Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain, Yoji Yamada, 1988)

Downtown Heroes posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Yoji Yamada was an infrequent visitor to the youth movie. Best remembered for his long running Tora-san series, Yamada’s later output is marked by an alternation of laughter and tears, running between raucous family comedies and poignant examinations of wartime loss. Set in the immediate postwar period, 1988’s Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain) adapts the autobiographical novel by Akira Hayasaka for a twin tale of endings and beginnings as a group of boys prepare to leave the Japan of their childhood behind and set out into the brand-new post-war future.

Our narrator for the tale is Hayasaka’s stand-in, Kosuke (Hashinosuke Nakamura), a sensitive young man from the mountains studying at the prestigious boys’ boarding school in town. The Matsuyama high school is one of the last to still be operating in Japan’s pre-war educational model. In fact, when the boys graduate the school will shut down in favour of the American 6-3-3 standard model of organising the educational system. Nevertheless, Kosuke and his friends enjoy what seems like a fantastically broad curriculum to modern eyes, much of which consists of classic German literature. Rather than their family names, the boys refer to each other with a series of nicknames inspired by their studies and have been heavily influenced by European left-wing political ideology. Accordingly, they are less than happy about the imposed American “reforms” and, paradoxically, the restrictions placed on their individual “freedom” by the “imperialist” occupation.

The central drama revolves around two episodes occurring one after another during the final year of high school. The first involves Kosuke’s friend Arles (Toshinori Omi) and a prostitute he helps to rescue from the red light district – Sakiko (Eri Ishida) was supposed to elope with a student from the school, but he didn’t show up and if the people from the brothel she was sold to find her she’ll be in big trouble. Her suitor turns out to be a fraud, but the boys are committed to saving her and hide Sakiko in their dorm, sharing their meagre rations with her before helping her escape to her home town. Meanwhile, the boys are also preparing for the very last culture festival the school will ever see at which they will present their adaptation of a classic German play. The snag is, the play needs a girl. Eventually the gang enlist the help of Fusako (Hiroko Yakushimaru) – a student at the girls’ school recently repatriated from Manchuria who also happens to be the young lady Kosuke had a meet cute with on the road and has been in love with ever since. Trouble brews when Gan (Tetta Sugimoto), the play’s director, falls in love with her too.

Told from the POV both of the old and the young Kosuke, the atmosphere is one of intense melancholy and inescapable nostalgia. Though these were times of hardship – rationing is fierce and intense, so much so that the school no longer serves meals at all on Sundays and the boys largely subsist on rice gruel, they were also times of joy and possibility. These are however youngsters in the best tradition of the sensitive young men of Japanese literature. They feel everything deeply, fully aware that they are living on the cusp of something new, which necessarily also means to be standing atop a grave. Their world is collapsing and the values they’ve been given (progressive though they seem to be) are about to be thrown out of the window. They have been taught that nothing is more important than their personal autonomy and that personal freedom is attained only through overcoming hardship, but their lives will increasingly be dictated by occupying forces and they feel themselves robbed of something without the right to reply.

Nevertheless their problems are also ordinary teenage ones of romantic crises and friendship dilemmas. Kosuke struggles with his love at first sight crush on Fusako but remains too diffident to say anything until it’s almost too late, while he also struggles to figure out what the most proper thing to do is when Gan reveals he is also in love with her. Gan, a sensitive writer, apparently burns with longing – so much so that he’s written a book long confession of love in apology for being unable to declare himself in person. Kosuke, a good friend, agrees to deliver the letter but both of them have neglected to consider Fusakao’s feelings so bound up are they in their own solipsistic dramas. Fusako was also struck by the love bug on her first meeting with Kosuke and has been patiently waiting for him to say something (as is the custom of the time). She is therefore doubly hurt and offended when he delivers a mini-tome on the theme of love from someone else before attempting to leave abruptly in a huff. Truth be told, there are few women who would enjoy being handed a thesis as a confession, but Fusako is really not in the mood to read one now.

Ending on a melancholy epilogue in which the old Kosuke looks on at field of young men playing American football before some others in running shorts brush past him and a young couple enjoy an evening walk, Yamada embraces the mild sense of deflation that has been building since the beginning. Young love faded and the dreams of youth were destined to come to nothing – not quite a tragedy, or perhaps only one of the ordinary kind, but food for the regrets of age all the same. The times were hard, and then they got better but somehow they were never so happy again. A youth drama indeed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Theme song “Jidai” performed by Hiroko Yakushimaru

The Family Game (家族ゲーム, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1983)

TFG_DVD_jk_ol“Why do we have to make such sacrifices for our children?”. It sounds a little cold, doesn’t it, but none the less true. Yoshimitsu Morita’s 1983 social satire The Family Game (家族ゲーム, Kazoku Game) takes that most Japanese of genres, the family drama, and turns it inside out whilst vigorously shaking it to see what else falls from the pockets.

The “ordinary” middle class Numata family consists of the salaryman father Kosuke, the regular housewife mother Chikako and their two sons – older brother Shinichi and younger brother Shigeyuki. Right now the focus of attention is very much on Shigeyuki as he approaches the difficult period of sitting entrance exams for high school. To be frank, Shigeyuki’s prospects are dismal. He ranks near the bottom of the class and though certainly bright has little interest in studying. Therefore, the family have decided to bring in a home tutor to help boost his grades. They’ve already tried several to no avail but have high hopes for Mr. Yoshimoto, a local university student, but little do they know that he’s going to end up teaching each of them a little more than they cared to learn.

Morita breaks down the modern family into its component parts and finds only archetypes representing the kinds of roles which are rigidly enforced by Japan’s conformist society. Let’s start with the “father” who is supposedly the head of the household yet barely has anything at all to do with it. He believes his role is simply to go to work and shout commands which his “family” are supposed to follow unquestioningly. His realm is everything outside the house, everything inside is the responsibility of his wife and he won’t in any way get involved with that. When he has a problem with the kids (and this problem will only be that they aren’t performing to expectation), he will tell his wife and she is expected to take care of it on her own. Of course, his authority is hollow and dependent on his family falling in with his preconceived ideas of their “individual” roles.

The wife, then, is more or less a glorified housekeeper in charge of domestic arrangements and expected to remain within the home. Barked at by her husband and treated like a servant by her own children, her existence is often a fairly miserable one. She remarks that she wishes she’d had her children later – there were so many things so wanted to do that now are denied her because she’s forced to “play the role” that’s expected of her as a wife and mother.

Of the two kids, the older brother, Shinichi, starts the film as the one who plays his pre-ordained role to the level that’s expected of him. He’s a bright boy who studies hard and got into the top high school no problem. As the film goes on and everyone’s obsessed with Shigeyuki, Shinichi’s mask begins to drop as he encounters various typically teenage phenomenons which interfere with his role as over achieving big brother.

Shigeyuki, however, refuses to play the game at all. He just does not care. He loves to get under people’s skin and takes pleasure in annoying or outsmarting them such as when he cons his mother into letting him skip school (his pancreas hurts!) which she lets him do probably knowingly because she’s still playing her role as the worried mother. Finally he only begins to study when he realises it annoys a fellow pupil when his grades improve.

When tutor Yoshimoto enters the picture he tears a great big hole through the centre of this perfect family photo. He starts by behaving very strangely with Mr. Numata by grabbing his hand and calling him “father” whilst leaning in far too close for a casual acquaintance. Similarly when he first meets Shigeyuki he leans right in and then remarks that he has “a cute face”. He proceeds to invade Shigeyuki’s physical space by regularly touching him to a degree which is odd for a teacher/pupil relationship and is almost a prelude to molestation. When Shigeyuki tries to troll him by filling pages of his notebook with the same word over and over again, Yoshimoto reacts coolly before punching him in the face. From now on, when Shigeyuki isn’t pulling his weight, he’ll get a bloody nose.

Gradually Yoshimoto begins to take over the parental roles of the household firstly by instigating the masculine discipline through violence that Mr Numata is never there to deal out as well as offering the original role of teacher/mentor which might ordinarily be found in a grandfather or uncle. Later he usurps the big brother’s place by trying to talk frankly about sex and teaching Shigeyuki how to defend himself against playground bullies which also helps the boy cement a friendship with a sometime rival. Finally, he takes on the maternal mantle too when Mrs Numata asks him to go down to the school and talk to Shigeyuki’s teachers on her behalf. By the time that his original mission is completed he’s well and truly infiltrated the household allowing him to, literally, overturn its sense of stability.

Morita’s screenplay is witty affair full of one liners and humour born of unusual frankness. Family is a fake concept which forces each of its members into predefined roles and is largely divorced from genuine feeling. What matters is the appearance of normality and the acquisition of status – i.e getting into the better university, not so much as a path to success but as a way of avoiding the embarrassment of not getting there. An absurdist social satire, The Family Game is a biting critique of the social mores of the early 1980s which punches a gaping hole through the foundation of traditional Japanese society.


 

Main Theme (メイン・テーマ, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1984)

main themeDespite being one of the most prolific directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the work of Yoshimitsu Morita has not often travelled extensively overseas. Though frequently appearing at high profile international film festivals, few of Morita’s films have been released outside of Japan and largely he’s still best remembered for his hugely influential (and oft re-visited) 1983 black comedy, The Family Game. In part, this has to be down to Morita’s own zigzagging career which saw him mixing arthouse aesthetics with more populist projects. Main Theme is definitely in the latter category and is one of the many commercial teen idol vehicles he tackled in the 1980s.

A tale of two intersecting love stories, Main Theme begins with nursery nurse Shibuki getting close to the father of one of her pupils, Omaezaki, who will shortly be transferred to Osaka. Omaezaki also has a long running thing with a cabaret jazz singer, Kayoko, which seems to be a messy situation to begin with. Shibuki then ends up running into magician with a pick-up truck Ken who drives her to Osaka where she’s set to meet up with Omaezaki to become some kind of nanny living with him and his wife. En route, the pair pick up Kayako little knowing of her relationship with Omaezaki. Eventually, everyone ends up in Okinawa where Ken lives and Shibuki has an older sister each hoping to sort out their romantic difficulties under the blue island skies.

Main Theme stars popular idol of the time Hiroko Yakushimaru (star of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun) and is, unsurprisingly, centred around her chart topping song of the same name. A neat, new Japanese arrangement of the classic jazz standard Sway, the song fits neatly into the movie’s soundtrack which also features a number of other jazz hits such as The Man I Love and most notably Bei Mir Bistu Shein (or Shoen, or Shön depending on which version you’re looking at) courtesy of our cabaret singer (and her rivals) but being an ‘80s movie there’s still a bit of pop synth in there too though our central couple do seem to have oddly sophisticated tastes.

Though it is, as it’s intended to be, a teen romantic comedy, Morita tries (not entirely successfully) to put a little more substance into the background by also showing us the unhappy romance of middle-aged jazz singer Kayoko and the non-committal Omaezaki. It seems the pair have had an entailment probably stemming back years, perhaps even before Omaezaki’s marriage. Mrs. Omaezaki is a fairly ditzy and neurotic woman who loves shopping and seems to be more interested in the appearance of things than the reality. The status of the marriage itself is difficult to discern and it’s not quite clear if Omaezaki’s problem is a lack of will to leave his wife or that he’s already “left” and is trying to find a way to support her. In any case, introducing Shibuki, a 19yr old with an obvious crush on him, to the household is not one of his better ideas.

Needless to say, Ken also ends up forming an attraction to the older, melancholy musician who doesn’t seem to know what it is she wants (or knows but chooses to run away from it) leaving us in an odd kind of love square with the couples really each wanting their age appropriate partners but getting distracted by foolish dalliances with age and youth respectively. It does feel as if Morita could have made more of this dramatically interesting idea as Kayoko in particular is drawn in by Ken’s youthful innocence, but this isn’t what the film is for so it remains an intriguing yet perverse addition to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative.

The “perversity” or strangeness of the film doesn’t end there as Morita has also added a number of quirky, absurd touches to offset the flatness of the teenage love drama. Perhaps because he’s a magician we get these odd flashes of Ken where he’s suddenly got crazy eyebrows (just for one 15 second shot) or crazy hair and there’s another charming scene where he’s pulling artificial flowers out of his suit only to have the magic bouquet suddenly droop as his heart starts to break. In another intriguing trope there’s also a strange illustrated map which lead’s Shibuki to her sister’s house by outlining common scenes from the area and when she gets there the gates are covered in light up ornamental tropical fruits. Add to this that the backing behind Kayoko’s final cabaret reads “Bates Motel Live” and there’s definitely a very strange mind behind the production design on this run of the mill, idol pop pushing rom-com.

Undoubtedly of its time, there is probably a reason Main Theme has not proved a big overseas hit though it seems to have been massively popular at the time and is fondly remembered for nostalgic reasons even if not particularly well regarded today. This is perhaps how the film is best approached – as a monument of its times and as a prime example of the 80s idol dramas studios such as Kadokawa put out to push their inoffensive pop music. However, Morita does add his own quirky touches to the film which does provide its fair share of youthful fun even if it isn’t always successful.


Unsubtitled trailer:

And a more recent version of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song: