Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Dispersed Clouds (わかれ雲, Heinosuke Gosho, 1951)

Heinosuke Gosho made his name before the war as a master of “shomingeki” – often humorous but generally naturalistic portraits of lower middle class life. Becoming synonymous with a Chekhovian mix of laughter and tears later dubbed “Goshoism”, he continued into the post-war era as one of its most prominent humanists, less directly sentimental than Kinoshita but with no less faith in human goodness. Always ahead of the curve, he was among the first Japanese directors to break with the studio system, setting up his own production company (along with director Shiro Toyoda, cameraman Mitsuo Miura, and writers Jun Takami, Junji Kinoshita, and Sumie Tanaka), Studio Eight, after becoming embroiled in the industrial disputes which engulfed Toho in the late ‘40s. Gosho’s participation was apparently more out of a sense of loyalty to his mistreated colleagues than it was political conviction, but in any case he found himself unable to continue working in a system which prevented him from expressing himself to the fullest of his intentions.

1951’s Dispersed Clouds (わかれ雲, Wakaregumo) was the first film released by Studio Eight, distributed by Shin Toho (the “new Toho” set-up by those same colleagues Gosho had supported in the ‘40s). In a sense it addresses similar themes to other post-war films making use of the familiar “cloud” metaphor, but these clouds are dispersing in more positive directions in that they are wilfully floating away from the traumatic past towards a brighter, more compassionate future, as perhaps was Gosho as he embarked on a new phase of his career.

The heroine, Masako (Keiko Sawamura), is a woman caught between old worlds and new. Very much of the post-war era, she is a university student who intends to work after graduation and values her independence but nevertheless is also looking back towards a childhood she feels she was denied, gradually coming to understand that it was she who denied herself in her resentful mistreatment of her young step-mother in mourning of the birthmother she lost at only six years old. The cloud from which she originally disperses is a group of five fellow students with whom she has gone on a walking holiday exploring rural Japan – an increasingly common pastime in the post-war era but one perhaps still a little unusual for five young women travelling alone. Accompanying her friend into a local photography shop in search of an extra roll of film for her camera, Masako receives the unwanted attentions of the storeowner and makes a speedy escape only to fall ill outside the station and cause the gang to miss their train. Irritated, Masako tells the others to go on without her while she stays in a nearby inn convalescing from what is apparently light pneumonia but also, it has to be admitted, an intense bad mood. 

Masako’s friends are keen to help her, but also exasperated. “You never accept the kindness of others” they lament to her passive aggressive desire not to bother them on their trip, while later plotting how best they can help her seeing as she wouldn’t accept their money if they tried to give to her so she’ll be able to pay for the doctor after they’ve left. They never really consider waiting for Masako to recover, resolving to continue on with their holiday, but do check in on her from time to time from the road with the offer to join them later seemingly open. Meanwhile, they’re all swooning over the improbably handsome country doctor, Minami (Yoichi Numata), who swoops in to treat Masako with a no-nonsense yet caring bedside manner.

Only six years older than Masako, Minami is a certain young man who has found his forward path in life. He has his own small practice which is woefully ill-equipped to cater for the entire town (he can’t admit Masako because he is already overflowing with patients sleeping on the floor), but dreams of building another clinic in an even smaller village further up the mountain where they don’t even have electricity. Despite her friends’ giggling, Masako is in too much of a mood to notice Minami much from her sick bed but later takes a liking to him though mostly in flight when her hated step-mother Tamae (Taeko Fukuda) finally arrives to take her back to Tokyo.

While at the inn, Masako bonds with the kindly maid, Osen (Hiroko Kawasaki), who brought her to there in the first place after noticing her in distress at the station. The innkeeper, who has a flighty modern daughter of her own, is not best pleased that Osen has brought sickness into the house and even less so that it’s a young woman whom she is not convinced is the right kind of clientele (her attitude changes when Tamae arrives laden with expensive gifts). Osen, who lost a husband in the war and daughter in infancy, takes to the young woman with maternal warmth – something which Masako has been seeking ever since losing her birth mother. A woman without a child and a child without a mother easily slip into a familial relationship, but rather than jealous Osen is only sad when she sees how much Tamae is trying and failing in the same role while Masako resolutely rejects her out of nothing more than childish resentment.

Masako, self aware to a point, describes herself as “spoiled, nervous, and selfish” and seems to want to change without knowing how. She tells Minami that she dislikes people in general because they’re all liars and can’t be trusted. Nevertheless, she finds herself hanging around Minami’s clinic in order to avoid Tamae and half convinces herself she is in love with him. An ill-advised five mile hike to the next village to find the earnest young doctor provokes an awkward encounter between the two in which it becomes perfectly obvious that Minami is devoted to his practice, sees Masako only as a patient, and is not really interested in her newfound desire to pursue a deeper union. He tells her, politely, that she is too much trouble and would only be an inconvenience. He doubts that she, a middle-class woman from Tokyo, will be able to adjust to the privations of life in the mountains and is perhaps unconvinced that she has acquired the sufficient maturity to try after just one night of having fun “helping people”.

Masako is not wounded by his words but is enlightened by them on discovering that Minami has lost people too – his brother and friends in the war, but where her childhood loss has made her self-involved and resentful, his grief has made him generous and openhearted. Minami has dedicated himself to the wellbeing of all mankind, which might or might not mean that he has little time for deeper individualised connections, but in any case though she doesn’t realise it herself what Masako is seeking isn’t Minami or a romance but a path back into the world as someone less closed off and unforgiving. Thanks to Osen’s warmth and Minami’s generosity she is able to escape her sense of self-imposed inertia and let her mother go.

Because of this she gives to Osen the precious silver spoon she had treasured as a keepsake from her mother, remarking that she doesn’t need it anymore, while Osen then gives her the rather ironic gift of a spoon case she’d knitted as a present. Though the ending is positive with Masako preparing to leave the transitory space of the mountain town to return to Tokyo “healed”, it is also filled with a quiet anxiety for the older Osen who has, in a sense, been bereaved twice in losing another daughter and being left all alone, knowing that Minami will soon be off to his own bright future. Osen made her new start some time ago after reaching the forward-thinking conclusion that she wasn’t happy with the idea that women must have soft hands. She declares herself happy in a calm sort of way, but is also filled with regrets from the past in having chosen to marry the man chosen for her over the one she loved and finding only unhappiness. Her counselling of Masako not to make the same mistake is perhaps one of the things that sends her, mistakenly, off towards Minami, but unlike the younger woman Osen seems primed to remain in the liminal space of the mountain town unable to leave the past behind in order to move forward in a more positive direction. 

“This world is not so easy” Masako is repeatedly told, but in true Gosho style, it needn’t be so hard if only you learn to live generously with a forgiving heart. The rather mercenary relationship between the innkeeper and her flighty but shrewd daughter is directly contrasted with the innocent yet melancholy one between Osen and Masako, but perhaps neither is really more positive than the other only different. In any case, Osen and Masako, like any parent and child, must eventually part. Masako boards the train into the future smiling brightly, a cloud dispersing from the whole, unburdened by the traumatic past and floating defiantly forward on a path of her own choosing resolved to live for others rather than fixating on her personal pain.


The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1960)

Wandering Princess posterAs in her third film, The Eternal Breasts, Kinuyo Tanaka’s fourth directorial feature, The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Ruten no Ouhi), finds her working with extremely recent material – in this case the memoirs of Japanese noblewoman Hiro Saga which had become a bestseller immediately after publication in 1959. Tanaka’s filmic adaptation arrived mere months later in January 1960 which was, in an ironic twist, a year before the real life tale would meet something like the conventional romantic ending familiar from classic melodrama. Nevertheless, working with Daiei’s top talent including Kon Ichikawa’s regular screenwriter (and wife) Natto Wada, Tanaka attempts to reframe the darkness of the preceding 20 years as the defeat of compassionate idealism at the hands of rigid austerity and unstoppable oppression.

Tanaka opens with a scene taking place in 1957 which in fact depicts a somewhat notorious incident already known to the contemporary audience and otherwise unexplained on-screen in which the older Ryuko (Machiko Kyo) tenderly bends over the body of lifeless schoolgirl. The camera then pulls back to find another girl in school uniform, Ryuko, twenty years earlier. A young woman with innocent dreams, Ryuko’s life encounters the usual kind of unwelcome disruption in the unexpected arrival of a marriage proposal but this is no ordinary wedding. Ryuko, as the oldest daughter of a prominent noble family, has been selected as a possible bride for the younger brother of the former Qing emperor now installed as the symbolic leader of the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria. Against the odds, Ryuko and her new husband Futetsu (Eiji Funakoshi) are well matched and endeavour to build a happy home together just as they intend to commit themselves to the creation of a new nation born from the twin legacies of the fallen Chinese empire and the resurgent Japan.

Foregrounding Ryuko’s experience, the film does its best to set “politics” aside but the inescapable truth is that each of our protagonists is a prisoner of the times in which they live. The second scene finds Ryuko in 1937 as an innocent schoolgirl gazing at the young men in uniform as they march past her. She remains out of step with them, walking idly and at her own uneven rhythm while they keep rigorous and seemingly unstoppable time. The family are understandably wary of the implications of the marriage proposal, especially as it comes with a military escort, with Ryuko’s beloved grandmother the only one brave enough to ask to see whoever’s in charge of this outrage only to be told that their fates are in the hands of the nebulous concept known as “army” which knows no individual will.

Assured by her family that the decision rests with her, Ryuko consents – not only to becoming a stranger’s wife (which would have been her fate in any case) but to being a kind of ambassador, the presentable face of imperial ambition. On her marriage she’s presented with a deep red cheongsam and continues to dress in Chinese fashion for remainder of her life in Manchuria where she learns to speak Mandarin and devotes herself to becoming as Chinese as it’s possible to be. Meanwhile, her husband Futetsu busies himself with a complementary desire to become Japanese, intensely worried that the sometimes degrading treatment he and his family receive is exclusively caused by his problematic nationality. When their daughter, Eisei, is born, the couple determine to raise her as the child of a new world, the embodiment of idealised cultural integration.

The world, however, is not so kind and the blunt force of militarism continues to present a barrier to familial harmony. Futetsu is prevented from seeing his brother by the officious forces of the military police while the lonely, paranoid “emperor” suspects that Ryuko is nothing more than a Japanese spy sent to undermine his rule. Ryuko was sent to Manchuria to be the bridge between two cultures. Her, in a sense, feminine energy which attempts to build connection through compassion and understanding is consistently contrasted with the prevailing male energy of the age which prizes only destruction and dominance. Filled with the naivety of idealism, she truly believes in the goodness of the Manchurian project and is entirely blind to the less altruistic actions of her countrymen engaged in the same endeavour.

Confronted by some children in a park while pushing the infant Eisei in a pram, Ryuko is identified as a Japanese woman by her accent while conversing in Mandarin. She assures the children that Eisei is Manchurian like them, and that seeing as she married a Manchurian she is now too despite her Japanese birth. The kids are satisfied, so much so that they warn her that some Manchurians were killed recently in this park by Japanese soldiers, adding a mild complaint that it upsets their parents when Japanese people come to their restaurant and leave without paying. Mortified, Ryuko decides to use some of her (meagre) resources to buy all of the kids and everyone else in the park some sweets from a nearby stand, fulfilling her role as a Japanese ambassador even while insisting that she is a proud citizen of the newly born state of Manchuria.

Nevertheless the Manchurian project is doomed to fail, the kind of idealism fought for by Ryuko and Futetsu crushed under the boot of militarism. Despite everything, Ryuko still wants to be the bridge if only to prevent a catastrophe of this kind happening again (while perhaps refusing to engage with some of the reasons it happened in the first place) but in Eisei’s eventual death, foreshadowed in the melancholy opening, a deeply uncomfortable implication is made that the kind of cross-cultural harmony that Ryuko dreams of may not be viable. In contrast to the salaciously reported real life events (somewhat alluded to by presence of a schoolboy’s cap next to the body) which hinted at a suicide pact or murder, Ryuko attributes Eisei’s decision to end her life to an inability to reconcile her twin heritage coupled with the heavy burden of being the last descendent of the Qing Dynasty. Despite this minor misstep of tying the fate of Eisei to the failure of the Manchurian dream and the loss of its misplaced idealism, Ryuko ends her account on a hopeful note in admiring the flowers she planted finally in bloom and looking forward to a more hopeful age governed by warmth and compassion rather than violence and austerity.


The Wandering Princess was presented by Japan Foundation London as part of a series of events marking the publication of Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity.

The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Bad Sleep Well posterThere’s something rotten in the state of Japan – The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru), Akira Kurosawa’s take on Hamlet, unlike his previous two Shakespearean adaptations, is set firmly in the murky post-war society which, it becomes clear, is so mired in systems of corruption as to be entirely built on top of them. Our hero, like Hamlet himself, is a conflicted revenger. He intends to hold a mirror up to society, reflecting the ugly picture back to the yet unknowing world in the hope that something will really change. Change, however, comes slow – especially when it comes at the disadvantage of those who currently hold all the cards.

We open at a wedding. A small number of attendants lineup around a lift waiting for the arrival of the married couple only for a carriage full of reporters to pour out, apparently in hope of scandal though this is no gossip worthy society function but the wedding of a CEO’s daughter to his secretary. The press is in attendance because the police are – they believe there will be arrests today in connection with the ongoing corruption scandal engulfing the company in which a number of employees are suspected of engaging in kickbacks on government funded projects.

The rather strange wedding proceeds with the top brass sweating buckets while the bride’s brother (Tatsuya Mihashi), already drunk on champagne, takes to the mic with a bizarre speech “refuting” the claims that the groom, Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), has only married the bride, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), for financial gain before avowing that he will kill his new brother-in-law if he makes his little sister sad. Nishi, as we later discover, has indeed married with an ulterior motive which is anticipated by the arrival of a second wedding cake in the shape of a building at the centre of a previous corruption scandal with one black rose sticking out of the seventh floor window from which an employee, Furuya, committed suicide five years previously.

The police are keen to interview their suspects, the press are keen to report on scandal, but somehow or other the system of corruption perpetuates itself. The top guys cover for each other, and when they can’t they “commit suicide” rather than embarrass their “superiors” by submitting themselves to justice. The system of loyalty and reward, of misplaced “honour” mixed with personal greed, ensures its own survival through homosocial bonding with backroom deals done in hostess bars and the lingering threat of scandal and personal ruin for all should one rogue whistleblower dare to threaten the governing principle of an entire economy.

Nishi chooses to threaten it, partly as an act of revolution but mainly as an act of filial piety in avenging the wrongful death of his father who had, in a sense, cast him aside for financial gain and societal success. Wanting to get on, Nishi’s father refused to marry his mother and instead married the woman his “superiors” told him to. Later, his father threw himself out of a seventh floor window because his “superiors” made him understand this was what was expected of him. Furuya wasn’t the last, each time a man’s transgressions progress too far his “superiors” sacrifice him to ensure the survival of the system. Strangely no one seems to rebel, the men go to their deaths willingly, accepting their fate without question rather than submitting themselves to the law and taking their co-conspirators down with them though should someone refuse to do the “decent” thing, there are other ways to ensure their continuing silence.

Reinforcing the post-war message, Nishi chooses a disused munitions factory for his secret base. Both he and his co-conspirator, a war orphan, had been high school conscripts until the factory was destroyed by firebombing and thereafter were forced to live by their wits alone on the streets. Nishi swears that he wants to take revenge on those who manipulate the vulnerable, but finds himself becoming ever more like his prey and worse, hardly caring, wanting only to steel himself for the difficult task ahead.

In any revolution there will be casualties, but these casualties will often be those whom Nishi claims to represent. Chief among them his new wife, Yoshiko, who has been largely cushioned from the harshness of the outside world thanks to her father’s wealth and seeming care. She loves her husband and wants to believe in her father or more particularly that the moral arc of her society points towards goodness. Nishi, tragically falling for his mark, married his wife to destroy her family but ironically finds himself torn between genuine love for Yoshiko, a desire for revenge, and a mission of social justice. Can he, and should he, be prepared to “sacrifice” an innocent in the same way the “superiors” of the world sacrifice their underlings in order to end a system of oppression or should he abandon his plan and save his wife the pain of learning the truth about her husband, her father, and the world in which she lives?

In the end, Nishi will waver. Yoshiko’s father, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), will not. Goodness becomes a weakness – Iwabuchi turns his daughter’s love and faith against her, subverting her innocence for his own evil. He makes a sacrifice of her in service of his own “superiors” who may be about to declare that they “have complete faith” in him at any given moment. The only thing that remains clear is that Iwabuchi will not be forgiven, the wronged children of the post-war era will not be so quick to bow to injustice. Let the great axe fall? One can only hope.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

ballad of narayama kinoshita 1958 posterMany naughty children running low on filial piety have probably been told the folktale about a man who took his son along when he abandoned his senile father on a mountain to die only to have his son later do the same thing to him. In Japan, the mythical practice of “obasute” or “ubasute” is a kind of Logan’s Run equivalent in which elderly people elect to remove themselves from society in order to reduce the burden on the young. The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama-bushi Ko) has, perhaps, taken on an additional degree of pathos in ageing Japan in which many elderly people find themselves metaphorically cast out from a society in which they have become the majority, but the idea of “obasute” is intended to be a lesson to the young to treasure their elders and accept the responsibility to care for those who can no longer care for themselves in the knowledge that they too will one day be old.

Keisuke Kinoshita is sometimes criticised for his supposed sentimentalism but his central concern was always in the redemptive power of the relationships between people, that there is always kindness even in the worst of circumstances and that this is enough for hope to survive. In telling the sorry tale of Narayama in which those of over 70-years-of-age are forced into a ritual suicide by social convention, Kinoshita opts for alienation in deliberately shifting into a theatrical register inspired by kabuki featuring obvious studio sets, stylised action, and traditional narration, but his decision to pull back makes the message all the more painful, as does the insistence on the timelessness of his tale.

Long ago in the distant feudal past, 69-year-old Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) knows that it will soon be time for her widowed son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), to carry her to Narayama where she hopes to die of exposure in the New Year snows. She has made her peace with this, it is the will of the gods and she has no call to disobey. Her son, however, is distraught to think of the time he will be expected to carry his elderly mother to a remote spot in the mountains and leave her there, alone, to die of cold and starvation. When a messenger arrives from Orin’s home village to propose a match for Tatsuhei, a recently widowed woman of exactly the same age – Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), Orin is overjoyed – she can go to Narayama without fear or worry, her son and grandsons will be looked after even after she is gone.

The tradition began because the villages in this region are extremely poor. Tatsuhei and Orin will be enjoying their one and only bowl of white rice for the year in celebration of Bon. Orin’s self-centred grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) has made up a horrible song about his grandma in which he criticises her for still having all her own teeth at 70 – implying that, as she is not malnourished enough to have lost them, she must have been greedy and taken more than her fair share of food. Unable to bear such reproach, Orin smashes out her own front teeth to better conform to the conventions of her society and make herself a more acceptable sacrifice to the gods as a good and pious woman.

This early horrific act is perhaps the key in illuminating Kinoshita’s gentle critique of social conformity as a tool of social control – something which had become increasingly apparent during the militarist era. Orin, a kind and decent woman, is herself complicit in this abhorrent custom – her acceptance of it is part of her goodness, a sign of her altruistic self-sacrificing nature, but her own unwillingness to challenge the darker aspects of the society in which she lives leads only to their perpetuation and an ongoing descent into unkindness and cruelty.

Tatsuhei, a good and pious son, cannot reconcile himself to his mother’s fate, while his own son, Kesakichi, openly mocks his grandmother for not going sooner and Kesakichi’s pregnant girlfriend (Keiko Ogasawara) looks on enviously at the extra beans on offer if there were one less mouth to feed. Old and bent, Orin still plays a vital part in her community – she harvests the rice while Kesakichi lounges in trees, and she alone knows the best place to catch trout, a valuable skill in a village where food is scarce. Despite the possibility for disaster, Orin and Tama bond instantly as kindred spirits, both kind people in an often unkind world. It’s to Tama that Orin finally divulges her knowledge – something the village will be poorer for when she is gone, having passed her familial responsibilities to another woman and seen her son happily settled with a perfectly suited second wife.

When Tatsuhei returns, broken, after having performed the dreaded ritual he watches his own cruel son laughing and joking from within their shared home, caring only for himself and his easy pleasures. Tama, equally upset over the loss of Orin with whom she had bonded as mother, tries to comfort her husband but is eventually overcome by the tragedy of life, taking comfort only in the fact that, when they are 70, she and Tatsuhei will climb Narayama together.

Hardship, far from bringing people together in the famous harmony that Japanese society praises itself for, has forced them apart, infected them with a sense of mutual distrust and a them or us mentality. Orin feeds the senile old man cast out from his own unfeeling family, but she also urges him towards making a sacrifice of himself on Narayama, genuinely believing that both of their existences have become inappropriate, a greedy usurpation of time which rightfully now belongs to others. Kinoshita respects Orin for her stoicism and righteousness, but pities her for the cruelty of the world in which she lived and was so powerless to resist that it never occurred to her that she should. There is a painful sensitivity around those who willingly went to their deaths in service of something they believed to be right because their society said it must be so, never daring to consider the ways in which their society may be mistaken.

Heavily stylised and markedly experimental for a mainstream Shochiku melodrama of the late 1950s, Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama is a heartrending tale of transience and inevitability, but it’s also one of the various ways a stringent society erodes the bonds between people. The intense love of Tatsuhei for his mother is destroyed by a terrible custom that no one is brave enough to defy, leaving the family rudderless and the village poorer for having been robbed not only of Orin’s wealth of experience but of her warmth and kindness. Kinoshita ends on an ambiguous image showing us the modern train station which stands on the former village of “Obasute”, demonstrating the passage of time and arrival of “modernity” but also that ancient customs are never quite as “ancient” as they seem.


Scene from near the end of the film (English subtitles)

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)