An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Tadashi Imai, 1953)

inlet of muddy water dvd coverTadashi Imai was among the greatest directors of the golden age though his name remains far less known than contemporaries Ozu or Mizoguchi. Despite beginning in outright propaganda films during the war, Imai is best remembered as a staunchly left wing director whose films are known for their gritty realism and opposition to oppressive social codes. An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Nigorie) very much fits this bill in adapting three stories from Japanese author Ichiyo Higuchi. Higuchi is herself a giant figure of Japanese literature though little of her work has been translated into English. Like Imai’s films, Higuchi’s stories are known for their focus on female suffering and the prevailing social oppression of the late Meiji era which had seen many changes but not all for the better. Higuchi was not a political writer and her work does not attack an uncaring society so much as describe it accurately though her own early death from tuberculosis at only 24 certainly lends weight to the tragedy of her times.

In the first part of the film which is inspired by one of Higuchi’s best known stories, The Thirteenth Night, a young woman returns home to her parents, no longer able to bear living with an emotionally abusive husband. Oseki (Yatsuko Tanami) had been raised an ordinary, lower middle-class girl but, like many a heroine of feudal era literature, caught the eye of a prominent nobleman who determined to marry her despite their class difference. Life is not a fairytale, and so the nobleman quickly tired of his beautiful peasant wife, belittling her lowly status, lack of education, and failure to slot into the elite world he inhabits.

Oseki’s plight elicits ambivalent reactions in each of her parents though they both sympathise with her immensely, if in different ways. Her mother (Akiko Tamura) is heartbroken – having long believed her daughter to be living a blissful life of luxury, she feels terribly guilty not to have known she had been suffering all this time and believes Oseki has done the right thing in leaving. Her father (Ken Mitsuda), however, also feels sad but reacts in practicality, pointing out that to leave her husband now would mean losing her son forever and probably a long, lonely life of penury. He, somewhat coldly, tells her to go back, grin and bear it. Oseki can see his point and considers resigning herself to return if only to look after her son.

On her way home she runs into a childhood friend whom she might have married if things had not turned out the way they did. “Life gets in the way of the things we want to do”, she tells him by of explanation for not staying in touch. Rokunosuke (Hiroshi Akutagawa), once a fine merchant, is now a ragged rickshaw driver, bereaved father, and divorcee. Like Oseki his life is a tragedy of frustration with the added irritant that he and Oseki might have been happy together, rather than independently miserable, if an elite had not suddenly decided to interfere by crossing class lines just because he can rather than out of any genuine feeling.

The callousness of elites is also a theme in the second story, The Last Day of the Year, in which a young maid, Omine (Yoshiko Kuga), works for a wealthy household dominated by a moody, penny pinching mistress whose mistreatment of her staff is more indifference than deliberate scorn. Omine’s uncle, who raised her, has fallen ill. At the beginning of his illness he took out a loan but he’s got no better and still needs to pay it back so he asks Omine to ask the mistress for an advance of the paltry sum of two yen in the hope that his son will be able to enjoy a new year mochi like the other kids. The mistress says yes and then changes her mind, leaving Omine to consider a transgressive act of social justice.

Where The Thirteenth Night and The Last Day of the Year pointed the finger at uncaring elites, Troubled Waters broadens its disdain to the entire world of men in focussing on two women caught on either side of the red light district – Oriki (Chikage Awashima), a geisha stalked by a ruined client, and the client’s wife, Ohatsu (Haruko Sugimura), who endures a life of penury thanks to her husband’s geisha obsession. Oriki’s sad story is recounted to a wealthy patron (So Yamamura) who is more fascinated in learning the secrets of her soul than her kimono, but like many of her age it begins with parental strife, orphanhood and perpetual imprisonment as a geisha wondering what will become of her when her looks fade and she’s no longer number one. She has no control over the men who spend time with her but is worried by Gen (Seiji Miyaguchi) who ruined himself buying her time and now stalks her in and around the inn. Infatuated and obsessed with Oriki, Gen has turned against his noble wife Ohatsu who is working herself to the bone to support the family while Gen has resorted to a life of casual labour but rarely does much of anything at all.

Recalling Higuchi’s famous diary, Imai opens each of the segments with a brief voiceover detailing the inconsequential details of the weather with a world weary, often melancholy tone as the writer laments too much time spent on fiction and resolves to tell the story of the world as it really is. There is no real connection or overarching theme which unites the three stories, save for the continued suffering of women at the hands of men and the society they have devised. Oseki must return to her abusive husband, Omine will continue to work for her heartless mistress, and Ohatsu will have to make do on her own after being so thoroughly let down by her husband. There is no recourse or escape, no path forward that will allow the women to break free of their oppression or even to learn to be free within it. Each of the stories is bleak, ending on a note of resignation and acceptance of one’s fate as terrible as that may be but Imai’s ending is most terrible of all, reminding us that today is simply another day and the heavy atmosphere of dread and oppression is certain to endure as long as we all remain resigned.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Manji (卍, Yasuzo Masumura, 1964)

8127Ur2xnXL._SL1500_For arguably his most famous film, 1964’s Manji (卍), Masumura returns to the themes of destructive sexual obsession which recur throughout his career but this time from the slightly more unusual angle of a same sex “romance”. However, this is less a tale of lesbian true love frustrated by social mores than it is a critique of all romantic entanglements which are shown to be intensely selfish and easily manipulated. Based on Tanizaki’s 1930s novel Quicksand, Manji is the tale of four would be lovers who each vie to be sun in this complicated, desire filled galaxy.

The story begins with a framing sequence in which Sonoko sits down with a male mentor to recount her sorry tale from some later vantage point. As she would have it, she was an unfilled, unhappy housewife taking a series of art classes when the principal of the college noticed that the face in her sketch of the Goddess of Mercy doesn’t look much like the model. Her technique is good though so he asks her why she gave her drawing a different face and who it might belong to. She tells him it’s merely an ideal and isn’t based on any real person. However, it does look quite like another, very beautiful, pupil at the school – Mitsuko, and a rumour quickly starts that the two women are lovers. Though barely knowing each other before, the pair laugh it off and decide to become friends anyway. Gradually, something more than friendship begins to grow but not everyone is being honest with each other and the added complication of the men in their lives is set to make the road even harder for Sonoko and Mitsuko’s love affair than it might otherwise be.

Sonoko narrates things from her perspective, though you get the feeling she may not be a completely reliable narrator. She seems shy, innocent, wounded though she speaks of her great tragedy with ease and a surprising frankness considering its sensitivity. The object of her obsession, Mitsuko, by contrast plays the innocent but also seems to know perfectly well what she’s doing. Manipulative in the extreme she plays each of the other three lovers off against each other in an attempt to become the centrifugal force in each of their lives. All things to all people, Mitsuko doesn’t seem to know what she wants, other than to be adored by anyone that’s around to adore her.

At the beginning of the film Mitsuko reveals that she’d been involved in marriage negotiations with a young man from a high profile family and she believes the rumours at the art school were started deliberately to try and disrupt her matrimonial ambitions. Sure enough that liaison falls through but she neglected to mention that she also has another fiancee, the slimy Watanuki, that she longs to be rid of but can’t seem to shake off. After Sonoko finds out about Watanuki, Mitsuko feigns not only a pregnancy but a bloody miscarriage to get her female lover to return to her. However, Watanuki fights back by trying to form a bilateral alliance with Sonoko to ensure Mitsuko doesn’t suddenly take up with a third party – he even gets her to sign a contract saying that she’ll help get Mitsuko to marry him and in return he won’t interfere with the two women’s relationship even once they’re married.

Sonoko’s husband completes the quartet, becoming increasingly frustrated by his wife’s infatuation with another woman, her coldness towards him and her growing boldness. Sonoko labels Kotaro cold and passionless and claims never to have enjoyed any of their married life together. She’s also been taking illegal birth control medication to avoid having children with him. Trying to be an understanding husband, Kotaro ends up tangled in a web of desire after being seduced by Mitsuko. For a time, the three form an unlikely romantic trio (with Watanuki hanging around disdainfully on the edges) though even between the three of them petty jealousies sap their strength and keep them all guessing as to the exact motives of the other pair.

Just like the four pronged arms of the manji itself, our four lovers lie in a tangled and twisted crisscross of desire, each trying to eclipse the other in the eyes of the radiant Mitsuko. Anything but merciful herself, Mitsuko adeptly plays on the insecurities of the others to keep them all dancing along to her tune. This is not a story of true love, but of misused desires, almost of the inverse of love where lust becomes a weapon of control and self satisfaction. Even at the end, Sonoko can’t decide if she’s been saved or betrayed and if what happened to her was love or a kind of madness. Whatever it was, each has paid a high price for their selfish pursuit of romance or dominance or whatever Mitsuko really represents for them (clearly not the reincarnation of the Goddess of Mercy after all). Years ahead of its time and still just as dark and fascinating as it always was, Manji is a sadly universal tale of the destructive power of love that plays almost like a ghost like story and is likely to haunt the memory long after the screen falls dark.


Manji is available with English subtitles on R2 UK DVD from Yume Pictures.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Army 陸軍 (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1944)

Dem-3 Photo. Helene Jeanbrau © 1996 cine-tamaris.tif

With a name like “Army”, you’d expect this to be a stridently propagandistic film about brave men fighting for their countries – some of whom will likely fall but will cover their families in eternal glory through their selfless sacrifice. Those are certainly the ideas behind Kinoshita’s 1944 film, the last film he’d be permitted to make before the war’s end, however any lingering feelings of pro-militaristic ardor are completely undercut by the film’s near silent closing moments.

Like The Living Magoroku, we begin in another historical era – one just as turbulent as the contemporary action. As people flee burning houses at the dawn of the Meiji era, a father and son shelter a wounded samurai who gifts them a set of historical encyclopaedias. Despite the changing times, the father is convinced a man’s highest duty is to his country and makes a deathbed plea that his son Tomohiko become a fine soldier. Tomohiko tries his best, as an infantry Captain through the several of Japan’s international conflicts of the early 20th century he’s certainly had ample opportunity to distinguish himself. However, luck is not on Tomohiko’s side as minor injuries, illness or simply failing to be selected have kept him safely away from the front lines. Eventually invalided out, Tomohiko tries to make a go of civilian life, finally ending up trying to run a pawn shop (before realising he’s not good at that either and leaving the heavy lifting to his more capable wife). Still convinced of the wisdom of his father’s philosophy, Tomohiko pushes his wishes for military glory onto his oldest son – the equally weedy Shintaro whose slight frame and kindly nature don’t exactly point to a future Field Marshall. Japan needs soldiers though, it’s time for every man and boy to stand up to defend her!

Final scene excised, Army would look like the most obviously propagandistic film in the box set. Full of references to the importance of military virtue and physical strength over book learning, Army brings home that a man who does not fight is not a man. He is weak and womanly and is to be shamed. Even those who are in poor physical health or simply not built for brute force attacks are expected to suddenly shape up and join every other young man in sacrificing themselves nobly for the Emperor. Mothers, even, are not permitted to grieve as their sons were never theirs in the first place – they were merely taking care of them for the Emperor. Now they’ve done their duty and returned their progeny to the father of the nation, they ought to feel nothing more than relief at a job well done, or so says Tomohiko’s wife, Waka. Wouldn’t it be shaming to have a grown up son still at home, after all, or even one that was far from the front line but relatively safe? Prepare for the worst or hope for it? It’s an oddly macabre way of thinking.

However, the last scene of the film which is played almost silently, undercuts this cold willingness to sacrifice and shows it up for its own hollowness. Having originally claimed not to be going to see the brigade depart because she’s a weak and emotional woman, Waka is suddenly overcome by something. She rises and follows the other townspeople drifting towards the noise of the parade with its crowds of cheering, flag waving supporters. Desperately, anxiously, she searches for her son in amongst the multitudes of other young men in identical uniforms marching off gleefully almost certainly not to return. Having pushed through the ranks of ecstatic civilians, she finally catches a glimpse of Shintaro who smiles at her before disappearing back into the ranks of anonymous infantrymen. Waka is left bereft, alone and terrified – her only recourse is prayer.

Unsurprisingly, the army didn’t really like this bit. In fact, one high ranking official marched right down to Shochiku and accused Kinoshita of treason! Luckily, not too much came of that but Kinoshita’s next script about kamikaze pilots was rejected and he wasn’t allowed anywhere near a camera until after the end of the war. Waka’s final uncertainty, her grief at losing her son to this faceless monster undercuts the entirety of the previous 80 minute celebration of glorious military history and masculine pride. All of a sudden it’s not a joyful celebration anymore, it’s a funeral peopled with grieving wives and mothers – hardly the sort of message you want to send out when you’re trying to give the barrel a final scrape when it comes to conscripting for the army. Army is a film that’s defined by its final minutes and is surprising in the level of ambiguity it was allowed to get away with given the strict censorship conditions in place. As a propaganda film it fails, but by design. Kinoshita once again refuses to depict his characters as unfeeling robots who can suppress their natural empathy in the name of duty or honour and a mother’s love proves the most dominant (if hopeless) force of all.