This Transient Life (無常, Akio Jissoji, 1970)

this transient life poster“People should do whatever pleases them, it’s because people suppress their desires that the world has become so complicated” the “hero” of Akio Jissoji’s 1970 Buddhist epic This Transient Life (無常, Mujo) impassively intones, “If we just do whatever pleases us, then everything will turn out fine”. As we will see, there are definite problems with Masao’s (Ryo Tamura) philosophy, but he may have something in the inherent paradox of Buddhism which finds serenity in nothingness while decrying nihilism.

We first meet Masao, a wealthy young man from a noble family, jumping over a wall in defiant violation of a no trespassing sign. He is in hiding, avoiding going home because his austere father (Kozo Yamamura) is due to arrive for another dose of parental oppression. His sister, Yuri (Michiko Tsukasa), comes to fetch him knowing that they cannot resist forever. Like her brother who rejects university and the corporate life, Yuri rejects marriage and seems intent on deciding her own future, only she does not seem to have any other path in mind. Left alone in the house while their parents attend a family function, disinviting the kids because of their ongoing recalcitrance, the siblings put on a pair of noh masks and chase each other around the house. Gradually a primal spirit takes over. Masao seduces his own sister, beginning a dangerous and necessarily illicit affair for no other reason than to prove that he can.

Ogino (Haruhiko Okamura), a reluctant Buddhist priest at the local temple who is perhaps himself in love with Yuri though apparently unwilling to pursue her even though there is nothing in his religion which forbids him, later takes Masao to task for his dark philosophy. Branding him a chaos agent who creates hell wherever he goes, Ogino urges him to absent himself from the society of others, go travelling, keep his hedonistic nihilism to himself. Masao, however, counters that he has only made the world more “colourful”, that in the end all he has done is dig out the true essence from the hearts of those around him. People do what they want, and nothing he says or does is in any way relevant save that they each faced their own destinies as they intersected with his. To Ogino’s mind, being overly aware of your destiny is no good thing, in fact Buddha will place his hand over your eyes to prevent just that, but to Masao the power to discern his own fate that which gives him the terrifying power to act solely according to his desires.

Meanwhile, the men around him seem to flounder in their own repression. Discovering the transgressive relationship between Masao and his sister, Ogino keeps quiet but finds himself caressing a statue of the goddess Kanon, while the family’s servant Iwashita (Kotobuki Hananomoto) secretly peeps on Yuri in the bath, and Masao’s later mentor, the sculptor Mori (Eiji Okada), actively encourages him to sleep with his much younger wife looking on as he does. “Women are nothing” Masao coldly exclaims, they are “curious animals” who want “immediate pleasure”. Seduced by Mori’s lonely wife Reiko (Mitsuko Tanaka), he later leaves decrying her as a whore who has commodified the act of love as if she were merely a receptacle for his desires much like the shapeless wood which receives the passions of the sculptor and eventually assumes its chosen form.

Masao and Yuri rebel against conventionality and bourgeois values through the ultimate taboo, bearing out Ogino’s criticism of Masao’s philosophy as “nothing but disorder”. Their transgression spirals and informs others. A disruptive influence in his master’s household, Masao pushes Mori’s resentful son (Isao Sasaki) into a quasi-incestuous relationship with his step-mother, while pushing his sister into a socially transgressive marriage to a servant to cover-up the “crime” of a child conceived not only out wedlock but with incestuous blood. He absolves himself for the blood on his hands claiming that every man makes his own choice, and posits himself as the only truly enlightened being as an embodiment of realised desire. Ogino calls him a mad man, but he alone is able to achieve a kind of enlightenment and enter a higher plane, transcending normal human consciousness. “Life and death are a great matter, treasure your time” the title card advises us. Masao rejects the “unappealing” simplicity of heaven for the chaotic pleasures of a transient existence, impressing his own desires on a repressive society and watching indifferently as their terrible flowers bloom.


This Transient Life is the first of four films included in Arrow’s Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy box set which also features an introduction and selected scene commentaries by scholar of the Japanese New Wave David Desser plus a 60-page booklet with new writing by Tom Mes and Anton Bitel.

 Opening scene (English subtitles)

Sandakan No. 8 (サンダカン八番娼館 望郷, Kei Kumai, 1974)

Sandakan 8 posterSome might argue that Japanese cinema has often been reluctant to examine the nation’s traumatic 20th century history with the proper rigour, but even if subtle and coming from unexpected angles there have been many and varied attempts to ask questions about the lingering consequences of feudalism. Sandakan No. 8 (サンダカン八番娼館 望郷, Sandakan Hachiban Shokan: Bokyo), inspired by a true life account of a woman unwittingly sold into sexual slavery as a child at the turn of the century, is not only a condemnation of socially approved people trafficking and its role in building the short-lived Japanese empire but a mild provocation of the contemporary society which refuses to engage with its traumatic past.

In the contemporary era, graduate student Keiko Mitani (Komaki Kurihara) is engaged in researching the “karayuki-san” – Japanese women who were sold into sexual slavery throughout Asia in the early 20th century. Almost forgotten, the karayuki-san are a taboo subject and even those still living in the areas from which women and girls were sent away are unwilling to speak of them. By chance, however, Keiko runs into an old woman in a cafe who speaks with a standard Tokyo accent and tells them that she spent most of her life “abroad”. Quickly realising she doesn’t mean she was a diplomat’s wife, Keiko wonders if the woman might be have been a karayuki-san and delays her return to Tokyo in order to find out.

There is something, it has to be said, ironically exploitative in Keiko’s determination to get the old woman, Osaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), to open up about a subject on which she so obviously does not want to be drawn. A visit to Osaki’s home reveals her to be living in a run-down hovel on the edge of town which is filled with stray cats whom Osaki feeds because “they’re all abandoned, but still they have to live”. Keiko gets herself brownie points by reacting politely to Osaki’s reduced living situation, eventually staying three weeks during which time she gradually teases out Osaki’s sad life story. Finally asking if there wasn’t anything Osaki might have liked to know about her, Keiko’s hypocrisy is fully brought home to her when Osaki admits that no one was more curious about Keiko than she was but that “people have reasons for not confiding in others” and if it’s something you need to ask about then it’s probably something that the other person may not want to share. In any case, Osaki seems to have known Keiko had an ulterior motive but does not regret sharing her story and has no worries about what Keiko might do with it as long as she makes sure to tell the truth.

The truth, in a sense, seems to be something the villagers feel themselves well acquainted with which is why Osaki lives in a shack on the edge of town. Tricked into sexual slavery as a child by an amoral people trafficker who lured her with promises of money to be made overseas, Osaki found herself in Borneo and a prisoner of “Sandakan No. 8” which was one of 10 numbered brothels on the island largely catering to Japanese travellers overseas, facilitating the expansion of the Japanese empire as accidental emissaries and ports of call. When Osaki was a child, Japan was a poor country and it was considered normal to sell one’s daughter in order to feed a family. Working overseas carried with it a kind of cache though no one, except perhaps her brother, seems to be fully aware of what Osaki is going to and she herself has not in any way chosen or consented to become a sex worker. When she eventually returns to Japan, she finds herself unwelcome in her brother’s house, which her money paid for, because of the shame associated with those who have “worked away”. Even 50 years later, she finds herself living alone, all but disowned by her only son, on the outskirts of her childhood village ostracised by the “respectable” townspeople who don’t for a second believe Osaki’s quick introduction of Keiko as her daughter-in-law.

The daughter-in-law deception is only one heartbreaking aspect of the complex relationship between the two women who are each, in a sense, hiding something from the other but end up forming a genuine connection anyway. Intensely lonely and having lived a life filled with suffering, Osaki is willing to pay for company with her story while Keiko is, not quite deliberately, using her loneliness against her in an attempt to earn her trust and get her to reveal her secrets. Nevertheless, Keiko is able to mine a rich and deep seem of 20th century trauma through the tragic story of just one woman which reaches out to hundreds like her some of whom rest in a graveyard in the forests of Borneo with their backs forever to Japan. The enemy is, once again, poverty more than it is patriarchy or even feudalism, a problem less of the essence in the rapidly improving post-war economy, but as Kumai is keen to point out, this system of state sanctioned people trafficking (finally outlawed only once Japan’s status on the world stage began to rise) had far wider implications than it might be thought which still echo into the present day and perhaps beyond if not for the efforts of women like Keiko who do not wish to forget.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1961)

vlcsnap-2019-03-15-00h18m28s351Working from a Keisuke Kinoshita script, Kinuyo Tanaka’s first film as a director, Love Letter, made a point of exploring the often hypocritical and contradictory attitudes towards women who had engaged in sex work or become the mistresses of American servicemen in the immediate aftermath of the defeat. For her fifth film, Tanaka returns to the same subject but this time adapting a novel by Masako Yana scripted by Sumie Tanaka (no relation) with whom she’d previously collaborated on The Eternal Breasts. Somewhat suggestively retitled Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Onna Bakari no Yoru), Tanaka’s adaptation tones down the novel’s sensuality but dares to ask a series of subversive questions regarding female agency and sexuality in the rapidly changing post-war society.

Set in the contemporary era, the film opens with reportage-style voiceover and newspaper clippings highlighting the enforcement of the anti-prostitution laws of 1958. According to the voiceover, the red light districts of Japan may have all but disappeared but streetwalking and other forms of casual sex work are still very much a part of the post-war economy. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the old ways and new, those arrested by the police are divided into two camps – those deemed beyond “redemption” sent to prison, and the rest to reform centres such as the Shiragiku Protective Facility for Women which is where we find our heroines.

The reform centre itself is a fairly progressive place and much more forward looking that seen in the earlier Women of the Night though perhaps sometimes patronising even as it makes a strenuous attempt not look down on the women who enter its care. Our first entry into the facility is in the company of a similarly well meaning women’s association whose misplaced pity only reinforces their innately privileged position. They are as far from many of these women as it is possible to be and struggle to understand how it is possible that they found themselves engaging in a practice they find both shameful and degrading. Having got to know many of the women through trying to help them, the school’s headmistress Nogami (Chikage Awashima) and her assistant are better placed to understand even if they also apologise that many of the women in their care are of “low IQ” and fail to convey the kinds of pressures that many have been subject to from desperate poverty to bad family situations and abusive relationships.

Abuse and the trauma of abuse remains one of the barriers to the women moving on, as in the reason many of them found themselves in sex work was because of their relationship with an exploitative partner who either forced them to sell their bodies or left them with no other choice in order to support themselves through being unable or unwilling to work. Nogami, a compassionate and understanding woman, is at pains to insist that the reason many of these women see nothing wrong in sex work is that they have an insufficient level of self respect and value their bodily autonomy too cheaply in allowing others to buy and sell access to it without full consideration of everything that implies.

Then again, asked by one of her most promising cases, Kuniko (Hisako Hara), what is actually so “bad” about sex work, Nogami is forced to admit that she doesn’t know – only that it is now illegal and her job is to help these women live “honest” lives within law. It is difficult to evade the hypocrisy that Nogami is telling these women that they should exercise full agency over their bodies while simultaneously telling them what they shouldn’t be doing with them, but then for all the centre’s talk about “purity” Nogami herself is refreshingly frank and practical in her approach to helping these women towards reintegration into mainstream society in the assumption that that is something they would want rather than out of any quasi-religious ideas of moral goodness.

Shame and social stigma, however, become another barrier as Kuniko finds to her cost in her attempts to move on from the centre. At her first placement as a live-in assistant at a grocer’s, she is quickly outed by a nosy deliveryman already acquainted with the true nature of the Shiragiku centre. The exposure of Kuniko’s past provokes not only mild disgust and suspicion among “respectable” people but also unwanted male attention from those who assume her former life as a sex worker means that they are already entitled to her sexuality with or without her consent.

Thinking the direct approach might be better, Kuniko decides to share her past with the ladies in the dorm at her next job in a factory but they are not quite as supportive as she might have hoped. Despite the fact that many of these young women are sexually active and in fact involved in what might be thought of as acts of casual sex work, they collectively look down on Kuniko while also seeking to exploit her both for the practical knowledge they assume she must have and by attempting to pimp her out to other men they know. When the attempt fails (Kuniko humiliates the three men who try to pressure her into sex by frightening them off with nothing more than confidence and self-possession), the women turn on her and enact an extremely violent and sadistic revenge.

Despite what she observed at the centre, Kuniko learns to her cost that she cannot necessarily rely on female solidarity as a bulwark against male exploitation. Nevertheless, it is to female communities and friendships that she ultimately returns. The leader of the women’s group from the beginning turns out to be less of a dilettante than she first seems and eventually takes Kuniko in with a promising job in a rose a garden which seems to suit her perfectly. Roses, however, have thorns – this one’s being her tentative relationship with gardener Hayakawa (Yosuke Natsuki) who is aware of her past but falls in love with her anyway only for her romance to hit the barrier of entrenched social mores when she discovers that Hayakawa is in fact a member of a noble family. In another instance of women not helping women, Hayakawa’s mother puts the kibosh on her daughter-in-law being a former sex worker which both reinforces Kuniko’s sense of being irreparably damaged and makes her feel as if she has become a problem for a man with whom she has fallen in love. Vowing to live up to Hayakawa’s vision of her as a “pure” woman, Kuniko retreats once again to a supportive community of women – this time of pearl divers in what seems to be an act of spiritual cleansing.

In Kuniko’s final identification of the “disgracefulness” of her past and declaration that she does not hate the world but only herself, Girls of the Night shifts into a more conventional register than the broadly empathetic, subversively positive attitude it had hitherto adopted towards the idea of sex work and the women who engage in it, opting to blame the woman rather than engage with the various forces of social oppression which attempt to micromanage female sexuality. Nevertheless, Tanaka’s deft touch remains as sympathetic as it’s possible to be in affirming that there is a path forward for those who might feel trapped by past transgression even if it simultaneously insists that its heroine save herself only by rejecting her happy ending in atonement for her past “sins”.


Spring Dreams (春の夢, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1960)

vlcsnap-2019-01-10-00h23m29s867Let them eat sweet potato? The heartless bourgeoisie at the centre of Keisuke Kinoshita’s absurdist satire Spring Dreams (春の夢, Haru no yume) have found themselves accidentally engulfed by the revolution which seems to be attacking them on every front including from inside their palatial, Western-style mansion. Things are about to change in the Okudaira world, but then again maybe not all that much.

The Okudairas are the owners of a large scale pharmaceuticals firm. Widowed patriarch Shobei (Eitaro Ozawa) is the CEO, but he’s at the constant mercy of his mother-in-law (Chieko Higashiyama) who acts as the guardian of the family business’ legacy. Meanwhile, he has three problematic children – oldest daughter Tamiko (Yatsuko Tanami) who has become a promiscuous playgirl with a taste for “mothering” college students, Chizuko (Mariko Okada) who is the only “normal” one in the house and has fallen in love with an impoverished painter, and Mamoru (Yusuke Kawazu) who is a kind of melancholy Hamlet waxing on his existential angst while eating everything in sight.

Into this already strained household comes the unexpected figure of sweet potato salesman, Atsumi (Chishu Ryu). With the house empty for a change, romantically conflicted maid Umeko (Yukiyo Toake) calls one of her boyfriends down at the fish shop to get the potato guy to come round. Kimiko (Meiko Nakamura), the other maid, goes out to pick some up but ends up flirting with a delivery boy so sends Atsumi inside where Umeko ropes him into helping shift some furniture which is how he ends up having a minor stroke in the Okudaira’s living room. Luckily for Atsumi, the person who finds him is Shobei’s compassionate spinster secretary, Kazuko (Yoshiko Kuga), who has some sad experience in this area as her father passed away after a stroke when she was a teenager, they say because someone moved him too early. A visit from the family doctor (Shuji Sano) backs up her advice and Atsumi will be staying put in the living room for the foreseeable future.

Of course, this doesn’t go down well with most of the Okudairas. Shobei wants him gone but what can you do? Atsumi stays because on balance it would be awkward if he ended up dying and staining the Okudaira name. Sadly, greed and indifference are not unique to the bourgeoisie as we discover when a parade of “well wishers” from Atsumi’s tenement house begin showing up to see how he is. Aside from the kindly, filial Eiichi (Shinji Tanaka) who has taken time off work to look after the old man, everyone else thinks Atsumi’s time has come. They know his tragic history, that he’s all alone now since both his sons were killed in the war and the rest of his family lost in the bombing. They want to get in with him to be remembered in the will, or even get their hands on his wallet for something like an advance. Poor old Atsumi is just an object fit for exploiting – a symbol of the Okudaira’s largesse, and of a potential windfall when the inevitable happens.

Meanwhile, the winds of change are blowing. Shobei is tied up with a labour dispute at the factory, obsessed with the idea of crushing the unions while the workers’ rousing chorus of the Internationale echoes ever more loudly in the distance. Grandma advises “just fire them all”, but things aren’t as easy as they were back in Meiji. Grandma thinks Shobei is a bit useless, especially since her daughter died and he’s been allowed to get off easy. She needs to find a successor seeing as Mamoru’s too weird to take over which means one of the girls needs to get married. Tamiko’s ruled herself out thanks to her eccentric love life, which leaves only Chizuko who wants to marry a painter and has no real interest in saving the family business. Chizuko is determined to oppose the idea of an arranged marriage, she’s a post-war girl after all, but grandma is firm. When she was a girl they made her give up on her first love, who happened also to be named “Atsumi”, to marry an Okudaira and so Chizuko is merely being unreasonable.

Nevertheless the presence of Atsumi begins to soften grandma’s heart with memories of her youth and the cruelty with which her youthful dreams were stripped away. Love blossoms in the cold Okudaira mansion, genuine bonds between people are recognised while the opportunist are rejected, and the young regain their freedom from the old who now recognise how destructive the old order could be. Will the house of the Okudaira’s fall? Probably not. Revolutions don’t take hold over night, but greed at least is on its way out paving the way for a better, kinder future for all.


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

Shitamachi no Taiyo (下町の太陽, Yoji Yamada, 1963)

(C) Shochiku 1963

Shitamachi no Taiyou DVD coverYoji Yamada’s debut feature, The Strangers Upstairs, was very much of its time as it attempted to capture the aspirational fighting spirit of the post-war era through the struggles of a nice young couple who are trying to “get on” and escape their humble origins for the salaryman dream through achieving the goal of home ownership as quickly as possible. His second film, Shitamachi no Taiyo (下町の太陽, also known as The Sunshine Girl / Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood), takes a slightly different look at a similar issue as a young woman from Shitamachi – a working class industrial area on the outskirts of Tokyo, agonises over her future prospects as she considers a marriage to her longterm boyfriend who has ambitions to join the salaryman revolution.

Yamada opens with shots of Shitamachi and its prominent smokestacks while the now famous song plays in an instrumental version over the credits, before abruptly shifting to visions of the upscale Ginza where Machiko (Chieko Baisho) and her boyfriend Michio (Tamotsu Hayakawa) are enjoying a demonstration of an extraordinarily expensive, state of the art radio before retreating to a cafe where they agree that sometimes its more fun to “aspire” to things than actually obtain them. After all, there’s no way they could ever afford the diamond rings they walked past on their way out of the department store unless they decided to rob the place. Both Machiko and Michio are residents of Shitamachi and work in a local soap factory. Michio, however, has his sights firmly set on the path to a middle-class life and is planning to take the exam for a promotion to head office – though he lacks qualifications, Michio is confident because he’s studying hard (though more so because his dad and his section chief served together in the war so Michio is sure a good word will be put in for him).

Despite her fondness for Michio, Machiko has her doubts about his overriding ambition to get out of Shitamachi. Since her mother died, Machiko has been the lady of the house and primary caregiver for her naughty little brother Kenji (Joji Yanagisawa) while her older brother Kunio (Toshio Suzuki) is the family brainbox and also planning to bust out only through the path of education rather than advancement. Having left education behind, Machiko is happily contributing to the family finances with her job on the packing line at the soap factory which is, all things considered, not too bad – the work may be dull and methodical but also relatively quiet and stress free, not to mention sweet smelling. Nevertheless, Machiko does not necessarily want to work on the shop floor all her life but knows her opportunities are limited.

This fact is one cruelly brought home to her by a moody Michio when descends into a major sulk on learning that he hasn’t passed the test for head office because another of his colleagues outdid him – both in terms of his study ranking and in one upping him in having a direct connection to the director. While Machiko tries her best to sympathise and put up with his moody petulance, Michio chooses to throw her sympathy back in her face by abruptly announcing that she can’t understand the pain he’s going through because careers are irrelevant to women who only use them as a stopgap until they get married. Thoroughly annoyed, Machiko leaves Michio to his wallowing before things get any worse but she can’t argue with the fact that he’s only said what most people think.

Still, Machiko isn’t even sure she wants to get married. One of her friends, Kazuko (Kyoko Aoi), recently won the jackpot – she married a nice man who did get a promotion to head office and won the housing lottery for a home on one of the shiny new “danchi” – brand new apartment complexes for upwardly mobile young couples and the very embodiment of post-war aspiration. However, when Machiko and a friend visit the new bride they find that she is not quite as happy as one might expect. Though married life is peaceful enough and she and her husband evidently get on, Kazuko is also intensely lonely. With her husband away at work all day and often out playing golf with colleagues on Sundays too (not to mention after hours drinking and miscellaneous get togethers), there’s precious little for Kazuko to do, stuck at home all day cooking and cleaning while waiting for her husband to return. Having moved to the danchi she’s also lost her community and is no longer close enough to her friends to see them very often.

Meanwhile, Machiko is also somewhat disturbed by Kazuko’s collection of expensive cosmetics which her husband has instructed her to buy because he’s “very particular” about her appearance. Kazuko makes sure her makeup is on point before her husband gets home because that’s apparently what he likes. Machiko, however, does not like this – to start with, she thinks Kazuko looks better without. Not that there’s anything wrong with wearing makeup because you want to wear it, but the idea of wearing it because someone told you to and you’re worried they’ll “get bored” with your face doesn’t strike her as a particularly healthy relationship dynamic. If this is what a love marriage is like, perhaps Machiko would rather do without.

Despite her otherwise close relationship with Michio, it quickly becomes obvious that she does not love him and if she decides to marry him it will be because it’s the “sensible” decision rather than any great romantic desire. Annoyingly enough, Michio hasn’t really even asked her, he just assumes they will marry once he gets his promotion. He also assumes that Machiko, like him, will want to shake the dust of Shitamachi off her feet for good for the bright lights of Tokyo. Machiko, however is not so sure. “Getting on” is one thing and there’s nothing wrong with “aspiration”, but that doesn’t mean you need to look down on the people who come from the same place as you – after all, the sun still shines even in Shitamachi and there’s nothing wrong in choosing to be happy here rather than always chasing an unattainable dream of conventional success.

Another possibility presents itself when Machiko meets an unrefined boy who has an ordinary job in the steelworks. Though their first meeting did not make a good impression – he creepily chased her off a train and then made a mess of trying to explain why, they later bond when she realises he has befriended her troubled little brother and the pair then end up spending a pleasant evening together which is far more romantic than any of her dull and conventional outings with Michio. Then again the choice she faces isn’t between two men but whether or not to embrace her own ability to make a definitive choice about her future. What she rejects is cold and selfish path of men like Michio who only want to get ahead and are willing to step on anyone who gets in their way to make it happen. Machiko doesn’t want fancy radios and diamond rings, she just wants to not have to worry too much about money and for someone to actually listen to what she’s saying. She doesn’t want to end up like Kazuko, all alone in a sparkling apartment with nothing to do but knit. When Michio tells her to shut up and do as he says because he’ll definitely make her happy, the choice seems clear. Hard work, community, and maybe the fiery boy who seems determined to get a yes rather than assuming he already has one. Who wouldn’t want to live here?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Famous title song performed by Chieko Baisho

Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow (キューポラのある街, Kirio Urayama, 1962)

(C) Nikkatsu 1962

cupola-poster-e1539038053246.jpgThe “shomin-geki” is generally associated with naturalistic depictions of the lives of “ordinary people”, but in reality most often focuses on the polite lower middle classes – white collar workers, shop keepers, small business holders etc, in short the sort of people who aren’t wealthy but aren’t starving either and generally live in moderate family homes rather than tenements or cramped apartment blocks. Blue collar lives are a less frequent sight on screen – something director Kirio Urayama seems to highlight in his mildly exoticised opening which introduces us to Kawaguchi, Saitama, a small town across long bridge not so far from Tokyo.

Unlike the bustling city still fighting its way back from post-war privation, Kawaguchi is a “town of fire and sweat” where the landscape is dominated by the “cupolas” of the title (Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow , キューポラのある街, Cupola no aru Machi, AKA Foundry Town). Rather than the beautiful architectural domes the name might imply, these cupolas are the industrial kind – chimneys from the 500 foundries which are the area’s dominant economic force. There is, however, trouble in that the steel industry has been decline since the immediate post-war heyday and increasing automation is changing the face of working life.

Our heroine, Jun (Sayuri Yoshinaga), is a young woman with post-war ambitions trapped in the depressing blue collar world of Kawaguchi. She’s currently in her last year of middle school and is determined to carry on to high school and perhaps even beyond, but the family is poor and her father, Tatsugoro (Eijiro Tono), has just lost his job at the local steel works. The family’s neighbour, Katsumi (Mitsuo Hamada), is big into the labour movement and has been protesting the changes at the works which has been bought by a bigger concern who are intent on compulsory layoffs. Tatsugoro, however, likes to think of himself as a “craftsman” rather than a “worker” and refuses to join the union partly out of snobbery and partly out of an entrenched fear of “communism”. He refuses to fight his compulsory redundancy because he is still wedded to the old ideas about loyalty to one’s superiors whilst simultaneously viewing himself as “better” than the other workers because of his long experience and skilled craftsmanship.

Nevertheless, Tatsugoro continues to selfishly abnegate his responsibilities to his family, refusing to insist on his severance pay and drinking the little money he still has left. Tatsugoro has four children ranging from teenager Jun to an infant born just as he lost his job. Some way into the film, Jun and and her younger brother Takayuki (Yoshio Ichikawa) take their father to task for his continued selfishness but the confrontation ends only in defeat. Tatsugoro simply doesn’t care. Loudly exclaiming that he has no daughter and will send Takayuki to the boys’ home, Tatsugoro destroys their hopes by reminding them that their fate is the same his – leave school early, work in a factory, marriage, children, drink yourself into an early grave. The argument proves so disheartening that Jun gives up on a school trip she’d been given a special subsidy to attend to roam around the streets, sadly visiting the prefectural high school that she has now given up on attending and accidentally witnessing another reason to give up on life that she, naively, misunderstands.

Meanwhile, Jun and Takayuki have also made friends with a family from North Korea who will be returning (without their mother) under a preferential “repatriation” programme organised by North Korean officials in Japan with the backing of the US and the Japanese government which, uncomfortably enough, saw only advantage in reducing the ethnic minority population. Though the film adopts a mildly positive view of repatriation – after all, no one really knew what North Korea was like in 1961 and many saying goodbye to their friends fully expect to stay in touch and perhaps meet again one day, it does highlight the persistent layer of xenophobic prejudice that the children face. Sankichi (Hideki Morisaka), one of Takayuki’s best friends, is taunted from the audience whilst on stage in a children’s play by cries of “Korean Carrot” (he is wearing a funny wig at the time) while Jun’s mother makes no secret of her dislike of the children’s friendships, believing that the Koreans are “dangerous”. Others associate the North Korean (in particular) population with communism and possible insurrection, fearing that Japan might be pulled into another nuclear war in Asia by political troubles across the sea.

The repatriation program is attractive not only as a means of escaping a world of constant oppression, but because of the entrenched poverty of the Kawaguchi area and the relative impossibility of escaping it. In a poignant, resentful school essay Jun wonders why her future is dictated by a lack of money, why she alone will be prevented from going on to high school and pulling herself out of the lower orders solely because of her responsibility to her family and father’s fecklessness. Tatsugoro is eventually offered another job thanks to the kindness of the father of one of Jun’s wealthier school friends, but continues to view himself as a “craftsman” and resents being ordered around by youngsters. What’s more, the factory is much more advanced – doubtless, the father of Jun’s friend (so different from her own) thought it might be better for Tatsugoro whose health is poor because the work would be less physically strenuous, but Tatsugoro finds it impossible to adapt to automated working methods and soon quits, leaving the family cash strapped once again.

An inability to adapt is Tatsugoro’s tragedy though he later makes amends when he consents to join Katsumi’s union and takes a job in a new factory, confident that he can’t be summarily dismissed ever again. Jun, meanwhile, has discovered a third way. Longing to escape the burden of her family she resolves to step forward alone but also instep with her society. Having discovered the existence of a progressive factory which is run with friendliness and consideration and even provides education for employees, Jun realises she can have the best of both worlds. Though Jun’s decision is perhaps one of individualism and a bold assertion of her own agency, it’s also in keeping with the broadly socialist message of the film which insists that a problem shared is a problem halved and places its faith in ordinary people to look after each other. Optimistic, perhaps, but a perfect encapsulation of post-war humanism and growing hopes for the future for those who are prepared to work hard on behalf not only of themselves but also for the social good.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow was scripted by Shohei Imamura whose work often focusses on the working classes and rural poor. As such it shares some similarity with his early film My Second Brother which also touches on the lives of ethnic Koreans living in Japan though this time in a mining village where the labour movement is engaged in actively opposing the exploitative practices of the corporate mine owners.

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)