A Chain of Islands (日本列島, Kei Kumai, 1965)

nihon retto posterKei Kumai made just 19 films films in his 40 year career, but even since his earliest days he ranked among the most fearless of directors, ready to confront the most unpleasant or taboo aspects of contemporary Japan. His first film, The Long Death, interrogated wartime guilt through drawing inspiration from a real life 1948 mass poisoning case in which materials manufactured in a Manchurian lab may have led to the deaths of post-war civilians. Having begun in this possibly controversial vein, Kumai pressed on with 1965’s A Chain of Islands (日本列島, Nihon Retto, AKA The Japanese Archipelago) which he set in 1959 as Japanese youth protested the renewal of the ANPO treaty which placed Japan under the military protection of the American Armed forces in return for allowing the presence of those forces on Japanese soil.

Despite the contemporary setting Kumai opens with a explanatory voice over detailing the depth of the American military presence and the function of the CID which exists solely to investigate crimes committed by American servicemen. The CID is staffed by both Americans and Japanese nationals who, the voiceover explains, often feel conflicted in stepping onto American soil each morning as prolonged exposure gradually erodes their sense of difference and finally of “Japaneseness”. Akiyama (Jukichi Uno) is a translator/investigator at CID and he’s about to be handed an unusual request from his boss – reopen a cold case from the previous summer in which an American Sergeant was found floating in Tokyo bay. Akiyama’s new boss was a friend of the late soldier and would like to know what happened.

Akiyama’s investigations lead him down a dark path of corruption, murder, conspiracy, and governmental complicity. Beginning to investigate the case, Akiyama discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. A couple of policeman from the original investigation arrive to help him and echo their frustrations with the way the case was handled. Despite the police investigation, the American authorities did their best to interfere – commandeering the body and claiming jurisdiction in contravention of Japan’s standing as a sovereign nation. The Americans are no longer occupying forces but honoured guests who should obey international protocol in cases like these, but they rarely do. Despite the existence of the CID, crimes by American servicemen are generally covered up as the military insists the matter will be dealt with internally only for suspects to be suddenly “transferred” overseas.

Sgt. Limit was, however, one of the good ones and Akiyama’s investigation seems to point towards a murder and cover up instigated because Limit had got too close to the truth in investigating a sudden flood of counterfeit cash. The Americans, to the surprise of all, are only the middle man in the grand conspiracy which leads right back to the dark heart of Japan and the vast spy networks operated during the militarist era. As might be expected, these valuable networks are left wide open with the collapse of Japanese fascism but are perfectly primed to facilitate widespread crime spanning the Asian world and all with the tacit approval of the American and Japanese states.

Kumai also implicates the spy ring in a series of “mysterious” rail incidents, but makes sure to reserve some of his ire more the more usual injustices. Akiyama is caring for his young nephew whose father was killed in mining explosion which has claimed the lives of nearly every young man in the village leaving his sister unable to cope with her children alone. He is also battling a personal tragedy which is intensely connected to his decision to join CID which is currently inundated with cases of rape and murder in which American servicemen are implicated. The “foreign” becomes suspect but mostly for its hypocrisy as in the Catholic priest who becomes a major suspect in subverting the legitimate devotion of a Godly woman who only sought to live under the Christian teachings of love and kindness, while the American forces claim to stand for honour and justice but actively facilitate organised crime at an interstate level to further the progress of Capitalism whilst also facilitating civil unrest in volatile nations for financial and political gains.

That all of this happens immediately before the renewal of the ANPO treaty is no coincidence and Kumai even includes aerial footage of the mass protests filling the streets around the Diet building as the youth of Japan question why their nation has seen fit to make itself so complicit in the questionable foreign policy of another country. The outcome looks bleak for our protagonists who discover themselves to be mere pawns at the mercy of greater forces which cannot be circumvented or denied, but just as it all looks hopeless a new hope arises. Pledging to fight harder and continue the work which has been started, those left behind dedicate themselves to equipping the young with the tools to build a happier, fairer world in contrast to the one they seem primed to inherit from those who should know better. The final sequence shows us a young woman walking gloomily past the Diet building which seems to be looming over her as a veritable symbol of oppression but then her face brightens, her step quickens and she leaves the Diet far behind to walk forward towards the work which awaits her. 


A comprehensive overview of the 1960 ANPO protests.

The Sea and Poison (海と毒薬, Kei Kumai, 1986)

the sea and poison posterWhen thinking of wartime atrocity, it’s easy enough to ascribe the actions of the perpetrators to a kind of madness, to think that they have in some way moved away from us to become some kind of “other”. In thinking of those who transgress our notions of humanity as inhuman or “evil” we can absolve ourselves of their crimes, believing that they are not like us and we are not like them. The truth is never so simple and as long as we continue to other these dark parts of ourselves, we will not be able to overcome them. The Sea and Poison (海と毒薬, Umi to Dokuyaku), adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo, shows this delusion of inhumanity for what it is in taking as its central concern the real life case of the doctors at a Kyushu university who committed heinous acts of experimentation on eight American prisoners of war in late 1945. Rather than focus of on those who took the decision that the experiments should take place, Endo and Kumai examine the motives of those on the fringes who merely went along with them finding that they did so for petty, essentially human motives.

Shot in a crisp black and white, the film opens in a caged cell where an American officer is interrogating a young man still in a student’s uniform. Suguro (Eiji Okuda) is the first of several witnesses to the deaths of eight American servicemen during alleged vivisection at the hospital at which Suguro had worked. Young and naive, Suguro is the most sympathetic of three witnesses we will encounter but his essentially compassionate nature puts him at odds with his colleagues who abhor “sentimentality” and regard his emotionality as a childish weakness. It is through Suguro that we discover that the hardness that has apparently led to these horrific betrayals of the physicians’ code are not born of the war, or of militarism, or of adherence to some ideal like god or country but are a natural extension of the hyper-rational attitude of the medical profession.

Suguro’s colleague, Toda (Ken Watanabe), is his polar opposite, viewing Suguro’s sense of compassion as a ridiculous but somewhat endearing character trait. A textbook nihilist, Toda takes the view that as death comes to us all, the when and why are essentially unimportant. When so many are dying in air raids or on the battlefields, what does it matter that some also die in hospitals. Yet Toda is, in someways, the most ruminative among the hospital staff. In the diary he keeps, Toda attempts to dissect himself and his ongoing lack of feeling. Telling the interrogators that he began the diary because he had begun to find himself “creepy”, Toda asks why it is he feels nothing in relation to his fellow men. Surely it must be right that one should feel some degree of empathy? Toda volunteers for the experiments in part to test his own hypothesis but discovering that he still feels no pity for these men, he wonders if these ideas of morality are a kind of affectation seeing as others too can commit such acts of extreme cruelty and think nothing of it.

In this, Toda earns our sympathy, seeming at least to want to feel something even if he does not. Nurse Ueda (Toshie Negishi), by contrast, is the most human and also the most repugnant of our three witnesses. Her concerns are petty and ordinary, born of jealousy and resentment. Returning again to the scene of a botched surgery, Kumai shows us Ueda calling the operating theatre and being told to give a patient a dose of morphine by a harried doctor still panicked by the ongoing OR drama. Following her instructions, Ueda fills a syringe but the vial is knocked out of her hand by the German wife of the head doctor, Hilda, who was once a nurse herself and likes to help out on the wards. Hilda is a severe woman but not a cold one, she cares for the patients but perhaps with a more rigorous adherence to the nurses’ code than the less experienced team at the hospital. Hilda tries to get Ueda fired for her “mistake”, scolding her by asking (in German) if she is not afraid of God, and expressing concern that she thought so little of giving a fatal dose of morphine to a suffering patient.

Ueda’s decision to attend the experiments is a form of backhanded revenge – Hilda, whom everyone regards as some kind of annoyingly saintly figure, has no idea her husband would be involved in something so against her deeply held ideals, but Ueda also offers another reason when she says that the doctors exist in another, more rarefied world to the rank and file ward staff. This idea is echoed again by the head nurse, Ohba (Kyoko Kishida), who states that nurses must do as the doctors tell them without asking questions. Ohba rounds out the just following orders contingent but the first half of the film has already shown us that the medical profession is corrupt and cannot be trusted.

The old Dean has had a stroke and there is a mini war of succession in play between the heads of surgery divisions one and two. Dr. Hashimoto (Takahiro Tamura) had been the favourite but his star is fading. In an effort to improve his chances, he decides to move up an operation on a friend of the Dean – a young woman with advanced TB. Meanwhile, Suguro’s patient, an old woman who also has TB has been earmarked for “experimental surgery”. The old woman has not been properly briefed on the risks of the operation in which she has only a five percent chance of survival and has only agreed to it because the doctor, whom she trusts implicitly, has told her it’s her only chance. The Dean’s friend is “Mrs. Tabe”, and she is “important”. The old woman is only “the welfare patient” and therefore not important at all.

Suguro, anxious to save the old woman to whom he has developed an attachment, wants the operation to be postponed, at least until she’s potentially strong enough to survive but Dr. Shibata (Mikio Narita) is only interested in using her as a potential candidate for experimentation which he claims will help future treatment of TB but also, of course, improve his career prospects. Mrs. Tabe’s mother asks the doctor if her operation carries any risk but the assistant laughs in her face, claiming the operation is so simple even a monkey could do it and pretending to be insulted that she has so little faith in her physicians. The operation goes wrong and Mrs. Tabe dies which is bad news for Dr. Hashimoto but rather than offer his apologies to the relatives, he tries to cover it up. So that it won’t look like she died on the table, they take the body back to her room and hook it up to a drip, insisting to Mrs. Tabe’s mother and sister that all is well while planning to announce that Mrs. Tabe died of complications from the operation early the following morning.

This level of callousness and self interest is echoed in Dr. Shibata’s justification that the old woman is going to die anyway and therefore the operation is worth a shot even though he believes it will kill her and is not in any way attempting to save her life (though it would be a nice bonus). Unlike Toda’s nihilism, Shibata’s practicality has no human dimension, he thinks in numbers and statistics, deciding who is a “real patient” and who is not. This same justification is used when recruiting doctors for the experiments. The US servicemen are downed aircrew from the bombers which have been making raids overhead for months. A court in Tokyo has ruled the random bombing contravenes international law and has sentenced the airmen to death. Seeing as the airmen will die anyway, might it not be “better” for their deaths to “benefit” medical science? The operations will be conducted under anaesthetic and so the men will not be in pain or know their fates which might, perhaps, be better than a firing squad.

The reality is not so convenient. Asked if his agreement was partly revenge, Suguro replies that, no, he felt no hate, he was just too mentally and physically exhausted to resist. Threatened by soldiers with guns he capitulates but refuses to assist in the room on the day, remaining a passive witness cowering at the edges. Before the operation, Dr. Gondo (Shigeru Koyama) makes small talk with the subject in English, asking about his hometown to which the airman, poignantly, says he’d like to return. The surgery is not like that conducted on Mrs. Tabe. The airman gets only ether and he struggles as the cloth is placed over his mouth, requiring four people – two doctors and two nurses, to hold him down until he stops kicking. This is no gentle death, this is murder.

A possible “justification” lies in the fact that the operating room is also filled with soldiers who laugh and jeer, snapping away on their brand new German-made camera. Tanaka, the officer in charge, asks for the airman’s liver after the operation, joking that he’d like to feed it to his men. The liver is indeed delivered to the horrified faces of the soldiers waiting for the party they’ve organised to begin, though it is not clear whether Tanaka really intends to feast on it or keep it as some sort of grim souvenir. Gondo, looking at the liver, remarks that they’ve all grown used to corpses but that “sentimentality” is never far away. Nevertheless, he appears to feel no real remorse for the heinous act of killing in which he has just been involved.

Adopting Endo’s Christianising viewpoint, the interrogations take place in a ruined church, a statue of the Virgin Mary directly above Ueda as she gives vent to her impure thoughts. The trio are being judged, not only by God but by us – or “society” as Suguro later puts it. The central proposition is that prolonged exposure to death on a mass scale – firstly as members of the medical profession, and later as victims of war, has led to an inhuman, nihilistic viewpoint in which we are all already dead and that, therefore, nothing really matters anymore. It isn’t clear who suggested this be done or why, but it is clear that Hashimoto collaborated in an effort to save his career by allying himself with the military – something he misses out on anyway when Shibata steals his thunder. Suguro is powerless to resist, Toda a melancholy sociopath, Ueda a vengeful woman, and Ohba a willing disciple of a beloved doctor, but none is a zealot to a regime or true believer in militarism. This is the dark heart of humanity – selfishness and cowardice, petty jealousies and ambitions. Kumai paints this scene of desolation with intense beauty, which only makes it all the more painful.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Kei Kumai, 2002)

The Sea is WatchingAkira Kurosawa’s later career was marred by personal crises related to his inability to obtain the kind of recognition for his films he’d been used to in his heyday during the golden age of Japanese cinema. His greatest dream was to die on the set, but after suffering a nasty accident in 1995 he was no longer able to realise his ambition of directing again. However, shortly after he died, the idea was floated of filming some of the scripts Kurosawa had written but never proceed with to the production stage including The Sea is Watching (海は見ていた, Umi wa Miteita) which he wrote in 1993. Based on a couple of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto, The Sea is Watching would have been quite an interesting entry in Kurosawa’s back catalogue as it’s a rare female led story focussing on the lives of two geisha in Edo era Japan.

Throughout this tale of love bought and love lost, we mainly follow the kindly geisha Oshin (Nagiko Tono) who ends up helping a nervous young man one night when he crashes into her geisha house in an attempt to avoid being picked up by the police. It seems he’s been out drinking with friends for the first time and, after having drunk far too much, may have stabbed another customer (though he can’t quite remember). Oshin comes up with a plan by cutting off his topknot and passing him off as one of her regular customers but Funosuke (Hidetaka Yoshioka) is not a born dissembler and remains sitting bolt upright before heading home at the first light of day.

Something passes between the two in the night and Oshin unwisely begins to fall in love. Though she begs him not too, Funosuke repeatedly visits her claiming to enjoy her company. However, though the other girls at the geisha house are in favour of Oshin’s love across the class divides romance and go to great lengths to help her, Funosuke is just a feckless boy completely unaware of the way he’s been toying with people’s hearts. Later, Oshin meets another damaged man, Ryosuke (Masatoshi Nagase), and begins to fall in love again but can a put upon geisha ever believe the words of men who think they can trade money for love?

Kurosawa has sometimes had the charge of misogyny thrown at him, somewhat unfairly, as his films are often very masculine in nature. The Sea is Watching, conversely, is the story of two women, Oshin and her fellow geisha Okikuno (Misa Shimizu), who claims to have come from a wealthy samurai background. Oshin is still young, her kindness and softness have not yet been eroded by the often harsh and cruel world in which she lives. She contents herself with romantic dreams of finding a man who will rescue her from this unpleasant way of life. Okikuno, by contrast, is older, harder, more experienced in the ways of the world, and therefore more inclined to towards pragmatism. She finds her salvation in self deception about the past whereas Oshin’s fantasies are all focussed on her future. In many ways the women are mirrors of each other but they also have a tight, sisterly bond in which each seems to understand the other perfectly without the need for explanation.

Structurally, the film feels unbalanced as it focusses more heavily on Oshin in the early stages only to gradually shift through to Okikuno by the end. The thematic split between Oshin’s twin tales of love doesn’t quite help, though it does add a degree of pathos to the situation as Okikuno can see that Oshin’s happy ever after is an unlikely prospect, but still somehow wants to make it happen. Oddly, Kumai chooses not to emphasis the relationship between the two women until the very end, preferring to deal with each of their disappointments and dead end romances separately, but the film does finally come together when they are trapped alone in the geisha house following a freak flood.

In many ways, filming the unfinished work of a great director is an entirely thankless task – every fault is because you aren’t him and every success is down to the departed genius, but Kumai does what he can to both honour Kurosawa’s memory and put his own stamp on the material. There are frequent Kurosawa-esque compositions and the final, deliberately unreal scene of the geisha house underwater framed against the starry sky also has a suitably Kurosawan feeling. That said, something about The Sea is Watching never quite catches fire, its symbolism feels underworked and the final, climactic scene lacks the power it seems to want to have despite Misa Shimizu’s impressive performance. Not drowning, but waving, The Sea is Watching is an uneven experience but makes up for its tonal problems through the strong performances of its cast and powerful, expressionist imagery which allow it to successfully ride the waves of the emotional storms at its centre.


The Sea is Watching is available on DVD with English subtitles in the US and UK from Sony Pictures Entertainment.

US release trailer: