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)

Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

Edogawa Rampo’s Beast in the Shadows ( 江戸川乱歩の陰獣, Tai Kato, 1977)

Edogawa Rampo (a clever allusion to master of the gothic and detective story pioneer Edgar Allan Poe) has provided ample inspiration for many Japanese films from Blind Beast to Horrors of Malformed Men. So synonymous with kinky terror is his name, that it finds itself appended into the title of this 1977 adaptation of his novel Beast in the Shadows (江戸川乱歩の陰獣, Edogawa Rampo no Inju) by veteran director Tai Kato best known for his work in the yakuza genre. Mixing classic European detective intrigue with a more typically Japanese obsession with method over motive, Beast in the Shadows, like much of Edogawa Rampo’s work twists and turns around the idea of atypical sexuality, one side cerebral and another physical as the “Westernised” sadomasochism of the heroine’s husband becomes the driving force of the narrative.

Our hero, Koichiro Samukawa (Teruhiko Aoi), is a best selling author who likes to describe himself as the creator of “serious” mystery novels. In this he contrasts himself favourably with the coming younger generation who rely on sensationalised tricks and twists rather than the intricately plotted, traditionally constructed crime stories which Samukawa prides himself on writing. The particular object of his rage is a recently successful rival, Shundei Oe, who is making quite a splash in literary circles in part due to his mysterious persona. Refusing all in-person contact, Oe’s whereabouts are completely unknown and though he supplies a “real name” at the back of each book, there is great speculation as to who he really is, how he lives, and where he might be.

Down south to supervise a movie shoot based on one of his novels, Samukawa is thrilled to run into a fan – particularly as she’s such a beautiful young woman. Shizuko (Yoshiko Kayama) is the wife of a wealthy businessman, Oyamada, who has recently returned from an extended spell abroad though he doesn’t share her passion for literature even if he brings home such luxuries as fancy European gloves. The relationship moves beyond mutual appreciation when Shizuko asks for Samukawa’s help in investigating a series of threatening letters she’s been receiving from an old boyfriend who may or may not also be stalking her. The real kicker is that the letters purport to be from Shundei Oe – apparently the pen name being used by a man who fell deeply in love with Shizuko when he was a student but couldn’t take no for an answer when his creepy behaviour became too much for the then school girl. Though Samukawa is sure the letters are all talk and commits himself unmasking Oe for the perverted cretin he is, Shizuko’s husband is eventually murdered just as the letters threatened.

Though the final twist is one which most seasoned mystery lovers will have seen coming, Kato keeps the audience on its toes with plenty of intrigue and red herrings as Samukawa attempts to discover the truth behind the death of Shizuko’s husband as well as taking the opportunity to indulge in a little intellectual vanity by unmasking his rival. The movie subplot quickly gets forgotten but Samukawa is also helped/hindered by his publisher, Honda (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who keeps reminding him about the looming deadline for his latest work. The case at hand provides ample distraction for the harried writer whose writer’s block is only made worse by thoughts of Shundei Oe’s growing success and his resentment of this new, sensationalised form of crime novel which seems to be eclipsing his own.

If the way he acts in “real life” is anything to go by, Samukawa’s detective novels owe much to the European tradition but still, there’s a persistent fear of the foreign underlining much of the proceedings despite the heavy presence of Westernised clothing, music and culture which seems to diffuse itself throughout daily life. Shizuko’s husband may have just returned from abroad but it seems he brought back much more with him than some fancy gloves and an elegant English mistress (pointedly named Helen Christie). The English style riding crop in Oyamada’s study is not mere affectation but the cause of the nasty looking wound on Shizuko’s shoulder which first caught Samukawa’s attention. Oyamada’s sadistic tendencies are posited as a credible reason he could himself be masquerading as Oe, getting off on driving his wife half crazy with fear, but his eventual murder would seem to rule that out.

Nevertheless the game is one of pleasure and pain as Samukawa comes to the realisation that he is integral to the plot. Challenged by his literary rival to a game of minds, Samukawa is putting his detective abilities to the test as his rival is writing their latest story in reality rather than on the page. Love, lust, betrayal, violence and tragedy all come together for a classic gothic detective story which looks ahead to noir with its melancholy fatalism yet remains resolutely within the dark and ghoulish world of the gothic potboiler. Kato shoots a prestige picture with the undercurrent of repressed eroticism in his strange low level angles and unusual compositions which bind, tie and constrain the elusive Shizuko within the window panes and doorways of her home. Light levels fluctuate wildly, isolating the haunted protagonists in their supernatural gloom until we hit the expressionism of the theatrical finale which takes place in an entirely red, almost glowing attic space. The atmosphere is one of profound unease as Oe is thought to be perpetually watching, hidden somewhere in the house, out of sight.

The Beast in the Shadows does not just refer to the unseen voyeur but to the repressed eroticism which his actions symbolise and is perhaps brought out in the various sadomasochistic relationships created between each of the protagonists. Then again, where are we in all this – sitting in the dark, watching, undetected, seeing things we had no right to see. Kato takes our own voyeuristic tendencies and serves them back to us with visual flair in a late career masterpiece which perfectly captures Edogawa Rampo’s gothic world of repressed desire and brings it to its cinematic climax as two detectives go head to head in a game so high stakes neither of them quite realised what it was they were playing.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)

A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.


 

Kwaidan (怪談, Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

tumblr_ly5zbgdNH61rn3yrmo1_1280Kwaidan (怪談) is something of an anomaly in the career of the humanist director Masaki Kobayashi, best known for his wartime trilogy The Human Condition. Moving away from the naturalistic concerns that had formed the basis of his earlier career, Kwaidan takes a series of ghost stories collected by the foreigner Lafcadio Hearn and gives them a surreal, painterly approach that’s somewhere between theatre and folktale.

The first tale, Black Hair, is the story of an ambitious young samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who abandons his one true love to marry a wealthy woman and advance his career. However, his second marriage is far from happy and he begins to appreciate just what it is he’s cast aside. Eventually returning home he meets his former wife again and harbours the desire to start afresh. However, when the sun comes up all is not as it seems.

Tale two, The Woman of the Snow, begins when two woodsmen are caught in a blizzard and a mysterious woman appears to suck one of them dry of blood. She spares the other, Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), because she’s moved by his youth but she instructs him never to reveal the events of that evening or she will return to finish what she started. Minokichi returns home and meets another mysterious woman who later becomes his wife and bears him three children but will he remember to keep his secret even from the love of his life?

The third tale is perhaps the most famous, Hoichi the Earless, and features the sad tale of a blind biwa player (Katsuo Nakamura) whose storytelling ability is so great that the dead themselves petition him nightly to recount their story. Eventually the head monk finds out and disapproves of Hoichi’s dealings with the supernatural so the monks paint sutras all over his body to protect him from the malevolent spirits. However, like achilles and his vulnerable heel, they forget to paint Hoichi’s ears…

The fourth tale, A Cup of Tea, is a little more whimsical and opens with a framing sequence lamenting the fact that some ancient tales were never finished for one reason or another. The tale within the tale features a samurai who keeps seeing a face appear in his tea. Obviously this is quite disturbing, but eventually he just decides to drink it anyway only for the owner of the face to suddenly appear and complain about soul having been stolen.

Like all good fables the stories each have a moral to offer but also, crucially, paint the protagonists as victims of circumstance more than rash or unwise people. The samurai feared poverty so he abandoned his love in search of riches only to discover he’d been chasing the wrong kind of dreams. Minokichi momentarily forgot himself, perhaps entrapped by the Snow Woman’s final trick, Hoichi just wanted to play his biwa but his desires were frustrated by the powers at be who further mess things up for him by botching the sutra application. The protagonist of A Cup of Tea does choose to drink the tea himself but the resultant madness is not something that could ever have been reasonably expected. These are worlds of spirits where the doorway to the supernatural is always ajar, waiting for some ordinary person to tumble through accidentally.

Though employing slightly different styles for each of the four segments, Kobayashi sets his stage with a deliberately theatrical, almost hyperreal set design. Obviously shot on a soundstage, the tales take on the feeling of stories which have been told and retold, replayed countless times across the great theatre of life. Black Hair steers closest to a traditional kabuki play, an effect aided by Toru Takemitsu’s more traditional score but The Woman of the Snow gives way to intense color play full of cold blue ice vistas mixed with impressionistic, passionate red skies. Hoichi’s tale begins with an overlay of a scroll painting recounting the famous The of the Heike of which Hoichi sings his song. Full of epic battle scenes, ghostly apparitions and a whole load of biwa music, this segment is the lengthiest but also the meatiest when it comes to subtext. The final tale by contrast is much more straightforward and brings a little chanbara exuberance to the otherwise heavy atmosphere though it does leave us with one of the most haunting images in the entire film.

Kwaidan may look like an exercise in style for Kobayashi – it was also his first colour picture and he makes full use of that aspect of the film. However, that isn’t to say he’s abandoned his recurrent concerns. The people in the stories are all ordinary, they’re flawed but they aren’t evil. The samurai comes closest to bringing his fate on himself when he makes the selfish decision to abandon his loving wife for money and status though he pays a heavy price when he finally realises his foolishness. Minokichi’s crime is a loss of faith of perhaps of having doubted the truth of his tale in itself. In the end, he simply forgot his promise rather than making a conscious decision break it like the samurai. Hoichi is something of a passive player here as his blindness renders him unable to understand his plight – he is unable to keep his promise to the fallen samurai firstly because of the physical toll it’s taking on him and secondly as he’s prevented by his superiors. The protagonist of the final tale simply gives in to temptation and then to madness perfectly symbolising human weakness. Kobayashi maybe more artful here than acerbic but his bleak view of human nature still wins out. However, what Kobayashi crafted in Kwaidan is a beautiful, dreamlike canvas of supernatural visions which continue to dazzle in their artistry long after the screen has gone dark.


Kwaidan is available on blu-ray in the US from Citerion and on DVD in the UK from Eureka Masters of Cinema.