Tokyo Bordello (吉原炎上, Hideo Gosha, 1987)

yoshiwara-enjoHideo Gosha maybe best known for the “manly way” movies of his early career in which angry young men fought for honour and justice, but mostly just to to survive. Late into his career, Gosha decided to change tack for a while with a series of female orientated films either remaining within the familiar gangster genre as in Yakuza Wives, or shifting into world of the red light district as in Tokyo Bordello (吉原炎上, Yoshiwara Enjo). Presumably an attempt to get past the unfamiliarity of the Yoshiwara name, the film’s English title is perhaps a little more obviously salacious than the original Japanese which translates as Yoshiwara Conflagration and directly relates to the real life fire of 1911 in which 300 people were killed and much of the area razed to the ground. Gosha himself grew up not far from the location of the Yoshiwara as it existed in the mid-20th century where it was still a largely lower class area filled with cardsharps, yakuza, and, yes, prostitution (legal in Japan until 1958, outlawed in during the US occupation). The Yoshiwara of the late Meiji era was not so different as the women imprisoned there suffered at the hands of men, exploited by a cruelly misogynistic social system and often driven mad by internalised rage at their continued lack of agency.

Opening with a voice over narration from Kyoko Kishida, the film introduces us to the heroine, 19 year old Hisano (Yuko Natori), as she is unwillingly sold to the red light district in payment for her father’s debts. After a strange orientation ceremony from the Yoshiwara police force where one “kindly” officer explains to her about the necessity of faking orgasms to save her stamina, Hisano is taken to the brothel which is now her home to begin her training. Some months later when Hisano is due to serve her first customer, she runs from him in sheer panic, leaping into a lake where a young Salvation Army campaigner, Furushima (Jinpachi Nezu), tries and fails to help her escape.

Taken back to the brothel and tied up in punishment, Hisano receives a lesson in pleasure from the current head geisha, Kiku (Rino Katase), after which she appears to settle into her work, getting promoted through various ranks until she too becomes one of the top geisha in the area. Sometime later, Furushima reappears as a wealthy young man. Regretting his inability to save her at the river and apparently having given up on his Salvation Army activities, Furushima becomes Hisano’s number one patron even though he refuses to sleep with her. Though they eventually fall in love, Hisano’s position as a geisha continues to present a barrier between the pair, forcing them apart for very different reasons.

Despite having spent a small fortune accurately recreating the main street of the Yoshiwara immediately prior to the 1911 fire, Gosha is not interested in romanticising the the pleasure quarters but depicts them as what they were – a hellish prison for enslaved women. As Hisano and Furushima later reflect, the Yoshiwara is indeed all built on lies – a place which claims to offer freedom, love, and pleasure but offers only the shadow of each of these things in an elaborate fake pageantry built on female suffering. Hisano, like many of the other women, was sold to pay a debt. Others found themselves sucked in by a continuous circle of abuse and exploitation, but none of them are free to leave until the debt, and any interest, is paid. Two of Hisako’s compatriots find other ways out of the Yoshiwara, one by her own hand, and another driven mad through illness is left alone to die like an animal coughing up blood surrounded by bright red futons in a storage cupboard.

As Kiku is quick to point out, the Yoshiwara is covered in cherry blossoms in spring but there is no place here for a tree which no longer flowers. The career of the courtesan is a short one and there are only two routes forward – become a madam or marry a wealthy client. Kiku’s plans don’t work out the way she originally envisioned, trapping her firmly within the Yoshiwara long after she had hoped to escape. Hisano is tempted by a marriage proposal from a man she truly loves but finds herself turning it down for complicated reasons. Worried that her lover does not see her as a woman, she is determined to take part in the upcoming geisha parade to force him to see her as everything she is, but her desires are never fully understood and she risks her future happiness in a futile gesture of defiance.

Defiance is the true theme of the film as each of the women fight with themselves and each other to reclaim their own freedom and individuality even whilst imprisoned and exploited by unassailable forces. Hisano, as Kiku constantly reminds her (in contrast to herself), never accepts that she is “just another whore” and therefore is able to first conquer and then escape the Yoshiwara even if it’s through a second choice compromise solution (albeit one which might bring her a degree of ordinary happiness in later life). Land of lies, the Yoshiwara promises the myth of unbridled pleasure to men who willingly make women suffer for just that purpose, further playing into Gosha’s ongoing themes of insecurity and self loathing lying at the heart of all physical or emotional violence. Though the ending voiceover is overly optimistic about the climactic fire ending centuries of female oppression as the Yoshiwara burns, Hisano, at least, may at last be free from its legacy of shame even whilst she watches the object of her desire destroyed by its very own flames.


Oiran parade scene (dialogue free)

Ran (乱, Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

ran posterAkira Kurosawa is arguably the most internationally well known Japanese director – after all, Seven Samurai is the one “foreign film” everyone who “doesn’t do subtitles” has seen. Though he’s often thought of as being quintessentially Japanese, his fellow countryman often regarded him as too Western in terms of his filming style. They may have a point when you consider that he made three different movies inspired by the works of Shakespeare (The Bad Sleep Well – Hamlet, Throne of Blood – Macbeth, and Ran – King Lear) though in each case it’s clear that “inspired” is very much the right word for these very liberal treatments.

In the case of Ran (乱) – a loose adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa moves the story to feudal Japan and an ageing king who this time has three sons rather than three daughters. This leaves Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) with a smaller problem than Lear’s though in his original idea of making his eldest son his heir with the other two inheriting smaller roles it’s clear things aren’t going to end well. Just as in the original play, the oldest two sons Taro and Jiro sing their father’s praises with cynical glee but the youngest and most sincere, Saburo, refuses to play this game as his respect for his father is genuine. Unfortunately, Saburo’s honesty sees him banished from his father’s kingdom and his share of responsibility given over to his treacherous brothers. Predictably, neither is satisfied with what they’ve been given and it’s not long before a familial conflict has sparked into a bloody civil war.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child….Hidetora is not quite as far gone as Lear in Shakespeare’s original text at the beginning of the film yet he is still unable to see that his oldest two sons have placed personal ambition ahead of filial piety. Hidetora was once a fearsome, if cruel, warrior, famous for burning enemy villages and creating peace only through destruction. He’s old now, and tired and so he proposes to hand over the running of the kingdom to his eldest son, yet – he wants to remain the de facto leader until the very end. Of course, that doesn’t sit well with Taro, or more to the point his ambitious wife Lady Kaede. Hidetora is thrown out of Taro’s castle and then also from Jiro’s before all out war erupts between the two leaving him totally isolated – a king without a kingdom.

Hidetora’s true madness begins when he realises not only how little regard his eldest two sons hold for him, but also that his failure to recognise the true nature of the situation has lead to the deaths of the people in his care that have remained loyal to him to the very end. As the enemy begin to engulf the castle, concubines begin helping each other to commit suicide in order to avoid ravishment while others try to escape but are cut down by arrow fire. This is all his own fault – his ruthless cruelty has been filtered down to his two oldest sons who, as he did, will stop at nothing in the pursuit of power. What is a king if not the father of a nation, and as a father he has failed. Neither Taro or Jiro are worthy of the offices afforded to them and lack both basic humanity and the princely power one needs to become the unifying force of a people.

Only too late does Hidetora see the wisdom in Saburo’s words and finally understand that he has alienated the only one of his children that truly loved him. From this point on his madness increases and Nakaidai’s performance becomes increasingly mannered and theatrical as if Hidetora himself is acting in another play which only he can see. Wandering and lonely, the once great king is reduced to the estate of a beggar led only by his fool and sheltered by the ruins of a castle which he himself burned down.

However, as great as Nakadai is (and he always is), he’s very nearly upstaged by the young Mieko Harada as one of the all time great screen villainesses with the Lady Macbeth a-like Lady Kaede. Filled with a vengeful fury, Kaede is unafraid to use every weapon at her disposal to achieve her goal. No sooner is she brought the news of her first plan’s failure in the death of her husband than she’s embarking on a plot to seduce his brother which includes getting him to execute his wife. Vile as Kaede’s actions often are, her desire for revenge is an understandable one when you consider that Hidetora was responsible for the deaths of her family leaving her to become a trophy bride for the son of the man that killed them. Viewed from another angle, it would be easy to sympathise with Kaede’s desire to rid the world of these cruel and tyrannical lords were it not for her insistence on the death of Lady Sue – a woman in exactly the same position as herself whose death would not actually advance her cause very much at all.

Kurosawa films all of this from a distance. We, the audience, almost become the gods he speaks of – the ones who weep for us, watching silent and helpless, unable to save us from ourselves. We see the world for what it is – chaos, horses and men and blood. The battles aren’t glorious, they are frenetic, frightening and ultimately pointless. Though for all that there is a beauty to it too and the sheer scale of the production with its colour coded princes and immense armies is one the like of which we will never see again.

Ran presents us with a prognosis which is even more pessimistic than that of Lear. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, as profoundly tragic as it is, there is at least the glimmer of hope. There is a new, rightful king and the idea that something has been restored. Here there is no such resolution, we are the blind man casting a stick around the edge of a precipice, entirely alone and unable to see the gaping chasm which extends before us into which we may plunge headlong driven only by the chaos in our own hearts. In the end, Kurosawa’s message is not so different from Shakespeare’s – all the weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Fathers and sons must strive to understand each other, and themselves, lest we fall into the eternal chaos which leads us to build our very own hell here on Earth.


Ran is currently playing in UK cinemas in a brand new 4K restoration courtesy of StudioCanal!