An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Tadashi Imai, 1953)

inlet of muddy water dvd coverTadashi Imai was among the greatest directors of the golden age though his name remains far less known than contemporaries Ozu or Mizoguchi. Despite beginning in outright propaganda films during the war, Imai is best remembered as a staunchly left wing director whose films are known for their gritty realism and opposition to oppressive social codes. An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Nigorie) very much fits this bill in adapting three stories from Japanese author Ichiyo Higuchi. Higuchi is herself a giant figure of Japanese literature though little of her work has been translated into English. Like Imai’s films, Higuchi’s stories are known for their focus on female suffering and the prevailing social oppression of the late Meiji era which had seen many changes but not all for the better. Higuchi was not a political writer and her work does not attack an uncaring society so much as describe it accurately though her own early death from tuberculosis at only 24 certainly lends weight to the tragedy of her times.

In the first part of the film which is inspired by one of Higuchi’s best known stories, The Thirteenth Night, a young woman returns home to her parents, no longer able to bear living with an emotionally abusive husband. Oseki (Yatsuko Tanami) had been raised an ordinary, lower middle-class girl but, like many a heroine of feudal era literature, caught the eye of a prominent nobleman who determined to marry her despite their class difference. Life is not a fairytale, and so the nobleman quickly tired of his beautiful peasant wife, belittling her lowly status, lack of education, and failure to slot into the elite world he inhabits.

Oseki’s plight elicits ambivalent reactions in each of her parents though they both sympathise with her immensely, if in different ways. Her mother (Akiko Tamura) is heartbroken – having long believed her daughter to be living a blissful life of luxury, she feels terribly guilty not to have known she had been suffering all this time and believes Oseki has done the right thing in leaving. Her father (Ken Mitsuda), however, also feels sad but reacts in practicality, pointing out that to leave her husband now would mean losing her son forever and probably a long, lonely life of penury. He, somewhat coldly, tells her to go back, grin and bear it. Oseki can see his point and considers resigning herself to return if only to look after her son.

On her way home she runs into a childhood friend whom she might have married if things had not turned out the way they did. “Life gets in the way of the things we want to do”, she tells him by of explanation for not staying in touch. Rokunosuke (Hiroshi Akutagawa), once a fine merchant, is now a ragged rickshaw driver, bereaved father, and divorcee. Like Oseki his life is a tragedy of frustration with the added irritant that he and Oseki might have been happy together, rather than independently miserable, if an elite had not suddenly decided to interfere by crossing class lines just because he can rather than out of any genuine feeling.

The callousness of elites is also a theme in the second story, The Last Day of the Year, in which a young maid, Omine (Yoshiko Kuga), works for a wealthy household dominated by a moody, penny pinching mistress whose mistreatment of her staff is more indifference than deliberate scorn. Omine’s uncle, who raised her, has fallen ill. At the beginning of his illness he took out a loan but he’s got no better and still needs to pay it back so he asks Omine to ask the mistress for an advance of the paltry sum of two yen in the hope that his son will be able to enjoy a new year mochi like the other kids. The mistress says yes and then changes her mind, leaving Omine to consider a transgressive act of social justice.

Where The Thirteenth Night and The Last Day of the Year pointed the finger at uncaring elites, Troubled Waters broadens its disdain to the entire world of men in focussing on two women caught on either side of the red light district – Oriki (Chikage Awashima), a geisha stalked by a ruined client, and the client’s wife, Ohatsu (Haruko Sugimura), who endures a life of penury thanks to her husband’s geisha obsession. Oriki’s sad story is recounted to a wealthy patron (So Yamamura) who is more fascinated in learning the secrets of her soul than her kimono, but like many of her age it begins with parental strife, orphanhood and perpetual imprisonment as a geisha wondering what will become of her when her looks fade and she’s no longer number one. She has no control over the men who spend time with her but is worried by Gen (Seiji Miyaguchi) who ruined himself buying her time and now stalks her in and around the inn. Infatuated and obsessed with Oriki, Gen has turned against his noble wife Ohatsu who is working herself to the bone to support the family while Gen has resorted to a life of casual labour but rarely does much of anything at all.

Recalling Higuchi’s famous diary, Imai opens each of the segments with a brief voiceover detailing the inconsequential details of the weather with a world weary, often melancholy tone as the writer laments too much time spent on fiction and resolves to tell the story of the world as it really is. There is no real connection or overarching theme which unites the three stories, save for the continued suffering of women at the hands of men and the society they have devised. Oseki must return to her abusive husband, Omine will continue to work for her heartless mistress, and Ohatsu will have to make do on her own after being so thoroughly let down by her husband. There is no recourse or escape, no path forward that will allow the women to break free of their oppression or even to learn to be free within it. Each of the stories is bleak, ending on a note of resignation and acceptance of one’s fate as terrible as that may be but Imai’s ending is most terrible of all, reminding us that today is simply another day and the heavy atmosphere of dread and oppression is certain to endure as long as we all remain resigned.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Heat Wave (陽炎, Hideo Gosha, 1991)

heat-waveHideo Gosha had something of a turbulent career, beginning with a series of films about male chivalry and the way that men work out all their personal issues through violence, but owing to the changing nature of cinematic tastes, he found himself at a loose end towards the end of the ‘70s. Things picked up for him in the ‘80s but the altered times brought with them a slightly different approach as Gosha’s films took on an increasingly female focus in which he reflected on how the themes he explored so fully with his male characters might also affect women. In part prompted by his divorce which apparently gave him the view that women were just as capable of deviousness as men are, and by a renewed relationship with his daughter, Gosha overcame the problem of his chanbara stars ageing beyond his demands of them by allowing his actresses to lead.

Heat Wave (陽炎, Kagero), which was to be the director’s penultimate feature, is a homage to late ‘70s gangster movies with a significant nod to Toei’s Red Peony Gangster series. Set in 1928, the action follows cool as ice professional itinerant gambler Rin Jojima (Kanako Higuchi) whose high stakes life becomes even more complicated when she accidentally runs into her adopted little brother, apparently on the hook to some petty gangsters. Dropping her commitments to help him out of his sticky situation and recover the family restaurant, Rin comes face to face with the yakuza who killed her father in a gambling dispute more than twenty years previously but vengeance is just one of many items on her to do list.

The title Heat Wave was apparently selected for the film to imply that Gosha was back on top form and ready to burn the screen with thrilling action but when producers saw his rushes they knew that their hopes were a little misplaced. Gosha was already seriously ill and was not able to direct with the fire of his youth. Heat Wave is undoubtedly a slow burn as Rin figures out the terrain and designs her campaign with the opposing side coming up with a counter plan, but the gradual acceleration begins to pay off in the film’s elaborate smoke and flames finale as Rin takes a bundle of dynamite to the disputed territory and then fights her way out with sword and pistol aided by an unlikely ally. Downbeat but leaving room for the hoped for sequels, Heat Wave is very much in the mindset of Gosha’s heyday in which, as Rin laments, the good die young and the bad guys win.

In keeping with many gambling films much of the action is taken up with tense games of hanafuda which may prove confusing to the uninitiated and are not particularly engaging in any case, though Gosha does not overly rely on the game to fill the screen. This may be early Showa, but save for the trains the action could almost be taking place a hundred years previously. Rin may have an unusual degree of autonomy as an unmarried woman travelling alone and earning her money through back alley gambling but her world is still a traditional one in which the honour of the game is supposed to matter, even if it is ignored by the unscrupulous who would be prepared to undercut their rivals away from the gaming table by attacking their friends and allies. Rin gains and then loses, reduced to an endgame she never wanted to play and which she fully intends to win by destroying herself only to be saved by her greatest rival.

Gosha’s reputation for vulgarity was not quite unjustified, even if perhaps overstated. Rin apparently inhabits the male world of her profession in a full way as an odd scene in which she’s taken to an inn to watch a live lesbian sex show seems to demonstrate though there is no dramatic purpose to its inclusion save to emphasise Rin’s impassive poise. Though nudity is otherwise kept to a minimum, Rin’s yakuza tattoos are on full show as a clear indication of her position in the underworld. The appearance of such extensive tattooing on female gangsters is a rare sight and Gosha does his best to make the most of its transgressive qualities.

When the producers realised Gosha was not as filled with intensity as they’d hoped, they hatched on the idea of attaching a hard rock song to the end to give the film more edge (apparently much to the consternation of the composer). This might explain the strange entry to the credits sequence which is accompanied by a very up to the minute burst of synthesiser music accompanied by computer graphics loading the faces of the stars across the screen in strips. Perhaps meant to bring the ‘70s inspired action into the present day the sudden entry of the modern world is jarring to say the least though perhaps it kept viewers in their seats long enough to enjoy the post credits sting of Rin giving it her best “you shall perish”, presumably to whet appetites for a sequel. Even if not quite as impressive as some of Gosha’s previous work, Heat Wave makes up for its flaws in its exciting finale which brings all of his choreographical and aesthetic abilities to their zenith as Rin basks in both victory and defeat with the legacy of the good people who took her in burning all around her.


Selection of scenes from the the film (no subtitles)

3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Motomu Ida, 1967)

three-minutes-before-explosionIf Nikkatsu Action movies had a ringtone it would probably just be “BANG!” but nevertheless you’ll have to wait more than three rings for the Kaboom! in the admittedly cartoonish slice of typically frivolous B-movie thrills that is 3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Bakuha 3-byo Mae). Once again based on a novel by Japan’s master of the hard boiled Haruhiko Oyabu, 3 Seconds Before Explosion is among his sillier works though lesser known director Motomu Ida never takes as much delight in making mischief as his studio mate Seijun Suzuki. What he does do is make use of Diamond Guy Akira Kobayashi’s boyish earnestness to keep things running along nicely even if he’s out of the picture for much of the action.

Like most of the more outlandish Nikkatsu action fests, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has a complicated relationship with narrative but we begin with former boxer Yabuki (Akira Kobayashi) in the middle of being brainwashed with flashing lights and high pitched noises until he agrees to become a shady government (?) assassin. Perhaps in an effort to save our sanities too, he relents and his first job is ensuring some jewels which were stolen during in the war don’t get into the hands of an evil nazi who will presumably be wanting them for evil nazi business. Anyway, Yabuki does his ninja stuff and thinks he’s tracked the jewels down but runs into a former colleague, Yamawaki (Hideki Takahashi), who is working for a businessman who already has the jewels and wants to keep them. Yamawaki quit being a super spy because he fell in love, which Yabuki thinks is a bit lame but still knows his friend has right stuff and would rather not have to kill him or anything.

Somewhere between the less serious yakuza/gang movies Nikkatsu were making in the late ’60s and a spy spoof, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has its fair share of oddness from strangled dogs to the mini Chinese theme in which one of the henchmen, Yang, wanders around in traditional Chinese garb while another girl at the club enjoys flirting in Mandarin for no apparent reason. It also goes without saying that the evil Nazi is played by an American spouting unconvincing German whilst chewing the scenery to a pulp. Realism is not where we are, but there’s something a little old fashioned about the way Ida chooses to stage his weirdness even if the film is filled with crazy contemporary youth touches such as in the achingly hip Club Casba.

The interpersonal drama comes as Yabuki and Yamawaki face off about their life choices much more than the case at hand. Yamawaki grew tired of the spy life and decided to leave it behind for his lady love, only to get mixed up in all of these petty gangster shenanigans. Still, if he can keep Yabuki away from the jewels until the time limit he’ll be free forever. Nothing is really said about Yabuki’s brainwashing at the beginning of the film, but Yamawaki’s choice does seem to prompt him into a consideration of his own lifestyle. That said, life as a government assassin doesn’t seem so bad – Yabuki doesn’t even really kill people much, just spends his life sneaking into places and leaping heroically between rooftops whilst making use of clever gadgets to evade his foes. The gangsters, however, are pretty evil and keep killing people after claiming to let them go which offends Yabuki’s sense of honour.

Yabuki may not kill, but the film does seem to make a point of killing off all the female characters in case they get in the way of the manly stuff like fighting and making bombs. An innocent kidnapped secretary who had nothing to do with anything is machine gunned down, another girl is murdered by the evil Nazi, and a final one gets marched into a mine field by her boyfriend before returning for revenge and getting unceremoniously taken down anyway. To lose one woman is careless but to kill off (all) three in a short time seems a step too far or perhaps too “realistic” for this otherwise cartoonish approach to violence.

Lacking the visual flair of other Nikkatsu efforts, 3 Seconds to Explosion is never as exciting as its title promises. Despite the athletic displays of the slightly bulkier Kobayashi, there’s a kind of clumsiness to the action and a straightforwardness in approach which does not gel with the ridiculousness of the premise. On lower end of Nikkatsu’s B-movie output, 3 Seconds to Explosion does not stint on the silliness but could do with enjoying itself a little more rather than trying to corral its non-sensical plot into something with serious intent.


 

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Shinji Somai, 1981)

sailor-suit-and-machine-gunFor good or ill, Haruki Kadokawa’s entry into the film industry was to have a profound effect both culturally and commercially. Rising from the ashes of the studio system, Kadokawa’s stable of cute and perky idols presented him with the opportunity to build a multimedia empire formed of a union between cinema, books, and music in which each could be used to sell the other.

1981’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Sailor-fuku to kikanju) was one of his earliest successes and helped to solidify his approach. Featuring one of the biggest idol stars of the 1980s, Hiroko Yakushimaru, in her most iconic role, the film adapts a Kadokawa teen novel as its source material and includes an end credits song with the same title sung by the film’s star. It was a winning formula, but then Sailor Suit and Machine is not just another idol movie. Directed Shinji Somai whose work is much more well known in Japan than it is abroad, this strange story of a high school girl and her unlikely role as a yakuza boss is both a surreal coming of age tale and an arthouse influenced character piece which came to become the defining youth movie for a generation of female cinema goers.

Izumi Hoshi (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is now an orphan. Her mother died some time ago and today is her father’s funeral. Thinking herself all alone in the world, Izumi is surprised when an older woman, Mayumi (Yuki Kazamatsuri), suddenly appears with a letter from her father claiming he asked her to look after his daughter if anything should happen to him. More surprises follow when her school is surrounded by black suited yakuza. Prophetically, the other students are terrified but Izumi marches straight up them to find out what’s going on. As it turns out, they’ve come for her – an uncle of Izumi’s father was the head of a yakuza clan and now that he’s dead they need a blood relative to succeed him. Izumi’s father out of thte picture, the position falls to his daughter, teenage high school girl or not. At first she refuses but realising that with no boss the guys will all have to die, Izumi relents and orders them to live. So begins her long, strange, not altogether successful career as the head of moribund clan of dejected yakuza.

In many ways, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is a parody of a standard yakuza flick in which rival groups vie for power in the crowded backstreets of a busy city. The idea of a tiny 17 year old girl heading up an organised crime syndicate and going toe-to-toe with grizzled fifty year old veterans is an inherently absurd one as exemplified by Izumi’s courtesy visit to the area’s most powerful gang boss in which he he more or less laughs her out of the office.

Despite the incongruity, Izumi is a tough kid and more than holds her own in the very male underground world. In her father’s letter to Mayumi, he describes his daughter as tough but naive – an analysis which proves true in her tenure as a yakuza boss. There is a degree of silliness in her actions, playing the role assigned for her as if acting a part in a movie but as her guys start getting knifed it suddenly doesn’t seem so funny after all. The film revolves around a mcguffin of some missing heroin which belongs to a gangster named Fatso but is also sought by rival gangs. Out of her depth, Izumi has no knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing drugs or even the reason why anyone would want them. This is a situation that can’t be blustered through and Izumi does not have the ability to navigate it.

The idea of an ordinary high school girl plunged into the criminal underworld is as ridiculous as it’s intended to be. However, Izumi is not quite the ordinary high school girl she first appears. Gangly and boyish, she is supported by three male friends who often flank her as entourage but always recede into the background, bowing to her leadership. Already dominant and possessing obvious leadership potential, Izumi’s bold decision to approach the yakuza at the school gates also hints at her curious and fearless personality, even if it also speaks to her youthful recklessness.

These more masculine qualities of forcefulness and dynamism as opposed the stereotypical image of the cute and submissive school girl are perfectly suited to her new life as a crime boss but for all of that her leadership takes on an oddly maternal quality. A wounded foot soldier remarks that Izumi smells like his mother as she’s awkwardly winding bandages around his torso, and the guys flock around her like they would the family matriarch. Tellingly Izumi later tells Mayumi that part of the reason she rejected her was because of her extreme femininity – something the adolescent Izumi did not quite know what to do with, especially given the maleness of her new environment.

Izumi’s short lived career in the yakuza cannot be termed a success in the normal manner of things, she acts honourably and may win a final victory but it comes at great cost. When Izumi finally picks up the machine gun of the film’s title for the intense finale, she finds herself enjoying it a little too much as the word “fantastic” escapes her lips seconds after letting rip intro a rival gang boss’ office. Rather than the romantic awakening which is the climax of many female centred teen movies, Izumi’s major consummatory event is with her machine gun. As she puts it at the end, Izumi’s first kiss goes to a (deceased) middle aged man and she looks set to become a “foolish” woman, her path into womanhood has been an unusually transgressive and as yet unresolved one.

Somai’s camera is is both slippery and precise as he casts us as voyeur in Izumi’s world, shooting through exterior windows and even at one point from behind the shrubbery. Preferring long takes and often at extreme distances, Somai mixes static camera with unusual fluidity for an effect that’s far more arthouse influenced than your usual teen idol picture. As with many of Kadokawa’s ‘80s movies, the film is steeped in the naivety of the teenage world view as Izumi goes about her new life with a kind of fearless determination despite the inherent violence and unexpected adult sexuality. A deserved classic, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is the archetypal Kadokawa movie, creating a vehicle for its idol star in the fascinating, iconic presence of its central heroine whilst simultaneously generating an enduring pop culture phenomenon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s star Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song at her 35th anniversary celebration concert in 2013: