The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Noboru Nakamura, 1964)

(C) Shochiku 1964Despite having two films nominated for a best foreign language Oscar and a handful of foreign festival hits under his belt, Noboru Nakamura has been largely forgotten by Western film criticism though a centennial retrospective of three of his most well regarded films at Tokyo Filmex in 2013 has helped to revive interest. The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Yoru no Henrin), Nakamura’s 1964 Shochiku melodrama focussing on the suffocating life of a young woman pulled into the Tokyo red light district, was one of the three newly restored films featured and was also screened in Berlin and Venice to great acclaim. Making full use of its vibrant colour palate, The Shape of Night paints its city as a constant tormentor filled with artificial light and false promises.

As we meet her, melancholy street walker Yoshie (Miyuki Kuwano) has been trapped in her dead end existence for six years and has lost all hope of living a “normal” life filled with love and happiness. A chance encounter with a supercilious client, Fujii (Keisuke Sonoi), prompts her into a series of recollections in an effort to explain exactly how it was she ended up in such a sorry state. As the eldest daughter of a poor family Yoshie left school early to work in a factory (making those neon tubes you see everywhere) while supplementing her income by working as a barmaid (not a hostess, just a girl behind the bar). Just shy of her 20th birthday, she meets a handsome “salaryman”, Eiji (Mikijiro Hira), who starts coming to the bar regularly to see her. The pair became a couple, and then lovers, and then cohabiters, but Eiji isn’t a “salaryman” so much as a low level gangster with a gambling problem whose street name is “princess”. Continual losses put Eiji in a tight spot with his crew and he begins borrowing money from Yoshie before asking her to prostitute herself to get him out of a hole. Thinking it will just be a one time thing, Yoshie resolves to make a sacrifice for her man but, of course, it wasn’t a one time thing.

Yoshie’s story is a sadly familiar one – an innocent woman duped by a duplicitous man whose empty promises aim to mask his continued fecklessness. Eiji, despite his smart suits and coolly confident attitude, is unlikely to make much of himself in the yakuza world yet is as tied into its hellish system of loyalty and reciprocity as Yoshie is in her non-marriage to the man she thinks she loves. Seeking constant approval, Eiji thinks nothing of living off a woman and his childishly excited smile on re-entering the apartment after Yoshie has sacrificed herself to save his face is a grim reminder of his priorities. When pleading doesn’t work Eiji turns violent, prompting Yoshie to finally consider leaving him but she’s too late – the yakuza world has already got its hooks into her and any attempt to escape will be met with terrifying resistance.

Fujii may seem as if he presents another option for Yoshie, a chance for a better, kinder existence but he too is merely another man trying to tell her how she should live her life. Hypocritical at best (as he freely admits), Fujii pays Yoshie to “ease his sexual urges” but expresses disgust and disapproval of her lifestyle and seeks to “save” her from her life of humiliating immorality, “purifying” her just like the dam he is building is supposed to do to the Sumida river. Fujii’s obvious saviour complex is worrying enough in itself though there is also the additional worry of what his “salvation” may entail if Yoshie decides to make a break from her yakuza chains and run off to the comparative safety of provincial Hokkaido. Fujii may claim to have fallen in love with her, but so did Eiji and who’s to say Fujii’s idea of wedded bliss will be any better than Eiji’s brutal reign as a common law spouse.

The situation is further complicated by Eiji’s gradual shift from a violent, overbearing, abusive boyfriend to a genial figure of gentle domesticity and what that shift later provokes in Yoshie. Rendered physically impotent by an incident during a gang fight, Eiji is literally and figuratively emasculated. Though his sudden inability to satisfy Yoshie originally provokes his jealously, it soon robs him of his violent impulses and turns Eiji into a willing housewife who dutifully does the couple’s washing and prepares the meals much to Yoshie’s consternation. This transformation is what finally kills her love for him, but still Yoshie cannot find it in herself to sever her connection with the man who has been the cause of all her suffering. Not quite hate or loathing, Yoshie’s burned out love has become a burden of care as she finds herself duty bound to look after a man she now believes incapable of looking after himself.

While Yoshie and Eiji sit in a bar one night after “work”, the television plays a report featuring the sad news of the death of a female student at the ANPO demonstrations. Prompting Yoshie to exclaim “what is ANPO anyway?”, the news report lays bare just how isolated her life as become – as all of Tokyo is aflame with with righteous indignation and the streets are filled with the largest protest in living memory, Yoshie is trapped in her tiny neon world which promises so much and delivers so little.

Nakamura makes fantastic use of sound design to capture Yoshie’s interior world – the background music rising over the droning voice of a boring client who hasn’t quite made up his mind, the radio cutting out at intense moments of violence, the terrible clanging of Eiji’s geta on the iron staircase which leads to his flat. Fading into blue dissolves of memory, Nakamura makes a hellish wonderland of nighttime Tokyo whose flashing neon lights, crowded bars and oddly darkened streets turn it into a prison of dubious delights. Finally making a drastic decision, Yoshie attempts to free herself from her burdens and sever the chains which bind her to her misery but in cutting the cord she finds the knots tightening, realising she will never be released from the source of all her suffering.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Affair in the Snow (樹氷のよろめき, Kiju Yoshida, 1968)

affair in the snow posterKiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida, along with his wife – the actress Mariko Okada, was responsible for some of the most arresting films of the late ’60s avant-garde art scene. So called “anti-melodramas”, many of Yoshida’s films from this era took what could have been a typical melodrama narrative and filmed it in an alienated, almost emotionless manner somehow reaching a deeper level of an often superficial and overwrought genre. Affair in the Snow (樹氷のよろめき, Juhyo no Yoromeki) is, in essence, the familiar story of an unreasonable love triangle but in Yoshida’s hands it becomes a melancholy yet penetrating examination of love, sex, and transience as the central trio attempt to resolve their ongoing romantic difficulties.

Yuriko (Mariko Okada) works in an upscale beauty salon in Sapporo and is in a relationship with a moody professor, Akira (Yukio Ninagawa), which seems to have run its course. The couple decide to take a trip to figure things out but it all goes wrong when the car breaks down and they’re marooned together in an unfamiliar environment. Akira’s mood swings and jealousy seem to be the main motivators for Yuriko’s dissatisfaction along with his desire for rough and ready sex over genial romance. Fearing she may be pregnant, Yuriko is not sure what to do – especially given that Akira is not particularly supportive.

Running from Akira, Yuriko gets back in touch with an old friend and former lover, Kazuo (Isao Kimura), who she feels can be relied upon to help her whatever she decides to do in this admittedly difficult situation. Yuriko and Kazuo were together for a short while and still share a deep emotional connection but their relationship was eventually frustrated due to Kazuo’s physical impotence. Eventually Akira catches up with the pair and tries to win Yuriko back as the three work through their various problems in the snow covered mountains of Hokkaido.

For Yuriko the two men represent very different pulls – towards the spiritual and the physical. Her relationship with Akira has obviously long gone sour, the two aren’t suited or happy in each other’s company. All they have is the physical though, it seems, this is not enough for Yuriko. Yuriko and Kazuo, by contrast, work well together, complement each other and only exert positive energy but their inability to enjoy a full relationship (which it seems they would both like) is the reason their previous affair failed.

Yuriko needs, in a sense, both men though for the present time her desire is to be rid of Akira with his emotional volatility, cruelty, and possessiveness. Though the relationship may be been on its way out, Akira’s jealousy is inflamed by the deep connection Kazuo shares with Yuriko – bringing home the the fact that his relationship with her is firmly based in the physical. As Yuriko and Kazuo grow closer, Akira becomes increasingly unhinged as it’s he who’s now rendered “impotent” in the quest to win back his former love. Cavorting with the young hippies at the ski lodge, Akira tries to make Yuriko jealous and Kazuo irritated but only succeeds in making himself look ridiculous. Eventually, Yuriko is goaded into admitting that all Akira has ever known of her is superficial, whereas Kazuo has known her soul. Yet even so the love she shares with Kazuo seems doomed to fail, tinged with death as she finds herself blinded and obscured by snow filled fog, screaming into a void.

For Yoshida all love fails, as Kazuo says – no love can last. The central trio are lost and purposeless yet seeking a connection they never seem to find. Yoshida’s beautiful cinematography captures their emotional blankness through the freezing cold snow-covered landscape and infinite expanses of emptiness in which no one can reconcile everything that they want with everything that they are. Death lurks everywhere as skiers pulls bodies past romantic walks and would-be-lovers collapse in exhaustion as if trying to cross the artic plains in search of a lost friend.

Shooting through mirrors Yoshida shows us a collection of people unwilling to look directly either at themselves or at others, missing the final climactic event in their fierce determination not to engage. Lost in a fog, nothing is clear as the lovelorn and lonely seek direction only to remain locked inside themselves unable to find the true and complete connection they each seek.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Affair (情炎, Kiju Yoshida, 1967)

the affair 1967After leaving Shochiku and forming an independent production company with his actress wife Mariko Okada, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida continued in the Shochiku vein, after a fashion, through crafting what came to be known as “anti-melodramas”. Taking the familiar melodrama a studio like Shochiku was well known for, Yoshida transformed the material through radical cinematography designed to alienate and drain the overwrought drama of its empty emotion in order to drive to something deeper. The Affair (情炎, Jouen), released in 1967, is just such an experiment as it paints the cold and repressed world of its heroine in steely black and white, imprisoning her within its widescreen frame, and setting her at odds with the younger, more liberated generation who get their kicks through groovy beatnik jazz and an eternal party.

Oriko (Mariko Okada) is a married, middle-aged woman who has never been able to find fulfilment with her successful executive husband Takashi (Tadahiko Sugano). The marriage has long been cold and Oriko has discovered that her husband has a younger mistress leading her to seek a divorce but Takashi will not give her one. Her one confidant is a poet and sculptor whom she first met as her mother’s lover – something she tried to put a stop to. Oriko’s mother died a year ago in a traffic accident though she’d long been a heavy drinker and Oriko is convinced her mother was probably drunk at the time of her death. Aside from a drink and poetry habit, Oriko’s mother also had a taste for love – Mitsuharu (Isao Kimura), now an odd kind of friend, was merely one of her many lovers. Oriko’s intense disgust of her mother’s “decadent” lifestyle has left her with a deep seated repression, unable to allow herself to experience any kind of pleasure in case she too succumbs to a life of base desire.

Yoshida imbues Oriko’s life with a kind of dread and stillness, defined by its emptiness and sterility. At odds with her mother while she was alive, Oriko cannot let her go even in death. Yet she is not ready to break through to the new post-war world inhabited by her hippyish sister-in-law Yuko (Shigako Shimegi) and her well to do friends. Oriko dresses in western style for her office job but sticks to kimono at home and on the move, hers is an old fashioned world of propriety and elegance but the gesture is less conformist than rebellious – she is in revolt against herself as she represses and refuses her desires.

Despite her inability to adapt to married life with her husband, Oriko is eventually awakened by witnessing her sister-in-law’s quasi-rape by a local labourer. Originally reluctant, Yuko eventually gives in and allows the labourer to have his wicked way with her while, unbeknownst to her, Oriko watches through a frosted window. Later she finds herself setting off through the dark and mysterious night to the shack where the labourer takes refuge to warn him off trying anything with Yuko again only to find herself succumbing to his “charms”.

The encounter is a shocking one which ultimately destabilises Oriko’s entire personality. Having spent so long repressing herself, Oriko is not sure what to do – only that she still doesn’t want her husband and may be in love with an equally problematic suitor in the man who had been a lover of the very woman she was so desperate not to become. Yet Oriko must finally accept that she is not so different from the mother she despised, feeling the same desire and the same need even if her deepening self loathing makes pleasure a knife which wounds.

Mitsuharu has long been in love with Oriko but unable to express himself firstly through the taboo of having been intimate with her mother and then because of her marriage. The two have become awkward friends as Mitsuharu tries to help Oriko navigate her marital problems only daring to hint at his true feelings as Oriko details her frustrations with her husband. A sculptor by trade and a poet in soul, Mitsuharu chips away at Oriko’s reserve like one of his sculptures, literally opening her up and exposing her true form to the air. Eventually crushed by his own desire, Mitsuharu may be robbed of a direct connection to the very force which has come to define this recent stage of Oriko’s life but this only reinforces her devotion to him. Leaving a final poem for her unpoetical husband, Oriko writes the words “this flower, still vital, resigns herself to her fate” as she acknowledges her desires but subsumes them into her love for Mitsuharu rather than repressing them into herself.

Yoshida’s camerawork is once again astounding, marooning his disparate cast inside their own individual space, unable to connect with each other or the outside world. Framed in mirrors and windows, caught alone among a crowd of indifferent passengers on a bus, separated by shoji, Yoshida’s characters are endlessly divided but the prisons are all of their own making.


Original trailer (Traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎, Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1974)

lone-wolf-and-cub-white-heaven-in-hell-japanese Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) have been following the Demon Way for five films, chasing the elusive Lord Retsudo (Minoru Oki) of the villainous Yagyu clan who was responsible for the murder of Ogami’s wife and his subsequent framing for treason. The Demon Way is never easy, and Ogami has committed himself to following it to its conclusion, but recent encounters have broadened a conflict in his heart as innocents and seekers of justice have died alongside guilty men and cowards. Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎, Kozure Okami: Jigoku e Ikuzo! Daigoro) moves him closer to his target but also further deepens his descent into the underworld as he’s forced to confront the wake of his ongoing quest for vengeance.

Ogami and Daigoro have made it to Snow Country, meanwhile Lord Retsudo is receiving a dressing down from a superior over his total failure to eliminate the Lone Wolf or his Cub. It seems Ogami has already despatched all three of Retsudo’s sons, and so now Retsudo pledges his daughter, Kaori (Junko Hitomi), skilled in the use of daggers and every bit as fine a warrior as her defeated brothers, in the mission to end the Ogami threat.

Things do not go to plan and Retsudo is forced to approach his one remaining son. An illegitimate child born to a concubine, disavowed, and hidden away in the mountains, Hyoe (Isao Kimura) is not well disposed to his estranged father’s request to save the Yagyu clan to which he feels only rage and resentment. Sending his father away, Hyoe nevertheless decides to take on Ogami in the hope of embarrassing the Yagyu by taking him out first. Possibly having spent too much time alone, Hyoe’s plan involves a number of strange rituals beginning with resurrecting three of his men as emotionless (yet intelligent) zombies meant to terrify Ogami and his son into submission.

Throughout the series, we’ve seen Ogami’s world darken as the straightforward missions of eliminating corrupt lords eventually gave way to more morally dubious assignments with the tragic story of Oyuki and later the assassination of an entire family in order to preserve the legitimate arm of a historical clan. Along the way, Ogami has met “true samurai” and villainous cowards, but his encounters with honest men and women have only served to shake his heart as he guides his young son onwards bound for hell by way of death or violence.

The pair have never been afraid before, but Hyoe’s plan hinges on pushing Ogami’s mind into those dark places, preventing him from fighting back against his supernatural soldiers. Death has always surrounded them, but the price of Ogami’s vengeance is brought home to him when Hyoe’s forces unceremoniously wipe out the entire population of an inn where Ogami and Daigoro are staying whilst hovering in some nearby trees to remind them that this is all really their fault and the longer they keep on down this path, the more the innocent will suffer. The zombie trio threaten to destroy Ogami’s human emotions – joy, sorrow, pleasure, and anger, leaving him only with fear. Unbowed, Ogami faces Hyoe but the pair have more in common than they thought and so round one ends in a stalemate.

White Heaven in Hell, though not intended as a conclusion to the series, neatly brings things full circle as Ogami visits his wife’s grave, recalling his familial tragedy and reinforcing his bond with Daigoro. All of the films have, in some way, dealt with functional and dysfunctional family, each commenting on the unusual relationship between Ogami and his son. Finally meeting face to face, Retsudo takes Ogami to task for the loss of his children which Ogami throws right back at him – after all, all he did was defend himself against a threat Retsudo himself instigated. Ogami eventually tells him that he hopes Retsudo becomes so lonely that he goes completely mad. Retsudo’s pointless manoeuvring has cost him dearly in the loss of each of his legitimate children, eventually forcing the acknowledgement of his illegitimate son and daughter whose hatred of him also leads to their undoing. So great is Hyoe’s loathing of the Yagyu, that his last ditch attempt at revenge is in trying to convince his own sister, Azuma, to bear his child and create a new line to finish them off once and for all.

Kenji Misumi declined to return for this instalment, claiming the series had become too much like a Western which is a little ironic as White Heaven in Hell leaves the arid deserts behind for the frozen ice plains of the north. Yoshiyuki Kuroda, making his first and only contribution to the series, had a strong background in horror cinema which might explain the sudden appearance of the supernatural elements in what has been, up to now, a fairly grounded exercise even if somewhat outlandish. This is also the only script with which original creator Kazuo Koike was not not involved and bears the least relation to the then ongoing manga. Still, the action is undoubtedly innovative as the baby cart’s wheels are swapped for skis and Ogami faces off against an entire army of enemies on a snow covered hillside. Kuroda sticks more closely to Misumi’s aesthetic than Saito had done though steers away from the painterly cinematics in favour of showcasing the snow covered terrain, driving Ogami deeper into hell as his heart freezes over but denying him the vengeance that has become his life’s work. White Heaven in Hell is the last outing for Ogami yet refuses to close the circle, his quest may be a never ending one, plunging both himself and his son into an inescapable cycle of violence and regret as the Demon’s Way stretches on endlessly towards an uncertain destination.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)