Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

Eternal Cause (海軍特別年少兵, Tadashi Imai, 1972)

Marines cadets posterOften regarded as a “left-wing” filmmaker, even later pledging allegiance to the Communist Party of Japan, Tadashi Imai began his career making propaganda films under the militarist regime. Describing this unfortunate period as the biggest mistake of his life, Imai’s later career was dedicated to socially conscious filmmaking often focusing on those oppressed by Japan’s conservative social structure including the disenfranchised poor and the continued unfairness that often marks the life of women. 1972’s Eternal Cause (海軍特別年少兵, Kaigun Tokubetsu Nensho-hei, AKA Marines Cadets/ Special Boy Soldiers of the Navy) sends him back to those early propaganda days but with the opposite spin. Painting Japan’s tendency towards authoritarianism and its headlong descent into the folly of warfare as a direct result of social inequalities and the hierarchical society, Imai tells the dark story of the “special cadets”, children from military academies who eventually found themselves on the battlefield as members of the last, desperate defence of an already lost empire.

Imai opens at the grim conclusion – February 1945, Iwo Jima. A squad of young men catch sight of their “Instructor” just as he falls and are shortly all killed themselves by approaching American forces. The Americans, sympathetically portrayed, wander the corpse laden battlefield and lift the arm of one particular body lamenting that the fallen soldier is “just a boy”, and that Japan must be in a very bad state indeed if it has come to this. One of the soldiers, not quite dead as it turns out, manages to get to his feet. The Americans are wary but give him time in case he wants to surrender but the boy tries to charge them, crying out that he is a “Marine Cadet”. They have no choice but to shoot him dead.

Moving back around 18 months to June 1943, the “Marine Cadets” are new students at a military academy. On arrival they are instructed that everything they brought with them, including the clothes they are wearing, must be sent home. They are now at war and must forget civilian life. This dividing line neatly marks out the central contradiction in the Marine Cadets’ existence – they are children, but also marines.

Enrolment in the school is voluntary rather than conscription based and the young men have many reasons for having decided to enter the military, most of them having little to do with dying bravely for the Emperor. There is, however, a persistent strain of patriotism which brought them to this point as they find the sacrifice they offer to make all too readily accepted by their nation. The education on offer is wide-ranging and of high quality – the boys will learn English as well as geography, history, science and maths, all of which will hopefully turn them into well educated, efficient military officers, but there is profound disagreement between the teaching staff and “instructors” as to how that education should be delivered.

Sympathethetic teacher Yoshinaga (Katsuhiko Sasaki) believes in education and wants to contribute to raising these children in love seeing as he is in loco parentis. Kudo (Takeo Chii) the military instructor, however, disagrees. He believes in harsh discipline in which progress is encouraged through physical punishment and a strong shame culture. Yoshinaga reminds Kudo that the boys are just children and that such punishment based motivational techniques place the boys at each other’s throats and will undermine the spirit of comradeship and togetherness which is essential for the well functioning of any military unit. Kudo counters that the boys became men when they enlisted, that he was raised this way himself, and that a culture of violence binds the men together into a kind of hive mind which moves and thinks as one. Kudo does not waver in this belief even after his tactics have tragic consequences, but does come to love the children in his care, entrusting them to Yoshinaga as he prepares to face the battlefield himself.

As Kudo leaves, he stops to admit that the boys are children but also wants Yoshinaga to understand something he thinks may not have occurred to him. The boys are mostly poor children, who, he says, have only themselves to rely on unlike the officers who are by and large from middle-class families with extended safety nets of privilege. Kudo’s doctrine of progress through strength is born of being born at the bottom of the heap and needing to struggle to survive. They have made themselves strong in order to resist the consistent oppression of their economic circumstances which often prize nothing other than their physical capabilities.

Poverty is indeed a major motivator. The most sympathetic of the boys, Hayashi (Michiko Araki), has enlisted alongside another boy from his village, Enami (Taketoshi Naito), whose teacher father has fallen headlong for the militarist folly and is even allowing military representatives into his classroom to offer recruitment talks to the boys. He recommends Hayashi join the Marine Cadets as a matter of practically – Hayashi’s family is dirt poor and his father is a drunkard. Joining the academy means reducing the burden on the family who have many other children and also that he will eventually be able to send money home as well as being well provided for himself. Despite a lack of aptitude for soldiering, Hayashi is eventually grateful – in the academy he gets a taste of comfort he never knew at home as well as a sense of comradeship and brotherhood away from the hostile home environment dominated by the violence of a drunken father. Another boy makes a similar decision to escape his indifferent foster family after being orphaned. Despite the fact that his sister has embarked on a life of prostitution to support him, his relatives offer him only scant comfort and keep most of her money for themselves.

Yoshinaga’s complaints about the nature of the education the boys receive is quite naturally countered with a question as to why he is at the school at all given that these boys are destined only to become cannon fodder in a war which clearly all but over. His pleas for kindness and compassion largely fall on deaf ears. The boys are still children – our narrator is 14 when he enlists at the academy, but they have been encouraged to think of themselves as men. Their halfling status embarrasses them and they’re keen to prove themselves as brave soldiers of Japan. Yoshinaga, true to his word, tries to save the boys – ordering them to hide during final attack sure that the Americans will take pity on these child soldiers and prevent their lives from becoming meaningless sacrifices laid on the altar of an uncaring nation. He is unsuccessful because the boys’ heads are already filled with the idea of glorious sacrifice. Ashamed to be thought of anything other than Marine Cadets, they launch their own attack and sacrifice their lives willingly.

Imai is at great pains to remind us that this society cares nothing for the boys, 5,020 of whom fall on the battlefield, or for the poor in general who bear the brunt of a war that is waged against their interests. The approach is distinctly old fashioned for 1972 and the message at times unsubtle, but given that the film appears less than thirty years later than the events it depicts when those who survived would themselves still be young, perhaps fathers of teenage sons themselves, it serves as a timely reminder of past madness and a pointed warning for the consumerist future.


Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末, Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

samurai rebellion posterIf Masaki Kobayashi had one overriding concern throughout his relatively short career, it was the place of the individual with an oppressive society. Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末, Joi-uchi: Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu), not quite the crashing chanbara action the title promises, returns to many of the same themes presented in Kobayashi’s earlier Harakiri in its tale of corrupt lords and a vassal who can no longer submit himself to their hypocritical demands. On the film’s original release, distributor Toho added a subtitle to the otherwise stark “Rebellion”, “Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu”, which means something like “sad story of a bestowed wife” and was intended to help boost attendance among female filmgoers who might be put off by the overly male samurai overtones. The central conflict is that of the ageing samurai Isaburo (Toshiro Mifune), but Kobayashi saves his sympathy for a powerless woman, twice betrayed, and given no means by which to defend herself in a world which values female life cheaply and a woman’s feelings not at all.

Having the misfortune to live in a time of peace, expert swordsman Isaburo has only the one duty of testing out the lord’s new sword (which he will never draw) on a straw dummy. He and his friend Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai) are of a piece – two men whose skills are wasted daily and who find themselves at odds with the often cruel and arbitrary samurai world, refusing to fight each other because the outcome would only cause pain to one or both of their families. Isaburo has two grownup sons and dreams of becoming a grandpa but needs to find a wife for his eldest, Yogoro (Go Kato). He wants to find a woman who is loyal, loving, and kind. As a young man Isaburo was “forced” into marriage and adopted into his wife’s family but has been miserable ever since as his wife, Suga (Michiko Otsuka), is a sharp tongued, unpleasant woman whose only redeeming features are her stoicism and dedication to propriety.

It is then not particularly good news when the local steward turns up one day and informs Isaburo that the lord is getting rid of his mistress and has decided to marry her off to Yogoro. News travels fast and though others may appear jealous of such an “honour”, Isaburo is quietly angry – not only is he being expected to take on “damaged goods” in a woman who’s already born a son to another man, but they won’t even tell him why she’s being sent away, and the one thing he wanted for his son was not to end up in the same miserable position as he did. Nevertheless when Isaburo repeatedly tries to decline the “kind offer”, he is prevented. A suggestion quickly becomes an order, and Yogoro consents to prevent further conflict.

Against the odds, Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) is everything Isaburo had wanted in a daughter-in-law and even puts up with Suga’s constant unkindness with patience and humility. Eventually she and Yogoro fall deeply in love and have a baby daughter, Tomi, but when the lord’s oldest heir dies and Ichi’s son becomes the next in line, it’s thought inappropriate for her to remain the wife of a mere vassal. Summoned to the castle, Ichi is once again robbed of her child but also of her happiness.

Ichi’s tale truly is a sad one and emblematic of the fates and positions of upperclass women in the feudal world. Having had the misfortune to catch the lord’s eye, Ichi tries to decline when the steward shows up to take her to the castle, reminding him that she is already betrothed. Sure that her fiancé will protect her, Ichi says she’ll go if he agrees never thinking that he would. Betrayed in love, Ichi is sold to the castle to be raped by the elderly Daimyo who views her as little more than a baby making machine and faceless body to do with as he wishes. When she returns from a post-natal trip to the spa and discovers the lord has already taken a new mistress, her anger is not born of jealously but resentment and disgust. This other woman is proud of her “position” at the lord’s side when she should be raging as Ichi is now, at her powerlessness, at the male society which reduces her to an object traded between men, and at the rapacious assault upon her body by a man older than her father.

Isaburo is also raging, but at the cruel and heartless obsession with order and protocol which has defined his short, unhappy life. Having been a model vassal, Isaburo has lived a life hemmed in by these rules but can bear them no longer in their disregard for human feeling or simple integrity. Isaburo says no, and then refuses to budge. Having retired and surrendered control of the household to Yogoro, Isaburo leaves the decision to his son who refuses to surrender his wife and swears to protect her from being subjected to the same cruel treatment as before. The samurai order is not set up for hearing the word “no”, and the actions of Isaburo, Yogoro, and Ichi threaten to bring the entire system crashing down. Love is the dangerous, destabilising, manifestation of personal desire which the system is in place to crush.

Isaburo’s rebellion, as he later says, is not for himself, or for his son and daughter-in-law whose deep love for each other has reawakened the young man in him, but for all whose personal freedom has been constrained by those who misuse their power to foster fear and oppression. Having picked up his sword, Isaburo will not stand down until his voice is heard, fairly, under these same rules that the authority is so keen on enforcing. He does not want revenge, or even to destroy the system, he just wants it to respect him and his right to refuse requests he feels are unjust or improper. Like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, Isaburo’s fate will be an unhappy one but even so he is alive again at last as the fire of rebellion rekindles his youthful heart. Those caught within the system from the venal stewards and greedy vassals to the selfish lords suddenly terrified the Shogun will discover their mass misconduct are dead men walking, sublimating their better natures in favour of creating the facade of obedience and conformity whilst manipulating those same rules for their own ends, yet the central trio, meeting their ends with defiance, are finally free.


Available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from Criterion Collection.

Original trailer (English subtitles – poor quality)

My Second Brother (にあんちゃん, Shohei Imamura, 1959)

vlcsnap-2017-01-07-22h53m01s073Like most directors of his era, Shohei Imamura began his career in the studio system as a trainee with Shochiku where he also worked as an AD to Yasujiro Ozu on some of his most well known pictures. Ozu’s approach, however, could not be further from Imamura’s in its insistence on order and precision. Finding much more in common with another Shochiku director, Yuzo Kawashima, well known for working class satires, Imamura jumped ship to the newly reformed Nikkatsu where he continued his training until helming his first three pictures in 1958 (Stolen Desire, Nishiginza Station, and Endless Desire). My Second Brother (にあんちゃん, Nianchan), which he directed in 1959, was, like the previous three films, a studio assignment rather than a personal project but is nevertheless an interesting one as it united many of Imamura’s subsequent ongoing concerns.

Set in the early 1950s, the film focuses on four children who find themselves adrift when their father dies leaving them with no means of support. The father had worked at the local mine but the mining industry is itself in crisis. Many of the local mines have already closed, and even this one finds itself in financial straits. Despite the foreman’s promise that he will find a job for the oldest son, Kiichi (Hiroyuki Nagato), there is no work to be had as workers are being paid in food vouchers rather than money and strike action frustrates what little production there is. After receiving the unwelcome suggestion of work in a “restaurant” in another town, Yoshiko (Kayo Matsuo) manages to find a less degrading job caring for another family’s children (though she receives only room and board, no pay for doing so). With younger brother Koichi (Takeshi Okimura) and little sister Sueko (Akiko Maeda) still in school, it seems as if the four siblings’ days of being able to live together as a family may be over for good.

Based on a bestselling autobiographical novel by a ten year old girl, My Second Brother is one of the first films to broach the Zainichi (ethnic Koreans living in Japan) issue, even if it does so in a fairly subtle way. The four children have been raised in Japan, speak only Japanese and do not seem particularly engaged with their Korean culture but we are constantly reminded of their non-native status by the comments of other locals, mostly older women and housewives, who are apt to exclaim things along the lines of “Koreans are so shiftless” or other derogatory aphorisms. Though there are other Koreans in the area, including one friend who reassures Kiichi that “We’re Korean – lose one job, we find another”, the biggest effect of the children’s ethnicity is in their status as second generation migrants which leaves them without the traditional safety net of the extended family. Though they do have contact with an uncle, the children are unable to bond with him – his Japanese is bad, and the children are unused to spicy Korean food. They have to rely first on each other and then on the kindness of strangers, of which there is some, but precious little in these admittedly difficult times.

In this, which is Imamura’s primary concern, the children’s poverty is no different from that of the general population during this second depression at the beginning of the post-war period. The film does not seek to engage with the reasons why the Zainichi population may find itself disproportionately affected by the downturn but prefers to focus on the generalised economic desperation and the resilience of working people. The environment is, indeed, dire with the ancient problem of a single water source being used by everyone for everything at the same time with all the resultant health risks that poses. A young middle class woman is trying to get something done in terms of sanitation, but her presence is not altogether welcome in the town as the residents have become weary of city based do-gooders who rarely stay long enough to carry through their promises. The more pressing problem is the lack of real wages as salaries are increasingly substituted for vouchers. The labour movement is ever present in the background with the Red Flag drifting from the mass protests in which the workers voice their dissatisfaction with the company though the spectre of mine closure and large scale layoffs has others running scared.

One of the most moving sequences occurs as Koichi and another young boy ride a mine cart up the mountain and talk about their hopes for the future. They both want to get out of this one horse town – Koichi as a doctor and his friend as an engineer, but their hopes seem so far off and untouchable that it’s almost heartbreaking. Sueko skipped school for four days claiming she had a headache because her brother didn’t have the money for her school books – how could a boy like Koichi, no matter how bright he is, possibly come from here and get to medical school? Nevertheless, he is determined. His father couldn’t save the family from poverty, and neither could his brother but Koichi vows he will and as he leads his sister by the hand climbing the high mountain together, it almost seems like he might.