Oshin (おしん, Shin Togashi, 2013)

Oshin posterBack in the 1980s, an “asadora” named “Oshin” proved so popular with Japanese television viewers that its title became a byword for tenacity and perseverance, attached to any underdog who battled bravely against insurmountable odds. The “asadora”, as its name suggests, is a 15 minute drama serial broadcast in the mornings and therefore mainly targeted at housewives. As such it often focusses on the lives of women and particularly on women who work hard to triumph over adversity. Oshin is no different in this regard except that it also recounts the painful history of 20th century Japan through that of its stoical heroine who travels from a life of poverty in snowy Yamagata to becoming the owner of a supermarket chain in the bustling consumerist economy of 1983. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the TV series, Oshin graduated to the big screen. Shin Togashi’s Oshin (おしん) movie focusses exclusively on Oshin’s childhood at the tail end of the Meiji era in which she suffered all the downsides of lingering feudalism and benefitted from few of the new freedoms of the age.

The winter of 1907, Yamagata – snow country. Oshin (Kokone Hamada) lives with her parents, grandmother, and siblings and looks forward to finally being allowed to go to school when spring arrives. Sadly, Oshin will not be going to school after all. Her father has arranged for her to work for another family who own a timber yard a few towns over for the period of one year. Only seven years old, Oshin pleads not to be sent away but her father will not back down. There is not enough food to feed the family and, unbeknownst to Oshin, her mother (Aya Ueto) is pregnant again.

Finally agreeing to go after her mother takes drastic action to try and reduce the burden on the family, Oshin arrives at the timber yard but is treated cruelly by the head housekeeper who refuses to recognise that Oshin is only a child and will of course lack basic knowledge as to how to run a household. Though Oshin bears the constant hardship for her family she eventually runs away when falsely accused of theft.

The world of 1907 is harsh and cruel. Women have few rights and almost no say in their lives or destinies. Oshin might count herself lucky that she’s merely been contracted as a household servant in an age where selling one’s daughter to a brothel to feed one’s sons was not an unusual event, but nevertheless her life at the timber yard is hard. Bright and curious, Oshin longs to learn to read and write but because of her lowly “peasant” birth, she is constrained into a life of drudgery where her labour will only ever be in service of her family and never herself.

A “peasant” background is, as a kinder mistress reminds Oshin, a burden in that she is always likely to be viewed with suspicion. This is doubly true when she runs away and is rescued by a fugitive deserter hiding in a mountain shack. Shunsaku (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a sensitive young man marked by service in a war he no longer believes in, teaches Oshin how to read and write as well as giving her a grounding in humanitarian politics. He is, however, a problematic figure for going against the martial culture of the age and having “betrayed” his nation by deserting. Oshin is tainted by her association with such a radical young man, but boldly comes to Shunsaku’s defence when others seek to discredit his memory.

This boldness is a part of Oshin’s essential “goodness” in which she refuses to give in to injustice even whilst stoically bearing all of the troubles that come her way. Eventually she finds herself a servant in a much nicer house where the staff take pity on her and welcome her warmly into their extended family. Treated with such kindness, Oshin works even harder to repay it and impresses all with her earnestness and morally upright character. She does, however, clash with the spoilt daughter of the house, Kayo (Manami Igashira), who has her own share of troubles though hers are those of the privileged classes. Lonely and bored, Kayo resents the attention golden girl Oshin seems to get from the staff but the two eventually become friends when Kayo realises Oshin is the only person willing to treat her as an equal rather than the young mistress.

Though the overall arc of the TV series painted a more positive picture of female resilience and capability, the film’s focus on the late Meiji childhood era is unavoidably more conservative in its pointed message that a woman’s life is served in dedication to others with the unpleasant undertone that she must keep nothing back for herself and that she is not entitled to personal happiness but only that of repaying the sacrifices that have been made on her behalf by other women (and especially by mothers – biological and surrogate). Nevertheless, Oshin’s earnestness and deep love for her family are admirable qualities and when she trudges back out into the snow again, always waiting for the spring, she does so with hope and determination.


Oshin is screening in London on 18th August as part of the Japan Foundation London’s Summer Explorers season of free film screenings.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dolls (ドールズ, Takeshi Kitano, 2002)

dolls posterOutside of Japan where he is still primarily thought of as a TV comedian and celebrity figure, Takeshi Kitano is most closely associated with his often melancholy yet insistently violent existential gangster tales. His filmography, however, is one of the most diverse of all the Japanese “auteurs” and encompasses not only the aforementioned theatre of violence but also pure comedy and even coming of age drama. Dolls is not quite the anomaly that it might at first seem but perhaps few would have expected Kitano to direct such a beautifully colourful film inspired by one of Japan’s most traditional, if most obscure, art forms – bunraku puppet theatre.

After opening with a bunraku performance featuring an excerpt from the Chikamatsu play Courier For Hell, Kitano moves on to his overarching narrative which connects the tripartite structure in a tale inspired by the classic story The Bound Beggars. This first pair of lovers, Sawako and Matsumoto, wander blankly through the ever changing landscape tied together with a long red rope. The two had previously been a young couple, very much in love, but Matsumoto was pressured into abandoning Sawako to accept a semi-arranged marriage to his boss’ daughter. Distraught, Sawako attempts suicide only to survive but in an almost catatonic state.

The second pair of doomed romantics consists of an ageing yakuza who looks back on his life which has forced him to act in a way that he is not always proud of and now finds himself remembering the girlfriend he parted with thirty years ago after fearing he was about to lose his job. She promised to wait for him, he promised to return a fine man but he became a yakuza and never saw her again. All these years later, she’s still exactly where she said she’d be, waiting.

Story three is strange tale of modern love as a young man becomes obsessed with an idol star who only ever notices his rival. After she is injured in a car accident and decides to retire, the young man takes drastic action to be able to meet with her on what he sees as a more equal footing.

Fools for love, each and every one of them. Love has ruined them, removed rational choice from their field of vision, yet there’s something noble and beautiful in the way in which it has penetrated each of their lives. They love as if possessed by an incurable madness, Sawako tries to kill herself because her heart is broken, a woman grows old spending each Saturday lunch time sitting on a bench with a second lunch box which is going to go to waste, and a young man maims himself to finally get his love’s attention. Was it worth it, in the end? Perhaps not if the desperately sad outcomes of each of these stories is anything to go by.

Kitano rejects his idiosyncratic blue colour palate for a world of vibrant colours. Travelling through a year we move along the seasons as punctuated by their symbolic scenery from cherry blossoms to green verdant landscapes, the overwhelming redness of autumn leaves and finally the purity of the winter snow. We travel one way, but also in circles as we navigate the story of love as it too changes with its seasons yet remains unchanged in essence. Each of the lovers is no more free than a bunraku puppet, manipulated by forces outside of their control and forced into a desperate unhappiness that is in part vindicated by their romantic bonds.

Love is tender, love is cruel. Each of the men, in particular, makes terrible choices which cause only pain to the women they supposedly love and, in their pride and arrogance, they fail to realise the consequences of their actions until it is far too late. The tragic inevitability of life’s suffering and the inability to escape it are the foundation stones of Chikamatsu’s world.

Working with fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto Kitano has created a beautiful, theatrical world of hyper realistic colour and life. Like much of Kitano’s work, Dolls amounts to a sad collection of tales coloured by melancholy and a resignation to the pain and suffering inherent in being alive. The lovers are inexorably bound to each other for all eternity because of the suffering they have each endured at the other’s hand. This is a sad world, but it’s a beautiful one too and even if hurts one must try to live.


Dolls is re-released in the UK on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window films.

(This is an original release trailer and does not reflect the quality upgrade of Third Window Films’ blu-ray release)

I first saw this film I guess almost fifteen years ago (!) and I still occassionally get this song stuck in my head:

Review of Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (ドールズ) – first published by UK Anime Network.

 

Kikujiro (菊次郎の夏, Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

b97b89932bReview of Takeshi Kitano’s 1999 masterpiece Kikujiro AKA Kikujiro’s Summer (菊次郎の夏, Kikujiro no Natsu) first published by UK Anime Network.


When thinking about the career of iconoclastic Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, “cute” is not a word which immediately springs to mind. Nevertheless, it’s a fairly apt one for describing the bittersweet tale of one summer in the life of a lonely little boy and the roughhousing ex-yakuza who becomes his reluctant guardian.

Masao is a mournful looking schoolboy who lives alone with his grandmother. It’s almost the school summer holidays and all the other kids are excited about family trips and activities but Masao’s grandmother still has to work so they won’t be doing anything and he’ll have to entertain himself throughout all of the long, hot break. Seeing as all of his friends have gone away, and after finding a photograph of his parents and another of his mother and grandmother with him as an infant, Masao decides to take off for an adventure of his own to track down his long absent mum. However, he doesn’t get very far before some bigger boys have taken all his money and actually seem annoyed he doesn’t have more. Luckily, a former neighbour and her husband turn up and get the money back for him but they explain the town where Masao’s mother lives is too far for a little boy to travel all on his lonesome. The wife makes her husband, Kikujiro (Kitano) take the boy on summer trip of their own but what they find there isn’t exactly what either of them had been expecting.

In many ways, Kikujiro is in the best tradition of odd couple road trips. Kikujiro didn’t really want to escort this sad little boy on a strange family holiday but his wife insisted (and she gave him quite a lot of spending money) so he reluctantly takes Masao on a journey but introduces him to some of his favourite pursuits such as gambling on bicycle races and hanging out in hostess bars. Little by little he starts to warm to the boy and the pair go on to have several strange encounters throughout their trip, largely down to Kikujiro now being broke after losing all the money gambling at the beginning.

Sending a little boy off with a total stranger doesn’t seem like the best idea in retrospect, even if it’s preferable to letting Masao head off alone. Kikujiro is very much not an appropriate baby sitter which makes for a lot of comedic scenes from an outsider’s view though perhaps Masao’s grandmother might not find it so funny if anyone ever decides to tell her about any of this. There is only one scene in the film where something very untoward threatens to befall Masao involving a “scary man” in a park but luckily Kikujiro turns up just in the nick of time. This episode is, in truth, a little hard to take alongside the otherwise fun encounters which showcase Kikujiro’s own clownish, immature qualities.

The film is seen more or less through the innocent viewpoint of Masao and broken up into chapters seemingly taken from his “what I did on my holidays” scrapbook project. Perhaps not having the material to complete this inevitable post-summer assignment was one of the motives for Masao finally taking off on his own to solve the mystery of his absent mother but what his teacher’s going to make of this strange collection adventures is anyone’s guess (perhaps if he’s lucky no one will believe it anyway).

The story doesn’t finish once Masao and Kikujiro have reached the furthest point of the journey but carries on through their way back too as Kikujiro tries to cheer the boy up and begins to reflect on his troubled relationship with his own mother. The true reason for film’s name becomes apparent towards the end as Kikujiro mournfully watches Masao run off back home perhaps feeling sorry for him but also a little wistful that his own summer adventure is over and he might never have such a fun trip again.

Warm and funny, Kikujiro employs a hearty dose of sardonic black humour for its tale of a childlike gangster’s growth process as he morphs into the figure of a guardian angel for a sad little boy. Aided by Joe Hisaishi’s wistful score and the beautiful landscape of a Japanese summer by the sea, Kikujiro proves a slightly unusual entry in Kitano’s filmography (though only up to a point) and an often underrated one though it ranks among his highest achievements for its sheer poetic power alone.


Kikujiro is re-released on blu-ray today in the UK courtesy of Third Window Films who will shortly also be re-releasing Dolls and, it’s recently been announced, Kids Return and A Scene at the Sea.

This is the only trailer I could find and it’s from the original US VHS release so it’s extremely irritating (sorry), film is not this annoying (promise).

Hana-bi (はなび, AKA Fireworks, Takeshi Kitano, 1997)

Original quad poster from UK theatrical release (some of these cinemas no longer exist. Also, sponsored by Yo! Sushi.)

Review of Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi (はなび) first published by UK Anime Network.


Takeshi Kitano might still be best known for his ultra violent gangster pics, but after making it into the international arthouse repertoire with Sonatine back in the early ‘90s it was Hana-bi which put him on the map as one of Japan’s most prominent exports. Kitano plays the lead in the film once more adopting his cooler than cool persona with occasional flashes of violence only this time on the side of the law (to begin with, anyway).

Told in an initially confusing, flashback structure, Hana-bi follows middle aged policeman Nishi who experiences several life changing events in a short space of time. At the beginning of the film he’s let off a stakeout and told to go visit his wife who’s ill in hospital. Unfortunately, as we later find out, this will prove to be a poor decision as pretty much everything goes wrong – Nishi’s partner, Horibe, is shot and ends up paralysed, one of his other men is wounded and tragically another killed right in front of Nishi’s eyes. After being told that nothing more can be done for his wife and it’s better that she just come home from the hospital, Nishi quits the police force, gets involved with the yakuza and robs a bank before taking off with his wife for one last holiday.

Actually, the film skips over its climactic event until quite a way into its running time. Kitano unsettles us right away by giving us very little explanation for what we’re seeing. He shows us Nishi meeting with the widow of a man we didn’t even know was dead yet (not that he really told us who she was anyway). We’re left to piece events together like a detective listening to a confused witness testimony only our information is primarily visual – there isn’t even a lot of dialogue to guide us on our way. This refreshing technique is one the generally laconic Kitano seems to favour and greatly adds to Hana-bi’s low-key style.

Kitano never says too much in his movies anyway, but this time his is wife also near silent uttering the grand total of two words in the entire film and both of those come in the final scene. We know that she has a terminal illness (though it isn’t clear that she knows this, or how much she understands). Nishi and his wife also apparently lost their young daughter not long ago and it’s implied that perhaps she just hasn’t been fully present ever since. Her lack of speech, shyness and constant game playing coupled with her outwardly cheerful (if sometimes vacant) demeanour give her a childlike quality but the two words she does offer at the film’s conclusion imply (at least in that moment) that she knows what’s going on and understands what is about to happen.

Nishi and his wife have an extremely close relationship, they rarely need to speak to each other. However, Nishi’s partner, Horibe, discovers that his marriage was not as secure as he assumed as his wife and daughter walk out on him after his accident. In an effort to give him something to strive for, Nishi sends him some painting supplies and henceforth Horibe’s artwork (actually designed by Kitano himself) becomes a prominent motif in the film. The first series takes animals and then people and paints them with the heads of flowers but this then gives way to more complicated pointillist scenes. Many of Horibe’s works feature a repeated motif of a man, woman and child (neatly echoed in the films closing scenes) seemingly enjoying a happy family occasion. Perhaps this is an odd sort of masochism on Horibe’s part, lamenting everything he’s lost since his accident but the two figures could also represent the Nishis reunited with their lost daughter.

Shot in Kitano’s trademark blues, Hana-bi is a melancholy tale. Flowers and fire, Kitano shows us both extreme tenderness and fits of violence as he’s both the loving husband, grieving father, nurturing best friend and hardline cop who bears personal responsibility for the loss of his own. This path only leads in one direction and we’ve figured out where we’re headed long before nearing the end of our journey. Nevertheless, Hana-bi is a rich, poetic experience which continues to prove deeply moving and endlessly fascinating.


Hana-bi is re-released in the UK today on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window Films who will also be releasing Dolls and Kikujiro in the near future.