I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Tai Kato, 1968)

Nephew of Sadao Yamanaka, Tai Kato joined Toho as an apprentice in 1937, returning after the war training under Daisuke Ito and Akira Kurosawa, but later moved to Toei where he became closely associated with ninkyo eiga yakuza movies and jidaigeki. From the mid-1960s, however, he made several movies at Shochiku which had, it has to be said, a house style that was almost the polar opposite with a clear focus on polite, family-friendly melodrama. 1968’s I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Minagoroshi no Reika) meanwhile is a surprisingly dark affair even among the grittier examples of Shochiku’s similarly themed B-movie thrillers, an avant-garde noir and proto-giallo in which the fugitive, serial killer antihero sees himself as an agent of divine justice in a hellish and immoral post-war landscape. 

Kato opens with a shocking scene of sexualised violence in which a woman is knocked unconscious, stripped, bound with telephone cord, and finally revived, forced to write down the names of four other women before being brutally raped and murdered by a killer whose voice we have not yet heard nor face seen. The police are mystified, attributing the woman’s death to the fact that she had worked as a bar hostess and maybe things like this are an occupational hazard for women who are surrounded by too many men. Her landlord, however, laments that hers is the second death to occur recently after a laundry boy threw himself off the roof. All things considered, he wishes the boy had picked somewhere else. 

The police have no reason to connect the two unfortunate events and so remain largely clueless, but we gradually become aware that the killer, Kawashima (Makoto Sato), is targeting the women because he holds them directly responsible for the boy’s death. He is the inspector that calls, avenging the death of this young man who, he has learned, like him hailed from Hokkaido and had come to the city at only 16 years old to earn money to support his family, saving almost all of his wages in the hope of opening a shop. Kato shows us scenes of a city under construction, a land of girders casting shadows on the ground like prison bars trapping men like these who are building the new Japan but will be discarded as soon the job is done and their labour no longer so much in demand. Kawashima has another reason for living like this, but he perhaps admires something pure and innocent in the desire of a young man leaving home to seek his fortune so that he might take care of those he loves and that this world betrayed that desire is something he finds impossible to forgive.

The five women have apparently done quite well for themselves, despite the fact that more than one of them has worked on the fringes of the sex trade. Their treatment of the boy is attributed to their boredom in the relative ease of their lives as monied women with little to occupy their time other than getting their kicks abusing the less powerful. It’s an uncomfortable role reversal that places women in a position of power and then sees them abuse it in the exact same way that men do, slinging back the same pithy justifications that men offer for sexual violence while the police meditate on the relative connotations of rape when the word is applied to a man at the hands of women rather than the other way around. If it were their sister, they could understand the desire to kill the men who had done it but a part of them struggles to see that a teenage boy may still find unwanted sexual contact a traumatic enough experience to push him towards suicide. 

Yet Kawshima appears to have no real connection to the boy, and his “revenge” is also a product of his misogyny in that as we later learn he also has reason to feel betrayed by womanhood and is already on the run from previous crime. Nevertheless, he is drawn to the innocent Haruko (Chieko Baisho), a girl-next-door type who works in his favourite ramen restaurant, only to discover that she too has a dark and violent past which may be why she seems to be drawn to him. He struggles with himself, but believes that he is taking revenge on a brutalising society defined by violence and abuse while sublimating his sense of emasculation in the face of women’s growing social and sexual freedoms in the post-war era. It is perhaps the post-war era which is cast as the major villain, one of the women later escaping her protective custody to dance furiously a hip nightclub only to return to the scene of her crime while refusing to see that she has done anything so “wrong” as to merit this kind of persecution. 

“The cycle of divine punishment must be fulfilled” Kawashima finally laments, acknowledging his grim place within this series of post-war tragedies. Surprisingly avant-garde, Kato experiments with blown out negatives, extreme close up, and deep focus mixed with his characteristic low angle composition to add to the sense of noirish dread which paints the modern city as an inescapable hellscape while even the romantic place of refuge shared by Kawashima and Haruko is a gothic moorland lit by moonlight and filled with eerie mist. Lurid and sweaty, the film has a grim sense of humour even in its oppressive atmosphere with a running gag devoted to the lead investigator’s painful case of piles, but its overriding fatalism nevertheless offers the hero a sense of redemption if only in acceptance of his narrative destiny. 


The Long Darkness (忍ぶ川, Kei Kumai, 1972)

Golden age Japanese cinema is generally resistant to the idea of romance as salvation. There may be a romantic happy ending, lovers uniting despite the mounting odds, but their happiness is often overshadowed by the anxieties of the world in which they live. Adapted from the novel by Tetsuo Miura, Kei Kumai’s post-war romance The Long Darkness (忍ぶ川, Shinobugawa) meanwhile insists that it’s love that will save you in the end as its dejected, insecure heroes find the courage to go on living precisely because of the strength and validation they discover in loving and being loved.

The hero, Tetsuro (Go Kato), feels himself to be cursed, overcome with a sense of shame and anxiety because of the dark shadow that hangs over his once prosperous family. His oldest sister committed suicide for love on his sixth birthday, while another sister then took her own life some time later out of guilt for having contributed to her death. His oldest brother whom he describes as sensitive and eccentric disappeared in grief, while the next oldest took a job at a Tokyo lumber yard and supported him as a student but later disgraced the family by running off with money he’d fraudulently accumulated in the name of opening his own company. Tetsuro is convinced that there is something genetically wrong with the family line and is intensely anxious that it will one day consume him too. 

That might be why he’s unexpectedly bashful for a man of 27 in courting the pretty waitress of a local bar, Shino (Komaki Kurihara), whom he first met while celebrating the graduation of some other students after making a belated return to university. Shino too is carrying her own burdens which lead her to feel unworthy of happiness in that she was raised in the red light district and her family, evacuated to rural Tochigi during the war, is now impoverished and living in a shrine. The proprietress at her restaurant has pressured her into an engagement with a prosperous car salesman whom she doesn’t like but feels unable to refuse on the grounds that he will take care of her sick father. The car salesman tries to rape her so she’ll have to marry him which, as her father points out, does not speak well for his character or the prospect of a happy marriage. Her father is clear, he wants his daughter to be happy and in this age a woman’s happiness does largely depend on the man she marries. He tells her to find a man she loves more than life itself and marry him without a moment’s thought. 

The forces which divide them aren’t so much to do with class, politics, money, or custom but with internalised shame and the deeply held belief that they are “bad” people who do not deserve to be happy. “Can I go on living?” Tetsuro’s only remaining sister tearfully asks him, burdened both by her traumatic family history and by a visual impairment that further convinces her she cannot expect to be a part of regular society and has no prospect of a happy future. He almost turns away after noticing her crying but realises that’s what his absent siblings might have done and resolves to behave differently, reforging his his familial bonds with love and compassion in place of the gloominess and futility that had long overshadowed his family home. Just as Shino’s father had anointed Tetsuro a “good person” he could entrust his daughter to, Tetsuro’s sister and mother affirm that Shino too is “good” and her presence brings light and laughter back into their lives after years of lonely suffering. 

“We’ve spent our whole lives worrying about appearances” Tetsuro declares, “it’s time we stop”. Affirming that her new in-laws are also “all good people”, Shino too admits that she realises the “uselessness” of her old life “never saying what I want or don’t want, going along with everything”, liberated by the transcendent power of love that allows her to overcome her fear and insecurity to claim her own agency, the jingling bells of a farmer’s horse cart echoing from below as if in celebration. Shooting in a classic 4:3 monochrome with occasional intertitles and voiceover, Kumai emphasises the literary quality of the tale spanning the rundown lumberyards of post-war Tokyo to the frozen north of Tetsuro’s frosty home but finally argues for the freedom and possibility to be found in the contemporary era by making an active choice for happiness rather than submitting oneself to a fated misery out of misguided obedience to austere and oppressive social codes. “Everyone’s jealous of you” an old woman cackles catching sight of the newly-wed couple on the train to their new life, and you can well understand why. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Stakeout (張込み, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1958)

Most closely associated with the crime genre, Yoshitaro Nomura was, like his frequent source of inspiration Seicho Matsumoto, also an insightful chronicler of the lives of ordinary people in the complicated post-war society. Stakeout (張込み, Harikomi), once again inspired by a Matsumoto short story, is on the surface a police procedural but underneath it’s not so much about the fugitive criminal as a policeman on the run, vacillating in his choice of bride, torn between the woman he loves who is afraid to marry him because her family is poor, and the pressure to accept an arranged marriage with the perfectly nice daughter of a local bathhouse. The stakeout becomes, in his eyes, a kind of illustrated parable, going against the socially conventional grain to convince him that making the “sensible” choice may only lead to long years of regret, misery, and loneliness. 

The film opens, as so many of Nomura’s films do, with a journey as two dogged Tokyo cops board a long distance train from Yokohoma travelling all the way down to provincial Kyushu which might as well be a world away from the bustling metropolis. Posing as motor salesmen, they take a room at a local inn overlooking the home of a melancholy housewife, Sadako (Hideko Takamine), the former girlfriend of a man on the run, Ishii (Takahiro Tamura), suspected of being in possession of a gun used to kill the owner of a pawn shop during a robbery. The younger of the policemen, Yuki (Minoru Oki), declares himself faintly disappointed with Sadako, complaining that she looks older than her years and is in fact quite boring, “the epitome of ordinary”. 

His older colleague, Shimooka (Seiji Miyaguchi), reminds him that most people are boring and ordinary, but as he watches her Yuki comes to feel a kind of sympathy for Sadako, seeing her less as a suspect than a fellow human being. Later we hear from Sadako that her marriage has left her feeling tired every day, aimless, and with nothing to live for, that her decision to marry was like a kind of suicide. “A married woman is miserable” Yuki laments on observing Sadako’s life as she earnestly tries to do her best as a model housewife, married to a miserly middle-aged banker who padlocks the rice, berates her for not starting the bath fire earlier to save on coal, and gives only 100 yen daily in housekeeping money while she cares for his three children from a previous marriage. Trying to coax him back towards the proper path, Shimooka admits that marriage is no picnic, but many are willing to endure hardship at the side of the right man. 

The “right man” gets Yuki thinking. Sadako has obviously not ended up with the right man which is why he sees no sign of life in her as if she simply sleepwalks through her existence. He is obviously keen that he wouldn’t want to make another woman feel like that, or perhaps that he would not like to be left feeling as she does at the side of the wrong woman. We discover that his dilemma is particularly acute because he finds himself at a crossroads dithering between two women, faced with a similar choice to the one he increasingly realises Sadako regrets. Shimooka’s wife is acting as a go-between, pressuring him to agree to an arranged marriage with a very nice girl whose family own the local bathhouse. She makes it clear that she’s not trying to force him into a marriage he doesn’t want, but would like an answer even if the answer is no so they can all move forward, but for some reason he hasn’t turned it down. Yuki is in love with Yumiko (Hizuru Takachiho), but Yumiko has turned him down once before because her family is desperately poor, so much so that they’re about to be evicted and all six of them will have to move into a tiny one room flat. She feels embarrassed to explain to her prospective husband that she will need to continue working after they marry but send almost all of her money to her parents rather than committing to their new family. 

Meditating on his romantic dilemma, Yuki begins to sympathise even more with Sadako, resenting their fugitive for having placed her in such a difficult position and repeatedly cautioning the other officers to make sure that the press don’t get hold of Sadako’s name and potentially mess up her comfortable middle class life with scandal when she is entirely blameless. The fugitive, Ishii, is not a bad man but a sorry and desperate one. He went to Tokyo to find work, but became one of many young men lost in the complicated post-war economy, shuffling from one poorly paid casual job to another. Now suffering with what seems to be incurable tuberculosis, he finds himself dreaming of his first love, the gentle tones of famous folksong Furusato wafting over the pair as they lament lost love at a picturesque hot springs while Yuki continues to spy on them from behind a nearby tree. 

They both bitterly regret their youthful decision to part, she not to go and he not to stay. The failure to fight for love is what has brought them here, to lives of desperate and incurable misery filled only with regret and lonliness. Sadako views her present life as a kind of punishment, finally resolving to leave her husband and runaway with Ishii who has told her that he plans to go to Okinawa to drive bulldozers for the next three years, though we can perhaps guess he has a different destination in mind. “That’s the way the world is, things don’t go the way you want” Ishii laments, but the truth is choices have already been made and your course is as set as a railway track. Sadako plots escape, but all Yuki can do is send her back to her husband with sympathy and train fare, leaving us worried that perhaps she won’t go back after all. Buying tickets for his own return journey, Yuki pauses to send a telegram. He’s made his choice. It’s not the same as Sadako’s, a lesson has been learnt. He goes back to Tokyo with marriage on his mind, but does so with lightness in his step in walking away from the socially rigid past towards a freer future, staking all on love as an anchor in an increasingly confusing world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Father (父, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1988)

Keisuke Kinoshita’s long career spanned 45 years producing 49 films between 1943 and 1988. After joining Shochiku in 1933, he directed his first film, Port of Flowers, 10 years later and subsequently went on to direct some of the best loved classics in Japanese cinema such as the iconic Twenty-Four Eyes. Though sometimes dismissed by international critics as overly sentimental, Kinoshita’s comedies were often mercilessly cynical and his later work became progressively darker. His final film, however, Father (父, Chichi), skews the other way, chronicling a son’s gradual acceptance of his feckless dad as he prepares to come of age himself. 

As the film opens, the titular “father”, Kikutaro Higure (Eiji Bando), is launching a failed bid for political office in his beloved Kagoshima (his major policy is putting a giant umbrella on a local volcano to deal with the ash problem) while his son, the narrator Daijiro (Makoto Nonomura), is only four. Disappointed by his failure, Kikutaro moves the family to Kumamoto where he becomes a househusband while his long-suffering wife, Yae (Kiwako Taichi), runs a small bar. Daijiro is now six and is facing the first of many family crises because his mum has had enough and has asked for a divorce. The last straw was Kikutaro raiding her savings without permission to pour into another harebrained scheme to put on an all female pro-wrestling show. A late in the game plea from Daijiro’s sensible grandma (Kin Sugai) encourages the couple to try again, moving to Osaka and then to Tokyo but apparently taking all their problems with them. 

If she had to choose, Daijiro’s grandma would pick her daughter-in-law Yae over her son any day. “What a mistake I made giving birth to a son like that” she laments, “I’m beyond regret, I’m angry”. Kikutaro certainly is an exasperating sort of man, careering from one get rich quick scheme to another but never really taking anything seriously enough to see it through. Grandma assumes he’ll want her to help him repair his marriage (not least because he can’t support himself and is dependent on Yae to look after him) but he appears not to care at all, simply stating that he can always “find a replacement” for a wife but Daijiro is irreplaceable. If it were not for that comment, you could perhaps make a case for Kikutaro as an early example of the new man prepared take on child care duties in a strongly patriarchal society where he is the only dad attending parent and teacher meetings, but predictably Kikutaro is mostly doing it because he’s lazy. Taken out on a walk so grandma and Kikutaro can talk, Daijuro goes “missing” leaving Yae convinced he’s been abuducted but it turns out he got distracted by some pachinko balls and stopped to pick them up because that’s obviously what his dad has him doing while he’s supposed to be looking after him. 

Nevertheless, Kikutaro ends up sending Daijiro back to Kagoshima to live with grandma until the couple eventually reunite and take him back to live with them in Tokyo. That doesn’t last long either, and while his mother lands on her feet and works hard to make a life for them running a Spanish restaurant, Kikutaro bounces around trying out a host of other harebrained schemes until fetching up asking for money to launch a singing career for his new friend from Brazil, a Japanese-speaking black American man whom he treats in an entirely questionable way (the film is very of its time in terms of its racial politics), essentially selling the incongruity of a foreigner singing the Japanese songbook but later beating him when he somehow “insults” Kikutaro’s favourite ode to Kagoshima simply by performing it. 

The teenage Daijiro describes his dad as a “problem parent”, but like the rest of his family finds it extremely difficult to abandon him despite the fact that being a relative of Kikutaro seems to be completely exhausting. We even see him kick off at his sister-in-law’s funeral about wanting more money and not being respected as the eldest son. Yae constantly asks for a divorce and gets countless other offers from better men but never officially separates from Kikutaro who, despite his earlier protestations, always comes back to her (but only when he wants something). Daijiro begins to feel sorry for his father who seems to be moving further and further away from his beloved Kagoshima after vowing to return only once he’d become a success. He thinks he sees him at the iconic Ohara festival where grandma is cheerfully participating in the traditional song and dance parade, calling out but as usual receiving no reply. Kikutaro is a failure of a father, but perhaps in the new context of the bubble economy it no longer matters quite as much as might have done before. Daijiro at least seems to have rejected his example, but like everyone else chooses to forgive him as a loveable rogue rather than a deadbeat dad while secretly longing for his return. 


Original Trailer (no subtitles)

Burden of Love (愛のお荷物, Yuzo Kawashima, 1955)

Two decades into the new century, Japanese society finds itself gripped by a population crisis. Supposedly “sexless”, young people constrained by a stagnant economy and a series of outdated social conventions have increasingly turned away from marriage and children to the extent that the birth rate is currently at the lowest it’s ever been. How strange it is then to revisit Yuzo Kawashima’s baby boom paranoia comedy Burden of Love (愛のお荷物, Ai no Onimotsu) in which the very same anxieties now expressed for the declining population are expressed for its reverse – that it will damage the economy, that it is the result of a moral decline, and that society as we know it is on the brink of destruction. 

All of these arguments are made by the Minister for Health, Araki (So Yamamura), as he tries to chair a committee meeting put together to find a solution to the baby boom crisis. The government policy he’s putting his name to is a birth control advocacy programme coupled with greater education to discourage couples from having so many children. Some object on the grounds that encouraging the use of birth control will inevitably lead to promiscuity and sexual abandon, which is why Araki’s government intends to limit its use only to married couples to be used for proper family planning. A feminist politician challenges him again, first citing the go forth and multiply bits from the bible to imply she objects to birth control on religious grounds only to trap Araki by reminding him that that is exactly what the government encouraged people to do during the wartime years. She thinks limiting birth control to married couples is little more than thinly veiled morality policing which will fail to help those really in need, suggesting that if this is the road they want to go down perhaps they should think about relaxing abortion laws so that those who become pregnant without the means to raise a child will have another option. Predictably, Araki is not quite in favour, but takes her point. In any case, events in his personal life are about to overtake him. 

The first crisis is that his son, Jotaro (Tatsuya Mihashi), is in a secret relationship with Araki’s secretary Saeko (Mie Kitahara), who has now become pregnant and is quite smug about it because Jotaro will finally have to sort things out with his family so they can marry. There are several reasons why he’s been dragging his feet: firstly, Saeko is a very good secretary and it’s customary for women to stop working when they marry (though as we later find out Jotaro is a progressive type who has no intention of stopping Saeko working if she wants to even after they marry and have children), secondly, his mother Ranko (Yukiko Todoroki) and younger sister Sakura (Tomoko Ko) are old fashioned and may feel marrying a secretary is beneath him, and thirdly he’s just a lackadaisical sort who doesn’t get round to things unless someone gives him a push. Sakura has an additional concern in that she’s engaged to an upperclass dandy from Kyoto (Frankie Sakai) and worries his family might object if they know that Jotaro has undergone a shotgun wedding to someone from the “servant class”. Araki’s oldest daughter, Kazuko (Emiko Azuma), is happily married to a gynaecologist (Yoshifumi Tajima) but ironically has been unable to conceive after six years of marriage. All of which is capped by the intense irony that his own wife at the age of 48 may be expecting a late baby of their own. 

The press is going to have a field day. Araki, for all his faults, is a surprisingly progressive guy, a moderate in the conservative party but one who, worryingly, doesn’t seem to believe in much of what he says as a minister of government, merely doing what it is he thinks he’s supposed to do. It’s perhaps this level of hypocrisy that Jotaro so roundly rejects, insisting he wants neither a career in the family’s pharmaceuticals company (which, it’s worth saying, also produces the birth control Araki’s policy seeks to promote), or a career in politics, and insists on being his own man. Tinkering with various bits of modern technology, he eventually gets a job in research and development of cheap TV sets, signalling his allegiance to the new all while dressing in kimono to visit kabuki clubs with Saeko. Saeko too is a modern woman – she speaks several languages and has a university degree, supporting herself independently even though she is “only” secretary albeit to a cabinet minister. Sakura, a more traditional sort, originally looks down her for being all those things, but later comes to a kind of admiration especially when she finds herself in need of advice from another modern woman. Jotaro’s mother, however, only comes around when she hires a detective who discovers Saeko might be posh after all. 

“Children have their own worlds to live in” one of Araki’s grownup kids later emphases, unwilling to rely their father for money or career advancement, they want to make their own way in the world. Jotaro, a kind man and something of a socialist, wonders if they shouldn’t be using some of this money the government has earmarked for defence on social welfare, suggesting perhaps that’s the best way to deal with the population crisis rather than pointlessly trying to police desire. Burden of Love was released in 1955, which is immediately before Japan instituted its anti-prostitution law doing away with the Akasen system that existed under the American occupation. Araki goes to visit an establishment in the red light district and declares himself horrified, but is unable to come up with a good solution when the women working there point out that they support entire families who will starve without their income. He may have a point that the pimp’s identification of himself as a social worker is disingenuous because he profits from the exploitation of women, but Araki’s later visit to a tavern staffed by geisha raises a series of questions about a continuing double standard. 

Araki exposes his own privilege when he tells Jotaro that he’d do anything for a single slice of bread before he’d ever do “that”, which is ignoring the fact that it’s very unlikely he’d ever have to consider it. Araki’s father, himself a retired politician, is also a fairly progressive sort who actively gets involved in the kids’ nefarious plans to get around their parents so they can marry the people the want when they want to marry them, while Araki remains largely preoccupied with his political position, even suggesting to his wife, despite what he said in the committee meeting, that she get an abortion to spare him the embarrassment caused by increasing the population while proposing a series of population control policies. Ranko is distraught because to her the child is the product of their love, even if to Araki it is also a “burden”, but being a traditional sort thinks first of her husband and is minded to do as he says. The younger generation think and feel differently. They want to make decisions for themselves, not just about what they do but who they love and how they live. The lesson is perhaps that this isn’t something to be overly worried about. Children are the “burden” of love, but we carry them together, and it’s a happier society that is content to figure it out rather than trying  to pointlessly police forces beyond its control. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

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)