Sasuke and His Comedians (真田風雲録, Tai Kato, 1963)

Criminally unknown in the Anglophone world, where Tai Kato is remembered at all it’s for his contribution to Toei’s ninkyo eiga series though his best known piece is likely to be post-war take on High Noon made at Shochiku, By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him in which a jaded doctor finds himself caught in the middle of rising tensions between local Japanese gangsters and Zainichi Koreans. Kato’s distinctive visual style shooting from extreme low angles with a preference for long takes, closeups and deep focus already make him an unusual presence in the Toei roster, but there can be few more unusual entries in the studio’s back catalogue than the wilfully anarchic Sasuke and his Comedians (真田風雲録, Sanada Fuunroku), a bizarre mix of musical comedy, historical chanbara, and ninja movie, loosely satirising the present day student movement and the limits revolutionary idealism. 

An opening crawl introduces us to the scene at Sekigahara, a legendary battle of 1600 that brought an end to Japan’s warring states period and ushered in centuries of peace under the Tokugawa. Onscreen text explains that this is the story of the boys of who came of age in such a warlike era, giving way to a small gang of war orphans looting the bodies of fallen soldiers and later teaming up with a 19-year-old former samurai realising that the world as he knew it has come to an end. Soon the gang is introduced to the titular Sasuke who, as he explains, has special powers having been irradiated during a meteor strike as a baby. Recognising him as one of them, the war orphans offer to let Sasuke join their gang, but he declines because he’s convinced they’ll eventually reject him in fear of his awesome capabilities. Flashing forward 15 years, the kids are all grown up and the only girl, Okiri (Misako Watanabe), is still carrying a torch for Sasuke (Kinnosuke Nakamura) who dutifully reappears as the gang find themselves drawn into a revolutionary movement led by Sanada Yukimura (Minoru Chiaki) culminating in the Siege of Osaka in 1614. 

Don’t worry, this is not a history lesson though these are obviously extremely well known historical events the target audience will be well familiar with. A parallel is being drawn with the young people of early ‘60s Japan who too came of age in a warlike era and who are now also engaging in minor revolutionary thought most clearly expressed in the mass protests against the ANPO treaty in 1960 which in a sense failed because the treaty was indeed signed in spite of public opinion. Kato’s Sanada Yukimura is a slightly bumbling figure, first introduced banging his head on a low-hanging beam, wandering the land in search of talented ronin to join up with the Toyotomi rebellion against the already repressive Tokugawa regime. His underling sells this to the gang as they overlook a mile long parade of peasants headed to Osaka Castle as a means of bringing about a different future that they can’t quite define but imply will be less feudal and more egalitarian which is how they’ve caught the attention of so many exploited farmers. 

Of course, we all already know how the Siege of Osaka worked out (not particularly well for anyone other than the Tokugawa) so we know that this version of the 16th century better world did not come to pass the implication being that the 1960s one won’t either. The nobles are playing their own game, the Toyotomi trying to cut deals but ultimately being betrayed, while the gang fight bravely for their ideals naively believing in the possibility of victory. Sasuke, for his part, is a well known ahistorical figure popular in children’s literature and this post-modern adventure is in essence a kids’ serial aimed at a student audience, filled with humorous anachronisms and silliness while Kato actively mimics manga-style storytelling mixed with kabuki-esque effects. Boasting slightly higher production values than your average Toei programmer, location shooting gives way to obvious stage sets and fantastical set pieces of colour and light which are a far cry from the studio’s grittier fare with which Kato was most closely associated. That might be one reason that the studio was reportedly so unhappy with the film that it almost got Kato fired, but nevertheless its strange mix of musical satire and general craziness remain an enduring cult classic even in its ironic defeatism. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mother (MOTHER マザー, Tatsushi Omori, 2020)

“Everything about my life has been wrong anyway. But is it wrong to love my mother?” the wounded hero of Tatsushi Omori’s gritty drama plaintively asks, and in his case it’s a complicated question. Inspired by a real life case in which a young man murdered his grandparents, Mother (MOTHER マザー) asks how and why such a thing could have happened and points its fingers firmly at corrupted maternity in the form of its extremely toxic matriarch Akiko (Masami Nagasawa) whose twisted, possessive “love” for her children makes them mere victims of her narcissistic emotional abuse and constant need for validation through male attention. 

Our first introduction to Akiko finds her ditching work to meet her young son Shuhei (Sho Gunji) on the way home from school, inappropriately licking the graze on his knee like a grinning mother cat. She then drags him to her parents for an awkward family meeting, her mother refusing to meet her gaze everyone aware she’s there to extort more money from them which, contrary to her promises of having a well paying job lined up, she will almost certainly blow on pachinko. Her father takes pity on them and gives Shuhei a few notes on the sly, but it’s not long before Akiko has decamped to a nearby video arcade which is where she meets Ryo (Sadao Abe), a host from a host club in Nagoya with whom she begins a steamy relationship. Deciding to return with him, Akiko dumps Shuhei with Ujita (Sarutoki Minagawa), a local council worker she’s been flirting with to get her child support benefits sorted out, and takes off. For unclear reasons, however, Ujita declines to let Shuhei stay in his home, leaving him in Akiko’s apartment which has no access to hot water and eventually no electricity seeing as she almost certainly neglected to pay the bill, meaning he can’t even heat up the packets of instant noodles Ujita bought for him either eating them dry or visiting the local combini. 

At this point, Shuhei is a young child who knows no other life and of course loves his mother. Though she emotionally abuses and manipulates him, he has no real choice not do what she says, including agreeing to lie when she and Ryo attempt to blackmail Ujita by threatening to accuse him of molesting Shuhei while they were away. She wilfully uses his cute kid appeal, sending him alone to badger her parents for money (which they refuse), or tap his estranged father for extra cash for a “school trip” even though Akiko hasn’t let him go to school in months and has already blown the child support he sends every month on pachinko. Yet however much he’s beginning to resent the way she uses him, she’s still his mother and there’s a twisted kind of love there along with a toxic co-dependency that locks them into a constant cycle of need and resentment. 

That’s not to say there aren’t ways out. Every time the glimmer of a better life appears, Akiko’s self-destructive impulses kick back in. A teenage Shuhei (Daiken Okudaira) gets a job as a welder with a kind man who can see his family’s struggling and wants to help, but Akiko can’t let go of Ryo who is apparently on the run from debt collectors. The same thing happens again after the family become homeless, a well-meaning social worker, Aya (Kaho), helping to get Shuhei into a catchup education program for others like him who’ve missed out on schooling for one reason or another, but Akiko doesn’t like anything that reduces her influence over her children and fails to understand Shuhei’s desire to at least be as knowledgable as other kids his age. She tells him that no one likes him, that he’ll be bullied wherever it is he goes, that only she will tolerate him and though he can see it isn’t true, no one is mean to him at school and his social worker is actively trying to help him, he can’t help believing her lies. 

They’re my children, I can do with them as I wish Akiko repeatedly snarls at those who attempt to interfere, viewing Shuhei and his younger sister Fuyuka (Halo Asada) more like minions than kids raised to do her bidding as tools or extensions of her own will yet as unable to cope without them as they are without her. Sympathetic social worker Aya, herself a survivor of childhood abuse, reminds Shuhei that he has the option to separate from his mother but he remains unconvinced. Ironically, her mad, cack-handed plan for riches will eventually separate them in her incitement to violence, Shuhei perhaps in a sense relieved knowing the state will take better care of him than his own mother ever had and perhaps he’ll even be allowed time to read, but he loves her all the same and continues to protect her despite himself hopeful only that his younger sister will escape the same fate. Is it wrong to love a mother whose “love” for you is at best toxic? Perhaps not, but it is in its own way a tragedy all the same. 


Mother is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

International trailer (English subtitles)

Cash Calls Hell (五匹の紳士, Hideo Gosha, 1966)

“Life is made of gambles” according to the villain of Hideo Gosha’s 1966 Shochiku Noir Cash Calls Hell (五匹の紳士, Gohiki no Shinshi). Sometimes dismissed by contemporary critics for the wilful vulgarity of his late career yakuza films, Gosha was most closely associated with jidaigeki but here makes a rare foray into B-movie crime, a genre which perhaps aligned with the so-called “manly way” philosophy which imbued much of his work. Led by frequent star Tatsuya Nakadai the men of Cash Calls Hell are indeed all suffering manfully, each desperately floundering in the post-war society while quietly resentful in being locked out of its growing prosperity. 

The hero, Oida (Tatsuya Nakadai), is the son of a meek civil servant whom he resented for his passivity. Oida was determined to make something of himself, and so he invested his efforts not in hard work and dedication but in personal relationships, seducing the boss’ daughter in order to win her hand and thereby advancement and security. Meanwhile, he was preparing to unceremoniously ditch the bar hostess who’d been supporting him while he made his way to the top, only after arguing with her on a car drive home he gets into an accident in which a father and his little girl are killed. Oida’s bright future is ruined in an instant. He’s asked to backdate a resignation letter, his engagement is cancelled, and he also owes compensation to the widowed mother Natsuko (Miyuki Kuwano) whose face, filled with rage and resentment, he is unable to forget. With no money to pay her, he winds up in prison which is where he meets soon-to-be released Sengoku (Mikijiro Hira) who has a proposition for him but refuses to give any further details, instructing him to find a woman named Utako (Atsuko Kawaguchi) as soon as he’s released. 

As Utako relates, the job involves knocking off the three men on her hit list for which he will be paid a cool 15 million yen (5 million each). Advised to not to ask any further questions, Oida decides to go along with it after all he has nothing left to lose, but as he begins his investigations he becomes increasingly confused and conflicted. As we discover, the men were all part of a gang that robbed a syndicate of Hong Kong drug dealers, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Sengoku wants them out of the way so he won’t have to divide the loot when he gets out. The money is many ways beside the point, what the men wanted was a way to kick back against the various forces which oppressed them and took their revenge on society through crime. The first, Motoki (Hisashi Igawa), is a former policeman who ran off with a gangster’s wife and subsequently went all the way to the dark side. Umegaya (Kunie Tanaka) is the son of a career criminal who wanted some control over his life and to care for the woman he loved. Embittered former boxer Fuyujima (Ichiro Nakatani) had his dreams shattered when gangsters crushed his hand because he refused to throw a fight. 

Sengoku, who was left lame after being injured in the aerial bombing during the war, recruited them all by exploiting their resentment. Fuyujima describes the men as wandering like ravenous dogs. They are already imprisoned, framed by the chainlink fence which divides them from the well-to-do salarymen killing time at the driving range. “Life is half made of luck and circumstances” Sengoku tells them, echoing his words to Oida, handing them agency in crime in asking them to “bet” on him. “We can’t sink any lower” he rationalises, “now we must get back on our feet”. Oida is much the same. He’d sunk as far as he could and thought nothing of taking these men’s lives to save his own, but resents being used by Sengoku and is probably figuring out that a man who doesn’t want to split his loot in four won’t be keen to split it in half either. He is also burdened by a sense of guilt and responsibility, both to the widow of the man he killed in the accident and to Motoki’s small daughter Tomoe (Yukari Uehara), about the same age as the little girl who died with him. 

Natsuko, it turns out, has since become a bar hostess, herself sinking in the cruelty of the post-war landscape, now wearing a sparkly cheongsam in echo of the “Golden Dragon” syndicate running the club where Umegawa works and the Hong Kong gangsters hot on Oida’s trail. Indulging in a stereotypical B-movie Sinophobia, the implication is that crime is a foreign phenomenon, the threat lurking in the shadows dressed oddly more like a 30s bootlegger from a Hollywood gangster flick than a triad drug trafficker and killing with the point of his umbrella. Oida’s redemption is sparked by his sense of responsibility towards the orphaned little girl who continues to follow him around, latching on to him as a sympathetic figure entirely unaware of his relationship to her father. In the end he declares that he wants the money in order to buy back his soul having sold it to Sengoku in agreeing to take on the job without knowing what it was, but also wants to make restitution to Natsuko which he later does in a poetic if perhaps insensitive fashion that implies he can in a sense restore the child he killed by substituting it with another. 

Oida is one of Gosha’s “manly” heroes, surviving at all costs but finally defending his sense of honour in regaining his humanity. Nevertheless, Gosha is also keen to demonstrate the various ways the women suffer at the hands of irresponsible men, each of the wives endangered by their husbands’ transgressions and Natsuko forced onto the fringes of the sex trade by Oida’s thoughtless crime. Opening in a bold negative with the heist that started it all, Gosha shoots in true noir style all shadows and canted angles through a series of episodic set pieces including a chase pregnant with symbolism through a “purification station” scored by moody jazz before ending on a fatalistic POV shot. Life is a gamble after all, but is this a loss or a victory? With the world the way it is, who could really say.


Romance Doll (ロマンスドール, Yuki Tanada, 2020)

According to an assistant at the factory where the hero of Yuki Tanada’s Romance Doll (ロマンスドール) is eventually employed, what were once called “sex dolls” or the euphemistic “Dutch Wives” (apparently named for a kind of bolster used by sailors) are now marketed as “love dolls”. The difference may be largely semantic, subsuming the physical within the emotional, but speaks to a discomforting dehumanisation of the female form something which barely occurs to the sculptor even as he slowly chips away at his patient wife, gradually erasing her as he dedicates himself to crafting the perfect love doll which is, it has to be said, a woman devoid of agency who can never talk back, challenge male authority, or wound the male ego. 

It’s this insecure fear of intimacy which eventually creates distance and loneliness in the marriage of the sculptor Tetsuo (Issey Takahashi) who hides the fact that he sculpts sex dolls for a living from his wife Sonoko (Yu Aoi) for fear that she will reject him. Tetsuo was himself “tricked” into taking the job as an unemployed graduate in need of work. He does so because he needs the money but also feels guilty, not because he finds the work morally objectionable, but because he has no investment in sex dolls as a craft while the man who’s just employed him, Kinji (Kitaro), has made the creation of the perfect model his life’s dream. 

One the one hand, Tetsuo and Kinji are craftsmen and so the fact of what they’re crafting is largely irrelevant, the important thing being the earnest pursuit of artistry in building beautiful devices whether they be sex aids or sewing machines. But others might not see it that way and in fact the dolls can only be sold as novelties with strict regulations in place to prevent “obscenity”. Concerned that the models lack realism, Kinji comes up with the idea of taking a mould of a real woman’s breasts but given all of the above they can hardly advertise what it’s for. Sonoko answers the ad because she thinks it’s for medical prosthetics, that she’ll be helping other women not providing masturbatory aids for lonely men. The moment Tetsuo touches her breasts he’s hit with a kind of epiphany and is moved to confess his real feelings as he says possibly for the first and last time in his life, while Sonoko too recounts that in his touch she could innately feel that he was an awkward but kind person which is why she fell in love with him. They marry and are happy, but he keeps the nature of his work a secret and becomes so consumed with the idea of capturing the perfection of the female form that he never looks beyond the surface of his wife and, ironically, begins to neglect her physically. 

It’s the secret keeping, the miscommunication and the fear of intimacy that eventually begin to drive them apart. She wants to tell him something important, but he doesn’t listen to her, never notices that she is unhappy or suffering and becomes petulant and resentful on realising that she has lied to him about where she was while she was away from home not realising that she felt unable to tell him because he is not and never has been emotionally available to her. He pours his “love” into the doll, and by doing so he depletes her. Sonoko becomes merely fuel for her husband’s artistic fulfilment until her metamorphosis into a doll is finally complete.

Told entirely from Tetsuo’s perspective, Tanada’s screenplay leans unexpectedly hard into a series of outdated patriarchal social codes which it ultimately reinforces rather than critiques. Tetsuo’s marital dilemma is reframed as a workplace conundrum over whether to pursue the new frontiers of elastomer or stick with the tried and tested silicone which is apparently fragile yet beautiful much like life as Tetsuo is forced to reflect on the transience of all things including love and romance. Something can be beautiful even as it rots, cherry trees still blossom even while they’re dying and there’s nothing that lasts “forever” except perhaps loss. Tetsuo tells himself that others saw Sonoko as the “ideal wife” in that she was “beautiful, a good cook, pristine, modest, and respects her husband” but apparently only he knew that she was also “nice and horny” which even if charitably taken as reclaiming her right to sexual agency is still a crass statement in the circumstances given that he has just reduced her to a literal receptacle for male desire. 

Tetsuo may feel a smattering of conflict when an early model proves successful enough to hit the mainstream media, a happy customer declaring that he’s giving up on real women, but continues to pursue his craft even while reflecting on the poetic symmetry that his wife is disappearing as his creation grows. It’s impossible to avoid the implication that what men want is a sex doll who can cook and clean, a vacant automaton who caters entirely to their desires with no interior life of her own because they are too insecure to want to deal with a real woman who is capable of hurting them emotionally. Straying uncomfortably towards a kind of sublimated necrophilia, Tetsuo only belatedly realises that his wife was more than mere object in the uncomfortable vacancy of the unresponsive silicone. Kinji had wanted to create a doll which looked as if it may come to life, as if it almost had a soul, but the key is in the almost. Rather than a meditation on the destructive effects of miscommunication and emotional insecurity, we’re left with a contemplation of art and the artist in which a man’s artistic fulfilment is valued above a woman’s life, his destruction of her permissible in the perfection of his art. Some things it seems don’t change, women are mere “romance dolls” valued only for their response to male desire be it in art or in “love”.


Romance Doll is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Dancing Girl of Izu (恋の花咲く 伊豆の踊子, Heinosuke Gosho, 1933)

“Happiness is waiting for you” the melancholy heroine of The Dancing Girl of Izu (恋の花咲く 伊豆の踊子, Koi no Hana Saku Izu no Odoriko) is told by a man who truly loves her, though with his words all her hopes are dashed. Shot on location, Heinosuke Gosho’s 1933 silent is the first of several adaptations of the well-known Yasunari Kawabata story from 1926 and takes a number of liberties with the source material which are partly in keeping with the demands of contemporary cinema and partly an attempt to anchor it more firmly to the increasingly chaotic world of 1933 beset with both economic and political instability thanks to the global depression and Japan’s imperialist ambitions. The price of “happiness” it seems may be love, but perhaps stability as is much as you can ask for in an infinitely unstable world. 

Nominally speaking, the hero of this tale is a young student, Mizuhara (Den Ohinata), through whose eyes we view the transitory nature of young love and the rigidity of a society which will in the end not permit its fulfilment. The “dancing girl” however is our primary focus. Kaoru (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the orphaned younger sister of Eikichi (Tokuji Kobayashi) who inherited a literal goldmine but squandered his inheritance and forced the whole family on the road to earn their keep as travelling players. Such people occupy a kind of underclass, victims of a prejudice against those who have no fixed abode and cannot easily be identified through association with a place or people. Kaoru admits that though she has learned to bear her way of life because at least she’s with her family, signs such as the one they find in a ditch to the effect that beggars and itinerant actors are not welcome in the town fill her with despair. 

Mizuhara meets the actors when they have been unfairly accused of dumping the sign out of frustration (a child later vindicates them after confirming that it was a wandering priest who passed through shortly before). He wades into the fray to urge the angry farmers to exercise a little more patience and ends up agreeing to travel with the family to their next destination as he is himself engaged in a kind of holiday wandering around the picturesque countryside of the Izu peninsula (a popular activity for well to do students of the time). Unbeknownst to him they are already connected by mutual acquaintances in that a friend of Mizuhara’s, Ryuichi (Ryoichi Takeuchi), from the same university also lives in this town and is the son of the man, Zenbei (Arai Atsushi), who bought the goldmine from Eikichi after he went bankrupt. 

The economic subplot concerns an amoral mining engineer, Kubota (Reikichi Kawamura), who apparently has a reputation as a “slave driver” and was responsible for starting the mine which Eikichi’s father owned, the implication being that it failed because of his exploitative business practices and has flourished under Zenbei’s more compassionate ownership in contrast to the picture Kubota is about to paint of him. Having apparently failed at several other endeavours, Kubota has sworn off mines but has convinced himself that he is “owed” something seeing as Zenbei’s mine is now a success and he was the one who found it. He tries to get something out of Ryuichi, but he is unconvinced and eventually offended, accusing of Kubota of blackmail when he insinuates that there was something improper about his buying the mine from Eikichi for much less than it was worth. 

The film’s opening sequence which set up a subplot never resolved about a runaway geisha, however, showed us that Zenbei is as his name suggests a kindhearted man. He reported the geisha’s disappearance to the police not because she took off without clearing her debts but because he was worried for her safety, believing she may have been tricked into running off with an unscrupulous client. Kubota plants the seeds of resentment by convincing Eikichi that he was cheated out of the mine and is owed compensation. Eikichi, feeling humiliated, is determined to “negotiate”, but Zenbei tells him to give them his sister. 

As will be revealed later, Zenbei’s intentions are honourable and he has no thought of replacing the geisha who ran away with Kaoru but wants to take her into his household as an adopted daughter. Eikichi, however, misunderstands but is prepared to sell his sister in order to pursue a pointless revenge against Zenbei by getting money to buy another mine and thereby become even richer. Mizuhara berated him for even considering the idea of trading his sister for money, but in the end even Eikichi only sees her as capital in his rage-fuelled desire to avenge his wounded male pride and sense of impotence. He failed as head of household in losing the family fortune and now has no intention of protecting his sister from the vagaries of the world. 

Mizuhara once again intervenes and learns the truth from Zenbei, that he had been a friend of Eikichi’s father’s and has always been trying to look out for them but has recently lost patience with Eikichi who has already borrowed a lot of money from him. Zenbei is minded towards tough love, convinced his well-meaning attempts to help have only enabled Eikichi’s financial fecklessness. He doesn’t see why Kaoru should pay for his mistakes and has been putting some of the proceeds from the mine into a savings account in her name, hoping also that she may one day marry his son Ryuichi. Mizuhara is at once crushed by the painful goodness he sees in front of him, knowing that his love for Kaoru is now not only impossible but perhaps selfish. All he can do for her now is get out of the way so that she can be saved from the harsh life of an itinerant player, restored to her previous class status, and given the most elusive of all prizes in this chaotic age, stability. 

Zenbei’s plan for Kaoru is in itself a kind of miracle, the best she could ever hope for, but it’s also a minor tragedy in that it both robs her of any kind of agency to make her own choices and destroys the possibility of a romantic future with Mizuhara. To accept everyday comfort and safety, she must resign herself to giving up her love. Mizuhara asks her to do just that in an altruistic act of selflessness which recognises that without money he is powerless to help her. He’s not the one she loves (and we have no idea how he might feel about it), but Ryuichi seems to be a good and kind man, like his father Zenbei who is perhaps the face of compassionate, paternalist capitalism. The world is too chaotic for romance, but there is kindness enough if you’re lucky enough to find it, and if stability is all there is perhaps sorrow is easier to bear than hunger. 


Crossroads (十字路, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1928)

Does it matter what path you take when none lead out of the darkness because all the world is dark? The heroine of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Crossroads (十字路, Jujiro) eventually finds herself faced with this dilemma after a series of betrayals born of male failure place her into an impossible, infinitely ironic situation. Following his avant-garde masterpiece A Page Madness, Kinugasa heads in more straightforwardly melodramatic direction if maintaining the same expressionist aesthetic, but the world is still itself “mad” and inescapably so even as it prepares to swallow itself whole. 

Okiku (Akiko Chihaya), an earnest young woman, lives in a small room on the second floor of a squalid tenement building, captured in all of its grotty detail by Kinugasa’s manically wandering yet claustrophobic camera, with her brother Rikiya (Junosuke Bando). She supports the pair of them through seamstressing and doing other odd jobs, while Rikiya has become a devotee of the red light district and developed an infatuation with Oume (Yukiko Ogawa), the proprietress of an archery parlour. So enamoured of her is he that he declares his intention to fight for her love, literally, and is badly beaten by a samurai rival. He steals the ornate kimono his sister had been preparing for a client and hands it to Oume only to reencounter the samurai who tears it in two and hits him on the head, throwing ashes into his eyes causing him to believe that he is blind. Rikiya embarrasses himself by crying out for a sign of love from Oume while clinging to another woman. Humiliated and unable to see, he bumps back into his rival and slashes at him with a sword. Someone shouts “murderer” and Rikiya stumbles out of the tavern and back to his sister believing he has killed someone while the samurai is in fact perfectly fine, merely having another joke at his expense. 

The “joke” will have profound consequences, not only for Rikiya but for his devoted sister. Now entirely unsupported by her feckless brother and in fact burdened by him as he adjusts to his unsighted life, Okiku is determined to keep him safe from punishment for his legal transgression. This becomes another minor problem in their lives as a mysterious bogus policeman (Ippei Soma) with missing front teeth has begun hanging out in their front room for otherwise unexplained reasons, hinting that he knows all about Rikiya’s crime but offering to “protect” him from the authorities for the right price or a suitable alternative. Meanwhile, a doctor has also suggested that Rikiya’s eyes might be healed if he had money to heal them. An old hag having worn out a young woman she was exploiting for sex work is in search of a replacement and thinks Okiku fits the bill. She resists, but is at a loss as to how to find money both for the policeman and for her brother’s eyes. 

Old hag aside, all of Okiku’s problems are born of male failure. Her feckless brother has drawn her into his foolish romantic fancy, allowing himself to be swept away sold on the false promises of the Yoshiwara. Questioned by another patron, Oume reveals that she liked Rikiya but is turned off by “persistent” men. She enjoys the attention she gets, not to mention the gifts, but is not interested in the kind of relationship which limits her freedom. The archery parlour itself is a carnivalesque world of giddy madness, a permanent party town filled with maniacal laughter and the false jollity of those trying to escape despair through mindless hedonism. Rikiya is blind to his delusion and has no idea he has been trapped. Unlike Oume, Okiku is a pure soul and unable to manipulate male interest for her own ends. She finds herself caught between the old hag and the bogus policeman trying to protect the brother who made no attempt to protect her, even hiding in a cupboard when he suspected that his attacker had followed him home. 

Exploited from every possible angle, the siblings have nowhere left to turn but to each other. “If only I could live with you like this all my life” a chastened Rikiya exclaims, adding “I will take you, sister, wherever I escape” when the scene is ironically mirrored yet returning once again to Oume only to realise the degree to which he had been blinded by love even as he could see. Not even fraternal bonds are strong enough to survive the storm of human selfishness. Kinugasa conjures a world of spiralling madness in which cruelty and indifference are the only constants. It doesn’t matter which way you go, the destination is the same. 


The Triple Cross (いつかギラギラする日, Kinji Fukasaku, 1992)

“It’s never over for men like me” laments the hero of Kinji Fukasaku’s infinitely zeitgeisty 1992 action thriller The Triple Cross (いつかギラギラする日,  Itsuka Giragira Suru Hi), though the director might as well be talking for himself. Fukasaku is most closely associated with the jitsuroku gangster genre which he helped to create at Toei in the mid-1970s with the hugely influential yakuza cycle Battles Without Honour and Humanity. Through the difficult ‘80s, he’d sustained his career with a series of commercial projects and critically acclaimed prestige pictures, which is perhaps why he felt secure enough to go all in with an absurdist take on the death spiral of the Bubble Era. 

As the film opens, a trio of veteran crooks commits a series of flawless armed robberies which makes them all very wealthy. In an age of excess, crime is perhaps for them more a way of life than a means of survival save for one, Imura (Renji Ishibashi), who has massive debts from loansharks and is living with a constant sense of anxiety that his failures as a man and as a father may result in his beloved wife (Kirin Kiki) and daughter leaving him (for which he wouldn’t blame them). Kanzaki (Kenichi Hagiwara), the veteran gangster, enlists his girlfriend Misato (Yumi Takigawa) along with Imura to scout a possible new job their “boss” Shiba (Sonny Chiba) is planning up in Hokkaido. When they get there it turns out that Shiba has taken up with an extraordinarily irritating much younger woman, Mai (Keiko Oginome), and through her has befriended a young guy, Kadomachi (Kazuya Kimura), who’s come up with a plan to rob the takings from a nearby resort which he has heard run to 200 million yen transported in cash by car via remote mountain road. 

Kadomachi, who later claims he was once a police officer, is an annoyingly entitled young punk with bleach blond hair who wants the money to open a live music venue in order to support real rock and roll. So manic he seems to be on something, it’s a surprise that the guys agree to work with him though after a quick hazing they apparently decide he’s OK only to bitterly regret their decision when it turns out he was mistaken about the amount being transported. As veteran pros, the trio know that it’s better to just be happy with what you can get and move on, but they had each hoped this job might be the last and the disappointment proves too much for Imura who flips out and points a gun at his friends intending to take the lot but is calmly talked down only for Kadomachi to grab a gun and start shooting, making off with the whole 50 million. 

Deliberately down with the kids with his pulsing club score, Fukasaku seems to be taking a swipe at the Bubble generation who want everything now and fully expect to get it. Shiba pays the price, essentially, for refusing to act his age, trying to be young and hip like Mai and Kadomachi, while Imura is perhaps the opposite unable to escape from the post-war era with its poverty and vicious loansharks while also facing discrimination as a zainichi Korean which further deepens his anxiety for his teenage daughter. Yet getting her hands on the money Mai confesses that she has absolutely no idea what to do with 50 million yen, spending 50,000 on a handkerchief just because while even Kadomachi is eventually struck by a sense of futility in realising the money has corrupted him though he knows that it will eventually slip through his fingers. “People, life, they pass us by” he muses sadly while Mai confesses all she wanted was for someone to “notice” her, which they eventually perhaps do only it’s in the context of a nationwide manhunt. 

The vacuous youngsters are finally slapped down by the calm and collected Kanzaki whose lack of ostentation serves him well in the ensuing war on two fronts as he goes up against not only Kadomachi but the loanshark he was in debt to in an attempt to get his hands on the money. Fukasaku takes the jitsuroku and turns it inside out for a tale of Bubble-era excess filled with increasingly elaborate action sequences culminating in a high octane car chase and a shoot out with the entire garrison of the Hokkaido police force, yet as before crime only yields futility, the money floating away in Hakodate harbour, while we end on a trademark note of irony that shows us banks on every street corner, money is literally everywhere. What does crime mean now, what is the point of such ceaseless acquisition in an age of plenty? For Kanzaki, perhaps it just spells opportunity and well you can’t argue with that. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Theatre: A Love Story (劇場, Isao Yukisada, 2020)

The problem with tortured artists is that rather than be content with destroying themselves, they destroy someone else instead. Japanese cinema has a preoccupation with narcissistic heroes, and even if he does have a rare degree of self-awareness the protagonist of Isao Yukisada’s adaptation of the novel by comedian Naoki Matayoshi, Theatre: A Love Story (劇場, Gekijo), is among the most insufferable in the sheer depths of his resentful self-loathing. The “a love story” suffix is an addition for the English title though it proves true enough in that this is a story about a love of theatre which is really a love of life and possibility only our gloomy hero is still far too much in the shadows to be able to see it clearly. 

Nagata (Kento Yamazaki), whose fear of intimacy appears to be so great that he never gives away his first name, is first found wandering the streets like a zombie, muttering the words “How long will I last?” to himself before coming to a pause in front of a gallery window in which is displayed a painting of a monkey screaming under a full moon. The vision of existential despair appears to match his own and he’s obviously captivated by it, as is a young woman, Saki (Mayu Matsuoka), who quickly walks away after he creates awkwardness by intently staring at her. She tries to escape because, to be honest, not only is he a class A street creep, but he seems as if he might actually be disturbed. He asks her to go on a date the next day (today is too hot), later confessing he wanted to take her for a drink but is broke all of which makes it sound like he wants money as well as her phone number. Feeling sorry for him she gives in and is seemingly not even that bothered when he attempts to order her drink for her without asking what she wants at a nearby cafe. 

In many ways, the “meet cute” of Nagata and Saki typifies the entirety of their relationship which spans the better part of an ill-defined decade. The nicer she is to him, the more resentful he becomes. What the pair have in common is “theatre”. He’s a pretentious, avant-garde playwright, she’s a bubbly aspiring actress whose faith in the genius he keeps insisting he has only reinforces his sense of insecurity. The problem isn’t so much that lack of success is eating away at him, as it is that he actively resents the successes of others. He even becomes irritated when Saki praises Clint Eastwood, as if Clint Eastwood were his competition. Nagata simply can’t stand it when other people are praised as if the mere fact of someone else’s happiness actively depletes his own, has taken something from him, or is solely a reflection of his failures as an artist and a human being. It is really is all about him. He even refuses to take Saki to Disneyland because then he’d be in competition with Disney and if Saki said anything nice at all about the experience it would just piss him off. 

What seems impossible to understand is why Saki stays, especially after Nagata moves in with her and continues to bum around paying no rent while she works three jobs and tries to finish her uni degree. Eventually she asks him for a small contribution, maybe just something towards the utility bills, but he bizarrely replies that it’s her apartment and it’s irrational to pay for someone else’s utilities which is odd seeing as he’s just got out of the bath and has therefore clearly been using the facilities. In his voiceover, he confesses that he said that in order to avoid having a serious conversation and perhaps to mask a sense of internalised shame over essentially being a kept man, something which is only finally brought home to him by an old acting acquaintance, Aoyama (Sairi Ito), who offers him some freelance writing work but that only seems to deepen his artistic crisis as he battles a sense of selling out in neglecting his playwriting. 

If Saki is underwritten it is partly intentional in that we see her only through Nagata’s eyes and he barely looks, seeing in her only a source of a salvation he is too afraid to accept. He snaps at her and calls her stupid, causes her anxiety, embarrasses her in front of her friends and is, as Aoyama puts it, “a jerk”. His behaviour is in any case abusive, but he’s so blinkered that he never notices that she’s the same as him, anxious on an existential level and in search of mutual protection. By the time he’s done with her, she’s no longer so bright and cheerful, well on the way to alcoholism born of depression and sense of failure on reflecting that she’s a woman approaching 30 who has probably failed to make it as an actress in Tokyo, is exhausted by her city life, and has been slowly destroyed by Nagata’s mix of feigned indifference and possessiveness. Aoyama and his best friend from school Nohara (Kanichiro Sato) make a final desperate intervention to save Saki, pointing out that in his toxic narcissism he destroys her to save himself, unable to bear the idea of her awakening to that which he deeply believes but does not want to acknowledge, that really he’s just no good. 

“As long as we have theatre there’s no need to despair” Nagata finally exclaims, rediscovering a love for the form in its capacity to remake the world, to show him both what is and could be as he rewrites his tragic, delayed coming-of-age romance as an emotionally authentic stage play now convinced, like the old Saki, that he really does want everyone to be happy after all. Theatre: A Love Story is the age old tale of the curtain coming down on an arc of one’s life, accepting that something has ended and that it’s OK, it’s just the way life is. Saki, somewhat problematically declares she wouldn’t have it any other way because she loved Nagata for everything he was and if he’d changed he wouldn’t be the same. In a sense we’re left with Nagata’s artistic validation and a tacit condonation of his emotionally abusive behaviour, but then Yukisada undercuts the final message with a melancholy credits sequence in which he perhaps hands back to Saki even in her passivity as she finally looks for an exit.   


Currently available to stream via Amazon Prime Video in the UK (and possibly other territories).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Woman’s Sorrows (女人哀愁, Mikio Naruse, 1937)

Arriving perhaps in a moment preceding a major change, Mikio Naruse’s A Woman’s Sorrows (女人哀愁, Nyonin Aishu) finds itself on one side of a divide in which it is, paradoxically, a woman’s conservatism that is thought a barrier to her marriage. As usual slightly ahead of his times, Naruse doesn’t so much attack the idea of marriage either arranged or love, but subtly arcs out the patriarchal cage the bars of which only become visible to his conflicted heroine after she has wilfully allowed herself to be locked inside. 

Opening on location, a thriving Tokyo street scene, Naruse introduces us to the “conservative and indecisive” heroine Hiroko (Takako Irie) at her part-time job at a record store. We learn that Hiroko has recently been to an omiai marriage meeting, and that at least according to her friend she has been harbouring a longterm crush on her sensitive, progressive cousin Ryosuke. Hiroko denies having feelings for her cousin claiming that she thinks of him as a brother and that he dislikes her for being too “conservative”. One might think that a truly conservative woman wouldn’t be working in something as modern as selling records, but Hiroko is indeed a kimono-wearing holdout who has almost fully internalised the properness of the patriarchal order. Her indecisiveness, however, perhaps tells us that she isn’t quite as comfortable with it as she seems and is in a sense forcing herself to accept something she thinks she has no power to resist. 

It is also true that Hiroko’s family is poor. Despite confiding to Ryosuke that her husband gave her trouble, failing in one sense at least by dying and leaving his family with debts, Hiroko’s mother is keen that she marry and marry well. Her prospective match Shinichi is from a well to do family and has also offered to pay for the education of Hiroko’s younger brother Masao, so the marriage is undoubtedly financially advantageous if not immediately essential. “Since I cannot marry someone I love, anyone will do” Hiroko silently sighs, resigning herself to a conservative vision of a woman’s life. For his part, Ryosuke rejects Hiroko because he believes her conservatism runs so deep as to lead her to reject love as improper, that love would in fact be a barrier to her marriage which she would feel duty-bound to refuse. 

Hiroko feels that the match is in a sense too good for her, much better than she had a right to expect. Nevertheless, it’s her seeming conservatism that presents a potential problem in that it is assumed that despite working in a record shop she wouldn’t know how to dance in the modern fashion. Far from censorious, Hiroko’s mother is worried that the young girls these days all go to “dance halls” while Hiroko is quiet and demure. As it happens, Hiroko knows how to dance, though perhaps they should have been thinking about the problem from the other side in that men who like going to dance halls don’t necessarily like to go with their wives, and those looking for “conservative” women often do so because they want to lead “modern” lives outside the home. Having agreed to the marriage, Hiroko finds herself an outsider, treated as unwaged maid by her new in-laws who all exclaim how glad they are to have someone so reliable as their new daughter-in-law especially as they’ve recently disowned oldest daughter Yoko (Ranko Sawa) for running off with her lower class fiancé. 

As so often in Naruse’s cinema, modern girl Yoko acts as a mirror for the outwardly conservative Hiroko. Yoko determines to marry for love, but is actually far more conservative than she seems in that she is entirely unwilling to surrender her comfortable middle class life and continues to resent the man she married, Masuda, because he cannot keep her in the manner to which she had become accustomed. Shinichi had warned Yoko about “frivolous” men, an ironic comment seeing as we’d just heard him dismiss a woman he’d been seeing as “just a girlfriend” laying bare his rather misogynistic view of women as a means of passing time, but Masuda is the very opposite of frivolous, serious in his intentions even while Yoko rejects him solely because of his lack of socioeconomic status. Yet like Hiroko Yoko is perhaps herself also conflicted, forcing herself to reject Masuda whom she loves out of a mistaken pride that tells her it would be wrong to suffer for love when she could have done as Hiroko did and married well for a comfortable but emotionally unfulfilling life. 

Unhappy in her marriage, Hiroko claims that she could have put up with being treated as a maid but can’t stand being treated as a doll, believing herself mere decoration in Shinichi’s life. Nevertheless she continues to believe it’s her duty to “manage” as good wife, bearing her sorrow and loneliness gracefully until pushed into a moment of crisis by Yoko’s rather melodramatic love life. Overhearing the family declining to invite her to join their game of mahjong on the grounds she’s too conservative and is perfectly happy with her life of drudgery, Hiroko is stirred by Yoko’s assertion that she’d never be so “submissive” despite the fact that’s exactly what she’s been in leaving Masuda to return to her upper middle class life with the Hories who are not perhaps as grand as they seem with only the one maid and Mrs. Horie’s constant penny pinching. 

Yet the subversive conclusion isn’t so much that Hiroko begins to realise she has choices and agency after all along with the right to leave a marriage that isn’t working, but that she, temporarily at least, rejects marriage itself in favour of independence while Yoko chooses love in defying her family to return to Masuda who, by then, has done something quite foolish in a mistaken attempt to prove himself worthy of her. Rather than leaving Shinichi for Ryosuke, she tells him that she needs time to figure herself out, to “reconstruct my life by myself”, vowing to find out what is the most beautiful thing in the world so that she can see something more important in herself. It’s a startlingly progressive statement for the Japan of 1937 which is edging closer towards a kind of darkness despite the otherwise cheerfully internationalist atmosphere with its Western jazz music and record shops, dance halls, department stores, trains, and telephones, the contradictions of the age symbolised in the Horie’s awkward home with its mix of Western and Japanese furnishings. It turns out, Hiroko is the most “modern” woman of all, who ever would have thought?  


The Long Darkness (忍ぶ川, Kei Kumai, 1972)

Golden age Japanese cinema is generally resistant to the idea of romance as salvation. There may be a romantic happy ending, lovers uniting despite the mounting odds, but their happiness is often overshadowed by the anxieties of the world in which they live. Adapted from the novel by Tetsuo Miura, Kei Kumai’s post-war romance The Long Darkness (忍ぶ川, Shinobugawa) meanwhile insists that it’s love that will save you in the end as its dejected, insecure heroes find the courage to go on living precisely because of the strength and validation they discover in loving and being loved.

The hero, Tetsuro (Go Kato), feels himself to be cursed, overcome with a sense of shame and anxiety because of the dark shadow that hangs over his once prosperous family. His oldest sister committed suicide for love on his sixth birthday, while another sister then took her own life some time later out of guilt for having contributed to her death. His oldest brother whom he describes as sensitive and eccentric disappeared in grief, while the next oldest took a job at a Tokyo lumber yard and supported him as a student but later disgraced the family by running off with money he’d fraudulently accumulated in the name of opening his own company. Tetsuro is convinced that there is something genetically wrong with the family line and is intensely anxious that it will one day consume him too. 

That might be why he’s unexpectedly bashful for a man of 27 in courting the pretty waitress of a local bar, Shino (Komaki Kurihara), whom he first met while celebrating the graduation of some other students after making a belated return to university. Shino too is carrying her own burdens which lead her to feel unworthy of happiness in that she was raised in the red light district and her family, evacuated to rural Tochigi during the war, is now impoverished and living in a shrine. The proprietress at her restaurant has pressured her into an engagement with a prosperous car salesman whom she doesn’t like but feels unable to refuse on the grounds that he will take care of her sick father. The car salesman tries to rape her so she’ll have to marry him which, as her father points out, does not speak well for his character or the prospect of a happy marriage. Her father is clear, he wants his daughter to be happy and in this age a woman’s happiness does largely depend on the man she marries. He tells her to find a man she loves more than life itself and marry him without a moment’s thought. 

The forces which divide them aren’t so much to do with class, politics, money, or custom but with internalised shame and the deeply held belief that they are “bad” people who do not deserve to be happy. “Can I go on living?” Tetsuro’s only remaining sister tearfully asks him, burdened both by her traumatic family history and by a visual impairment that further convinces her she cannot expect to be a part of regular society and has no prospect of a happy future. He almost turns away after noticing her crying but realises that’s what his absent siblings might have done and resolves to behave differently, reforging his his familial bonds with love and compassion in place of the gloominess and futility that had long overshadowed his family home. Just as Shino’s father had anointed Tetsuro a “good person” he could entrust his daughter to, Tetsuro’s sister and mother affirm that Shino too is “good” and her presence brings light and laughter back into their lives after years of lonely suffering. 

“We’ve spent our whole lives worrying about appearances” Tetsuro declares, “it’s time we stop”. Affirming that her new in-laws are also “all good people”, Shino too admits that she realises the “uselessness” of her old life “never saying what I want or don’t want, going along with everything”, liberated by the transcendent power of love that allows her to overcome her fear and insecurity to claim her own agency, the jingling bells of a farmer’s horse cart echoing from below as if in celebration. Shooting in a classic 4:3 monochrome with occasional intertitles and voiceover, Kumai emphasises the literary quality of the tale spanning the rundown lumberyards of post-war Tokyo to the frozen north of Tetsuro’s frosty home but finally argues for the freedom and possibility to be found in the contemporary era by making an active choice for happiness rather than submitting oneself to a fated misery out of misguided obedience to austere and oppressive social codes. “Everyone’s jealous of you” an old woman cackles catching sight of the newly-wed couple on the train to their new life, and you can well understand why. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)