The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Noboru Nakamura, 1964)

(C) Shochiku 1964Despite having two films nominated for a best foreign language Oscar and a handful of foreign festival hits under his belt, Noboru Nakamura has been largely forgotten by Western film criticism though a centennial retrospective of three of his most well regarded films at Tokyo Filmex in 2013 has helped to revive interest. The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Yoru no Henrin), Nakamura’s 1964 Shochiku melodrama focussing on the suffocating life of a young woman pulled into the Tokyo red light district, was one of the three newly restored films featured and was also screened in Berlin and Venice to great acclaim. Making full use of its vibrant colour palate, The Shape of Night paints its city as a constant tormentor filled with artificial light and false promises.

As we meet her, melancholy street walker Yoshie (Miyuki Kuwano) has been trapped in her dead end existence for six years and has lost all hope of living a “normal” life filled with love and happiness. A chance encounter with a supercilious client, Fujii (Keisuke Sonoi), prompts her into a series of recollections in an effort to explain exactly how it was she ended up in such a sorry state. As the eldest daughter of a poor family Yoshie left school early to work in a factory (making those neon tubes you see everywhere) while supplementing her income by working as a barmaid (not a hostess, just a girl behind the bar). Just shy of her 20th birthday, she meets a handsome “salaryman”, Eiji (Mikijiro Hira), who starts coming to the bar regularly to see her. The pair became a couple, and then lovers, and then cohabiters, but Eiji isn’t a “salaryman” so much as a low level gangster with a gambling problem whose street name is “princess”. Continual losses put Eiji in a tight spot with his crew and he begins borrowing money from Yoshie before asking her to prostitute herself to get him out of a hole. Thinking it will just be a one time thing, Yoshie resolves to make a sacrifice for her man but, of course, it wasn’t a one time thing.

Yoshie’s story is a sadly familiar one – an innocent woman duped by a duplicitous man whose empty promises aim to mask his continued fecklessness. Eiji, despite his smart suits and coolly confident attitude, is unlikely to make much of himself in the yakuza world yet is as tied into its hellish system of loyalty and reciprocity as Yoshie is in her non-marriage to the man she thinks she loves. Seeking constant approval, Eiji thinks nothing of living off a woman and his childishly excited smile on re-entering the apartment after Yoshie has sacrificed herself to save his face is a grim reminder of his priorities. When pleading doesn’t work Eiji turns violent, prompting Yoshie to finally consider leaving him but she’s too late – the yakuza world has already got its hooks into her and any attempt to escape will be met with terrifying resistance.

Fujii may seem as if he presents another option for Yoshie, a chance for a better, kinder existence but he too is merely another man trying to tell her how she should live her life. Hypocritical at best (as he freely admits), Fujii pays Yoshie to “ease his sexual urges” but expresses disgust and disapproval of her lifestyle and seeks to “save” her from her life of humiliating immorality, “purifying” her just like the dam he is building is supposed to do to the Sumida river. Fujii’s obvious saviour complex is worrying enough in itself though there is also the additional worry of what his “salvation” may entail if Yoshie decides to make a break from her yakuza chains and run off to the comparative safety of provincial Hokkaido. Fujii may claim to have fallen in love with her, but so did Eiji and who’s to say Fujii’s idea of wedded bliss will be any better than Eiji’s brutal reign as a common law spouse.

The situation is further complicated by Eiji’s gradual shift from a violent, overbearing, abusive boyfriend to a genial figure of gentle domesticity and what that shift later provokes in Yoshie. Rendered physically impotent by an incident during a gang fight, Eiji is literally and figuratively emasculated. Though his sudden inability to satisfy Yoshie originally provokes his jealously, it soon robs him of his violent impulses and turns Eiji into a willing housewife who dutifully does the couple’s washing and prepares the meals much to Yoshie’s consternation. This transformation is what finally kills her love for him, but still Yoshie cannot find it in herself to sever her connection with the man who has been the cause of all her suffering. Not quite hate or loathing, Yoshie’s burned out love has become a burden of care as she finds herself duty bound to look after a man she now believes incapable of looking after himself.

While Yoshie and Eiji sit in a bar one night after “work”, the television plays a report featuring the sad news of the death of a female student at the ANPO demonstrations. Prompting Yoshie to exclaim “what is ANPO anyway?”, the news report lays bare just how isolated her life as become – as all of Tokyo is aflame with with righteous indignation and the streets are filled with the largest protest in living memory, Yoshie is trapped in her tiny neon world which promises so much and delivers so little.

Nakamura makes fantastic use of sound design to capture Yoshie’s interior world – the background music rising over the droning voice of a boring client who hasn’t quite made up his mind, the radio cutting out at intense moments of violence, the terrible clanging of Eiji’s geta on the iron staircase which leads to his flat. Fading into blue dissolves of memory, Nakamura makes a hellish wonderland of nighttime Tokyo whose flashing neon lights, crowded bars and oddly darkened streets turn it into a prison of dubious delights. Finally making a drastic decision, Yoshie attempts to free herself from her burdens and sever the chains which bind her to her misery but in cutting the cord she finds the knots tightening, realising she will never be released from the source of all her suffering.


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

The Man Who Left His Will on Film (東京戰争戦後秘話, Nagisa Oshima, 1970)

man-who-left-his-will-on-filmEvery story is a ghost story in a sense. In every photograph there’s a presence which cannot be seen but is always felt. The filmmaker is a phantom and an enigma, but can we understand the spirit from what we see? Whose viewpoint are seeing, and can we ever separate that subjective vision from the one we create for ourselves within our own minds? The Man Who Left his Will on Film (東京戰争戦後秘話, Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa) is an oblique examination of identity but more specifically how that identity is repurposed through cinema as cinema is repurposed as a political weapon.

The film begins with an anarchic scene in which two men argue over use of an 8mm Bolex camera. The man whose voice we can hear is angry with the cameraman who he claims has stolen his camera only to use it for “trivial” street scenes and landscapes whereas he needs it to “capture the struggle” by filming a nearby student protest. Eventually we can verify that there are two men as the protagonist, Motoki (Kazuo Goto), briefly moves in front of the camera in order to try and snatch it away from the filmmaker. The man holding the camera then runs off as breathless, handheld camera takes over. Motoki follows him and we follow Motoki as the scene takes on an ominous quality. The cameraman reappears atop a nearby building before plunging to his death camera in hand. Stunned, Motoki approaches the bloody scene and, noticing the camera is still intact, tries to retrieve it only to be picked up by the police who confiscate the camera as evidence.

Motoki then wakes up back at his left wing commune with his friends eager to know what happened. Strangely, they do not seem to be aware that one of their number has died and are more worried about the police being in control of one of their “means of production”. Even the dead man’s girlfriend, Yasuko (Emiko Iwasaki), begins to doubt the fact that he ever existed at all. Motoki and Yasuko begin investigating the mysterious presence together, chasing their elusive filmmaker and each taking possession of his form on more than one occasion but the question who owns these images, whose identity defines the narrative, proves an elliptical and ethical dilemma.

Oshima, evidently, was no right wing stooge but even if The Man who left His Will on Film takes the world of the student protests as its milieu, it does so to undermine them. Motoki’s comrades view filmmaking as a revolutionary act. They claim to turn the camera into a weapon by using it confront reality, but as Yasuko later admits much of this is a rationalisation which allows them to continue a “bourgeois” art form without abandoning their left wing principles. The cadre members spout marxist dogma and argue about who has the highest political consciousness, but all they ever do is film the ongoing struggle. Their fight is empty, their vision blank.

Notably, the first of several arguments over dogma relates to “ownership” of the camera itself and whether Motoki and another comrade fought hard enough to retrieve it from the oppressive state. Did Motoki chase after “his” camera, meaning he condones the idea of “private” property which is contrary to the communal nature of the group, or “their” camera which is a revolutionary tool? The camera itself is singular, but the group is plural. This commune is intended to work as a hive mind, the people as one with one vision and one identity but Oshima exposes this as an impossibility. The group is a collective of individuals with different ideas and opinions which do not necessarily conform to a common point of view.

This is further brought out when the camera is retrieved and revealed to contain a collection of seemingly apolitical landscapes and street scenes. The group members are quickly bored with the static shots of everyday subjects, some berating the filmmaker for his “bankrupt” politics and lack of artistry while others vow they must honour their comrade’s struggle by watching the film to its conclusion in order to derive the meaning. The unseen filmmaker has indeed left his “will” on film, not as a testament or embodiment of future policy, but his literal “will”. His individual spirit and vision are contained within the seemingly innocuous shots in a political act of revolutionary individualism. He is the film, the film is him.  His vision dominates, we must accept it or remake it as our own.

Motoki, constantly chasing shadows, attempts to remake the film in the mould of the original filmmaker but unexpectedly encounters aspects of his own life already existing within it. Yasuko’s approach is more proactive. She inserts herself into the film, makes her presence known and refuses to be invisible. She picks up the camera and fights for her place within the frame. Hers is the struggle of the true revolutionary filmmaker, imprinting herself and her vision onto the film.

Where does this leave us? We’re in the film too. We see the film and, in a sense, recreate it in our own minds, recasting ourselves as director and protagonist. We see the film subjectively yet we cannot divorce ourselves from the original vision. Motoki’s venture fails because he only sees the landscapes, whereas Yasuko takes the same images but repossesses them, remaking them in her own image in a true act of cinematic revolution. Yasuko has seized the means of production and overthrown the tyranny of anonymous images in refusing to be constrained by someone else’s will. The camera is a weapon, but it is we who choose what it sees, and in turn what it sees in us.


Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)