Oar (櫂, Hideo Gosha, 1985)

oar posterUntil the later part of his career, Hideo Gosha had mostly been known for his violent action films centring on self destructive men who bore their sadnesses with macho restraint. During the 1980s, however, he began to explore a new side to his filmmaking with a string of female centred dramas focussing on the suffering of women which is largely caused by men walking the “manly way” of his earlier movies. Partly a response to his regular troupe of action stars ageing, Gosha’s new focus was also inspired by his failed marriage and difficult relationship with his daughter which convinced him that women can be just as devious and calculating as men. 1985’s Oar (櫂, Kai) is adapted from the novel by Tomiko Miyao – a writer Gosha particularly liked and identified with whose books also inspired Onimasa and The Geisha. Like Onimasa, Oar also bridges around twenty years of pre-war history and centres around a once proud man discovering his era is passing, though it finds more space for his long suffering wife and the children who pay the price for his emotional volatility.

Kochi, 1914 (early Taisho), Iwago (Ken Ogata) is a kind hearted man living beyond his means. Previously a champion wrestler, he now earns his living as a kind of procurer for a nearby geisha house, chasing down poor girls and selling them into prostitution, justifying himself with the excuse that he’s “helping” the less fortunate who might starve if it were not for the existence of the red light district. He dislikes this work and finds it distasteful, but shows no signs of stopping. At home he has a wife and two sons whom he surprises one day by returning home with a little girl he “rescued” at the harbour after seeing her beaten by man who, it seemed, was trying to sell her to Chinese brokers who are notorious for child organ trafficking.

Iwago names the girl “Kiku” thanks to the chrysanthemums on her kimono and entrusts her to his irritated wife, Kiwa (Yukiyo Toake), who tries her best but Kiku is obviously traumatised by her experiences, does not speak, and takes a long time to become used to her new family circumstances. Parallel to his adoption of Kiku, Iwago is also working on a sale of a girl of a similar age who ends up staying in the house for a few days before moving to the red light district. Toyo captures Kiwa’s heart as she bears her sorry fate stoically, pausing only to remark on her guilt at eating good white rice three times a day at Iwago’s knowing that her siblings are stuck at home with nothing.

Iwago’s intentions are generally good, but his “manly” need for control and his repressed emotionality proceed to ruin his family’s life. He may say that poverty corrupts a person’s heart and his efforts are intended to help prevent the birth of more dysfunctional families, but deep down he finds it hard to reconcile his distasteful occupation with his traditional ideas of masculine chivalry. Apparently “bored” with the long suffering Kiwa he fathers a child with another woman which he then expects her to raise despite the fact that she has already left the family home after discovering the affair. Predictably her love for him and for the children brings her home, but Iwago continues to behave in a domineering, masterly fashion which is unlikely to repair his once happy household.

Kiwa is the classic long suffering wife, bearing all of Iwago’s mistreatments with stoic perseverance until his blatant adultery sends her running from marriage to refuge at the home of her brother. Despite the pain and humilation, Kiwa still loves, respects, and supports her husband, remembering him as he once was rather than the angry, frustrated brute which he has become. Despite her original hesitance, Kiwa’s maternal warmth makes a true daughter of Kiku and keeps her bonded to the eldest and more sensitive of her two sons, Ryutaro, even if the loose cannon that is Kentaro follows in his step-father’s footsteps as an unpredictable punk. Her goodheartedness later extends to Iwago’s illegitimate daughter Ayako whom she raises as her own until Iwago cruelly decides to separate them. For all of Iwago’s bluster and womanising, ironically enough Kiwa truly is the only woman for him as he realises only when she determines to leave. Smashing the relics of his “manly” past – his wrestling photos and trophies, Iwago is forced to confront the fact that his own macho posturing has cost him the only thing he ever valued.

Gosha tones down the more outlandish elements which contributed to his reputation as a “vulgar” director but still finds space for female nudity and frank sexuality as Iwago uses and misuses the various women who come to him for help or shelter. More conventional in shooting style than some of Gosha’s other work from the period and lacking any large scale or dramatic fight scenes save for one climactic ambush, Oar acts more as a summation of Gosha’s themes up until the mid-80s – men destroy themselves through their need to be men but also through destroying the women who have little choice but to stand back and watch them do it. Unless, like Kiwa, they realise they have finally had enough.


Short clip from near the beginning of the film (no subtitles)

Tampopo (タンポポ, Juzo Itami, 1985)

tampopo posterSome people love ramen so much that the idea of a “bad” bowl hardly occurs to them – all ramen is, at least, ramen. Then again, some love ramen so much that it’s almost a religious experience, bound up with ritual and the need to do things properly. A brief vignette at the beginning of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (タンポポ) introduces us to one such ramen expert who runs through the proper way of enjoying a bowl of noodle soup which involves a lot of talking to your food whilst caressing it gently before finally consuming it with the utmost respect. Ramen is serious business, but for widowed mother Tampopo it’s a case of the watched pot never boiling. Thanks to a cowboy loner and a few other waifs and strays who eventually become friends and allies, Tampopo is about to get some schooling in the quest for the perfect noodle whilst the world goes on around her. Food becomes something used and misused but remains, ultimately, the source of all life and the thing which unites all living things.

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a middle-aged man with a fancy hat, and his truck mate Gun (Ken Watanabe), younger, tight white jeans and colourful neckerchief, have become ramen experts thanks to their road bound life. Taking a break during a heavy rain storm, the pair run into a little boy being beaten up by three others and, after scaring the assailants off, escort him into the ramen restaurant where he lives with his widowed mother, Tampopo. Goro and Gun get the stranger in town treatment, but decide to sit down and order a bowl each anyway before a getting into a fight with another diner. Despite her skills as a home cook, Tampopo’s ramen is distinctly second-rate which explains why her business isn’t taking off. Goro and Gun spend some time helping her figure out where she’s going wrong leading Tampopo to beg them to stay, or at least come back when they have time, and teach her what it takes to make the perfect bowl.

Essentially a hybrid between a western and a sports movie, Tampopo has its fair share of training montages as the titular heroine tries to improve her stamina by taking intensive runs, carrying heavy pots of water from one place to another, and constantly trying get her cooking time down to three minutes. The lone woman on the “ranch” that is her restaurant, Tampopo may not be contending with boisterous cattle, threatening neighbours, or disapproving townsfolk but she is being mentored to become her own master as much as anything else. Goro is her strong and silent teacher, but, like Shane, he’s a man not meant to be tied down and is essentially teaching her how to survive alone however painful it may be for him to leave.

This is a fairly radical idea in and of itself. Tampopo’s goal is not another marriage and a man to mind the ranch, but the creation of a successful business which will support both herself and her son built on genuine skills and a lot of hard work. Goro, a ramen aficionado, takes charge but ropes in a few other “experts” to help him including a ramen loving former doctor now living on the streets, the private chef of a wealthy man the gang saved when he almost choked on mochi, and the guy Goro fought with in the beginning who also happens to be a childhood friend of Tampopo nursing a lifelong crush on her.  From each of these men, as well as friendly (or not) rivalry with local competitors, Tampopo learns everything she needs to succeed including the confidence in herself to carry it through.

Whilst Tampopo and co. are busy figuring out the zen of ramen, Itami wanders off for a series of strange vignettes examining more general attitudes to food beginning with Koji Yakusho’s white suited, cinephile gangster who vows bloody murder on anyone daring to eat noisy snacks during the movie. The gangster and his moll eventually retreat to a hotel room where they find new and actually quite strange ways of using food to enhance their pleasure but their story leads us to others in the hotel from a young man stuck in a business meeting who shows up his less cultured colleagues with his culinary knowledge and either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you’re supposed to order the same as your boss lest you be implying his choice of dish is “wrong”, to a group of young women taking a class in the proper way to eat spaghetti. The instructor (played by veteran actress Mariko Okada), goes to great lengths to explain that it’s considered very uncouth to make any kind of noise whilst eating pasta, only for a westerner of undisclosed nationality to loudly slurp his noodles half way across the room.

While these two episodes showcase the ridiculousness of food etiquette, others take a more surreal direction such as in the strange episode of an old lady who likes to sneak into the local supermarket and torment the clerk by squeezing the fruits, cheeses, and pastries while he chases her round the shop. Here appetites are to be indulged, even if they’re strange, rather than suppressed in favour of someone else’s idea of the proper way to behave. Yet that doesn’t mean that food is something throwaway, to be consumed without thought – in fact, it’s the opposite as Goro’s tutelage of Tampopo shows. Skills alone are not enough, achieving the zen of cookery is a matter of touch and sensitivity, of shared efforts and interconnected strife. Like a dandelion blowing in the wind, Tampopo’s ramen shop gives as it receives, generously and without pretension.


Available now in the UK/US courtesy of Criterion Collection!

Original 1985 trailer (English subtitles)

Onimasa (鬼龍院花子の生涯, Hideo Gosha, 1982)

onimasaWhen AnimEigo decided to release Hideo Gosha’s Taisho/Showa era yakuza epic Onimasa (鬼龍院花子の生涯, Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai), they opted to give it a marketable but ill advised tagline – A Japanese Godfather. Misleading and problematic as this is, the Japanese title Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai also has its own mysterious quality in that it means “The Life of Hanako Kiryuin” even though this, admittedly hugely important, character barely appears in the film. We follow instead her adopted older sister, Matsue (Masako Natsume), and her complicated relationship with our title character, Onimasa, a gang boss who doesn’t see himself as a yakuza but as a chivalrous man whose heart and duty often become incompatible. Reteaming with frequent star Tatsuya Nakadai, director Hideo Gosha gives up the fight a little, showing us how sad the “manly way” can be on one who finds himself outplayed by his times. Here, anticipating Gosha’s subsequent direction, it’s the women who survive – in large part because they have to, by virtue of being the only ones to see where they’re headed and act accordingly.

Beginning with its end, Onimasa’s story finishes with the discovery of the body of his only biological child, Hanako (Kaori Tagasugi ), in 1940. Found bled out and alone in the red light district of Kyoto, the suspected cause of death is a miscarriage. Tragically, our heroine, Matsue, arrives only a couple of hours too late after having spent years searching for her younger sister. We then skip back to 1918 when Matsue was adopted by Onimasa and his rather cool wife, alongside another boy who later ran away. An intelligent girl, Matsue earns her adopted father’s respect but neither he nor his wife, Uta (Shima Iwashita), are particularly interested in the emotional side of raising children. Things change when one of Onimasa’s mistresses gives birth to his biological child who awakens a sense of paternal interest in the ageing gangster beyond rule and possession.

Onimasa’s behaviour is frequently strange and contradictory. Originally intending to adopt only a boy, he and his wife come away from a poor family with two of their children, only for the son to run away home. Having picked her out like a puppy in a pet store window, Onimasa views Matsue as an inalienable possession. When a man arrives and wants to marry her, he goes crazy assuming the man must have been sleeping with her behind his back (despite the fact that this man, Tanabe (Eitaro Ozawa), has only just been released from prison where Onimasa had himself dispatched Matsue to visit him). Exclaiming that Matsue is “his”, has always been “his”, and no one else’s, he forces Tanabe to cut off his finger yakuza style to swear Matsue’s honour is still intact. However, this need for total control manifests itself in a less than fatherly way when he later tries to rape Matsue and is only brought to his senses when she threatens to cut her own throat with a broken glass. Despite this act of madness which he tries to justify with it somehow being for her own good, Matsue remains a dutiful daughter to both of her adopted parents.

Matsue’s innate refinement and reserve contrast’s strongly with Onimasa’s loose cannon nature. Commenting on the long history of “honourable” cinematic yakuza, Onimasa embraces an odd combination of traditions in believing himself to be the embodiment of chivalry – standing up for the oppressed and acting in the interests of justice, yet also subservient to his lord and walking with a swagger far beyond his true reach. All of this contributes to his ongoing problems which begin with a petty clan dispute over a dogfight which sees a rival leaving town in a hurry only to return and raise hell years later. Similarly, when his boss sends him in to “discourage” strike action, the union leader’s reasonable objections which point out the conflicts with Onimasa’s doctrine of chivalry and imply he’s little more than a lapdog, have a profound effect on his life. Severing his ties with his clan and attempting to go it alone, Onimasa does so in a more “honourable” way – no longer will he engage in harmful practices such as forced prostitution no matter how profitable they may be, but old disagreements never die easy and it’s a stupid ancient argument which threatens to bring his old fashioned world crashing down.

Despite concessions to the bold new Taisho era which saw Western fashions flooding into traditional culture from Onimasa’s trademark hat to the record players and whiskey glasses clashing with his sliding doors and tatami mat floors, Onimasa’s world is a childishly innocent one where honour and justice rule. Despite this he often excludes his own behaviour – one minute turning down the offer of his rival’s woman to pay a debt with her body, but later attempting to rape a young woman who had been his daughter in a drunken bid for a kind of droit du seigneur. The times are changing, it’s just that Onimasa’s traditionalist mind can’t see it. Tragically trying to rescue his daughter from a situation it turns out she had no desire to be rescued from he eventually spies the writing on the wall and puts down his sword, defeated and demoralised. Tragically, it seems Hanako may have needed him still though her rescue arrives too late to be of use.

The Onimasa family line ends here, as does this particular strand of history under the darkening skies of 1940. Out goes Taisho era openness and optimism for the eventual darkness of the militarist defeat. Matsue, now a widow – her left wing intellectual husband another victim of her father’s mistakes rather than political stringency, remains the sole source of light in her shining white kimono and pretty parasol even as she’s forced to identify the body of the sister she failed to save. The life of Hanako was a sad one, trapped by her father’s ideology and finally destroyed by her own attempts to escape it. Fittingly, she barely features in her own tale, a peripheral figure in someone else’s story. Slightly lurid and occasionally sleazy, Onimasa is another workmanlike effort from Gosha but makes the most of his essential themes as its accidental “hero” is forced to confront the fact that his core ideology has robbed him of true happiness, caused nothing but pain to the women in his life, and eventually brought down not only his personal legacy but that of everything that he had tried to build. The “manly way” is a trap, only Matsue with her patience backed up by a newfound steel inspired by her cool mother, Uta, is left behind but is now free to pursue life on her own terms and, presumably, make more of a success of it.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)