Sandakan No. 8 (サンダカン八番娼館 望郷, Kei Kumai, 1974)

Sandakan 8 posterSome might argue that Japanese cinema has often been reluctant to examine the nation’s traumatic 20th century history with the proper rigour, but even if subtle and coming from unexpected angles there have been many and varied attempts to ask questions about the lingering consequences of feudalism. Sandakan No. 8 (サンダカン八番娼館 望郷, Sandakan Hachiban Shokan: Bokyo), inspired by a true life account of a woman unwittingly sold into sexual slavery as a child at the turn of the century, is not only a condemnation of socially approved people trafficking and its role in building the short-lived Japanese empire but a mild provocation of the contemporary society which refuses to engage with its traumatic past.

In the contemporary era, graduate student Keiko Mitani (Komaki Kurihara) is engaged in researching the “karayuki-san” – Japanese women who were sold into sexual slavery throughout Asia in the early 20th century. Almost forgotten, the karayuki-san are a taboo subject and even those still living in the areas from which women and girls were sent away are unwilling to speak of them. By chance, however, Keiko runs into an old woman in a cafe who speaks with a standard Tokyo accent and tells them that she spent most of her life “abroad”. Quickly realising she doesn’t mean she was a diplomat’s wife, Keiko wonders if the woman might be have been a karayuki-san and delays her return to Tokyo in order to find out.

There is something, it has to be said, ironically exploitative in Keiko’s determination to get the old woman, Osaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), to open up about a subject on which she so obviously does not want to be drawn. A visit to Osaki’s home reveals her to be living in a run-down hovel on the edge of town which is filled with stray cats whom Osaki feeds because “they’re all abandoned, but still they have to live”. Keiko gets herself brownie points by reacting politely to Osaki’s reduced living situation, eventually staying three weeks during which time she gradually teases out Osaki’s sad life story. Finally asking if there wasn’t anything Osaki might have liked to know about her, Keiko’s hypocrisy is fully brought home to her when Osaki admits that no one was more curious about Keiko than she was but that “people have reasons for not confiding in others” and if it’s something you need to ask about then it’s probably something that the other person may not want to share. In any case, Osaki seems to have known Keiko had an ulterior motive but does not regret sharing her story and has no worries about what Keiko might do with it as long as she makes sure to tell the truth.

The truth, in a sense, seems to be something the villagers feel themselves well acquainted with which is why Osaki lives in a shack on the edge of town. Tricked into sexual slavery as a child by an amoral people trafficker who lured her with promises of money to be made overseas, Osaki found herself in Borneo and a prisoner of “Sandakan No. 8” which was one of 10 numbered brothels on the island largely catering to Japanese travellers overseas, facilitating the expansion of the Japanese empire as accidental emissaries and ports of call. When Osaki was a child, Japan was a poor country and it was considered normal to sell one’s daughter in order to feed a family. Working overseas carried with it a kind of cache though no one, except perhaps her brother, seems to be fully aware of what Osaki is going to and she herself has not in any way chosen or consented to become a sex worker. When she eventually returns to Japan, she finds herself unwelcome in her brother’s house, which her money paid for, because of the shame associated with those who have “worked away”. Even 50 years later, she finds herself living alone, all but disowned by her only son, on the outskirts of her childhood village ostracised by the “respectable” townspeople who don’t for a second believe Osaki’s quick introduction of Keiko as her daughter-in-law.

The daughter-in-law deception is only one heartbreaking aspect of the complex relationship between the two women who are each, in a sense, hiding something from the other but end up forming a genuine connection anyway. Intensely lonely and having lived a life filled with suffering, Osaki is willing to pay for company with her story while Keiko is, not quite deliberately, using her loneliness against her in an attempt to earn her trust and get her to reveal her secrets. Nevertheless, Keiko is able to mine a rich and deep seem of 20th century trauma through the tragic story of just one woman which reaches out to hundreds like her some of whom rest in a graveyard in the forests of Borneo with their backs forever to Japan. The enemy is, once again, poverty more than it is patriarchy or even feudalism, a problem less of the essence in the rapidly improving post-war economy, but as Kumai is keen to point out, this system of state sanctioned people trafficking (finally outlawed only once Japan’s status on the world stage began to rise) had far wider implications than it might be thought which still echo into the present day and perhaps beyond if not for the efforts of women like Keiko who do not wish to forget.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Fossil (化石, Masaki Kobayashi, 1975)

fossilThroughout Masaki Kobayashi’s relatively short career, his overriding concern was the place of the conscientious individual within a corrupt society. Perhaps most clearly seen in his magnum opus, The Human Condition, Kobayashi’s humanist ethos was one of rigid integrity in which society’s faults must be spoken and addressed in service of creating a better, fairer world. As might be expected, his often raw, angry social critiques were not always what studios were looking for, especially heading into the “difficult” 1970s which saw mainstream production houses turning on the sleaze to increase potential box office. Reluctantly, Kobayashi headed to TV on the condition he could retain some of his footage for a feature film. Adapted from the 1965 novel by Yasushi Inoue, The Fossil (化石, Kaseki) revisits many of Kobayashi’s recurrent themes only in a quieter, more contemplative way as an apparently successful man prepares to enter the final stages of his life, wondering if this is all there really is.

Itsuki (Shin Saburi), a selfmade man who hit it big in Japan’s post-war boom town by founding his own construction firm which currently employs over 1000 people, is about to catch a plane to Europe for a trip that’s pleasure disguised as business. As he leaves, his younger daughter informs him he may be about to become a grandfather for the second time after the birth of her niece, though she is worried and is not sure she wanted a child at this precise moment. Brushing aside her nervousness with an odd kind of fatherly warmth, Itsuki seems pleased and states that he hopes it’s a boy this time. Nevertheless he leaves abruptly to catch his plane. During the flight he begins to become depressed, reflecting that since his wife has died and both of his daughters have married and have (or are about to have) children of their own he is now totally alone. Never before has he faced a sensation of such complete existential loneliness, and his arrival in Paris proves far less invigorating than he had originally hoped.

Wandering around with his secretary, Funazu (Hisashi Igawa), who has accompanied him on this “business” trip, Itsuki catches sight of an elegant Japanese woman in a local park and is instantly captivated. Improbably spotting the same woman several times during his stay, Itsuki later discovers that she is the wife of a local dignitary though not universally liked in the Japanese ex-pat community. At this same work dinner where he discusses the merits of Madame Marcelin (Keiko Kishi), Itsuki experiences a severe pain in his abdomen which makes it difficult for him to stand. Feeling no better back at the hotel, Funazu arranges a doctor’s visit for him. The doctors seem to think he should head straight home which Itsuki is not prepared to do but when he masquerades as Funazu on the phone to get the full verdict, he finds out it’s most likely inoperable intestinal cancer and he may only have a year or so to live.

This unexpected – or, perhaps half sensed, news sends him into a numbing cycle of panic and confusion. At this point Itsuki begins his ongoing dialogue with the mysterious woman, arriving in the guise of Madame Marcelin only dressed in the traditional black kimono of mourning. Telling no one, Itsuki embarks on a contemplative journey in preparation for a union with his dark lady in waiting which takes him from the Romanesque churches of the picturesque French countryside back to Japan and the emptiness, or otherwise, of his settled, professionally successful life.

Like the hero of Kurosawa’s similarly themed Ikiru, Itsuki’s profound discovery is that his overwhelming need for personal validation through work has led him to neglect human relationships and may ultimately have been misplaced. On his return to Japan, Itsuki makes the extremely unusual decision to take a day off only to receive a phone call regarding an old friend and former colleague who, coincidentally, has aggressive cancer and has been asking to see him. Not wanting to mention his own illness, Itsuki parts with his friend feeling it may be for the last time but eventually returns for a deeper conversation in which he probes him for his views about his life so far and what he would do if he had, say, another year to live. His friend has come to the same conclusion, that his working life has largely been a waste of time. What he’d do differently he couldn’t rightly say, things are as they are, but if he had more time he’d want to do “good” in the world, make a positive change and live for something greater than himself.

Itsuki isn’t quite as taken with the idea of “goodness” as a life principle, though he does begin to re-examine himself and the way he has treated the people in his life from apologising to the stepmother he failed to bond with as a child to reconnecting with an old army buddy who maybe the closest thing he’s ever had to a “true friendship” – something which the mysterious woman reminded him he’d been missing for a very long time. Meeting Teppei again, Itsuki is introduced to his walls of fossilised coral and all of their millions of years of history frozen into one indivisible moment. Feeling both infinite and infinitesimal, Itsuki is reminded of his immediate post-war moment of survivor’s guilt in which he and his friend agreed that they’ve each been living on borrowed time ever since.

Given a sudden and unexpected chance of reprieve, Itsuki is even more confounded than before. Having made a friend of death, he may now have to learn to live again, even if his mysterious lady reminds him that she will always be with him, even if he can no longer see her. Though he’d wanted nothing more than to live to see the cherry blossoms in the company of the living Madame Marcelin whose vision it was that so captivated him, his old life is one he cannot return to and must be preserved in amber, frozen and perfect like Teppei’s fossilised coral.

Tonally European, perhaps taking inspiration from Death in Venice, and bringing in a Christianising moral viewpoint pitting the values of honest hard work against genuine human feeling, The Fossil is the story of a man realising he has been sentenced to death, as we all have, and makes his peace with it only to learn that perhaps his sentence will be suspended. Yet for a time death was his friend and her absence is a void which cannot be filled. This life, this new life so unexpectedly delivered, must be lived and lived to the full. Itsuki, who had prepared himself to die must now learn to live and to do so in a way which fulfils his own soul. Originally filmed as a 13 part TV series now reduced to three hours and twenty minutes, The Fossil’s only consolation to its medium is in its 4:3 frame which Kobayashi’s unobtrusive style fully embraces with its ominous distance shots, slow zooms and eerie pans backed up by Toru Takemitsu’s sombre score. Kobayashi, who’d given us a career dedicated to railing against the injustices of the system, suddenly gives us the ultimate rebellion – against death itself as a man who’d prepared himself to die must judge the way he’s lived on his own terms, and, finding himself wanting, learn to live in a way which better fits his personal integrity.


 

Inn of Evil (いのちぼうにふろう, Masaki Kobayashi, 1971)

inn-of-evil“Sometimes it feels good to risk your life for something other people think is stupid”, says one of the leading players of Masaki Kobayashi’s strangely retitled Inn of Evil (いのちぼうにふろう, Inochi Bonifuro), neatly summing up the director’s key philosophy in a few simple words. The original Japanese title “Inochi Bonifuro” means something more like “To Throw One’s Life Away”, which more directly signals the tragic character drama that’s about to unfold. Though it most obviously relates to the decision that this gang of hardened criminals is about to make, the criticism is a wider one as the film stops to ask why it is this group of unusual characters have found themselves living under the roof of the Easy Tavern engaged in benign acts of smuggling during Japan’s isolationist period.

Led by the innkeeper Ikuzo (Kan’emon Nakamura), the Easy Tavern is, effectively, the hideout of a smuggling gang conveniently located on a small island in the middle of a river where they can unload goods from the Dutch boats before shipping them on to Edo. Everything had been running smoothly, but the friendly policeman has been moved on and the new guy seems very straight laced. The gang’s routine existence changes one night when they receive two unexpected visitors – a young man they save from a beating in the street, and a drunk who wanders in looking for sake. The younger man, Tomijiro (Kei Yamamoto), brings a sad story with him in that all of his troubles have been caused by trying to save the woman he loves from being sold to a brothel. Moved by Tomijiro’s innocent ardour, even the most hardhearted residents of the Easy Tavern become determined to help him. Accepting a job everyone had a bad feeling about in order to get the money for Tomijiro to buy back his lady love before it’s too late, the gang’s unusual decision to risk their lives for someone else’s happiness may be the first and last time they ever do so.

The residents of the Easy Tavern have various different backstories, but the thing they all have in common is having been rejected by mainstream society at some point in their lives. The most high profile, Sadashichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), is known as “The Indifferent” which is both apt and slightly ironic. Sullen and cynical, he puts on a show about caring for nothing and no one but, as inn keeper’s daughter Omitsu (Komaki Kurihara) has figured out, it’s more that the opposite it true – he cares too much about everything. Abandoned as a child, Sadashichi’s sad story is that he once thought his saw his mother long after they were separated but killed her because she’d fallen into prostitution. Then again, perhaps it was just a woman who looked like her, or perhaps he made he whole thing up. Coming across a lost baby bird shortly after killing a man, Sadashichi is determined to look after it but is later distressed by the words of the drunk who reminds him that the bird’s mother is probably going crazy with worry. Sadashichi may identify with this lost little bird, but his empathy also extends to Tomijiro’s plight as his plaintive looks and gloomy face prompt him into action, if only to make them go away.

Similarly, the other members including “The Living Buddha” – a rabidly bisexual former monk thrown out of his temple for his lascivious ways, an effeminate homeless man, a stutterer, and an invalid all have reasons for living outside the law. As the sympathetic inn keeper later tries to explain to a policeman, most of these men are people who’ve faced rejection in one way or another. Craving sympathy, they’ve turned violent and suspicious, pushed away from the very things they wanted most. Far from an Inn of Evil, the Easy Tavern is the only place where these people have been able to find acceptance, building a community of lost souls from those cast out from society at large.

The decision to try and help Tomijiro to rescue his childhood sweetheart, cruelly sold by her selfish and uncaring father, is, in once sense, a selfless one but perhaps also reminds them of all the times they were also betrayed or abandoned and no one came to help. Even knowing the plan is unlikely to end well, the inn keeper is proud of his men’s decision, if they didn’t try to help the girl no one else would. They may be throwing their lives away in a pointless endeavour, but if they don’t at least try then what’s the point in living at all. This more than anything expresses Kobayashi’s constant preoccupation throughout his career in pointing to the essential goodness of those who refuse to simply accept acts of injustice as normal and stand up to oppose them, even if their resistance will produce little or no actual change.

Filming in a crisp black and white, Kobayashi creates an eerie atmosphere aided by Toru Takemitsu’s strangely ethereal score. The world of the The Easy Tavern is a dark one in which cruelty and betrayal lie at every turn and men ruin themselves through thoughtless and reckless decisions, but the best of humanity is to be found among this gang of outlaws who collectively decide it’s world risking their lives for someone else’s love story. Filled with impressive visual imagery including the strange sight of the looming bright white police lanterns and the impressively staged last stand as Sadashichi holds off the troops for Tomijiro to escape, Inn of Evil is a tightly controlled, minutely detailed character drama in which men who’d throw their lives away for nothing find that their sacrifice has not been in vain.