Distant Thunder (遠雷, Kichitaro Negishi, 1981)

distant thunder dvd coverBy 1981 Japan’s economic recovery was more or less complete and the consumerist future had all but arrived. Based on the novel by Wahei Tatematsu, Distant Thunder (遠雷, Enrai) is the story of impending doom staved off by those clinging fast to the their ancestral traditions even whilst the modern world threatens to engulf them. Kichitaro Negishi already had a long career directing Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno, but made his mainstream debut with this quietly affecting social drama for Art Theatre Guild which relies on the strong performances of its cast to convey the subtitles of youth caught between past and future.

In the contemporary world of 1981, 23-year-old Mitsuo (Toshiyuki Nagashima) is a tomato farmer stubbornly hanging on to his family’s ancestral land which happens to be inconveniently placed in the middle of a modern housing complex. Women from the estate sometimes pop round to ogle Mitsuo under the pretext of buying super fresh tomatoes. Mitsuo is happy for them to enjoy the fruits of his labour, but refuses to accept them as “neighbours” lamenting the death of the village in which he grew up.

It transpires that Mitsuo’s father (Casey Takamine) sold off most of the farmland without consulting the rest of the family and used the proceeds to open a bar with the hostess he ran off with. Mitsuo hasn’t forgiven him for this and continues to work the tomatoes alone while his older brother is married and living a modern salaryman life in the city. At 23 it’s high time Mituso got himself a wife, but a flirtation with a barmaid, Kaede (Rie Yokoyama), who claims to be a divorced single parent proves diverting enough for the time being. Mitsuo knows being a farmer’s wife is no prize, so when his mother comes up with a possible match Mitsuo thinks it’s worth a try even if she’s probably none too pretty.

An old soul in many ways, Mitsuo wants to hang on to his family’s farm despite the constant offers he gets from salesmen at the door who want him to sell. Where once there was a village, now there are high rise apartment blocks. Mitsuo misses the world he grew up in where farmers helped each other out in difficult times and wandered in and out of each other’s houses like one big happy family. Not content with ruining his own, it’s also this wider concept of community as family that Mitsuo’s father has ruined for him in rejecting his traditional responsibilities for the irresponsible pleasures of taking up with a fancy woman and starting again as a bar owner.

Sadly, the bar hostess really does seem to love Mitsuo’s feckless father, perhaps seeing him as her last chance for happiness. Kaede, by contrast, is looking for something far less permanent. She claims to be divorced but is married to a mild-mannered man (Keizo Kanie) with a tattoo poking out of his collar who accepts her need for new conquests but would rather they not become regular arrangements. Kaede whips up more potential destruction when she comes between Mitsuo and his childhood best friend, Koji (Johnny Okura), who also likes her and has been led to believe Kaede’s relationship with Mitsuo was not altogether consensual. Meanwhile, Mitsuo’s blind date went far better than expected and it looks like he’s on course to find a wife in petrol station assistant Ayako (Eri Ishida).

Ayako, like Mitsuo, is a more old fashioned sort though she’s no prude and is of an earthier yet somehow “purer” nature than the comparatively urban Kaede. Mitsuo finds himself pulled in different directions – Ayako and the tomato farm, or the freely given pleasures of Kaede who threatens to burn everything to the ground with her mysterious, self destructive lifestyle. Mitsuo doesn’t want to be like his dad – a philanderer who runs out on his responsibilities and makes a fool of himself in the process, cosying up to local politicians and playing fast and loose with the law, but he’s late to see the danger a woman like Kaede might cause him. His friend, Koji, is not quite so perceptive and naively falls for her charms. Mitsuo knows deep down that his friend has in a sense saved him from making a ruinous life decision and helped him rediscover the happiness of his traditional, simple way of life.

Filming in 4:3, Negishi’s camera is soft and unobtrusive yet pointed, capturing the minor details of the everyday with a poetic beauty. Filled with realistic detail and anchored by strong performances, Distant Thunder is both a picture of innocents battling the inevitable death of their way of life with determination and purity, and a document of changing times in which the confusions of the modern world threaten to destroy those who cannot reconcile themselves to their fated paths.


Short clip from the ending (English subtitles)

Detective Story (探偵物語, Kichitaro Negishi, 1983)

Dective Story 1983Yusaku Matsuda became a household name and all round cool guy hero thanks to his role as a maverick private eye in the hit TV show Detective Story, however despite sharing the same name, Kichitaro Negishi’s Detective Story movie from 1983 (探偵物語, Tantei Monogatari) has absolutely nothing to with the identically titled drama series. In fact, Matsuda is not even the star attraction here as the film is clearly built around top idol of the day Hiroko Yakushimaru as it adapts a novel which is also published by the agency that represents her and even works some of her music into the soundtrack.

As far as plot goes, Detective Story is the kind of good natured, innocent crime thriller that has all but disappeared since the 1980s. Yakushimaru plays teenage student Naomi who is due to move to America to be with her father in the very near future. However, Naomi is an inquisitive, mildly rebellious sort with a habit of sneaking out of her room through the window despite the fact that no one is preventing her simply leaving through the front door. Consequently someone or other has hired a detective, Tsujiyama (Matsuda), to keep an eye on her. This he does pretty well until he puts a stop to Hiroko making a huge mistake with a fellow student in a love hotel. Though Naomi is very not happy about a creepy old guy following her about everywhere, she gradually gets used to it and when Tsujiyama’s ex-wife gets caught up in a hotel room murder case, Naomi gets the inspiration to embark on some detective work of her own.

Despite the shadiness of the world that rich girl Naomi is about to get embroiled in, the film maintains a bright and cheerful tone – perhaps because of Naomi’s own straightforward innocence. Even if she very nearly falls for the advances of an obvious creep (seriously, the guy actually borrows money from his “girlfriend” ? right in front of Naomi to take her out on a date, after which he tries to persuade her to join him in a love hotel), Naomi’s teenage spunkiness largely keeps her out of trouble for the rest of the movie which sees her getting mixed up with nightclubs, showgirls and yakuza. Somehow there is very little feeling of actual danger in the film leaving this all feeling like the kind of thing that happens to Naomi all the time and is simply just one last adventure before she heads off to America.

It must have been something of a coup to get arguably the biggest movie star of the day, Yusaku Matsuda, to play second fiddle in a mainstream teen idol movie especially as his other film choices of the time seem to indicate a desire to get away from his tough guy persona into more dramatic roles. Tsujiyama is cool presence in his stylish brown suit, smoking away in the shadows content to simply keep watch. He’s the omniscient type who always seem to have a plan in motion yet it’s Naomi herself who takes the lead here, solving the case whilst saving Tsuijiyama and his damaged show girl of an ex-wife in the process.

As is common with these kinds of stories there is a light romantic subplot which is a little unseemly when you consider Yakushimaru was only 19 at the time and her character around the same age whereas Matsuda was already in his 30s. This plot strand is played a little strangely throughout the film with a tacked on airport gate conclusion which dissolves itself almost straightway but does play into the film’s coming of age themes as Naomi develops greater sense of herself as an adult woman rather than a reckless teenager.

Detective Story is no lost classic, it’s very much of its time and has perhaps faded a little as has the fame of its tentpole star. That said it’s a perfectly enjoyable cute teen idol detective story which overall succeeds in doing exactly what it sets out to do even if it proves a little dull in the execution. An interesting watch for fans of its two stars Hiroko Yakushimaru and Yusaku Matsuda and even for its director Kichitaro Negishi who has gone on to win some later critical acclaim particularly with the prestige drama Villon’s Wife in 2009, Detective Story is perhaps not worth an all night stakeout but at least warrants a cursory investigation.


Unsubtitled trailer:

and here’s a video of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the (very catchy) title song at a concert celebrating the 35th anniversay of her film debut (video has a bit about the concert at the beginning, fastfoward to 1:13 for the song only)

 

Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Kichitaro Negishi, 2009)

Villon's Wife2009 marked the centenary year of Osamu Dazai, a hugely important figure in the history of Japanese literature who is known for his melancholic stories of depressed, suicidal and drunken young men in contemporary post-war Japan. Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Villon no Tsuma: Oto to Tampopo) is a semi-autobiographical look at a wife’s devotion to her husband who causes her nothing but suffering thanks to his intense insecurity and seeming desire for death coupled with an inability to successfully commit suicide.

Beginning in the immediate post-war period of 1946, Sachiko (Takako Matsu) is a fairly ordinary housewife with a young son who generally waits around the house for her husband’s return. Only, she’s married to one of the most brilliant writers of the age, Joji Otani (Tadanobu Asano), whose book on the French poet François Villon is currently a best seller. Despite his obvious literary talents, Otani is a drunkard who spends most of his time (and money) in bars and with other women. When he crashes home one night only to be pursued by two bar owners who reveal that he ran off with their takings (around 5000 yen), Sachiko is not exactly surprised but still embarrassed and eventually takes matters into her own hands by volunteering to offer herself as a “hostage” by working at the bar until the debt is repaid.

“Men and women are equal now, even dogs and horses” says one customer, impressed with this sudden arrival of a beautiful woman in a low life drinking spot. To her own surprise, Sachiko actually enjoys working at the bar, it gives her purpose and proves more interesting than being stuck at home waiting to see what her drunken fool of a husband has got up to next. She’s good at it too – Sachiko is a beautiful and a fundamentally decent and kind person, in short the sort of woman that everyone falls a little bit in love with. That said, she isn’t a saint. She’s perfectly aware of the power she is able to wield over men and is unafraid to make use of it, though only when absolutely necessary.

Otani himself is a fairly pathetic figure. He may be a great artist but he’s a hollow human being. He admits the reason for all of his vices is fear – he’s a afraid to live but he’s also afraid to die. He seems to love his wife, though he’s insecure about losing her and dreads the embarrassment involved in becoming a cuckold. So afraid to face the possibility of failure, Otani satisfies himself in an underground world of drunks and easy women rather than facing his own self loathing as reflected in the faces of his unconditionally loving family.

Perhaps because Villon’s Wife is a commemorative project, the film has been given the prestige picture treatment meaning the darker sides of Dazai’s original novella have been largely excised. The chaos of the post-war city with its starving population, soldiers on the streets and generalised anxiety is all but hidden and some of the more serious travails Sachiko undergoes in devotion to her husband as well as Otani’s tuberculosis (from which Dazai also suffered in real life) have also largely been removed. What remains is the central picture of a self destructive husband and the goodly wife who’s trying to save him from himself but risks her own soul in the process.

The one spot of unseemliness of post-war life that the film lets through is in a brief scene which features a group of pan pan girls hanging around ready to try and snag some passing GIs. Sachiko buys some lipstick from them to use in attempt to convince an ex who is also a top lawyer to try and help her husband after his latest escapade lands him in jail on a possible murder charge. After visiting him, Sachiko wanders out slightly dazed to see the pan pans atop a military jeep cheerfully waving and shouting “goodbye” in English. Sachiko is confused at first but eventually shouts “goodbye” back in a way which is both excited and a little bit sad, perhaps realising she is not so different from them after all. Finally she wipes the lipstick from her face and leaves the small silver tube behind where the pan pans were sitting, hoping to bury this particular incident far in the past.

In actuality the pan pan girls are depicted in a fairly matter of fact way rather than in the negative light in which they are usually shown, just another phenomenon of occupation. At the end of the film Otani calls himself a monster whilst acknowledging that he’s a terrible father who would steal the cherries from his own son’s mouth. Sachiko replies that it’s OK to be a monster – as long as we’re alive, it’ll be alright. Oddly for someone so suicidal, this fits in quite well with Dazai’s tenet of embracing the simple gift of a dandelion. The film ends on an ambiguous note in which there seems to have been some kind of restoration but it’s far from a happy one as the couple remain locked in a perpetual battle between light and darkness albeit with the balance a little more equalised than it perhaps was before.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD release of Villon’s Wife includes English subtitles.