After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 1998)

Afterlife posterAt the end of your life, if someone asks you what it all meant, what will you say? It’s a question that can’t be answered until after you’ve turned the final page, but there is an idea at least that death brings clarity, rendering all things simple from a strange perspective of subjective objectivity. This is the central idea behind Hirokazu Koreeda’s meta existential fantasy After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Wonderful Life) in which the recently deceased are given seven days grace in order to decide on their most precious memory so that a small collection of clerks working in an old-fashioned government building can “recreate” it through the medium of cinema, allowing a departing soul to take refuge in a single memory preserved in eternity.

Heaven’s waiting room, as it turns out, is apparently located inside the ghost of the Japanese studio system. The recently deceased give their names at the door and patiently wait for their turn with their allotted case manager whose job it is to offer after life counselling designed to bring them to the point of boiling their existence down to the single moment which defines it within the arbitrary three day time limit which gives the crew the time to put their memories into pre-production complete with old-fashioned stage sets and studio-era special effects.

The purpose of all of this is not is exactly clear, though a clue is perhaps offered when we discover that the clerks are able to order VHS tapes of the entirety of their subjects’ lives in the event that they are struggling to think of relevant moments in an existence which seems to have disappointed them. The point is not so much the literal truth of the memory, be it accurate or not, but its sensation and the transience of feeling which is then re-experienced through the medium of cinema, captured in celluloid as momentary permanence.

Consequently, the chosen moments are necessarily often ones of stillness which promise the kind of peace and serenity one is supposed to find in death. The moments are ones of silent togetherness, of natural beauty, of childish innocence, or unbridled joy but is each is perhaps the key to unlocking the enigma of a life and as such is a solution which points towards a question. One older gentleman, Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), finds himself unable to choose. He views his life as the epitome of mediocrity and can find nothing in it that seems worthy of “eternity”. Watching the videotapes of his life, he sees himself as a young man vowing to make a mark and is desperate to find some evidence that he lived but like many does not find it. His life was happy by virtue of being not unhappy for all that it was perhaps unfulfilled but only through communing with himself after death is he able to reclaim the memory of his late wife (Kyoko Kagawa) with whom he never quite bonded in mild jealousy of her lingering attachment to her first love who fell in war.

This being a film from 1998 and mostly featuring those in their ‘70s and above, the war looms large from painful battlefield memories of fear and starvation to unexpected reunions and the joy of simple pleasures found even in the midst of hardship. The clerks who died young may look on in envy of Watanabe’s “ordinary” life in the knowledge of all they were denied, while others mourn for a future they will never see. Yet there are shorter sad stories here too from a high school girl (Sayaka Yoshino) whose original choice of a day out at Disneyland is deemed too prosaic, to a middle-aged bar hostess (Kazuko Shirakawa) reminiscing about an old lover who let her down, and a rebellious young punk (Yusuke Iseya) who flat out refuses to choose because he feels that is the best way to accept responsibility. Forced into a reconsideration of his own life, even a clerk is eventually moved by the realisation that even if he had previously believed his existence devoid of meaningful moments he has achieved something by featuring in those of others and is therefore also a meaningful part of a considered whole.

Making the most of his documentary background, interspersing “genuine” memories among the imagined, Koreeda’s heavenly fantasy is one firmly tied to the ground where seasons still pass, time still flows, and the relentlessly efficient march of bureaucracy continues on apace undaunted by the presence of death. Death may give life meaning, but it’s living that’s the prize in all of its glorious complexity filled with both beauty and sadness but always with light even in the darkest corners.


After Life screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1961)

vlcsnap-2019-03-15-00h18m28s351Working from a Keisuke Kinoshita script, Kinuyo Tanaka’s first film as a director, Love Letter, made a point of exploring the often hypocritical and contradictory attitudes towards women who had engaged in sex work or become the mistresses of American servicemen in the immediate aftermath of the defeat. For her fifth film, Tanaka returns to the same subject but this time adapting a novel by Masako Yana scripted by Sumie Tanaka (no relation) with whom she’d previously collaborated on The Eternal Breasts. Somewhat suggestively retitled Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Onna Bakari no Yoru), Tanaka’s adaptation tones down the novel’s sensuality but dares to ask a series of subversive questions regarding female agency and sexuality in the rapidly changing post-war society.

Set in the contemporary era, the film opens with reportage-style voiceover and newspaper clippings highlighting the enforcement of the anti-prostitution laws of 1958. According to the voiceover, the red light districts of Japan may have all but disappeared but streetwalking and other forms of casual sex work are still very much a part of the post-war economy. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the old ways and new, those arrested by the police are divided into two camps – those deemed beyond “redemption” sent to prison, and the rest to reform centres such as the Shiragiku Protective Facility for Women which is where we find our heroines.

The reform centre itself is a fairly progressive place and much more forward looking that seen in the earlier Women of the Night though perhaps sometimes patronising even as it makes a strenuous attempt not look down on the women who enter its care. Our first entry into the facility is in the company of a similarly well meaning women’s association whose misplaced pity only reinforces their innately privileged position. They are as far from many of these women as it is possible to be and struggle to understand how it is possible that they found themselves engaging in a practice they find both shameful and degrading. Having got to know many of the women through trying to help them, the school’s headmistress Nogami (Chikage Awashima) and her assistant are better placed to understand even if they also apologise that many of the women in their care are of “low IQ” and fail to convey the kinds of pressures that many have been subject to from desperate poverty to bad family situations and abusive relationships.

Abuse and the trauma of abuse remains one of the barriers to the women moving on, as in the reason many of them found themselves in sex work was because of their relationship with an exploitative partner who either forced them to sell their bodies or left them with no other choice in order to support themselves through being unable or unwilling to work. Nogami, a compassionate and understanding woman, is at pains to insist that the reason many of these women see nothing wrong in sex work is that they have an insufficient level of self respect and value their bodily autonomy too cheaply in allowing others to buy and sell access to it without full consideration of everything that implies.

Then again, asked by one of her most promising cases, Kuniko (Hisako Hara), what is actually so “bad” about sex work, Nogami is forced to admit that she doesn’t know – only that it is now illegal and her job is to help these women live “honest” lives within law. It is difficult to evade the hypocrisy that Nogami is telling these women that they should exercise full agency over their bodies while simultaneously telling them what they shouldn’t be doing with them, but then for all the centre’s talk about “purity” Nogami herself is refreshingly frank and practical in her approach to helping these women towards reintegration into mainstream society in the assumption that that is something they would want rather than out of any quasi-religious ideas of moral goodness.

Shame and social stigma, however, become another barrier as Kuniko finds to her cost in her attempts to move on from the centre. At her first placement as a live-in assistant at a grocer’s, she is quickly outed by a nosy deliveryman already acquainted with the true nature of the Shiragiku centre. The exposure of Kuniko’s past provokes not only mild disgust and suspicion among “respectable” people but also unwanted male attention from those who assume her former life as a sex worker means that they are already entitled to her sexuality with or without her consent.

Thinking the direct approach might be better, Kuniko decides to share her past with the ladies in the dorm at her next job in a factory but they are not quite as supportive as she might have hoped. Despite the fact that many of these young women are sexually active and in fact involved in what might be thought of as acts of casual sex work, they collectively look down on Kuniko while also seeking to exploit her both for the practical knowledge they assume she must have and by attempting to pimp her out to other men they know. When the attempt fails (Kuniko humiliates the three men who try to pressure her into sex by frightening them off with nothing more than confidence and self-possession), the women turn on her and enact an extremely violent and sadistic revenge.

Despite what she observed at the centre, Kuniko learns to her cost that she cannot necessarily rely on female solidarity as a bulwark against male exploitation. Nevertheless, it is to female communities and friendships that she ultimately returns. The leader of the women’s group from the beginning turns out to be less of a dilettante than she first seems and eventually takes Kuniko in with a promising job in a rose a garden which seems to suit her perfectly. Roses, however, have thorns – this one’s being her tentative relationship with gardener Hayakawa (Yosuke Natsuki) who is aware of her past but falls in love with her anyway only for her romance to hit the barrier of entrenched social mores when she discovers that Hayakawa is in fact a member of a noble family. In another instance of women not helping women, Hayakawa’s mother puts the kibosh on her daughter-in-law being a former sex worker which both reinforces Kuniko’s sense of being irreparably damaged and makes her feel as if she has become a problem for a man with whom she has fallen in love. Vowing to live up to Hayakawa’s vision of her as a “pure” woman, Kuniko retreats once again to a supportive community of women – this time of pearl divers in what seems to be an act of spiritual cleansing.

In Kuniko’s final identification of the “disgracefulness” of her past and declaration that she does not hate the world but only herself, Girls of the Night shifts into a more conventional register than the broadly empathetic, subversively positive attitude it had hitherto adopted towards the idea of sex work and the women who engage in it, opting to blame the woman rather than engage with the various forces of social oppression which attempt to micromanage female sexuality. Nevertheless, Tanaka’s deft touch remains as sympathetic as it’s possible to be in affirming that there is a path forward for those who might feel trapped by past transgression even if it simultaneously insists that its heroine save herself only by rejecting her happy ending in atonement for her past “sins”.


The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Ballad posterA year after his box office smash The Inugami Family, Kon Ichikawa returns to the world of eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi with The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Akuma no Temari Uta). Like many a Kindaichi mystery, Devil’s Ballad finds him called upon to delve back into the past to satisfy an ageing detective’s anxiety about an old case, only to be faced with a series of new ones as a consequence. This time, however, the mystery leans less on buried secrets than deeply held grudges, betrayals, and lingering feudal feuds as the post-war society tries and fails to free itself from ancient oppressions.

The film opens with a tryst between two adolescent lovers in the ominously named “Devil’s Skull Village” in 1950. Yasu (Yoko Takahashi), the girl, is at pains to let her boyfriend, Kanao (Koji Kita), know that she is keen to take the relationship to the next level but he is old fashioned and wants to wait until their union is formalised. The pair are interrupted by some of their friends who are in the middle of planning a celebration for a visit from a girl who moved to the city, Chie (Akiko Nishina). Meanwhile, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) has arrived at the inn owned by Kanao’s mother Rika (Keiko Kishi) on invitation from a retired policeman, Isokawa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who wants Kindaichi to look into the murder of Rika’s husband twenty years ago. Isokawa, then a young rookie, is convinced that Rika’s husband was not the victim but the murderer and the corpse actually belonged to another man entirely – Onda, a drifter who defrauded half the village with a wreath making scam.

Rika and her children – 20-year-old Kanao and his younger sister Satoko (Eiko Nagashima) who has prominent facial birthmarks and rarely leaves the house, came to the village with her husband and are therefore slightly divorced from the longstanding social rivalries. The village has two noble families – the Yuras and the Nires. Feeling the need to modernise, the Nires bet everything on vineyards and it paid off. The Yuras, by contrast, were defrauded by Onda’s wreath scam and lost their fortune and social standing. Yasu, Kanao’s girlfriend, is a daughter of the Yuras, but the Nire’s have been petitioning Rika for quite some time to have her son marry their daughter, Fumiko (Yukiko Nagano), who also has a crush on him (though this is largely irrelevant to her father’s dynastic ambitions). When the younger generation start getting bumped off in ways eerily similar to a local folk song, Kindaichi and Isokawa are on the case, wondering if these new murders have anything to do with their old one.

Despite its 1950 setting, Devil’s Ballad is unusual in resolutely making an irrelevance of the war which only receives a brief mention as an explanation for why some of the case files have been destroyed and for why marriage is such a hot button issue given the lack of men and abundance of women. Nevertheless, the crimes span a turbulent 20 years of Japanese history with the original murder taking place in the early ‘30s during a period of economic instability following the Manchurian Incident. In the socially conservative pre-war era, it seems Onda also got around and may have fathered several illegitimate children with women in the village, some of them noble, some not. These buried secrets seem primed to bubble to the surface now that the children are coming of age and marriage again becomes an issue as worried parents try to think of acceptable ways to block potentially “inappropriate” matches without sending their children off into ruinous elopements or tipping off the wrong people that their kids may not be their kids.

The crimes themselves, old fashioned as they are, are partly reactions to a changing society. We discover that the reason Rika and her husband were forced to come back to the village was that their showbiz careers were stalling – she was a vaudeville performer specialising in shamisen, and he a “benshi” (narrator of silent films) who became convinced his job was obsolete after witnessing a subtitled print of Morocco. Likewise, the two rival families cannot let go of their petty provincial privileges, and as Kanao angrily snaps back at his mother, Japan is now a democratic country and he is free to choose his own wife at a time of his own choosing with or without parental blessing. This remote village is perhaps isolated from the privations of the post-war world but it’s also stuck in the past, hung up on past transgressions and unable to move forward into the new era. However, the primary motivations for murder are as old as time – guilt, humiliation, and self preservation.

Ichikawa keeps things simple but splices in a few strange, avant-garde sequences of kokeshi dolls menacingly bouncing balls coupled with shifts to black and white, fast-paced reaction shots, and stuttering still frame sequences all while Kindaichi showers innocent passersby with his famous dandruff, the idiot police officer continues to offer ridiculous theories while his sergeant dutifully follows him around, and the local bobby perfects a line in hilarious pratfalls. Overlong at two and a half hours and falling prey to the curse of the prestige crime drama in spoiling its mystery through casting, the Devil’s Ballad may not be the best of the Kindaichi mysteries but offers enough of a satisfying twist to prove worthy of the Kindaichi name.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Eight Hours of Terror (8時間の恐怖, Seijun Suzuki, 1957)

(C) Nikkatsu 1957

Eight Hours of Terror poster 2Mr. Thank You meets The Lady Vanishes? Seijun Suzuki’s early slice of claustrophobic social drama Eight Hours of Terror (8時間の恐怖, Hachijikan no Kyofu) is another worthy example Japanese cinema’s strange obsession with buses, transposing John Ford’s Stagecoach to the Japanese mountains as a disparate collection of travellers is forced onto a perilous overnight journey in the hope of making their city-bound connection. Shooting in academy ratio and with a mix of studio shot interior action and on location footage, Suzuki keeps the tension high but maintains his detached sense of humour, finding the comedy in the petty prejudices and selfish preoccupations which take hold when civilisation is abandoned and bandits run free.

When a typhoon causes a landslide and halts the trains, the anxious travellers in a small mountain town are left with the choice of waiting until the tracks are clear or piling into a rundown rail replacement service and driving through the mountains overnight to meet their Tokyo-bound connection set to leave at midday. They are warned that there has recently been a bank robbery and the police have issued a general alert for loose bandits. Those whose journey is not “urgent” might do better to wait, but the bus is the only solution for anyone wanting to get back to the city in good time.

Tense as Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the bus journey throws together a group of people who would never normally keep company with each other and largely have no interest in bonding in their shared hardship. Businessmen moan endlessly about potentially missed meetings while student radicals ironically mirror them, giving mini lectures on leftwing politics to a disinterested audience and trying to raise rousing choruses of Russian folk songs to lift the spirits of the masses. Meanwhile, a suicidal mother with a young baby sadly bides her time, a pan pan makes the best of a bad situation, an elderly couple frets anxiously about making it back to the city to see their seriously ill daughter, and a policeman escorts a man arrested for the murder of his former wife and her new husband.

The spectre of the war haunts them all – almost like a fare-dodging stowaway concealed somewhere on the back of the bus. The driver lost his son and grandchildren in Manchuria, the nervous lingerie salesman claims to have led a motorised brigade but is constantly terrified by every little set back, and the convict turns out to be a former army doctor battling some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder coupled with intense rage and regret for his post-war fate. The student radicals regard the presence of the bandits as a symptom of social breakdown (a narrative they can get behind in the general failures of capitalism) while the fat cat CEO and his ridiculously bejewelled wife angrily bark at the young men who can’t find work in the struggling post-war economy, attributing their economic difficulties to pure laziness and failure to slot into to the demands of a conformist society.

The twin dramas revolve around the intertwined fates of the young woman and her baby, and the bank robbers who eventually turn up and hijack the bus. Despite a need to pull together in the face of adversity, many of the passengers are content to ignore the pain and suffering of those around them in order to achieve their own selfish goals. The lingerie salesman, panicked by the delay, attempts to drive the bus over a rickety bridge the driver is currently checking for safety at the risk of everyone’s lives. Meanwhile the woman and her baby are missing. Later found seriously ill, the woman recovers but the baby struggles. The pan pan, who becomes the de facto leader of group, suggests getting the convict, a former doctor, to treat the baby but not everyone is happy about uncuffing a potential killer even if it means life and death for an innocent child. Similarly, after the pan pan helps to despatch one of the hijackers, many of the passengers want to drive off and leave her behind with only the convict eventually coming to her rescue. Despite all she’d done for them, the passengers reject her once again when directly confronted by the taboo nature of her work as a prostitute at the American bases after someone steals her purse and finds a picture of a black GI inside the fold.

The world outside the bus is changing. The pan pan fears for her future now the occupation is coming to an end, as do some of the young men who’d relied on the presence of the American troops for their employment. The CEOs and lingerie salesmen of the world are content to remain within their own bubbles, ignoring everyone else they protect their elitist status while the idealistic student activists are perhaps no better – they too want to take the hijackers’ ill gotten gains and repurpose them for social good by getting more leftists elected to parliament. The convict and the pan pan are the kindest and the most human, finding an unexpected bond in their shared humanism while the aspiring actress finds joy in treating everything like a fantastic adventure only to give up on her dreams of stardom after realising she’d be forced to kiss a bunch of guys she didn’t like in order to achieve them.

Mixing studio shot rear projection and location shooting of the bus making its precarious journey along winding mountain roads, Suzuki keeps the tension high as the passengers bicker and bond, eventually banding together despite themselves in order to despatch the final bandit who finally takes care of himself. Things do, however, end by going back to normal. Crisis averted, the same old prejudices return as soon as “civilisation” reappears on the horizon. 


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.