Father (父, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1988)

Keisuke Kinoshita’s long career spanned 45 years producing 49 films between 1943 and 1988. After joining Shochiku in 1933, he directed his first film, Port of Flowers, 10 years later and subsequently went on to direct some of the best loved classics in Japanese cinema such as the iconic Twenty-Four Eyes. Though sometimes dismissed by international critics as overly sentimental, Kinoshita’s comedies were often mercilessly cynical and his later work became progressively darker. His final film, however, Father (父, Chichi), skews the other way, chronicling a son’s gradual acceptance of his feckless dad as he prepares to come of age himself. 

As the film opens, the titular “father”, Kikutaro Higure (Eiji Bando), is launching a failed bid for political office in his beloved Kagoshima (his major policy is putting a giant umbrella on a local volcano to deal with the ash problem) while his son, the narrator Daijiro (Makoto Nonomura), is only four. Disappointed by his failure, Kikutaro moves the family to Kumamoto where he becomes a househusband while his long-suffering wife, Yae (Kiwako Taichi), runs a small bar. Daijiro is now six and is facing the first of many family crises because his mum has had enough and has asked for a divorce. The last straw was Kikutaro raiding her savings without permission to pour into another harebrained scheme to put on an all female pro-wrestling show. A late in the game plea from Daijiro’s sensible grandma (Kin Sugai) encourages the couple to try again, moving to Osaka and then to Tokyo but apparently taking all their problems with them. 

If she had to choose, Daijiro’s grandma would pick her daughter-in-law Yae over her son any day. “What a mistake I made giving birth to a son like that” she laments, “I’m beyond regret, I’m angry”. Kikutaro certainly is an exasperating sort of man, careering from one get rich quick scheme to another but never really taking anything seriously enough to see it through. Grandma assumes he’ll want her to help him repair his marriage (not least because he can’t support himself and is dependent on Yae to look after him) but he appears not to care at all, simply stating that he can always “find a replacement” for a wife but Daijiro is irreplaceable. If it were not for that comment, you could perhaps make a case for Kikutaro as an early example of the new man prepared take on child care duties in a strongly patriarchal society where he is the only dad attending parent and teacher meetings, but predictably Kikutaro is mostly doing it because he’s lazy. Taken out on a walk so grandma and Kikutaro can talk, Daijuro goes “missing” leaving Yae convinced he’s been abuducted but it turns out he got distracted by some pachinko balls and stopped to pick them up because that’s obviously what his dad has him doing while he’s supposed to be looking after him. 

Nevertheless, Kikutaro ends up sending Daijiro back to Kagoshima to live with grandma until the couple eventually reunite and take him back to live with them in Tokyo. That doesn’t last long either, and while his mother lands on her feet and works hard to make a life for them running a Spanish restaurant, Kikutaro bounces around trying out a host of other harebrained schemes until fetching up asking for money to launch a singing career for his new friend from Brazil, a Japanese-speaking black American man whom he treats in an entirely questionable way (the film is very of its time in terms of its racial politics), essentially selling the incongruity of a foreigner singing the Japanese songbook but later beating him when he somehow “insults” Kikutaro’s favourite ode to Kagoshima simply by performing it. 

The teenage Daijiro describes his dad as a “problem parent”, but like the rest of his family finds it extremely difficult to abandon him despite the fact that being a relative of Kikutaro seems to be completely exhausting. We even see him kick off at his sister-in-law’s funeral about wanting more money and not being respected as the eldest son. Yae constantly asks for a divorce and gets countless other offers from better men but never officially separates from Kikutaro who, despite his earlier protestations, always comes back to her (but only when he wants something). Daijiro begins to feel sorry for his father who seems to be moving further and further away from his beloved Kagoshima after vowing to return only once he’d become a success. He thinks he sees him at the iconic Ohara festival where grandma is cheerfully participating in the traditional song and dance parade, calling out but as usual receiving no reply. Kikutaro is a failure of a father, but perhaps in the new context of the bubble economy it no longer matters quite as much as might have done before. Daijiro at least seems to have rejected his example, but like everyone else chooses to forgive him as a loveable rogue rather than a deadbeat dad while secretly longing for his return. 


Original Trailer (no subtitles)

Empire of Kids (ガキ帝国, Kazuyuki Izutsu, 1981)

Empire of Kids posterJapan in 1981 was a vastly different place than the Japan of 1967. Rising economic prosperity had produced an amiable social calm in which desire for conventional success and increasingly aspirational consumerism had replaced the firebrand need for social change which had defined the previous decade. Filmmaker, film critic, and sometimes outspoken TV personality Kazuyuki Izutsu was presumedly not a huge fan of consumerism and for this, his first “mainstream” film made for ATG, retreats back to the Osaka of 1967 in which petty street punks lamented their lack of opportunities by banding together and battling for control of their respective neighbourhoods like boys in the schoolyard only armed with knives and filled with nihilistic desperation.

The film opens with our “hero”, Ryu (Shinsuke Shimada), being released from juvie after presumably getting into trouble for his petty punk antics. Waiting for him are his two best friends – soulful zainichi Korean Ken (Cho Bang-ho), and rockabilly Chabo (Ryusuke Matsumoto). Ryu is released alongside another boy, Ko (Takeshi Masu), whom he tries to recruit into their mini gang but quickly becomes an enemy, teaming up with the boys’ rivals – the Hokushin Alliance, while also becoming a potential rival for Ryu’s old girlfriend with dancing dreams, Kyoko (Megumi Sanuki). The boys, still in their last year of high school, become obsessed with trouncing their competition, proving their manhood on the streets while asserting their rightful place as the dominant forces in their native area, but as it increases in intensity the game becomes frighteningly serious and its dangers all too apparent.

Izutsu’s film fits comfortably into the “delinquent” genre but perhaps takes its cues from the Hollywood cinema of alienation more than the tough guy antics of the youth movie past. From Chabo’s bright red jacket and neatly greased quiff, the starting point is Rebel Without a Cause as these otherwise not too bad kids struggle with their place in the world, unable to see a clear path and direction for themselves in the society of 1967 which seemed both frustratingly open and closed to unremarkable lower middle-class boys. Ryu’s brother is going to give up football to go to cram school so he doesn’t end up like Ryu, while Ryu has taken to reading brain training books to try and get back on the academic path to success which he fears may have already passed him by. Ken, idly talking of the future, can’t see much beyond winding up in the yakuza, opening a bowling alley, or maybe becoming a comedian (this is Osaka after all). None of these guys is going to university or getting a salaryman job, they know not much awaits them outside of low-paid manual work, marriage, children, family and death, so they take their frustrations out on each other playing at gangsterism out on the streets.

For Ryu, Ken, and Chabo the reasons for their violence are “honourable” – they want to keep their local space local and are committed to defending it from the “external” threat of the shadier street punks from uptown. Apparently from stable economic backgrounds, the boys’ acts of street justice have no particular economic component, in contrast to those of the Hokushin Alliance which positions itself as a yakuza training school with a brutal hazing regime for new recruits and a business plan which involves hunting young women and trapping them through rape and blackmail to force them into prostitution. 

Aside from lack of direction, Ken – the most introspective of the boys, also has to deal with the constant threat of discrimination due to his roots as an ethnic Korean living in Japan. One of the reasons he hates the Hokushin Alliance and distrusts some of the other gangs is that they deliberately target Koreans in racially motivated attacks. One of his old friends, Zeni (Masaaki Namura), is a member of an all Korean street gang which attempts to defend itself against the strong anti-Korean sentiment out on the streets but finds itself outgunned by the sheer weight of numbers. Ken speaks Korean openly with his friends (even when there are non-Koreans close-by) and has no interest in hiding his ethnic identity even if he uses his Japanese name in his every day life, while Ko (whom we later realise is also ethnically Korean) hides his ethnicity completely and subsumes himself into the Hokushin with a view to finally joining the yakuza even whilst knowing that the gangs he has joined are extremely prejudiced against “foreigners” and Koreans in particular. Ken would never out someone deliberately, but finds Ko’s attitude difficult to stomach, not only in his willingness to hide his roots to fit in with gangster thugs, but in his willingness to persecute his own in order to do it.

The atmosphere that surrounds the boys is one of intense futility. They fight each other pointlessly, like children in the playground, and it’s all fun and games until someone reaches for a knife. Petty disputes quickly escalate when the yakuza gets itself involved in children’s games – an assault rifle, after all, has little place in a kids’ disco where teenagers come to drink Coca Cola and slow dance to a terrible covers band singing the “uncool” music of the day. Despite the melancholy air of frustration and inevitability, Empire of Kids (ガキ帝国, Gaki Teikoku) adopts the otherwise warm and nostalgic tone of the Japanese teen movie, embracing the typically Osakan need for spiky comedy even as our guys fall ever deeper into the hole their society has cut out for them. There are few rays of sunshine to be found here, friendships are broken, trusts betrayed, and futures ruined but then again, that was only life, in Osaka, in 1967.