Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

1951’s Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Ginza Kesho) is often said to mark a kind of rebirth in the career of director Mikio Naruse whose output in the 1940s was perhaps unfairly denigrated not least by Naruse himself. As in much of his golden age work and in anticipation of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Ginza’s heroine is a resilient bar hostess whose brief hopes of escape through romance are doomed to failure, but it’s also, like the slightly later Tokyo Profile (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1953) and Tales of Ginza (Yuzo Kawashima, 1955) an ode to the upscale district and all the defeated hopes of its illusionary glitz and glamour. 

Yukiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), the heroine, is a single-mother approaching middle age and working as a hostess in a Ginza bar. Her landlady who runs a nagauta school on the ground floor and constantly complains about her feckless though goodnatured unemployed husband seems to think she could do better, pointing out that she is an educated woman who seems slightly out of place in the rundown backstreets of this otherwise aspirational area. Even for educated women, however, there may not be many other opportunities in the straitened and socially conservative post-war economy especially for those without connections, and Yukiko also needs to provide for her young son Haruo (Yoshihiro Nishikubo), born out of wedlock after an affair with a customer with whom she had fallen in love but abandoned her when she became pregnant. 

As a slightly older woman who has been working at the Bel Ami bar for many years, seemingly from war to occupation, Yukiko is both looked up to by the younger women and resented as a stern older sister who does not approve of the way some of them ply their trade. She’s taken one, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), who often babysits for her, under her wing, cautioning her against making the same mistakes that she once made in taking the kinds of men that come into the bar at their word. “Men are all animals” she warns her, supporting her desire not to give in to her parents’ attempts to arrange for her not a marriage but a “position” as a mistress. Unlike Yukiko, Kyoko still has hope of leaving the Ginza bar world behind to become a respectable wife even if those hopes are fading with the relative unlikelihood of finding a “good” man with a salary good enough to support a wife who is not already married and can be understanding of her bar girl past. 

The bar world may be on the fringes of the sex trade, but the bar girls are not necessarily sex workers even if some of the younger women are clearly engaging in the kinds of casual sex work of which Yukiko clearly disapproves even while not against consensual romantic liaisons. For her own part, she finds herself in the awkward situation of a continuing non-relationship with a failed businessman, Fujimura (Masao Mishima), who was fairly wealthy during the war but apparently no longer. Yukiko attributes this to him being in someway too good to prosper, though having money in the war which disappeared afterwards perhaps implies the opposite. She does not love him and seems to find his presence a little irritating, but feels indebted because he stood by her when she was pregnant and alone. In any case, he has a wife (whom he apparently resents) and children (whom he claims to adore) and so she feels at best conflicted, especially as the tables have turned and it’s him now constantly asking her for money. Money is not something Yukiko has a lot of, but she isn’t mean and often consents to losing it with a resigned shrug as she does by taking on Kyoko’s bar debt after a customer runs out on the bill and then tricks Yukiko into buying more drinks while waiting for a “friend” to arrive. 

Men, it seems, will always be predatory and unreliable. On hearing from her boss and longtime friend that the bar is in trouble and may have to close, Yukiko ends up acting on an introduction from an acquaintance, Shizue (Ranko Hanai), to meet a “stingy” industrialist who had expressed an interest in her. Shizue has escaped the bar world by becoming a wealthy man’s mistress and with it has claimed a kind of independence. He splits his time between Tokyo and Osaka, leaving her free to do whatever she likes (including meeting other men) for most of her time with none of the strings that go with being a wife. Yukiko is perhaps too “pure” for that kind of arrangement, hinting at the Ginza paradox that only those who learn to accept a certain level of complicity can ever truly be happy there. She agrees to meet Kanno (Eijiro Tono), the businessman, in order to ask him to “invest” in the bar, suggesting they talk things over in a coffeeshop while he tries to pull her into various shady establishments before pushing her into a warehouse and attempting to rape her to get his money’s worth. Yukiko escapes and resolves not to see him again. After all, the point of getting the money to keep the bar open was precisely to avoid having to make arrangements with men like Kanno. 

It’s Shizue, however, who later gives her a last shot at escape when she introduces her to her “true love”, Ishikawa (Yuji Hori), making a brief trip into the city. Shizue can’t entertain him herself because her patron is in town and so entrusts him to Yukiko with the strict instruction not to try it on. Despite herself, however, Yukiko becomes fond of him, reassuming something of a past persona in engaging in intellectual conversation, once again an educated, middle-class woman rather than a bar hostess used to telling men what they want to hear. She has been warned, however, that Ishikawa hates anything “low culture” which is why Shizue has told him they are both war widows and discovers that he has a strong dislike for Ginza which sees him longing for the wholesome charms of home. 

The crisis occurs when Yukiko has to break a promise to Haruo to take him to the zoo in order to look after Ishikawa, causing him to go temporarily missing when he wanders off on his own roaming all over the endless construction site of the contemporary city standing in for the makeshift, in-progress reconstruction of the post-war society. She perhaps feels she’s being punished for choosing to disappoint her son in order to pursue a dream of romantic escape she might also feel is somehow undeserved, but pays in quite a different way after accidentally setting Ishikawa up with Kyoko whom she introduced as her “sister”. Originally angry and resentful, proclaiming herself disappointed with Kyoko in assuming she is the same as the other young women at the bar, Yukiko’s good nature eventually wins out as she realises that Kyoko and Ishikawa seem to have fallen in love in a single night. She has told him everything, and he apparently wants to marry her anyway. Kyoko, at least, is getting out, and Yukiko can be happy about that while privately internalising defeat. Acknowledging that Haruo is the only one on whom she can depend, she resolves to live on as a mother only, trapped in the deceptive diminishing returns of a Ginza bar life even while knowing it has increasingly little place for her.  


Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (男はつらいよ, Yoji Yamada, 1969)

“It’s tough being a man” according to the Japanese title of the long running series affectionately known as “Tora-san” to its many fans. Tora-san began as a TV drama broadcast in 1968-9 in which the hero died of a snakebite in the very last episode much to viewers’ disappointment. Director Yoji Yamada then resurrected the loveable travelling salesman and made him the star of a reboot movie which proved so popular that it spawned a 48-film series which lasted until the death of star Kiyoshi Atsumi at the age of 68 in 1996. 

Yamada directed all but two instalments in the series each of which broadly follow a similar pattern to that introduced in the first film following the eponymous Tora as he gets himself mixed up in some kind of trouble, returns home to visit his family in Shibamata, and falls in love with a beautiful but unobtainable woman known as the “Madonna” in the series’ “mythology”, if you can call it that. At the beginning of Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (男はつらいよ, Otoko wa Tsurai yo), Torajiro Kuruma (Kiyoshi Atsumi) or “Tora-san”, explains that he’s been in a wistful mood thinking about his hometown while viewing the cherry blossoms and has decided to go back to Shibamata for the first time in 20 years having left swearing never to return after arguing with his father who has since passed away as has his brother. Tora-san’s only remaining family members are his younger sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho), a small child when he left but now a grown woman in her mid-20s, and an uncle (Shin Morikawa) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) who’ve been looking after her and run a small dango shop. 

Being away for 20 years necessarily means that Tora has been on the road since he was a young teenager back in 1949 when Japan was still very much in the throws of post-war chaos, in contrast to the increasingly prosperous nation it has since become. On his return to town he is relieved to discover that the local priest (Chishu Ryu), as well as his aunt, still remember and recognise him but shocks them all with an incongruous, and frankly over the top, show of politeness as he expresses gratitude and filial piety towards his uncle and aunt for having raised his sister but then immediately afterwards tries to sell them some of his tacky sales goods including some kind of electronic bracelet with supposed health benefits. Nevertheless, the family, including his sister Sakura who works as a typist at an electrical goods company, are very glad to seem him after all these years. 

Hardly in the house five minutes before peeing in the garden instead of using the bathroom like a regular person, Tora is already undercutting the image he first presented and causing trouble with the neighbours. The major drama occurs when he ends up accompanying Sakura to an omiai arranged marriage meeting set up by her boss in a fancy hotel. Sakura hadn’t been keen to go to the omiai, her uncle and aunt assume because arranged marriages are already outdated, but as we later discover she’s developed a fondness for factory worker Hiroshi (Gin Maeda) who lives in the house directly behind theirs. The uncle and aunt encourage the match because it’s an opportunity to marry up, viewing it as better than Sakura could otherwise hope for as an orphan with no dowry. Tora agrees with them, encouraging his sister not to write off tradition, but he has little understanding of the etiquette for these kinds of situations and quickly scandalises the refined, upper-class family by drinking far too much, making bawdy jokes about the composition of Chinese characters, and using vulgar language. As expected the suitors decide not to take things further, though luckily Sakura’s boss does not seem to mind or hold Tora’s behaviour against her.

On the road since he was little more than a child, perhaps it’s no wonder that Tora struggles when trying (or not) to adapt to the rules of civilised society though as he later tells us, he also had a traumatic childhood beaten by his father who resented him for being illegitimate, conceived during a drunken indiscretion with a geisha (Sakura is a half-sister born to his father’s legal wife). At one point he loses his temper completely and finds himself slapping Sakura, accidentally starting a mass brawl in their courtyard, though it’s obvious afterwards that he deeply regrets his behaviour and despite being forgiven by his ever patient sister feels as if it might be better to leave again before he makes even more trouble for his family. 

Tora is, however, perhaps good trouble in that his heart is (broadly) in the right place even if he makes a lot of mistakes. He meddles in Sakura’s love life and almost destroys her chance of romantic happiness, but it all works out in the end and he might have a point in implying that without his mistaken intervention she and Hiroshi would have just gone on in silent longing. Nevertheless, he remains a romantically naive figure, falling for the elegant daughter of the local priest (Sachiko Mitsumoto) who surprises him by expressing a fondness for low entertainment but in real terms is never going to marry a man like Tora. “Mine’s a hard world” he explains to a boatman, sadly making his way back towards the road filled with a deep sense of despair but pressing on all the same, trying his luck wherever he goes just another plucky, though no longer so young, guy, left behind by the rapid pace of the post-war economic miracle.  


Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Death Row Woman (女死刑囚の脱獄, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960)

How far does freedom extend in the complicated post-war society? Best known for his eerie horror films, Nobuo Nakagawa takes a stab at B-movie crime in a tale of wronged femininity as a woman’s attempt to escape her father’s authority ends in a death sentence. Death Row Woman (女死刑囚の脱獄, Onna Shikeishu no Datsugoku) sends its wrongfully convicted heroine on the run, literally, from a cruelly patriarchal society, but there is something quite perverse in its ambivalent conclusion which at once frees and vindicates but also suggests that perhaps daddy knows best after all. 

As the film opens, patriarch Imai (Hiroshi Hayashi) is engaging in a bonding ritual with his prospective son-in-law, Aoki (Keinosuke Wada), teaching him how to hunt. Meanwhile, his daughter, Kyoko (Miyuki Takakura), has wandered off with another man, Soichi (Tatsuo Terashima), with whom she is in love. Soichi is obviously worried about Aoki, but she tells him that the marriage is her father’s idea and she’s no intention of going through with it, not least because she is pregnant with Soichi’s child. The pair embrace, engaging in a clinch in the woods, but are spotted by Kyoko’s step-sister, Minako (Yasuko Mita), who apparently doesn’t like someone else hunting what she’s got her eye on, pointing her shotgun right at the loved up couple before her mother (Fumiko Miyata) arrives and knocks it out of the way sending a shot into the air in the process. 

Soichi is a spineless sort of man, telling Kyoko that he “can’t talk to old people” and refusing to go with her to see her father. She’s confident Imai will have to give in seeing as her pregnancy makes this a fait accompli, but he tells her to get an abortion and if she doesn’t like it she can get out. Imai wanted her to marry Aoki because he picked him out as a son, an heir to leave his company to. As Kyoko points out, he never considered her feelings, only seeing her as a tool to be manipulated for his own ends in securing his business interests. Imai objects to Soichi not only because he resents having his authority undercut, but because Soichi is a “nobody” and he finds the idea of his daughter marrying someone from a different social class distasteful in the extreme. All of that is about to become moot, however, because seconds after Kyoko storms out vowing to marry Soichi even if it means severing ties with her family, Imai drops dead, not of an apparent heart attack as it first seems but of poison! As the last person to see him alive and with the entire household having heard their row, Kyoko is arrested for her father’s murder and sentenced to death. 

Jumping on over a year, Kyoko’s son is seven months old and apparently living in a children’s home rather than being cared for by any of her family while she languishes in prison still proclaiming her innocence. Nakagawa flirts with woman in prison tropes, putting Kyoko in a room of four women including a predatory lesbian, but eventually allows her to find female solidarity with a “habitual criminal” who helps her escape in order that she might prove her innocence and be reunited with her son. Kyoko’s decision to escape is prompted by an awkward visit from Soichi who has neglected to bring the picture of their baby he’d promised her while claiming to be working hard on her case. He tells her that he’s engaged a lawyer who has turned up evidence implicating Aoki who has made several attempts of his own to visit her all of which she has turned down. Unbeknownst to her, he’s even transferred to the town near the prison and is living in a company dorm not too far away. Coming to the conclusion that Aoki is the architect of all her misfortune, she determines to pay him a visit and either get a confession or take her own life. 

Aoki, however, turns out to be a good guy after all. He didn’t kill Imai and has been living near by because he’s sure Kyoko didn’t either and is determined to crack the case. Aoki helps her hide from the authorities and manages to get her on a train to Tokyo daringly defying the police dragnet, while the case’s original investigator begins to smell a rat in staking out the Imai home. Soichi seems to have become awful close with the two Imai ladies, so perhaps he really was the odious social climber old Imai feared him to be. So far, Kyoko’s attempts to take charge of her own future in rejecting her father’s authority have not gone well. She has ended up with a death sentence for daring to challenge the social order by advancing her own agency and has escaped from the literal prison, but is once again locked up for her own safety while Aoki does all the investigating on the outside. Her desire to reassume her role as a mother to a child technically born out of wedlock is what eventually gets her caught, leaving her at the mercy of the magnanimous police who, thankfully, decide that the duty of law enforcement is to act in the best interests of justice, admitting their mistakes rather than covering them up to save face. 

So, Aoki turns out to be good and Soichi bad. Kyoko is vindicated, proving herself innocent of the crime of patricide, but is punished fiercely for her attempt to escape her father’s control. It’s tempting to think that the message is that her father knew best after all and if she’d only done as she was told and married Aoki without making a fuss all of this could have been avoided. Amoral post-war ambition has been unmasked, everyone has been shuffled back into their original class boxes with order seemingly restored. Kyoko has “escaped” her imprisonment, but is she truly “free”? “That’s all in the past now”, Aoki reassures her, “but hang on tight anyway”. 


The Man Who Left His Will on Film (東京戰争戦後秘話, Nagisa Oshima, 1970)

man-who-left-his-will-on-filmEvery story is a ghost story in a sense. In every photograph there’s a presence which cannot be seen but is always felt. The filmmaker is a phantom and an enigma, but can we understand the spirit from what we see? Whose viewpoint are seeing, and can we ever separate that subjective vision from the one we create for ourselves within our own minds? The Man Who Left his Will on Film (東京戰争戦後秘話, Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa) is an oblique examination of identity but more specifically how that identity is repurposed through cinema as cinema is repurposed as a political weapon.

The film begins with an anarchic scene in which two men argue over use of an 8mm Bolex camera. The man whose voice we can hear is angry with the cameraman who he claims has stolen his camera only to use it for “trivial” street scenes and landscapes whereas he needs it to “capture the struggle” by filming a nearby student protest. Eventually we can verify that there are two men as the protagonist, Motoki (Kazuo Goto), briefly moves in front of the camera in order to try and snatch it away from the filmmaker. The man holding the camera then runs off as breathless, handheld camera takes over. Motoki follows him and we follow Motoki as the scene takes on an ominous quality. The cameraman reappears atop a nearby building before plunging to his death camera in hand. Stunned, Motoki approaches the bloody scene and, noticing the camera is still intact, tries to retrieve it only to be picked up by the police who confiscate the camera as evidence.

Motoki then wakes up back at his left wing commune with his friends eager to know what happened. Strangely, they do not seem to be aware that one of their number has died and are more worried about the police being in control of one of their “means of production”. Even the dead man’s girlfriend, Yasuko (Emiko Iwasaki), begins to doubt the fact that he ever existed at all. Motoki and Yasuko begin investigating the mysterious presence together, chasing their elusive filmmaker and each taking possession of his form on more than one occasion but the question who owns these images, whose identity defines the narrative, proves an elliptical and ethical dilemma.

Oshima, evidently, was no right wing stooge but even if The Man who left His Will on Film takes the world of the student protests as its milieu, it does so to undermine them. Motoki’s comrades view filmmaking as a revolutionary act. They claim to turn the camera into a weapon by using it confront reality, but as Yasuko later admits much of this is a rationalisation which allows them to continue a “bourgeois” art form without abandoning their left wing principles. The cadre members spout marxist dogma and argue about who has the highest political consciousness, but all they ever do is film the ongoing struggle. Their fight is empty, their vision blank.

Notably, the first of several arguments over dogma relates to “ownership” of the camera itself and whether Motoki and another comrade fought hard enough to retrieve it from the oppressive state. Did Motoki chase after “his” camera, meaning he condones the idea of “private” property which is contrary to the communal nature of the group, or “their” camera which is a revolutionary tool? The camera itself is singular, but the group is plural. This commune is intended to work as a hive mind, the people as one with one vision and one identity but Oshima exposes this as an impossibility. The group is a collective of individuals with different ideas and opinions which do not necessarily conform to a common point of view.

This is further brought out when the camera is retrieved and revealed to contain a collection of seemingly apolitical landscapes and street scenes. The group members are quickly bored with the static shots of everyday subjects, some berating the filmmaker for his “bankrupt” politics and lack of artistry while others vow they must honour their comrade’s struggle by watching the film to its conclusion in order to derive the meaning. The unseen filmmaker has indeed left his “will” on film, not as a testament or embodiment of future policy, but his literal “will”. His individual spirit and vision are contained within the seemingly innocuous shots in a political act of revolutionary individualism. He is the film, the film is him.  His vision dominates, we must accept it or remake it as our own.

Motoki, constantly chasing shadows, attempts to remake the film in the mould of the original filmmaker but unexpectedly encounters aspects of his own life already existing within it. Yasuko’s approach is more proactive. She inserts herself into the film, makes her presence known and refuses to be invisible. She picks up the camera and fights for her place within the frame. Hers is the struggle of the true revolutionary filmmaker, imprinting herself and her vision onto the film.

Where does this leave us? We’re in the film too. We see the film and, in a sense, recreate it in our own minds, recasting ourselves as director and protagonist. We see the film subjectively yet we cannot divorce ourselves from the original vision. Motoki’s venture fails because he only sees the landscapes, whereas Yasuko takes the same images but repossesses them, remaking them in her own image in a true act of cinematic revolution. Yasuko has seized the means of production and overthrown the tyranny of anonymous images in refusing to be constrained by someone else’s will. The camera is a weapon, but it is we who choose what it sees, and in turn what it sees in us.


Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

Murder in the Doll House (乱れからくり, Susumu Kodama, 1979)

murder in the doll houseYusaku Matsuda was to adopt arguably his most famous role in 1979 – that of the unconventional private detective Shunsaku Kudo in the iconic television series Detective Story (unconnected with the film of the same name he made in 1983), but Murder in the Doll House (乱れからくり, Midare Karakuri) made the same year also sees him stepping into the shoes of a more conventional, literature inspired P.I.

Toshio Katsu has had a bad day at the bicycle races, almost losing his entire salary before thinking better of it and retuning his last betting slips to buy himself some ramen. Originally hoping to write detective thrillers, Toshio had studied literature at university but later dropped out fearing he had no real talent as a writer. Spotting an ad for jobs at a P.I. firm he thinks it’s worth a shot. When he arrives at the Udai detective agency he finds it’s just one tiny office led by former police woman Maiko Udai. Being short on help, she hires Toshio right away and puts him to work on her number one case – investigating some interfamilial conflict at a top toy company. However, when their target is killed during a car chase, Maiko and Toshio find themselves trapped inside a maze of complicated tricks and devious puzzles.

Matsuda plays it a little straighter here as an, admittedly laid back, master detective with a knack for always being in the right place at the right time. The case at hand concerns an elderly toy magnate and his factory which is run by his son Soji as the president and his nephew Tomohiro as the manager of production. As might be expected there’s a fair amount of conflict between the two men which is exacerbated by an incident in which a series of racing cars the company was due launch had to be pulled following safety concerns leading Soji and Tomohiro to hold each other responsible for the failure. The old man wants the detectives to keep an eye on Tomohiro in case he decides to launch some sort of coup but just about everyone is acting suspiciously in this weird mansion which was built as some kind of folly with hundreds of built in tricks like a lakeside woodland labyrinth and secret underground passages. Oh, and there might even be some hidden Edo era treasure too. Before long people start dropping dead in increasingly bizarre ways.

In the best traditions of Japanese mystery stories which place fiendishly elaborate plots at their centre, Murder at the Doll House more than succeeds as a classic detective story. We’re presented with a set of strange occurrences which our master sleuth will explain to us in a long lecture at the end and even if one or two twists are a little obvious, the satisfaction involved in having figured them out ahead of time outweighs any kind of disappointment. Toshio may say he wants to be like Philip Marlowe but in actuality his detective is a little more in the European mould – almost like a more active Poirot or a slightly less obtuse Sherlock Holmes. Still, donning a trench coat with a turned up collar yet eschewing the classic hat which would have obscured his giant ‘70s perm, Matsuda once again turns in a very “cool” performance as super smart private eye.

Welcome to the Doll House isn’t quite as action packed as some of Matsuda’s other roles from this era even if it does have a genuinely thrilling finale. Making up for physical excitement with a more cerebral approach which mixes in a few horror tropes with the creepiness of the old house and “murder by doll” scenario, Murder at the Doll House makes for an enjoyably strange mystery adventure which also adds in a little quirky humour along the way for good measure.


Based on the novel by Tsumao Awasaka (not currently available in English).

Matsuda does some detecting (unsubtitled)