Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン, Yukiko Mishima, 2012)

“Plain bread is nice too” a short-term visitor concedes having reached an epiphany after a few days’ stay at Cafe Mani in Yukiko Mishima’s slice of comfort cinema, Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン, Shiawase no Pan). Perhaps in its own way a reaction to the devastating earthquake and tsunami of the previous year which is referenced in the closing arc, Mishima’s drama is one of a series of films from the 2010s advocating for a simpler life built on empathy and mutual compassion as a bulwark against the increasing disappointments of a relentlessly consumerist society. 

The heroine, Rie (Tomoyo Harada), was a lonely child who buried herself in a fantastical children’s book about a little boy, Mani, who was best friends with the Moon. Touched by Mani’s words when the Moon asked him to take down the sun because its brightness made his life unbearable that “what matters most is that it shines on you and that you shine on others”, Rie resolved to find her own Mani but has long since given up. She and her her husband Mizushima (Yo Oizumi) have recently relocated to a Hokkaido ranch where they run a cafe bakery that has quickly become a community hub tending to the wounded souls of the local area and sometimes even beyond. 

The urban/rural contrast is rammed home by the couple’s first guest, Kaori (Kanna Mori ), a young shop girl from Tokyo who was supposed to be going to Okinawa with her boyfriend but he stood her up and she’s come to Hokkaido instead. Although originally grumpy and sullen, Kaori begins to warm to the charms of rural life complaining that in Tokyo people have to force themselves to smile. Her words accidentally hurt the feelings of local boy Tokio (Yuta Hiraoka), conversely jealous of big city opportunity but lacking the courage to strike out from his small-town life in which ironically enough he works as a points switcher at the local railway. What Kaori learns through her various experiences and the kindness of the Mizushimas isn’t that country life is better just that small happinesses are often all you need, there is pleasure in simplicity, and there’s no need to submit herself to the pretentiousness of city life explaining that she’s going to tell her coworkers the truth about her Okinawan holiday and bring some of the wholesome homemade bread back for them too. 

But then, it isn’t always so easy as the couple discover trying to help a sad little girl in the wake of marital breakdown. In a slightly surprising twist, Maki (Yuki Yagi) has been abandoned by her mother who has left the family and is struggling to accept both her loss and the change in circumstances which goes with it. The dilemma revolves around a bowl of pumpkin soup which Maki refuses to eat despite having previously longed to taste her mother’s signature dish. The realisation she comes to is that something can be different but that doesn’t make it bad, bonding with her equally dejected father (Ken Mitsuishi) thanks to the gentle support of the Mizushimas who seem to have a knack for knowing just what everyone who comes through their door needs. 

That goes double for the elderly couple who turn up late one night in the dead of winter, husband Fumio (Katsuo Nakamura) worryingly explaining that they’ve lived long enough, that while you’re young you still have the possibility of change, of becoming “a different you”, but old age has no further possibility nor the ability to change. Having lost their daughter in the tsunami the old couple are trapped in an inertia of grief from which they are gradually awakened by the gentle care of the Mizushimas and the sight of the beautiful moon that shines down on Cafe Mani. 

Rie meanwhile remains privately dejected, longing for her own Mani but convinced she’ll never find him only to realise he’s been there all along. Just like the words in the picture book, Rie and Mizushima have resolved to be the light, Fumio later sending them a letter claiming that they have discovered the ideal form of happiness in their simple life doing as they please surrounded by friends who have already become family and offering love and support to all who come through their doors through the medium of delicious seasonal food. With a host of quirky side characters including an omniscient glass blower (Kimiko Yo), genial postie (Chikara Honda), farmers with an ever expanding family, and a regular customer who carries a mysterious trunk around, while narrated (seemingly) by a sheep with the voice of a child Mishima’s gentle drama is foodie pure comfort cinema in which good bread and a warm fire may yet save the world.


Bread of Happiness until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Devotion to Railway (大いなる驀進, Hideo Sekigawa, 1960)

In the early 1960s, Japan’s rail network might have felt a little uneasy with the Shinkansen already on the horizon. Hideo Sekigawa’s Devotion to Railway (大いなる驀進, Oinaru Bakushin) is in part a celebration of this essential service, the conductor and steward ever fond of reminding us that most passengers probably don’t realise that the Sakura sleeper service on which they are travelling from Tokyo all the way to Nagasaki is operated by only seven or eight people (though they don’t seem to be counting the staff from the dining car which hints at a minor source of division among the crew). While the Japanese title which means something more like “the great dash” might hint at a little more excitement, the film is less thriller than gentle ensemble drama in which the passengers and crew must come together to solve the improbable number of crises arising on this otherwise ordinary journey. 

Even so considering the film is directed by the left-leaning Sekigawa best known for his anti-war films such as Hiroshima and Listen to the Voices of the Sea, not to mention scripted by Kaneto Shindo, it is a little ironic that the central thrust of the drama revolves around junior steward Yajima’s (Katsuo Nakamura) rediscovery of his own devotion to the railway after at the beginning of the film declaring this will be his final journey. Mimicking the dilemma at the centre of Yoshitaro Nomura’s Stakeout, Yajima’s problem is that he has been engaged for two years and is sick of waiting to get married but his girlfriend Kimie (Yoshiko Sakuma) is the main breadwinner in her family and though his salary could support them as a couple it won’t stretch much further. Kimie, however, is dead against him taking the counter-productive decision to quit the railways even with the suggestion of going into business with a friend who owns a cafe, partly because it’s better to stick with a steady job than take a chance on something less certain, and partly because she knows he likes his work and all his experience will be wasted if he suddenly opts to switch careers. 

Despite its positive warmhearted message of people pulling together to overcome crisis, the film does skew a little conservative in essentially turning Kimie into a minor villain as if she were in a sense responsible for making Yajima doubt his devotion to the railway. After jumping aboard to make sure he doesn’t suddenly quit before the end of the line, she eventually has a heart to heart with the sympathetic conductor Matsuzaki (Rentaro Mikuni) that forces to her to admit that perhaps she’s just nervous about the nature of married life and has been making trouble where there needn’t be any, now certain that it’s better to just get married as soon as possible and let the rest figure itself out. 

Meanwhile, there’s additional tension seeing as a waitress from the diner car has an obvious crush on Yajima and is quite resentful on being presented with his fiancée, but even this is eventually solved with the two women becoming accidental friends during the climatic crisis, a landslide caused by a typhoon, that grants each of the passengers an epiphany about what it is they really want out of life. While waiting for the maintenance crew from the next station to arrive, Yajima, still in a bad mood, stands around doing not much of anything until coaxed into action by Kimie and Matsuzaki, Kimie too eventually jumping off the train to solve this literal roadblock in their relationship followed by the dining car girls and a young woman only on the train to transport blood to a hospital needed urgently by 2pm the next day. This sense of collective endeavour opening the way gives everyone on board a new sense of positivity, allowing Kimie and Yajima to repair their relationship and a man who tried to take his own life in the night to gain a new sense of hope for future. 

Several times Yajima is reminded that he has the lives of the passengers in his hands which is undoubtedly true given that there is always the chance of disaster yet also perhaps going a little far seeing as most of his job is checking tickets and providing travel information. Nevertheless, there is a lot going on on this train from eloping couples to yakuza assassins, not to mention the twin sights of a newly wed couple and a pompous politician momentarily disembarking at each stop to be feted either by workers at their factory or the local members of their political party. The snooty politician even gets a minor comeuppance from a famous pickpocket who steals his watch as a joke and then gives it back only to dismissively ignore his thank you message while eating a giant apple. 

Surprisingly handsome for a Toei programmer, Sekigawa’s deft direction lends a claustrophobic sense of dread to the interior of the train stalked by a vengeful assassin, while simultaneously making it an essentially safe space guarded by the ever solicitous crew keen to help an anxious young woman with a long journey ahead of her arrive on time to get home to her chronically ill mother. An effective piece of advertising for the Sakura sleeper service (which ran until 2005 albeit in slightly different forms), Devotion to Railway may surprise in its insistence that the hero rededicate himself to his employer but is nevertheless a charming ensemble drama which finds a new sense of positivity in the solidarity between friends and strangers coming together to overcome crisis through common endeavour. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Rose on His Arm (太陽とバラ, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1956)

In the mid-1950s, a minor moral panic took hold over the so-called “Sun Tribe” movies which, inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara, depicted a world of crazed abandon in which a collection of bored rich kids lost themselves in the hedonistic pursuits of sex and drugs rejecting the stability the wartime generation had striven so hard to create for their children. Shochiku, at that time the home of polite melodrama, nevertheless attempted to get in on the youth movie boom mostly through commissioning a series of young directors such as Kiju Yoshida and Nagisa Oshima in the hope that they could speak directly to their generation. Meanwhile, the by that point well-established Keisuke Kinoshita also made his own, perhaps surprising, take on the genre with The Rose on His Arm (太陽とバラ, Taiyo to Bara), a youth movie melodrama which nevertheless anticipated the questions others were beginning to ask about the Sun Tribe movies in their very particular view of contemporary class dynamics. 

Our hero, Kiyoshi (Katsuo Nakamura), is like the (anti-)heroes of the post-Sun Tribe youth movies, a poor boy turned delinquent out of a sense of frustrated hopelessness. Quitting one job after another solely because the work is boring, he spends most of his days hanging out at the beach with other no good kids robbing unsuspecting bathers. Kiyoshi’s sense of inferiority is compounded by the fact that his mother (Sadako Sawamura) works as a maid for a wealthy family while making ends meet by crafting paper flowers by night. The young master of the house where his mother works, Masahiro (Akira Ishihama), never misses a chance to lord his wealth over him but later co-opts Kiyoshi into his group of wealthy friends as a source of entertainment (and because his delinquent friend, Yamanaka (Tamotsu Tamura), begins supplying them with drugs).

“I screwed up my life because I was poor, what’s your excuse?” Kiyoshi eventually asks an indifferent Masahiro after beginning to see him for what he is. Like the hero of Punishment Room, Kiyoshi’s internalised resentment is partly down to a paternal failure in that he is deeply ashamed of his late father who died, his mother claimed, saving him but also in the course of his activities as a black marketeer in which he’d forced his son to be complicit. The family had apparently tried to make a life for themselves in the new colonies, in this case Palau, but of course had to return to Japan and were then penniless. People did what they had to do, but no one trusts a black marketeer and it seems to be a stain Kiyoshi (whose name means “pure”) cannot wash off. As a poor boy with no education or prospects, he knows all that awaits him is drudgery, so why not make a fast buck stealing purses at the beach rather than slave away at the factory for a week making less than Masahiro gets in pocket money from his factory owner father? 

Convincing himself he’s no good, Kiyoshi consistently sabotages opportunities but resents himself for doing so. He begins to buckle down at the factory but quickly becomes “bored” and starts taking advantage of his supportive floor manager while sucked into Masahiro’s hedonistic lifestyle even after it becomes obvious that he’s keeping him around to be some kind of hired goon, good for punching other pasty rich boys and hooking him up with underworld thrills. Masahiro is a delinquent because his life is too easy, he has no economic imperative to be responsible and will most likely go to college and then either take over the factory or walk into a lucrative salaryman job. Kiyoshi is a delinquent because he’s desperate and has no other means of living. 

Meanwhile he resents his mother’s love, shamed, in more than one sense, by her continuing industry. She often tells him the story of how he fell ill on Palau only to make a miraculous recovery after which she collapsed into a rose a garden. To spite her, Kiyoshi gets the titular rose tattooed on his arm, something which forever marks him out as a ne’er do well in conservative Japanese society, all but guaranteeing he’ll never get an honest job (he even has to cover the tattoo with bandages in public places to avoid causing offence). Eventually he takes drastic action to end his sense of hopelessness, pursuing what is strangely a darker yet more romantic destiny than that of his post-Sun Tribe compatriots in taking a poetic stand, paper rose in hand, defying his despair only through embracing it. 


The Rose on His Arm is currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Bull’s Eye of Love (おしどり駕篭, Masahiro Makino, 1958)

Masahiro Makino was best known for jidaigeki and ninkyo eiga but also had an interesting sideline in cheerful period musicals including many collaborations with post-war singing sensation Hibari Misora. Bull’s Eye of Love (おしどり駕篭, Oshidori Kago) is, like Singing Lovebirds, a musical comedy in which a samurai (in disguise) and a feisty young woman fall in love while battling the corruption of their times. Though in this case Hibari takes a back seat in fighting samurai hypocrisy, she still gives as good as she gets as she fights for love across the class divide even while accepting that she can only have her love if he consents to renounce his nobility and live as a humble plasterer. 

The trouble starts when the old lord dies and a prominent retainer, Hyobu, leaps into action, taking control of the situation in fast tracking the accession of second son Sannojo (Sentaro Fushimi) who many feel to be too immature, weak willed, and naive to lead effectively. Top servant Zenbei complains, pointing out that Sannojo has an older brother, Genjiro (Yorozuya Kinnosuke), who should be first in line. But Genjiro has long been absent from the court, apparently intent on escaping the “stuffy” samurai lifestyle. Hyobu claims not that Genjiro has forfeited his position, but that he has actively renounced it in favour of Sannojo. Zenbei is not convinced, at the very least he feels they should find Genjiro and explain the situation to find out for sure what it is he intends to do with the rest of his life. 

It happens that Genjiro is living humbly as Genta the plasterer and has fallen in love with Kocho (Hibari Misora), the proprietress of an archery parlour who also likes to put on a show every now and then. The major problem in his life is that both he and Kocho are too stubborn and proud to say “I love you” which is making them bicker endlessly as a kind of substitute. The arrival of Zenbei and another retainer blows his cover and sends his new life into disarray. He has no desire to return to the samurai world, but also knows his brother is too susceptible to manipulation to be allowed to succeed unadvised, especially as Hyobu seems to be manoeuvring to get him married to his troubled daughter Chidori (Hiroko Sakuramachi) who seems to have some kind of ongoing mental disturbance which renders her distant and childlike. His romantic hopes will have to go on the back burner for a while as he becomes “Genjiro” once again to sort out Hyobu before hopefully returning to the simple life of an Edo plasterer. 

From Kocho’s point of view, the news that Genta has hidden his true status from her is alarming on two fronts, not only that he’s “lied” about who he is, but that if he is a noble lord then they can never be together because samurai don’t marry outside of their order. Genta, however, seems to be a fairly atypical sort of samurai who is entirely uninterested in wealth, status, and the restrictive codes which bind the noble. He looks for freedom in living as an ordinary man, which may be a bit disingenuous because there’s little freedom in starving and being constantly oppressed by the cruel order he was born into, but there is truth in it. It’s also unlikely that his clan would allow him to just up and leave, disappearing into Edo era society and abnegating his responsibility, but Bull’s Eye of Love is intent on a more cheerful depiction of the samurai world than that found in many contemporary period dramas in which its heroes are allowed to choose love and freedom without being forced to sacrifice their feelings in the name of duty. 

Kocho finally confesses her love but makes clear it is for Genta, not for Genjiro, only to end up falling for Genjiro too because of his manly samurai charms coupled with an unusual sense of compassion. Despite being told to stay at home, she takes her bow and arrow and follows him, relieved to discover she didn’t need to join the fight because he’d already handled it. In a fairly strange turn of events, however, Genjiro wipes out most of the treacherous retainers but then more or less enables Hyobu’s plan by putting Sannojo in charge and agreeing that he should marry Chidori who was only playing mad to undermine her father’s nefarious schemes. Having sorted everything out, the pair leave on a more equal footing after confirming their feelings towards each other and their intentions for the future. Genjiro renounces his samurai status to live “free” in Edo, cheerfully proceeding out of the palace and into the streets singing as he goes rejecting elitist authoritarianism in favour of the earthy pleasures of warmth and friendship to live as an ordinary man unburdened by the cruel hypocrisies of samurai soceity. 


Hana (花よりもなほ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2006)

Hana poster 1The heart of the samurai movie lies in the conflict between human feeling and duty to one’s code, unexpectedly the code usually wins but its victory is often tragic. Following a series of bleak modern dramas, Hirokazu Koreeda took his first (and so far only) foray into the jidaigeki with Hana (花よりもなほ, Hana yori mo Naho), stopping to ask if the entirety of the samurai ethos was founded more on pride and a sense of entitlement than a supposedly high ideal of honour of justice, and if perhaps the negative legacy of the samurai era is one that continues to be passed on through toxic masculinity and the patriarchal primacy of problematic fathers.

Set in 1702, the action revolves around noble hearted samurai Soza (Junichi Okada) who has been living in a rundown tenement ally for the last three years looking for the man who killed his father in a pointless quarrel over a game of Go in order to avenge his death. Despite being a fine samurai and heir to a dojo, Soza’s big secret is that he’s not much of a swordsman and is also tenderhearted which leaves him doubly conflicted in his mission. Unwilling to admit he has simply come to like living among these “ordinary” people, and most particularly alongside the widow Osae (Rie Miyazawa) and her young son Shinbo, Soza has perhaps begun to slack off and no is longer looking very hard for his quarry, willingly allowing himself to be conned into buying meals for the cheeky Sado (Arata Furuta) who already has tabs running all over town.

Unlike the majority of samurai tales, Koreeda deliberately shifts the focus to the poor – routinely oppressed by an unscrupulous landlord who has even taken to selling their excrement for extra money just to make sure they are as thoroughly exploited as possible. These people exist so far out of the samurai world that it might as well not exist for them and its rules are nothing more than a ridiculous affectation when your primary concerns are how to keep yourself fed for the day and make sure your house doesn’t suddenly fall down while you’re out. These facts are well and truly brought home to Soza when, knowing he has little chance of winning anyway, he is challenged to a fight by jaded street punk Sode (Ryo Kase) who is keen to prove to little Shinbo that dojo skills mean nothing in the real world. Soza gets a pounding, but somehow wins people’s hearts anyway if only for being so easily humiliated and bearing it with good grace.

Lessons to little Shinbo, who has figured out his father is probably dead but worries that maybe his mother still doesn’t know, becomes a persistent motif as Koreeda embraces his favourite theme – good fathers and bad. Soza’s samurai code pushes him towards martial rigour and the necessity of obeying his father’s wishes which in this case would be hating the man who killed him and avenging his death. Hate is, however, something the fair-minded Soza finds difficult even if he seems to have a fair amount of inner conflict towards his father whom even his cheerful uncle describes as a joyless prude. Osae, sensing Soza’s inner pain, points him in the right direction in remarking that if all his father left behind for him was hate then that legacy would be too sad. Eventually, Soza remembers that there were other things, better things, that his father taught him and that he could pass on to Shinbo which aren’t about pointless cycles of revenge killing and century old grudges. He can honour the spirit of his duty without having to obey it to the letter.

Meanwhile, Koreeda deliberately contrasts Soza’s gradual confidence in his humanitarianism with the stubborn pride of the 47 ronin who are also hiding out in the tenement ally while they bide their time waiting to strike. Soza manages to effect his “revenge” with some theatrical subterfuge, whereas the 47 (well, in the end 46) ronin take theirs for real but not altogether honourably and end up becoming legend overnight, earning the tenement a brief reprieve after the landlord threatens to close it down through becoming a tourist spot. The title, apparently inspired by the death poem of Lord Asano whose seppuku triggered the series of incidents later retold as the legend of the Chushingura, alludes to the nihilistic pointlessness of the samurai ideal of a death as elegant as falling cherry blossoms, later imbuing it with earthier, warmer wisdom as an unexpected fount of profundity affirms that the reason cherry blossoms fall so beautifully is that they know they will soon bloom again.


Hana was screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective playing at the BFI Southbank in April and May 2019.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Lady in a Black Dress (黒いドレスの女, Yoichi Sai, 1987)

Lady in a Black Dress posterHaruki Kadokawa had become almost synonymous with commercial filmmaking throughout the 1980s and his steady stream of idol-led teen movies was indeed in full swing by 1987, but his idols, as well as his audiences, were perhaps beginning to grow up. Yoichi Sai’s first outing for Kadokawa had been with the typically cheery Someday, Someone Will Be Killed which was inspired by the most genre’s representative author, Jiro Akagawa, and followed the adventures of an upperclass girl who is suddenly plunged into a world of intrigue when her reporter father disappears after dropping a floppy disk into her handbag. A year later he’d skewed darker with a hardboiled yakuza tale starring Tatsuya Fuji as part of Kadokawa’s gritty action line, but he neatly brings to two together in The Lady in a Black Dress (黒いドレスの女, Kuroi Dress no Onna) which features the then 20-year-old star of The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, Tomoyo Harada, in another noir-inflected crime thriller again adapted from a novel by Kenzo Kitakata.

We first meet the titular “lady in a black dress” walking alone alone along a busy motorway until she is kerb crawled by a yakuza in a fancy car. Declaring she intends to walk to Tokyo (a very long way), Reiko (Tomoyo Harada) nevertheless ends up getting into the mysterious man’s vehicle despite avowing that she “hates yakuza”. The yakuza goon does however drive her safely into the city and drop her off at her chosen destination – a race course, where she begins her quest to look for “someone”. By coincidence, the yakuza was also heading to the race course where he intended to stab a rival gangster – Shoji (Bunta Sugawara), who makes no attempt to get away and seemingly allows himself to be stabbed by the younger man. Shoji, as it happens, is the temporary responsibility of the man Reiko has been looking for – Tamura (Toshiyuki Nagashima), a former salaryman turned bar owner with fringe ties to the yakuza. Putting on her little black dress, Reiko finally finds herself at his upscale jazz bar where she petitions him for a job and a place to stay, dropping the name of Tamura’s sister-in-law who apparently advised her to try hiding out with him.

Reiko is, after a fashion, the dame who walked into Tamura’s gin joint with the (mild) intention to cause trouble, but, in keeping with the nature of the material, what she arouses in Tamura and later Shoji is a latent white knight paternalism. Curious enough to rifle through her luggage while she’s out, Tamura is concerned to find a pistol hidden among her belongings but when caught with it, Reiko offers the somewhat dark confession that the gun is less for her “protection” than her suicide. Not quite believing her, Tamura advises Reiko not to try anything like that in his place of business and to take it somewhere else. Nevertheless, Reiko stays in Tamura’s bar, eventually sharing a room with melancholy yakuza Shoji who is also hiding out there until the plan comes together to get him out of the country and away from the rival gangsters out for his blood.

As it turns out, Reiko had good reason to “hate yakuza” but she can’t seem to get away from them even in the city. Tamura’s life has also been ruined by organised crime as we later find out, and it’s these coincidental ties which eventually bring Reiko to him through his embittered sister-in-law who had been the mistress of Reiko’s lecherous step-father. The codes of honour and revenge create their own chaos as Shoji attempts to embrace and avoid his inevitable fate while his trusted underling (the yakuza who gave Reiko a lift) tries to help him – first by an act of symbolic though non-life threatening stabbing and then through a brotherly vow to face him himself to bring the situation to a close in the kindest way possible.

Meanwhile, a storm brews around a missing notebook which supposedly contains all the sordid details of the dodgy business deals brokered by a now corporatised yakuza who, while still engaging in general thuggery, are careful to mediate their world of organised crime through legitimate business enterprises. Reiko, like many a Kadokawa heroine, is an upperclass girl – somewhat sheltered and innocent, but trying to seem less so in order to win support and protection against the forces which are pursuing her. Though the film slots neatly into the “idol” subgenre, Harada takes much less of a leading role than in the studio’s regular idol output, retaining the mysterious air of the “lady in a black dress” while the men fight back against the yakuza only gradually exposing the truths behind the threat posed to Reiko.

Consequently, Reiko occupies a strangely liminal space as an adolescent girl, by turns femme fatale and damsel in distress. Wily and resourceful, Reiko formulates her own plan for getting the gangsters off her back, even if it’s one which may result in a partial compromise rather than victory. Though Kadokawa’s idol movies could be surprisingly dark, The Lady in a Black Dress pushes the genre into more adult territory as Reiko faces quite real dangers including sexual violence while wielding her femininity as a weapon (albeit inexpertly) – something quite unthinkable in the generally innocent idol movie world in which the heroine’s safety is always assured. Sai reframes the idol drama as a hardboiled B-movie noir scored by sophisticated jazz and peopled by melancholy barmen and worn-out yakuza weighed down by life’s regrets, while occasionally switching back to Reiko who attempts to bury her fear and anxiety by dancing furiously in a very hip 1987 nightclub. Darker than Kadokawa’s generally “cute” tales of plucky heroines and completely devoid of musical sequences (Harada does not sing nor provide the theme tune), The Lady in a Black dress is a surprisingly mature crime drama which nevertheless makes room for its heroine’s eventual triumph and subsequent exit from the murky Tokyo underground for the brighter skies of her more natural environment.


TV spot (no subtitles)

Theme song – Kuroi Dress no Onna -Ritual- by dip in the pool.

Pleasures of the Flesh (悦楽, Nagisa Oshima, 1965)

Pleasures of the Flesh posterHaving joined Shochiku apparently on a whim, Nagisa Oshima dramatically walked out on his home studio when they abruptly shelved his incendiary film Night and Fog in Japan citing political concerns following the assassination of the Socialist Party president by a right wing agitator. Oshima’s decision to abandon the studio system and form his own independent production company would eventually develop into a small movement, leading into that which would retrospectively be termed the “Japanese New Wave”. The first film produced by Sozo-sha, Pleasures of the Flesh (悦楽, Etsuraku), was perhaps a shift towards “pink film” aesthetics though, as in much of Oshima’s work, eroticism is more tool and trap than it is a mechanism for liberation. Ironically titled, Pleasures of the Flesh is a tale of desire frustrated by an oppressive society provoking nothing more than nihilistic need for psychological abandon.

Wakizaka (Katsuo Nakamura), an unsuccessful young man, pines for his first love – a young girl he tutored when he was a college student and she a precocious high schooler. Shoko (Mariko Kaga) has, however, married – her new husband someone more in keeping with her class and social standing. Wakizaka sees himself attend Shoko’s wedding, dreaming of her running away from the altar in her wedding dress to return to him but, no, he remains little more than a pleasant memory for the woman who has come to define his life. So devoted to Shoko was Wakizaka that when he learned from her family that a man who had molested her when she was just a child had returned to cause yet more harm by attempting to blackmail them, Wakizaka wanted to help. Seeing the man and paying him off convinced Wakizaka that the man would never give up and there would be no final payment or assurance of silence. Following him onto his train home Wakizaka took drastic action for justice, or perhaps it was revenge, or even out of a strange kind of jealousy, but nevertheless he transgressed by pushing the man from a moving train and thereby ending the threat posed to his beloved.

Wakizaka’s problems, however, are far from over. As ever in Japanese cinema, someone is always watching – in this case, a corrupt government official looking for a likely stooge with whom to stash a large amount of embezzled cash. Irony, a minor theme of the picture, rears its head as Wakizaka finds himself blackmailed over the murder of a blackmailer. The official makes a deal with him – Wakizaka must keep living in his same old horrible apartment and hang on to the suitcase full of money without opening it until he gets out of jail which is where he assumes he will shortly be headed now that his scam is reaching the tipping point. Wakizaka has little choice but to agree but when Shoko marries someone else he comes to believe his original transgression has been in vain, his life is now meaningless, and all that remains for him is a lonely death. Hence, he might as well go in style by spending all of that stolen doe, committing a bizarre act of revenge against Shoko and an unkind society by enjoying a year of debauchery followed by suicide before the official gets out of jail and turns him in as another act of retaliation.

Rejected in love, Wakizaka’s quest becomes one of continual search for conquest as he attempts to force himself on various women he wants to pretend are Shoko though of course knows are not. His approaches are many and various but begin with the obvious – he rents a fancy apartment and convinces a bar girl who looks a little like Shoko to live with him as his wife in return for a generous salary and the promise that the arrangement will only last a year. Hitomi (Yumiko Nogawa) is willing enough to submit herself to Wakizaka’s demands but he is dissatisfied by the inescapable hollowness of the relationship, uncertain who is using whom in this complicated series of transactions. His second choice is a married woman whose ongoing misery arouses in him a taste for sadism, convinced that the only way to make her “happy” is to plunge her into pain and suffering. The third woman, Keiko (Hiroko Shimizu), proves his biggest challenge – a feminist doctor afraid of men, she keeps him at arms length until he finally attempts to rape her, though this too she manages to frustrate insisting that he marry her even if they divorce a month later when Wakizaka’s time limit rolls around. Sick of Keiko’s resistance, Wakizaka opts for a mute prostitute who literally cannot talk back to him but finally makes her own defiant act of self actualisation despite Wakizaka’s attempt to assert total dominance over her existence.

Wakizaka uses the money for a life of “pleasure” but finds only despair and emptiness in each of his manufactured relationships. Having failed to “earn” it, he tries to buy love, but what he really chases is death and oblivion along with a way out of his ruined life and the humiliation he feels in his perceived failure to win Shoko’s heart. An idealised figure of elegance and purity, Shoko is an unattainable prize – the parents gentle pressing of an envelope into his hands following his “handling” of the blackmail case a subtle reminder that he is a servant, and now one perhaps cast out as tainted with a scandal they all wish to forget. Money, another recurrent motif, brings with it only sorrow and resentment. The embezzled cash didn’t do anyone any good, and neither of the blackmailers manages to make their scheme work out for them. Wakizaka is a haunted man, not so much by his crime which he sees as morally justified and feels no particular guilt over, but by his unresolvable desires as surfacing in his frequent hallucinations of Shoko who echoes in and round each and every woman in a form created entirely by her adoring suitor. In the end, reality betrays where the simulacrum remains true, but it is Wakizaka who betrays himself in allowing his pure love to become perverse revenge in the ultimate individualist act of self harm.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます, Nobuhiro Doi, 2004)

be-with-youWhen it comes to tragic romances, no one does them better than Japan. Adapted from a best selling novel by Takuji Ichikawa, Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます, Ima, ai ni Yukimasu) is very much part of the “Jun-ai” or “pure love” boom kickstarted by Crying Out Love In the Center of the World released the same year but taps into Japan’s long history of supernaturally tinged love stories, filled with the weight of impending tragedy and the essential transience of the human experience.

Like many such tales, Be With You begins with a framing sequence set 12 years after the main events, but unusually it’s directed from the point of view of the soon-to-be 18 year old, Yuji (Yuta Hiraoka). Receiving a birthday cake from a bakery which has apparently only stayed open because of its promise to deliver birthday cakes to him every year until he turns 18, Yuji begins to reflect on the “miracle” which he and his father experienced all those years ago.

Yuji’s mother passed away at the age of 28 when he was only 5 years old. However, before she died, Mio (Yuko Takeuchi) had prepared a special picture book for Yuji to try and help him process what was happening. In the book, Mio has gone to a place called “Archive Star” and will return for the first rainy season a year after her death. Improbable as it is, Yuji and his father Takumi (Shido Nakamura) discover a woman who looks exactly like Mio lost in the forest during the first rains. Stunned the pair take her home but Mio has no knowledge of her former life as a wife and mother. Gradually, Mio begins to fall in love with her husband all over again whilst bonding with her young son, but their happiness is short lived as Mio realises her time with them is limited.

Because Mio can’t remember, we experience the love story between the teenage Takumi and Mio firstly through his eyes as he tells her of his unrequited high school crush when she sat at the desk across from him for two years during in which he was too shy to say anything. Later we hear the same story again from Mio’s perspective through her diary where we learn, not altogether surprisingly, that she felt the same way. The pair mirror each other throughout their courtship, wanting to say something but lacking the courage and looking for excuses to try and push the situation in a better direction. Other than the mutually unresolved attempts at phone calls and an unreturned pen, Mio and Takumi essentially relive their original romance in the brief time they are able to share together from repeated motifs of untied shoelaces and clumsiness with a bicycle, to innocent in pocket hand holding.

Takumi has an ongoing medical condition which interferes with his motor functions, slowing him down and giving him an air of soulful melancholy later compounded by his romantic tragedy. Having been a champion runner on a sports scholarship to college, the diagnosis causes extreme disruption to his life and leads him to the typically jun-ai decision to break up with Mio because he feels as if he’d be a burden to her. A year after Mio passed away, Takumi is doing his best to bring up his son but is a little distant and struggling to take care of the domestic environment. When Mio realises that she can’t take care of them forever, she switches her focus to trying to prepare her husband and son for life alone – teaching Yuji how to fry eggs and do the laundry, whilst renewing her emotional bond with Takumi. There’s no happy ending in store for Mio, the loss cannot be avoided and perhaps it might even be worse to have had this brief respite from the ongoing pain, but the six week rainy season does, at least, provide an opportunity to say those things that might have otherwise gone unsaid.

Nobuhiro Doi films in a typically elegant fashion making great use of the area’s natural beauty to create a fairy tale atmosphere from the mysterious, life giving forest. The poignancy of the tale is all the deeper knowing that Mio eventually understood what would happen to her, but chose a brief life with Takumi and her son over the possibility of a longer one without them. Heartbreakingly sad, yet a testament to the importance of appreciating the present which all too soon becomes the past, Be With You is a genuinely romantic love story, not only between a husband and a wife but an entire family carrying the weight of a tragic loss but easing the burden by treasuring the memory of the intense love shared between them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sorekara (それから, AKA And Then, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1985)

Sorekara PosterYoshimitsu Morita had a long and varied career (even if it was packed into a relatively short time) which encompassed throwaway teen idol dramas and award winning art house movies but even so tackling one of the great novels by one of Japan’s most highly regarded authors might be thought an unusual move. Like a lot of his work, Natsume Soseki’s Sorekara (And Then…) deals with the massive culture clash which reverberated through Japan during the late Meiji era and, once again, he uses the idea of frustrated romance to explore the way in which the past and future often work against each other.

Daisuke (Yusaku Matsuda) is a youngish man approaching early middle age. Thirty years old and a “gentleman” of leisure, he lives in a world of perpetual ennui where he even has to hold his hand to his chest to check that his heart is indeed still beating. His days might have gone on aimlessly had it not been for the unexpected return of an old friend from university, Hiraoka (Kaoru Kobayashi), who has been dismissed from his job following a series of problems with his superiors which has also landed him with a considerable debt to repay and no prospects of further employment. Adding to his sorrows, Hiraoka and his wife, Michiyo (Miwako Fujitani), have recently lost their infant child and have been told that due to Michiyo’s poor health they may not be able to have any more. Daisuke wants to help them, but he’s also facing a lot of pressure from his family to accept an arranged marriage which will further his father and brother’s prospects and is becoming conscious of the relative lack of freedom his life of dependent idleness entails.

Men of Daisuke’s era have perhaps had it hardest coming of age during a period of massive social change which is incomprehensible to the older generation. He’s a well educated man, an intellectual, who can speak several languages and is given to introspective contemplation, but he’s also inherited the worst of European classism as he’s come to believe that working for money is beneath his dignity as a gentleman. He’s completely unable to identify with his friend who needs to work to eat and enjoys none of the various safety nets which are provided by his own wealth and privilege. Nevertheless, he does want to try and help Hiraoka and is dismayed to discover just how little power he has do anything for him.

Hiraoka and Daisuke were part of a group of friends at university which also included another boy who, sadly, died of an illness and his sister – Michiyo, who eventually married Hiraoka. At the time, Daisuke himself had fallen in love with Michiyo but out of a misconceived idea of “chivalry” – another unnecessary adoption of European romanticism, he stepped aside in favour of his friend. This has proved to be a disaster all round and Michiyo and Hiraoka are trapped in an unhappy union which has made Michiyo physically weak and caused Hiraoka to spend the money he should be using to pay back his massive debts on drink and geisha so he can avoid going home. Daisuke’s adherence to a code of morality which is more affectation than anything else is shown up to be cowardice, another way of avoiding adulthood, as he uses his intellectual ideas to mask what is really a fear of rejection.

Daisuke later comes to believe what he did in not acknowledging his own feelings towards Michiyo was “a crime against nature”. He now finds himself at another crossroads as he faces the choice between conforming to the rigidity of his upperclass life in marrying the woman his father has chosen for him and continuing to be financially dependent, or embracing his individuality and striking out on his own to finally claim the woman he’s always loved (and, tragically, has always loved him). In choosing to make a life with Michiyo, Daisuke would be taking several transgressive actions – firstly acting against his own self image by entering the world of working men and secondly by stealing a married woman away from her husband which is no simple matter in the still relatively conservative Meiji era society.

Ultimately, the film is much more a story of Daisuke’s journey of self realisation than it is a melodrama with a love triangle at its centre though Sorekora certainly embraces these aspects too. Morita opts for a more classical tone here with a number of long, unbroken takes and static camera shots yet he also affects a strange, dreamlike tone in which the present and the past seem to co-exist, each drifting one into the other. He intercuts scenes which echo the film’s ending into the main body of the action as well as showing us the early days of Daisuke and Michiyo’s unresolved romantic connection which is poignantly brought out by an experimental technique in which the foreground appears almost like a freeze frame while the rain carries on falling behind them. At certain points there are also some surreal sequences in which Daisuke is travelling on a train but is surrounded by fellow passengers who suddenly each pull out a large sparkler or another where a gaggle of men all dressed just like him are crowded into the the other end of the train and looking at the moon through the open roof of the carriage.

A prestige picture, but one with a healthy dose of strangeness, Sorekara is an inexpressibly sad film full of the tragedy of wasted time and the regret that comes with not having acted in way which satisfies your authentic self. In order to live a life that’s true to himself Daisuke must finally learn to risk losing everything but the film’s ambiguous ending may ask whether the cost of following your heart may not be too heavy a one to pay.


Unsubtitled trailer:

 

Kakekomi (駆込み女と駆出し男, Masato Harada, 2015)

166028_02The world of the classical “jidaigeki” or period film often paints an idealised portrait of Japan’s historical Edo era with its brave samurai who live for nothing outside of their lord and their code. Even when examining something as traumatic as forbidden love and double suicide, the jidaigeki generally presents them in terms of theatrical tragedy rather than naturalistic drama. Whatever the cinematic case may be, life in Edo era Japan could be harsh – especially if you’re a woman. Enjoying relatively few individual rights, a woman was legally the property of her husband or his clan and could not petition for divorce on her own behalf (though a man could simply divorce his wife with little more than words). The Tokeiji Temple exists for just this reason, as a refuge for women who need to escape a dangerous situation and have nowhere else to go.

Kakekomi (駆込み女と駆出し男, Kakekomi Onna to Kakedashi Otoko) places this important institution at its centre as it focuses on the stories of a number of women who’ve each ended up at the temple after a series of difficult circumstances. Jogo (Erika Toda) is married to a womanising drunkard who forces her to run his iron smelting business from the front lines (hence the painful looking blisters on her face) while he enjoys his life of debauchery. When the staff complains about his attitude and their subsequent fears for their jobs and Jogo raises their concerns with him he simply beats her before returning to his mistress. She then faces a decision – Tokeiji, death, or endurance. During her flight, she runs into O-Gin (Hikari Mitsushima), a mysterious wealthy woman who’s sprained her ankle after fighting off bandits in the woods. The pair bond on their quest to reach Tokeiji where they hope to find refuge from their turbulent home lives.

Before you can enter Tokeiji you’re held at one of the receiving inns where they hear your story, assess the possibility of being able to reconcile with a husband and, if deemed necessary, allowed to travel to the temple where you’ll live as a Buddhist nun for two years at which time your husband must legally sign the divorce papers. The inn adheres to strict Buddhist principles – no men are allowed near the temple (even the outside helpers wear bells so the ladies can hear them coming), you eat only temple cuisine (no meat or stimulants like garlic and onions), and have to abide by the word of the head nun. There are also three different classes of resident starting with the most expensive court lady lifestyle, then one of sewing and making repairs, and finally the lowest class which does all the day to day cooking, cleaning and other menial tasks.

The other pivot around which the film turns is the one time medical student Shinjiro (Yo Oizumi) who has literary dreams but has had to beat a quick retreat from Edo after defiantly breaking its ridiculous “no singing in the streets” law (amongst other things). At this period Edo and the surrounding area is undergoing its own mini cultural revolution as the current authorities advocate a period of austerity which sees things like literature, music and even sushi outlawed. Perceiving threats everywhere, the powers at be are also looking for a way to close down Tokeiji by any underhanded means necessary.

Shinjiro is a fast talking wise guy who can generally talk his way out of anything though he is also a keen student and a promising young doctor. As a relative of the Tokeiji inn owners, he’s seeking refuge too but also hoping to make use of their extensive archives for his writing career. As a doctor he’s immediately fascinated by the burns on Jogo’s face which he believes he can treat though in her frightened state she’s alarmed by his direct manner and refuses. After hearing his more reasoned arguments she finally submits and in turn becomes interested in his medical knowledge assisting him to gather herbs in the forest before starting her own herb garden in the temple.

Of course, the two develop a growing romantic attachment though frustrated by Jogo’s position as a married woman and the temple’s prohibition against male contact. Their romance is never played for melodrama, more as a simple and natural course of events though it’s well played by both Toda and Oizumi. At heart, Kakekomi is an ensemble drama which encompasses the often sad stories of its female cast who are each at the mercy of the cruel and rigid Edo era social system. O-Gin’s reasons for fleeing to Tokeiji turn out to be a little different from everyone else’s though she too is still suffering for love.

A humorous look at this untold story, Kakekomi proves an engaging ensemble drama anchored by the committed performances of its cast. Toda takes Jogo from a frightened and abused woman to a confident and learned scholar who is perfectly capable of taking charge of things on her own and her transformation is the true heart of the film. Apparently, director Masato Harada shot nearly four hours of footage before cutting the film down to the more manageable two and a half which may explain why it sometimes feels a little abrupt but nevertheless Kakekomi proves one of the most enjoyable mainstream Japanese movies of recent times.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD of Kakekomi includes English subtitles.