The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

blue sky maiden dvd coverYasuzo Masumura is generally remembered for dark, erotic and disturbing explorations of human behaviour but the early part of his career was marked by a more hopeful innocence and a less cynical yet still cutting humour. His debut, Kisses, was very much in the mould of the youth movie of the day but its themes were both more innocent and more controversial as a boy and girl bond after running into each other at the prison where both of their parents are serving time. Marked by darkness as it is, the worldview of Kisses is much kinder than Masumura would later allow as the pair of lovers seem to shake off their respective concerns to embrace the youthful joy and boundless freedom young love can offer.

The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Aozora Musume), Masumura’s second film, does something similar but with added bite. Working for the first time with actress Ayako Wakao who would later become something of a muse, Masumura takes a typical melodrama storyline – the returned illegitimate child treated as a poor relation by her own “family”, and turns it into a genial comedy in which Wakao’s charming heroine shines brightly despite the often cruel and heartless treatment she receives. As far as the family drama goes, the genre was still in its heyday and the family unit itself fairly unquestioned yet as Masumura shows times were changing and perhaps the family is not the bedrock it initially seems to be.

18 year old Yuko (Ayako Wakao) stands at the gates of adulthood. Taking a last photo in school uniform with her high school friends as they prepare for graduation, Yuko expresses her nervousness about being sent to Tokyo to live with the family of a father she barely knows while her friends worry about getting married or getting stuck in their tiny village all alone respectively. Tragedy strikes when the girls’ teacher arrives on a bicycle and informs them that Yuko’s grandmother has been taken ill. On her death bed, the grandmother reveals the reason Yuko is the only one of her father’s four children to be raised in the country is not a concern for her health, but that she is illegitimate. Yuko’s father, unhappy in his marriage, fell in love with his secretary (Kuniko Miyake) who later gave birth to Yuko, but he was already married with two children and so Yuko’s mother went to Manchuria leaving her to be raised in secret in the country.

Having nowhere else to go, Yuko arrives at her father’s large Western style house to be greeted coldly by her half-siblings, and treated as a maid by her still angry step-mother while her father (Kinzo Shin) is away on business. It has to be said that this model middle class family are an extremely unpleasant bunch. Step-mother Tatsuko (Sadako Sawamura) is shrewish and embittered while oldest daughter Teruko (Noriko Hodaka) spends all her time chasing wealthy boyfriends (but failing to win them because she’s just as mean as her mother). The oldest brother (Yuji Shinagawa) idles away in a hipster jazz band while the youngest boy, Hiroshi (Yukihiko Iwatare), is rude and boisterous but later bonds with his new big sister when she is the only one to really bother interacting with him.

The Ono household has always been an unhappy one. Yuko’s father married his wife after being bamboozled into it by an overbearing boss trying to offload his difficult daughter. Feeling trapped and avoiding going home he fell in love with a kind woman at work, had an affair, and wanted to marry her but wasn’t strong enough to break off not only from his unwanted family but also from his career in pursuing personal happiness. By Masumura’s logic, it’s this failure to follow one’s heart which has poisoned the Ono family ruining not only the lives of Tatsuko and the children who have no respect for their father or capacity for real human feeling (as Yuko later tells them), but also that of Yuko’s poor mother  whose life has been one of constant suffering after being unfairly jettisoned by a man who was bold enough to have an affair, but not to defy social conventions and leave an unhappy home.

Yuko herself, however, refuses to allow her life to be ruined by the failings of others. Looking up at the bright blue sky with her teacher (Kenji Sugawara), she learns to create her own stretch of heaven if only in her own mind. Though others might have fought and complained at being forced into the role of maid in what is her own family home, Yuko bears her new circumstances with stoicism and good humour. Thanks to her kindness and enthusiasm, the family maid, Yae (Chocho Miyako), is quickly on her side and if Teruko’s latest target, Hirooka (Keizo Kawasaki) starts to prefer the “new servant girl” his defection is completely understandable. Unlike later Masumura heroines, Yuko’s “revenge” is total yet constructive. She refuses to be cowed by unkindness, remains pure hearted in the face of cruelty, and resolves to find her own happiness and encourage others to do the same. With a few cutting words offered kindly, Yuko gets to the heart of the Onos, essentially reminding her father that all of this unhappiness is his own fault – he made his bed 20 years ago, now he needs to lie it and be a full-time husband and father to the family of lonely misfits he created in the absence of love.

Light and bright and colourful, The Blue Sky Maiden is among Masumura’s more cheerful films, not least because it does seem to believe that true happiness is possible. Yuko does not so much defy social convention as ignore it. She lives openly and without rancour or regret. She takes things as she finds them and people (aside from the Onos) are good to her because she is good to them. Though Masumura’s later work would become increasingly dark and melancholy, Yuko bears out many of his most central themes in her steadfast claim to her own individuality and equally steadfast commitment to enabling the happiness of others in defiance of prevailing social codes.


Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Ko Nakahira, 1964)

© 1964 Nikkatsu CorporationDespite being among the directors who helped to usher in what would later be called the Japanese New Wave, Ko Nakahira remains in relative obscurity with only his landmark movie of the Sun Tribe era, Crazed Fruit, widely seen abroad. Like the other directors of his generation Nakahira served his time in the studio system working on impersonal commercial projects but by 1964 which saw the release of another of his most well regarded films Only on Mondays, Nakahira had begun to give free reign to experimentation much to the studio boss’ chagrin. Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Suna no Ue no Shokubutsu-gun), adapted from the novel by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, puts an absurd, surreal twist on the oft revisited salaryman midlife crisis as its conflicted hero muses on the legacy of his womanising father while indulging in a strange ménage à trois with two sisters, one of whom to he comes to believe he may also be related to.

After a brief prologue in which our hero, cosmetics salesman Ichiro Igi (Noboru Nakaya), imagines a scenario for a novel in which a dying husband becomes so jealous of the man that may succeed him in his wife’s life that he sets about plotting to make her the weapon of that very man’s destruction, Igi heads to his regular barber and longtime family friend where he takes the time to probe him about his late father’s womanising habits. Igi’s father died young at only 34 for years of age, three years younger than the age Igi is now. His father’s spitting image, Igi cannot help seeing him everywhere he goes and feels unable to evade his ongoing influence, almost as if he were possessed by his father’s (un)departed spirit.

The major preoccupation Igi has is that his wife (Yukiko Shimazaki) may have slept with his father before they were married while she was just a teenager. The barber tells him he’s pretty sure not, but Igi cannot let the idea go and repeatedly brings it up with his wife, creating discord in the family home. Meeting a precocious schoolgirl at the Marine Tower one evening, Igi finds himself taking her to a hotel and deflowering her even though she begins to resist him at the last minute. The girl, Akiko (Mieko Nishio), then makes a strange request of him – she wants Igi to seduce and “hurt” her older sister Kyoko (Kazuko Inano) whose sanctimonious attitude she can no longer stand. Igi does indeed visit the bar where Kyoko works as a hostess and embarks on an intense affair with her but Akiko’s pleas to “hurt” her sister are complicated by Kyoko’s masochistic tendencies and Igi’s descent into a kind of madness.

Beginning with the painting by Paul Klee which gives the film its name, Nakahira asks us to imagine what would happen if a large dash of red were suddenly to appear, disrupting the comforting harmony of Klee’s perfectly matched colours. The discomforting redness does dutifully appear as strangely shaped squares on the canvas but the symbolic value of the colour is felt throughout the black and white narrative from the dark stain of Akiko’s broken maidenhead to the affectation of her lipstick and constant references to red seas and suns.

Though Igi’s world may have seemed just as perfectly ordered as Klee’s painting from the outside, his constant preoccupations with his father become the disruptive influence which leads to all of the redness later leaking in. Haunted by his father as he is, seeing his face everywhere from train windows to the barber shop mirror, Igi’s attempt at a plot for a murder mystery takes on a strangely Oedipal quality as we begin to wonder if it’s his father rather than Igi himself who has assumed the role of the “protagonist”, leaving a time bomb for his wayward son, the inheritor of his woman, just as Igi laid out in his prologue. Bizarre reality or another symptom of Igi’s increasingly fractured mind, the plot seems likely to succeed at least in a sense as Igi declines into a dishevelled mess, prone to hallucinations and uncertain visions.

Nakahira gives us several of these as Igi panics and struggles with a key only to open a door into bright white light and nothingness or another in which he and Kyoko dine in an empty restaurant which is suddenly filled with the noisy chatter of other diners. Strange touches such as the German beerhall with a Spanish guitarist, or the odd peepshow in which Igi and his two friends take on the appearance of demons or impassive Buddhist statues thanks to the light reflected into their eyes, add to the unbalanced atmosphere as do the frequent closeups of lips and hands, and the symbolic value of seeds never meant to be planted which nevertheless flower at an unintended moment. Shooting in black and white, Nakahira begins with a colour sequence featuring the abstract artwork with occasional flashes of colour as well as voice over and occasional intertitle-style captions adding to the absurdist atmosphere.

A surreal and complex psychological exploration of sex, power, obsession, identity, and legacy Flora on the Sand finds Nakahira flexing his experimental mussels for a drama rife with ambiguity and strangeness. Sadly this brand of innovation was not entirely welcome at Nikkatsu head offices and so he found himself left out in the cold eventually ending up in Hong Kong making action movies for Shaw Brothers. Despite some later success at international festivals, Nakahira’s work remains sadly neglected but the unusual degree of sophistication and almost playful atmosphere seen in Flora on the Sand make him worthy of attention as more than just an almost was of the rising New Wave.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (探偵事務所23 くたばれ悪党ども, Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

detective-bureau-2-3Before Seijun Suzuki pushed his luck too far with the genre classic Branded to Kill, he bided his time adding his own particular brand of zany absurdism to Nikkatsu’s standard cool guy fights crooks and gets girl formula. Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (探偵事務所23 くたばれ悪党ども, Tantei Jimusho 23: Kutabare Akutodomo) is just one of these efforts. Made around the time of Suzuki’s major turning points such as the similarly named The Bastard, and relatively better known Youth of the Beast, the film follows Nikkatsu’s standard pattern but allows frequent Suzuki leading man and Nikkatsu A-lister Joe Shishido to swan about the place in grand style, effortlessly manipulating everything and everyone to come out on top once again. Filled with snappy dialogue and painted with an irony filled noirish aesthetic, Detective Bureau 2-3 does not care about its plot, and wants you to know you shouldn’t either.

The action kicks off when a low level yakuza, Manabe (Tamio Kawachi), is captured by the police following a bloody turf battle. Manabe isn’t talking, the police can’t hold him much longer, and a bunch of gangsters from all factions are already waiting outside to eliminate him as soon as he’s released. Enter Tajima (Jo Shishido) – private detective and head of Detective Bureau 2-3. Managing to convince his “buddies” in the regular police that he’s exactly the right guy to sort all of this out, Tajima constructs an undercover ID, stages a daring rescue of Manabe, and worms his way into his gang to find out what’s going down in yakuza land. Whilst there he begins romancing the boss’ cold hearted girl and attempting to find out the whereabouts of a cache of stolen weaponry before getting all of the bad guys together in one place so the police can arrest them with maximum efficiency.

Even more so than Suzuki’s other films from the period, Detective Bureau 2-3 moves like a rocket with barely anytime to follow the plot even if there was one. Tajima is like some cartoon hero, half Lupin III and half Top Cat, always landing on his feet or speeding away from danger in a swanky sports car. Even when trapped (along with his love interest) inside a burning basement with no means of escape, he comes up with an ingenious solution to get the all important evidence out there in the hope that his police buddies will come and rescue him. Tajima is the guy you can always rely on to get you out of a fix, even if it gets you into an even bigger fix.

Unexpectedly, Detective Bureau 2-3 also has a mild Christmas theme as the seedy dive bar Tajima and the crooks hang out in attempts to get into the festive spirit. This is a world of gamblers and showgirls where the glamour of the smokescreen underworld undercuts the less savoury aspects the men who people it. Suzuki gives us a fair number of cabaret numbers set against the Christmassy decorations and creates an awkward situation for Tajima as his on and off cabaret star girlfriend threatens to blow his cover, even dragging him up on stage for a pointed duet about useless boyfriends who never keep their promises. Actually that all kind of works for him too because it annoys the boss’ girl, who is definitely starting to at least develop complicated feelings towards him. Trapped with her cruel yet supposedly impotent gang boss boyfriend-cum-jailer, she’s about eight different kinds of frustrated and has been waiting for someone like Tajima to come and set her free (in about eight different ways), so all of this is really going very well for him.

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! is just as zany and frenetic as the title suggests, moving from one bizarre action set piece to another filled with exploding coke bottles and weaponised cement trucks all while Shishido grins wildly and poses in his sharp suit and trench coat. Inconsequential, yes, but Detective Bureau 2-3 never claims to be anything other than cartoonish fun as Shishido and co offer up a series of wacky one liners and breeze through the action with an effortless kind of glee. Filled with Suzuki’s visual flair, Detective Bureau 2-3 is among his lesser efforts but is undeniably good fun and another colourful outing for the increasingly cool Shishido.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Enjo (炎上, Kon Ichikawa, 1958)

a0212807_23483150Kon Ichikawa turns his unflinching eyes to the hypocrisy of the post-war world and its tormented youth in adapting one of Yukio Mishima’s most acclaimed works, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Inspired by the real life burning of the Kinkaku-ji temple in 1950 by a “disturbed” monk, Enjo (炎上, AKA Conflagration / Flame of Torment) examines the spiritual and moral disintegration of a young man obsessed with beauty but shunned by society because of a disability.

The film begins near its ending as a young boy with a monk’s haircut sits in a police interrogation room. He was found passed out in the woods behind a burning temple with two knife wounds on his chest plus the knife and a packet of matches lying next to him. The police would quite like to know why he, obviously, set fire to one of Japan’s most popular historical monuments, but the boy refuses to speak.

At this point we enter a series of extended flashbacks as the boy, Goichi (Raizo Ichikawa), enters the Soen Temple after his father’s death as an apprentice to the head monk there, Tayama, who was a friend of his father’s. The assistant chief monk is unhappy about this as he’s long wanted his own son to be accepted as a novice with an eye to one day inheriting the temple as the current head monk is not married and has no son of his own. When the other monks find out that the reason Goichi rarely speaks is his stammer, they begin to doubt his suitability to become a representative of their organisation.

Having grown up in a temple, Goichi idolised his father and wants nothing other than to become a monk himself. His father also loved the golden temple, “Shukaku-ji” more than anything else in the world and so it has come to symbolise a shining pillar of purity for the young Goichi who will stop at nothing to protect it. Simply being allowed to be near it is enough for him. That the temple survived the wartime air raids and subsequent chaos is nothing short of a miracle, if not proof of the gods’ love for it.

Yet, Goichi burns it down. He destroys this thing that he loved above all else, so why did he do it? The temple is too good for the world, too pure to be permitted to exist. Simply put, we don’t deserve it. One of Goichi’s earliest attempts to protect the sacred environs of the monument sees him physically push a woman away from its doors. The woman, dressed in a very modern style, had been having an argument with a GI and though it originally looks as if Goichi may come to her rescue it’s the temple he runs for. After the woman lands flat on her back, the GI thanks him for saving them “a lot of trouble with the baby”.

After having committed an unintended sin in defending his beloved temple from being defiled by an impure woman, Goichi has the urge to confess but never quite brings himself to do it. This begins to create a rift between himself and his mentor the head priest. Though the priest had been his champion, Goichi always doubted that he really saw him as a possible successor because of his stammer and only now realises that the priest has lost faith in him because of his cowardliness in not informing him of the incident with woman outside Shukaku-ji. After this slight the priest goes on supporting Goichi but not with the same warmth as before and Goichi eventually comes to resent him.

The priest has feet of clay – though it’s not unusual for priests to marry and have families, Tayama has nominally dedicated himself to the temple only, leaving himself with a problem as to its succession. However, Goichi discovers that the priest has a mistress in one of the most popular geisha houses in Kyoto. The monks are some of the wealthiest people around thanks to pimping out Shukaku-ji as a major tourist attraction and Tayama has already forgotten himself, becoming lost in the “worldliness” necessary to manage a religious establishment which is actually a lucrative business enterprise. The temple is itself defiled, prostituted, by the very people who are supposed to be protecting it and the proceeds fed back into funding an “immoral” lifestyle for its “CEO”.

This hypocrisy adds to the injustice dealt Goichi by the uncharitable nature of the monks who also, like just about everyone else, shun him because of his stammer. Though he never stammers reading the sutras and can even speak English plainly, his lifelong stutter has left him reluctant to speak and he finds only one friend at the temple. Later he meets another bad tempered man with a lame leg and the two develop an odd bond based on their shared “deformities”. Kashiwagi (Tatsuya Nakadai) is at odds with the world and encourages Goichi further onto the course of mistaken anger born of insecurity. He urges Goichi to test Tayama’s true virtue by constantly provoking him which only leads to a further fall in Goichi’s fortunes. However, Kashiwagi is also shown up for a hypocrite who exploits other people’s reactions to his disability for his own advantage.

All of Goichi’s idols fall. His parents – his mother an adulteress and his father a sickly heartbroken monk, his mentor a lecherous hypocrite and his friend a self hating coward. The world he saw in Shukaku-ji can never exist, humans are fallible and always will be including Goichi himself who is tormented by dark thoughts. An idealistic absolutist, the existence of Shukaku-ji in this imperfect world becomes to much for him to bear.

Ichikawa tells his story in a fractured, dreamlike way full of gentle dissolves as one period segues into another without warning. Goichi’s memories become more disparate and keenly focussed at the same time as his spiritual health deteriorates. Ichikawa tries to capture some of Goichi’s inner claustrophobia through the oppressive architecture of the temple environment but can’t get close to the pervading sense of dread in Mishima’s novel. Enjo is the dissection of one man’s self immolation in the fire of his own spiritual disintegration but is also a condemnation of the corrupting modern world which enables such pollution to take place and its tale of the doomed innocence of the idealist is one which is retold throughout history.


I can’t seem to find any video clips of this film, but as a side note 炎上 is current Japanese netslang for a flamewar so I did find a bunch of other “interesting” stuff.

Here’s a short video featuring clips from several of Ichikawa’s films including Enjo which you’ll be able to spot what with the temple on fire and everything…

The Thick-Walled Room (壁あつき部屋, Masaki Kobayashi, 1956)

4473285465_b5cf3a248fThere’s a persistent myth that Japanese cinema avoids talking about the war directly and only addresses the war part of post-war malaise obliquely but if you look at the cinema of the early ‘50s immediately after the end of the occupation this is not the case at all. Though the strict censorship measures in place during the occupation often made referring to the war itself, the rise of militarism in the ‘30s or the American presence after the war’s end impossible, once these measures were relaxed a number of film directors who had direct experience with the conflict began to address what they felt about modern Japan. One of these directors was Masaki Kobayashi whose trilogy, The Human Condition, would come to be the best example of these films. This early effort, The Thick-Walled Room (壁あつき部屋, Kabe Atsuki Heya), scripted by Kobo Abe is one of the first attempts to tell the story of the men who’d returned from overseas bringing a troubled legacy with them.

The Thick-Walled Room is set inside an American detention centre for soldiers who have been declared B or C class war criminals. In essence, these are the rank and file men who were “just following orders” or committed random acts of desperation because they believed it was necessary to survive. The men are kept fairly well in the prison, they aren’t treated cruelly though they are sent for forced labour in a stone quarry. The main protagonist of the story, Yamashita, insists on maintaining a beard as a form of mini rebellion (quipping that he’s trying to grow a rope to hang himself). He feels betrayed by a superior officer,  who ordered him to commit an atrocity and then cut some kind of deal to deny it afterwards and get off scot free – he returned to Yamashita’s home town, has married and is lording it over Yamashita’s own family as some kind of devious landlord.

The others in the cell include a young romantic dreaming of a girl he met in the war who, it turns out, has long forgotten him and is now living in the pleasure quarters. The film also doesn’t shy away from the other implications of the war with a Korean soldier also among the detained who laments what’s happening both to the country of his birth which is now once again at war and his adopted country tearing itself apart in guilt and defeat. When asked whether he’s from North or South Korea the soldier hesitates, perhaps offended by the question, and simply replies “I am Korean” before walking off. Others dream of home and wives and families and this whole thing being over. However, they’re all at the mercy of two governments – the Americans and the Japanese and though they believe they may finally be released when the treaty is signed, it’s never that simple.

Masaki Kobayashi begins the themes he would return to over and over again – the depths of human cruelty, repression, indifference, vengeance. These are man who risked their lives for a god only to find he was a man and nothing more. They’ve come back alive, but different. Not only must they deal with the shame of defeat and now being prisoners of their enemies but also with entire war guilt of a nation. These are just the little guys, they did as they were told even if they didn’t want to or they killed and stole to survive. They have done terrible things to those who had no role in the conflict, this is not in dispute, and they pay a heavy spiritual toll for those actions. The people who ordered and orchestrated these deliberate reigns of terror, however, have largely escaped or lied and cheated their way out of the hangman’s noose.

Kobayashi uses a lot of expressionist techniques more reminiscent of silent cinema than of the more recent films of the era. Whilst the men are inside the cell there is nothing outside it, the war still exists in here and in their minds. We start off leaning on the walls of the cell only to find ourselves thrown back into the heat of the jungle and finally thrown out again after encountering our dramatic event. The faces of the dead pass in montages across the screen crying “murderer” and “war criminal” in a constant vision of recrimination. Even if they are eventually released, these men will be in prison for the rest of their lives.

In fact, the film was so controversial that the release was held back until 1956 even though the American occupation was technically over before it was completed. Though it isn’t the most accomplished of Kobayashi’s films, The Thick-Walled Room includes many of the ideas and motifs that he would return to throughout his career. Kobayashi wants us to see things as they are and were from all angles. He sympathises with these men but doesn’t excuse what they or the nation as a whole has done, as he would continue to do he seeks a way forward that acknowledges the past but will bring us to a more compassionate future.


The Thick-Walled Room is the first of four early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.