The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Masaki Kobayashi, 1985)

The Empty TableJapanese cinema of the 1980s is marked by an increasing desire to interrogate the idea of “the family” in an atmosphere of individualist consumerism. Yoshimitsu’s Morita’s The Family Game had blown the traditional ideas of filial piety and the primacy of the patriarch wide open in exposing his ordinary middle-class family as little more than a simulacrum as its various members sleepwalked through life playing the roles expected of them free of the true feeling one would expect to define familial bonds. A year later, Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family took a different, perhaps more positive approach, in depicting a family descending into madness through the various social pressures of maintaining a conventional middle-class life in the cramped environment of frenetic Tokyo. Masaki Kobayashi, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not so much interested in families as in individuals whose struggles to assert themselves in a conformist society became his major focus. The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Shokutaku no nai Ie) is not perhaps “a family drama” but it is, if indirectly, a drama about family and the ways in which the wider familial context of society at large often seeks to misuse it.

Set in 1973, The Empty Table is also among the earliest films to tackle the aftermath of the 1972 Asama-Sanso Incident. For ten days in February, the nation watched live as the police found themselves in a stand off with five United Red Army former student radicals who had taken the wife of an innkeeper hostage and holed up in a mountain lodge, refusing to give themselves up to the police. The discoveries surrounding the conduct of the United Red Army which had descended into a cult-like madness involving several murders of its members (including one of a heavily pregnant woman) shocked the nation and finally ended the student movement in Japan.

Kidoji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the father of one of the student radicals, Otohiko (Kiichi Nakai), who took part in the siege. In Japanese culture, it’s usual for the parents of a person involved in a scandal to come forward and offer an official apology to the nation on behalf of the their children. During the siege itself the family had also been weaponised as mothers, particularly, were enlisted to shout from outside the inn, offering poignant messages intended to get their sons to give themselves up and come home. Kidoji, unlike the other fathers (one of whom hanged himself in shame), refuses his social obligation on the grounds that the actions of his grownup son are no longer his responsibility. 

As a scientist, Kidoji is used to thinking things through in rational terms and outside of Japan his logic may seem unassailable – after all, it is unreasonable to hold the conduct of a family member against an otherwise upright and obedient citizen. In Japan however his actions make him seem cold and unfeeling, as if he has disowned both his son and his position as the father of a family with whom rests ultimate responsibility for those listed on his family register. This way of thinking may be very feudal, but it is the way things work not just in the late 20th century, but even in the early 21st.

Kidoji’s refusal to do what is expected of him eventually leads to the crumbling of the family unit. Far from the cheerful scene we see of Kidoji, his wife, and their three children seated around a dinner table in celebration, the family now eat separately and Kidoji returns home to cold meals and an empty table. Kidoji’s wife, Yumiko (Mayumi Ogawa), has had a breakdown and had to be hospitalised, while his daughter Tamae (Kie Nakai) is forced to break off her engagement only to resort to underhanded methods to be allowed to marry the man she loves. While Otohiko languishes in prison, only his younger brother Osamu (Takayuki Takemoto) remains at home.

Kobayashi’s central concern is the conflict in Kidoji’s heart as he faces a choice between maintaining his principles and saving his family pain. It’s not that Kidoji feels nothing – on the contrary, he is profoundly wounded by all that has happened to him, but ironically enough, puts on the face society expects but does not want in maintaining his composure in a situation of extreme difficulty. Kidoji’s deepest anxieties rest in the need to “take responsibility”, something he must do in acknowledging that it’s not his son’s disgrace which has destroyed his family but his own rigidity in refusing to bend his principles and obey social convention. What Kidoji wants is for his son to take responsibility for his own choices as an individual rather than expecting his family to carry his load for him. He must, however, also take responsibility for the effect his choices have had on others, including on his family, and accept his role both as an individual and as a member of a society with rights and obligations.

Kidoji’s refusal to apologise on behalf of his son looks to the rest of society like an abnegation of his paternal authority, and without paternal authority the family unit crumbles like a feudal household whose lord has been murdered. Yet Kidoji, like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, refuses to compromise his principals no matter how much personal pain they eventually cause him. Where the rules of society make no sense to him, he will ignore (if not quite oppose) them, remaining true to his own notions of moral righteousness.

In many ways, Kidoji is the archetypal Kobayashi hero – standing up to social oppression and refusing to simply give in even when he knows how beneficial that may be to all concerned. He is also, however, just as problematic in allowing his family to continue suffering in preservation of his personal beliefs. Kobayashi’s final feature film, The Empty Table is extremely dated in terms of shooting style with its overly theatrical dialogue and frequent use of voice over and monologue which were long out of fashion by the mid-1980s. Kobayashi does, however, return to the more expressionist style of his earlier career, moving towards an etherial sense of poetry as his hero contemplates his place in a society which often asks him to behave in ways which compromise his essential value system. The family, broken as it is, is also (partly) mended once again as Kidoji begins to reconcile his various “responsibilities” into a more comprehensive whole as he prepares to welcome a new generation seemingly as determined to live in as principled and unorthodox a way as he himself has.


Good Morning Show (グッドモーニングショー, Ryoichi Kimizuka, 2016)

Good Morning Show posterThirty years before Good Morning Show (グッドモーニングショー), No More Comics showed us that the news is serious business and it seems the intervening three decades have not done much to change that. Good Morning Show is the kind of vacuous TV magazine programme that seems to have become popular the world over but Japan has mastered in its entirety. This is a news programme for people trying to avoid the news – there’s just enough of the essentials to keep the average viewer up to date with the big ticket item of the day, but the rest is horoscopes, cakes, and celebrity gossip. The morning news sets the mood for the rest of the day, and isn’t it in everyone’s interest if it’s blue skies all the way ahead? Perhaps so, but whatever happened to serious journalism?

Good Morning Show’s veteran anchor, Sumida (Kiichi Nakai), used to be a top talent on the evening news but a spot of “inappropriate” reporting from the scene of a disaster has had him relegated to the nonsensical early morning magazine show which involves getting up at 3am everyday and becoming something of an expert on pastries. Sumida’s day starts badly when he gets up to find his wife (Yo Yoshida) and son (Mihiro) still awake. As it turns out, there’s a family crisis. Sumida’s student son has got his girlfriend pregnant and has decided to do the right thing and get married, no matter what his dad might have to say about it. Sumida is definitely not happy but he’s also late for work. On the way, he finds out that his co-anchor, Keiko (Masami Nagasawa), with whom he apparently had some kind of drunken indiscretion, has decided that they’re now a couple and is about to announce as much live on air. Luckily for Sumida, a third crisis enters his life when a gunman (Gaku Hamada) takes a cafe hostage and asks directly for the Good Morning Show host to visit him at the scene.

The Good Morning Show exists entirely to cater to its audience’s baser instincts, but its simple charms are apparently going out of style and the show will be cancelled if they don’t get their numbers up soon. The hostage crisis is a godsend in this regard as is Sumida’s unexpected importance to the case which gets the show on the ground reporting live from the scene with exclusive access. Given this shift in broadcast tastes, it’s strange there’s no reference to social media though Good Morning Show is apparently viewable via the internet with a large portion of the audience tuning in on their smartphones during their morning commute. This sense of “community” seems to be key to the show’s appeal as the interactive poling which usually asks silly questions intended to spark debate such as whether or not to throw out gifts from old lovers, becomes central to the hostage case in deciding whether Sumida and the gunman should live or die live on air.

The gunman, like many, turns out to be just another angry young man frustrated that no one will listen to his complaints. At first it looks like Sumida may be in some way responsible, either because of his botched reporting on an earlier disaster or a connection to an incident in the cafe some years previously, but it turns out the major factor is a kind of hypocritical smugness that’s become the Good Morning Show’s trademark. For all of his frustrations with the format, Sumida is depressingly good at mindless twaddle and his fake “worry” about the future of the nation has got the gunman’s back up. The key issue is still more personal as the gunman feels himself excluded from the community feeling fostered by the show when he tries to make himself heard via its channels and is ignored.

A definite irony when Good Morning Show’s major selling point is “ignoring” the real news. Yes, they run a small item on the important headline of the day which provides Sumida a chance to “worry” about corrupt politicians misappropriating public funds etc, but then the show moves on to more cheerful areas like celebrity affairs and delicious cakes. Sumida ends up committing the newsman’s mortal sin – he becomes the news, much as the reporter at the centre of No More Comics did before him, though like the show itself it’s the personal which wins the day. Saying the things he couldn’t say to directly to his own son, Sumida tries to forge a connection with the gunman who is not a bad person, just another youngster at the end of his tether with an uncaring world. The connections are made through glass, but they are made all the same (even if imperfectly and with less than total honesty). Good Morning Show is, like its namesake, a fairly disposable effort but fun while it lasts. Then again sometimes the most harmless things do the most harm.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Actress (映画女優, Kon Ichikawa, 1987)

actressKon Ichikawa was born in 1915, just four years later than the subject of his 1989 film Actress (映画女優, Eiga Joyu) which uses the pre-directorial career of one of Japanese cinema’s most respected actresses, Kinuyo Tanaka, to explore the development of Japanese cinema itself. Tanaka was born in poverty in 1909 and worked as a jobbing film actress before being “discovered” by Hiroshi Shimizu and becoming one of Shochiku’s most bankable stars. The script is co-written by Kaneto Shindo who was fairly close to the action as an assistant under Kenji Mizoguchi at Shochiku in the ‘40s before being drafted into the war. A commemorative exercise marking the tenth anniversary of Tanaka’s death from a brain tumour in 1977, Ichikawa’s film never quite escapes from the biopic straightjacket and only gives a superficial picture of its star but seems content to revel in the nostalgia of a, by then, forgotten golden age.

The film begins with the young Tanaka awaiting a visit from her mentor, Hiroshi Shimizu (Toru Watanabe), whom her family are keen to thank for bringing them all to Tokyo away from their life of hardship. Although everyone is very happy for Tanaka’s success, there is shadow hanging over the party in the form of missing oldest brother Ryosuke who went on the run to avoid the draft and has not been heard of since.

Shimizu gives Tanaka (Sayuri Yoshinaga) her first roles at Shochiku where she becomes a contract player but is put out when another director, Heinosuke Gosho (Kiichi Nakai), wants to give her a leading role. Overruled by studio bosses, Shimizu becomes increasingly jealous of Tanaka’s career – a situation which is further complicated by the couple’s growing romantic entanglement which sees them living together in an unofficial marriage allowing Tanaka to continue acting. However, Shimizu continues to meddle in Tanaka’s professional life whilst also continuing his hard drinking, womanising playboy lifestyle. The couple eventually divorce but reunite from time to time on the film set.

Vowing never to marry again, the rest of Tanaka’s life is dedicated to acting and sees her working with some of the best directors of the age including Ozu (Shigemitsu Ogi) and later Mizoguchi (Bunta Sugawara). It is Tanaka’s professional and personal relationship with Mizoguchi which occupies the second half of the film. Judging by the first experience on the now lost Woman of Osaka in 1940, you wouldn’t think the two would ever wish to work together again though they eventually completed fifteen films together over the next fifteen years.

Mizoguchi’s process is completely different from any other Tanaka had worked with. Rather than meeting to rehearse and discuss the work, Mizoguchi abruptly sends her a lifetime’s supply of books about bunraku and changes the script that she has painstakingly committed to memory with on set rewrites communicated via a large blackboard he expects the actors to read from. Exasperated, Tanaka finally asks him for actual direction but he coldly states that she’s the actress and her acting is not part of his job description. Mizoguchi and Tanaka are very different people but each driven and ambitious so their frequent locking of horns produces a fiercely creative collaboration in which each was able to find worth even if it was frequently difficult.

The film ends around the time of Life of Oharu which would mark the final time the pair would work together. In terms of the film’s narrative, this unspoken development is foreshadowed by the idea that the two artists are heading in different directions but in the real world the reasons are a little less clear. Tanaka became the second woman to direct a feature film with Love Letters in 1953 which was even featured at Cannes, but for reasons unknown Mizoguchi attempted to block her access to the Director’s Guild of Japan, effectively ending both their friendship and any professional relationship. Ironically enough, Actress seems to imply that Tanaka’s desire to direct may have been inspired by Mizoguchi and his all powerful on set status prompting her to wonder how he does it, and, perhaps how she could do it too.

Ichikawa weaves the history of Japan through its cinema into the narrative to recount the changing tastes of the eras as naturalism came in and out of fashion and Japanese films began to experience international as well as domestic acclaim. Skipping huge portions of time to focus on the two directors – Shimizu and Mizoguchi, Ichikawa avoids mentioning Tanaka’s post-war visit to America which had a profound impact on her later career, not only in what she learned there but also in the extremely hostile reception she received on returning home. The main takeaway from his depiction of Tanaka is a woman ahead of her time, independent and headstrong, willing to work hard to achieve the things she wanted to achieve even if flying in the face of social convention though it makes no particular judgement on her character other than in her success as an actress.

Taking on the conceit of being a film about film, Ichikawa’s sets are theatrical, creating a deliberately artificial, half unreal world. This also extends into the scriptwriting which is extremely talky and more like a stage play than film, offering pointed, long stretches of monologuing which are already far away from the more naturalistic approach of early talking cinema. Characters have improbable, exposition filled conversations in which they each tell each other things they already know for the audience’s benefit – an effect which enhances the overall theatricality, but does draw attention to itself and eventually becomes wearing. Ichikawa’s picture of Tanaka is one of steely determination and of a woman ahead of her time, but even if Actress proves less than enlightening regarding its subject it does help to shed some light on both classic Japanese cinema and that of the late 1980s.


Original trailer (traditional Chinese subs only)

Snow on the Blades (柘榴坂の仇討, Setsuro Wakamatsu, 2014)

Snow on the Blades 2Times change, and men must change with them or they must die. When Japan was forced to open up to the rest of the world after centuries of isolation, its ancient order of samurai with their feudal lords and subjugated peasantry was abandoned in favour of a more Western looking democratic solution to social stratification. Suddenly the entirety of a man’s life was rendered nil – no more lords to serve, a man must his make his own way now. However, for some, old wounds continue to fester, making it impossible for them to embrace this entirely new way of thinking.

Kingo is one such man who finds himself frustrated by history in Setsuro Wakamatsu’s adaptation of a novel by Jiro Asada, Snow on the Blades (柘榴坂の仇討, Zakurozaka no Adauchi). In 1860 (as we count it) he married a beautiful young woman and received a promotion as the bodyguard for his lord, Ii Naosuke. However, one fateful day his progressive master is ambushed by a rival clan making a pretence of arriving with a petition that needs to be heard. Kingo and his men fail in protecting their lord and though many of the survivors commit suicide in shame, Kingo is charged with finding the remaining perpetrators and exacting his revenge. His quest spans almost fifteen years of turbulent Meiji era history as he trudges all over Japan looking for rumours of men who no longer quite exist all the while a lonely wife waits for him at home, becoming the sole breadwinner for this new life of forced “equality”.

The man Kingo has been looking for, Naokichi, is also living an unfulfilling life, hiding from retribution but also from himself and his own remorse over the deeds of a young man whom he no longer recognises. He has the possibility of building a new life with a local widow and her sweet little daughter who’s taken a liking to him, but like Kingo he’s held frozen by the old ways and can’t quite allow himself to bring a woman and child into his life of shame and fear.

Both men have been left behind by history. Kingo is the more obvious relic with his anachronistic top knot and old fashioned Japanese dress but Naokichi is also unable to move forward until he faces his past. For much of the running time Snow on the Blades plays out like a conventional mystery or revenge tale with Kingo on the road trying to track down those who he believes wronged his master in an attempt to atone for his failures through vengeance, but all that awaits him at the end of his journey is a lonely grave. The problem is, he liked his lord who was good and progressive man, filled with kindness and poetic sentiments. His regret over not being able to save him is more than failed duty, it is also personal grief and guilt though he finds little comfort in pursing those he believes to responsible.

Having spent thirteen years striving for something Kingo suddenly finds himself adapting to the times and beginning to believe perhaps this isn’t what his lord would have wanted anyway. Both men, confronted by each other and by several different kinds of history, are forced to face themselves as they are now and as they were then and assess what all of these codes and honour systems are really worth. Snow on the Blades is often beautifully photographed and filled with scenes as lovely as any woodblock painting but, it has to be said, somewhat dull as its central psychological dramas fail to ignite. Impressive production values and universally strong performances from its high profile cast lift the film above its fairly generic narrative but can’t quite save it from its rather trite message and run of the mill period drama aesthetic.


The assassination at Sakuradamon or Sakuradamon Incident is a real historical event in which the Japanese Chief Minister Ii Naosuke was murdered by ronin samurai working for the Mito clan outside the Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle in 1860. Ii Naosuke was a leading proponent of opening up to foreign powers (albeit as a sort of defense mechanism) but made an enemy of just about everyone through his tyrranical actions and was a very unpopular figure at the time of his death though his image has now been somewhat rehabilitated.

The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー, Koki Mitani, 2008)

Magic Hour PosterIf there’s one thing you can say about the work of Japan’s great comedy master Koki Mitani, it’s that he knows his cinema. Nowhere is the abundant love of classic cinema tropes more apparent than in 2008’s The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー) which takes the form of an absurdist meta comedy mixing everything from American ‘20s gangster flicks to film noir and screwball comedy to create the ultimate homage to the golden age of the silver screen.

In classic style the film opens with a bunch of goons chasing a scantily clad club owner out of a hotel window. Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has been hitting the jackpot with the boss’ girl, Mari (Eri Fukatsu), so the two are about to be given a new set of kicks in the latest fashion – cement. Luckily Bingo overhead some of the other guys talking about looking for another gangster, Della Togashi, so he quickly starts talking about him as if he were a long lost friend. The boss, Tessio (Toshiyuki Nishida), gives the pair a reprieve on the condition Bingo tracks down Togashi and brings him in within five days. Slight hitch – Bingo had never heard of Togashi before today and has no idea where to start. Finally, with the help  of some of his bar staff he hatches on the idea of getting a random actor to play the part, seeing as no one knows what Togashi looks like. However, the actor, Murata (Koichi Sato), plays his part a little too well and gets hired to work for the gang all the while thinking it’s just a movie! Pretty much everyone is getting a little more than they bargained for…

If you’re thinking that the oddly American looking 1920s street scene looks a little fake and everyone seems to be overacting like crazy, you wouldn’t be wrong but like everything else there’s a reason for that. What originally looks to be the primary setting for the film is a strange bubble which seems to co-exist with the modern world only its filled with people straight out of The Public Enemy or Scarface who think cement shoes is an efficient way of dealing with traitors. Murata, by contrast, is from our world and is completely oblivious to the strangeness of this movie gangster sound stage universe.

Murata is fixated on the Casablanca-esque final scene of his favourite movie in which a dyed in the wool tough guy entrusts the love of his life to a loyal friend before heading off to face certain death. His own career has not been going particularly well and even if he originally turns down Bingo’s offer as working with a first time director on a film where there’s no script sounds pretty fishy to begin with, circumstances soon find him throwing himself into the mysterious leading role with aplomb. Indulging his long held gangster dreams, Murata becomes the archetypal movie hit-man. He’s giving the performance of his life but has no idea there is no film in the camera.

The “Magic Hour” of the title refers to the twilight time near the end of the day when the light is dying but the conditions are perfect for making a movie. Mitani doesn’t fail to remind us we’re watching a film with constant exclamations of “just like a movie” or “doesn’t this look like a film set”. It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as phoney as it can be – but somehow it all just works despite its rather arch, meta approach. By the point we’ve hit Mari sitting on a crescent moon to give us her rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (we’re back to The Public Enemy again) we’ve hit peak ‘20s though we scarcely mind at all.

Though he is indeed sending a lot of these classic ideas up, there’s real love here particularly for those golden age Hollywood movies with their wounded tough guys and beautiful chorus girls in need of rescue. Mitani adopts a primarily theatrical tone which meshes well with the absurdist, artificial atmosphere but always makes sure to leave us a fair few clues in the way of laughs. However, probably correctly assuming we know these films as well as he does, Mitani doesn’t give us the typical narrative that would almost write itself (or allow Bingo to write it based on his own trips to the motion picture house). The “bad” guy turns out to be not so bad, the “hero” wasn’t who we thought he was and none of our central guys winds up with a girl. Beautifully silly yet intricately constructed, The Magic Hour is another comedy masterpiece from Mitani which is filled with his characteristic warmth, mild sentimentalism and plenty of off-centre humour of the kind only Mitani can come up with.


The Japanese DVD/blu-ray release of The Magic Hour includes English subtitles.

 

Tokyo Heaven (東京上空いらっしゃいませ, Shinji Somai, 1990)

title-752In Japan, Shinji Somai is a well known and highly regarded director yet few of his films have ever made it overseas and he remains almost unknown in the West. Even by these standards Tokyo Heaven (東京上空いらっしゃいませ, Tokyo Joukuu Irasshaimase) seems to be something of a forgotten episode in Somai’s career and is difficult to find even on unsubtitled DVD. Though it may not be among his best works and is undoubtedly of its time, Tokyo Heaven still displays Somai’s characteristic visual flair.

Set in 1990, the film begins with spoilt brat up and coming idol star and soon to be campaign girl Yu (Riho Makise) at a glitzy launch party. It’s time for 16 year old Yu to be heading home, but sleazy producer Shirayuki (Tsurube Shofukutei) has other plans and instructs his underlings to set her up with him which they, guiltily, do. However, during the cab ride home Yu eventually escapes his mollestations by jumping out into the middle of the road where she’s immediately mown down by an oncoming car. Waking up in a pastoral vision of heaven, Yu meets her guide, “Cricket” who looks exactly like Shirayuki – the last face she had in her mind before she died. Given the opportunity to return to Earth but not as her old self, Yu tells Cricket to make her the girl on her campaign posters. Waking up in the room of one of the advertising executives working on her account, Fumio (Kiichi Nakai), she discovers resurrection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Taking its queue from A Matter of Life and Death, Tokyo Heaven is first and foremost a fantasy romance (in the broadest sense) though leaning more towards bittersweet comedy than heartrending tragedy or profound human truths. Yu has returned to Earth but is unable to make contact with her family or let her presence be known to anyone other than Fumio. She no longer appears in photographs or mirrors and gradually comes to the realisation that her life really has ended and this small reprieve is only temporary. Many of Somai’s films focus on the emotions of younger people and the irony here is that Yu only grows up once she’s technically dead. Having had the chance to experience a “normal” adolescence with a part-time job at a fast food restaurant and a tentative romance Yu eventually feels ready to move on.

At only 16 years old, Yu was about to become a the face of a large scale advertising campaign. Her image haunts the streets of Tokyo and the loathsome Shirayuki is desperately trying to spin the tragic events into some kind of narrative that will both cover-up his entirely inappropriate behaviour with a school girl in the back of his chauffeur driven car and save some of the hard work already in place on the campaign itself. Hence, no one other than the girl’s parents is being told that Yu is dead and all previous commitments are being cancelled due to “poor health” or “taking a break” etc. Even after death, Yu’s image is being exploited and her soul ignored.

The conflicted trombone player, Fumio, comes to appreciate Yu for who she really is during their brief time together, resents Shirayuki’s treatment of her and wants the campaign to go ahead in an attempt to prolong her “presence” even if in image only. Through his contact with the increasingly vivacious Yu, Fumio who has previously been berated by his brother for not wanting to join their family bathroom fittings business and labeled as someone with an impenetrable shell who prefers his own company by his sometime girlfriend from downstairs, also comes to appreciate the joys of being alive a little more and reconsider some of his previous life choices.

Bearing Somai’s trademark long yet dynamic takes, Tokyo Heaven is a colourful tribute to Tokyo right before the bubble burst. Almost a prescient warning about the dangers of praising image over reality, Tokyo Heaven becomes a poignant tale of learning to appreciate the sheer pleasure of being alive. Its slightly strange and perhaps abrupt ending has the potential to be misread, but the general message about the transience of life and the importance of living the way you want to live is one that cannot be overstated.


Screened from film as part of the London Japanese Embassy Filmshow programme on 19th November 2015.

There isn’t even a trailer available for this but if you can understand Japanese there’s a talkshow event with star and comedian Tsurube Shofukutei recorded at the recent Tokyo Filmex Somai retrospective in 2011.

And a musical scene from the film featuring Yosui Inoue’s Kaeranai Futari