Tomodachi (ともだち, Yukihiro Sawada, 1974)

As the Japanese studio system began to implode in the late 1960s, Nikkatsu which had specialised in youth cinema, pivoted towards softcore pornography rebranding itself as Nikkatsu Roman Porno. At the same time, however, they also launched an unexpected sideline of family films with strong educational aims under the Nikkatsu Children’s Films banner. Selected by the Ministry of Education and recommended by various educational and parent and teacher associations, the second feature put out under the label, 1974’s Tomodachi (ともだち), is in its own way instructional with a strong anti-bullying theme but also has something to say about the literal pollution of the contemporary society. 

As such, the film revolves around the originally unsympathetic hero, Shinta (Hitoshi Abe), who openly bullies a girl in his class by kicking a football at her because she alone has been excused the after school duty of sweeping the school yard. Having transferred from rural Tohoko, Yoshiko (Noriko Suzuki) has developed serious asthma from living in the centre of industrial Kawasaki and has been instructed to avoid physical exertion or activities which might cause her to breath in additional dust and smoke. Shinta and his friends are however entirely insensitive, literally surrounding Yoshiko while they hound her with questions insisting she’s not really “ill” and merely shirking her duty. When the teacher tries to explain to them that Yoshiko has been excused because it would be bad for her heath to be sweeping dust, Shinta and his friends all immediately claim to be ill too, fake coughing and wheezing despite having just been playing football rather than doing their after school chores like the other kids. 

What doesn’t occur to Shinta is the loneliness, isolation, and embarrassment Yoshiko must feel on being singled out because of her illness. Rather poignantly, the school nurse and others describe how cheerful and friendly Yoshiko was when she first arrived only to reflect on how depressed and withdrawn she’s since become. This is partly as Shinta later learns because her classmates rejected her once she became ill. Asthma is obviously not a contagious disease, yet many of the other parents stopped their kids playing with her because of the stigma surrounding any kind of “illness” while simulataneously unwilling to bear the responsibility of needing to care for her if she should undergo an asthma attack while in their home or under their care fearing they would then suffer a reputational loss if they failed to treat her properly. 

For his part, Shinta is intensely resentful when the teacher sits him next to Yoshiko in the hope that his cheerfulness will help bring her out of her shell. Exclaiming that he hates sick people and thinks that Yoshiko is boring and creepy because she doesn’t really say anything, he begins to have second thoughts when the teacher implores him to help “as a man” suddenly discovering a sense of honour and justice that he doesn’t want to let down. His first action however is to continue kicking footballs at her, but strangely it works rather well providing a physical activity which is compatible with her asthma in not needing to move around while allowing her to feel part of the game. As he gets to know her more, Shinta comes to sympathise with his new friend and is angry with the other kids who reject her but discovers that his own parents are not much different refusing him permission to invite Yoshiko over on talking to other parents at the PTA in part because they run a bento store and are nervous of coming under suspicion if anyone notices a girl with a heavy cough coming and going and questions their hygiene practices. 

Shinta does, however, visit her small apartment which is unfortunately right behind a dusty construction site. As she explains, Yoshiko’s parents were part of a new agricultural drive which later failed and left them with massive debts which is why they had to leave the country to work in a factory in Kawasaki. As her parents often work late shifts for the extra money, she has to look after not only herself but her younger brother with only a pet squirrel for company. Constant references are made to other children having to change schools because their parents moved into a company dorm, while the poor quality of the air is repeatedly given as the cause of Yoshiko’s illness literally choked by the thoughtless post-war economic drive that continues to disrupt not only family lives but the local environment, Shinta also revealing that his parents used to farm seaweed but were forced to stop because of industrial pollution in local rivers. 

This destructive industry also creates unintended divisions among the children along class lines between those whose parents work manual jobs in the factories and those whose families are wealthier and involved in white collar work. The ring leader of the girls who reject Yoshiko, Ayako (Masayo Koga) is the daughter of a wealthy conservative family living in a large house with a mother (Yoshie Kitsuta) who wears kimono. When Ayako shuns her the other girls follow, Yoshiko inviting them to her birthday party only to discover them all together eating cake at Ayako’s house instead. She’d invited them partly out of worry that they were offended she hadn’t invited them to her small apartment, only then realising that they rejected her because of the stigma towards her illness leaving her feeling hopeless and dejected. As Shinta later points out, this kind of emotional pain negatively impacts her medical condition coming to despise the adult world describing his father as the worst in his class for his insistence that he should accept the way the world works rather than idealistically trying to help his new friend. 

The message of the film, however, is that it’s wrong to leave people out and that children in particular should always attempt to friendly with each other. Developing appendicitis, Shinta comes to a new appreciation of how difficult it can be being ill while his mother too starts to regret her decision finally inviting Yoshiko to come and visit them at their home after spotting her sadly walking around outside uncertain if it’s alright to come and visit Shinta on his sickbed. Shinta’s two best friends had also been not entirely supportive of his decision to bring Yoshiko into their group, referring to her as “goldfish poo” in her tendency to trail along behind them, though partly out of jealousy along with the natural awkwardness of a girl suddenly being introduced into a previously all male club but even they eventually come round and decide to reaffirm their friendship. Despite this rosy conclusion in which the other children are convinced to abandon their unfair prejudices and become friends with each other, the eventual conclusion seems rather cruel if returning to the minor theme of the destructive effects of increasing industrialisation even as Shinta’s father is also reminded of the importance of friendship in stating an intention to attend his own primary school reunion. A touching coming-of-age tale, Tomodachi puts its young hero through the emotional wringer but also allows him to discover a strong sense of justice and empathy towards those rejected by their society. 


The Man Who Stole the Sun (太陽を盗んだ男, Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

(C) Toho 1979

man who stole the sun posterIn the post-Asama-Sanso world, Japanese society had shifted into period of intense calm in which improving economic prosperity was in the process of delivering comfort rather than the creeping acquisitive anxiousness that began to overshadow the bubble era. Nevertheless, in cinematic terms at least anxiety was everywhere and not least among the young who, swept along by this irresistible economic current, were quietly doubtful about their place in a changing society. Co-scripted by an American screenwriter, Leonard Schrader (brother of Taxi Driver’s Paul), The Man Who Stole the Sun (太陽を盗んだ男, Taiyo wo Nusunda Otoko) provides a satirical snapshot of this confusing moment as an oppressed, belittled high school science teacher builds an atomic bomb in his apartment just to show he can but then realises he has absolutely no idea what to do with it.

Technically speaking, the science teacher’s name is Makoto Kido (Kenji Sawada) but no one really calls him that. The kids at school refer to him as “Bubble-gum” because he always seems to be chewing on the rather childish confectionary. Not the most conscientious of teachers, he tailors the curriculum to his own interests, teaching the kids all about atomic energy and the bomb, but the kids aren’t interested. They only want to know what’s going to be on the test. To them Kido’s information is irrelevant and so they ignore him, talking amongst themselves while he carries on, preaching to a seemingly empty room.

Meanwhile, Kido is building the bomb at home, for real. As he tells the kids, anyone can build an atomic bomb – you only need the plutonium which is, admittedly, tightly controlled for just this reason. He acquires his through a daring heist on a nuclear plant. Kido never elaborates on what prompted him to begin his bizarre masterplan, but there is certainly a degree of pent up rage inside him born of resentment with his reduced circumstances. “Just” a high school science teacher, who would really think he’d have the capability to build an atomic bomb, alone, using only household equipment (plus the plutonium and a custom furnace purchased after nearly exploding his oven)?

Kido’s problems are the same as many middle-aged men in ‘70s Japan in that he feels intensely oppressed from above and below. What he’s trying to tell the kids is that they have access to this power already – anyone can build a bomb, if you bother to learn how. The only thing that’s being kept from him is the plutonium (and for good reason), which he manages to acquire anyway. A chance encounter with the madness of the age seems to kickstart his plan into gear when he meets his opposing number in police inspector Yamashita (Bunta Sugawara).

Kido, having halfheartedly escorted a group of students on a school trip, finds himself rendered powerless once again when the bus is hijacked by a distressed older gentleman (Yunosuke Ito) armed with a rifle and grenade and wearing a World War II soldier’s uniform. He demands to be driven to see the emperor from whom he intends to demand the return of his son, presumably killed in the war 30 years earlier. Yamashita, clean cut and authoritative, is the gung-ho cop who masterfully brings the hostage crisis to a close by lying to the man that the emperor has consented to see him. During the evacuation the old man is killed by police snipers (despite Yamashita’s too late cries of “don’t shoot” after having dispatched the grenade and disarmed the suspect).

Like Kido, the old man likely didn’t really know what he intended to do, only that he was lonely and desperate. The emperor couldn’t give him back his son (whose uniform he seems to be wearing) and his gesture is one of futile defiance coupled with a suicide bid that has no real goal save making an elaborate protest against the world in which he lives. Kido makes the bomb, lets the authorities know he has it, but then realises he has no demands. He asks them to fix something minor that annoys him, to stop the TV networks pulling the plug on late running baseball games to make way for the news, and finds himself rewarded. He has taken back the power, they believe he has the bomb and they fear him, but he has no further goals or notion of how his society should change. There is no idealised future he is fighting for, all there is is futility and indifference.

Meanwhile, ironically enough, Kido’s desperation provokes a mini revolution in others. A talkshow radio host (Kimiko Ikegami) named “Zero” (in contrast to Kido’s adoption of the codename “No. 9” as the 9th owner of a nuclear device and the only individual), broadcasts his on-air request for ideas, believing it to be a kind of thought experiment. The ideas she gets from the public are of the usual kind – lonely men who want to bathe with naked women, nationalists who want to start a war with America, dreamers who think it might be better not to want anything and just embrace the dream, while she muses that she wants the Rolling Stones concert that was cancelled a few years ago after a band member’s narcotics conviction to be reinstated. That being as good as anything is what Kido goes for in an overture that passes as an odd kind of romance and a suitably ironic kick back against strait-laced authority.

Kido’s war is, in a sense, a war with the fathers of the world as symbolised by men like Yamashita with their suits and neatly trimmed haircuts. Their button-down existence has never offered anything to men like Kido who feel trapped and angry within it. Yet Yamashita is also reacting against his own generation of fathers as symbolised by the old man on the bus, the last remnant of wartime resistance offering a defeated cry against a world which got away from them. Yamashita let the old man die when he prioritised his own sense of heroism, and that annoyed Kido. He can’t help sympathising with his plight which is in a way also his own in being relentlessly silenced and ignored by austere authority figures.

Turning down Yamashita’s clumsy attempt at a pickup, Zero affirms that Kido has given her a dream, which no small thing and she feels bound to him because of it. It’s an ironic statement because Kido has no dreams and not only that, he has no future either – he is slowly dying of radiation poisoning despite his precautions during the building of the bomb. In their final confrontation, Yamashita, adopting a paternal authority, neatly summarises Kido’s dilemma. The only life he has the right to take is his own, and his own death is the only thing he really wants, but he’s embarked on this elaborate plan to make his presence felt all the while aware that he will remain totally anonymous. No one will ever see him. He will die, like thousands of others, faceless. A lowly high school science teacher, no terrorist mastermind or bomb building genius. His revenge is as absurd as it is futile. Male inferiority complexes threaten to drown us all in a sea of violent resentment, and as the Earth dies screaming all we will have to reflect on is that we ourselves brought this world into being through our own incurable apathy.


Original trailer (no subtitles)