Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート, Michael Arias, 2006)

A pair of orphaned street kids attempt to defend backstreet life from the ravages of progress in Michael Arias’ adaptation of the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート). Though the manga was first published in the early ‘90s which is to say at the beginning of the post-Bubble era, the film looks back to a scrappy post-war Japan embodied by the moribund Treasure Town, once a lively city filled with the promise its name implies but now according to some a lawless slum ruled over by the “Cats” and contested by yakuza determined to turn it into another “Kids Kastle” theme park. 

There is something particularly ironic in the desire to turn Treasure Town, a literal playground for orphans Black (Kazunari Ninomiya) and White (Yu Aoi) collectively known as the Cats, into a walled city taking something that should be free and charging for it while displacing the street kids who live there so that those whose parents can pay can be given a temporary illusion of freedom. To Black, this is his city and he will defend it along with protecting White who has an otherworldly simplicity and makes radio calls to the universe reporting that he has preserved peace on Earth for another day. In a way he has because it becomes clear that the two boys are a two halves of one whole maintaining balance and keeping each other in check. Innocent and naive beyond his years White cannot survive alone, but without White, Black would have nothing to live for. His inner darkness would become all consuming and present a threat to all those who cross his path. 

In a piece of poignant symbolism, White attempts to grow an apple tree by planting a seed in the junk yard where they live but is disappointed that it does not seem to sprout little realising that it cannot grow where it is planted because the conditions are adverse to its development. The same might be said of he and Black who have been abandoned by their society and are cared for only by a wise old man who gives them occasional advice. Their only desire to is protect their town in a bid to avoid yet another displacement this time at the hands of corporatised yakuza who see Treasure Town only as a relic of a previous era sitting on valuable land which must be seized and monetised. Only old school gangster Rat ironically enough agrees with the Cats, confused by the desire to erase community and history riding roughshod over the feelings of all those who have ever called Treasure Town home. 

Rat’s battleground is located in the soul of his protege, Kimura (Yusuke Iseya), who first says that he doesn’t believe in anything only for Rat to tell him that he should at least believe in love. Seduced by the consumerist promises of the duplicitous Snake (Masahiro Motoki) and his giant alien minions, Kimura nevertheless comes around to Rat’s way of thinking on learning that he will soon be a father. Like Black and White, he dreams of escaping Treasure Town for a house by the sea where he could live a peaceful life with his child but is trapped by contrary codes of gangsterdom if even if eventually realising that the two things he believes in are truth and love neither of which are very important to Mr. Snake. Black meanwhile is torn between his inner darkness and his belief in White, caught between nihilistic violence and the desire to plant a seed and watch it grow even on shaky ground. 

Designed by Shinji Kimura, the backstreets of Treasure Town are a Showa-era paradise perhaps stuck in the past in the view from early Heisei but embodying a scrappy sense of possibility. It has an uncanny reality as an organic space built and lived in by human hands that is at an odds with the slick uniformity of the gangster developers who want to turn it into a children’s theme park, the very embodiment of a constructed paradise that will halt the natural growth that Rat describes in reminding Black that Treasure Town will never be what it was but will continue on with or without them. Bringing this place fully to life, Arias’ surprising, inventive direction gives full vent to the anarchy of the source material but is in the end about the heart of a place along with the bond between its two protectors keeping the peace through complementary balance.


Tekkonkinkreet screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 16 as part of the Monthly Anime series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kill! (斬る, Kihachi Okamoto, 1968)

“Samurai aren’t as great as you might think” according to a jaded retainer in Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill! (斬る, Kiru) but it’s a message that the ambitious farmer at the film’s centre struggles to take in. Having been a victim of samurai violence he resolves to become a samurai while a former samurai turned yakuza drifter attempts to show him the hypocritical realities of the samurai life as they find themselves swept into local intrigue when a band of young revolutionaries arrive to cut down a corrupt and oppressive lord. 

Corrupt and oppressive is perhaps the defining image of the samurai in post-war cinema, but like the film’s title that cuts both ways. Farmer Tabata (Etsushi Takahashi) sold his lands to buy a sword after witnessing peasants cut down during an uprising but he’s decided the best way out of oppression is to become an oppressor and is dead set on achieving samurai glory through the time-honoured method of distinguishing himself in battle. That may prove a little difficult given that his new boss, Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama), immediately mocks him for swinging his sword as if it were a scythe. Then again as former samurai Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) explains to him, if you don’t know what you’re doing you can always just stab people which at the end of the day does rather undermine the idea of samurai elegance in the art of killing. 

Genta keeps trying to tell Tabata that “samurai are no good” but Tabata still wants to be one anyway even after learning that Ayuzawa means to double cross them, hiring ronin to take out the young samurai whose sense of honour he manipulated to eliminate the admittedly corrupt (but aren’t they all?) lord for his own political gain while planning to send in his retainers to finish off the job to ensure there are no witnesses. Genta gave up his samurai status because he was “disgusted” by just this sort of duplicity along with the meaningless codes of loyalty that govern samurai society and caused him to betray a friend who was acting only in the interests of justice. Leader of the ronin Jurota (Shin Kishida) did something similar though in his case for love when his fiancée’s father was condemned on false charges and she and her mother exiled. He wants not land or status but only money in order to redeem the woman he loves from a geisha house and like Genta is under no illusions about the nature of samurai life having figured out most of what’s going on but hoping to emerge with the means to liberate both himself and his wife from samurai oppression. 

Even the elderly chamberlain later rescued by Genta tries to warn Tabata that the samurai life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, hinting at the ways they are also oppressed by their own code while clearly gleeful to have had the opportunity of stepping into a teahouse for the first time responding to Genta’s request to stay put that if he could he’d like to stay put for the rest of his days. Both former samurai, neither Genta nor Jurota are minded to draw their swords knowing that whatever the outcome it would be unhappy while the young who thought it was their duty to change the world by removing one who brought shame on their names are faced with the realisation that they have been used and their resistance will count for nothing. Even their bond as brothers banding together to achieve a common goal is eventually disrupted by alcohol and petty jealousy.

Genta acts as a kind of chorus, touched by the naivety of the seven samurai holed up in a mountain lodge because they believed in justice, while knowing that the society itself is innately unjust and already beyond redemption. Tabata eventually comes to a similar conclusion having gained samurai status but found it quite literally uncomfortable deciding to shake off his newfound nobility and rejoin Genta as a cynical yet pure hearted wanderer because the only way to escape samurai oppression is to actively live outside it. The final irony is that it’s the elderly chamberlain who eventually sets him, and all they women trapped in indentured servitude at the geisha house, free using samurai gold to enable them to escape a system he himself cannot escape but does not exactly support while Genta enlists the help of local peasants to hold a festival of rebellion to cover the final assault. Marked by Okamoto’s characteristically absurd humour and cartoonish composition along with the eerily gothic emptiness of the deserted ghost town where not even yakuza can survive the film takes on a quasi-spiritual dimension in which Genta and the gang eventually walk out of hell if only into a purgatorial freedom. 


Kill! screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 2 as part of the Monthly Classics series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Japan Society Monthly Classics & Anime Fall 2022

Japan Society New York has announced the lineup for its upcoming autumn programme of classic films and anime kicking off on Sept. 2 with a 35mm screening of Kihachi Okamoto’s satirical chambara Kill! and closing on Nov. 14 with the much loved Studio Ghibli classic My Neighbor Totoro.

Sept. 2, 7pm: Kill!

Screening on 35mm.

Inspired by the same source material as Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, Kihachi Okamoto’s absurdist jidaigeki finds a naive farmer and jaded samurai turned yakuza swept into local conspiracy when seven samurai arrive intent on removing a corrupt lord little knowing they too are merely pawns in a much grander game.

Sept. 16, 7pm: Tekkonkinkreet

Landmark adaptation of the Taiyo Matsumoto manga directed by Michael Arias and following two street kids in a futuristic city who survive through pickpocketing only to have their territory contested by invading yakuza intent on building an amusement park.

Oct. 7, 7pm: Ringu

Classic J-horror from 1998 directed by Hideo Nakata and adapted from the novel by Koji Suzuki in which a journalist with a young son begins investigating a series of unexplained deaths among teens who had each watched a mysterious videotape.

Oct. 14, 7pm: Angel’s Egg

Experimental anime from Mamoru Oshii in which a young girl patiently nurturing a mysterious egg encounters a faithless man in a ruined world.

Nov. 4, 7pm: My Neighbor Totoro

Screening on 35mm.

© 1988 Studio Ghibli
© 1988 Studio Ghibli

The much loved Studio Ghibli classic in which two little girls discover a new world of wonders after moving to the countryside while their mother is ill in hospital.

The fall season runs Sept. 2 to Nov. 4 at Japan Society New York. Tickets priced at $15 / $12 students & seniors, and $5 Japan Society Members are on sale now via the official website and you can also keep up with all the year-round events by following Japan Society Film on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Japan Society Monthly Classics: After Life

Hirokazu Koreeda’s 1998 masterpiece comes to Japan Society New York on August 12. Drawing on his documentary work, Koreeda meditates on memory and cinema as a collection of recently deceased souls are invited to preserve their most precious moments on film before moving on to the other side. You can read our full review of the film here.

After Life screens at Japan Society New York at 7pm on Aug. 12 as part of the Monthly Classics series.. Tickets priced at $15, $12 students & seniors, and $5 members are already on sale via Japan Society.

Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

“So you say you’re under a curse? So what? So’s the whole damn world.” The world is indeed cursed in Hayao Miyazaki’s landmark 1997 animation Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, Mononoke-hime). As the greedy monk insists, “there are angry ghosts all around us. Dead from wars, sickness, starvation. And no one cares”. Yet as an impassioned parable as it is about the destructive forces of industrialisation, Miyazaki’s mystical drama is really about balance and duality along with the necessity of harmony and co-existence with nature red in tooth and claw. 

Young prince Ashitaka (Yoji Matsuda) already lives in what seems to be perfect harmony with the natural world, but his idyllic existence in an ancient clan long exiled by the emperor is disturbed one day by a marauding giant boar chased out of the forest having been turned into a demon consumed with hate and resentment. Ashitaka first tries reasoning with the beast, but is finally forced to put it out of its misery to protect the village and is infected himself in the process. Now unable to stay lest he endanger his community, Ashitaka ventures West in search of the corruption which sent the boar hurtling towards his home. 

What he eventually comes to is an industrial settlement, Irontown, ruled by Lady Eboshi (Yuko Tanaka) who ought by all rights to be a villain in her casual disregard of or active hostility towards unruly nature which her industrialisation pollutes. But then as we can see Lady Eboshi is a good and compassionate leader who has erected a community of the marginalised buying out the contracts of indentured sex workers and freeing them to labour in her ironworks while taking in lepers to manufacture her futuristic firearms. Uncharitably, one could also say that she’s chosen these people because they have little power and will be more likely to put up with hardship and exploitation without complaint because it’s better than the lives they lived before, but it does it does seem that she has her heart in the right place as far as her people are concerned determined to build a community of mutual solidarity between workers. 

Conversely, the titular Princess Mononoke, San (Yuriko Ishida), ought by rights to be the heroine but she and the wolf deities she lives with are also violent and unforgiving in their hatred of humans as determined to wipe out the threat presented by Lady Eboshi as she is them. Ashitaka was dispatched to be a peacemaker, to see with eyes unclouded by hate, in an attempt to find common ground and a way that the forest and humanity can live together because in reality one cannot survive without the other. He is by turns disappointed with each of them but holds compassion for both while a tertiary political threat lingers on the horizon in the machinations of shady priest Jigo (Kaoru Kobayashi) and the emperor who wants the head the of the Forest Spirit because he believes it will confer immortality. Lady Eboshi, who otherwise appears to reject the feudal order, intends to give the emperor the head in order to gain protection from overreaching lord Asano who hopes to capture the capitalistic potential of Irontown for himself. 

Jigo is an embodiment of humanity’s greed and its destructive potential, not caring that severing the Forest Spirit’s head will cause untold destruction in which any financial gain he might make would be all but irrelevant. His role is even more ironic given that he is a priest who has supposedly rejected material desire describing himself as a monk just trying to get by while seemingly willing to manipulate and betray almost anyone in his quest for gold. Lady Eboshi wants to improve conditions for her community while San essentially wants the same but Jigo just wants to improve things for Jigo and no one else. 

What Ashitaka wants is to cure his curse by restoring the balance between the human world and the natural in the creation of a society in which neither need be a threat to the other. Thus he pledges to help rebuild Irontown along less destructive lines while entrusting the forest to San to protect though she finds herself unable to forgive humanity for the destruction it has already wrought and may do again. Even so, as Ashitaka says, “it’s time for us both to live” hinting at a kind of rebirth and a new beginning free from the old authority be it the Forest Spirit or the emperor and the feudal order in a new world of freedom and equality. 


Princess Mononoke screens on 35mm at Japan Society New York on July 22.

Trailer (english subtitles)

Asia is One (アジアはひとつ, NDU, 1973)

“They came to beat us into a splendid Japanese future, to conquer us” according to an interview in a small Taiwanese mountain village towards the end of the Nihon Documentarist Union’s Asia is One (アジアはひとつ, Asia wa Hitotsu). Having documented Okinawa on the brink of its reversion to Japanese sovereignty, the collective return to examine more widely its legacies of oppression and exploitation under Japanese imperialism venturing first to its smaller islands and then all the way out to Taiwan from which many migrant workers had come to work in harsh conditions in Okinawan mines during the colonial era. 

One man describes himself as having been tricked in coming to the Marusan mine in 1933 in the mistaken belief he could work there for six months and then return home. “I thought it would be better to die than live there” he goes on, originally too afraid to attempt escape having seen others rounded up and punished but later managing to get away by blowing up a boat. A Japanese man who worked at the Noda mine in Iriomote, meanwhile, reveals that they were refused days off and sick workers were often cast out. Many simply died because they could not afford to pay for medical attention. Workers were paid in company script which could be spent only on the compound, the mine owners fearing workers would abscond if they were paid in cash. By his reckoning, however, the Taiwanese workers had it better because they were working on a contract basis and could get a better rate of pay. A third man, Masuda, meanwhile describes long days and early mornings, being unable to eat if they didn’t have money for the canteen, and the watchmen locking their bedroom doors at night to prevent them escaping. The conditions were so bad that one man took his own life by blowing himself up with dynamite tied around his waist. 

Even so, the second man then living in a nursing home, does not blame the mine owner, Mr. Noda, describing him simply as a “capitalist” and remarking that he was often kind and generous giving workers money for medical treatment etc, blaming instead the foreman. “It’s the people working under the capitalists who are bad” he explains, bearing out the extent to which oppressed people will often oppress others like them in order to feel less oppressed but also letting the system off the hook in failing to acknowledge that if Mr Noda had really been good and kind he could have improved conditions in the mine while still remaining “a capitalist”. Hsieh King-Fu, known as Dr. Seh, whose father worked as a doctor at the mines recalls a mass outbreak of malaria among the Taiwanese migrant workers leading to a shortage of morphine. Having bought supplies from a local pharmacy himself a rumour later circulated he was injecting them deliberately to get them addicted so he could drag them away so endemic had the sense of betrayal and exploitation become. 

Meanwhile since the reversion the islands have been fostering deeper connections with Taiwan which is after all geographically closer than the Japanese mainland. An older man explains that he’s instilling Taiwanese agricultural techniques in the local population and has successfully been cultivating pineapples on the island for the last 40 years. Fishermen too remark on how much easier it is to trade with Taiwan rather than the mainland because it’s simply closer meaning they can also trade live fish with a longer shelf life. Meanwhile an official details a potential agreement between the Ryukyu government and Taiwan to recruit workers developing new ties independently from those of mainland Japan. 

Yet in travelling to Taiwan itself, the documentary collective encounter surprising reactions to the legacy of Japanese colonialism in a small village inhabited by the indigenous Atayal community who still play the Japanese national anthem every day at noon. Many of them can still speak fluent Japanese having been forced to learn it during the colonial era and have almost a fondness for Japanese rule. “We owe everything to Japan” one woman states, uncomfortably grateful for her “civilisation” and thankful that the Japanese educated them out of some of their more “barbaric” customs such as the admittedly oppressive practice of beheading. Like the Korean man who obtained three names during his travels through the Japanese empire, many of the villagers have names in their indigenous language, names in Mandarin, and names in Japanese. “I’m still terrified of imperialism and oppression” one man admits though adding “I guess imperialism is different now” in lamenting that the emperor has never visited him but observing that he looked “free” on his last tour to Taiwan before going on to talk about a seal he received from the emperor after executing prisoners, by beheading, as a conscript soldier during the war. Asia may indeed be one if ironically, united in the destructive legacy of Japanese imperialism, but perhaps also finding new ways to repair itself which take less account of concepts such as sovereignty, diplomatic recognition, or man-made borders. 


Asia is One streams worldwide (excl. Taiwan and Japan) until June 3 as part of Japan Society New York’s Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections.

Motoshinkakarannu (沖縄エロス外伝 モトシンカカランヌー, NDU, 1971)

Active between 1968 and 1973, the Nihon Documentarist Union or NDU was a collective of documentary filmmakers emerging from the then declining student movement and “Zenkyoto” struggle committees whose members were often university drop outs disillusioned with the system. The group’s 1971 documentary Motoshinkakarannu (沖縄エロス外伝 モトシンカカランヌー, Okinawa Eros Gaiden: Motoshinkakarannu), shot in black and white and using asynchronous sound, takes its name from a word in the Okinawan language used to describe a business which can be started without seed money, effectively an ironic euphemism for sex work. Visiting the islands immediately prior to their return to Japan, the collective examines among other things a legacy of exploitation along with the effects of economic dependency on one or another colonising force. 

“How come Okinawa changes so much?” a street singer asks playing a sanshin while reflecting on the islands’ complicated history. An old lady born in 1889, the tail end of the Meiji era, reflects on cultural change when speaking of the tattoos on her hands which she’d so wanted as a child believing not to have them was not to be accepted as a woman and therefore unable to marry. But tattoos are taboo in Japan and the practice was eventually banned by the police leaving her stigmatised in her own community and forced to wear gloves in order to hide the markings of her culture. “Now in the contemporary society you can’t get married if you have a tattoo. Things can change 180 like that” she adds reflecting on the rapid changes which have taken place within her lifetime in which even ancient traditions can be abruptly ended by outside forces. 

Meanwhile, another woman prepares to adjust her currency exchange business once Okinawa reverts to Japan and the American presence decreases. While some are in favour of the reversion more because they want the Americans to leave than actively desire to return to Japanese sovreignity, others wonder what the effect will be on the local economy given that workers are already being laid off from jobs on American bases. The documentary captures several labour protests held outside military facilities by anxious workers. “Okinawa is sacrificed again under military control” one leader insists while another later adds “for 20 years Okinawa was denied normal employment opportunities due to its militaristic colonisation” each emphasising the unanswered questions in the reversion agreement of what is supposed to happen to these now redundant workers, where will new jobs be coming from and what are they supposed to do until they arrive? Many of the protestors are extensively masked appearing somewhat like the invisible man with their heads wrapped in fabric and sunglasses covering their eyes presumably because they fear negative consequences from their employers if they’re caught at the demonstration.

The documentary team muddy the waters a little by challenging one man that as he’s a cook he could easily find new work, but as he points out it’s not just about him and he believes the labour movement will be beneficial to the islands’ future. Many feel betrayed that the local Okinawan police force continues to protect the interests of the Americans in attempting to suppress their protests, but conversely there is also anxiety regarding new industrial investment from Japan with the CEO of Toyo Oil, directly labeled a war criminal in the embedded subtitles, trying to argue that he is an environmentalist and would not go ahead with the plant if it were to produce pollution. Such worries are perhaps at the forefront of the minds of ordinary Okinawans given the numerous mainland scandals of the postwar era such as the Minamata disease and Yokkaichi asthma among many others, while an old man’s hand-painted sign also protests that the oil refinery is to exist on land stolen from local farmers. The anxiety seems to be as the camera pans ominously across a new industrial zone that Okinawa will become a dumping ground for problematic industries the mainland isn’t willing to place on its own soil, the people of Okinawa once again sacrificed for Japan’s gain. 

Then again others are worrying about a collapse in the local sex industry which they suggest caters almost entirely to American personnel. The documentary collective spend some time with a collection of American servicemen who discuss with them the US civil rights movement, but also appear to have a more regressive view of the sex industry than many in Okinawa making what seems to be a moral judgement as one flat out refuses to believe the women have no choice but to pursue sex work claiming they’ve chosen an “easy” solution to their problems rather than taking a more nuanced view of the economic realities of the islands and the complex networks of exploitation which support them. Then again as Akemi, the sex worker with whom the documentary opened, hints perhaps the filmmakers are no different. “They’re filming me because they want to show “Motoshinkakarannu”. They don’t know what it is, but they want to use the title.”


Motoshinkakarannu streams worldwide (excl. Taiwan and Japan) until June 3 as part of Japan Society New York’s Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections.

Untamagiru (ウンタマギルー, Go Takamine, 1989)

“My country is not part of America or Japan! I am a child of Ryukyu!” the hero of Go Takamine’s musical fable Untamagiru ( ウンタマギルー) finds himself shouting after having unexpectedly acquired godlike powers and used them to aid the Independence Movement. Apparently inspired by a legendary local figure, Takamine’s quasi-musical like his earlier Paradise View finds the Okinawan islands at a turning point considering three possible futures: to maintain the status quo under American rule, to return to Japanese sovereignty, or finally to acquire their independence though the last of these seems to be nothing more than an idealistic pipe dream. 

Takamine begins and ends with the same scene changing only the location and the identity of a key player while the hero, Giru (Kaoru Kobayashi), drives a tiny truck in a small circle to turn the grinder that presses the sugarcane. Giru is however mainly casting looks at Mare (Chikako Aoyama), the voluptuous daughter of his taskmaster boss Nishibaru, as she languishes under a small shelter smoking pigweed from a shisha pipe. Giru later finds the courage to ask her to accompany him to a beach party, which she does, the pair sneaking off to a secluded cove near the forest where they make love. The problem is that, as Giru discovers, Mare is actually an anthropomorphised pig that Nishibaru was raising as a wife for the Forest God so now Nishibaru has it in for him. Framed for starting a fire at the plantation he’s encouraged to flee to the forest by his sister, Chiru (Jun Togawa), who has a knack for animal dream divination, and is aided by a tree spirit whose child he once saved who grants him special demi-god powers that enable him to survive the curse which otherwise falls on all who sleep with Mare. 

It’s these new powers which give Giru a new sense of possibility allowing him to become a kind of Robin Hood playing both sides off against each other from the middle of the forest, pinching meat from Japanese companies and redistributing it to the local community, and pilfering weaponry from the American bases to give to the independence movement. The two sides are represented in the two respective bosses, the blind and castrated Nishibaru, and the American commissioner Kamajisar who as Chiru puts it cares for animals more than people but is also seen injecting himself with the blood of dogs and pigs. “I am absolute” Kamajisar insists, claiming that Okinawa is a possession of the American military pointing out that 90% of the population feels themselves to be different from the Japanese while simultaneously describing the possibility of independence as nothing more than a fairytale. 

Yet Untamagiru comes to represent the face of rebellion, resisting not just political oppression but social and economic in targeting Japanese businesses and redistributing their goods to the local poor becoming a folk hero in the process. Not everyone is as immediately happy about this, the owner of the brothel where his sister works asking him to stop giving money to the poor because their business can’t cope with the sudden demand while she personally looks down on their new clientele and fears they’re damaging her upscale brand. Even so even Untamagiru eventually falls victim to his own hubris, struck down while ironically enough agreeing to play himself in a traditional stage performance inspired by his life and deeds leaving only the idea of himself behind as a kind of talisman for those who had in him found a sense of hope and possibility. 

Then again could all of this have been a dream? “Poor people are terrible, aren’t they? They’ll even try to steal the end of people’s dreams” turncoat Utou chides Giru on catching him napping assuming that he dreams of Mare though her words have a degree of sense to them in the elliptical passage of time in which we move from one “dream” to another just as Okinawa itself shifts between two states, two different rulers, and finds itself in the middle once again driving round in circles looking at something it wants but can’t have and in the end it seems may be destroyed out of spite. A magical realist fable filled with its own strangeness in its dream divinations, ethereal forest deities, shapeshifting pigs, and the constant refrains of the barbershop band who narrate the whole show with caustic wit through traditional Okinawan musical performance Takamine’s oneiric tale ends in symbolic apocalypse, “From now on Okinawa is Japan”. 


Untamagiru screens at Japan Society New York May 21 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Nagisa Oshima, 1972)

The complicated relationship between mainland Japan and the Okinawan islands is played out in the youthful identity crises of two adolescents struggling to understand the world their parents have left to them in an uncharacteristically breezy effort from Nagisa Oshima, Dear Summer Sister (Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Natsu no Imoto). Part Rohmerian travelogue, Oshima takes a tour around the island in the immediate aftermath of its reversion to Japan but rather than the busy tourist spots explores a legacy of colonialism and exploitation in the islands’ war memorials and red light districts. 

The irony is that Sunaoko (Hiromi Kurita) finds the person she’s looking for immediately after disembarking from the boat she’s taken from the mainland only she never realises it. Having received a letter from a boy, Tsuruo (Shoji Ishibashi), claiming that he may be her half-brother but isn’t entirely sure, Sunaoko has accepted his offer to come to Okinawa where he will show her his “brotherly affection”. Unbeknownst to her, however, he mistook the figure of her father’s much younger fiancée Momoko (Lily) for that of the teenage Sunaoko with the older woman half-heartedly trying to head off a potential crisis while understandably curious and seeking to know the truth behind her future husband’s hidden past. 

The figure of Tsuruo’s mother, Tsuru (Akiko Koyama), comes to stand in for that of Okinawa yet the central problem as we discover is that she was raped firstly by Sunaoko’s father Kikuchi (Hosei Komatsu) and subsequently by local Okinawan policeman Kuniyoshi (Kei Sato) who had previously passed her off as his younger sister. Even so the trio seem to interact with each other as if nothing had happened and they were simply old university friends reuniting after years of separation. Despite his present occupation in law enforcement, Kuniyoshi had been in prison at the time having been arrested as a student protestor and on his release raped Tsuru after she told him she had been raped by Kuniyoshi in an attempt to reclaim her body and send his sperm as a kind of advance division to prevent Kikuchi’s successfully colonising her womb with the consequence that Tsuru cannot of course be sure whose child Tsuruo is settling finally for “mine” in an answer which at least earns her Sunaoko’s respect. 

Obviously still somewhat naive and additionally provoked on discovering the attraction between Momoko and Tsuruo, Sunaoko had been unfairly judgmental in preemptively accusing Tsuru implying that she been immoral in maintaining relationships with two men at the same time. What occurs is a gradual sense of disillusionment in her father the judge when confronted, it has to be said with confusing frankness, with his own immorality in his misuse of Tsuru which is also of course a metaphor for Japan’s misuse of Okinawa, a thread picked up more directly by the old soldier Sakurada (Taiji Tonoyama) who has apparently come to Okinawa looking for a local willing to kill him in atonement for atrocities he half-heartedly claims not to have committed himself but feels responsible for simply as a Japanese person. Ironically enough he finds such a person in Rintoku (Rokko Toura), a teacher of traditional Okinawan folk music who is looking for “a Japanese who deserves my killing him”.

Nevertheless the relationship between the old men turns into one of playful animosity which does not seem to hint towards violence, a playful fight breaking out between the pair on a boat in the middle of the sea in the film’s concluding scenes in which Sunaoko offers an ironic commentary to the effect that the “killer” and his “victim” are still “singing and drinking” despite the earlier claim that there were only two kinds of people, Okinawans and Japanese, in counter to the claim that the only two kinds of people were men and women. Meanwhile, Kikuchi attempts to process the implications of his friendship and actions explaining that Kuniyoshi’s Okinawan roots were not an obstacle between them while admitting that he never thought about the position of Okinawa during their youth and wonders what he thought back then as to Okinawa’s future, whether it should revert to Japan or become independent. Kuniyoshi claims not to remember, while Tsuru explains how difficult it was to travel to the mainland under the occupation and implies that it’s better now that “we can go where we please”. 

The implication is, perhaps, that Tsuruo is his mother’s child but also a kind of orphan creating a new identity in a new Okinawa having symbolically rejected both of his potential fathers if seeking a brotherhood with his half-sister though even in this the waters are muddied with the undercurrents of incestuous desire which seem to run both ways. Even so Oshima hints at the secondary colonisation of America in conducting what doesn’t seem to be an entirely appropriate series of conversations with the young Sunaoko concerning the history of sex work on the island and the number of bars geared towards American servicemen returning from Vietnam with the suggestion that the islands remain economically dependent on the US despite the reversion while Sukurada makes similarly crass comments about his relationships with Okinawan sex workers during the war. They cast themselves as Urashima Taro travelling to the magical underwater palace of the Dragon King but wary of opening the box of truth they’ve been given lest their world crumble beneath their feet. Picturesque and strangely cheerful, Oshima’s Okinawan odyssey shot with breezy immediacy offers a characteristically thorny take on relations between the two island nations but reaches an unexpectedly hopeful conclusion in the young people’s rejection of their parents’ legacy and intention to move forward in mutual solidarity. 


Dear Summer Sister screens at Japan Society New York May 14 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Images: © 1971 Oshima Productions

Paradise View (パラダイスビュー, Go Takamine, 1985)

“We’ll all be Japanese soon, so why don’t you marry one?” suggests the mother of a young woman on the eve of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan after three decades under American administration, having taken advice from a shamaness overly worried about her children’s “mixed blood” but assured that a union between her daughter and a Japanese man “would be fine”. Her daughter, however, is not so sure yet equally afraid to voice her concerns while lacking confidence in the local man she loves who has “lost his spirit”, become obsessed with black thorn ants, and begun eating soil. 

As Reishu (Kaoru Kobayashi) tells us, he’s been feeling listless lately and has come to the beach to gather sea salt in the hope that it will perk him up as it has before, Takamine’s camera catching him a lonely figure on the shore. Meanwhile, a funeral procession creeps into the frame and is eventually disrupted when one of the coffin bearers is bitten by a snake which had been hiding in the open casket that in any case contains only bones presumably about to undergo the bone washing ritual common on the islands. “The funeral’s ruined! Our ancestors will never forgive us!” the bitten man laments as the others try to get back on track. Casting the spectre of death over the proceedings, the funeral procession along with Reishu’s desire to find salt to cure his depression is also an early statement of intent from Takamine capturing the unique cultural character of a typical island village as distinct from that of the Japanese mainland to which it is to be “returned”. 

Reishu’s listlessness is itself perhaps also a reflection of the island’s liminal status caught between Japan and the US in a moment of transition. As he tells his grandmother, he’s quit his job at the American army base fearing that as the Vietnam War is drawing to a close and Okinawa is to be returned to Japan there won’t be much work on offer highlighting the extent to which the local area has been economically dependent on the Americans and their foreign policy in Asia. Later we see some of the village men handling weapons smuggled off the American base which they intend for the Okinawan independence movement but which later end up causing self-destructive tragedy. As for Reishu his new business plan involves buying an amphibious vehicle which is in one sense an attempt to hedge his bets, somewhere between being unable to make a choice and avoiding having to make one. 

Paradoxically, Mr. Ito (Haruomi Hosono) the Japanese language teacher to whom Nabee, who is love with Reishu and in fact pregnant with his child, is to be married is described as “more Okinawan than we are” by one of her brothers and both scandalises and confuses a local bar owner over his desire to perform an outdated wedding ritual she fears is unduly sexist and possibly for that reason no longer regularly performed by the local community. Ito speaks somewhat wistfully of the spiritual effect the Okinawan jungle has on him and says he fears being rejected by the vegetation if he does not make sure the ritual is done properly. Bearing all this in mind, there’s something a little uncomfortable in his desire to marry a simple Okinawan village girl which remains in its own way a small act of colonialism even as Nabee’s mother and brothers pressure her to accept the proposal as if a union with the new ruling power would help “purify” their family as the shamaness had suggested. 

What seems clear is that Nabee does not even really know Ito and is not in favour of marrying him, the proposal must have come by arrangement which does not otherwise seem to be the prevailing culture in the village. On discovering Nabee’s pregnancy, her mother encourages her to marry Ito anyway and discretely have an abortion after the ceremony but on the other hand the pregnancy itself is not a major issue as it might have been on the mainland though they worry what Ito might have thought about it. Both friends with Reishu, neither of the brothers quite has the courage to challenge him on his relationship with their sister the calmer of the pair later explaining that he can’t blame him because he was only messing around. As another villager tries to explain to a migrant from the mainland, the islands have a much looser idea of sexual propriety in which young people are free to be friendly with each other with no particular seriousness attached, while the mainlander is concerned and anxious on hearing one of the brothers repeatedly state he could kill Reishu for what he’s done only to be told he didn’t mean it literally and is probably just very annoyed with him to the point of mild physical violence. 

Meanwhile, Chiru (Jun Togawa), a rural girl working as a maid, has also taken a liking to Reishu and is deeply worried for his safety having had a dream in which she saw a dog eat his soul which in their culture suggests he may soon be “spirited away”. Later he finds himself literally on the run after having been arrested when the independence movement storm the police van on which he’s being transported to rescue their comrades, another prisoner who waited patiently rather make his escape shot for his pains. Having lost his spirit he becomes increasingly listless, eating soil while wandering the forest without direction and vulnerable to the rainbow pigs who are it seems the real masters of this space. At the last point we see him, he’s staggering towards a fork in the road, heading towards what Nabee’s mother had described as a historical turning point, but seemingly choosing neither direction. With a dream-like, magical realist quality aided by Hosono’s etherial score and frequent use of traditional Okinawan folksong while spoken largely in the disappearing Okinawan language, Takamine’s laidback epic is a defiant evocation of local culture at a point of transition caught between two states while attempting to take hold of itself. 


Paradise View screens at Japan Society New York May 13 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections. It is also available to stream in the US May 14 to June 3.

Images: © Osamu Muranaka