Play (遊び, Yasuzo Masumura, 1971)

5a4a5621a8387Yasuzo Masumura is most often associated with the eroticism and grotesquery which marked the middle part of his career, but his beginnings as a regular studio director at Daiei are a more cheerful affair even if darker in tone and with additional bite. His debut, 1957’s Kisses, was an unusual youth drama for the time – an innocent romance between a naive boy and girl who meet when each of their parents is languishing in jail. Far from the tragic conclusion of Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit, Masumura offers his youngsters a degree of hope and the possibility, at least, of a happy ending. Daiei would go bust in 1971, and so it’s a minor irony that Masumura would revisit a similar theme towards the end of his tenure at the studio. Play (遊び, Asobi, AKA Play With Fire / Games), inspired by Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel, is another tale of youthful romance threatened by a harsh society, but this time around Masumura is not quite so hopeful.

A 16 year old (unnamed) girl has become the main breadwinner for her mother and bedridden older sister following the death of her father, formerly a violent drunk. Having had to leave school, she has a full-time job at an electronics factory where she lives in the company dorm along with a number of other female employees, most of whom are a few years older than she is. The girl is an earnest sort, she resents her mother’s constant pestering of her for money, but she sends her pay checks home keeping only enough to keep herself fed and clothed.

When an older woman, Yoshiko, who works as a “hostess” in one of the local cabaret bars comes to visit, she does so dressed to the nines with a handsome man sporting fancy sunglasses and porting a selection of upscale cakes. Yoshiko sells the virtues of life in the clubs, talking about the money to be made by having fun while the naive gaggle of young women remain in awe of her confidence, poise, and fancy haircut. In desperate need of money, the girl considers Yoshiko’s suggestion which is what brings her into contact with the (unnamed) boy (Masaaki Daimon).

The boy is 18 and pretends to be more worldly wise than he really is. He offers to show the girl around the cabaret scene, though he discourages her from working there. Taking her out and around town, the boy charms the girl though he has a dark and ulterior motive. The boy is a petty yakuza for a gang whose main stock in trade is pulling girls off the street and raping them for reasons of both blackmail and forced prostitution.

Owing to her young age and bad experience with her father who was often drunk and violent, the girl has steered clear of men. The other girls make fun of her for not having a boyfriend, not wearing make up, and for being “good” in sending all her money home. The girl isn’t really interested in the same kind of fun loving life as the more jaded of the factory girls – especially when she sees them roll in drunk boasting about the bruises on their skin from a night of debauchery, or even staggering back crying with a dress torn to shreds after being violently assaulted (perhaps by the same kind of yakuza thugs that will shortly target her). Despite the harshness of her life, she remains naive and innocent, concerned for her mother and invalid sister who have only her to depend on.

The boy is in a similar situation, though far less keen to confess it. Also let down by a drunken, promiscuous mother, he’s found himself in a gang desperate for the approval of his new “big brother”. Though he reacts with horror to the gang’s main stock in trade, he does not try to stop it even if he stops short of rape himself, but continues to assist in trapping the girls whilst fully aware of what will happen to them.

Coming from a harsh world, the boy has never met anyone as earnest or as naive as the girl and her goodness starts to reawaken something in him. Likewise, the girl, unaware of the boy’s true purpose, has never met anyone that was so immediately nice to her – her fear of men and alcohol dissipates as she (mistakenly, or perhaps not) believes she has met someone truly good and kind who only wants to help her. The girl does not belong in the boy’s world of sleazy clubs and youth haunts but bears them well enough for him. The boy recognises the incongruity and takes her somewhere else, still conflicted in his true purpose of delivering her to the dingy love hotel where his boss conducts his illicit trade.

The boy and the girl are innocents corrupted by their environments. Let down by irresponsible parenting (perhaps also a symptom of the difficulties of the society they live in), the pair remain trapped, dreaming of freedom and happiness but seeing no way of finding them. Deciding to make a break for it, leave their respective disappointing families far behind, the boy and the girl sail away. Their boat is full of holes, but they refuse to be beaten, committing to forge ahead together they swim towards the sea and an uncertain but hopeful future.


Title sequence (no subtitles)

Abacus and Sword (武士の家計簿, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2010)

•Žm‚̉ƌv•ë•The stories of samurai whose soul is placed not in the sword but in another tool are quickly becoming a genre all of their own. Coming from the same screen writer as A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story, Abacus and Sword is a similarly structured tale of penny pinching samurai accountants and a pean to the undersung heroes of the admin department without whom everything would fall apart.

Abacus and Sword (武士の家計簿, Bushi no Kakeibo) could almost be titled “a story of my father” as it begins with a voice over by the youngest adult generation seen in the film, Nariyuki Inoyama, who is at the time of speaking a naval accountant in the new post restoration world. As good an account as he is (and he must be, given his position), he feels he pales in comparison to his father, Naoyuki, whose skills with the abacus were somewhat legendary even if his people skills were often not on the same level.

Dubbed an abacus fanatic by his colleagues, Naoyuki’s top maths abilities get him into trouble right away when he notices an extreme discrepancy in the accounts details for the imperial rice dole. Around this time there are riots from farmers who are being squeezed to deliver more grain to the authorities during a time of famine but not seeing enough returned to them as well as starving people petitioning for food in the streets, so when Naoyuki asks why around a third of the rice is disappearing from the accounts or listed as “reserved” his superiors start getting nervous. As a mini underling, Naoyuki is not in a position to stop his bosses from exploiting their authority in the most devious of ways – creating a food panic and then profiting on the side through black market trading, and is simply instructed to “ensure the final accounts balance”. Unwilling to falsify his precious calculations, Naoyuki finds himself facing the possibility of exile from the imperial centre but eventually finds his persistence rewarded when the scam is finally uncovered by a higher level.

Accountants are often not respected in this era of samurai warriors who place an almost religious faith in the power of the sword. Their pay is low, hours long and taxing, and they have little prospects of advancement. After hearing the story of Naoyuki’s career Nariyuki returns to the subject of himself a little more as the conflict between austere father and wayward son takes centre stage. Naoyuki is a pragmatic man, he sees their family debts are unsustainable and embarks of prolonged plan of austerity in which he forces the entire extended family to sell all their non essential possessions and live as cheaply as possible until the debts reach a more manageable level so they can at least keep the social position their larger family home affords them rather than being moved to something less prestigious. This is an unusual move in status driven samurai circles and proves embarrassing for the rest of the family such as in one episode where Naoyuki can’t afford to buy fish for his son’s coming of age ceremony so simply puts a painting of a fish at each place setting. Creative accounting at its finest!

Nariyuki, however, can’t quite give up on the idea of the sword and goes off to fight in the various civil wars which erupt during the Meiji Restoration causing great worry to his parents, wife and children. He too becomes an accountant and is at first disappointed that it’s his skills with an abacus that can best serve the country rather than those needed on the frontlines but later comes to understand the tactical importance of maintaining the smooth financial functioning of an army.

A late career effort from the prolific Yoshimitsu Morita, Abacus and Sword is an uneven experience which is more or less devoid of the director’s usual attempts at experimentation pushing for a more general, sometimes even televisual approach to storytelling. At heart the film praises the virtues of living a thrifty, honest, and balanced life in which hard work is always fairly rewarded in the end and even when not provides its own set of rewards. However, virtuous as it is to live honestly and simply in tune with the clack of an abacus, it can prove fairly dull which is unfortunately also true of Abacus and Sword which despite brief episodes of light humour never quite engages with its twin dynamics of father son conflict which echoes that of the changing world as it emerges into the new Meiji era, and of shining a light on the forgotten admin workers who keep the world turning when everything else is falling apart. Morita’s anti-consumerist, transparency in government sympathies come to the fore and are once again timely, but like Naoyuki he fails to make his complaints sufficiently engaging to ensure his messages are received by those with the ability to take action.


English subtitled trailer:

Dr. Akagi (カンゾー先生, Shohei Imamura, 1998)

Dr AkagiA late career entry from socially minded director Shohei Imamura, Dr. Akagi (カンゾー先生, Kanzo Sensei) takes him back to the war years but perhaps to a slightly more bourgeois milieu than his previous work had hitherto focussed on. Based on the book by Ango Sakaguchi, Dr. Akagi is the story of one ordinary “family doctor” in the dying days of World War II.

As Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto) puts it, much of the the life of a family doctor involves running. If he breaks one leg, he’ll run on the other, if he breaks both legs, he’ll run on his hands, but he’ll do whatever it takes to get to his patients. Some of the villagers have branded him as a quack and nicknamed him “Doctor Liver” because his most frequent diagnosis is for hepatitis. Doctor Akagi is convinced that there really is an epidemic of contagious hepatitis plaguing the population and even has the evidence to back his theory up but with the war in crisis and so much else going on he’s having trouble getting anyone to listen to him. Nevertheless, Akagi fearlessly tries to find out what it is that’s causing this deadly disease to spread and hopefully put an end to it for good.

Imamura strikes an oddly comic tone here. Though the above synopsis may sound overly serious, for the vast majority of its running time Dr. Akagi is the story of a small fishing village going about its everyday life with the war just simply background. The town narrowly escapes being bombed by an American raid because it’s known that there’s prisoner of war camp nearby filled with allied soldiers and red cross personnel and there are certainly a lot of troops on the ground more or less running the show. However, despite the obvious hardships – lack of food being the biggest one, the townspeople are getting on with things in a fairly cheerful way.

Following a spot of pastoral care, Dr. Akagi ends up taking in a local girl as his assistant and housekeeper after her father has died leaving her to support her two younger siblings. Though a married woman with a husband away at the front, Sonoko (Kumiko Aso) has been making ends meet through prostitution with the rather unwelcome result that one of her regular customers wants to marry her (she does not reciprocate and after all already has a husband). Akagi doesn’t necessarily disapprove of the idea of prostitution or of openly expressed sexuality, but accepts that society does object to these ideas and takes Sonoko in so that she won’t have to sell herself (though she actually didn’t really mind very much and still finds herself called upon to provide her “services” even after she’s officially given up).

Akagi’s other supporters include a fellow doctor, Tomomi, who has become addicted to morphine after his wartime service and a drunken and lecherous buddhist monk who proves an essential ally when it comes to body snatching a recently buried corpse. Akagi gets himself into even more trouble when he takes in and treats an escaped Dutch POW who bears the scars of extreme torture by Japanese forces who are paranoid about possible spy action. Imamura is never afraid of raising the spectre of wartime brutality as his soldiers flit between righteous zealots committed to the letter of the law and bumbling idiots who can’t see that each of their actions is entirely counterproductive to their cause.

The most surprising moment comes when Akagi has a dream about his son who is an army doctor serving in Manchuria. After Akagi and his friend have conducted an autopsy to gain a fresh liver sample, Tomomi starts talking about his time in the army and a rumour about a group of doctors doing live dissections and possibly researching chemical weapons. Akagi is aghast and horrified but recounts his dream in which he stood before his son whose bloodied hands are extended towards him with a living patient writhing below. Akagi reminds him that he is a doctor and urges him to stop this barbaric practice but the nightmarish vision of this gloomy, blood-soaked room persists.

At the end of the film Sonoko and Akagi unwittingly end up viewing the giant mushroom cloud which arises after the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima. Not knowing what it is, Akagi predictably sees it as a giant infected liver and wonders if the donor for his liver sample is angry with him but then thinks again and says the cloud is a representation of everybody’s anger towards this war. Akagi loses himself a little in the quest to solve the hepatitis question and after it leads him to neglect a patient he begins to question himself over his true motives and whether there’s really any point to what he’s trying to do. However, Dr. Akagi is a good and a kind man and eventually remembers what his true calling is – as a family doctor, running from one emergency to the next but always making sure his patients are well looked after. War or no war, life goes on – people get sick and they need to know there are men like Akagi out there that can always be relied upon to do the very best they can.


Dr. Akagi was originally released in the US by Kino Lorber but seems to be out of print. The good news is that the region free Korean disc comes with English subtitles.

Unsubbed trailer:

The Sting of Death (死の棘, Kohei Oguri, 1990)

Sting of DeathKohei Oguri’s The Sting of Death (死の棘, Shi no Toge) won the prestigious jury prize at the Cannes film festival in 1990 but has since passed into obscurity. Adapted from the “I Novel” by Toshio Shimao, Sting of Death is an absurdist, caustic look at a collapsing marriage beset by difficulties on all sides as the pair try to navigate the confusing post-war society.

Toshio and Miho are a married couple with two young children. Miho has recently discovered that her husband has been carrying on with a neighbour for quite some time and is uncertain how to deal with this unexpected revelation. The film opens with a serious marital argument which is almost chilling in its calmness. Toshio is sorry, he doesn’t intend to leave his marital home and pledges to stop seeing this other woman – he’ll stay in 24/7 and not even go out without his wife and children if it means he can defend his family. Miho is definitely not happy with this compromise but accepts it and the couple attempt to get back to a kind of normality. However, the peace does not last long as Miho becomes increasingly depressed and paranoid before hurtling headlong into a nervous breakdown.

The “I Novel” is an integral part of Japanese literature and has often provided the basis for many of the country’s prestige films even though its specific style is a necessarily literary one which is hard to dramatise on screen. The genre is centred around the ideas of naturalism and the main tenet is that the writer is recounting real events from the world he sees around him, though perhaps through a thin veil of fictionalisation. That said, it’s never quite “autobiography” and it may sometimes be better to think of them as “hyperreal” rather than just naturalistic.

Oguri attempts to evoke this strange sense of uncanniness by opting for an ethereal, dreamlike tone akin to avant-garde or absurdist theatre. The couple speak to each other in a slightly heightened, deliberate manner, often posed unnaturally facing away from each other literally divided by the film’s framing. Toshio is also haunted by visions from his wartime service somewhere in the pacific where he seems to have received some kind of stomach injury. Emerging from a cave he suddenly sees saluting soldiers, or remembers a passing religious ceremony as if the past is always with him like a Fury tormenting his mind.

The Sting of Death is very close to the experiences of the author who uses his own name for that of the protagonist and that of his own wife for the central female character, Miho. Shimao’s own wife became seriously mentally ill during their marriage eventually having to be admitted to a hospital where Shimao took the unusual step of living with her. Though this uncommon gesture is widely praised as displaying his deep love for his wife, it was in part born of guilt as he believed he had caused her distress through his frequent infidelities, just as Toshio does in the film.

The couple live together in a perpetual nightmare world. Though Miho exclaims at one point that they both need to do their best now for their children they both consider suicide more than once, alternately saving or frustrating one another. They both suffer, they both try to go on but Miho’s position becomes increasingly difficult leading to a period of mental decline which climaxes in a strangely humorous yet violent episode in which she tries to exact revenge on her husband’s mistress only to be offered a lesson in civility – “I don’t know what’s going on here but none of us have the right to act like savages”, says the perfectly genial other woman (the silent casualty in all of this).

Oguri shoots the majority of the film in near darkness, as if the couple are enveloped in a night without end. They haunt each other like living ghosts, emerging from shadows moving slowly like those without hope or purpose. Oguri adds to the surreal, dreamlike atmosphere by sticking to static camera shots filled with strange tableaux and little discernible action. The film paints a bleak picture of marriage and the family unit as the central couple remain locked in an odd game-like battle of suffering while their two innocent children look on helplessly. A strange and beguiling film, The Sting of Death pulls no punches when it comes to describing the way in which adults wound each other with childish games but is also filled with quite beautiful, if sometimes unsettling, iconography.


The Sting of Death is available with English subtitles on R3 Hong Kong DVD as part of Panorama’s Century of Japanese cinema collection.

Opening scene of the film (unsubtitled)