Carmen from Kawachi (河内カルメン, Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

(c)1966 Nikkatsu Corporation
(c)1966 Nikkatsu Corporation

A naive girl from the mountains finds herself chasing consumerist success and urban independence only to encounter further exploitation before eventually transcending her subjugation and returning to the source of her trauma in an ironic picaresque from the characteristically anarchic Seijun Suzuki. Adapted from a novel from Toko Kon whose book also provided the source material for The Incorrigible, Carmen from Kawachi (河内カルメン, Kawachi no Carmen) loosely adapts Bizet’s classic opera but ironically discovers a much positive outcome for its relentlessly plucky heroine. 

In Kawachi, meanwhile, a rural mountain backwater near Osaka, Tsuyuko (Yumiko Nogawa) is a rather innocent young woman with a crush on the son of the local factory owner, Bon (Koji Wada), who seems to like her too but is equally diffident if presumably mindful of the class difference which makes a relationship between them unlikely to succeed. Tsuyuko’s friend tells her of a girl from school who now works in a cabaret bar in the city and has all the mod cons in her fancy apartment including an electric fridge, washing, machine, and double bed but Tsuyuko doesn’t seem to be too impressed. However, when a pair of local reprobates overhear her romantic conversation with Bon, they begin to feel resentful and decide to rape her. As they approach Tsuyuko, they are seemingly joined by a small crowd of men from the local area each chasing after her. On her return home, she simply bursts into tears but is greeted by an even worse sight, catching her mother (Chikako Miyagi) in a passionate embrace with a lecherous monk whose disgusting fisheye face continues to haunt her, a spectre both of a world of patriarchal exploitation and her own prudishness which is also coloured by the trauma of her rape. 

Tsuyuko is indeed followed around by various men who are all in their way disappointing in their desire to possess her body. “When a woman sleeps with a man just one time, the man thinks she belongs to him”, her school friend explains after she begins working in the bar in Osaka thinking that as her honour’s already lost she might as well try cabaret. Yet there is a kind of power play involved in the hostess life, the men all running after Tsuyuko who only has to stand still and can in fact manipulate them in turn. Then again, as soon as she starts work she ends up having too much to drink and sleeping with a sad sack salaryman who lied that he was also from Kawachi in an attempt to win her sympathy. Like many in the bar he thinks of her as a bumpkin still smelling of mountain soil and is disappointed she’s not a virgin but then becomes obsessed with her to the point of ruination. Kanzo (Asao Sano) embezzles a humiliatingly small amount of money from the financial company where he works and is fired, hanging out in the rain outside the bar just to catch a glimpse of Tsuyuko. Tsuyuko isn’t interested in him but ends up feeling bad about her role in his downfall and letting him move into her apartment where he becomes something like her wife, taking care of all the domestic arrangements and even ironing her smalls.

For all that, Kanzo’s not that bad. He’s a sweet, if pathetic, guy who takes her sudden announcement that she’s moving on with good grace explaining rather sadly that these have been the happiest days of his life but he never expected them to last. Rather than a jealous lover, he willingly lets her go even agreeing to put on a show of anger so she won’t feel bad about abandoning him. In many mays, Kanzo is one of the best men she’s going to meet, save perhaps wealthy artist Seiji (Tamio Kawaji) who seem to have no romantic interest in her but becomes a valuable friend and confident. Then again, it’s not just men. After taking a job as a model to try and move on from the cabaret life, she’s sexually harassed by a predatory lesbian boss who takes her in as a maid and then tries to force her attentions on her, possibly lacking the language for seduction in this less enlightened age. When Seiji had tried to explain that her boss is a lesbian, Tsuyuko had simply laughed and been unable to believe such a thing could be true.

Suzuki pulls back from the fashion entrepreneur’s home to frame it as a dollhouse stage set, Tsuyuko now merely another plaything but also herself playing a role in the newly aspirant society. She does so again when Seiji gets her the gig as a mistress for a loanshark who sets her up in a fancy apartment but only asks her to wander around in the nude apparently interested in little other than voyeurism. Tsuyuko only agrees because she continues to chase the dream of pure love with Bon whom she has reencountered by chance. He is now brought low as his factory has gone bust and he’s broke which dissolves the class difference between them. But Bon is also chasing an elusive dream, in his case of success back in Kawachi by building an onsen at the site of a mysterious waterfall no one has been able to find for decades. Just as Tsuyuko is forced to prostitute herself for Bon, Bon prostitutes himself for his dream in that as she discovers he is her partner in a porn shoot directed by the sleazy loanshark who quite clearly also gets off on the romantic drama in play and the destruction of the “pure” love between Bon and Tsuyuko. 

Part of Tsuyuko’s disillusionment had been caused by the discovery that not only was her mother sleeping with the creepy priest but that she was doing it for money and her father knew. Her troubles have largely be precipitated by male failure, firstly her father’s in his inability to support his family, secondly in the fragile masculinity of the local boys who assaulted her, and then finally in the weakness of Bon who chose his fleeting dream of local success over his love for her. Having inherited the loanshark’s riches after he is randomly killed in a plane crash, Tsuyuko discovers she no longer wants them and tries to free her mother from male exploitation by giving her money in part for a decent funeral for her father. Only then does she learn that her mother has already substituted her younger sister Senko (Ruriko Ito), forcing her to sleep with the priest and blaming Tsuyuko for it for having run away. 

Tsuyuko takes dark and destructive action to rid herself of the troublesome priest as if exorcising the roots of her trauma, no longer afraid of men or of sex but firmly in charge of herself and her body. Her mother is not, however, particularly happy to be emancipated if ironically expressing the same sentiment in that she need have no fear of loneliness or penury for she can always find company if she desires it. Unlike Carmen, Tsuyuko is not undone by toxic masculinity and frustrated male pride but eventually transcends them even if as her mother says she may never be free of the priest’s “dark magic” while she takes to the streets of Tokyo with a rose in her teeth looking, if not quite perhaps for love, then at least satisfaction. Brimming with the joie de vivre and anarchy that would later make him famous from the raucous club scenes to the ironic framing of the porno shoot and dramatic freeze frames as Tsuyuko finally loses her faith in men, Suzuki’s Carmen allows its pure hearted heroine not only to triumph over the forces that oppress her be they men or merely consumerism but to subvert them to her advantage.


Carmen from Kawachi screens at Japan Society New York on Feb. 10 as part of the Seijun Suzuki Centennial.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: (c)1966 Nikkatsu Corporation

It Comes (来る, Tetsuya Nakashima, 2018)

According to a duplicitous folklorist in Tetsuya Nakashima’s anarchic horror film It Comes (来る, Kuru), monsters aren’t real. People made them up so they wouldn’t have to face an unpleasant reality. Farmers who had more children than they could feed invented a monster who came to claim their infants rather than have to live with the reality that they left them in the in the forest to die. As it turns out this monster may actually be “real”, but undoubtedly fuelled by the loneliness of a neglected child whose parents are burdened by their own particular legacy of parental toxicity. 

The mother of soon-to-be-married Hideki (Satoshi Tsumabuki) more or less says as much when he brings his fiancée to meet the family at a memorial service for his late grandfather. “Maybe it’s her upbringing” she snidely suggests, remarking that Kana (Haru Kuroki) is “a little gloomy” (which seems like an odd criticism to make of a guest at what is effectively a reenactment of a funeral). A strangely beaming Hideki keeps reassuring his fiancée that she’s “perfect” while she continues to worry about whether she’s a good fit seeing as she never knew a “real” family having been raised by a mother she regards as neglectful. But even at the couple’s wedding it’s clear that Hideki mostly ignores her, so obsessed is he with being the centre of attention. “Is it ever not about you?” one of the fed up guests eventually heckles, but it evidently never is. After setting up his “perfect” life in a “perfect” luxury flat and having a “perfect” baby, Hideki sets up a blog about being the perfect dad and barely helps with their small daughter Chisa driving Kana slowly out of her mind with his narcissistic self-obsession and thinly veiled emotional abuse. 

When the ghosts start coming, we might wonder if they reveal the truth or effect a distorted reality that leans in to otherwise unspoken dark thoughts, but Hideki really is as someone puts it all lies. When he’s persuaded to visit an “exorcist” she simply tells him to treat his wife and daughter properly to make the monster go away sending Hideki into a small moment of rage implying that he really does know what he is rather than having “forgotten” a cruel alter ego. In his charmed life, we might even wonder if he made some kind of deal with the devil which would explain his rather vacant smile though as it turns out it’s more like he’s cursed by a forgotten childhood encounter with an ancient forest spirit which hints at a deeper, older evil going all the way back to those farmers and the children they abandoned. 

Then again, it seems as if Hideki was rather spoiled as a child leaving him craving both attention and approval, while Kana is still struggling with resentment towards the mother she mainly had to parent herself and is afraid of becoming. Hideki snaps at her that she shouldn’t lose her temper with the baby because children remember, though as it turns out neither of them can really give their full attention to Chisa because of the realities of parenthood which among other things include constant anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. The parents are effectively haunted while cursed by their own toxic parental legacies that they will inevitably pass on to their daughter whether they mean to or not. 

It’s much the same for occult writer Nozaki (Junichi Okada) brought in to help solve the case with the help of his girlfriend, Makoto (Nana Komatsu), a bar hostess with psychic abilities. He once persuaded an old girlfriend to have an abortion because he was afraid of becoming attached to something he might eventually lose, and may be in a relationship with Makoto partly because she is unable to bear children for reasons connected to her frustrated love for her icy exorcist sister Kotoko (Takako Matsu) who like Nozaki wilfully distances herself from others to protect herself from the pain of loss. But as another shaman tells him, in a land of darkness where you no longer know right from wrong pain is the only truth. 

Nakashima shoots with a thinly veiled irony, vacillating between the ridiculousness of demonic spirits wreaking havoc in a well-appointed Tokyo apartment and the concession that there are indeed monsters in the world and as another infected suggests, they are we. Once again set at Christmas much like World of Kanako, Nakashima’s familial horror juxtaposes the season of goodwill with supernatural violence even as Kotoko marshals every power at her disposal from her roots in Okinawa shamanism to Buddhism and Christianity to hold back the latent evil born of a little girl’s loneliness. Meanwhile, he draws inspiration from classic J-horror and particularly the work of Nobuo Nakagawa in his green mists and swamp-based set piece in which Nozaki finds himself mired in a lake of life and death. Kotoko’s wounded eye and fear of mirrors hark back to Yotsuya Kaidan and the betrayed ghost of Oiwa, herself a victim of a man whose self-involved quest for approval cost her her life. At heart an interrogation of the parental bond the film eventually comes down on the side of family as Nozaki reclaims his frustrated paternity while a little girl dreams of nothing more sinister than a land of omurice. 


It Comes screened as part of this year’s Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International Trailer (English subtitles)

I Live in Fear (生きものの記録, Akira Kurosawa, 1955)

Which of us is “crazy”, the man who lives in fear or the rest of us who live in its denial? By 1955, a decade had passed since the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but even if the world seemed “peaceful” it was only superficial. The Korean War had “ended” in an uneasy truce only two years earlier and the world was already mired in a cold war which daily threatened to turn hot with both sides in possession of a nuclear deterrent. Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (生きものの記録, Ikimono no Kiroku) asks us if we can really say a man is “insane” if his life is ruled by a rational anxiety and if it is our refusal to accept the threat he sees which eventually drives him out of his mind. 

Our guide is gentle dentist Harada (Takashi Shimura) who has a sideline as a mediator at the family court. The case he has been called in on one particular afternoon is that of the Nakajima family which is attempting to have the ageing patriarch, Kiichi (a near unrecognisable Toshiro Mifune), declared legally incompetent on account of his increasing paranoia about nuclear attack and latent radioactivity. A wealthy self-made man and foundry owner, Kiichi has frittered away vast sums on harebrained schemes to keep himself and his family safe but after a plan to build a bunker in a remote area had to be abandoned, he’s set his heart on moving everyone to Brazil where he believes they will be safer. 

The problem is partly one of changing times as Kiichi, “despotic and selfish” as his son describes him, attempts to railroad his family into a safety they do not want or need. His two legitimate sons now operate the foundry and their lives are dependent on it, which is not to say that they are dependent on Kiichi, but if he goes through with selling the the foundry to finance his new life it will leave them all high and dry. It would be, to a certain way of thinking, the ultimate paternal betrayal but in Kiichi’s mind all he’s trying to do is “save” his family from an invisible threat. 

That family, meanwhile, is one he’s already undermined through patriarchal selfishness in fathering a series of illegitimate children he is also supporting financially but has never legally acknowledged. The parents of the illegitimate kids are worried that if the family succeeds in having Kiichi declared legally incompetent, his wife will get her hands on the purse strings and they’ll be left out in the cold. Kiichi, meanwhile, has an old-fashioned view of filial relations and never considers that the other kids might not want to come with him either even if it’s unexpectedly nice of him to include them, or that inviting your two mistresses to live in the same house as your legal wife might be awkward for all concerned. 

On the face of it, the case is open and shut. If a man causes his family to suffer through frittering money away on drink or pachinko, they would approve the motion to give another family member legal control over his finances. So why is it taking them so long to decide if Kiichi is a liability to his family or not? The problem is, his fear is entirely rational. It’s only its extent which is the problem. It’s perfectly understandable to be afraid of the ebola virus or brain-eating amoeba, but we can’t afford to spend every minute of every day consumed by fear and so they retreat into the background anxiety of our lives while we try to go on living. Yet, could it be that Kiichi has it right and we’re merely living in denial, sleepwalking into a preventable disaster while he alone has a plan for survival? 

“No place is safe” Kiichi’s son-in-law exasperatedly explains to him after he has taken drastic and somewhat ironic action, a kind of scorched earth policy designed to force his sons to follow him into a new world of safety. Pushed over the edge, Kiichi gets a rude awakening, realising that it was perhaps selfish of him only to think of salvation for his immediate family when his actions will essentially throw his workforce under the bus. Belatedly, he promises to find a way to take them to Brazil too, never realising that people have their own lives that aren’t so easily uprooted. He thinks Brazil is safer because the currents of the world seem to blow ill winds over Japan, but there are already more than enough nuclear bombs lying in warehouses to destroy the planet several times over. 

In any case, Kiichi has already destroyed his family through his various transgressions. They don’t want to go in part because they don’t particularly like him, are sick of his gruff authoritarianism, and resent his tendency to make unilateral decisions on their behalf. Strapped for cash he tries asking the illegitimate kids to return some of the money he gave them, but they too are insecure in their positions and cannot trust that they will continue to be provided for if Kiichi is deposed. Meanwhile, when Kiichi falls ill the legitimate children are only too quick to start discussing the inheritance in the absence of a will. Perhaps Kiichi isn’t much more to them than a walking wallet, all of which lends a rather poignant quality to his continual attempts to protect his family from the nuclear apocalypse in fulfilment of his fatherly duty even as he wagers their economic security to do so. 

If Kiichi is a Cassandra prophesying the end of the world, we won’t be here to be sorry we didn’t listen, but Harada and other more rational minds are shaken by the intensity of his vision. They cannot say that he is “mad” even if his anxiety has consumed his life, but nor can they allow him free rein to pursue his plans because they do not concern only himself but greatly affect the lives of others. They are forced to wonder if it isn’t we who are “insane”, quietly living our lives while all these preventable threats hover in the background, ignored. Kiichi’s mistake was perhaps that he wanted only to be “safe” in an unsafe world, not to cure it of its dangers. Few us are actively trying to eliminate ebola or brain-eating amoebas, just as few actively opposed an increasingly nuclear society, powerless as we are and were in the face of a greater threat. Perhaps Kiichi was the sanest one of all, retreating into a world of madness and infinite safety in a delusional bubble of survival in an otherwise crazy world.


I Live in Fear screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 6th & 13th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

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)

Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者, Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

“Money and power rule now, honour means nothing” according to the new bread of upstarts gangsters in Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者, Tokyo Nagaremono). In many ways, what separates Nikkatsu’s youthful crime movies from Toei’s yakuza epics is that the nobility of Toei’s heroes is rarely questioned. In a Toei movie, it’s the world that’s wrong because the code is good and should be obeyed just as the hero obeys it, but in a Nikkatsu picture nihilism rules. The code isn’t right either, in fact it’s just another tool to manipulate and the hero, while noble, is wrong to follow it. 

That is in essence how Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) will end up a Tokyo drifter, caught between the old world and a new consumerist Japan in which even the yakuza is attempting to corporatise and reform its image. His old boss, Kurata (Ryuji Kita), has done just that only he’s had to take out a sizeable loan from another former gangster turned real estate agent, Yoshii (Michio Hino), to do it. Realising his weakness, the upstart Otsuka gang sees an opportunity and stages an elaborate ruse that allows them to get their hands on Kurata’s valuable building and take out Yoshii at the same time though it results in Yoshii’s secretary (Tomoko Hamakawa), also the girlfriend of one of the Otsuka gang, getting caught in the crossfire. 

Tetsu describes his relationship with Kurata as like father and son and is sure he would never betray him. To preserve their new image, Tetsu does not fight back when ambushed by Otsuka goons and even puts himself on the hook for the secretary’s murder, but as much as Kurata insists he wouldn’t betray one of his “kids” to make things easier for himself perhaps he will if the situation calls for it. A defector from Otsuka’s gang, Shooting Star (Hideaki Nitani), tries to warn Tetsu that his faith in ideals like duty and loyalty is misplaced but Tetsu refuses to believe him. “Don’t shatter my dreams” Tetsu pleads, claiming that he cannot be around someone with “no sense of duty”.

Tetsu even feels sorry for Shooting Star, attributing his melancholy air to his having lost his sense of purpose in his disillusionment with post-war gangsterism. He might have a point in Shooting Star’s world weariness, but fails to realises that Shooting Star does in fact have a sense of duty and is in some ways the film’s only truly free man in forging it for himself from basic humanitarian values if tinged with a degree of cynicism. Though the pair clash, Shooting Star claims that he wants to save Tetsu from the pain of his inevitable betrayal and the disillusionment that will eventually come with it rendering him a perpetual wanderer and exile from mainstream society. 

Both men are in a sense lost amid the rapid social changes of their era, unable to move on from the post-war past into the new society even after breaking with the yakuza code in order to live by their own. In Suzuki’s complex colour scheme, Shooting Star is always clad in a forest-like green which echoes his freedom, while Otsuka is represented by a bloody red, and Tetsu dressed in an innocent powder blue suit until the final confrontation in which, along with his equally innocent love interest Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) who had previously been associated with the colour yellow, is dressed in a pure white while all around him are now in black as representatives of those who have succumbed to the amoral capitalism of the the contemporary society. 

Suzuki even has Tetsu walk down an arched corridor reminiscent of a church into an abstract space expanding the stage at the club to lend this moment of existential struggle a little more theatricality. In a sense what Tetsu does is an act of suicide, severing his ties to the yakuza world by smashing Kurata’s glass and killing at least the image of him as a father figure to become a new man or perhaps a wandering ghost who no longer has a home and must even give up his romance with Chiharu in an acknowledgement of his exile. On Otsuka’s death, it’s almost like an alarm is switched off in the sudden shift from red to white in the giant statue standing behind Chiharu, the survivors united in white but rather than the wedding suggested by the colour of their clothes the atmosphere is funereal as Tetsu accepts he can no longer stay in this temporary space and must enter another sort of purgatory as lonely wander comforted only by his newfound freedom.


Tokyo Drifter screens at Japan Society New York on Feb. 4 as part of the Seijun Suzuki Centennial.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Silent Duel (静かなる決闘, Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Amid the labour strikes crippling Toho in the late ‘40s, Akira Kurosawa formed an association with other directors and film professionals and began working with different studios, the first being Daiei on a loose adaptation of a popular play in which an idealistic doctor struggles with his repressed desires while watching others wilfully embrace post-war selfishness and cynicism. Like many of Kurosawa’s films from this period, The Silent Duel (静かなる決闘, Shizukanaru Ketto) is essentially a meditation on post-war moral decline and what’s needed to correct it but also if somewhat accidentally the destructive effects of secret keeping and miscommunication. 

Kurosawa opens the film in 1944 with exhausted field medic Kyoji (Toshiro Mifune) operating on a badly wounded solider, Nakata (Kenjiro Uemura). Distracted by the constant dripping of a leaky roof, the adverse weather conditions outside, and the general stressfulness of the situation, Kyoji makes the fateful decision to remove his gloves to better accomplish the fiddly operation he is performing only to drop a scalpel and cut himself. He continues with the surgery, but realises that Nakata is likely infected with syphilis which he may have contracted through the wound on his finger. Kyoji tells Nakata, otherwise recovering well, that he should make sure to seek treatment but overhears him boasting that his injuries may soon save him from the battlefield. Kyoji continues to serve but is unable to treat the infection effectively with the limited resources available to him as a frontline medic allowing the disease to continue its progression largely unmitigated.

Taking a job at his father’s obstetrics clinic on his return to Japan, Kyoji breaks off his longstanding engagement to pre-war girlfriend Misao (Miki Sanjo) who has been waiting for him the last six years but refuses to explain to her why he cannot go through with their marriage. She assumes it must in some way be related to his war trauma, and in a way it is. The syphilis is an obvious metaphor for the corruptions of militarism. He declines to explain, he claims, because he is certain that Misao would vow to go on waiting for him until the disease is cured which would take at least three to five years assuming it can be cured at all. As she is already 27, he would be taking away Misao’s opportunity to make a happy marriage and have children with another man. In any case, he makes her decision for her which ironically conflicts with his later statement that she should be free to seek happiness on her own, not least because it seems she has been pressured into an arranged marriage by her financially troubled father. The act of childbirth is symbolically relevant though he does not seem to consider the idea of a platonic marriage perhaps uncertain that he could go on repressing his desires as a married man. So morally upright is he, that he also refuses to lie, saying nothing rather than allowing Misao to believe that he has fallen out of love with her, met someone else, or has another war-related issue that prevents his marrying her. Nor does he seem to consider telling her that he has syphilis and allowing her to come to the same conclusion as everyone else, that he contracted it through sleeping with sex workers during his military service which is most likely how Nakata became infected. 

The stigma associated with the disease adds a further dimension to Kyoji’s frustration given that he describes himself as having wilfully sublimated his physical desires in order to be able to return to a “peaceful marriage” with Misao whereas as Nakata who satisfied himself without a second thought returned home symptomless, married, and is soon to be a father. Re-encountering him by chance, Nakata who seems to have become wealthy doing something that is likely immoral if not illegal, tells Kyoji that his sickness is cured but does eventually bring his wife in for a free checkup to discover that he has passed the disease to her and to their unborn child. Yet even confronted with the truth, Nakata lies again and suggests that Kyoji has made all this up as revenge for something that happened in the war keeping the fact that he infected him from his wife. He blames Kyoji for destroying his family rather than accept his own responsibility and sees nothing wrong in his actions until directly confronted with the body of his stillborn child apparently so deformed and monstrous that they wouldn’t let the mother see it. 

The two men have clearly taken different paths, Kyoji certain that he must put others before himself and suppressing his own desires to ensure he cannot pass the disease on while Nakata buries his head in the sand and ignores it. It is a kind of metaphor for the post-war future, those like Kyoji acknowledging that the legacy of wartime trauma is something that must be acknowledged and actively healed before happiness is possible while those like Nakata simply plow on like nothing ever happened with no thought or consideration for those around them. Yet it is also Kyoji who lies by omission even in his selflessness just Nakata lied to his wife while the truth is only discovered by accident, firstly by reluctant nurse Minegishi (Noriko Sengoku) who walks in on him injecting the remedy for syphilis, she in turn then overheard by Kyoji’s father (Takashi Shimura) while Minegishi then overhears the explanation Kyoji gives him. She in a sense completes the cycle when she asks Misao to apologise to Kyoji on her behalf as she is too embarrassed to do so herself after realising that she got him wrong having resolved to turn her life around after learning of the depths of his selflessness. 

Minegishi had been a nightclub dancer who tried to take her own life after becoming pregnant by a man who abandoned her but was saved by Kyoji who gave her a job at the clinic and convinced her to raise the child. It’s this child, at first unwanted but later loved and embraced by all despite the stigma of his being born out of wedlock, that offers the clearest path towards a healthier future suggesting that the solution lies in accepting the past with a willingness to make something new out of it rather than in wilful denial and resentful self-interest. Yet Kyoji is also human and privately resentful. “If I’d known it would happen to me I would’ve done things differently” he sneers petulantly suggesting that his properness may be an affectation rather than deeply felt conviction but equally frustrated in feeling his fate is unjust and that he’s suffering for someone else’s sin. 

“Because of the blood of a shameless guy, my body became dirty without knowing any pleasure” he complains, hinting at a metaphor for his wartime contamination dragged into a conflict by forces outside of his control. The roles he plays are ironic, firstly a healer in a place of death and destruction and then as a deliverer of life at his father’s obstetrics clinic though he fears he will never have children of his own. He is in a sense trapped by his past as shown in the repeated visual metaphor of the closed gates outside the clinic on which the flowers that represent his relationship with Misao and hope for the future gradually wither. Minegishi tells him she’s in love with him and is willing to accept the risk of his disease to alleviate his desire, but he once again chooses to say nothing, immediately returning to business. As his father points out, he has (for the most part) resolved to channel his resentment into helping those less happy than himself but if he had been happy he may have become a snob, indifferent to the suffering of others. In some ways his problem is the familiar giri/ninjo conflict as he fights a silent duel within himself between his natural desires and his better nature but it’s also a battle against the slow poison of the wartime legacy through compassion and selflessness that may, like his inescapable illness, eventually drive him into madness.


The Silent Duel screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 11th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Akira Kurosawa, 1948)

A gruff yet well intentioned doctor does his best to cure the ills of post-war Japan in a rundown slum on the edge of a fetid swamp in Akira Kurosawa’s noir tragedy, Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Yoidore Tenshi). The doctor is most obviously the drunken angel of the title though it could equally apply to the unhappy yakuza he tries so hard to redeem whom most agree is not suited to that kind of life and trapped by the feudalistic thinking of the pre-war past.

Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is the big man around town, but jaded physician Sanada (Takashi Shimura) sees straight through him. “He acts tough and swaggers around but I know in his heart he’s incredibly lonely,” Sanada tells his assistant, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), a young woman he took in to help her escape the clutches of the violent yakuza ex who left her with syphilis. Miyo bemoans Sanada’s terrible bedside manner and tendency to bully his patients but praises his dedication and remarks that few doctors go as far for those under their care as he does especially ones like these who don’t often have the money to pay. This is a little ironic given Matsunaga’s original objection that he doesn’t trust doctors because it’s not in their best interests to cure you, something which Sanada jokingly acknowledges while expressing the futility he feels in the face of the mass sickness that confronts him. 

When Matsunaga first comes into his office, Sanada remarks that’s its not just his lungs that are sick, he’s sick to the core. But still he seems to think that Matsunaga can be saved, not just physically but spiritually redeemed if only he can coax him away from the yakuza underworld. Matsunaga is suffering from tuberculosis, a common disease of the post-war era and closely linked to the squalid conditions in which he lives which are themselves symbolised by the swamp in the centre of town onto which Sanada’s clinic backs. Sanada tries to warn the local children not to play in it because of the risk of typhus not to mention the mosquitos it attracts but the kids don’t really listen to him and shout back that he’s “just a drunk”. Yet the swamp represents a world upside-down, the neon sign for the No. 1 cabaret bar constantly reflected in its bubbling waters while as the film opens we see a trio of sex workers preparing to head into the red light district and a pair of petty thugs fighting while a young man plays Spanish guitar on the ruins of a bomb damaged building. 

It’s as if it were this world that is slowly consuming Matsunaga, an old-school yakuza who insists “we still believe in things like honour and loyalty” certain that the big boss will side with him against the returned upstart Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto), Miyo’s yakuza ex, even as Sanada tells him it’s money that matters and Matsunaga no longer makes any. Everyone tells him that he already looks like a ghost, his appearance increasingly gaunt in his parallel decline as the illness takes hold and he begins to lose his status to Okada only to overhear his boss call him an “amateur” that he was only keeping around as a potential sacrifice. In the end, Matsunaga is too good for this world. Naively believing in things like honour and loyalty which no longer mean anything in the dog-eat-dog post-war society he is left with nothing other than a nihilistic bid for vengeance and a desire to repay Sanada’s faith in him if only in the most ironic of ways. 

Like Matsunaga, Sanada sometimes says the opposite of what he means claiming that he doesn’t care what happens to Matsunaga but is determined to wipe out the TB inside him to stop it spreading it to others. He’s on a mission to “sterilise this contaminated town” by eradicating the twin threats of disease and the yakuza, calling Matsunaga a coward for failing to face his fear and loneliness succumbing to the quick fixes of his hedonistic yakuza lifestyle. He’s not perfect either, a doctor who drinks his medical ethanol supplies and berates his patients when he them catches out them out drinking when he told them not to, but is also very at home with who he is and doing his best with it. His disappointment in Matsunaga is mainly in his swagger, the false bravado that masks his human frailty and unwillingness to face his fear of death which manifests itself in a hauntingly expressionistic dream sequence. Using silent cinema composition and canted angles Kurosawa conjures a world of constant uncertainty amid the vagaries of the post-war society in which the only sign of salvation is a drunken doctor and his “rational approach” to the sickness of the age.


Drunken Angel screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 10th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

ACA Cinema Project Presents New Films From Japan

ACA Cinema Project will be returning to New York’s IFC Center from Feb. 10 – 16 with New Films From Japan, a five-film series featuring some of this year’s most highly acclaimed festival hits including Kei Ishikawa’s A Man which recently dominated the nominations for this year’s Japan Academy Film Prize.

A Man

The latest film from Kei Ishikawa (Gukoroku: Traces of Sin, Arc), A Man stars Satoshi Tsumabuki as a lawyer who is pulled into a web of intrigue when a former client asks him to investigate her late husband who had been living under an assumed identity.

Small, Slow But Steady

A young deaf woman and aspiring boxer is beginning to lose the will to fight in Sho Miyake’s empathetic character study touching on attitudes to disability in the contemporary society. Review.

The Zen Diary

Inspired by the 1978 non-fiction book by Tsutomu Mizukami, The Zen Diary follows a mountain hermit (Kanji Sawada) living an ascetic life growing his own veg and foraging for mushrooms while continuing his writing career. His peaceful days are sometimes interrupted by the arrival of his editor (Takako Matsu) who turns up to collect his manuscripts and enjoy a good meal.

Thousand and One Nights

Drama following two women whose husbands a have each disappeared. No one has heard from Tomiko’s (Yuko Tanaka) husband in over 30 years, but she deflects the romantic interests of local fisherman Haruo continuing to wait for his return. Meanwhile, she meets a younger woman, Nami (Machiko Ono), whose husband went missing two years previously only for Tomiko to spot him in the street…

Yamabuki

Director Juichiro Yamasaki will be in attendance for a Q&A

The lives of those living in a small mountain town in western Japan gradually intersect from a former Olympic Korean equestrian now working at a quarry to a young woman who begins holding silent protests at a crossroads much to the consternation of her widowed policeman father.

New Films From Japan runs at New York’s IFC Center Feb. 10 – 16. Tickets priced $17 adults, $14 seniors/children, and $13 students are on sale now via the official website. You can also keep up with all the latest news by following ACA Cinema Project on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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.

Get ’em All (「みな殺しの歌」より 拳銃よさらば, Eizo Sugawa, 1960)

A recently released young man is forced onto a nihilistic path of meaningless violence when his bank robber brother is killed in a hit and run in Eizo Sugawa’s moody post-war noir, Get ‘em All (「みな殺しの歌」より 拳銃よさらば, ‘Minagoroshi no uta’ yori kenju yo saraba). Adapted from a novel from Japan’s hardboiled master Haruhiko Oyabu who also provided the source material for Sugawa’s The Beast Shall Die, the film is as much about defeated aspiration and personal despair as it is about the corrupting influence of money and the futility of vengeance.

After waiting a year to divide the loot from a bank robbery, a random syndicate of crooks is shocked to discover that it has gone missing from its hiding place in an ancestral tomb belonging to one of their members along with a gun connected to the crime which is presumably being kept for insurance purposes. Everyone is convinced someone else has taken it with Tanabe (Tetsuro Tanba), the owner of the tomb, most particular about getting his hands on his share as quickly as possible and directing his suspicion towards the heist’s mastermind, Koromogawa (Akihiko Hirata). 

Koromogawa is currently doing quite well for himself, having recently married and moved into a fancy new flat on a danchi. His brother Kyosuke (Hiroshi Mizuwara) has just been released from prison for an undisclosed juvenile crime and evidently has never met his sister-in-law Mamiko (Yukiko Shimazaki). Strangely buoyant and incredibly naive for someone who’s spent time inside, Kyosuke is determined to go straight and is intending to save money to buy a truck he can use to start his own business. He has no idea that his brother’s newfound wealth is down to robbing banks and is absolutely certain that he is a morally upright person who’d never have anything to do with criminality. When Koromogawa is killed in a hit and run after leaving to meet Tanabe, the suspicion is that he’s been murdered by one of the crooks in a dispute over the money though that would admittedly be quite a counterproductive move as if he really has taken it now that he’s dead no one knows where it is.   

Kyosuke is shocked by Mamiko’s apparently indifference to her husband’s death, even going so far as openly flirt with him. After discovering a receipt for a coin locker in his brother’s wallet, he opens it and finds a pistol first planting the seeds of doubt in his mind about Koromogawa’s life and death. The gun, however, begins to take him over. After reuniting with old girlfriend Yuriko (Akemi Kita), Kyosuke was beaten up by her new squeeze but when he tries the same thing again and notices the pistol tucked into Kyosuke’s waistband he immediately backs down. With the gun in his hand, Kyosuke is able to completely humiliate him, forcing the man to crawl on the floor like a pig and drink dirty water from a puddle in the road. This new sense of ultimate power fuels his desire for revenge setting him on a killing spree starting with Tanabe in an effort to figure out what happened to his brother, an exercise often frustrated by his killing those concerned before turning up any real information. 

Meanwhile, using the gun is also quite a stupid and naive thing to do as the police already have it on file from a shot that was fired during the robbery bringing the crime back into police consciousness and therefore making it impossible for any of the men to spend the money should they finally get their hands on it. Each has a different reason for wanting the loot, a clockmaker wanting to support a daughter left with disabilities after contracting polio, a former record producer realising that he’s aged out of his industry, a former boxer with a lame leg (Tatsuya Nakadai) dreaming of buying a small plot of land, and a couple of embezzlers looking for ways out along with in one case divorcing a wife to marry a bar hostess mistress. But then as in the last two cases and Koromogawa’s own it is perhaps the allure of rising consumerism that has already corrupted them. So much of the action revolves around big American cars, while we’re also told that the gun was one manufactured in Nazi Germany and was most likely bought or stolen from an American serviceman. 

So drunk is Kyosuke on the power of the gun that he doesn’t really take stock of what he’s doing until it’s already too late, realising he’s become an accidental serial killer and no longer has a possibility of leading a normal life. He had begun to feel that way before, especially in the wake of his brother’s death, as he finds each of his job applications failing when prospective employers learn of his criminal past. He’s repaid his debt to society, but if society refuses to give him a second chance then realistically he has no other avenue than heading deeper into crime. Kyosuke liked it that the gun made people fear him but is confronted by the illusionary quality of its power when a child suddenly grabs it in the middle of a game of cops and robbers, pointing the gun at him believing it to be a toy while passers-by laugh at the amusing sight of this little boy holding a grownup hostage. It seemed to confuse Kyosuke that Yuriko had not been afraid of him even with the gun in his hand, but her sudden terror on realising that he has killed and may yet kill her only shows him what he’s become. 

He wanted revenge for his brother’s death, but what if it really was just an accident? The gang begin to turn on each other after the money disappears, some believing Koromogawa took it for safekeeping to prevent them incriminating each other by spending it too early and others that he just took it for himself while each suspecting one another believing one of them is slowly killing the others to pocket the whole amount for themselves. But in the end it’s all for nothing, they couldn’t spend it anyway and several of them decide they’d rather not have the bother and are ready to live quiet lives in the country only it’s too late for that now. A final revelation confirming his brother’s criminality coupled with the betrayal of a friend’s well-meaning attempt to keep him in the dark lead only to an internecine confrontation with the futility of crime. With its noirish jazz score and photography reminiscent of contemporary American independent cinema Sugawa captures a sense of restless youth but also the latent desperation of those left languishing on the margins of an increasingly prosperous society.


Original trailer (English subtitles)