Wife! Be Like a Rose! (妻よ薔薇のやうに, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Wife be like a rose posterIt’s tempting to view the cinema of the 1930s as a gloomy affair, facilitating the rise of militarism and increasingly at mercy of the censors, but the early sound era was nothing if not playful and generously open to international influences. It was also often surprisingly progressive, evidencing the fact that pre-war Japan was also changing or, at least, that there was an appetite for change especially among the young. Mikio Naruse’s delightfully charming (perhaps uncharacteristically so) comedy, Wife! Be Like a Rose! (妻よ薔薇のやうに, Tsuma yo bara no yo ni) dramatises just this change as its modern girl heroine tries to process the definitive end of her parents’ relationship as she prepares to marry.

Kimiko (Sachiko Chiba) has a job in an office which is more or less supporting herself and her mother seeing as her father, Shunsaku (Sadao Maruyama), left the family over 15 years previously and has been living with former geisha with whom he has two other children. Despite his long absence, Kimiko’s mother Etsuko (Toshiko Ito) has continued to pine for her absent husband and makes a little money on the side writing sad love poems for the newspapers. A request to stand as a go between at a wedding, traditionally a role only performed by married women, forces Etsuko to accept that she has been abandoned but the snag is that Kimiko and her boyfriend Seiji (Heihachiro Okawa) want to get married themselves and so his father wants to meet Kimiko’s dad which is obviously a problem.

Despite her “modern girl” appearance, Kimiko has some quite old fashioned ideas. She looks down on her maudlin mother, believing that she’s brought her apparent romantic heartbreak on herself through being a bad wife. Etsuko never seemed very interested in Shunsaku when he was around and never did any of the little wifely things Kimiko thinks a wife ought to do like vacuous chat and helping her husband change out of his work clothes. Kimiko thinks a good wife “acts childish and cajoling, or jealous sometimes, or motherly and protective”, believing that Etsuko knows this and has the ability to play the part of the ideal spouse but refuses to and therefore has only herself to blame. Kimiko’s uncle (Kamatari Fujiwara), however, corrects her. He piles the blame on the irresponsible Shunsaku who ran out on a wife and daughter to shack up with geisha.

Shunsaku, meanwhile, may be irresponsible in one sense, but perhaps it’s equally irresponsible to stay in an unhappy marriage. Now a gold prospector in the mountains, he is poor and unsuccessful but has built a happy family home with a kindly wife and two sweet children. Kimiko’s desire to drag him back to the city is partly practical in that she needs him to be her father so she can marry Seiji, but there’s also a part of her that thinks that her father’s transgression must be corrected by forcing him to resume his paternal role. Unlike Etsuko, however, Oyuki (Yuriko Hanabusa) is the classically “good” wife and Kimiko can’t deny she’s good for her father. Seeing him in the mountains and remembering him at home, Kimiko begins to realise that it would be wrong to take him away from his new family even if she thinks she has the better claim, especially when she finds out that it’s Oyuki who’s been sending her mother maintenance cheques every month for the past few years.

In fact, Oyuki feels so guilty about stealing Shunsaku away that she’s been putting money aside to pay for Kimiko’s wedding/education while keeping her own daughter home from school. Far from the gold digger Kimiko had assumed her to be, she’s been the one supporting the feckless Shunsaku as he pursues his get rich quick dream of gold prospecting. Realising that the pair of them “act in perfect harmony”, Kimiko comes to the conclusion that her father belongs in the mountains but finds her resolve wavering after returning to civilisation. She begins to wish he’d stay and hatches a plan to get her parents back together only to see how out of sync they are after 15 years apart. They swap pleasantries like strangers, and the mild-mannered Shunsaku visibly shrinks in the presence of the shrewish Etsuko who allows her pride to ruin any attempt at reconciliation.

What the modern girl Kimiko discovers is that sometimes things don’t work out like they’re supposed to, and that’s OK. Though it is in one sense a “happy” ending in that it obeys a justice born of human feeling, it’s also a melancholy moment of defeat both for the lovelorn Etsuko who has, as Kimiko says “lost”, and the now resigned Kimiko who harbours a degree of contempt towards her mother for not fighting harder for love. Standing at a crossroads of modernity, Kimiko looks both forward and back. She vows to be a “good wife” but her foundations have been shaken. Is this tragedy, or farce? She asks herself. It’s almost impossible to say.


Tochuken Kumoemon (桃中軒雲右衛門, Mikio Naruse, 1936)

Tochuzen KazoemonIt’s an age old question, but does being a great artist give you the right to treat other people terribly? Hopefully, most people would say no, it does not. Most “great artists”, however, may have a different opinion. The hero of Mikio Naruse’s 1936 biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (桃中軒雲右衛門, AKA Man of the House) is very much of the opinion that inflicting suffering on others, and thereby vicariously suffering himself (but not really because who cares about them), is the source of all his supposedly “great art”.

Tochuken Kumoemon was in fact a real person who died twenty years before the film’s release and had his heyday as a renowned yet scandal ridden performer of “rokyoku” in late Meiji. To brings things full circle and explain why perhaps his life was fit for cinematic exploration in the politically fraught atmosphere of 1936, it’s helpful to remember that Tochuken Kumoemon’s performances of such patriotic fare as the 47 Ronin helped to rouse nationalist sentiment during the Russo-Japanese conflict. “Rokyoku”, also known as “naniwabushi”, is a traditional art of narrative singing accompanied by shamisen which found favour with the militarists for its essential Japaneseness and hearty rustic vulgarity.

In any case, we meet Tochuken Kumoemon (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) on a train drawing closer to his planned return to Tokyo after having been forced to flee it eight years previously because of a sex scandal which led him to separate from his first wife, leaving a son, Sentaro (Kaoru Ito), behind, and marry Otsuma (Chikako Hosokawa) – his shamisen player with whom he is currently travelling. The troupe are supposed to be breaking their journey at Kozu, but for reasons unexplained, Tochuken Kumoemon decides to get off the train at Shizuoka and promptly disappears without a word to anyone. 

The disappearance is problematic on several levels, the first being that the stop was only engineered to allow Tochuken Kumoemon to visit his estranged son Sentaro. Some in the group posit that Tochuken Kumoemon has come down with a rare case of stage fright seeing as this Tokyo show will be his biggest to date, while others assume he is embarrassed to go back to the city because of the scandals which previously engulfed him there, and some believe he is simply conflicted about visiting the son he abandoned to run off with another woman.

Anyone who knows him, however, might be better placed to realise that the great Tochuken Kumoemon rarely has a reason for doing anything save that it pleased him to do so at the time. Nevertheless, what we discover about him as he tours the inns of Kozu throwing his money about like some crazed libertine, is that he apparently liked his life better when he was poor but is bravely suffering under the burdens of wealth “for his art”. In fact everything in Tochuken Kumoemon’s life is “for his art”, including the thoughts and feelings of those closest to him.

Tochuken Kumoemon’s story may be intended as a kind of militarist parable about a man who devoted everything of himself to a particular ideal, in his case art but for the militarists perhaps country. The major problem here is that Tochuken Kumoemon never particularly suffers himself, grinning broadly throughout, but forces others to suffer on his behalf while he extracts from them qualities he can use to enhance his performance. Pain may be good for art, but it’s rarely good for life, and most would find themselves questioning why it is those around him remain contented to suffer solely to facilitate Tochuken Kumoemon’s artistic fulfilment.

Loyal wife Otsuma begins to reconsider, bravely challenging Tochuken Kumoemon on the inauthenticity of his performances which, though growing in popularity, she feels to be increasingly hollow. She remembers the early days of their courtship which were apparently marked by a fierce competitive rivalry which proved artistically beneficial to them both before spilling over into other kinds of offstage passion which now appears to have cooled. Otsuma, now weakened as she finds herself succumbing to the later stages of consumption, something Tochuken Kumoemon refuses to acknowledge, fears that she is now unable to inspire him with her playing which is why he’s been up to his old tricks consorting with geishas. Claiming that Otsuma wouldn’t care about his affairs because she’s an artist too and will therefore “understand”, Tochuken Kumoemon has taken up with a pretty little thing, Chidori (Sachiko Chiba), from whom he intends to steal “youth and innocence” for his performances, little caring what he might leave behind.

For Tochuken Kumoemon everything is simply fuel for art and so he’s excused himself from the need to treat others with respect or kindness. Sentaro, his rejected son, rejects this aspect of his father’s philosophy, immediately bonding with his kindly step-mother and resenting his absent father’s treatment of her. In “raising” his son, Tochuken Kumoemon bangs on about traditionally “militarist” values of manliness, explaining that he is imperfect because he is a “great artist” and that his life has been full of problems but that he has overcome them with strength and perseverance. He tells his son that “weakness is the worst thing in a man”, but appears primed to hit the roof on learning that Sentaro may be expelled from school for fighting with his schoolmates because they mocked his unconventional family setup. Worst of all he casts his son away as one of the many who unfairly demand “perfection” from him even though he is an artist and cannot be expected to abide by the rules of “normal people”.

Meanwhile, Otsuma lies dying in a hospital. Tochuken Kumoemon won’t see her because he refuses to view her as “just a woman”, preferring to remember her as “a woman who lived only for art”. The subtext being for “his” art, rather than her own. He betrays himself when he admits that he “doesn’t want to be any more sad” than he is now, simply refusing to deal with the unpleasantness and personal suffering of facing the fact that someone important to you is in pain and will soon be gone. Yet despite a brief rebellion after an ill-advised gift from Chidori, Otsuma eventually agrees to sacrifice herself for Tochuken Kumoemon’s art, to die “quietly” as an artist and not as a woman. 

It’s only at this point that Tochuken Kumoemon decides to embrace the romance of the moment, finally travelling to her deathbed in order to sing a song. If Tochuken Kumoemon is a militarist hero, he’s not a particularly sympathetic one. He remains monstrously self-involved, hypocritical, an emotional coward who uses the suffering of others for his own ends with only the justification of the primacy of his art. Naruse undercuts the propaganda potential of the piece by painting his patriotic singer as a ridiculous prig who embodies the militarists’ coldness towards the thoughts and feelings of their fellow humans but displays none of their supposedly romantic heroism in his empty swagger and well worn platitudes. Is naniwabushi really worth all this pain? No. Someone needs to tell Tochuken Kumoemon he’s not as important as he thinks he is. And while they’re at it, they could have a word with the militarists, too.


The real Tochuken Kumoemon

Real TOCHUKEN KUMOEMON

The Sun’s Burial (太陽の墓場, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

sun's burial poster“Love and hope for the youth!” reads a prominent sign in the middle of a hopeless slum in Oshima’s bitterly nihilistic youth drama The Sun’s Burial (太陽の墓場, Taiyo no Hakaba). Then at Shochiku, home of polite melodrama, Oshima was one of a handful of youngsters (that also included Kiju Yoshida and Masahiro Shinoda) bumped up to director ahead of schedule in an attempt to find voices who could speak to youth in much the same way Nikkatsu was doing with its incendiary tales of the new bright young things. The Sun’s Burial would be Oshima’s penultimate film for the studio before he stormed out after they pulled his next film Night and Fog in Japan from cinemas fearing its fierce critique of a divided left torn apart by dogmatic rigidity and generational conflict was too on the nose in wake of the assassination of the Socialist Party leader by a right-wing nationalist.

Set in the slums of Kamagasaki, Osaka, The Sun’s Burial follows a collection of desperate adolescents trying to survive in an intensely hostile environment. Our “hero” the conflicted Takeshi (Isao Sasaki), is inducted into a street gang after getting beaten up by young tough Yasu (Yusuke Kawazu). Along with his friend Tatsu, he is originally quite taken with the idea of becoming a gang member, but blanches when he passes a room full of captive women, one of whom is being beaten for having conceived a child.

Meanwhile, across town, his polar opposite, the cynical survivor Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) is running a blood racket, literally bleeding the proletariat to sell their bodily fluids on to the cosmetics trade. Technically operating under the aegis of her petty thug father Yosematsu (Junzaburo Ban), Hanako is in business with a doctor and a couple of minions but later has her authority undercut by a mad old imperialist known as “The Agitator” (Eitaro Ozawa) who keeps insisting that the Russians are coming and they have to be ready.

Not permitted to maintain power in her own right, Hanako is forced to shuttle between male protectors, occasionally pitting one against the other in a bid to come out on top. In addition to her blood business, she also engages in casual sex work and seemingly has no qualms about wielding her sex appeal as a weapon in order to manipulate male power. Pushed out by The Agitator, she turns to gang leader Shin (Masahiko Tsugawa) for a temporary alliance. When he too cuts her out, she thinks about tipping off the area’s big Yakuza boss, Ohama (Gen Shimizu), to Shin’s whereabouts, always looking a few moves ahead while the callous Shin remains wary and ever vigilant.

In a move which surprises and disturbs the naive Takeshi who is nevertheless captivated by her cynical self assurance, Hanako is entirely indifferent to the suffering of other women, willingly co-operating with Shin while knowing that he runs an abusive prostitution ring. Takeshi’s loss of innocence comes early when he is sent to go out and find some victims with his friend Tatsu who convinces him to club a high school boy canoodling with his girlfriend over the head so they can rob him. Takeshi looks on in mild confusion and horror as Tetsu proceeds to rape the young woman, turning to Hanako for guidance but all she does is shrug. The high school boy later commits suicide, presumably unable to bear the shame of having failed to protect his girlfriend, leaving Takeshi feeling as if he has blood on his hands. To Hanako, however, the boy’s death is no one’s fault but his own, a product of his own weakness. A strong person, she posits, would have sought revenge. What sort of person ups and dies without a fight?

Meanwhile, back in the slum, a man hangs himself after falling victim to The Agitator’s latest scam – getting involved with a dodgy gangster’s exploitative scheme to buy up legitimate IDs from desperate people and sell them to even more desperate undocumented migrant workers. Full of tales of Empire, The Agitator declares that he’s going to march them all up to Tokyo and teach those noisy students a lesson, proving somehow that populist militarism is not yet dead in quiet corners of Japan. The Agitator has several followers among the middle-aged and older denizens of Kamagasaki, taken in by his bluster and lacking any other sources of hope. They follow him because he demands to be followed and because he made them a series of promises. Only when they realise his plans rest on exploiting people even more unfortunate than they are, and suddenly realising he never got round to paying them either, do they finally rebel, burning down the slum in protest of their hopeless circumstances.

Berated for her cynicism by the now compromised Takeshi, Hanako offers only the defence that she has survived and will continue to survive where others may not if they allow their consciences to take precedence over self-preservation. Bleak as it gets, Oshima ends on with a note of anxious industry as his determined heroine dusts herself off and gets “back to work”, escaping from the ruins of the burned out slum in the bright morning sun. “No hope for Japan now” an embittered member of the older generation laments, and Oshima, it seems, is apt to agree.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shitamachi no Taiyo (下町の太陽, Yoji Yamada, 1963)

(C) Shochiku 1963

Shitamachi no Taiyou DVD coverYoji Yamada’s debut feature, The Strangers Upstairs, was very much of its time as it attempted to capture the aspirational fighting spirit of the post-war era through the struggles of a nice young couple who are trying to “get on” and escape their humble origins for the salaryman dream through achieving the goal of home ownership as quickly as possible. His second film, Shitamachi no Taiyo (下町の太陽, also known as The Sunshine Girl / Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood), takes a slightly different look at a similar issue as a young woman from Shitamachi – a working class industrial area on the outskirts of Tokyo, agonises over her future prospects as she considers a marriage to her longterm boyfriend who has ambitions to join the salaryman revolution.

Yamada opens with shots of Shitamachi and its prominent smokestacks while the now famous song plays in an instrumental version over the credits, before abruptly shifting to visions of the upscale Ginza where Machiko (Chieko Baisho) and her boyfriend Michio (Tamotsu Hayakawa) are enjoying a demonstration of an extraordinarily expensive, state of the art radio before retreating to a cafe where they agree that sometimes its more fun to “aspire” to things than actually obtain them. After all, there’s no way they could ever afford the diamond rings they walked past on their way out of the department store unless they decided to rob the place. Both Machiko and Michio are residents of Shitamachi and work in a local soap factory. Michio, however, has his sights firmly set on the path to a middle-class life and is planning to take the exam for a promotion to head office – though he lacks qualifications, Michio is confident because he’s studying hard (though more so because his dad and his section chief served together in the war so Michio is sure a good word will be put in for him).

Despite her fondness for Michio, Machiko has her doubts about his overriding ambition to get out of Shitamachi. Since her mother died, Machiko has been the lady of the house and primary caregiver for her naughty little brother Kenji (Joji Yanagisawa) while her older brother Kunio (Toshio Suzuki) is the family brainbox and also planning to bust out only through the path of education rather than advancement. Having left education behind, Machiko is happily contributing to the family finances with her job on the packing line at the soap factory which is, all things considered, not too bad – the work may be dull and methodical but also relatively quiet and stress free, not to mention sweet smelling. Nevertheless, Machiko does not necessarily want to work on the shop floor all her life but knows her opportunities are limited.

This fact is one cruelly brought home to her by a moody Michio when descends into a major sulk on learning that he hasn’t passed the test for head office because another of his colleagues outdid him – both in terms of his study ranking and in one upping him in having a direct connection to the director. While Machiko tries her best to sympathise and put up with his moody petulance, Michio chooses to throw her sympathy back in her face by abruptly announcing that she can’t understand the pain he’s going through because careers are irrelevant to women who only use them as a stopgap until they get married. Thoroughly annoyed, Machiko leaves Michio to his wallowing before things get any worse but she can’t argue with the fact that he’s only said what most people think.

Still, Machiko isn’t even sure she wants to get married. One of her friends, Kazuko (Kyoko Aoi), recently won the jackpot – she married a nice man who did get a promotion to head office and won the housing lottery for a home on one of the shiny new “danchi” – brand new apartment complexes for upwardly mobile young couples and the very embodiment of post-war aspiration. However, when Machiko and a friend visit the new bride they find that she is not quite as happy as one might expect. Though married life is peaceful enough and she and her husband evidently get on, Kazuko is also intensely lonely. With her husband away at work all day and often out playing golf with colleagues on Sundays too (not to mention after hours drinking and miscellaneous get togethers), there’s precious little for Kazuko to do, stuck at home all day cooking and cleaning while waiting for her husband to return. Having moved to the danchi she’s also lost her community and is no longer close enough to her friends to see them very often.

Meanwhile, Machiko is also somewhat disturbed by Kazuko’s collection of expensive cosmetics which her husband has instructed her to buy because he’s “very particular” about her appearance. Kazuko makes sure her makeup is on point before her husband gets home because that’s apparently what he likes. Machiko, however, does not like this – to start with, she thinks Kazuko looks better without. Not that there’s anything wrong with wearing makeup because you want to wear it, but the idea of wearing it because someone told you to and you’re worried they’ll “get bored” with your face doesn’t strike her as a particularly healthy relationship dynamic. If this is what a love marriage is like, perhaps Machiko would rather do without.

Despite her otherwise close relationship with Michio, it quickly becomes obvious that she does not love him and if she decides to marry him it will be because it’s the “sensible” decision rather than any great romantic desire. Annoyingly enough, Michio hasn’t really even asked her, he just assumes they will marry once he gets his promotion. He also assumes that Machiko, like him, will want to shake the dust of Shitamachi off her feet for good for the bright lights of Tokyo. Machiko, however is not so sure. “Getting on” is one thing and there’s nothing wrong with “aspiration”, but that doesn’t mean you need to look down on the people who come from the same place as you – after all, the sun still shines even in Shitamachi and there’s nothing wrong in choosing to be happy here rather than always chasing an unattainable dream of conventional success.

Another possibility presents itself when Machiko meets an unrefined boy who has an ordinary job in the steelworks. Though their first meeting did not make a good impression – he creepily chased her off a train and then made a mess of trying to explain why, they later bond when she realises he has befriended her troubled little brother and the pair then end up spending a pleasant evening together which is far more romantic than any of her dull and conventional outings with Michio. Then again the choice she faces isn’t between two men but whether or not to embrace her own ability to make a definitive choice about her future. What she rejects is cold and selfish path of men like Michio who only want to get ahead and are willing to step on anyone who gets in their way to make it happen. Machiko doesn’t want fancy radios and diamond rings, she just wants to not have to worry too much about money and for someone to actually listen to what she’s saying. She doesn’t want to end up like Kazuko, all alone in a sparkling apartment with nothing to do but knit. When Michio tells her to shut up and do as he says because he’ll definitely make her happy, the choice seems clear. Hard work, community, and maybe the fiery boy who seems determined to get a yes rather than assuming he already has one. Who wouldn’t want to live here?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Famous title song performed by Chieko Baisho

The Portrait (肖像, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)

vlcsnap-2018-09-06-01h35m07s763The immediate post-war period was one of fear and hardship. You might survive, but you might not like the person you’ll have to become in order to do so. The (unexpected) heroine of Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Portrait (肖像, Shozo) thought she’d made her peace with her choices, only to be confronted by a vision of her essential self as seen through the eyes of a cheerfully innocent artist. Despite the harshness of the times, there are those who’ve learned to be happy in their lot, but is their talent for happiness inspiration or irritation for those who’ve chosen a different path?

Kinoshita opens with a comic scene in which two shady real estate brokers take a look at a local property. Deciding it’s overpriced and impractical, the pair nevertheless decide to buy it together with the intention of flipping it once they convert the downstairs workspace into more practical living accommodation. There is, however, a slight hitch in that there are sitting tenants – a painter and his family who live in the room upstairs and use the rooms below as a studio. Thinking it will be easy enough to evict them, the men aren’t bothered but the the family are all so relentlessly nice that no one has yet been able to tell them to go. As a last resort, one of the men, Kaneko (Eitaro Ozawa), decides to move into the upstairs with his mistress, Midori (Kuniko Igawa), in the hope that the family will feel so awkward and in the way they will decide to vacate. Innocent and unworldly, the Nomuras all assume Midori is her lover’s daughter rather than his mistress, and start treating her like a well to do young lady. Such sudden and unexpected respect starts to weigh on Midori’s mind as she finds herself playing along, pretending to be “nice” and “respectable” while knowing that the life she’s living is anything but.

The problem is that the Nomuras are so essentially kind and welcoming that they really don’t mind sharing the house. Mr. Nomura (Ichiro Sugai), the middle-aged painter, feels guilty that he doesn’t earn more money and is too poor to move, but he’s also the sort to get over excited about having grown a giant pumpkin that he can’t resist showing to absolutely everyone. As it turns out the Nomuras are also living with a private tragedy – their eldest son Ichiro (Toru Abe) whose wife Kumiko (Kuniko Miyake) and son Koichi also live with the family has not yet returned home from the war and his whereabouts are unknown. Still, they don’t mind talking about it and are as happy as they can be, dancing away under the light of the moon – an unexpected upside to constant power outages. Meanwhile, Kaneko complains loudly as he attempts to finish his accounts in the evening gloom.

Midori half envies, half resents her new neighbours. The longer she lives with the Nomuras the guiltier she starts to feel in deceiving them. Matters begin to come to a head when Mr. Nomura asks permission to paint her portrait. He thinks Midori has a very “interesting” face, in part because he can see a sadness in her eyes that is totally absent in those of his daughter, Yoko (Yoko Katsuragi). Midori agrees and swaps her usual Western attire for the kimono her mother once gave her, but the picture Mr. Nomura paints begins to bother her. The portrait is of a pure young woman, innocent and honest, which is about as far from the way she sees herself as it’s possible to be.

As a friend of Midori’s puts it, you have to survive somehow and Midori thought she’d made her peace with the way she has decided to live but the portrait reminds her that she wasn’t always like this and now she’s not sure which version of herself she ought to despise. She wishes she could paint herself over, but feels her fate is sealed and there’s no way back. Kumiko, a little more worldly wise than her in-laws, is perfectly aware of what’s been going on upstairs but isn’t at all bothered by it. She doesn’t blame Midori for the choices that she’s made and thinks the picture is accurate in capturing her true soul, advising her that it is possible to be that woman again if that’s what she really wants.

The Portrait was scripted by none other than Akira Kurosawa whose belief in the essential goodness of humanity was perhaps not quite as strong as Kinoshita’s but the Nomuras are nevertheless typical Kinoshita heroes and it’s their unguarded warmth and kindness which begins to change the world for those around them. Even the cynical Kaneko is eventually moved by their cheerful selflessness, forced to accept their accidental moral victory rather than continue with his nefarious plan. Midori, forced into a reconsideration of herself, stands in for a generation attempting to make peace with the compromises of the past, learning that they don’t need to define the future and that it isn’t too late to strive for a more authentic life of simple happiness even if you feel you may have already sunk too far.


The Nomuras dancing in the moonlight

The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Bad Sleep Well posterThere’s something rotten in the state of Japan – The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru), Akira Kurosawa’s take on Hamlet, unlike his previous two Shakespearean adaptations, is set firmly in the murky post-war society which, it becomes clear, is so mired in systems of corruption as to be entirely built on top of them. Our hero, like Hamlet himself, is a conflicted revenger. He intends to hold a mirror up to society, reflecting the ugly picture back to the yet unknowing world in the hope that something will really change. Change, however, comes slow – especially when it comes at the disadvantage of those who currently hold all the cards.

We open at a wedding. A small number of attendants lineup around a lift waiting for the arrival of the married couple only for a carriage full of reporters to pour out, apparently in hope of scandal though this is no gossip worthy society function but the wedding of a CEO’s daughter to his secretary. The press is in attendance because the police are – they believe there will be arrests today in connection with the ongoing corruption scandal engulfing the company in which a number of employees are suspected of engaging in kickbacks on government funded projects.

The rather strange wedding proceeds with the top brass sweating buckets while the bride’s brother (Tatsuya Mihashi), already drunk on champagne, takes to the mic with a bizarre speech “refuting” the claims that the groom, Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), has only married the bride, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), for financial gain before avowing that he will kill his new brother-in-law if he makes his little sister sad. Nishi, as we later discover, has indeed married with an ulterior motive which is anticipated by the arrival of a second wedding cake in the shape of a building at the centre of a previous corruption scandal with one black rose sticking out of the seventh floor window from which an employee, Furuya, committed suicide five years previously.

The police are keen to interview their suspects, the press are keen to report on scandal, but somehow or other the system of corruption perpetuates itself. The top guys cover for each other, and when they can’t they “commit suicide” rather than embarrass their “superiors” by submitting themselves to justice. The system of loyalty and reward, of misplaced “honour” mixed with personal greed, ensures its own survival through homosocial bonding with backroom deals done in hostess bars and the lingering threat of scandal and personal ruin for all should one rogue whistleblower dare to threaten the governing principle of an entire economy.

Nishi chooses to threaten it, partly as an act of revolution but mainly as an act of filial piety in avenging the wrongful death of his father who had, in a sense, cast him aside for financial gain and societal success. Wanting to get on, Nishi’s father refused to marry his mother and instead married the woman his “superiors” told him to. Later, his father threw himself out of a seventh floor window because his “superiors” made him understand this was what was expected of him. Furuya wasn’t the last, each time a man’s transgressions progress too far his “superiors” sacrifice him to ensure the survival of the system. Strangely no one seems to rebel, the men go to their deaths willingly, accepting their fate without question rather than submitting themselves to the law and taking their co-conspirators down with them though should someone refuse to do the “decent” thing, there are other ways to ensure their continuing silence.

Reinforcing the post-war message, Nishi chooses a disused munitions factory for his secret base. Both he and his co-conspirator, a war orphan, had been high school conscripts until the factory was destroyed by firebombing and thereafter were forced to live by their wits alone on the streets. Nishi swears that he wants to take revenge on those who manipulate the vulnerable, but finds himself becoming ever more like his prey and worse, hardly caring, wanting only to steel himself for the difficult task ahead.

In any revolution there will be casualties, but these casualties will often be those whom Nishi claims to represent. Chief among them his new wife, Yoshiko, who has been largely cushioned from the harshness of the outside world thanks to her father’s wealth and seeming care. She loves her husband and wants to believe in her father or more particularly that the moral arc of her society points towards goodness. Nishi, tragically falling for his mark, married his wife to destroy her family but ironically finds himself torn between genuine love for Yoshiko, a desire for revenge, and a mission of social justice. Can he, and should he, be prepared to “sacrifice” an innocent in the same way the “superiors” of the world sacrifice their underlings in order to end a system of oppression or should he abandon his plan and save his wife the pain of learning the truth about her husband, her father, and the world in which she lives?

In the end, Nishi will waver. Yoshiko’s father, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), will not. Goodness becomes a weakness – Iwabuchi turns his daughter’s love and faith against her, subverting her innocence for his own evil. He makes a sacrifice of her in service of his own “superiors” who may be about to declare that they “have complete faith” in him at any given moment. The only thing that remains clear is that Iwabuchi will not be forgiven, the wronged children of the post-war era will not be so quick to bow to injustice. Let the great axe fall? One can only hope.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (御用牙, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

Hanzo sword of Justice posterJapanese cinema was in a state of flux in the early ‘70s. Audiences were dwindling. Daiei, a once popular studio known for polished, lavish productions folded while Nikkatsu took the proactive measure to rebrand itself as a purveyor of soft core pornography. Toho did not go so far, but in its first foray into a new kind of jidaigeki, exploitation was the name of the game. Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (御用牙, Goyokiba) was released in 1972 – the same year as the beginning of another seminal series, Lone Wolf and Cub, which was produced by Hanzo’s star, former Zatoichi actor Shintaro Katsu, who also happens to the be brother of the franchise’s lead Tomisaburo Wakayama. Like Lone Wolf and Cub, Hanzo the Razor is based on a manga by Kazuo Koike whose work later provided inspiration for the Lady Snowblood films, and is directed by Lone Wolf and Cub’s Kenji Misumi. It is then of a certain pedigree but its intentions are different. More obviously comedic in its exaggerated, unpleasant sexualised “humour”, Hanzo the Razor is also a tale of the systemic corruption of the feudal order but one which casts its “hero” as a noble rapist.

Honest and steadfast police officer Hanzo (Shintaro Katsu) usually skips the annual swearing in ceremony but this year he’s decided to make an appearance. He appears to have done so to make a personal stand by refusing to sign the policeman’s oath because he knows everyone else is breaking it. Officers may not be doing something so obvious as accepting cash for preferential treatment, but they gladly accept free drinks, gifts from lords, and entertainment in the local geisha houses. Hanzo’s actions, honest as they are, do not go down well with his fellow officers and if he can’t figure something out on time, Hanzo faces the possibility that his career in law enforcement may come to an abrupt end when contracts are up for renewal at the end of the year.

Whatever else Hanzo is, he doesn’t like bullies or those who abuse their authority and the trust placed in them by those they are supposed to be protecting. More than just saving his own skin, Hanzo is determined to unmask the hypocrisy and corruption of his boss, Onishi (Ko Nishimura), who he discovers shares a mistress with a notorious killer still on the run. Chasing this early thread, Hanzo walks straight into a chain of corruption which leads all the way to the top.

At his best, Hanzo is a steadfast champion of the people who remain oppressed by the corrupt and venal samurai order. Far from the a by the books operative, Hanzo is prepared to do what’s best over what’s right as in his decision to help a pair of siblings who are faced with a terrible dilemma trying to care for a terminally ill father. He’s also extremely well prepared, having installed a host of booby traps and hidden weapons caches throughout his home to deal with any conceivable threat. Dedicated in the extreme, Hanzo has also spent long hours testing his torture techniques on himself to find out the exact point of maximum efficiency for each of them.

Here’s where things get a little more unusual. As Hanzo climbs down from a bout of torture, a huge erection is visible inside his loincloth, prompting him to reveal that it’s pain which really turns him on. Later we see Hanzo doing some maintenance on his “tool” which involves placing it on a wooden board bearing a huge penis shaped indent, and hitting it repeatedly with a hammer before ramming it back and forth into a bag of uncooked rice. Each to their own, but Hanzo derives no pleasure from these acts – they are simply to make sure his “special interrogation method” runs at maximum efficiency. Which is to say, Hanzo’s preferred technique for getting women to talk amounts to rape but as each of them fall victim to his oversize member they cry out in pleasure, willing to spill the beans just to get Hanzo to finish what he started. Playing into the fallacy that all women long to be raped, Hanzo’s inappropriate misuse of his own authority is played for laughs – after all, the women eventually enjoy themselves so it’s no harm done, right? Troubling, but par for the course in the world of Hanzo.

This essential contradiction in Hanzo’s character – the last honourable man who nevertheless abuses his authority in the course his duty (though he apparently takes no personal pleasure in the act), is reduced to a roguish foible as he goes about the otherwise serious business of taking down corrupt authority and ensuring the law protects the people it’s supposed to protect. Odd as it is, Hanzo’s world is an strangely sexualised one in which sexually liberated women wield surprising amounts of power. Hanzo is assured one of his targets has “no lesbian tendencies” as other older court ladies are said to, while a gaggle of camp young men gossip about the size of Hanzo’s world beating penis. In an odd move, Misumi even includes a penis eye view of Hanzo’s techniques, superimposed over the face of a woman writhing in pleasure. Surreal and broadly humorous if offensive, Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice is very much of its time though strangely lighthearted in its obviously bizarre worldview.


Original trailer (English subtitles)