Ikiru (生きる, Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

The Japanese economy may have embarked on a path towards recovery thanks to the stimulus of the Korean War, but in the early 1950s many might have thought it too soon to ask if survival in itself was enough yet this is exactly what disillusioned civil servant Kenji Watanabe finds himself asking after receiving the devastating news that he has advanced stomach cancer and year at most to live. “To live” is apt translation of Akira Kurosawa’s intensely moving existential melodrama, Ikiru (生きる), which tackles the compromises of the salaryman dream head on along with those of the contradictions of the sometimes dehumanising post-war society. 

As the opening voice over reveals to to us, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is man who died long ago or perhaps has never truly been alive. In some senses, he is nothing more than an embodiment of the seal he uses to stamp documents day in day out, a mere piston in an ever turning machine of relentless bureaucracy. A young woman, Miss Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), working in the Public Affairs department loudly reads out a joke someone has written about their boss, Watanabe, who has taken not a single day’s holiday in 30 years suggesting that it’s less that he fears city hall will grind to a halt without him than they’ll suddenly figure out city hall has no need of him at all. The irony is city hall does indeed grind to a halt in Watanabe’s absence as he, unthinkably, fails to turn up for work for days on end as the papers pile ever higher on his desk. “Nothing moves here without his seal” one of the workers admits, bewildered by this sudden break with protocol while salivating over its implications in the possibility that Watanabe’s chair may soon be empty. 

Yet Watanabe’s crisis is that he’s realised he’s wasted his life on a pointless bureaucratic career that’s done little more than keep a roof over his head. Even the roof is a fairly modest one and it’s clear that his grown up son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) considers him to be a stingy old miser, unable to understand why he’s never spent so much as a penny on himself and lives in a kind of self-imposed austerity. Perhaps to Watanabe this is what constitutes properness. He’s done everything he was supposed to do, got a steady job at city hall and eventually became the head of department, but now he feels foolish and lonely. Mitsuo and his wife seem to resent him and talk openly about their plans to use their inheritance, along with Watanabe’s retirement bonus, for a downpayment on a “modern” home the polar opposite of the pre-war townhouse where the family continue to live. 

Mitsuo and Kazue (Kyoko Seki) are perhaps emblems of the increasingly empty consumerism of the post-war era, emotionally disconnected from Watanabe and seeking only the flashy and new. Miss Odagiri, the young woman from work, immediately says that she’d love to live in a home like Watanabe’s rather than the crowded multiple occupancy flat she currently inhabits with her family. Cheerful and outgoing, Odagiri is on the other hand a symbol of a new generation that wants something more out of life than simple material comfort and might even be willing to trade it for a small amount of happiness. Having worked at city hall for all of 18 months, she decides that she just can’t take it anymore and is quitting to get a job in a factory making toy rabbits that she says allow her to feel as if she’s making friends with all the babies in Japan. 

To that extent, Watanabe is himself also a baby craving Odagiri’s company admitting that he envies her youth and vitality in realising he squandered his own and will never get it back. How uncomfortable it must be for her, their final meeting in a restaurant sandwiched between a loving couple and teenage girl’s birthday party as Watanabe, gaunt and shrunken, claws at the air and begs her to help him live. Yet even within the grotesquery the tone is ironic, the strains of “Happy Birthday” accompanying Watanabe down the stairs as a the high school climbs up to meet her friends signalling his (re)birth as a man with purpose and determination. Just as Odagiri had found meaning in the rabbit, Watanabe finds it deciding to get a playground built over a post-war swamp in the slums filled with raw sewage and mosquitos that left the local children ill. 

Yet children’s parks aren’t particularly profitable which is presumably why the petition to build one had been kicked all round city hall in the infernal wheel of bureaucracy in which Watanabe too is trapped. “You call this democracy?” one of the women bringing the petition asks, taking the clerk to task complaining that all they do is fob them off insisting it’s someone else’s responsibility to help while determined only to guard their own turf. “You’re not supposed to do anything at city hall” someone ironically adds, “the best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all”. Watanabe did nothing at all for 30 years and it got him nowhere, his dedication to his job disrupting his relationship with his son though Watanabe is ironically one of the most emotional men and engaged fathers seen on screen in the post-war era. 

After his death, in the park he helped build for which the deputy mayor has taken credit, his colleagues put him on trial at the wake trying to work out why he did it and whether or not he even knew he was dying seeing as he told no one close him not even the son whom he felt he could no longer trust. They deny his role while both praising and condemning his passion as somehow improper, disrupting the dispassionate rhythms of the bureaucratic machine with human emotion. It was only coincidence, they say. The deputy mayor wanted an election and the yakuza wanted to turn the swamp into a red light district. “Did he think he could just build a park?” someone adds, bemused by his effrontery as a man from Public Affairs straying into the Parks Department’s territory. You have to protect your turf after all. Finally moved by Watanabe’s last ditch bid to make his life mean something, to feel alive and know he has lived, the the drunken salarymen, all but one who retreats to look at Watanabe’s photo above the altar, swear to follow his example. 

But of course the bureaucratic wheel keeps turning, another dangerous sewage problem diverted to another department continuing the literal pollution of the capitalistic post-war society. A kind of ghost story, Kurosawa lights Shimura from below, shadows cast across his gaunt face even by his “rakish” new hat while his huge eyes have a somehow haunted, grotesque quality filled with hungry desperation. Yet it’s to childhood that Watanabe eventually returns, “perfectly happy” sitting on a swing singing a song from his youth about the price age while surrounded by snow and at last painfully, absurdly alive. 


Ikiru screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 4th & 15th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

High and Low (天国と地獄, Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

A self-made man is landed with an unthinkable dilemma when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped in place of his own just at the moment he’s staked his entire fortune on a manoeuvre to outsmart cynical executives set on taking over his company in Kurosawa’s post-war crime film, High and Low (天国と地獄, Tengoku to Jigoku). The movie’s Japanese title, Heaven and Hell, might hint more strongly at the growing economic disparities in the era of the economic miracle but also at the dualities embodied in the hero’s choices. “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity” his wife tells him, but he still struggles with the validity of choosing his heart over his head knowing that to pay anyway even though it’s another man’s son means financial ruin, the final question being if he is really prepared to allow a child to die simply to maintain his own wealth and status. 

The problem is that Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) has attempted to mount a rebellion against the evils of consumerism, incurring the ire of the cynical executives who attempt to get him on their side in their attempt to oust the boss whose outdated ideas are running the business into the ground. Though Gondo appears sympathetic, hinting that he might be interested if there’s a good enough promotion in it, he later tells them where to go on seeing that their business plan is to start producing poor quality disposable footwear. Gondo started on the factory floor and he doesn’t want to put the company’s name on such shoddy produce nor does he think that their admittedly fair point that if the shoes are well made and last a long time no one will need to buy any is a good way to do business. He doesn’t think the boss is right either and wants to make shoes his own way which is why he’s remortgaged the sizeable mansion he owns on top of a hill overlooking the city and has pretty much run through his wife’s dowry to buy a majority stake in the company.

On top of a hill is a good place to live if you want a good vantage point to oversee the land below, but while you’re looking down others look up and not all of them kindly. Gondo is as he says a self-made man, but also out of touch with contemporary society and not so far from an ambitious courtier always after a little more. He says it isn’t about getting the top job but getting shoes made right, but it seems he too had been bitten by the consumerist bug and is otherwise unable to affirm his status without material proof. When he thinks it’s his own son that’s been kidnapped, he’d have given it all away but when it’s the driver’s boy it’s a different question. Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu) isn’t his responsibility and as he points out there are plenty of other wealthy men, why is he the only one to pay? While his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) tearfully urges him to do the right thing, his assistant (Tatsuya Mihashi) tries stop him, insisting he should take the sizeable cheque they’ve had drawn up to Osaka and the stakeholder he’s buying the shares from. 

While he vacillates, the driver, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), is humiliated and forced into servitude. Gondo seems to have the old-fashioned idea that the kidnappers would simply let Shinichi go on realising they’ve got the wrong boy and his father can’t pay, but Aoki knows there’s nothing he can do to save his son but throw himself on Gondo’s mercy. He falls to the ground and prostrates himself, but later retracts all telling Gondo it doesn’t matter, that he hadn’t realised what he was asking of him, and insisting that Shinichi is a bright boy who will look for a chance to escape on his own. Once the boy is returned he treats him harshly, interrogating him about anything he might have forgotten and later driving him around looking for the hideout where he was kept in an attempt to do something and repay the debt he now feels he owes to Gondo by helping the police retrieve the money Gondo eventually agreed to pay for him. 

In agreeing to give up the money, Gondo is in a sense unburdened knowing he has made the right choice and realising that he would never live a comfortable life in that house if cost a child’s life to keep it. Part of his rationale for not wanting to pay had been that though he had been poor before and might be again, his wife had not been and does not truly understand what it is to live in poverty much as she says her life of luxury means nothing to her. She has never wanted for anything, after all. As for the kidnapper, Ginjiro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), we know little of his motives save for his intense resentment living quite literally in the shadow of Gondo’s mansion and feeling as if it were mocking him. Then again, though his life is hard Ginjiro already had a path to success in that he would soon have completed his medical studies implying at least that he or someone else was able to cover his tuition and costs of living, that he was able to continue in education, and really had no need to take such drastic action in rebellion against the antagonistic capitalism of the post-war society. “Do you think we have to hate each other?” Gondo asks him, but Ginjiro has no answer only his intense resentment for everything he represents.

The “hell” that Gondo inhabits is a backstreet wasteland peopled by the hopeless. Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), the earnest policeman, follows him through thronging clubs and on into “dope alley” where Ginjiro picked up his accomplices so desperate to escape their suffering that they’d agree to help him kidnap a child. Though it costs him his job, Gondo decision to do the right thing makes him a national hero, the working class millionaire who mows his own lawn and can still knock up a pair of shoes should the occasion call while women across the country decide to boycott the company in protest at his treatment. Ginjiro can only howl like a caged animal while facing a death sentence for the coldblooded murder of his accomplices. The light bouncing off his mirrored sunshades gives him an eerie supernatural quality, a demon arising from depths of hell to wreak havoc in heaven but finding only infinite tragedy in the contradictions of the consumerist post-war society.


High and Low screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dodes’ka-den (どですかでん, Akira Kurosawa, 1970)

By the late 1960s, Akira Kurosawa was in the midst of a creative crisis having spent two years working on the Japanese segments of the Hollywood war film Tora! Tora! Tora before he was eventually let go by the parsimonious US producers who feared he was spending too much money and making too little progress. Meanwhile, the studio system which had supported his career was collapsing and could no longer offer the kinds of budgets necessary for his personal brand of epic cinema. Teaming up with Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, and Keisuke Kinoshita, he formed the Club of the Four Knights production company but the first and only film they produced, Dodes’kaden (どですかでん), was not perhaps the kind of film many were expecting.

Inspired by a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, the film like The Lower Depths focuses on a small community living in a slum only in this case on the edge of the modern city. Shot in classical 4:3, it was also Kurosawa’s first foray into colour and makes the most of his painterly eye with its surrealist backdrops and exaggerated sunsets. Once again there is the feeling that these people are already dead or trapped in a kind of purgatory unable to escape their desperate suffering, the slum as much of a mindset as a physical place. “Life is nothing but pain to me” one man claims, stating his hope that he die as quickly as possible while relating the sad story of his life: falling into depression when his sons were killed in the war and losing his wife, business, and finally home to the Tokyo air raids. Yet he is reminded that his family live on in him as long as he does and to kill himself is to kill them too, rediscovering a desire to survive even in his suffering. 

Another man, Hei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), dresses in a soldier’s uniform and wanders around like a zombie with, as one person puts it, the eyes of a dead man. Later a woman comes to find him, but he is seemingly unable to reawaken himself and move on from his trauma, now numbed to life, an already spent force. A young woman, Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki), is little different. Never speaking she has been raised by her uncle who begins sexually abusing her while her aunt is in hospital. She says that she wants to die, stabbing the only boy who showed her kindness because she feared he’d forget her. 

These people have largely been forgotten, living almost in another era and entirely cut off from mainstream society in a kind of etherial purgatory. Like the residents of The Lower Depths, a degree of fantasy is necessary for their survival a case in point being that of a beggar and his son who live an abandoned car and fantasise about the kind of house they’d build, a vast modernist building in white with a swimming pool. Like Katsuko, the boy is let down by his father who remains the car and sends him out to beg for food, telling him off when he lights a fire to boil fish as the man at the sushi shop had told him to do insisting, with disastrous results, that as it’s pickled it doesn’t need to be cooked. The furthest out of the residents, the pair have an almost grotesque appearance, their faces tinged with a morbid green. 

But then the couples living at the centre seemed to have found an antidote to despair in a surreal process of wife swapping now unable to remember whose husband is whose despite being neatly colour coded in matching outfits. A man with a nervous tic defends his grumpy yet fiercely loyal wife, and another man raises several children who may not be biologically his but are loved all the same. The old man who acts as a kind of confidant giving out advice and settling disputes through benevolent trickery has evidently learned how to live in this world and gets by as best he can while the son of the melancholy woman who runs the tempura stall drives an imaginary train through the slum the rhythm of which gives the film its name in its slow and certain progress towards nowhere at all. Heartbreakingly there are moments where the young man can hear the train in the distance, but it remains forever out of reach. Dodes’kaden didn’t do very well at the box office or with critics, its lack of success of cited as a factor in Kurosawa’s attempt to take his own life the following year, yet had perhaps set him on a new artistic course of colour and light which would define the further direction of his later career.


Dodes’ka-den screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 15th & 16th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

The Approach of Autumn (秋立ちぬ, Mikio Naruse, 1960)

For a small boy in post-war Japan, childhood’s summer is already over in Mikio Naruse’s at times uncharacteristically cheerful The Approach of Autumn (秋立ちぬ, Aki Tachinu) . In truth, the Japanese title is the slightly more depressing “autumn has begun” echoing the dismal circumstances that the hero eventually finds himself in while working his way towards an understanding of the disappointments and loneliness of adulthood. Abandoned by his mother he remains alone, in a sense homeless, trapped between the new Japan and the old in a liminal space shrinking by the hour as the construction of modernity encroaches all around him. 

The amazement on Hideo’s (Kenzaburo Osawa) face is palpable as he exits a train station in the middle of Tokyo peering up at the high rise buildings amid busy city streets. He and his mother Shigeko (Nobuko Otowa) have travelled by train from rural Nagano following the death of his father intending to stay with his mother’s brother (Kamatari Fujiwara) who owns an old-fashioned grocery store in Ginza. What Shigeko has not really explained to her son is that they will not be living there together as she has taken a job as a live-in hostess at a nearby inn. 

Plunged into this unfamiliar world all alone, Hideo cannot help but feel awkward in the house of relatives he has never before met. His grown-up cousins playfully argue in front of him about having to share a room, while he makes a point of not eating too much at dinner though as Harue (Hisako Hara) jokes perhaps he doesn’t like the food seeing as his penny pinching uncle mainly feeds the family on fruit and veg from the store that’s gone past its best. Meanwhile, he struggles to make friends with the local children who mock his country bumpkin accent and use him as a scapegoat when it looks like they might get in trouble. His only companion is the precocious daughter of the owner of the inn where his mother works, Junko (Futaba Hitotsugi), who instantly takes to him and even goes so far as to beg her mother to adopt Hideo as an older brother. 

Junko is in a similarly liminal position herself as we later find out. Her mother (Murasaki Fujima) is the mistress of a wealthy businessman who only visits them every so often and appears to be well aware of the precarity of her position. Junko’s father, awkwardly inviting her out on a playdate with his other two children born to his legal wife who apparently knows everything and at least pretends to be alright with it, urges her mother to take advantage of rocketing Ginza land prices and sell the inn to buy a fancy new apartment but she is understandably wary. Running an inn is all she knows how to do and should he die or simply decide to drop her she’d be in trouble fairly quickly. Hideo’s cousins similarly nag their father to sell the shop, reminding him that with the increasing gentrification of the area there is no longer sufficient footfall to support it, and suggesting they use the money to buy larger premises in suburbia. Both Hideo and Junko are in a sense orphans of these liminal spaces, relics of a disappearing Japan soon to be eclipsed by endless office buildings symbols of the nation’s increasing economic prosperity. 

All of the sites on which the children play are earmarked for construction, Junko later explaining that the docks where they eventually head looking for the sea are built on reclaimed land big enough to build a baseball field. Like Hideo she longs for the country with clean air and unpolluted rivers though as Hideo points out it’s all the same to him, his mother isn’t in either place and so neither has any meaning for him. Her strange idea of adopting Hideo is in a way an attempt to anchor herself with family, assuring her mother that she’s old enough to understand but struggling to parse her family circumstances while deeply hurt on discovering she does have siblings after all only they don’t want to know her. She is looked down upon because of the choices her mother has made, as is Hideo especially after his mother leaves abruptly with a customer from the inn (Daisuke Kato) abandoning him with his uncle in search of romantic fulfilment which it seems she probably did not find considering a later telegram explaining she’s working as a maid at a hotel in the resort town of Atami. 

Shigeko is made out to be the villain, but she too is only chasing safety in a changing society hoping to find it in the arms of a reliable man be he a husband or not. Hideo may be an obstacle to that, but her anxiety is mostly maternal, unwilling to rely on her brother’s goodwill and knowing she will need to find a way to support her son even if she is not with him. Hideo’s cousins meanwhile are the youth of the new society. Harue has rejected the old-fashioned family grocers and now works in a department store while her former student protestor boyfriend is certain of getting a salaryman job seeing as there’s a massive labour shortage. Shotaro (Yosuke Natsuki), who is always kind to Hideo, runs around town on his scooter ferrying girls to the beach sometimes forgetting his melancholy cousin in favour of transitory pleasures. He envisages taking over the store and selling it to open up somewhere new, reassuring Hideo that there will always be a place for him there even while letting him down in the present. 

In the end, Hideo’s only friend is a beetle packaged in a box of apples from his grandma in the country which his uncle selfishly claims for the shop under the rationale that he can’t eat them all himself. A symbol of an older, rural Japan as well of the idyllic childhood for which Hideo’s longs, the beetle is as out of place in central Tokyo as he is the pair of them looking down on the sprawling city and out towards the barely visible sea from the roof of a department store which holds no sense of promise for them. Despite the bleakness of the ending, Naruse’s depiction of an ordinary childhood is deceptively cheerful perhaps implying that Hideo is merely enduring a period of adjustment only to leave him with the crushing weight of impossibility, trapped between the new society and the old with no home to go to. 


French release trailer (French subtitles only)

The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Tai Kato, 1973)

After joining the studio in the mid-1950s, Tai Kato quickly made a reputation for himself with Toei’s key brand of ninkyo eiga yakuza movies set in the chivalrous world of pre-war gangsterdom. By the early 70s, however, the genre was already played out and Kato began to work more frequently with other studios and in various genres but 1973’s The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Nihon kyoka den), produced for Toho the studio which he had first joined at the beginning of his career in 1937, takes him back to his ninkyo roots if less directly in a politicised tale revolving around the 1918 rice riots

The film opens, however, a few years earlier with the heroine, Mine (Hiroko Maki), attempting to sell children’s educational picture books aboard a train (an activity strictly prohibited). As she explains, they are in the middle of a recession and times are hard for everyone though as we discover the reason for Mine’s journey is that she is in the process of eloping with the mild-mannered Minoru (Kunio Murai), the son of a wealthy family with literary dreams, who is prevented from marrying her because of the class difference between them. The couple are doing well enough evading detection, but are caught out when accidentally implicated in the murder of a treacherous politician by left-wing agitator/noble gangster Seijiro (Tetsuya Watari) who fatefully locks eyes with Mine while trying to escape forever binding their fates together. 

Epic in length the film was originally released in two parts with an interval in-between, this first half focussing on Mine’s doomed romance which is thwarted in part by the outdated social codes of the early Taisho society and the moral cowardice of her lover who finds himself unable to resist them. The pair are thrown in prison as possible co-conspirators and beaten by the police, Mine striking up a friendship with a woman, Tsuru (Junko Toda), imprisoned for distributing pamphlets as a labour activist who later helps her to get a waitressing job and teaches her rudimentary writing while Minoru lounges around in their home sort of writing a novel. Tsuru seems to be touched by their cross-class romance, “where love is concerned to hell with social status!” she insists berating Minoru for giving in so easily when the pair are finally tracked down by his austere mother. Her socialist activism may not directly rub off on Mine but does perhaps inform her later actions after discovering the depths of Minoru’s spinelessness, rescued after a failed bid at double suicide by a truly good man, Kinzo (Meicho Soganoya), who also happens to be a traditional yakuza heading a harbour gang in Kobe. 

After becoming his wife, Mine comes to witness the persistent unfairness and exploitation all around her as mediated by the outcry surrounding the fluctuation of rice prices in the late 1910s caused by attempts at profiteering and the necessity of supplying the military forces then participating in the war in Europe. Meanwhile, would be local dictator and amoral yakuza Kishimoto (Toru Abe) is intent on squeezing the Osada gang out of the harbour further pushing up rice prices while in cahoots with corrupt local authorities. Seijiro re-enters her life when dispatched to assassinate Kinzo on the orders of Kishimoto but stabbing him as carefully as possible to make sure he doesn’t die, thereafter switching sides to fight for the rights of the poor who he warns face even greater oppression should a man like Kishimoto be allowed to dominate the harbour. 

With Kinzo out of action, Mine assumes her natural destiny as a local leader doing her best to stand up to Kishimoto and the corrupt authorities but still faces difficulty getting her voice heard without a man standing next to her. On taking Kinzo’s place at a meeting of local bosses, she is dismissed as “just a woman” before a sympathetic naval officer decides to hand her a lucrative job shifting rice intended for sailors overseas because of her knowledge of current affairs undercutting Kishimoto’s attempts to game the system. It’s the trust the navy have in her that later saves her again when she is arrested and brutally tortured by corrupt policemen working with Kishimoto intent on tracking down Seijiro for the murder on the train all those years previously. Mine’s rise is also in a sense Seijiro’s redemption as he atones for the attack on Kinzo, rejects his association with Kishimoto to re-embrace his socialist beliefs, and fulfils the romantic destiny sparked when their eyes met on the train. 

Drawing a direct line between burgeoning militarism and gangsterdom along with the amoral exploitations of an increasingly capitalist society, Kato makes his intentions clear by dropping a ninkyo eiga hero into a world of infinite corruptions in which he eventually becomes a defender of the poor. Kato’s striking composition and use of colour along with expressionistic imagery lend the air of legend implied by the title as Mine fights her way through the oppressions of her era as a figurehead for justice in an increasingly unjust society.


Fire Festival (火まつり, Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985)

By 1985 the Japanese economy was approaching its zenith yet along with increasing economic prosperity had come social change of which small-town Japan was either casualty or sacrificial victim. “Nigishima will stay as it is” declares the last holdout of an increasingly obsolete way of life in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s intense modernity drama, Fire Festival (火まつり, Himatsuri), a manly mountain man and animalistic force of nature by several metrics unsuited to life in the contemporary society into which he is ultimately unable to progress. 

There are many things which it seems have not changed in Nigishima for generations, one being the animosity between the cohorts of its bifurcated community, those who live by land and those who live by sea. Rural depopulation may have forced them to come closer but it has also increased their sense of mistrust while both industries continue to suffer in an economy which no longer prizes their humble rural output. Despite being catapulted into a promised modernity by the advent of the railway to great fanfare in 1959, it now seems that Nigishima cannot survive without a new road which could be paid for by the development of a marine park only mountain man Tatsuo (Kinya Kitaoji) owns the property right in the middle of the earmarked area and has hitherto refused to sell further increasing the tension between the two communities. 

Tatsuo is thought of, and thinks of himself, as a big man in the area quite literally it seems as part of the reason he enjoys this status is down to his being unusually well-endowed. He believes himself to have a special relationship with the mountain goddess, often joking to the other men about having a sexual relationship with her while sometimes describing her as his girlfriend. Several times he is mistaken for an animal, firstly by the boatman bringing his childhood sweetheart and sometime mistress Kimiko (Kiwako Taichi) back to the island who assumed he was a monkey crawling along the cliff edge thoughtlessly throwing rocks at them, while he often gambols through the forest whooping like some kind of Tarzan. Entirely unreconstructed, his worldview is patriarchal and misogynistic. All of his banter with the other men is sexual, constantly referring to his penis while greeting his friends with lewd hand gestures thrusting his fist into his pocket as if waving with an erection. The cure for offending the goddess he tells his young protege Ryota (Ryota Nakamoto) is to drop his trousers and display his manhood, Tatsuo strangely believing this would appease her for taking wood from a sacred tree or killing without permission. 

Smearing the blood of a sacrificial animal over his chest and forearms he dedicates the death to the goddess, a gesture he will repeat in the film’s violent and tragic conclusion yet there is also arrogance in his conduct as if he believes himself above natural law, protected as the goddess’ favourite even as he describes himself as “suffocated” by the women in his life from his mother and five older sisters all of whom indulge him to his wife, kids, and mistresses. He has trained his dogs to hunt wild boar without the use of guns in a method he admits even other hunters describe as “cruel” while breaking a local taboo shooting monkeys in the forest well aware of nature red in tooth and claw. As such, there is little nobility to be seen in his determination to preserve this already obsolete way of life. His virility maybe contrasted with that of the ageing land broker Yamakawa (Norihei Miki) and his failed attempts to bed sex worker Kimiko who tricks him into paying off her debts, but he at least knows the way the wind is blowing explaining to her that towns such as Nigishima survive only through things like marine parks or hotels or even nuclear power plants. Without the road, the town will die. 

Yet in 1959 they were told the railway would save them and it seems it did not. Tatsuo’s love making with Kimiko in a boat borrowed from a treacherous fisherman who later agrees to sail it transgressively into sacred waters is intercut with memories of the rail line’s opening ceremony, two teenagers who might have been them or at least of around the same age ride an elephant on the jetty while the townspeople arrange themselves into the formation of the character for “celebration” captured by the aerial photographer above. For Tatsuo as a boy, was this a rebirth of Nigishima or the beginning of its demise as the coming modernity began to eat away at its foundations? 

The fire festival is “for men”, according to Tatsuo, “to drive out evil spirits”, his manliness getting the better of him as he disrupts the proceedings to attack a man he accuses of having brought “false fire”. These are the lessons he teaches to surrogate son Ryota whose devotion to him borders on the homoerotic, Tatsuo cradling him during the climactic rain storm and he seeming to develop a fascination for Kimiko as a kind of indirect fixation. Ryota has learned Tatsuo’s chauvinism mimicking his lewd hand gestures and swaggering walk, his cruelty in sacrificing 1000 yen to trick Yamakawa into injuring his hand in a bear trap, and his arrogance ensuring that his problematic masculinity will survive into another generation presumably no more capable of halting the march of modernity than he has been. Tatsuo poisons the waters with fuel oil which as one of the greek chorus of fish wives points out does not catch fire, Tatsuo himself smouldering until an inevitable explosion. Receiving some kind of epiphany during a mystical congress with the goddess in the middle of a storm, he knows what he must do and accepts that he cannot progress into the modern society. Smoulderingly intense in its small-town animosity and primeval sensibilities, Yanagimachi’s poetic tragedy of futility and the broken promises of a badly distributed modernity may accept the the sacrifice but mourns it all the same. 


Fire Festival screens at the BFI on 20/27 December as part of BFI Japan.

Clip (English subtitles)

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)