Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (乙女ごころ三人姉妹, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Three sisters with maiden heart title card“From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us” Mikio Naruse is often quoted as saying, and it’s certainly an idea which informs much of his filmmaking. 1935’s Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (乙女ごころ三人姉妹, Otome-gokoro  Sannin-shimai), adapted from a short story by Yasunari Kawabata, is indeed a tale of the world’s cruelty as its saintly heroine attempts to escape her austere mother’s icy grip through kindness alone but finds her efforts frustrated by the world in which she lives.

Osome (Masako Tsutsumi) is the middle of three sisters raised by a cold woman (Chitose Hayashi) who forced her daughters to earn their keep by playing the shamisen on the streets of Asakusa. Oldest daughter Oren (Chikako Hosokawa) left the family some time ago after falling in love with a salaryman and hasn’t been heard from since, and while Osome is still expected to ply her trade, youngest daughter Chieko (Ryuko Umezono) has been spared, becoming a “modern girl” currently working as a dancer in a revue. Unbeknownst to her family, Chieko has also got a boyfriend – the handsome and seemingly quite wealthy Aoyama (Heihachiro Okawa) who runs into Osome by chance in the street and offers her a handkerchief to help fix her broken geta. This is not the story of a love triangle, however, so much as cruel fate accidentally bringing the sisters back together through a shared destiny.

While Chieko idly muses that it might have been better if her mother had opted for group suicide (joking with her lover about dying together as was apparently a fad at the time), Osome tearfully asks her to “please accept us as we are” but her pleas largely fall on deaf ears. Having taken in a series of apprentices, Osome’s mother continues to treat them cruelly, berating them for not picking up the shamisen, and insisting on “discipline” when she discovers one of the girls has had the temerity to buy a magazine with some of the money she herself has earned. Osome, in a characteristic act of kindness, insists she bought the magazine as a morale booster only to receive her mother’s scorn. “I put so much effort into raising you, but you still haven’t become people who’ll give an honest day’s work” she complains, commodifying them once again. “You don’t know how much easier it would be to go out and earn money myself”, she adds unconvincingly, telling her daughter she can always leave if she doesn’t like it despite having irritatedly complained about Chieko’s increasingly late return home and the possibility she may leave just like Oren did.

As Osome tells us, she and her sister were forced to play the shamisen in unsavoury Asakusa from only eight years old. As they got older, Osome was worried about the attention Oren seemed to be getting from “rough” men in the streets. Eventually Oren stopped carrying her shamisen at all and fell in with a bad crowd, only escaping when she met her husband Kosugi (Osamu Takizawa). Kosugi, however, is ill with TB and finding it difficult to hold down a job. Increasingly jealous and paranoid, he is afraid Oren will hook up with her old gangster friends and fall back into bad habits. Meanwhile, Osome is still playing her shamisen and putting up with rough treatment from the drunken clientele who sometimes try to manhandle her or make unreasonable requests. An irritated bar owner eventually knocks on a record to drown her out as if signalling her impending obsolesce.

Nevertheless, the older two sisters have largely remained traditional. Oren’s fall into the gangster underworld is signalled by a sighting of her in Western clothes, looking like a well to do young lady as Osome puts it, but once with Kosugi she soon reverts to kimono and fully embraces the role of a conventional housewife supporting her husband with all her strength. Chieko, however, is a “modern girl”, dancing in a nightclub revue and dressing exclusively in Western fashions. Some horrible boys who make a point of singing the rather vulgar song back at the girls through the window yell “modern girl” at her in the street, indicating just how shocking and unconventional her appearance was back in 1935 even in the backstreets of Asakusa. Nevertheless, Chieko appears to have found a satisfying romance with a “modern boy” in Aoyama who dresses in suits and seems to have a bit of money but is undeterred by a possible class difference and just as nice as his potential sister-in-law.

Despite Osome’s attempts to reunite the sisters, fate conspires against her. Oren hooks back up with her lowlife friends who use her in a plot to extort Aoyama while she remains completely unaware that she’s targeting her sister’s young man. Osome tries to tries to stop them but is stabbed by thugs in the process and, figuring out what’s happened, keeps Aoyama and Chieko away from the station where she has arranged to bid Oren goodbye on the last train out of Ueno. Poignantly, Oren seems happy that her sister has found someone nice, saying that she’d have liked to meet him still unaware she already has. The sisters know they likely won’t meet again, and Osome is content only in knowing that in theory at least she has saved the memory of the bond they once shared through preventing Oren’s involvement in the incident with Aoyama from coming to light.

Osome’s kindness is her undoing. Her world betrays her, she is simply too good, too pure-hearted to be able to survive in it. The three sisters struggle to overcome neglectful parenting, but their mother has at least survived if unhappily, suggesting the world is kinder to those whose hearts are colder. Oren and Chieko go their separate ways, into the past (on a train) and the future (by car), but Osome remains stubbornly in the waiting room with only the inevitable awaiting her.


Tenzo (典座 -TENZO-, Katsuya Tomita, 2019)

Tenzo posterIf you think the world has declined, how should you continue to live in it? The monks at the centre of Katsuya Tomita’s documentary hybrid Tenzo (典座 -TENZO-) have committed themselves to living intensely in the moment, following the teachings of zen master Dogen and embracing the uniqueness of each and every day even in its banality. But the search for truth necessarily takes one away from demands of daily living, from the entrenched suffering that pushes record numbers of people towards suicide and leaves others feeling as if they have no hope for the future.

Monk Chiken once felt hopeless himself. In Japan, temples are a family business and it is expected that the oldest son will succeed whether he feels any call to religion or not. Chiken, as a young man, did not and resented his lack of choice in his future, but eventually came around to the idea of being a monk in part in recognition of a need for increased spiritual support in a nation he, and others, felt to have lost its way. 10 years previously, he spent some time in a monastery before returning home, getting married, and becoming a father.

At a loss for what to do, Chiken decided to bring temple food to the people by holding cookery classes as a kind of local outreach project. Believing that food is medicine which nourishes the soul as well as the body, he hoped to help repair the connection between people and nature. He also believes, perhaps privately, that the gradual decline of the environment has contributed to his son’s serious allergies and that though a wholesome diet may help, it may not be enough to prevent him coming to harm.

Other ways he tries to help include taking calls from people in distress and listening to their troubles. Chiken is part of a collective of local monks helming a helpline in the Fukushima area for those who want someone to talk them out of taking their own lives. That’s not to say, however, that being a monk necessary makes one free of troubles. Chiken occasionally resents himself for not being there for his family, snapping at his wife and unable to visit his son in the hospital because of ceremonial duties. Faced with a call from another monk on the helpline, he simply doesn’t answer. The other monk, Kondo, retreats to a nearby window and vapes while staring at the moon, proving that monks are regular people too who drink and smoke and live their lives while continuing to search for the truth.

For some, however, the rug has been unexpectedly pulled from under them, making any sense of truth they may have discovered seem hollow. Ryugyo, like Chiken, was the son of a Buddhist priest but he lost his family temple to the earthquake and nuclear disaster. Still living in cramped temporary housing, he makes ends meet as a construction worker, occasionally visiting some of his old neighbours in the place of a monk while lobbying to get the funds together to build a new temple. Originally not sure he should be part of the helpline seeing as he’s no longer, technically speaking, a monk he finds himself pouring out his troubles to a stranger.

Chiken, meanwhile, finds himself branching out in his search for truth – heading to Shanghai and Dogen’s temple looking for guidance towards a way forward. He meets with an esteemed nun who tells him that his youthful sense of rebellion was only natural and probably a good thing because becoming a monk should be a choice not an obligation. She laments that Buddhism in Japan has become “corrupt”, that the demise of the old apprentice system in favour of patrilineal inheritance has led to a decline in rigour. Chiken feels as if it’s the world which has declined, that the post-war drive towards economic stability and its eventual implosion have resulted in an empty consumerism which is contributing to an ongoing sense of hopeless malaise. Trapped in a limbo of his own Ryugyo may feel something similar, wondering how to rebuild while conducting lonely services over ruined graveyards. What they do is return to Dogen, living in the everyday and continuing to look for truth to counter the meaninglessness of the consumerist society.


Screened at the ICA as part of their Katsuya Tomita retrospective.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Until We Meet Again (また逢う日まで, Tadashi Imai, 1950)

Til we meet again poster 1Despite later becoming a member of the Communist Party, Tadashi Imai had spent the war years making propaganda pictures for the militarist regime. He later described his role in the propagation of Japanese imperialism as “the worst mistake of my life”, and thereafter committed himself to socially conscious filmmaking. Imai was later identified most closely with a style that was the anthesis of many his contemporaries branded “realism without tears”. Nevertheless, in 1950 he found himself making a full on romantic melodrama with anti-war themes. Until We Meet Again (また逢う日まで, Mata Au Hi Made) was, unofficially, an adaptation of Romain Rolland’s 1920 novel Pierre et Luce in which war conspires against the pure hearted love between two innocent young people.

Relocated to the Tokyo of 1943, Until We Meet Again begins at its conclusion with anxious student Saburo (Eiji Okada) pacing the floor, prevented from meeting his one true love, Keiko (Yoshiko Kuga), because his sister-in-law has fallen dangerously ill. Having just received notice that his draft date has been moved up and he’s expected to report for duty that very night, he fears he may never see her again whereupon he flashes back to their early courtship, all adolescent innocence and filled with the pure joy of falling in love for the first time.

Yet, as much as the war is the destructive force which will always stand between them, it’s also the one which brings them together. Saburo makes nervous eye contact with a pretty girl sheltering in a subway during an air raid. They are both afraid, and he chivalrously comforts and shields her with his body. Most particularly in the Japan of 1943, such bodily contact with a stranger of the opposite sex would be considered extremely inappropriate. There would be no other opportunity to enter this mild kind of physical intimacy save for the external pressures of life in war. Saburo doesn’t yet know the name of the woman in the subway, but can seemingly think of little else, seeing her everywhere he goes and looking for her in every face he sees. When they finally “meet”, they both agree that they are already acquainted and the intimacy between them quickly deepens through unexpected and perhaps transgressive physicality – a hand taken and placed inside a jacket to fight the cold, an embrace taken to guard against one explosion but leading to another. This innocent diffidence eventually leads to the film’s most famous scene in which Saburo, lamenting he must leave Keiko’s home, returns briefly to look at her in the icy window through which they share a chaste kiss.

Saburo, a wealthy young man too sensitive for the times in which lives, is ill-equipped to understand the difficulties of Keiko’s life. A closeup on her ragged shoes and her hard-nosed practicality make plain her penury and her determination to escape it. If he allowed himself to dream seriously of a life with her after the war, he might have to consider the words of his hardline brother, once sensitive like him but now fully committed to the militarist cause, who reminds him that an idle romance may be irresponsible considering that it will only cause them both, and more particularly her, pain when he must leave perhaps never to return. Saburo knows his brother might be right, wrestling with his love for Keiko while she professes that she would rather be with him no matter what pain might come.

Saburo’s friends tell him that “love is taboo”, and his brother something similar when he berates him for wasting his time hanging around with girls rather than preparing for the military. The enemy is less “the war” than it is the persistent austerity of militarism which crushes individuality and emotion to make love itself an act of treason. Yet it’s the very presence of the looming threat of war that makes their race towards romance possible. Saburo will be shipping out. Everything is fraught and desperate. There may not be another time and so the only time is now. It’s no coincidence that each incremental step in the couple’s relationship is preceded by an explosion, or that alarms are constantly ringing, while clocks tick ominously counting down their time.

Having been seriously injured in a freak accident despite wielding his privilege to serve in Japan and not on the front line, Saburo’s brother reconsiders and tells him that he is leaving his share of life’s happiness to him and so he has a duty to be doubly happy. Keiko too just wants her little “slice of happiness”, but it’s something this world has seen fit to deny them. The couple daydream about furnishing a house filled with children, but it’s a fantasy that will never materialise because theirs are the unrealised hopes of the youth of Japan cruelly denied their rightful futures because of a foolish war waged by their fathers and their grandfathers. The poignant final scenes suggest the older generation too will collapse under the weight of the tragedy they provoked, but sympathy remains with men like Saburo who went to war unwillingly because they had no other choice, unable to protect the things they loved from the chaos they left behind.


Promare (プロメア, Hiroyuki Imaishi, 2019)

Promare poster 1It’s one of life’s ironies, sometimes the best way to stop a fire is to scorch the earth. The heroes of Studio Trigger’s first theatrical feature co-produced with XFLAG, Promare (プロメア, Puromea), are embodiments of fire and ice – a “mutant” who can shoot flames from his fingertips, and a fireman with a “burning soul”. Yet what they discover is that there is a peculiar power in their innate contradictions, actively harnessing the energy of their opposition to combat a man who thinks nothing of burning the world to save his own skin.

Our hero, Galo (Kenichi Matsuyama), is a firefighter with the Burning Rescue squad who has a talent for cheesy one liners and an overinflated sense of confidence in his own abilities. 30 years previously, the world was plagued by a series of strange incidents of spontaneous combustion later attributed to the “Burnish” phenomenon in which some members of humanity developed a mutation that allowed them to manipulate fire. The danger eventually died down, but the “Burnish” as they came to be known continued to exist in society as a kind of oppressed underclass, viewed with fear and suspicion and largely unable to live “normal” lives even if they wanted to. On a supposedly “routine” job, Galo unexpectedly encounters the leader of the Mad Burnish “terrorist” organisation and determines to bring him in, eventually awarded a medal for his pains.

As might be assumed, however, all is not as it seems. The Burning Rescue squad work for Galo’s mentor, Kray Foresight (Masato Sakai), now the governor and an enormously wealthy, influential man thanks to his advances in scientific firefighting technology. Kray reveals that the Earth is sitting on a volatile layer of magma somehow connected to the existence of the Burnish which threatens to destroy the planet if it cannot be properly controlled. This is a kind of justification for Kray’s ultra hardline stance against the Burnish who are hunted down and captured by the Freeze Force (see what they did there?) simply for living their lives even if they have committed no crimes.

Despite the nature of their work, the Burning Rescue squad are a more progressive bunch. They don’t approve of the social prejudice against the Burnish many of whom are just minding their own business and pose no threat to anyone, nor do they approve of the role the Freeze Force seems to play in their society. Mostly what they care about is stopping fires and making sure people endangered by them are eventually saved. They know that the Freeze Force’s persecution of the Burnish is at best counterproductive and fuelling the kind of resentment that makes them want to burn things. Wandering into the Mad Burnish hideout, Galo sees a different side to their struggle and learns a few home truths about his own side from the dashing rebel leader Lio Fotia (Taichi Saotome).

Burning Rescue and the Mad Burnish ought to be opposing poles but display a curious symmetry in their fierce loyalty to their own and emphasis on team work. Others, meanwhile, think only of themselves, coming up with nefarious plans to let the planet burn and move to a new intergalactic home with a starter stock of the most “valuable” 10,000 humans while everyone else succumbs to the flames. The Burnish become merely fuel, sacrificed for a “greater good” for a “chosen few”.

Galo and Lio think they’re “chosen ones” too, in a sense, but are flatly told that their role in events is really just fortuitous coincidence. Nevertheless, the fate of the world depends on their ability to bridge their differences, harnessing the unique capabilities of fire meeting ice against the forces of cold self-interest. Sometimes the only way to stop a fire is to let it burn out bright, which is what the guys discover in trying to find a way to quell that troublesome magma. Recreating the anarchic spirit of Kill la Kill, Studio Trigger’s first theatrical feature is a colourful riot of post-modern absurdity, but has its heart firmly in the right place with a strong progressive pro-diversity message in which we save the world only by saving each other.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Avalanche (雪崩, Mikio Naruse, 1937)

Naruse Avalanche title cardDespite his broadly progressive outlook, it would perhaps be unfair to describe Mikio Naruse as a political filmmaker. Yet filmmaking in the late 1930s was an inherently political act if only by omission. 1937’s Avalanche (雪崩, Nadare), adapted in collaboration with left-wing intellectual Tomoyoshi Murayama from a serialised novel by the quietly anti-authoritarian Jiro Osaragi, seems to be almost in dialogue with its times as its hyper-individualist “hero” engages in a series of discussions with his humanist father about the new philosophies which for him at least spell the future.

Naruse opens, however, with the heroine – sweet and innocent bride Fukiko (Noboru Kiritachi ), dressed in kimono and sporting a traditional married woman’s haircut as she gazes lovingly on her wedding photo sighing softly that a year has gone by already. Flashing back, we realise that Fukiko eloped with wealthy scion of the Kusaka family, Goro (Hideo Saeki), who apparently forced the disapproving parents to accept the union by persuading Fukiko to accompany him to a hotel in Nagoya from which they were collected by Goro’s kindly father (Yo Shiomi). Though Fukiko remains deeply in love with Goro, it is obvious to everyone else that the marriage is not happy. Having reconnected with childhood sweetheart Yayoi (Ranko Edogawa), Goro wants a divorce, justifying his actions with the rationale that it will be better for Fukiko to end things now rather allow her to suffer years of a loveless marriage that is destined to end in separation.

Goro’s father, a little fed up with his wayward, increasingly psychopathic son, feels differently. He thinks that Goro has made his bed and must now accept his responsibility, committing to caring for Fukiko as a husband should regardless of whether or not he has romantic love for her. Goro, however, insists that this is a matter which only concerns himself and rejects any responsibility towards Fukiko, insisting that would be cowardly and dishonest to go on living with a woman he doesn’t love under the pretence that he does. Exasperatedly pointing out that one lives as a member of a society and cannot always be free to do as one pleases, Goro’s father tries to awaken him to social responsibility by reminding him that he only thinks he has the luxury of choice because he is the heir to the wealthy Kusaka family and would likely feel differently if he were just a regular salaryman. Goro doesn’t quite deny it, but (ironically) also condemns the hypocrisy of social propriety, avowing that he will not live a life of lies like those respectable married couples with lovers on the side.

Goro’s father asks if he’s not being overly literal, seeing as life is rarely as black and white as he’s painting it for the purposes of his argument but Goro counters that his father is “bound by old morality” of which he believes himself to be free. Later, trying to win back the heart of Yayoi, he reveals himself to be a hyper-individualist who believes that the only true path to happiness lies in indifference to the suffering of others. It seems that Goro’s decision to elope with Fukiko was part rebound, his ego bruised by a minor rejection by Yayoi who is also in love with him and had always believed that they would marry only to find herself disillusioned with the institution of marriage. Her sickly brother Keisuke (Akira Ubukata) worries that she turned down Goro because of him, knowing that should he die she would need to find someone to marry into their family and continue its name – something impossible for the oldest son of a noble family like the Kusakas.

That was not, however the reason. Yayoi resents her lack of options, that when a woman’s marriage is arranged people say “it’s settled” as if an unmarried woman is a problem in need of a solution. She resents that she is obliged to entrust her future to a stranger, wondering how it is she is supposed to trust one man for the rest of her life. It is this feeling that created distance between herself and Goro despite her obvious love for him. He accuses her of being “condescending” and hiding her true feelings, blaming her for the predicament they now find themselves in despite the fact that it appears to be entirely his own fault. Yayoi thinks it’s now too late for them, immediately sympathising with Fukiko who has been unfairly dragged into an awkward situation, but Goro scalds her again by insisting that she thinks too much about others when they need to be “strong” and think only of themselves.

Yayoi is half won over by Goro’s frighteningly fascist world view, but finds herself conflicted. She recognises her privilege and originally feels nothing but guilt because of it, that lack of purpose has left her with nothing but emptiness. Goro has her wondering if she’s got things backwards, that she ought to embrace the fact that she is allowed the luxury of life without worry. Putting it to Keisuke he partially agrees, affirming that happiness is only possible when one wilfully ignores the suffering of others. Yet Yayoi is dragged back towards humanism, remembering the “people left behind in the darkness” but fearful that Goro’s philosophy may win her over in the end.

Goro seems to be a perfect encapsulation of the growing evils of the age in his hyper-individualist desire to disregard the thoughts and feelings of others. The opening text, taken from Jiro Osaragi’s novel, paints Goro as the “hero” as it over-explains the film’s title by insisting that the “avalanche” we are talking about is “some sudden unknown force” present in this “precarious world” which can knock even the strong willed off their feet. The “hero” of Naruse’s film, by contrast, is clearly Goro’s kind hearted father who finds an unexpected fan in Fukiko’s dad (Sadao Maruyama) who claims to hate rich people and had no intention of marrying his daughter to one but thinks Goro’s father is one of the good ones and proves that there were some good things in the old feudal system.

Strangely reactionary as it may be, he has a point. Goro’s father is the soul of benevolent paternalism. He worries for his “desperate” son, and laments that the misfortune of the younger generation is “knowing things without understanding them”. He baits Goro, making him a mild ultimatum that if he wants to go on with his “immoral” philosophy then he’ll have to do it on someone else’s dime. Cowardly, Goro relents and chooses his wealth over his freedom but his psychopathy only deepens. To get back at his dad, he decides on a double suicide with Fukiko, before realising that there is no need for him to actually die so long as it looks like he meant to and he makes sure Fukiko goes first. This is the avalanche the film has been building to, but it’s not the one the titles teased in that it drags Goro back from an abyss towards something more human. He gives up on his plan when Fukiko, innocent as she is, is overcome with emotion on realising that she has been “wrong” about his feelings for Yayoi seeing as he has chosen to die with her. Is it love, or perhaps innocence, or just pure communication that is that “sudden unexplained force” which knocks Goro off his feet and drowns him in human feeling?

It’s a strangely “upbeat” ending for a Naruse film considering Avalanche’s overriding darkness, providing an awkward resolution as Yayoi, in an abrupt closing scene, claims something like independence in stating that she intends to remain with her brother rather than waiting for Goro or looking for a marriage. As such it reads as a rebuke of the fascistic ideology which played into, if not quite aligning with, militarist austerity as its various heroes find themselves once more returned to more responsible philosophies and authentic human connections. Cutting against the grain of the times, Avalanche is nevertheless a strange piece which seems entirely at odds with the opening statement, allowing the hero to find salvation rather than destruction in the sudden onrush of emotion.


Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

A Girl Missing (よこがお, Koji Fukada, 2019)

A Girl Missing poster 1In Harmonium, Koji Fukada explored the death of the family unit as a harried father found the foundations of his home eroded by a mysterious “stranger” with whom he shared an unspoken connection. A Girl Missing (よこがお Yokogao) pushes a little deeper in demonstrating how profoundly the foundations of a life can be shaken by frustrated connections, misunderstandings, and unspeakable desire. Probing deeper still, it wants to ask us on what foundations we’ve chosen to build our selfhoods, why it is that we don’t know ourselves without those tiny markers that tell us where we stand, and if it is really possible to rediscover a sense of self if we somehow go missing from our own lives.

Beginning in the mysterious second timeline, Fukada opens with the heroine changing her identity through the time-honoured fashion of a haircut. Calling herself Risa, she brushes off the hairdresser’s suggestion that they’ve met before, but she hasn’t chosen this salon because of its reputation or proximity to her home. Flashing back some months, we see the same woman looking a little softer and apparently working as a homecare nurse known as Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui) to an elderly woman dying of stomach cancer. Ichiko’s colleagues worry that she’s becoming too emotionally involved with the Oishi household, helping the two daughters – uni student Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and high schooler Saki (Miyu Ogawa), study in cafes in her off hours, but she enjoys playing mother and does after all like to help. Meanwhile, she’s also happily engaged to a doctor (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) with a young son and looking forward to starting a brand-new family life of her own.

All that is derailed, however, when Saki goes missing in a suspected abduction on her way home from cram school. Thankfully, she’s found alive, unhurt, and apparently relatively well adjusted a few days later and anyone would assume the drama to be over, only it turns out that the suspect is Ichiko’s own nephew whom she briefly introduced to Saki at a cafe on the night in question. Feeling tremendously guilty and confused though she herself had nothing to do with the incident, Ichiko feels she must confess and make a formal apology to the Oishis but Motoko stops her fearing that the family will fire Ichiko and she’ll never see her again. Ichiko decides to trust Motoko and keep quiet, but it will prove to be a bad decision not least because it is in such sharp contrast to her otherwise straightforward and honest character.

The film’s Japanese title, “Yokogao” or “profile” reminds us that it is not possible to see the entirety of any one thing, only a single facet and more often that not the facet that it particularly wants you to see. Ichiko is guileless, innocent, and naive in her innate kindness. She doesn’t see how her relationship with the Oishi girls could eventually become problematic because, as a nurse, she’s used to doing what needs to be done when it needs doing. What we see of her is a woman about to marry “late” by the standards of her society into a readymade family, an intensely maternal figure looking for people who need mothering. Meanwhile, Saki’s disappearance exposes cracks in the Oishi household, Motoko’s grumpy response of “would you rather it was me?’ to her mother’s wails of “why her?” beginning to explain some of her seeming disaffection with her family.

Yet as much as there may be a maternal component in her desperation to keep Ichiko in her life, we can infer from all her plaintive looks that there is another kind of desire in play, one which she seems to regard as unspeakable. Ichiko, oblivious, does not quite realise the depth to which her accidental rejections wound the troubled young woman but equally could not anticipate the casual cruelty of her petty revenge. Upset that Ichiko is not catching her drift, Motoko leaks her connection to the case to the papers, and then tells them a secret shared in confidence to pour salt on the wound. Instantly regretful and caught in the white heat of passion, Motoko fails to realise the extent to which her desire to return the hurt done to her will only wound her more in ensuring Ichiko disappears from her life for good.

Ichiko then does something much the same, reinventing herself as “Risa” she lives in an empty apartment overlooking Motoko’s with the sole aim of taking revenge against the woman who pretended to be her friend and then betrayed her. But Ichiko does not understand why Motoko did what she did, and so her own revenge is also a misplaced act of self harm which causes her to absent herself from herself, assuming another identity better disposed to cruelty but finding it an awkward fit.

Fukada places emotional repression at the heart of all. Ichiko, despite her kindness, keeps others at a distance without entering into true intimacy with anyone, while Motoko apparently struggles to articulate perhaps even to herself the truth of her own feelings, childishly hitting back when slighted and unable to bear the possibility that she is in love with someone who cannot return her feelings. Forever at odds, they see each other only in profile. The desire for revenge destroys them both, but despite the pain and inescapability of regret, they have to find new ways of going on, making little nicks on their identities to help them remember who they really are. A melancholy tale of frustrated desires, A Girl Missing flirts with constructed identities polluted by social toxicity but leaves its heroines on (slightly) firmer ground in having at least taken what control they can over the forces which destabilise them.


A Girl Missing was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)