Oshin (おしん, Shin Togashi, 2013)

Oshin posterBack in the 1980s, an “asadora” named “Oshin” proved so popular with Japanese television viewers that its title became a byword for tenacity and perseverance, attached to any underdog who battled bravely against insurmountable odds. The “asadora”, as its name suggests, is a 15 minute drama serial broadcast in the mornings and therefore mainly targeted at housewives. As such it often focusses on the lives of women and particularly on women who work hard to triumph over adversity. Oshin is no different in this regard except that it also recounts the painful history of 20th century Japan through that of its stoical heroine who travels from a life of poverty in snowy Yamagata to becoming the owner of a supermarket chain in the bustling consumerist economy of 1983. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the TV series, Oshin graduated to the big screen. Shin Togashi’s Oshin (おしん) movie focusses exclusively on Oshin’s childhood at the tail end of the Meiji era in which she suffered all the downsides of lingering feudalism and benefitted from few of the new freedoms of the age.

The winter of 1907, Yamagata – snow country. Oshin (Kokone Hamada) lives with her parents, grandmother, and siblings and looks forward to finally being allowed to go to school when spring arrives. Sadly, Oshin will not be going to school after all. Her father has arranged for her to work for another family who own a timber yard a few towns over for the period of one year. Only seven years old, Oshin pleads not to be sent away but her father will not back down. There is not enough food to feed the family and, unbeknownst to Oshin, her mother (Aya Ueto) is pregnant again.

Finally agreeing to go after her mother takes drastic action to try and reduce the burden on the family, Oshin arrives at the timber yard but is treated cruelly by the head housekeeper who refuses to recognise that Oshin is only a child and will of course lack basic knowledge as to how to run a household. Though Oshin bears the constant hardship for her family she eventually runs away when falsely accused of theft.

The world of 1907 is harsh and cruel. Women have few rights and almost no say in their lives or destinies. Oshin might count herself lucky that she’s merely been contracted as a household servant in an age where selling one’s daughter to a brothel to feed one’s sons was not an unusual event, but nevertheless her life at the timber yard is hard. Bright and curious, Oshin longs to learn to read and write but because of her lowly “peasant” birth, she is constrained into a life of drudgery where her labour will only ever be in service of her family and never herself.

A “peasant” background is, as a kinder mistress reminds Oshin, a burden in that she is always likely to be viewed with suspicion. This is doubly true when she runs away and is rescued by a fugitive deserter hiding in a mountain shack. Shunsaku (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a sensitive young man marked by service in a war he no longer believes in, teaches Oshin how to read and write as well as giving her a grounding in humanitarian politics. He is, however, a problematic figure for going against the martial culture of the age and having “betrayed” his nation by deserting. Oshin is tainted by her association with such a radical young man, but boldly comes to Shunsaku’s defence when others seek to discredit his memory.

This boldness is a part of Oshin’s essential “goodness” in which she refuses to give in to injustice even whilst stoically bearing all of the troubles that come her way. Eventually she finds herself a servant in a much nicer house where the staff take pity on her and welcome her warmly into their extended family. Treated with such kindness, Oshin works even harder to repay it and impresses all with her earnestness and morally upright character. She does, however, clash with the spoilt daughter of the house, Kayo (Manami Igashira), who has her own share of troubles though hers are those of the privileged classes. Lonely and bored, Kayo resents the attention golden girl Oshin seems to get from the staff but the two eventually become friends when Kayo realises Oshin is the only person willing to treat her as an equal rather than the young mistress.

Though the overall arc of the TV series painted a more positive picture of female resilience and capability, the film’s focus on the late Meiji childhood era is unavoidably more conservative in its pointed message that a woman’s life is served in dedication to others with the unpleasant undertone that she must keep nothing back for herself and that she is not entitled to personal happiness but only that of repaying the sacrifices that have been made on her behalf by other women (and especially by mothers – biological and surrogate). Nevertheless, Oshin’s earnestness and deep love for her family are admirable qualities and when she trudges back out into the snow again, always waiting for the spring, she does so with hope and determination.


Oshin is screening in London on 18th August as part of the Japan Foundation London’s Summer Explorers season of free film screenings.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cleopatra (クレオパトラ, Osamu Tezuka & Eiichi Yamamoto, 1970)

Cleopatra posterMushi Pro’s first real foray into feature length (and feature length it really was at over two hours) animation for adults, A Thousand & One Nights, had earned some critical plaudits but nevertheless failed to set the box office alight. A year later they tried again as manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka and experimental animator Eiichi Yamamoto reteamed for a salacious tale of ancient Egypt. Or at least that’s what was promised by the suggestive title, Cleopatra (クレオパトラ), recalling Hollywood glamour and cinematic excess anchored by beauty to echo through the ages, but what emerges is less a tale of doomed love and imperial lust than a thinly veiled attack on the American “occupation” and associated foreign policy in an increasingly politicised age.

Because Tezuka likes to be perverse, he opens not with deserts and pyramids but with a silent ode to 2001: A Space Odyssey before a space ship drifts into view and sails into a very space age tower block filled with very ordinary corridors. Our team of space warriors are part of a colonising force hellbent on conquering nations which don’t which to be conquered. The Pasatorine have mounted a resistance and Earth intelligence has got wind of a covert operation codenamed “Cleopatra”. To figure out what the name might mean, they’ve decided to send three of their best agents back in time to hang out with the lady herself and gather a few clues.

Back in Ancient Egypt, the nation has been overrun by lecherous Roman troops who ride roughshod over the local population (which includes a number of well known characters from popular 1960s manga). Caesar (Hajime Hana) himself is a jolly green giant with skin like Osiris who turns out to be a little more sympathetic than might otherwise be assumed. Nevertheless, a resistance movement has spun into action guided by the royal nanny, Apollodoria (Kotoe Hatsui), who has convinced exiled princess Cleopatra (Chinatsu Nakayama) that their best hope for freedom lies in her body which she must use as a weapon against the lusty foreign general in order that she might seduce and betray.

Cleopatra, however, is conflicted. Molested by her old nanny and falling for her unexpectedly “decent” captor, she wavers in her conviction and begins to wonder if the best path for her people might lie in working alongside rather than against her nation’s new masters. As history tells us, she may not get to make that choice for herself for her stony general has a weakness his countrymen can exploit leaving her all at sea once again.

In 1970 Japan was about to revisit the post-war security treaty with the Americans giving rise to a wide scale protests against what many saw as Japanese complicity in controversial American foreign policy and particularly the ongoing war in Vietnam. The Romans, thinly veiled stand-ins for Americans in Japan, march in triumph, oppressing the locals and erasing traditional culture in favour of “modernity”. Yet Caesar and his ilk perhaps turn out not to be so bad as once feared, seducing with false promise as they show off their wealth and prosperity whilst subtly gesturing to their superior numbers and technology to assure any doubters. The colonisers are technically our heroes – the spacemen and women from the beginning we’ve all but forgotten about have come back in time from the position of the imperialists, hoping to find out how Cleopatra’s doomed romantic destiny might inform modern insurgency, but have discovered only a righteous loathing for “occupying” forces and their relentless tendency to ruin the lives of pure hearted women for their own nefarious gains.

Perhaps emboldened by A Thousand & One Nights, Tezuka cannot resist inserting a number of idiosyncratic gags for manga enthusiasts, including a few references to his own back catalogue, while also sending up the pop-culture of the day. Cleopatra is, on one level, a distinctly lowbrow effort filled with deliberately cartoonish slapstick, silliness, and anarchic humour but it also harbours a subversive idea at its centre which was certain to prove popular with a particular section, at least, of its target audience. Mixing live action footage with experimental animation, if retaining a cartoonish sensibility, Cleopatra is a strange interdimensional political metaphor but not without its charms even in its most outrageous moments.


Available on blu-ray from Third Window Films as a part of double release with Eiichi Yamamoto’s A Thousand & One Nights.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

Samurai Spy (異聞猿飛佐助, Masahiro Shinoda, 1965)

samurai-spyNothing is certain these days, so say the protagonists at the centre of Masahiro Shinoda’s whirlwind of intrigue, Samurai Spy (異聞猿飛佐助, Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke). Set 14 years after the battle of Sekigahara which ushered in a long period of peace under the banner of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Samurai Spy effectively imports its contemporary cold war atmosphere to feudal Japan in which warring states continue to vie for power through the use of covert spy networks run from Edo and Osaka respectively. Sides are switched, friends are betrayed, innocents are murdered. The peace is fragile, but is it worth preserving even at such mounting cost?

Our “hero” Sasuke (Koji Takahashi) is a wandering spy for the Sanada clan, nominally part of the Tokugawa though with no strong allegiance to either side. Everywhere he goes he feels hunted, watched by shadowy forces and unseen motivators. After bumping into Mitsuaki (Mutsuhiro Toura), an old comrade who fought alongside him at the Battle of Sekigahara, Sasuke is pulled into the ongoing intrigue as his friend is murdered and he assumed to be the culprit. Things are further complicated when a mysterious woman to whom he had become attached, Okiwa (Misako Watanabe),  is killed in a similar fashion. A political shift is taking place as a high ranking Tokugawa official, Tatewaki (Eiji Okada), is in the process of defecting to the Toyotomi with white cloaked ninja master Takatani (Tetsuro Tanba) (presumably) working against him. Sasuke is charged with trying to sort all of this out but constantly finds himself on shaky ground as everything around him is constantly changing and the air is filled with conspiracy.

Shinoda aims to disorientate. After beginning with a brief historical narration to set the scene including a bloody excerpt from the horrific Battle of Sekigahara (the historical context presumably much more apparent to a Japanese viewer than an overseas one), he jumps forward 14 years and proceeds to give a rundown of the current situation. Quick fire naming and a lack of external context intentionally make it difficult to pin down who is who and which side is which. The opening sequence takes place in darkness with only moonlight and lanterns to light the way, so our players are always cast in shadows, only half visible and unidentifiable. Nothing is as it seems, the world is murky and the people in shadier still.

Sasuke fought at Sekigahara when he was just 15. His true coming of age has been in an era of peace and he is committed to sustaining that peace at all costs rather than return to the bloody, internecine warfare of the past. This stands in contrast to his double dealing friend, Mitsuaki, whose own coming of age was forged by war and so now finds himself at a loose end as warriors are obsolete in an age without war. Nevertheless, Sasuke feels the peace is threatened – all conversations are eventually about conflict, no one thinks about the meaning of death or what it is to be alive. Men like Mitsuaki have decided to live purely for pleasure, wanting nothing more than women and sake, thinking of nothing beyond satisfying their needs, and rarely consider the moral or political dimension of their actions. Mitsuaki’s unexpected degree of self interest accidentally threatens to completely destabilise the status quo, setting off a series of betrayals and counter betrayals in its wake, but all Mitsuaki was thinking about was a how to get paid twice for doing one job.

Navigating this complex network of allegiances and betrayals, Sasuke comes to discover what it is he really wants out of life and what he needs to do to get it. No longer a neutral observer, he has to pick a side and the one he picks that of the wronged. Coming to the aid of the threatened and oppressed, Sasuke adds himself to the list of enemies of the state yet he sees it as his duty to fight against the forces of darkness for a better, fairer world. Of course, he has his personal reasons for revenge but even these are partly born out of a sense of outrage for the injustice done to people who mattered to him.

Yet for all of the real world intrigue and political allegory Samurai Spy is also imbued with an unsettling sense of the absurd. Sasuke is plagued, yet at times assisted, by the almost supernatural Takatani who, incongruously, dresses in a bright white outfit with the fabric of his hood tied up into horns on the front. Appearing as needed along with his more conventionally dressed ninja minions, Takatani seems to float through the air performing strange acts of ninjadom and acting with no firm course of action. Shinoda shoots the battle scenes from odd angles using slow motion to give them a strange kind of power, even in one instance allowing a severed limb to float to the ground. In a nod to the circularity of violence, he even allows the climactic fight to be interrupted and witnessed by a small boy, shocked by what he has seen. The fact that the situation is laid to rest by a forgotten deus ex machina is yet more evidence for the world’s essential leaning towards constructed narrative.

Filled with the fog of war (literally so in places), Samurai Spy dramatises the uncertainties of its environment through the extreme lack of visual clarity. The audience is as disorientated as Sasuke, continually wrong footed and left at a loss as to the true motivations of each of the major players. The atmosphere is palpably intense, as if sitting on a powder keg ready to explode at any spark of conflict. From this viewpoint, it’s impossible to see who is in the right and who the wrong or even if those two ideas are even appropriate ways of thinking about things. Peace stands on a knife edge and, ironically, only survives if robustly defended. Violence is shown up for all of its essential cruelty and senselessness yet it is the only thing which is certain. Sasuke, at least, seems to have made his own peace in one way or another but the world he leaves behind him is far from ready to do the same.


 

Pigs and Battleships / Stolen Desire – Eureka MOC Blu Ray Review

 

contains mild spoilers

 Pigs and Battleships, Shohei Imamura’s 1961 absurd portrait of the transformation of a small fishing port during the American occupation is a biting indictment of postwar society. Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato), the young would be Yakuza, is excited when he is given responsibility over the gang’s latest asset – a herd of pigs, which they plan to fatten up and sell back to the Americans at an inflated price. His girlfriend, Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), is unhappy about his connection to gang and constantly urges him to get a proper job. Kinta, however is unwilling to do this because he doesn’t want to end up like his father, sacked from his long time factory job after becoming ill, or be just another ordinary low age worker living hand to mouth. He seems to want to be something, someone more than that but also seems unable to do anything about it other than follow the gang. He likes the respect and the feeling of being the big man that the gang affords him but is unable to see that it’s illusionary, his status is only that of expendable fall guy in a petty gang of punks. Haruko’s family on the other hand are unhappy with her relationship with Kinta and constantly urge her to become the kept mistress of a wealthy American who’s shown an interest in her. For obvious reasons this isn’t something Haruko is very interested in doing but her mother’s quite violent instructions are becoming harder and harder to defy. Eventually Kinta agrees to go with Haruko to an uncle in another town who might be able to find them work, after he’s completed one final gang related task which he hopes will provide them with money to take with them. However, predictably things do not go to plan and the young couple’s hopes are frustrated.

There are only really two things going on in this town, the pigs and the battleships. Everyone is completely (and quite desperately) dependent on the Americans, they drive the entire town’s economy. The red light district in which the film is set is dedicated to catering for the foreigners on shore leave, and most of the women in the picture are engaging in either casual or outright prostitution, encouraged by their petty yakuza boyfriends or families. Even our heroine Haruko at one point, angry with Kinta but also with her family, decides to give this a go with disastrous results which leads to one of the most masterful shots of the film – the much praised spinning top shot which perfectly articulates the chaos and horror of that terrible situation. The entire town has become like pigs running toward a feeding trough, the final scene of the town’s women running to greet the newly arrived ship, desperate for attention and the material benefits that attention might bring. The only hope in this final scene is with Haruko finally leaving her overbearing mother, defiantly marching straight ahead through this crowd of baying women to start again in a new town, with a proper honest job away from all these corrupting influences.

Pigs and Battleships is a masterful film and in fact quite darkly humourous, highly recommended  for anyone interested in the history of Japan or Japanese Cinema. The Blu Ray release from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series is top notch, the picture quality is mostly excellent  as is the soundtrack (the disc comes with optional English subtitles which are also very good).

Also provided is Imamura’s debut feature for Nikkatsu, Stolen Desire, the story of a middle class young man (also played by Hiroyuki Nagato) who ends up joining a traveling Kabuki (though leaning more and more towards burlesque elements) group, not so far away from the directors own youthful experiences. This is a more typical Nikkatsu B Movie, a ribald comedy with jokes about randy peasants, vain/difficult actors, misplaced love and the sort of tensions present within a traveling group  of artists who’ve hit upon slightly low times. However there are the uniquely Immamura elements that lift this above the rest, the documentary like opening for example and the genuine warmth with with he paints the earthy peasants in all their unbridled vitality. This is the first time this film has been available commercially available with English subtitles in the West and is definitely well worth seeing, its transfer, whilst not quite as strong as that of Pigs and Battleships is certainly very good. There is the odd cut or damage in the frame and the image is certainly a bit softer but it’s still an excellent transfer given the nature of the material. Both releases are accompanied by a booklet containing essays by Tony Rayns about each film which are very useful and informative. This is another fantastic release from MOC, very much deserving of a place in every collection. Fantastic.