Oar (櫂, Hideo Gosha, 1985)

oar posterUntil the later part of his career, Hideo Gosha had mostly been known for his violent action films centring on self destructive men who bore their sadnesses with macho restraint. During the 1980s, however, he began to explore a new side to his filmmaking with a string of female centred dramas focussing on the suffering of women which is largely caused by men walking the “manly way” of his earlier movies. Partly a response to his regular troupe of action stars ageing, Gosha’s new focus was also inspired by his failed marriage and difficult relationship with his daughter which convinced him that women can be just as devious and calculating as men. 1985’s Oar (櫂, Kai) is adapted from the novel by Tomiko Miyao – a writer Gosha particularly liked and identified with whose books also inspired Onimasa and The Geisha. Like Onimasa, Oar also bridges around twenty years of pre-war history and centres around a once proud man discovering his era is passing, though it finds more space for his long suffering wife and the children who pay the price for his emotional volatility.

Kochi, 1914 (early Taisho), Iwago (Ken Ogata) is a kind hearted man living beyond his means. Previously a champion wrestler, he now earns his living as a kind of procurer for a nearby geisha house, chasing down poor girls and selling them into prostitution, justifying himself with the excuse that he’s “helping” the less fortunate who might starve if it were not for the existence of the red light district. He dislikes this work and finds it distasteful, but shows no signs of stopping. At home he has a wife and two sons whom he surprises one day by returning home with a little girl he “rescued” at the harbour after seeing her beaten by man who, it seemed, was trying to sell her to Chinese brokers who are notorious for child organ trafficking.

Iwago names the girl “Kiku” thanks to the chrysanthemums on her kimono and entrusts her to his irritated wife, Kiwa (Yukiyo Toake), who tries her best but Kiku is obviously traumatised by her experiences, does not speak, and takes a long time to become used to her new family circumstances. Parallel to his adoption of Kiku, Iwago is also working on a sale of a girl of a similar age who ends up staying in the house for a few days before moving to the red light district. Toyo captures Kiwa’s heart as she bears her sorry fate stoically, pausing only to remark on her guilt at eating good white rice three times a day at Iwago’s knowing that her siblings are stuck at home with nothing.

Iwago’s intentions are generally good, but his “manly” need for control and his repressed emotionality proceed to ruin his family’s life. He may say that poverty corrupts a person’s heart and his efforts are intended to help prevent the birth of more dysfunctional families, but deep down he finds it hard to reconcile his distasteful occupation with his traditional ideas of masculine chivalry. Apparently “bored” with the long suffering Kiwa he fathers a child with another woman which he then expects her to raise despite the fact that she has already left the family home after discovering the affair. Predictably her love for him and for the children brings her home, but Iwago continues to behave in a domineering, masterly fashion which is unlikely to repair his once happy household.

Kiwa is the classic long suffering wife, bearing all of Iwago’s mistreatments with stoic perseverance until his blatant adultery sends her running from marriage to refuge at the home of her brother. Despite the pain and humilation, Kiwa still loves, respects, and supports her husband, remembering him as he once was rather than the angry, frustrated brute which he has become. Despite her original hesitance, Kiwa’s maternal warmth makes a true daughter of Kiku and keeps her bonded to the eldest and more sensitive of her two sons, Ryutaro, even if the loose cannon that is Kentaro follows in his step-father’s footsteps as an unpredictable punk. Her goodheartedness later extends to Iwago’s illegitimate daughter Ayako whom she raises as her own until Iwago cruelly decides to separate them. For all of Iwago’s bluster and womanising, ironically enough Kiwa truly is the only woman for him as he realises only when she determines to leave. Smashing the relics of his “manly” past – his wrestling photos and trophies, Iwago is forced to confront the fact that his own macho posturing has cost him the only thing he ever valued.

Gosha tones down the more outlandish elements which contributed to his reputation as a “vulgar” director but still finds space for female nudity and frank sexuality as Iwago uses and misuses the various women who come to him for help or shelter. More conventional in shooting style than some of Gosha’s other work from the period and lacking any large scale or dramatic fight scenes save for one climactic ambush, Oar acts more as a summation of Gosha’s themes up until the mid-80s – men destroy themselves through their need to be men but also through destroying the women who have little choice but to stand back and watch them do it. Unless, like Kiwa, they realise they have finally had enough.


Short clip from near the beginning of the film (no subtitles)

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)

A Woman and a War (戦争と一人の女, Junichi Inoue, 2013)

a-woman-and-warJunichi Inoue is better known as a screenwriter and frequent collaborator of avant-garde/pink film provocateur Koji Wakamatsu. A Woman and a War (戦争と一人の女, Senso to Hitori no Onna) marks his first time in the director’s chair and finds him working with someone else’s script but staying firmly within the pink genre. Adapted from a contemporary novel by Ango Sakaguchi published in 1946, A Woman and a War is an intense look at domestic female suffering during a time generalised chaos.

The unnamed “Woman” (Noriko Eguchi) is a former prostitute, sold to a brothel by her father as a child, now working as a bar hostess. Times being what they are, she decides there’s no future in bar work and wants to get married. Accordingly, she finds herself moving in with a moody novelist who frequents the bar, Nomura (Masatoshi Nagase). The woman becomes Nomura’s “wife”, but the relationship is strained as she finds it difficult to derive pleasure from sex and he is of a nihilistic mindset, convinced that Japan is about to lose the war. Nomura promises to live with her until the war’s end, at which time he assumes the country will cease to exist taking him with it.

Running parallel to this is the story of recently demobbed soldier and drinker at Woman’s bar, Ohira (Jun Murakami). Having lost an arm in the war, Ohira has been “lucky”, in a sense, and been sent home early. However, he has a wife and young son he’s been away from so long that they’re virtual strangers from each other. Ohira is not the man who went away to fight, he’s embittered and angry. Unable to enjoy normal relations with his wife, he finds himself aroused after failing to rescue a woman being gang raped by thugs which he then watches after being tied up while the men finish their business. After this, he despatches his family to the comparative safety of his wife’s parents and embarks on a career of violence, rape and murder.

Despite nominally being the story of the Woman, A Woman and a War has an unbalanced tripartite structure split between the three central characters. Of the three, Nomura’s story is the least explored but then is also the most clichéd in its familiar over sensitive novelist takes hack jobs and abuses all available substances to block out his crushing depression trope. Though the story ought to belong to Woman, she is often eclipsed by Ohira’s extreme descent into violent misogyny though in actuality these two strands dovetail into each other as Woman’s story is also one of continued exploitation.

This stems back well before the war as she was, in a sense, betrayed by her father when he sold her supposedly in desperation but apparently drank the money he got for her rather than using it to feed the rest of the family. Having spent so long in the brothel her body has become nothing more than a tool to her – something to be well maintained and then traded as a commodity. After her relationship with Nomura ends, Woman finds herself once again working as a prostitute – first at a facility set up for the American military, and then as a streetwalker targeting foreign servicemen. Eventually her path crosses with that of Ohira which results in the uncomfortable realisation that she too can only reach climax through violence.

Ohira is so deeply scarred by his wartime experiences that he has a compulsion to reenact them through random acts of sexual violence on unsuspecting women. The events he recounts from Manchuria are truly horrifying but he has an uncomfortable point when he repeats that the difference between what he did in the war and what he’s doing now is that between a medal and a death sentence. The people he killed in China weren’t soldiers or those who threatened his life, they were innocent civilians no different from the women he lured into the forests of Japan, so how was it right then and wrong now? The other uncomfortable fact is that Ohira is both perpetrator and victim of the wider war, a symbol of its cannibalistic whirlwind of destruction, the effects of which continue in perpetuity.

Coming as he does from the pink film world, Inoue adopts a detached frankness when it comes to sex. However, in keeping with the film’s themes there is an abundance of sexualised violence against women which, though every bit as unpleasant as it’s intended to be, does at times feel gratuitous. It’s also an unfortunate fact that there is a lot of gratuitous female nudity in the film but absolutely no male – at one point Woman bares her genitals to the open air and urges Nomura to do the same but the camera cuts to a rear shot as though embarrassed. In an interview with Diva Review Inoue admits he regrets the way this was handled and states it’s largely down to having bigger name actors in the two central roles, but in addition to deviating from the otherwise naturalistic intentions of the film, it also presents him with a set of thematic problems which undercut his central intentions.

However, A Woman and a War is one of the few (recent) films to seriously look at the traumatic afterlife of the war both on those who served and those who stayed at home using sexuality as a curiously reflective prism. A Woman and a War is a super low budget film and, in truth, looks it, though does make an attempt to do the best it can with what it has. The performances of the three leads are also each strong though something of the film’s tone never quite coalesces beyond the persistent unpleasantness into something more deeply probing. Troubling, concerning, and disturbing, A Woman and a War is a much needed look at this murky and often avoided area but one that finds it impossible to escape its own exploitative nature.


Original trailer (English subtitles):