Ikiru (生きる, Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

The Japanese economy may have embarked on a path towards recovery thanks to the stimulus of the Korean War, but in the early 1950s many might have thought it too soon to ask if survival in itself was enough yet this is exactly what disillusioned civil servant Kenji Watanabe finds himself asking after receiving the devastating news that he has advanced stomach cancer and year at most to live. “To live” is apt translation of Akira Kurosawa’s intensely moving existential melodrama, Ikiru (生きる), which tackles the compromises of the salaryman dream head on along with those of the contradictions of the sometimes dehumanising post-war society. 

As the opening voice over reveals to to us, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is man who died long ago or perhaps has never truly been alive. In some senses, he is nothing more than an embodiment of the seal he uses to stamp documents day in day out, a mere piston in an ever turning machine of relentless bureaucracy. A young woman, Miss Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), working in the Public Affairs department loudly reads out a joke someone has written about their boss, Watanabe, who has taken not a single day’s holiday in 30 years suggesting that it’s less that he fears city hall will grind to a halt without him than they’ll suddenly figure out city hall has no need of him at all. The irony is city hall does indeed grind to a halt in Watanabe’s absence as he, unthinkably, fails to turn up for work for days on end as the papers pile ever higher on his desk. “Nothing moves here without his seal” one of the workers admits, bewildered by this sudden break with protocol while salivating over its implications in the possibility that Watanabe’s chair may soon be empty. 

Yet Watanabe’s crisis is that he’s realised he’s wasted his life on a pointless bureaucratic career that’s done little more than keep a roof over his head. Even the roof is a fairly modest one and it’s clear that his grown up son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) considers him to be a stingy old miser, unable to understand why he’s never spent so much as a penny on himself and lives in a kind of self-imposed austerity. Perhaps to Watanabe this is what constitutes properness. He’s done everything he was supposed to do, got a steady job at city hall and eventually became the head of department, but now he feels foolish and lonely. Mitsuo and his wife seem to resent him and talk openly about their plans to use their inheritance, along with Watanabe’s retirement bonus, for a downpayment on a “modern” home the polar opposite of the pre-war townhouse where the family continue to live. 

Mitsuo and Kazue (Kyoko Seki) are perhaps emblems of the increasingly empty consumerism of the post-war era, emotionally disconnected from Watanabe and seeking only the flashy and new. Miss Odagiri, the young woman from work, immediately says that she’d love to live in a home like Watanabe’s rather than the crowded multiple occupancy flat she currently inhabits with her family. Cheerful and outgoing, Odagiri is on the other hand a symbol of a new generation that wants something more out of life than simple material comfort and might even be willing to trade it for a small amount of happiness. Having worked at city hall for all of 18 months, she decides that she just can’t take it anymore and is quitting to get a job in a factory making toy rabbits that she says allow her to feel as if she’s making friends with all the babies in Japan. 

To that extent, Watanabe is himself also a baby craving Odagiri’s company admitting that he envies her youth and vitality in realising he squandered his own and will never get it back. How uncomfortable it must be for her, their final meeting in a restaurant sandwiched between a loving couple and teenage girl’s birthday party as Watanabe, gaunt and shrunken, claws at the air and begs her to help him live. Yet even within the grotesquery the tone is ironic, the strains of “Happy Birthday” accompanying Watanabe down the stairs as a the high school climbs up to meet her friends signalling his (re)birth as a man with purpose and determination. Just as Odagiri had found meaning in the rabbit, Watanabe finds it deciding to get a playground built over a post-war swamp in the slums filled with raw sewage and mosquitos that left the local children ill. 

Yet children’s parks aren’t particularly profitable which is presumably why the petition to build one had been kicked all round city hall in the infernal wheel of bureaucracy in which Watanabe too is trapped. “You call this democracy?” one of the women bringing the petition asks, taking the clerk to task complaining that all they do is fob them off insisting it’s someone else’s responsibility to help while determined only to guard their own turf. “You’re not supposed to do anything at city hall” someone ironically adds, “the best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all”. Watanabe did nothing at all for 30 years and it got him nowhere, his dedication to his job disrupting his relationship with his son though Watanabe is ironically one of the most emotional men and engaged fathers seen on screen in the post-war era. 

After his death, in the park he helped build for which the deputy mayor has taken credit, his colleagues put him on trial at the wake trying to work out why he did it and whether or not he even knew he was dying seeing as he told no one close him not even the son whom he felt he could no longer trust. They deny his role while both praising and condemning his passion as somehow improper, disrupting the dispassionate rhythms of the bureaucratic machine with human emotion. It was only coincidence, they say. The deputy mayor wanted an election and the yakuza wanted to turn the swamp into a red light district. “Did he think he could just build a park?” someone adds, bemused by his effrontery as a man from Public Affairs straying into the Parks Department’s territory. You have to protect your turf after all. Finally moved by Watanabe’s last ditch bid to make his life mean something, to feel alive and know he has lived, the the drunken salarymen, all but one who retreats to look at Watanabe’s photo above the altar, swear to follow his example. 

But of course the bureaucratic wheel keeps turning, another dangerous sewage problem diverted to another department continuing the literal pollution of the capitalistic post-war society. A kind of ghost story, Kurosawa lights Shimura from below, shadows cast across his gaunt face even by his “rakish” new hat while his huge eyes have a somehow haunted, grotesque quality filled with hungry desperation. Yet it’s to childhood that Watanabe eventually returns, “perfectly happy” sitting on a swing singing a song from his youth about the price age while surrounded by snow and at last painfully, absurdly alive. 


Ikiru screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 4th & 15th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Stray Dog (野良犬, Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

“And, yes, I think the world’s not right. But it’s worse to take it out on the world” the conflicted policeman at the centre of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (野良犬, Nora Inu) explains as he struggles to reacquire his sense of authority while weighing up its limits and his own right to pass judgement on what is right or wrong or merely illegal. He must ask himself how he can enforce the law while faced with the reality that the man he chases is an echo of himself, the him that took another path amid the chaos, confusion, and despair that followed in the wake of defeat and occupation even as his well-meaning mentor insists that some people are good and others bad and he won’t be able to do his job if he gives it much more thought than that.

The policeman, Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), is perhaps the stray dog of the title who can only follow the straight path towards his missing gun taken from him on a sweltering bus in the middle of summer while he was distracted not only by the heat but by exhaustion having been up all night on a stakeout. As we later discover, Murakami is a rookie cop and recently demobbed soldier trying to make a life for himself in the post-war society. In this he is quite lucky. Many men returned home and struggled to find employment leaving them unable to marry or support families, a whole pack of stray dogs lost in an ever changing landscape. This must have weighed quite heavily on his mind as he made the decision to resign from the police force to take responsibility for the laxity that led to the gun possibly ending up in the wrong hands only to discover his superiors don’t regard it as seriously as he does. His boss tears up the letter and tells him to turn his defeat into something more positive by trying to do something about it, which might in its own way be a metaphor for the new post-war society. 

So closely does Murakami identify himself with his gun that on hearing it has been used in a violent robbery it’s almost as if he has committed the crime and is responsible for anything it might do. There is an essential irony in the fact that this weapon that was supposed to prevent crime is being subverted and used in its service as if mirroring the paths of the two men who both returned to a changed Japan and had their knapsacks stolen on their way back home. Murakami has chosen the law, while the thief Yusa (Isao Kimura) is thrown into nihilistic despair unable to make a life for himself. Murakami’s sense of guilt is further compounded on realising that he may have frustrated Yusa’s attempt to turn back, returning the gun to the underground pistol brokers who make their living through selling illegal weapons stolen from police or bought from occupation forces.

As he admits, Murakami could have ended up committing a robbery but realised he was at a dangerous crossroads and made a deliberate choice to join the police instead. He literally finds himself walking the other man’s path when he’s told by a pickpocket, Ogin (Noriko Sengoku), that the underworld pistol dealers will find him if he walks around downtown looking like he’s at the end of his rope. Ogin, the woman reeking of cheap perfume who stood next to him on the bus, was once known for her fancy kimonos but is now in western dress, signalling perhaps a further decline. In this age of privation, only kimonos and rice have held their value and it’s not unreasonable to assume that she’s sold all of hers and joined the modern generation. Ogin doesn’t have anything to do with the theft, but seems to take pity on Murakami seeing him as naive and essentially unable to understand the way things work on the ground. His mentor, Sato (Takashi Shimura), seems to understand too well, on one level looking down on those like Ogin as simply bad but otherwise happy in her company knowing exactly how to get what he wants through their oddly flirtatious conversation as they suck ice lollies and smoke illicit cigarettes in the interview room. 

Dressed in a ragged military uniform, Murakami wanders around the backstreets of contemporary Tokyo past street kids and sex workers and groups of men just hanging around. Kurosawa employs montage and superimposition to reflect the endless drudgery and maddening circularity his of passage under the stifling heat of summer in the city that allows him a better understanding of what it is to live in this world. Even so, the boy who eventually makes contact seems to see through him pointing out that he looks too physically robust to pass for a desperate drifter. Yusa meanwhile is wiry and hollow, a frightened man who uses Murakami’s gun to affect an authority he does not own which might explain why both of his victims are women. Sato emphasises the worthiness of their victimhood, explaining that the first was robbed of the money she’d saved over three years for her wedding meaning she might have to wait even longer at which point there would be no point getting married at all, while the second woman was killed at home alone and defenceless. We’re also told that her body was nude when discovered which raises the question of whether she might have been assaulted before she died which would cast quite a different light on Yusa’s crimes no longer an accidental killer but a crazed rapist well beyond salvation. 

Yet the accidental nature of Yusa’s fall does seem to be key. The trigger seems to have been a childhood friend he’d fallen in love with gazing at a dress he could never afford to buy for her, pushed into a corner by his wounded masculinity and taking drastic action to reclaim it in much the same way Murakami later does in searching for his missing gun. In their final confrontation they grapple violently in existential struggle in a small grove behind some posh houses where a woman plays a charming parlour tune on the piano pausing only for a few moments to peer out of the window on hearing gunshots. Murakami retrieves his gun and the pair fall to the ground side by side to be met by the sound of children singing, provoking a wail of absolute despair from a defeated Yusa suddenly hit by the full weight of his transgressions. He too was a stray dog heading straight in one direction driven out of mainstream society by the unfairness of the post-war world. Sato tells Murakami that he’ll eventually forget all about Yusa, that he’ll become “less sentimental” and accept the world is full of bad guys and those who fall victim to them, but Murakami doesn’t seem too convinced, for the moment at least unable to forget that Yusa was man much like himself only less lucky or perhaps simply less naive.


Stray Dog screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 1st & 13th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

High and Low (天国と地獄, Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

A self-made man is landed with an unthinkable dilemma when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped in place of his own just at the moment he’s staked his entire fortune on a manoeuvre to outsmart cynical executives set on taking over his company in Kurosawa’s post-war crime film, High and Low (天国と地獄, Tengoku to Jigoku). The movie’s Japanese title, Heaven and Hell, might hint more strongly at the growing economic disparities in the era of the economic miracle but also at the dualities embodied in the hero’s choices. “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity” his wife tells him, but he still struggles with the validity of choosing his heart over his head knowing that to pay anyway even though it’s another man’s son means financial ruin, the final question being if he is really prepared to allow a child to die simply to maintain his own wealth and status. 

The problem is that Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) has attempted to mount a rebellion against the evils of consumerism, incurring the ire of the cynical executives who attempt to get him on their side in their attempt to oust the boss whose outdated ideas are running the business into the ground. Though Gondo appears sympathetic, hinting that he might be interested if there’s a good enough promotion in it, he later tells them where to go on seeing that their business plan is to start producing poor quality disposable footwear. Gondo started on the factory floor and he doesn’t want to put the company’s name on such shoddy produce nor does he think that their admittedly fair point that if the shoes are well made and last a long time no one will need to buy any is a good way to do business. He doesn’t think the boss is right either and wants to make shoes his own way which is why he’s remortgaged the sizeable mansion he owns on top of a hill overlooking the city and has pretty much run through his wife’s dowry to buy a majority stake in the company.

On top of a hill is a good place to live if you want a good vantage point to oversee the land below, but while you’re looking down others look up and not all of them kindly. Gondo is as he says a self-made man, but also out of touch with contemporary society and not so far from an ambitious courtier always after a little more. He says it isn’t about getting the top job but getting shoes made right, but it seems he too had been bitten by the consumerist bug and is otherwise unable to affirm his status without material proof. When he thinks it’s his own son that’s been kidnapped, he’d have given it all away but when it’s the driver’s boy it’s a different question. Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu) isn’t his responsibility and as he points out there are plenty of other wealthy men, why is he the only one to pay? While his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) tearfully urges him to do the right thing, his assistant (Tatsuya Mihashi) tries stop him, insisting he should take the sizeable cheque they’ve had drawn up to Osaka and the stakeholder he’s buying the shares from. 

While he vacillates, the driver, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), is humiliated and forced into servitude. Gondo seems to have the old-fashioned idea that the kidnappers would simply let Shinichi go on realising they’ve got the wrong boy and his father can’t pay, but Aoki knows there’s nothing he can do to save his son but throw himself on Gondo’s mercy. He falls to the ground and prostrates himself, but later retracts all telling Gondo it doesn’t matter, that he hadn’t realised what he was asking of him, and insisting that Shinichi is a bright boy who will look for a chance to escape on his own. Once the boy is returned he treats him harshly, interrogating him about anything he might have forgotten and later driving him around looking for the hideout where he was kept in an attempt to do something and repay the debt he now feels he owes to Gondo by helping the police retrieve the money Gondo eventually agreed to pay for him. 

In agreeing to give up the money, Gondo is in a sense unburdened knowing he has made the right choice and realising that he would never live a comfortable life in that house if cost a child’s life to keep it. Part of his rationale for not wanting to pay had been that though he had been poor before and might be again, his wife had not been and does not truly understand what it is to live in poverty much as she says her life of luxury means nothing to her. She has never wanted for anything, after all. As for the kidnapper, Ginjiro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), we know little of his motives save for his intense resentment living quite literally in the shadow of Gondo’s mansion and feeling as if it were mocking him. Then again, though his life is hard Ginjiro already had a path to success in that he would soon have completed his medical studies implying at least that he or someone else was able to cover his tuition and costs of living, that he was able to continue in education, and really had no need to take such drastic action in rebellion against the antagonistic capitalism of the post-war society. “Do you think we have to hate each other?” Gondo asks him, but Ginjiro has no answer only his intense resentment for everything he represents.

The “hell” that Gondo inhabits is a backstreet wasteland peopled by the hopeless. Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), the earnest policeman, follows him through thronging clubs and on into “dope alley” where Ginjiro picked up his accomplices so desperate to escape their suffering that they’d agree to help him kidnap a child. Though it costs him his job, Gondo decision to do the right thing makes him a national hero, the working class millionaire who mows his own lawn and can still knock up a pair of shoes should the occasion call while women across the country decide to boycott the company in protest at his treatment. Ginjiro can only howl like a caged animal while facing a death sentence for the coldblooded murder of his accomplices. The light bouncing off his mirrored sunshades gives him an eerie supernatural quality, a demon arising from depths of hell to wreak havoc in heaven but finding only infinite tragedy in the contradictions of the consumerist post-war society.


High and Low screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)

Our Marriage (私たちの結婚, Masahiro Shinoda, 1962)

Like many directors of his age, Masahiro Shinoda had to serve his apprenticeship at Shochiku contributing to the studio’s particular brand of light and cheerful melodramas though 1962’s Our Marriage (私たちの結婚, Watashitachi no Kekkon) did perhaps allow him to explore some of his persistent themes in its ultimately empathetic exploration of the romantic and existential dilemmas of two sisters who ultimately find themselves taking different paths in the complicated post-war society. Co-scripted by Zenzo Matsuyama, Our Marriage is essentially a chronicle of changing times and the crises of modernity, but it’s also surprisingly even-handed in its refusal to judge or indeed to sugarcoat the “romance” of a working class life. 

Keiko (Noriko Maki) and her younger sister Saeko (Chieko Baisho) both have jobs in the local factory with Keiko working in the accounts department which is where she first meets the brooding and self-righteous Komakura (Shinichiro Mikami) when he marches straight into the office to complain that he’s been shorted on his pay-packet to the tune of 10 yen. The ladies are non-plussed, it’s only 10 yen after all so perhaps there’s no need to be so unpleasant about it, but Komakura insists on having it looked into even after they give him the single coin in an effort to make him go away. Getting so upset about 10 yen is perhaps disproportionate, but then it is Komakura’s 10 yen and he has a point that if a mistake has been made it needs to be acknowledged and corrected especially when you’re dealing with people’s livelihoods to ensure that everyone is being paid fairly. On the other hand, marching in and shouting at people is unlikely to help the situation. 

It just so happens that Komakura is a good friend of Saeko’s who perhaps reads more into the mild embarrassment he and her sister each experience on meeting in another context to assume that they are romantically involved, immediately swinging into action to get them together. Meanwhile, another potential suitor has turned up at home in the form of Matsumoto (Isao Kimura), apparently an old friend dropping in on their parents out of courtesy. Matsumoto is very good looking and apparently now has a well paying job in the textiles trade, but despite their politeness to him the parents later have their doubts because it turns out that he was their blackmarket dealer during the dark days of the immediate post-war era. 

The Hibino family make their living as seaweed farmers and live in a small two-story home in a fishing village. Times are hard because the sea is dying. Increased industrial pollution, land reclamation, and the new airport have reduced the harvest to almost nothing and the girls’ father (Eijiro Tono) can no longer make ends meet. The union hasn’t paid him and he can’t ask about it because he’s still in debt from a previous loan, which is why Keiko’s mother (Sadako Sawamura) is always asking her for extra money to help with household expenses. Keiko intensely resents this, especially as her father’s irresponsible drinking habits continue to adversely affect the family’s finances. They haven’t really been thinking about her marriage perhaps partly because they need her salary but are now forced to because of all the sudden and unexpected interest. On top of Matsumoto and Komakura, it seems that the union leader’s widowed son is also interested which would, admittedly, be quite beneficial to the family. 

Keiko, however, is insistent that her husband must have a decent salary and that her married home must have a refrigerator and a washing machine. Quite the consumerist, Keiko has had enough of poverty and of feckless men like her authoritarian father who waste all their money on drink while relying on female labour to keep them out of trouble. When Matsumoto writes a formal letter proposing marriage, the parents decide to push the union leader’s son instead hoping to avoid embarrassment all round. Keiko immediately assumes the worst, that her father is trying to sell her to the union leader in exchange for the cancelation of his debts. She insists that she will decide her own future, leading Saeko to make a disastrous intervention revealing Keiko’s relationship with Komakura which only has the effect of enraging her father who brands her an ungrateful “whore” while shouting that a mere workman is not good enough for his daughter despite having previously stated that the union leader’s son was really “too good” and they were only in the running because it’s a second marriage. 

Both women still implicitly feel that marriage will define their futures, they do not have an expectation of living independently. Nevertheless, marriage itself may not be an answer. Everyone keeps talking about how happy Miyoko (Fumiko Hirayama) is with her new husband and she herself is forever extolling the joys of married life even in poverty, insisting to Saeko that “a woman’s happiness lies in marrying and having babies”. It’s a cruel irony then that we later see her arguing with her husband who is trying to force her to have an abortion against her will because they cannot afford to raise a child. Keiko has had enough of poverty, she wants to be more than comfortable, enjoying the new consumerist age. Re-encountering an old schoolfriend who has become a glamorous social butterfly she is mildly scandalised when she tells her that she obtained all her treasures through a complex network of compensated dating arrangements with foreigners, but later decides to check it out for herself when directly faced with the hopelessness of her situation. 

The fact remains, however, that no matter the initial attraction and her sister’s earnest attempts to make it work, Keiko and Komakura are fundamentally unsuited. They have entirely different ways of thinking about the world and want completely different things. Komakura is an angry young man but committed to his working class roots. He isn’t trying to get on, he’s happy with working in the factory for the rest of his life and just wants a quiet, honest existence. Keiko wants more, she thinks that people who say they’re poor but happy have merely given up on life. Revealing himself, Matsumoto says that he was struck by Keiko’s harsh words to him when she was a child, her calling him a blackmarketeer to his face apparently showing him what he was. He claims to have reformed and now fears the various ways that poverty can corrupt, something Keiko feels herself after her brief brush with the shady world of compensated dating. They are very much on the same page, both intent on seizing the benefits of the consumerist age but hoping they won’t have to stoop too low to get them. 

Saeko meanwhile is a little younger, still naive, and unlike her sister completely resistant to the corruptions of consumerism. Part of that might be because Keiko has shielded her from some of the harsh consequences of the way their family lives such as the financial burden of her father’s drinking, leaving her with a rosier view of poor but honest life which has her taking notes from Miyoko on how it’s easy to be happy even when you don’t have enough to eat. She and Komakura are in fact perfectly suited and perhaps she is already in love with him but either afraid of her feelings or unable to recognise them, pushing him towards her “prettier” sister instead. Then again, is there anything to say that Komakura will not turn into another man like her father, embittered and old, trying to drown his disappointment in sake? There’s no guarantee Keiko will be happy with Matsumoto, or perhaps with anyone, but they are at least moving forward in the same direction, as are Saeko and Komakura even as they blend back in with a hundred other cheerful youngsters making their way towards the factory. Our Marriage offers no judgment on its heroines’ choices, merely stating that people make their own paths in life pursuing their particular ideal of happiness and it happens that those paths might necessarily diverge but the people are still the same ones they always were and perhaps you don’t need to reject them for choosing differently than you might have done. Isn’t that what post-war freedom is all about after all?


Beautiful Days (美わしき歳月, Masaki Kobayashi, 1955)

“Life is unpredictable” according to the protagonists of Masaki Kobayashi’s Beautiful Days (美わしき歳月, Uruwashiki Saigetsu, AKA The Beautiful Years), becoming something of refrain in the face of constant change. Among the most quietly angry of post-war humanists, Masaki Kobayashi’s later work is defined by a central question of how the conscientious individual can survive in an oppressive society. Like many directors, however, he had to do his time making regular studio programmers, in his case at Shochiku which was then, and to some extent still is, the home of polite melodrama. Like Kobayashi’s other films from this period, Beautiful Days conforms to the studio’s classic shomin-geki formula, but does perhaps display something of his resistance to the system in its tale of three former school friends scattered by the complicated post-war society but each in his own way attempting to make a break with the past in order to move into a more positive future. 

The action opens, however, with the old. Grandma Mrs. Tokioka (Akiko Tamura) is hit by a fancy car while out shopping, but the owner, retired CEO Shigaki (Eitaro Ozawa), turns out to be a kind and considerate man who insists on taking her to a hospital despite her protestations that she’s absolutely fine. Finally she gives in and asks Shigaki to take her to her regular doctor, Imanishi (Isao Kimura), only when she gets to the clinic Imanishi is getting a dressing down from his boss who accuses him of vanity in insisting on treating an emergency patient without checking his finances first. Imanishi storms out, recklessly quitting yet another job on a matter of principle. 

Mrs. Tokioka wanted to see Imanishi because he was a close friend of her grandson who was killed in the war, along with her son and his wife who were explosives experts, leaving her to care for her only remaining relative, 22-year-old Sakurako (Yoshiko Kuga) who works alongside her at their florist’s shop. Imanishi is from a relatively wealthy family of doctors which is perhaps why he feels so free to prioritise his integrity because the economic consequences are relatively marginal. For his friends, Hakamada (Junkichi Orimoto) and Nakao (Keiji Sada) the situation is different. Hakamada’s family are poor, living in a makeshift shack in the slums while he supports them all with a job in a factory run by an unscrupulous and exploitive boss standing in for heartless post-war capitalism. Nakao, meanwhile, graduated with a law degree but hasn’t been able to find any steady work since coming home from the war and is earning a living playing drums in a cabaret bar for 600 yen a night. 

Formerly close friends since their middle school days, the men maintain a deep yet increasingly distant connection not least because Tokioka’s death has left them with a sense of sad incompleteness. As the others say, Nakao has indeed changed. His experiences in the war along with the death of a close friend who was killed while trying to seek a better life in Brazil, have made him embittered and cynical. He buries himself in the inconsequential pleasures of pool halls and nightclubs to avoid having to think about a future he feels he doesn’t deserve. As Imanishi puts it, he struggles with his kindness towards others, pushing people away, overly cautious in choosing a policy of self-isolation rather than risk potential hurt. It seems he was in love before the war, but she (Toshiko Kobayashi) married someone else and is now a widowed single-mother. He wants to help her, getting Imanishi to visit her mother who was diagnosed with asthma that is most likely TB, and helping her with a job as a tea dancer at the club but feeling conflicted in inviting her into such a low environment while also resisting his continuing love for her, partly in resentment over her past, and partly in a lingering sense of hopelessness about the future. 

Imanishi’s problems meanwhile are mostly born of stubborn male pride. He refuses to work for the increasingly capitalist hospitals of the contemporary era and wants to be a socially responsible doctor but realises that he can’t go on quitting one job after another. He and Sakurako, Mrs. Tokioka’s granddaughter and the sister of his late friend, are in love and want to marry, but he’s too shy to ask for her hand as a man without a steady salary or future prospects. “Men always like to think things over on their own” Sakurako complains, immediately before Imanishi announces he’s about to do just that and wants to take a “break” in their relationship to sort himself out. He’s been offered a place in a research facility in Akita far in the North, but isn’t sure if he should ask Sakurako to go with him because Mrs. Tokioka won’t leave Tokyo, possibly won’t approve of their marriage, and will be disappointed if Sakurako chooses a life of hardship in the remoteness of snow country when all she’s ever wanted is for her to live happily. 

Mrs. Tokioka is in fact entirely ignorant of their relationship, which is why she’s receptive when Shigaki proposes a potential marriage between Sakurako and his younger son Yuji (Akio Satake). She thinks that’s a nice idea, but also acknowledges that times have changed and Sakurako’s marriage isn’t something she should have much say over. Shigaki agrees, and so they decide to introduce the young people casually and see if they hit it off, which they do but Sakurako remains conflicted in her relationship with the distant, to his mind noble, Imanishi who leaves her to think he’s got someone else rather than clear up a simple misunderstanding. 

In a strange way, it’s Mrs. Tokioka and Mr. Shigaki who are perhaps slipping into a romance, Sakurako even jokingly refers to him as her grandmother’s “boyfriend” using the trendy English word which adds an additional layer of incongruity. They each profess a deep confusion with the way the youngsters think, Mr. Shigaki disappointed with his older son who prioritises the bottom line and is cutting corners buying cheaper materials and reducing the quality of the product he worked so hard to perfect. Rampant and irresponsible capitalism is also the force which is currently destabilising Hakamada’s life as he finds himself exploited by his heartless boss but unable to simply quit as Imanishi has repeatedly done because jobs are hard to come by and he’s also supporting his parents. His boss even tries to frame him for stealing materials from the factory, later berating him for “talking like a freeloader” when he tries to bring up workplace conditions, and calling the police to have him charged with assault when he fights back after he hits him. 

Inverting the melancholy flower metaphor, Imanishi describes himself and his friends as horsetail in a field crushed when a dog comes by and defecates on it, but later remembers that horsetail eventually springs back up, while Mrs. Tokioka had wanted to see if her damaged bulbs would grow when planted in the right soil. The three friends are forced into a realisation that they’re heading out on different paths and will inevitably be scattered but they are at least finding their way, learning to come to an acceptance of the traumatic past to move into a happier future. “Life is unpredictable” but sometimes people surprise you and it’s best to give them the opportunity or risk losing your chance to seize happiness wherever you find it. 


Black Lizard (黒蜥蝪, Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

“Are you a critic?” asks the proprietress of of a lively night club, “Why?” replies a lonely man sitting at the bar, “Beauty fails to intoxicate you” she explains before wandering off to find a prettier prize. Nevertheless, a connection has been forged as two masters of the craft confront their opposing number. Black Lizard (黒蜥蝪, Kurotokage), based on the 1934 story by Edogawa Rampo, had been brought to the screen by Umetsugu Inoue in 1962 in a version which flirted with transgression but was frothy and fun, adding a touch of overwrought melodrama and gothic theatricality to Inoue’s well honed musical style.

Inoue’s version had been co-scripted by Kaneto Shindo and Yukio Mishima who had also written the stage version. Once again crediting Mishima’s stage adaptation, Fukasaku’s 1968 take on the story is, as might be expected, far less interested in class connotations than it is in notions of love, beauty, and aestheticism. Consequently, we open in a much harsher world, dropped straight into Black Lizard’s edgy nightclub which Akechi (Isao Kimura), Edogawa Rampo’s famous detective, has visited on a friend’s recommendation. He is shocked to read in the paper the next day that a young man he saw in the club has apparently committed suicide, while another article also mentions the shocking disappearance of a corpse from the local morgue. 

Meanwhile, Akechi is brought in on a retainer to protect the daughter of a wealthy jeweller who has been receiving threatening letters informing him of a plot to kidnap her. Unlike Inoue’s version, Iwase (Jun Usami) is a sympathetic father, not particularly demonised for his wealth. Rather than drinking too much, he simply takes his sleeping pills and gets into bed without realising that his daughter is already missing. As transgressive as ever, however, Black Lizard (Akihiro Miwa) wastes no time sizing up Sanae (Kikko Matsuoka), running her eyes over the “splendid curve” of her breasts and lamenting that beautiful people make her sad because they’ll soon grow old. She’d like to preserve that beauty forever, convinced that people age because of “anxieties and spiritual weakness”. The reason she loves jewels is that they have no soul and are entirely transparent, their youth is eternal. Now Black Lizard has her eyes on the most beautiful jewel of all, the Egyptian Star, currently in the possession of Iwase which is why she’s planning to kidnap Sanae and ask for it as a ransom. 

Though the Black Lizard of Inoue’s adaptation had been equally as obsessed with youth and beauty, she was a much less threatening presence, never actually harming anyone in the course of her crime only later revealing her grotesque hobby of creating gruesome tableaux of eternal beauty from human taxidermy. This Black Lizard is doing something similar with her “dolls”, but she’s also cruel and sadistic, not particularly caring if people die in the course of her grand plan even running a sword firstly through a body she believes to be Akechi’s, and then through a minion completely by accident. She picks up Amamiya (Yusuke Kawazu) in the bar because of his deathlike aura, his hopelessness made him handsome, but once he fell in deep love with his “saviour” she no longer found him beautiful enough to kill. 

Akechi, meanwhile, is captivated by her in the same way Holmes is captivated by Irene Adler. He admires her romanticism, and recognises her as someone who thinks that crime should come dressed in a beautiful ball gown. She, by turns is drawn to him but perhaps as to death, each of them wondering who is the pursuer and who the pursued but determined to be victorious. Casting Akihiro Miwa in the female role of Black Lizard adds an extra layer of poignancy to her eternal loneliness and intense fear of opening her heart, finally undone not by the failure of her crimes but by a sense of embarrassment that Akechi may have heard her true feelings that leaves her unable to go on living. 

Meanwhile, Amamiya attempts to rescue Sanae not because he has fallen in love with her, but because he too is drawn towards death. Showing the pair her monstrous gallery of taxidermy figures of beautiful humans, she pauses to kiss one on the lips (played by Yukio Mishima himself no less), leaving Amamiya with feelings of intense jealousy and a longing to be a cold and inanimate shell only to be touched by her. “Sanae”, meanwhile, who turns out to be a perfect mirror in having being picked up at rock bottom by Akechi for use in his plan, guides him back towards life. They did not love each other, yet their “fake” love was set to be immortalised forever as one of Black Lizard’s grim exhibitions. She wonders if the fake can in a sense be the real, that they may free themselves from their respective cages through love in accepting a romantic destiny. For Black Lizard, however, that seems to be impossible. Akechi has “stolen” her heart, but she cannot take hold of his, holding him to be a cold and austere man who has “trampled on the heart of a woman”. “Your heart was a genuine diamond” Akechi adds, lamenting that the true jewel is no more. Black Lizard meets her destiny in a kind of defeat, too afraid of love and the changes it may bring to survive it, but paradoxically grateful that her love is alive while taking her leave as a romanticist in love with the beauty of sadness. 


Opening and titles (English subtitles)

The Love of the Actress Sumako (女優須磨子の恋, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1947)

vlcsnap-2019-03-27-01h39m45s435The Taisho era was, like that of the post-war, a time both of confusion and possibility in which the young, in particular, looked for new paths and new freedoms as the world got wider and ideas flowed in from every corner of the globe. In The Love of the Actress Sumako (女優須磨子の恋, Joyu Sumako no koi), the second of a loose trilogy films about female emancipation, Kenji Mizoguchi took the real life story of a pioneering actress of Western theatre and used it to explore the progress of lack there of in terms of social freedoms not only for women but for artists and for society as a whole.

We begin in late Meiji as theatre director Shimamura (So Yamamura) fights to establish a foothold of Western-style “art theatre”, moving away from the theatricality of kabuki for something more immediate and naturalistic. He has, however, a problem in that as women were not allowed to take to the kabuki stage all of his students are male and casting a man to play a woman’s role would run counter to his desires to create a truly representative theatre. It is therefore lucky that he runs into Sumako Matsui (Kinuyo Tanaka) – a feisty, determined young woman who had divorced her first husband for infidelity and then left the second when he complained about her desire to pursue a career on the stage. In Sumako, Shimamura finds a muse and the ideal woman to portray the extremely controversial figure of Nora in his dream production of Ibsen’s incendiary A Doll’s House.

Shimamura casts Sumako because he sees in her some of Nora’s defiance and eventual desire to be free from illusionary social constraints, but it is in fact he who ends up embodying her spirit in real life. Somewhat feminised, Shimamura is in a difficult position in having married into his wife’s family, leaving him without real agency inside his own home as evidenced by his mild opposition to his daughter’s arranged marriage. While he wishes that his daughter be happy and if possible marry for love, Shimamura’s wife is very much of the old school and wants to make the best possible match in terms of financial gain and social status, viewing emotional compatibility as a low priority (the daughter herself as relatively little say). Unwisely falling in love with Sumako, it is he who eventually decides to follow Nora’s example by walking out not only on his family but also on the theatre company. He does this not quite because the scales have been lifted from his eyes – he was never under any illusion that his arranged marriage was “real” and there is of course an accepted degree of performance involved in all such unions, but because he finally sees possibility enough in his love for Sumako and the viability of emotionally honest Western art to allow him to break free of outdated feudal ideas of familial obligation.

Nevertheless, making a career as an artist is a difficult prospect in any age and Shimamura’s emotional freedom quickly becomes tied up with that of his art. Sumako’s Nora proves a hit (in the last year of Meiji), but he is ahead of his times both in terms of his liberal, left-wing philosophy and his determination to embrace modern drama in a still traditional society. The roles we see Sumako perform, including that in Tolstoy’s Resurrection which was another of those that helped to make her name, are all from proto-feminist plays which revolve around women who, like herself, had chosen to challenge the patriarchal status quo in pursuit of their own freedom and agency. Shimamura’s wife makes no secret of her outrage to her husband’s desire to stage A Doll’s House, viewing Nora’s decision as “selfish” and perhaps of a subversion of every notion she associates with idealised femininity. Though not so far apart in age, Sumako is a woman of Taisho who left not one but two unfulfilling marriages and is determined to forge her own path even if that path eventually leads her to subsume her own desires within those of her lover as the pair attempt to put their social revolution on the stage.

The revolution, however, does not quite take off. Despite good early notices, Shimamura’s Art Theatre company quickly runs into trouble. Faced with financial ruin, he does what any sensible theatre producer would do – he begins to prioritise bums on seats and acknowledges that if he’s to keep his company afloat and facilitate his dream of making Western theatre a success in Japan he’ll have to compromise his artistic aims  by putting on some populist plays. Of course, this sudden concession to commercial demands does not go down well with all and some of his hardline actors begin to leave in protest not just of his selling out but of his twinned desire to make Sumako his star.

Tellingly, the pair are eventually forced out of Japan entirely to tour the beginnings of empire from Korea to China and on to Taiwan. Their ideas are too radical and their society not quite ready for their messages even if not initially as hostile as it would later become. Shimamura works himself to the bone trying to keep his dream alive, eventually damaging his health. Sumako remains somewhat petulant about being forced into an itinerant lifestyle while her onstage personas come increasingly to influence her offstage life until it is said of her that her performance is “no longer an interpretation but an extension of reality”. In this, Sumako has, in a sense, achieved Shimamura’s dreams of a truly naturalistic theatre, but it comes at a cost, as perhaps all art does, and, Mizoguchi seems to suggest, becomes a kind of sacrifice laid down to a society still too rigid and unforgiving to appreciate its sincerity. Nevertheless, their boldness, as fruitless as it was, has started a flame which others intend to keep burning, eventually becoming a beacon for another new world looking to rebuild itself better and freer than before.


Short clip featuring Sumako’s performance as Carmen.

Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

Killing Yoshiwara posterHaving led a somewhat floating life, Tomu Uchida returned to Japan in only in 1953 after a sustained period with the Manchurian Film Cooperative followed by a brief flirtation with Maoism. Before the war Uchida had been closely identified with the Keiko Eiga movement of broadly left-wing filmmaking but later fell hard for the inherent romanticism of militarist ideology during his time in Manchuria. Nevertheless it was apparently the Maoist doctrines of progress through contradiction that influenced his later dramatic philosophy in which he came to think of narrative as a series of conflicts which culminate in an explosive act designed to resolve them (or not, as we will see). 1960’s Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Yoto Monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara Hyakunin-giri, AKA Hero of the Red Light District) is perhaps a prime example as it takes a seemingly generic story inspired by a kabuki play and uses it to tell a melancholy tale of parallel yet mutually thwarted desires for vengeance against a cruel and oppressive society.

Ostensibly, our “hero” is Jiro (Chiezo Kataoka) – a successful silk merchant. A good and kind man, Jiro is beloved of all his staff for his careful consideration of them as people as well as employees. This concern is, however, perhaps not as wholly “good” as it seems. Jiro’s major problem in life is that he is an adopted child, taken in by his parents who auspiciously discovered him abandoned on the anniversary of their own child’s death. Jiro, apparently of noble birth, was abandoned because he has a prominent grey birthmark “staining” his face. This is the reason he has so far been unable to find a wife despite his good character and relative wealth. Desperately grateful to the couple who took him in “despite” his “imperfection”, Jiro feels this failure heavily in his current inability to provide them with a male heir to take over the family business.

Being good and earnest, Jiro has never dared to fritter money away in the red light district but is tempted when invited by a valued client whom he would not want to offend by refusing. Nevertheless, his first visit to the Yoshiwara is not an altogether pleasant experience as even the seasoned courtesans find it difficult to bear the sight of his “monstrous” face. Embarrassed, the innkeepers finally decide to employ a lowly servant, Otsuru (Yoshie Mizutani), who is not a trained courtesan but a woman convicted for illegal prostitution, to minister solely to Jiro. Otsuru does her work and is relatively unbothered by Jiro’s facial abnormality – something which endears her to Jiro’s heart and has the desired effect of hooking him through his weakness.

Otsuru, later “Tamarazu” the courtesan, is in many ways our villainess but she is also Jiro’s mirror and merely another outsider trying to escape oppression through any means possible. Uchida is careful to frame Otsuru not as a cruel and amoral adventurer, but someone who has decided to survive and can at least be honest about her intentions. We see her caged, imprisoned inside the Yoshiwara to do inside it what was declared “illegal” outside and acknowledging that she may well die here to met by a lonely funeral and rest unnamed in a communal grave. Otsuru decides that if she has to stay in the Yoshiwara then she will be its queen and then use that success to catapult herself into a more comfortable life even if she knows that it will be little more than a nicer kind of cage.

Jiro and Otsuru are each victims of the oppressive society in which they live as symbolised by the cruelly hypocritical worldview of the brothel owners who set out to exploit them both. Otsuru, worldly wise, is fully aware of the ways in which she is and will continue to be exploited but has chosen to be complicit within them as a means of effecting her escape. Jiro, meanwhile, is obviously aware that the “stain” across his face is the reason for his unhappy destiny but has only ever sought to minimise the distress his appearance causes to others. Thus he overcompensates by being relentlessly nice and infinitely humble, grateful for each and every concession which is extended to him as a fully human being rather than the “monster” which he is later branded by the innkeepers in a rare moment of candour which exposes their venial desires. 

This extreme desire for acceptance is in itself a symptom of his self loathing and internalised shame regarding his appearance which is after all merely an accident of birth over which he had no control. Abandoned by his birthparents who left him with a “cursed” destiny in the form of an unlucky sword, Jiro has been working overtime to overcome social prejudice but finding his path continually blocked. He latches on to Otsuru simply because she was nice to him without understanding the peculiar rules of interactions within the Yoshiwara, or as she later puts it “no money, no love”. Jiro ruins himself out of frustrated loneliness and a forlorn hope of repaying the debt he owes the couple who took him in by being able to provide them with a male heir to inherit the family business.

It is these mutual conflicts which eventually lead to the explosive finale hinted at by the violence of the title. Otsuru’s star rises while Jiro’s falls – not only is he fleeced by the innkeepers and an unrepentant Otsuru, his business also fails thanks to an act of God while his reputation lies in tatters once his associates get to know of his “frivolous” behaviour in the Yoshiwara. This in itself is doubly hypocritical as it was this same major client who introduced Jiro to the “pleasure” quarters in the first place only to remind him that business is a matter of trust and that they no longer trust him because he has broken his promise of keeping away from the Yoshiwara.

Pushed to the brink by successive humiliations, Jiro’s rage erupts in a singular act of violence which takes the sword not only to the Yoshiwara but the entrenched systems of oppression and exploitation which it represents. Otsuru, now an oiran, is literally trapped by her ostentatious outfit (in reality the very purpose it is designed to serve) as she struggles to escape male violence, her hand on the gate of the Yoshiwara which refuses to release her. Their parallel quests for revenge eventually converge only to defeat each other in a staggering act of futility which remains unresolved as the curtain falls on a moment of unanswerable rage.


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.