Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍, Naoki Segi, 2011)

Ramen Samurai posterSet in the ‘90s, Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍) is in many ways a post-Showa story or a tale of one man’s reaction to bubble era disillusionment. It’s also in the fine tradition of legacy movies in which a troubled child reflects on a complicated relationship with a late parent and struggles to accept their role as an inheritor of skills and knowledge they’d spent much of their youth attempting to reject. Yet the hero of Ramen Samurai, though he maybe reluctant, is more willing than most to pick up his father’s burden, walking back through family history with his long-suffering mother and rediscovering the heroism which lay behind his sometimes difficult father’s tough guy exterior. Hikaru (Dai Watanabe) does not see himself as a man like his father – he’s no “hero” and bears no natural inclination towards rebellion, but only through addressing his father’s life can he learn to define his own. This is all, of course, a roundabout way to discovering the soul of ramen lies in the confidence of the chef.

In 1990 Hikaru, a graphic designer, gets a call at work from his mum to let him know his father has had a stroke. Hikaru left town in a hurry some years earlier, rejecting the idea of taking over the ramen restaurant for a life in bubble era Tokyo. On his father’s death he assumes his natural responsibility and comes home but customers say his ramen’s not as good as his dad’s, and he has trouble keeping his staff in line because they simply don’t accept him. Try as he might, Hikaru just can’t seem to find a way to replicate his father’s recipe, in the store or in life.

Yet there’s a nostalgia in him that sees him want to try. Kurume, a small town in Kyushu, is defined by its ramen – a local delicacy that once brought tourists and general prosperity to the area, but during bubble era “modernisation”, the “backward” yatai ramen stands with their colourful tarpaulins were deemed too reminiscent of post-war privation to survive. The carts were shunted away from the new sophisticated city centre while the police started restricting licenses to run them, eventually prohibiting their sale and limiting their inheritance to direct family members. Hikaru is at least his father’s son and so has a natural right to take over the business even if he has hitherto rejected it.

Rather than a cooking tale, Ramen Samurai steps back to tell the story of its vicarious protagonist – the problematic figure of Hikaru’s dad who is, in many ways, the idealised figure of the Showa era “hero”. That’s not to say he was perfect – he drank to the point of financial ruin and frequently caused problems for his family, but his heart was always in the right place and so he was mostly forgiven. A salt of the Earth type and cool with it, Hikaru’s dad was the big man around town and the defacto leader of the yatai owner community. He brooked no injustice, stood up to the yakuza (who only had the profoundest respect for him), and sought to protect those who were unable to protect themselves. Seeing a sleazy yakuza molesting a young girl, Hikaru’s dad kicked him out and later offered the girl, who is mute, a job and a place to stay, almost adopting her into his family until another act of random kindness accidentally reunites her with her own long-lost father.

Faced with such an intense legacy, it’s no wonder Hikaru struggled. A sensitive, artistic soul he tried his luck in bubble era Tokyo working in an advertising agency where he found the coolness of his colleagues puzzling and difficult to bear. Hikaru’s boss loudly discusses pub lunches and evenings spent in hostess bars, often throwing away the lovingly made bento provided by his wife. Returning home with an empty lunchbox is, he says, his way of showing love though his refusal to eat it perhaps a reaction against a salaryman’s lack of freedom. Nevertheless, even if they clashed in terms of personal morality, Hikaru’s boss compliments him on his commitment to hard work and growth as an artist even whilst admitting that the work itself is often frivolous and ultimately thankless.

Hikaru eventually learns to channel his artistic inclinations into his ramen, seeing himself as a “ramen artist” incorporating his father’s legacy into a dish which is entirely his own. In a sense, Hikaru retreats into the safety of the Showa era past, or that is the cosy 1970s in which he lived a comfortable, if eventful, childhood under a yatai’s awning while dad made trouble but only for the best of reasons. A samurai’s duty is, after all, to protect and Hikaru has decided to do exactly that in “restoring” his hometown to its former glory, dragging retro yatai culture into the rapidly disintegrating post-bubble world and bringing warmth and community back with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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

Illusion of Blood (四谷怪談, AKA Yotsuya Kaidan, Shiro Toyoda, 1965)

vlcsnap-2017-07-01-00h50m36s347Shiro Toyoda, despite being among the most successful directors of Japan’s golden age, is also among the most neglected when it comes to overseas exposure. Best known for literary adaptations, Toyoda’s laid back lensing and elegant restraint have perhaps attracted less attention than some of his flashier contemporaries but he was often at his best in allowing his material to take centre stage. Though his trademark style might not necessarily lend itself well to horror, Toyoda had made other successful forays into the genre before being tasked with directing yet another take on the classic ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談) but, hampered by poor production values and an overly simplistic script, Toyoda never succeeds in capturing the deep-seated dread which defines the tale of maddening ambition followed by ruinous guilt.

As usual, Iemon (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a disenfranchised samurai contemplating selling his sword due to his extreme poverty. Iemon had been married to a woman he loved, Oiwa (Mariko Okada), whose father called her home when Iemon lost his lord and therefore his income. Oiwa’s father is also in financial difficulty and Iemon has now discovered that he has been prostituting Oiwa’s sister, Osode (Junko Ikeuchi), and plans a similar fate for Oiwa.

Still in love with his wife, Iemon decides that his precious sword is not just for show and determines to take what he wants by force. Murdering Oiwa’s father, Iemon teams up with another reprobate, Naosuke (Kanzaburo Nakamura), who is in love with Osode and means to kill her estranged fiancee. Framing Osode’s lover Yoshimichi (Mikijiro Hira) as the killer, Iemon resumes his life with Oiwa who subsequently bears their child but as his poverty and lowly status continue Iemon remains frustrated. When a better offer arrives to marry into a wealthier family, Iemon makes a drastic decision in the name of living well.

The themes are those familiar to the classic tale as Iemon’s all consuming need to restore himself to his rightful position ruins everything positive in his life. Tatsuya Nakadai’s Iemon is among the less kind interpretations as even his original claims of romantic distress over the loss of his wife ring more of wounded pride and a desire for possession rather than a broken heart. Selling one’s sword is the final step for a samurai – it is literally selling one’s soul. Iemon’s ultimate decision not to is both an indicator of his inability to let go of his samurai past and his violent intentions as the fury of rebellion is already burning within him.

Iemon defines his quest as a desire to find “place worth living in”, but he is incapable of attuning himself to the world around him, constantly working against himself as he tries to forge a way forward. Oiwa’s desires are left largely unexplored despite the valiant efforts of Mariko Okada saddled with an underwritten part, but hers is an existence largely defined by love and duty, pulled between a husband and a father. Unaware that Iemon was responsible for her father’s death, Oiwa is happy to be reunited with him and expects that he will honour her father by enacting vengeance. Only too late does she begin to wonder what her changeable husband’s intentions really are.

An amoral man in an amoral world, Iemon’s machinations buy him nothing. Haunted by the vengeful spirit of the wife he betrayed, Iemon cannot enjoy the life he’d always wanted after purchasing it with blood, fear, and treachery. Despite the odd presence of disturbing imagery from hands in water butts to ghostly presences, Toyoda never quite achieves the level of claustrophobic inevitability on which the tale is founded. Hampered by poor production values, shooting on obvious stage sets with dull costuming and a run of the mill script, Illusion of Blood has a depressingly unambitious atmosphere content to simply retell the classic tale with the minimum of fuss. Only the final scenes offer any of Toyoda’s formal beauty as Okada appears under the cherry blossoms to offer the gloomy message that there is no true happiness and her husband’s quest has been a vain one. Achieving her vengeance even whilst Iemon affirms his intention to keep fighting right until the end, Oiwa leaves like the melancholy ghost of eternal regret but it’s all too little too late to make Illusion of Blood anything more than a middling adaptation of the classic ghost story.


 

Mourning Recipe (四十九日のレシピ, Yuki Tanada, 2013)

mourning-recipeWhen everything goes wrong you go home, but Yuriko, the protagonist of Yuki Tanada’s adaptation of Yuki Ibuki’s novel might feel justified in wondering if she’s made a series of huge mistakes considering the strange situation she now finds herself in. Far from the schmaltzy cooking movie the title might suggest, Mourning Recipe (四十九日のレシピ, Shijuukunichi no Recipe) is a trail of breadcrumbs left by the recently deceased family matriarch, still thinking of others before herself as she tries to help everyone move on after she is no longer there to guide them. Approaching the often difficult circumstances with her characteristic warmth and compassion, Tanada takes what could have become a trite treatise on the healing power of grief into a nuanced character study as each of the left behind now has to seek their own path in deciding how to live the rest of their lives.

Beginning in pitch darkness, housewife Yuriko (Hiromi Nagasaku) answers the phone to the voice of another woman requesting that she separate from her husband who is apparently the father of her unborn child. This double sting hits Yuriko hardest as the couple had been trying for a baby for quite sometime with little success. Thinking a divorce is for the best, Yuriko packs her bags, leaves the papers and her ring on the table, and heads for her father’s house. When she gets there she finds an oddly bubbly young girl, Imoto (Fumi Nikaido), washing her father’s back. Apparently, Imoto has been charged with looking after the house during the 49 day mourning period for Yuriko’s step-mother, Otomi – the upcoming memorial service something Yuriko had forgotten all about in the midst of her personal crisis. When Imoto presents the pair with a book that Otomi illustrated before she died listing everything they should do to prepare for the big party she wants everyone to enjoy rather than solemnly chanting sutras for her 49th day memorial, it prompts Yuriko and her father into a reconsideration of themselves, their pasts and futures, and who exactly should be making those decisions for them.

Yuriko’s position may seem like a straightforward one, betrayed by her husband her decision to leave seems inevitable but it’s complicated by the intricate web of duties and obligations Yuriko feels herself to be a part of. Reconsidering various turning points of her life, Yuriko makes plain that her marriage to the mild mannered salaryman Hiroyuki (Taizo Harada) had been under considerable strain due to the couple’s difficulty conceiving a child. Owing to the intense pressure placed on women to bear children, Yuriko internalises a sense of shame at having failed in this most basic of wifely tasks, leading her husband (she believes) to replace her with a model more fit for purpose. This point of view is rammed home by Yuriko’s insensitive aunt who continues to interrogate her about her lack of children and encourage her to return home to her husband and fix the problem rather than “giving up” and settling for the “shameful” option of divorce as young people are want to do. Aunt Tamako (Keiko Awaji) also points out that neither of her daughters bothered with university or work or any of that nonsense and now have fulfilled their duties by bearing bright and bonny grandchildren with no trouble at all. Heartbroken and blaming herself, Yuriko has to listen to the ongoing lecture whilst keeping her composure right until its gloomy conclusion.

Motherhood becomes the film’s biggest theme as mothers, non-mothers, and bad mothers swirl around the childless Yuriko, still trying to find her place in the world if the path society seems determined to set her on has been well and truly blocked off. Yuriko’s biological mother died when she was only little but happily her father fell in love with and married Otomi – a truly good woman who, like Yuriko, had no children of her own, but lived her life trying to make a difference and help other people to be happy. Little Yuriko didn’t always see it that way and found it difficult to bond with her new mother, settling for the nickname “Okka” – a combination of Otomi’s name and the word for mother, rather than straightforward “mum”.

Reinvestigating Otomi’s life in order to plan for her 49th day memorial, Yuriko truly gets to know her step-mother for the first time, discovering just how big of a difference she made in the lives of those around her. Imoto is just one of the young people Otomi went out on a limb for volunteering at a local rehabilitation centre for young people experiencing problems with addition. She then introduces them to a young Brazilian/Japanese migrant (Masaki Okada) who found himself feeling all alone in a foreign land until Otomi handed him the keys to her car and insisted he get out and about and meet new people. Otomi might not have had children of her own, but she became a mother to the world, reaching out and helping those who most needed it, becoming the springboard so that they could fly far away from her happier and healthier than before.

In learning from Otomi’s book, Yuriko regains her sense of self and a desire to find her purpose, knowing that the ability to bear children is not the be all and end all of a woman’s existence. Indeed even if a woman can give birth to a child, that’s not to say she’ll be a good mother as Imoto points out in reference to the toxic relationship she has with hers which feeds back into the insensitive way Hiroyuki’s mistress talks about her plans in front of her young son.

Given all of these epiphanies and mini realisations, Yuriko’s final decision may seem like an odd one, sending her back into a conservative world bound by all of the same duties and obligations the film spent so long undermining. Nevertheless, Yuriko emerges from her 49 days of mourning with a better understanding of herself and the way she should be living her life. Filled with wit and warm humour, Mourning Recipe neatly skirts its melodramatic nature to present a genuinely moving examination of the true nature of family, motherhood, and the necessity of individual freedom. Otomi’s final springboard action was for the ones she left behind, even if, once again, she won’t be able to see them fly.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.


 

A Japanese Tragedy (日本の悲劇, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1953)

A Japanese Tragedy 1A Japanese tragedy, or the tragedy of Japan? In Kinoshita’s mind, there was no greater tragedy than the war itself though perhaps what came after was little better. Made only eight years after Japan’s defeat, Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1953 film A Japanese Tragedy (日本の悲劇, Nihon no Higeki) is the story of a woman who sacrificed everything it was possible to sacrifice to keep her children safe, well fed and to invest some kind of hope in a better future for them. However, when you’ve had to go to such lengths to merely to stay alive, you may find that afterwards there’s only shame and recrimination from those who ought to be most grateful.

After opening with a series of genuine newsreel segments overlaid with newspaper clippings which tell of nothing other than crime, corruption and suicides, Kinoshita shifts focus to our ordinary mother, Haruko, currently working in an inn. Her son, Seiichi, has something he wants to tell her and will be staying with his sister, Utako, if she’d care to call. Neither of the children seems very excited about seeing their mother and, in fact, Seiichi’s news is that he wants to be adopted into a wealthy medical family so he can eventually take over their hospital. Utako is studying dressmaking and learning English but has also developed an attraction to her married English teacher which is threatening to develop into quite a difficult situation.

Kinoshita makes it plain that everybody suffered during the war which generally brought out the worst in people and even afterwards it was every man for himself as each tried desperately to climb out of the deepening hole that was Japan’s wartime defeat. Haruko lost her husband in the conflict, leaving her alone with two young children to feed and no one to help her. She did what she had to do whether that was a spot of black-marketeering, hoarding, or even casual prostitution but she put her children first every time. Unfortunately, she also falls for some bad self serving advice from her brother-in-law who offers to take over her husband’s land and look after the children while she earns more money out of town. Of course, he didn’t exactly keep his promises and both of the children suffered as a result.

Far from feeling grateful for their mother’s sacrifice, what the children feel is a mixture of shame and resentment. They’re embarrassed by their mother’s hardline personality and rural earthiness which no longer match their postwar upwardly mobile aspirations and force them to remember the unpleasantness of their upbringing. Seiichi is particularly disgusted by his mother’s having prostituted herself, branding her a “loose woman” and calling into question her character even before the disruptive effects of the war. Utako suffered a far greater betrayal at the hands of her relatives which has coloured her entire world view and left her with nothing but lingering resentment towards the mother who placed her in this situation.

Kinoshita intercuts the present day action with completely silent scenes of the family escaping from the military police, or memories of the various traumas each of the family members encountered in the chaotic period immediately after the end of the war. We see them travel from the warm letters sent by the children to their mother which lament the way their aunt and uncle are treating them to the outright hostility of the contemporary era. Haruko may not be the easiest of women, she’s certainly had a difficult life by any standards and it’s understandable why the relationship with her children might be strained, but in this case blood is not enough to overcome all the years of hardship and neither Seiichi nor Utako is willing to fulfil their filial obligations towards their mother.

Haruko substitutes the relationship she’s missing with her own children by offering maternal advice to the chef who works in her inn and a sad wandering guitarist who often comes by to serenade the guests. Not much older than her own son, the guitarist also has a mother in the country whom he rarely sees – Haruko gives him some money that he tearfully promises to use to send his mother a present, though he confesses at the end of the film that he drank it himself in the end. He feels guilty about it and he’s moved by Haruko’s kindness towards him but in the end he’s forgotten his own mother too and even if he isn’t treating her with the same level of disdain that Seiichi and Utako display for Haruko, he isn’t doing much better in the filial piety stakes.

An extended metaphor with a series of tightly packed layers, A Japanese Tragedy is a lament for a homeland that’s lost its way. Haruko, like the idealised mother, has given her own life in sacrifice for those of her children only to find that her children disown her for it. Everything she has ever done, good and bad, has been in their name yet they refuse even to acknowledge her suffering but rather apportion blame for their own hardships. Kinoshita litters Haruko’s story with news reports bearing out the depths to which the country has fallen – corrupt politicians, rioting, violence on the streets and mothers who commit suicide taking their children with them. At a moment near the end of the film, Haruko remains motionless on the train station steps as a crowd of passengers surges past her. Left alone, uncertain, and believing herself to have lost the only thing that has ever mattered to her, Haruko becomes a casualty of a society that is so intent on marching forward that it’s lost sight of where it’s going. An enraged state of the nation address, this bleak and tragic tale is nevertheless filled with genuine human feeling and naturalistic detail which only deepen the impact of the desperately sad ending.


Opening sequence of the film:

Reviewed at the 2016 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, ICA 7th February 2016.

 

Black River (黒い河, Masaki Kobayashi, 1957)

20140731_762128Masaki Kobayashi is still not enamoured with the new Japan by the time he comes to make Black River (黒い河, Kuroi Kawa) in 1957 which proves his most raw and cynical take on contemporary society to date. Set in a small, rundown backwater filled with the desperate and hopeless, Black River is a tale of ruined innocence, opportunistic fury and a nation losing its way.

The tale begins as a poor student, Nishida, moves into a rundown tenement owned by a tyrannous landlady who collects rent payments as if drinking in souls. Nishida looks around his new abode with a depressed air as the landlady advises him that he can always clean the place up. The vast majority of his possessions are books and the studious Nishida quickly sets himself apart from the ordinary working class denizens of this forsaken place to whom he clearly feels himself superior. However, he does take a liking to a local waitress. This too is destined to go wrong as when Shizuko visits him late after work one night hoping to borrow a book, she is grabbed by a gang of guys who attempt to assault her. Another man turns up and disrupts them but it quickly transpires that the whole thing is a ruse set up by the local gangster, Killer Joe, who then rapes her himself.

The modern, jazz inspired score and classic love triangle plot are almost a seishun eiga cliché but Kobayashi is only partly interested in the central trio with the ruined girl at its core. Casting the net wider, he’s interested in each of the wretched people that live in this place which is on the fringes of an American military base. From the obvious and blatant pan pan girls to the secret prostitutes and black marketeers, the American military has become a disruptive force in the area offering the weak minded easy, if dishonest, ways of living. That is to say, the problem is not “the Americans” or “the occupation” so much as it is the society which is allowing itself to become corrupted by Western values.

In this place, it’s everyman for himself. One of the community is ill, probably with tuberculosis. At one point he’s in desperate need of a blood transfusion so the wife hysterically asks everyone else if they have a matching blood type which they all deny (some of them obviously lying). Nishida admits he has a match, but outright refuses his blood despite the fact that this man will likely die without it. This doesn’t matter however because someone remembers the wife herself is a match but even she did not want to volunteer her own blood to save the life of her husband. Later when he is rushed to hospital she will delay his departure trying to take all their worldly goods with them in case the husband dies and his relatives turn up to claim everything.

The landlady has hatched a plot with Killer Joe (played by a young Tatsuya Nakadai in his first film role) to evict the tenants, knock the place down and build a love hotel catering to the American troops. They have a small problem as a committed communist lives in the building and refuses to move – he also tries to organise some community action where he tries to get them to club together to reduce energy costs as the local American base doesn’t pay their bills and the community has to foot the bill for the entire area. Nobody really cares though and no one wants to pay.

Killer Joe plays the tough guy in swanky clothes and sunglasses but his authority is hollow and really he’s just a scared little boy. He rapes Shizuko because he’s too lazy and frightened to bother about doing things in the more conventional way. She, for herself, is too pure to consider herself anything other than ruined by her traumatic experience and immediately petitions Joe to marry her (he, predictably, laughs and offers to let her move in with him). She’s disgusted with herself but is completely in thrall to Joe, both attracted and repelled by him. Gone are her demure outfits and white parasol, in with the dark, figure hugging dresses with exposed shoulders, loose hair and pretty pearl earrings. Her love for Nishida is the one aspect of her former self that she clings to as a way of keeping her innocence alive. Eventually she decides the only way to reclaim her honour and be free of Joe is to kill him and kill the new self born in her by his violence.

Innocence, once lost, is not something which can ever be truly regained. Nishida makes the typically male decision and is saved from his folly by a typically female one, but the ending here can never be anything other than tragic for all involved. It’s the usual B-movie conclusion, leaving only a lonely white parasol lying abandoned on the road to ruin. The message is clear, the world is cruel because we allow it to be and that is a fact that is unlikely to change.


Black River is the third of four early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.

Here’s a scene from about half way through the movie: