The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

blue sky maiden dvd coverYasuzo Masumura is generally remembered for dark, erotic and disturbing explorations of human behaviour but the early part of his career was marked by a more hopeful innocence and a less cynical yet still cutting humour. His debut, Kisses, was very much in the mould of the youth movie of the day but its themes were both more innocent and more controversial as a boy and girl bond after running into each other at the prison where both of their parents are serving time. Marked by darkness as it is, the worldview of Kisses is much kinder than Masumura would later allow as the pair of lovers seem to shake off their respective concerns to embrace the youthful joy and boundless freedom young love can offer.

The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Aozora Musume), Masumura’s second film, does something similar but with added bite. Working for the first time with actress Ayako Wakao who would later become something of a muse, Masumura takes a typical melodrama storyline – the returned illegitimate child treated as a poor relation by her own “family”, and turns it into a genial comedy in which Wakao’s charming heroine shines brightly despite the often cruel and heartless treatment she receives. As far as the family drama goes, the genre was still in its heyday and the family unit itself fairly unquestioned yet as Masumura shows times were changing and perhaps the family is not the bedrock it initially seems to be.

18 year old Yuko (Ayako Wakao) stands at the gates of adulthood. Taking a last photo in school uniform with her high school friends as they prepare for graduation, Yuko expresses her nervousness about being sent to Tokyo to live with the family of a father she barely knows while her friends worry about getting married or getting stuck in their tiny village all alone respectively. Tragedy strikes when the girls’ teacher arrives on a bicycle and informs them that Yuko’s grandmother has been taken ill. On her death bed, the grandmother reveals the reason Yuko is the only one of her father’s four children to be raised in the country is not a concern for her health, but that she is illegitimate. Yuko’s father, unhappy in his marriage, fell in love with his secretary (Kuniko Miyake) who later gave birth to Yuko, but he was already married with two children and so Yuko’s mother went to Manchuria leaving her to be raised in secret in the country.

Having nowhere else to go, Yuko arrives at her father’s large Western style house to be greeted coldly by her half-siblings, and treated as a maid by her still angry step-mother while her father (Kinzo Shin) is away on business. It has to be said that this model middle class family are an extremely unpleasant bunch. Step-mother Tatsuko (Sadako Sawamura) is shrewish and embittered while oldest daughter Teruko (Noriko Hodaka) spends all her time chasing wealthy boyfriends (but failing to win them because she’s just as mean as her mother). The oldest brother (Yuji Shinagawa) idles away in a hipster jazz band while the youngest boy, Hiroshi (Yukihiko Iwatare), is rude and boisterous but later bonds with his new big sister when she is the only one to really bother interacting with him.

The Ono household has always been an unhappy one. Yuko’s father married his wife after being bamboozled into it by an overbearing boss trying to offload his difficult daughter. Feeling trapped and avoiding going home he fell in love with a kind woman at work, had an affair, and wanted to marry her but wasn’t strong enough to break off not only from his unwanted family but also from his career in pursuing personal happiness. By Masumura’s logic, it’s this failure to follow one’s heart which has poisoned the Ono family ruining not only the lives of Tatsuko and the children who have no respect for their father or capacity for real human feeling (as Yuko later tells them), but also that of Yuko’s poor mother  whose life has been one of constant suffering after being unfairly jettisoned by a man who was bold enough to have an affair, but not to defy social conventions and leave an unhappy home.

Yuko herself, however, refuses to allow her life to be ruined by the failings of others. Looking up at the bright blue sky with her teacher (Kenji Sugawara), she learns to create her own stretch of heaven if only in her own mind. Though others might have fought and complained at being forced into the role of maid in what is her own family home, Yuko bears her new circumstances with stoicism and good humour. Thanks to her kindness and enthusiasm, the family maid, Yae (Chocho Miyako), is quickly on her side and if Teruko’s latest target, Hirooka (Keizo Kawasaki) starts to prefer the “new servant girl” his defection is completely understandable. Unlike later Masumura heroines, Yuko’s “revenge” is total yet constructive. She refuses to be cowed by unkindness, remains pure hearted in the face of cruelty, and resolves to find her own happiness and encourage others to do the same. With a few cutting words offered kindly, Yuko gets to the heart of the Onos, essentially reminding her father that all of this unhappiness is his own fault – he made his bed 20 years ago, now he needs to lie it and be a full-time husband and father to the family of lonely misfits he created in the absence of love.

Light and bright and colourful, The Blue Sky Maiden is among Masumura’s more cheerful films, not least because it does seem to believe that true happiness is possible. Yuko does not so much defy social convention as ignore it. She lives openly and without rancour or regret. She takes things as she finds them and people (aside from the Onos) are good to her because she is good to them. Though Masumura’s later work would become increasingly dark and melancholy, Yuko bears out many of his most central themes in her steadfast claim to her own individuality and equally steadfast commitment to enabling the happiness of others in defiance of prevailing social codes.


Odd Obsession (鍵, Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

odd-obsessionJunichiro Tanizaki is widely regarded as one of the major Japanese literary figures of the twentieth century with his work frequently adapted for the cinema screen. Those most familiar with Kon Ichikawa’s art house leaning pictures such as war films The Burmese Harp or Fires on the Plain might find it quite an odd proposition but in many ways, there could be no finer match for Tanizaki’s subversive, darkly comic critiques of the baser elements of human nature than the otherwise wry director. Odd Obsession (鍵, Kagi) may be a strange title for this adaptation of Tanizaki’s well known later work The Key, but then again “odd obsessions” is good way of describing the majority of Tanizaki’s career. A tale of destructive sexuality, the odd obsession here is not so much pleasure or even dominance but a misplaced hope of sexuality as salvation, that the sheer force of stimulation arising from desire can in some way be harnessed to stave off the inevitable even if it entails a kind of personal abstinence.

Our narrator for this sardonic tale is an ambitious young doctor, Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai), who opens the film in an unusually meta fashion with a direct to camera address taking the form of a brief lecture on the decline of the human body (which begins at age ten and then gets progressively worse). Kimura reminds us that we too will grow old, but his warning is intended less to engender sympathy for the elderly patriarch who will become our secondary protagonist than it is to raise a grim spectre of the inescapability of death.

The story Kimura wants to tell us of a man who fought against senility centres on antiques expert and respected cultural critic Kenmochi (Ganjiro Nakamura). Advanced in years, Kenmochi is beginning to feel the darkness encroaching along with the desire to resist it through restored virility. For this reason, he’s been making regular appointments at Kimura’s clinic which he keeps secret from his wife who would be unhappy to know he’s been getting mysterious injections to help with his sex drive but which also come with a number of side effects including dangerously raising his blood pressure.

Eventually Ikuko (Machiko Kyo), Kenmochi’s slightly younger wife and mother of his grown up daughter Toshiko (Junko Kano), does indeed find out though what she does not appear to know is that Kenmochi has also been drugging her so that he can take photos of her naked body and enjoy his rights as her husband without her needing to be 100% present at the time. Kenmochi’s plan is to lure Kimura into having an affair with his wife so that the resultant jealousy will stimulate his system, staving off senility and other unwelcome effects of ageing. This would be strange enough on its own were it not that Kenmochi has also been trying to set up a marriage between Toshiko and Kimura who are already engaged in a discreet affair.

In contrast with the source material which takes the form of a number of diary entries providing differing perspectives on events, the film takes the point of view of the cynical and morally bankrupt doctor Kimura who feels himself above this “pathetic” old man with his sexual preoccupations and diminished prospects. As the narrator, Kimura evidently believes himself in control but Ichikawa is keen to play with our sense of the rules of storytelling to show him just how wrong he could be. Intrigue is everywhere. Kenmochi may think he’s using all around him in a clever game to prolong his own life but he’s entirely blind to a series of counter games which may be taking place behind his back.

Sex is quite literally a weapon – aimed at the heart of death. Kimura recounts a dream he sometimes has in which he is shot through the heart in an arid desert, only for this same scene to invade the mind of a paralysed Kenmochi on gazing at the naked body of his wife. The marriage of Kenmochi and Ikuko has apparently been a cold (and perhaps unhappy) one with Kenmochi berating his wife for remaining “priest’s daughter” all these years later, prudish and conventional. Nevertheless, Ikuko – the kimonoed figure of the traditional Japanese wife, subservient yet mysterious and melancholy, becomes the central pivot around which all the men turn, eclipsing her own daughter – a Westernised, sexually liberated young woman rendered undesirable in her very availability. Kimura is not quite the destructive interloper of Pasolini’s Theorem so much as he is a “key” used by Kenmochi to “unlock” a hidden capacity within himself but one which, as it turns out, opens many doors not all of them leading to intended, or expected, destinations.

Ichikawa continues with a more experimental approach than was his norm following the bold opening scene in which Kimura directly addresses the audience with a straight to camera monologue. A pointed symbolic sequence of a train coupling, freeze frames, dissolves and montages add to his alienated perspective as he adopts Kimura’s arch commentary on the ongoing disaster which is the extremely dysfunctional Kenmochi family home. Middle class and well to do, the Kenmochis’ lives are nevertheless empty – the house is mortgaged and the beautiful statues which taunt Kenmochi with their physical perfection have all already been sold though Kenmochi refuses to let the buyer take them home. Old age should burn and rave at close of day, but as the beautifully ironic ending makes plain it will be of little use, death is in the house wearing an all too familiar face which you will always fail to recognise.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Opening scene (no subtitles)

The Invisible Man vs The Human Fly (透明人間と蝿男, Mitsuo Murayama, 1957)

The Invisible Man Vs the Human FlyWho would win in a fight between The Invisible Man and The Human Fly? Well, when you think about it, the answer’s sort of obvious and how funny it would be to watch probably depends on your ability to detect the facial expressions of The Human Fly, but nevertheless Daiei managed to make an entire film out of this concept which is a sort of late follow-up to their original take on Invisible Man Appears from 1949. Like that film, The Invisible Man vs The Human Fly (透明人間と蝿男, Tomei Ningen to Hae Otoko) also adopts a deadpan, straightforward tone despite its rather ridiculous premise.

Tokyo is being plagued by a series of mysterious murders occurring in broad daylight in which the victim is stabbed through the back piercing the heart yet witnesses report seeing no suspicious activity near the crime scene. Perhaps The Invisible Man did it, hahaha….However, when the man sitting next to the professor in charge of researching the “imperceptibility device” is murdered in an aircraft toilet, the police get wise to a possibly surreal explanation for these bizarre crimes. The only other evidence they have is a connection between a sleazy nightclub owner, a friend of his and one of the murdered men who briefly served together during the war, the fact that one of the victims pointed at the sky before dying, and reports of a strange buzzing sound….

Interestingly, the major viewpoint here is from the policemen investigating the case and their attempts to get their heads around this extremely unusual series of events. As often happens with revisiting a form of technology which has been used for ill in the previous picture, here the “imperceptibility device” becomes a force for good as it might be able to help the powers at be stamp out The Human Fly. This time there’s not so much of the accompanying madness which is caused by going invisible but there’s still a heavy price to be paid as no one’s figured out a way of turning back which doesn’t involve rapid death from cancer immediately afterwards.

By contrast, The Human Fly is born of a man made serum developed by Japanese mad scientists during World War II and brought back by a man who was abandoned on an island by his comrades and subsequently left to take the wrap at a war crimes tribunal. He wants to use the technology to further his own success yet has a minion carrying out most of the dirty work. The Human Fly serum does, apparently, carry a number of psychological side effects including violent impulses, paranoia and addiction.

The special effects are not quite as good as in Invisible Man Appears though the invisible antics are not the focus of the film anyway. Bizarrely, The Human Fly is just a shrunken man who is somehow able to zip about like a regular fly even though he’s still dressed in his normal business suit and keeps his arms rigidly to his sides like some kind of human torpedo. Apparently, the buzzing sound is made because of his being very small (so says science) which gets around the inconvenient truth of him not having any wings or other fly-like characteristics other than the ability of flight.

It’s all very silly, though not quite silly enough in places. For the most part, the film plays out like a regular police procedural with slight noir undertones despite the obvious strangeness of the mysteries at hand. Though there’s obviously something to be made about the origin of the Human Fly serum and the anger of the “war criminal” who feels himself betrayed by his country, it’s a fairly subtle comment on post-war resentment. However, attitudes to the practice of scientific research do seem to have shifted with the researchers investigating the imperceptibility device cast as the good guys (though no particular reason for their work is ever offered) who can be relied upon to help catch the “bad guys” who are making use of “bad technology” to do “bad things”.

A fairly solid B-movie though one which is perhaps a little too po-faced for its genretastic title, The Invisible Man vs The Human Fly is an interesting mix of noir crime thriller with a little science fiction and even a few horror trappings thrown in. Thanks to its straightforward approach it may prove a little dull for genre enthusiasts but does offer its own kind of surreal iconography and it’s difficult to forget the sight of a tiny, angry looking besuited man flying around and committing random crimes while an invisible opponent stalks him from the shadows.


Scientific technology being put to a predictable use…..

Black Test Car (黒の試走車, Yasuzo Masumura, 1962)

tumblr_n2w2l2mX1a1tvmqcgo1_1280The automobile business is a high stakes game. Do you want to play faster, shinier and sleeker, or safer, family friendly and reliable? Family cars are the best sellers – everyone one wants something that’s reliable for getting to work every morning, getting the grocery shopping done and that you won’t worry about taking your kids to the park in. However, it’s the 1960s and lifestyles are shifting, men (in particular) are marrying later and they want to have fun before they do – hence having quite a lot of disposable income they can blow on a flashy two-seater sports car with no wife to complain about it. Tiger have just finished a new prototype called the Pioneer they plan to launch as a revolution in commercial sports cars which is super speedy but with the convenience of an everyday sedan. However, the Yamato company are also set to launch a new car and it keeps looking suspiciously like the Pioneer – does Tiger have a mole?

Black Test Car (黒の試走車, Kuro no Test Car) begins with the prototype model of the Pioneer bursting into flames during a test run. Not the best start, but it’s early days and at least the driver wasn’t hurt. The guys at Tiger suspect sabotage as they can’t find anything wrong with car’s design. Onoda, the man who’s in charge of the project, has summoned some of his best employees to become the “industrial spying” department to flush out the mole. However, their first few plans fail and Yamato always seems to get there ahead of them. Yamato’s “chief of spying” is a slightly sleazy older man by the name of Mawatari who lost his wife and daughter during the Manchurian campaign (where he also may have been a more official kind of spy). Luckily (for some more than others), Onoda’s protege, Asahina, is dating a girl who works in the hostess industry and it’s suggested to him that he get his girlfriend to spy on Mawatari as he has a particular fondness for a certain hostess bar. The shady dealings only get worse from here on in, blackmail, bribery, pimping and prostitution – is this the yakuza or the automobile industry?

Yasuzo Masumura turns his cynical eye to big business and finds just as must drama as in your cold war spy epic. Onoda is a fanatical company man whose primary reason for living is his work. He barely comes home, rarely sees his children and views his precious Pioneer as his legacy. As such, he’s determined to find the man who’s betraying all his secrets and has become something of a petty dictator in the process. “We’re industrial spies!” he keeps declaiming, as if those words had any kind of authority. He’s not a policeman, he’s not a warrior for justice, he’s just a guy at a car firm who’s poured altogether too much of himself into a few scraps of metal.

His assistant, the up and coming Asahina, seems set to follow in Onoda’s footsteps. He’s young and ambitious, he wants to get the head of department job so he can marry his girlfriend who is still working as a bar hostess (which he doesn’t actually seem to mind about if she doesn’t mind about it either). The girlfriend, Masako, worries that work is changing him. When Asahina asks her to spy on Mawatari she refuses, but when he half jokes that he might not want to marry her she if won’t do as he says, she eventually agrees. Later he asks her for more than that which might just be enough to nip this young love story well and truly in the bud.

Having lost out several times already, the Tiger guys think they’ve got an angle and decide to launch the Pioneer way ahead of schedule to undercut Yamato’s price and release date. However, right away there is a scandalous accident which ends up all over the papers as the driver of the car (who survived unscathed, there were no serious injuries involved) drags the wreck all over town with a loud speaker to announce just how dangerous he believes the car to be. Of course, he’s a stooge, set up by Yamato and aided by another undiscovered mole in the Tiger camp. This incident is the last straw for those who still have a moral backbone at Tiger – culminating in violence and suicide, it leaves the fresh faced executives wondering whether they’re on the career ladder at a respectable firm or among the ranks of thuggish gangsters prepared to lie, cheat and extort to get along.

Shot in a noirish black and white with a moody jazz score, Black Test Car has its film noir overtones with the immorality of big business at its centre. At the beginning of the film everything is for the company – no one thinks of themselves or their own soul, they just want in and to climb the ladder while its there. Or so it seems because everyone is also taking kickbacks whilst blackmailing other people for doing exactly the same thing. There are spy cams interpreted by lip readers, undercover prostitutes masquerading as nurses and men in bushes with microphones – not a dignified way of doing business. At one point Onoda scoffs “you can’t get hung up on  morals. You’ll just have remorse” – this is the choice that presents itself, would you rather have the flashy sports car or retain your humanity?


Black Test Car is available on R1 DVD with English subtitles courtesy of Fantoma.

(unsubbed trailer)