaving him floundering in the face of intense social stigma and the possibility that those he loves may turn against him.

Segawa has to free himself or risk becoming like Kazama – a man haunted by the feudal past, as Tsuchiya puts it. Kazama himself is painted in broadly sympathetic terms, forced to endure the melancholy fate of being eclipsed by a Lopakhin-esque member of the insurgent middle-classes, but his prejudice is later exposed despite his original support of Segawa when he notices one of the suits smirking at him and instantly feels humiliated, turning his impotent rage back on the outcast as if his presence further dishonours him as a samurai. Segawa’s aim as a teacher had been to teach his children the power of individual thought, which would seem to be the best weapon against prejudice but his message has been cut off at source thanks to the self-interested school board who have been all to quick to claim the benefits of modernity with none of the responsibility. Resolved to fight for a freer future, Segawa finally accepts his responsibility as a burakumin spokesman in the knowledge that his calling is to educate and that only through education can anything ever change. The lessons of Meiji may have gone unheeded, but the opportunity presents itself again to abandon the feudal past in favour of an egalitarian modernity built on fairness and compassion rather than obligation and oppression.


Titles/opening (no subtitles)

A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

A Legend or Was it posterIn 1951’s Boyhood, Kinoshita had painted a less than idealised portrait of village life during wartime. With pressure mounting ranks were closing, “outsiders” were not welcome. The family at the centre of Boyhood had more reasons to worry in that they had, by necessity, removed themselves from a commonality in their ideological opposition to imperialism but newcomers are always vulnerable when they find themselves undefended and without friends. 1963’s A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Shito no Densetsu, AKA Legend of a Duel to the Death) tells a similar story, but darker as a family of evacuees fall foul not only of lingering feudal mores but a growing resentment in which they find themselves held responsible for all the evils of war.

Beginning with a brief colour framing sequence, Kinoshita shows us a contemporary Hokkaido village filled with cheerful rural folk who mourn each other’s losses and share each other’s joys while shouldering communal burdens. A voice over, however, reminds us that something ugly happened in this beautiful place twenty years previously. Something of which all are too ashamed to speak. Switching back to black and white and the same village in the summer of 1945, he introduces us to Hideyuki Sonobe (Go Kato) who has just come home from the war to convalesce from a battlefield injury. Hideyuki’s engineer father went off to serve his country and hasn’t been heard from since, and neither has his brother who joined the air corp. His mother (Kinuyo Tanaka), sister Kieko (Shima Iwashita), and younger brother Norio (Tsutomu Matsukawa) have evacuated from Tokyo to this small Hokkaido village where they live in a disused cottage some distance from the main settlement.

The family had been getting by in the village thanks to the support of its mayor, Takamori, but relations have soured of late following an unexpected marriage proposal. Takamori’s son Goichi (Bunta Sugawara), a war veteran with a ruined hand and young master complex, wants to marry Kieko. She doesn’t want to marry him, but the family worry about possible repercussions if they turn him down. It just so happens that Hideyuki recognises Goichi and doesn’t like what he sees – he once witnessed him committing an atrocity in China and knows he is not the sort of man he would want his sister to marry, let alone marry out of fear and practicality. Hideyuki, as the head of the family, turns the proposal down and it turns out they were right to worry. The family’s field is soon vandalised and the police won’t help. When other fields meet the same fate, a rumour spreads that the Sonobes are behind it – taking revenge on the village on as a whole. The villagers swing behind Goichi, using the feud as a cover to ease their own petty grievances.

City dwellers by nature, the Sonobes have wandered into a land little understood in which feudal bonds still matter and mob mentality is only few misplaced words away. The village serves a microcosm of Japanese society at war in which Takamori becomes the unassailable authority and his cruel son the embodiment of militarism. Goichi embraces his role as a young master with relish, riding around the town on horse back and occasionally barking orders at his obedient peasants, stopping only to issue a beating to anyone he feels has slighted him – even taking offence at an innocuous folksong about a man who was rejected in love and subsequently incurred a disability. Despite all of that, however, few can find the strength to resist the pull of the old masters and the majority resolutely fall behind Goichi, willing to die for him if necessary.

As the desperation intensifies and it appears the war, far off as it is, is all but lost, a kind of creeping madness takes hold in which the Sonobes become somehow responsible for the greater madness that has stolen so many sons and husbands from this tiny village otherwise untouched by violence or famine. An embodiment of city civilisation the Sonobes come to represent everything the village feels threatened by, branded as “bandits” and blamed for everything from murder to vegetable theft. The central issue, one of a weak and violent man who felt himself entitled to any woman he wanted and refused to accept the legitimacy of her right to refuse, falls by the wayside as just another facet of the spiralling madness born of corrupted male pride and misplaced loyalties.

Kinoshita returns to the idyllic countryside to close his framing sequence, reminding us that these events may have been unthought to the level of myth but such things did happen even if those who remember are too ashamed to recall them. Tense and inevitable, A Legend or Was It? reframes an age of fear and madness as a timeless village story in which the corrupted bonds of feudalism fuel the fires of resentment and impotence until all that remains is the irrationality of violence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Women of the Night (夜の女たち, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1948)

Women of the Night still 1Cinema of the immediate post-war period generally leaned towards upbeat positivity, insisting that, yes, the situation is painful and difficult but it wouldn’t always be this way, at least as long as ordinary people kept their chins up and worked hard to build a better future. Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (夜の女たち, Yoru no Onnatachi) is very much not interested in this rosy vision of future success being sold by a new morale boosting propaganda machine, but in laying bare the harsh and unforgiving nature of a society that was fast preparing to leave a significant part of its population far behind. Women suffer in war, but they suffer after war too – particularly in a society as stratified as Japan’s had been in which those left without familial support found themselves entirely excluded from the mainstream world.

Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka), a noble, naive woman still hasn’t heard from her presumably demobbed husband and is living with her in-laws. Her young son has tuberculosis and she is desperately short of money. Selling one of her kimonos, Fusako is excited to to hear of an “interesting proposition” but is repulsed when she realises the saleswoman is inciting her to an act of prostitution. After all, she says, everybody is doing it.

After undergoing a series of tragedies, Fusako thinks things are beginning to go right for her when she manages to get a secretarial job through the kindness of a connection, but it turns out that Mr. Kuriyama (Mitsuo Nagata) is not all he seems and his business may not be as legitimate as Fusako believed it to be. Another small miracle occurs on a street corner as Fusako runs into her long lost sister, Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), formerly living in Korea and now repatriated to Japan, but a return to normal family life seems impossible in the still smouldering ruins of Osaka filled with black marketeering, desperation, and hopelessness.

Inspired by the Italian Neo Realist movement, Mizoguchi makes brief use of location shooting to emphasise the current state of the city, still strewn with rubble and the aftermath of destruction. Osaka, like Natsuko and Fusako, finds itself at a cross roads of modernity, paralysed by indecision in looking for a way forward. Fusako, the kinder, more innocent sister dresses in kimono, does not smoke, and is committed to working hard to build a new life for herself. Natsuko, by contrast, dresses exclusively in Western clothing, smokes, drinks, and works as a hostess at a dancehall with the implication that she is already involved in casual forms of prostitution.

Natsuko’s way of life, and later that of Fusako’s much younger sister-in-law Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda), is painted as a direct consequence of an act of sexual violence. Having been raped during the evacuation from Korea, Natsuko feels herself to have been somehow defiled and rendered unfit for a “normal” life, relegated to the underground world of the sex trade as an already damaged woman. Fusako disapproves of her sister’s choices and is alarmed by the unfamiliar world of bars and dance halls but eventually ends up in the world of prostitution herself as a result of emotional violence in the form of cruel yet incidental betrayal. Fusako’s “descent” into prostitution is less survival than an act both of revenge and of intense self-harm as she vows to avenge herself on the world of men through spreading venereal disease.

Mizoguchi’s attitudes towards sex work were always complex – despite displaying sympathy for women who found themselves trapped within red light district as his own sister had been, he was also a man who spent much of his life in the company of geishas. Nevertheless Women of the Night veers between empathy and disdain for the hosts of post-war “pan pans” existing in codependent female gangs in which violence and hierarchy were as much an essential part as mutual support. The film opens with a sign which instructs women that they should not be seen out after dark lest they will be taken for prostitutes, respectable women should make a point of being home at the proper hour. Later, when Fusako is picked up by a police raid, she comes across a woman from the “purity board” who wants to hand out some pamphlets to help women “reform” from their “impure” ways and temper their presumably insatiable sexual desire. Fusako quite rightly tells the woman where to go while the others echo her in confirming no one has volunteered to live this way because they like it. Starving to death with a pure heart is one thing, but what are any of these women supposed to do in a world that refuses them regular work when they have already lost friends and family and are entirely alone with no hope of survival?

A third option exists in the form of a home for women which has been set up for the express purpose of “reforming” former prostitutes so that they can lead “normal” lives. The home provides ample meals, medical treatment and work though its attitude can be slightly patronising even in its well meaning attempt to re-educate. Again the home is working towards an ideal which is not evident in reality – there are no jobs for these women to go to, and no husbands waiting to support them. Incurring yet another tragedy, Fusako receives a well meaning lecture from a male employee at the home to the effect that it’s time for women to work together to build a better world for all womankind but Fusako has seen enough of the sisterhood realise that won’t save her either and leaves the man to his platitudes trailing a dense cloud of contempt behind her.

Yet Fusako does change her mind, finally reunited with the missing Kumiko who has also fallen into prostitution after running away from home and being tricked by a boy who pretended to be nice but only ever planned to rob and rape her. In a furious scene of maternal rage, Fusako rails against her plight, enraged by Kumiko’s degradation which ultimately forces her to see her own. Brutally beaten by the other women for the mere suggestion of leaving the gang, Fusako is held, Christ-like, while she pleads for an end to this existence, that there should be no more women like these. The storm breaks and the other women gradually come over to Fusako’s side, depressed and demoralised, left with no clear direction to turn for salvation. Mizoguchi ends on a bleak note of eternal suffering and continuing impossibility but he pauses briefly to pan up to an unbroken stained glass window featuring the Madonna and child. Fusako emerges unbroken, taking Kumiko under her maternal wing, but the future they walk out into is anything but certain and their journey far from over.   


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season. Screening again on 21st October, 17.10.

Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Yoji Yamada, 1965)

flag in the mist poster 2In theory, we’re all equal under the law, but the business of justice is anything but egalitarian. Yoji Yamada is generally known for his tearjerking melodramas or genial comedies but Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Kiri no Hata) is a rare step away from his most representative genres, drawing inspiration from America film noir and adding a touch of typically Japanese cynical humour. Based on a novel by Japanese mystery master Seicho Matsumoto, Flag in the Mist is a tale of hopeless, mutually destructive revenge which sees a murderer walk free while the honest but selfish pay dearly for daring to ignore the poor in need of help. A powerful message in the increasing economic prosperity of 1965, but one that leaves no clear path for the successful revenger.

Kiriko (Chieko Baisho), a twenty year old typist from Kyushu, has taken an arduous train journey into Tokyo to get a meeting with a top lawyer she hopes will defend her older brother and only living relative from a trumped up murder charge. The clerk attempts to dissuade her – Mr. Otsuka (Osamu Takizawa) charges a hefty sum for his services and, in any case, his docket is too full to be travelling back and forth to Kyushu never mind the additional travel and accommodation costs. Kiriko is disappointed but undeterred – she thinks she can manage the expenses, but asks for a discount on the fee. The clerk finds this amusing and does at least ask Otsuka who finally agrees to see Kiriko seeing as she’s come all this way. She makes an impression on him but ultimately he tells her he’s just too busy and she’s better off looking for a lawyer closer to home.

Kiriko leaves disappointed but refuses to give up, missing her original train to try again by telephone but Otsuka has already gone out “to see clients” and so she finally has to accept her mission to save her brother may have stalled. While Kiriko was using the public phone, she was overheard by a reporter, Abe (Yosuke Kondo), who wants to write something on the case but his Tokyo based bosses aren’t so keen on a local interest story from halfway across the country.

A year later, Kiriko’s brother Masao (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) has been convicted and sentenced to death. After his second appeal fails, Masao dies of illness in prison before the sentence could be carried out. Kiriko writes a bitter letter to Otsuka blaming him for her brother’s death which forces Otsuka to reconsider his decision not to take the case. He comes to the conclusion that the case was unwinable and therefore his decision not to take it made no difference but then, he spots something that no one else seems to have noticed.

A tenacious and strong willed young woman – you’d have to be to jump on a long distance train from a tiny village all the way to the big city on your own in 1965, Kiriko is determined to save her brother but finds herself facing an uphill battle against a society deliberately structured to ignore her voice and those of everyone like her. Kiriko is an orphan and so her older bother is also a kind of father figure as well as the only living relative she has left. Masao had been a primary school teacher, which is to say a respected member of society, but found himself involved with a loanshark who was later murdered after he lost some cash collected from students to pay for a school trip and borrowed money he couldn’t pay back from a ruthless old woman. Masao has made a mistake he’s going to pay for dearly – disgraced and humiliated, it was easy work to frame him for a violent crime and force him into a confession through the usual police methods. Kiriko won’t stand for it, but she’s powerless to help him.

Otsuka is, in a sense, entitled to charge what he wants for his services. He’s clearly a talented lawyer, very much in demand, and so why “should” he trek all the way out to Kyushu for a case that doesn’t interest him when he has enough clients already. He does, at least, bother to listen to Kiriko’s pitch before letting her down gently, but just when it seems he might be about to change his mind he tells his clerk to cancel all his appointments and winds up on the golf course with his girlfriend. So much for being too busy to save an innocent man’s life.

Kiriko’s “whole life has been desecrated by one incident” as she cuttingly writes later in a letter which forms a crucial part of her plot of revenge against the man who refused to save her brother’s life (half talking about something else). Forced out of her hometown where she’s the murderer’s sister, she finds work as hostess going by the club name of Rie in a Tokyo bar which has a Kyushu theme. This brings her back into contact with the reporter, Abe, and that isn’t the last of the coincidences as Kiriko finds herself swept up by circumstances which allow her to turn an unfortunate series of events into a cunning plan to ruin Otsuka by neatly echoing the precise circumstances of her brother’s case. Now it’s Otsuka forced to plead with her night after night, begging on his knees that she agree to testify and turn over key evidence that proves his client is innocent all while Kiriko adamantly sticks to her story.

Yamada conjures a tense and gloomy film noir world, following Kiriko down foggy passageways as she tries to navigate the city from the shadows, chasing the spectre of the unjust but losing herself in the process. Masao dies because he was too poor to hire a good lawyer to save him from the police who were supposed to be protecting him, but decided it was easier to stitch up someone without influence than find the real killer. His sister destroys herself to get revenge not just on lawyers more interested in fame and success than in serving justice but on an entire society which believes her existence is insufficiently important to merit full consideration. Otsuka is not a bad man, he is not corrupt or incompetent, he is merely selfish in all the ways his society encourages him to be. Originally letting himself off the hook with the excuse that his decision made no difference, he’s genuinely horrified when he realises he’s noticed a crucial clue which could have exonerated Masao even if it’s an equally selfish guilt he feels more than a recognition that he’s failed his duty to justice by letting an innocent man die while a guilty one lives to kill again. No one wins in this case, everyone emerges ruined and broken by the increasing inequalities and selfish individualism of the post-war world. Justice is blind, so they say, but perhaps she needs to open her eyes.


Original trailer (no subtitles)