Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain, Yoji Yamada, 1988)

Downtown Heroes posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Yoji Yamada was an infrequent visitor to the youth movie. Best remembered for his long running Tora-san series, Yamada’s later output is marked by an alternation of laughter and tears, running between raucous family comedies and poignant examinations of wartime loss. Set in the immediate postwar period, 1988’s Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain) adapts the autobiographical novel by Akira Hayasaka for a twin tale of endings and beginnings as a group of boys prepare to leave the Japan of their childhood behind and set out into the brand-new post-war future.

Our narrator for the tale is Hayasaka’s stand-in, Kosuke (Hashinosuke Nakamura), a sensitive young man from the mountains studying at the prestigious boys’ boarding school in town. The Matsuyama high school is one of the last to still be operating in Japan’s pre-war educational model. In fact, when the boys graduate the school will shut down in favour of the American 6-3-3 standard model of organising the educational system. Nevertheless, Kosuke and his friends enjoy what seems like a fantastically broad curriculum to modern eyes, much of which consists of classic German literature. Rather than their family names, the boys refer to each other with a series of nicknames inspired by their studies and have been heavily influenced by European left-wing political ideology. Accordingly, they are less than happy about the imposed American “reforms” and, paradoxically, the restrictions placed on their individual “freedom” by the “imperialist” occupation.

The central drama revolves around two episodes occurring one after another during the final year of high school. The first involves Kosuke’s friend Arles (Toshinori Omi) and a prostitute he helps to rescue from the red light district – Sakiko (Eri Ishida) was supposed to elope with a student from the school, but he didn’t show up and if the people from the brothel she was sold to find her she’ll be in big trouble. Her suitor turns out to be a fraud, but the boys are committed to saving her and hide Sakiko in their dorm, sharing their meagre rations with her before helping her escape to her home town. Meanwhile, the boys are also preparing for the very last culture festival the school will ever see at which they will present their adaptation of a classic German play. The snag is, the play needs a girl. Eventually the gang enlist the help of Fusako (Hiroko Yakushimaru) – a student at the girls’ school recently repatriated from Manchuria who also happens to be the young lady Kosuke had a meet cute with on the road and has been in love with ever since. Trouble brews when Gan (Tetta Sugimoto), the play’s director, falls in love with her too.

Told from the POV both of the old and the young Kosuke, the atmosphere is one of intense melancholy and inescapable nostalgia. Though these were times of hardship – rationing is fierce and intense, so much so that the school no longer serves meals at all on Sundays and the boys largely subsist on rice gruel, they were also times of joy and possibility. These are however youngsters in the best tradition of the sensitive young men of Japanese literature. They feel everything deeply, fully aware that they are living on the cusp of something new, which necessarily also means to be standing atop a grave. Their world is collapsing and the values they’ve been given (progressive though they seem to be) are about to be thrown out of the window. They have been taught that nothing is more important than their personal autonomy and that personal freedom is attained only through overcoming hardship, but their lives will increasingly be dictated by occupying forces and they feel themselves robbed of something without the right to reply.

Nevertheless their problems are also ordinary teenage ones of romantic crises and friendship dilemmas. Kosuke struggles with his love at first sight crush on Fusako but remains too diffident to say anything until it’s almost too late, while he also struggles to figure out what the most proper thing to do is when Gan reveals he is also in love with her. Gan, a sensitive writer, apparently burns with longing – so much so that he’s written a book long confession of love in apology for being unable to declare himself in person. Kosuke, a good friend, agrees to deliver the letter but both of them have neglected to consider Fusakao’s feelings so bound up are they in their own solipsistic dramas. Fusako was also struck by the love bug on her first meeting with Kosuke and has been patiently waiting for him to say something (as is the custom of the time). She is therefore doubly hurt and offended when he delivers a mini-tome on the theme of love from someone else before attempting to leave abruptly in a huff. Truth be told, there are few women who would enjoy being handed a thesis as a confession, but Fusako is really not in the mood to read one now.

Ending on a melancholy epilogue in which the old Kosuke looks on at field of young men playing American football before some others in running shorts brush past him and a young couple enjoy an evening walk, Yamada embraces the mild sense of deflation that has been building since the beginning. Young love faded and the dreams of youth were destined to come to nothing – not quite a tragedy, or perhaps only one of the ordinary kind, but food for the regrets of age all the same. The times were hard, and then they got better but somehow they were never so happy again. A youth drama indeed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Theme song “Jidai” performed by Hiroko Yakushimaru

Kaisha Monogatari: Memories of You (会社物語 MEMORIES OF YOU, Jun Ichikawa, 1988)

Kaisha monogatari dvd coverJapanese corporate life is a strange thing – sometimes more cult than job, the company demands absolute dedication from its devotees though it promises them little more than a guaranteed life of toil. Being cast out from one’s company is akin to being robbed of one’s identity. Retirement is therefore not quite so much of a reward as an excommunication – especially to those who have given so much of themselves to an employer that they don’t quite know who they are when the suit comes off. This is especially true of the hero of Jun Ichikawa’s 1988 existential drama, Kaisha Monogatari: Memories of You (会社物語 MEMORIES OF YOU). The title is deceptively romantic – in fact there was an identically titled idol starring melodrama released the same year, but it is in a way a love story of an old man who finally gets a chance to reunite with the dreams he abandoned in youth while coming to terms with his old age and the various ways the world has moved past him.

Very early one morning, veteran salary man Hanaoka (Hajime Hana) stares into the empty screen of his television set from the comfort of his kotatsu, examining his own tearful face before his wife gets up to prepare breakfast. Hanaoka is set to retire soon, after 34 years of corporate life. His career has been unremarkable and he has few friends at the office – he feels he most likely will not be missed when he goes. Home life is not too successful either. Hanaoka’s grown-up daughter has come home with a daughter of her own after a divorce, and Hanaoka’s son is currently a NEET would-be-student supposedly studying to retake entrance exams though his mother is convinced he’s just messing around and avoiding getting a job.

Though Hanaoka is a section head, it’s clear he’s not rated by his colleagues who gossip about him behind his back while his mild and timid nature sees him sitting quietly forgotten in the back of meetings. He does however have admirers including one of the older ladies in the admin staff who has always been comforted by Hanaoka’s gleeful laughter, suddenly feeling the world expand as she watched him beavering away earnestly. Despite this, nobody is very excited about his leaving party. Discussing things among themselves, the office ladies lament that planning farewell parties is either too depressing to just too much hassle, while gossiping guys in the men’s room complain that Hanaoka was never very good at his job anyway and his leaving do will be a “pitiful” affair. All of this proves too much for the kind hearted, shy, Hanaoka who eventually decides to have a goodbye note distributed around the office in which he tells everyone that there’s no need to bother with yet another office party in the overly festive December to the relief (and consternation) of all.

Hanaoka does, however, have to write his official goodbye for the company newsletter (1000 characters due by Dec. 15). Struggling to find the words, he writes a first draft in which he declares the deep sorrow he feels on having to leave his corporate family behind – after all these are people he’s dined and gone drinking with for 34 years, through good times and bad, company picnics, and away days. He’s spent longer with the office ladies than his wife, had more conversations with his subordinates than with his son. The company has been his life, and leaving it is a kind of death. Embarrassed he screws up the draft and throws it away, only to encounter another salaryman returning late (and more than a little the worse for wear) who lets him have a go on the very high tech laser guns he’s just won at bingo.

Yet Hanaoka does manage to find a solution in reconnecting with his younger self and makes a few new friends in the process. In his youth, Hanaoka was a jazz drummer – sophisticated as it is, jazz was the music of his glory days and so he finds many of the other men in his position share his love of music and were also forced to abandon their musical dreams for corporate careers. Now freed of the burdens of the salaryman, they decide to form a band of their own and even to give a special concert in place of Hanaoka’s leaving do.

Meanwhile, Yumi (Yumi Nishiyama), the office lady who reminds Hanaoka of his younger self, is undergoing something of a crisis when she realises that her boyfriend is not as serious about the relationship as she is and has been seeing someone else behind her back – the CEO’s daughter whom he intends to marry to further his career. Kaisha Monogatari is, in many ways, the passing of a baton from the post-war generation to the bubble era though getting ahead through advantageous arranged marriage is apparently still a viable option. Those of Hanaoka’s age had to work hard, rebuilding the nation after crushing wartime defeat from bombed out ruins to the economic miracle of the East. Their children, by contrast had things easy – they hardly have to worry at all. Hanaoka’s son, apparently a delinquent lost and confused by the comparative freedom of economic stability, has no need to submit himself to the insane demands of life as a company man but millions like him will, because that’s just what you do.

Hanaoka finds a way to break out of the corporate straightjacket through re-embracing his love of jazz, proving there is something left inside him when you strip the company man away but there is nevertheless something sad in having wasted so much time slaving away for a organisation that is ultimately so ungrateful for the sacrifice. A gloomy picture of bubble era Japan in which families are fragmenting, young men choose career over love, and old men are made to feel worthless once their economic function is spent, Kaisha Monogatari: Memories of You does offer the faintest glimmer of hope in the goodness of men like Hanaoka, no matter how they may have failed those around them, whose lives may be brighter when finally allowed to be themselves again.


Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Akio Jissoji, 2005)

Summer of the UbumeAkio Jissoji has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director to date. In a career that also encompasses the landmark tokusatsu franchise Ultraman and a large selection of children’s TV, Jissoji made his mark as an avant-garde director through his three Buddhist themed art films for ATG. Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Ubume no Natsu) is a relatively late effort and finds Jissoji adapting a supernatural mystery novel penned by Natsuhiko Kyogoku neatly marrying most of his central concerns into one complex detective story.

Freelance writer Tatsumi Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) and occult expert Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) become intrigued by the bizarre story of a woman who has apparently been pregnant for twenty months. If that weren’t enough weirdness, the woman’s husband also went missing a year ago and now her sister has approached the pair hoping they can investigate and figure out what’s really going on. Unbeknownst to him, Sekiguchi has a longstanding connection with several of the people involved and himself plays a role in the central mystery. Demons foreign and domestic, past trauma, infanticide and multiple personality disorder are just some of the possible solutions but as Kyogokudo is keen to remind us, there is nothing in this world that is truly strange.

The mystery conceit takes the form of a classic European style detective story complete witha drawing room based finale in which each of our potential suspects is assembled for Kyogokudo so that he can deliver his final lecture and tick them all off the list as he goes along. The tale takes place in the summer of 1952 and so the spectre of Japan’s wartime past, as well as its growing future, both have a part to play in solving this extremely complex crime. The original supernatural question concerns two otherworldly entities which have become conflated – the Chinese Kokakucho which abducts children, and the Japanese Ubume which offers its child to passersby. Needless to say, the answer to all of our questions lies firmly within our own world and is in no small part the result of relentless cruelty masked as tradition.

The opening scene includes a lengthy discussion between Kyogokudo an Sekiguchi debating the nature of reality. We only experience the world as we perceive it, seeing and unseeing at will. Everybody, to an extent, sees what they need to see, therefore, memory proves an unreliable narrator when it comes to recalling facts which may run contrary to the already prepared narrative.

Jissoji brings his trademark surrealist approach to the material which largely consists of interconnecting flashbacks often intercut with other dreamlike imagery. Filming with odd angles and unusual camera movements, Jissoji makes the the regular world a destabilising place as the strange mystery takes hold. The canted angles and direct to camera approach also add to a slight hardboiled theme which creeps in around the otherwise European detective drama though this mystery is much more about solving a series of puzzles than navigating the dangerously dark world of the noir. That said this is a very bleak tale which, for all its frog faced children weirdness, has some extremely unpleasant human behaviour at its roots.

Supernatural investigator Kyogokudo quickly dispenses with the demonic in favour of the natural but the solutions to this extremely complicated set of mysteries are anything but simple. Making space for the original novel’s author to show up as a travelling picture storyteller with some Shigeru Mizuki inspired illustrations on his easel, Summer of Ubume is not entirely devoid of whimsy but its deliberately arch tone is one which it manages to make work with its already bizarre set up. The enemy is the unburied past, or more precisely the unacknowledged past which generates its own series of ghosts and phantasms, always lurking in the background and creating havoc wherever they go. Occasionally confusing, Summer of Ubume is a fascinating supernatural mystery which takes its cues much more from European detective stories and gothic adventure than from supernatural horror or fantastical ghost story.


Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s source novel is available in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith (published by Vertical in the US).

Original trailer (no subs):