Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧, Yasushi Sasaki, 1960)

Benten Kozo dvd coverStarting out as a child actress, Hibari Misora was one of the biggest singing and acting stars of the post-war period whose songs are often pointed to as embodiments of the era’s melancholy yet determined spirit. Though it’s her singing career which has perhaps had the most historical impact, Misora made an immense number of films most of them in ’50s and ‘60s, many typical star vehicles of the time – silly comedies and softer musicals, usually finding an opportunity or two for a song even in straight drama. Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧), released in 1960 for Toei, is very much of this mould and showcases another somewhat interesting facet of Misora’s career in her readiness to play ambiguous gender roles.

Based on the well known kabuki play, Benten Kozo, which had also been adapted two years previously in a version starring male actor Raizo Ichikawa, Sasaki’s film stars Hibari Misora in the title role – a 13 year old boy who was given up at birth to be raised in a temple which specialises in performing Noh theatre. Kikunosuke (Hibari Misora) is their star, but there’s a dark side to temple performing companies in that they’re dependent on donations and it’s accepted practice to allow wealthy patrons to do whatever they like with the talent, no matter their age or gender. Kikunosuke knows this and isn’t having any of it. Pushed into a room with a lecherous, overly made-up older woman, Kikunosuke balks at the old monk’s attempts to pimp him out and tries to leave, much to the monk’s disappointment.

Unfortunately, just as Kikunosuke is leaving, a thief arrives to steal the money meant for the monk and kills the old woman in the process. Kikunosuke kills the thief but is accused of killing the old woman too and is forced on the run. Tracking down his birth mother, Ofuji (Mitsuko Miura), Kiku thinks he’s found a home but is betrayed, at which point he adopts the name “Benten Kozo” (lit. “Benten Kid” where Benten is the name of the goddess at the temple where he was raised) and joins a gang of Robin Hood-style outlaw thieves.

Like many period films of the time, Benten Kozo revolves around exposing the corruption of the samurai order. In this case, it’s a salt scam – the samurai elders have been stockpiling salt to push the price up, endangering the lives of ordinary people for their own financial gain and thinking nothing of it. The thieves, led by later Lone Wolf and Cub star Tomisaburo Wakayama, are dedicated to robbing the rich to feed the poor but they also aim to expose those in power for the reckless bullies they really are. Benten Kozo joins the “Shiranami Five Alliance” both out of self preservation and out of genuine sympathy with their cause, eventually encountering the same corrupt monk who turned a blind eye to his attempted molestation when he intervenes to save a woman forced into prostitution to pay her father’s debt whom the monk was attempting to rape.

Benten Kozo listens to the woman’s story and decides to give her his savings (which he no longer wants after being betrayed by his mother for whom he’d been saving the money) to pay off her family debt. In fact the pair met earlier when Benten Kozo was on the run and she helped him hide from the authorities. The woman, like several in the film, falls for Benten Kozo’s androgynous charms though he remains resolutely noble and indifferent. Benten Kozo would originally have been played by a male actor on the kabuki stage which did not allow female performers. The “onnagata” or actors who specialised in playing women were often effeminate younger men or boys much like Benten Kozo himself who plays these skills to the max throughout the film.

Hibari Misora, with her low, husky voice, effortlessly switches between the elegant upperclass women Benten Kozo impersonates on stage and in service of the gang’s scams, and the rough and ready dialect of a street ruffian. In a shocking display of bravado, Benten Kozo drops the top of his kimono to show his off his tattoos proving once and for all that he’s no lady but still his appeal lingers perhaps precisely because of his gender ambiguity.

Benten Kozo is not a musical but finds two occasions for Misora to sing – once as Benten Kozo takes off on the road, and the other at the end as he paddles a boat away back to his new found friends. The film ends with a giant mass brawl and also provides ample scope for Misora to escape across roof tops and fight off the unjust but it’s otherwise fairly straightforward fare and not exactly among the singer’s most memorable outings. It is however generally entertaining and interesting enough in its central theme of woman playing man playing woman to warrant attention from more than just diehard Misora fans.


Hibari Misora singing Benten Kozo in concert some years later.

April Fools (エイプリルフールズ, Junichi Ishikawa, 2015)

april-foolsIn this brand new, post truth world where spin rules all, it’s important to look on the bright side and recognise the enormous positive power of the lie. 2015’s April Fools (エイプリルフールズ) is suddenly seeming just as prophetic as the machinations of the weird old woman buried at its centre seeing as its central message is “who cares about the truth so long as everyone (pretends) to be happy in the end?”. A dangerous message to be sure though perhaps there is something to be said about forgiving those who’ve misled you after understanding their reasoning. Or, then again, maybe not.

Juggling seven stories April Fools is never as successful at weaving them into a coherent whole as other similarly structured efforts but begins with an intriguing Star Wars style scroll regarding alien sleeper agents who can apparently go home now because they’ve accomplished everything they came for. Changing track, pregnant snack addict Ayumi (Erika Toda) decides to ring the still unknowing father of her child after witnessing an improbable reunion on TV only he’s in bed with someone else and assumes her call is a weird practical joke. Overhearing that he’s just arrived at a restaurant for a lunch date, Ayumi takes matters into her own hands and marches over there, eventually taking the entire place hostage. Meanwhile an older couple are having a harmless holiday pretending to be royalty and a grizzled gangster has “kidnapped” a teenage girl only to give her a nice day out at the fun fair. Oh, and the hikkikomori from the beginning who’s fallen for the whole alien thing has made a total fool of himself at school by taking out his bully, kissing his crush goodbye and racing up to the roof to try and hitch a lift from the mothership.

Importing this weird European tradition to Japan, the creative team have only incorporated parts of it in that they don’t call time on jokes at noon and it’s less about practical shenanigans and elaborate set ups than it is about wholesale lying which is frustrated by this famous non-holiday apparently created in celebration of it. All of the protagonists are lying about something quite fundamental and usually to themselves more than anyone else but at least their April Fools adventures will help them to realise these basic inner truths.

Then again some of these revelations backfire, such as in the slightly misjudged minor segment concerning two college friends who are repeatedly kicked out of restaurants before they can get anything to eat. One decides to “prank” his friend with an April Fools confession of love, only to find that his friend really is gay and is in love with him. Awkward is not the word, but then an April Fools declaration of love is about the worst kind of cruel there is and is never funny anyway, nor is the casual homophobia involved in this entire skit but that’s another story.

In fact, most of the other people are aware they’re being lied to, but are going along with it for various reasons, some hoping that the liars will spontaneously reform and apologise or explain their actions. Ayumi, who is shy and isolated by nature, always knew her handsome doctor suitor was probably not all he seemed to be but is still disappointed to be proved right, only be perhaps be proved wrong again in the end. Convinced to take a chance on an unwise romance by an older colleague who explains to her that many miracles begin with lies, Ayumi is angry with herself as much as with her lying Casanova of a baby daddy, and also feels guilty about an incredibly sight deception of her own. As in many of the other stories, now that everyone has figured out the real, important, truths about themselves and about the situation, they can excuse all of the lying. Sensible or not? The choice is yours.

Despite coming from the team who created some very funny TV dramas including Legal High, the comedy of April Fools never quite hits its stride. Weak jokes backed up with slapstick humour giving way to sentimentality as the “good reasons” for the avoidance of truth are revealed don’t exactly whip up the farcical frenzy which the premiss implies. The point may very well be that we’re the April Fools going along with this, but even so its difficult to admire a film which pushes the “lying is good” mantra right to the end rather than neatly undercutting it. Still, there is enough zany humour to make April Fools not a complete waste of time, even if it doesn’t make as much of its original inspiration as might be hoped.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Junji Sakamoto, 2012)

chorus of angelsAs you read the words “adapted from the novel by Kanae Minato” you know that however cute and cuddly the blurb on the back may make it sound, there will be pain and suffering at its foundation. So it is with A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Kita no Kanariatachi) which sells itself as a kind of mini-take on Twenty-Four Eyes (“Twelve Eyes” – if you will) as a middle aged former school mistress meets up with her six former charges only to discover that her own actions have cast an irrevocable shadow over the very sunlight she was determined to shine on their otherwise troubled young lives.

Haru has been working as a librarian in the city for the last twenty years and has finally reached retirement age but before that she was a school teacher in Japan’s frozen north. Before she can even think about enjoying her new found freedom, a pair of policeman turn up at her door to ask her a few questions about one of her former pupils, Nobuto, who is a suspect in a murder case. It seems that they found Haru’s address amongst Nobuto’s possessions and are keen to find out what kind of relationship she had with him and anything she might know about his current whereabouts. Haru is shocked to the core but remembers that she always gets a New Year card from one of Nobuto’s classmates, Manami, and decides to return home at long last to try and put to rest some wandering ghosts.

Like much of Kanae Minato’s work, A Chorus of Angels is a perfectly constructed mystery only this time much more of the heart than of the head. Consequently, it would be wrong to reveal too much of the plot but suffice to say that a traumatic incident twenty years ago left a profound effect not only on each of the children but also on their teacher and others in the surrounding area. Re-encountering each of her six pupils again, Haru discovers that each of them has been harbouring a deeply buried sense of guilt and shame, believing themselves to have been responsible for what happened that day. That sense of unresolved trauma has prevented each of them from fully getting on with their lives, as if some part of each of them was frozen in time when they were just primary school children singing in a choir and feeling proud of themselves for the first time in their lives.

Their teacher, Haru, also left a part of herself behind in that snowy northern landscape. Having committed something which some would regard as a sin, she’s hounded off the island – or perhaps allows herself to be, giving in to a punishment that she sees as befitting her own sense of guilt. However, as is customary for Minato, Haru’s “crime” is not such a black and white affair. If she betrayed someone, that person understood and, ultimately, only wanted the best for her. That she sacrificed the things that might have allowed her to go on living a happy life is the kind of tragic irony Minato is known for and the lonely, cold and shut off appearance of Haru’s twenty years of librarianing exile is another perfect example. She didn’t really do anything wrong except for try to live, and yet she’s paid for that with the next twenty years of her life and not only that, in robbing the young children who’d come to see her as something of a guardian angel of her very presence, she’s left them to pay too. Guilt grows like a mountain until it eclipses even the brightest of suns.

Despite its unfeasibly starry cast which radiates around veteran actress Sayuri Yoshinga and includes such young talents as Hikari Mitsushima, Mirai Moriyama, Ryuhei Matsuda, Ryo Katsuji, Aoi Miyazaki and Eiko Koike, A Chorus of Angles is actually fairly ordinary in terms of its directorial style and though it manages to stay on the right side of saccharine, never quite manages to make its tear-jerking set-up quite as moving as it seems to want to be. That said, it does boast some extraordinarily beautiful scenes of the Hokkaido snowscape which is a perfect setting for this chilling, frozen ghost story in which no actual ghosts appear. The children’s childhoods are all blissful blue skies and sunny summer days but in the future there’s only snow and cold winter sunshine. Just stay alive, it would be enough – to live is to suffer, but you have to go on. The important thing to learn is that it’s one thing to forgive everyone else, but there comes a time when you have to forgive yourself, too.


The Hong Kong release of A Chorus of Angels includes English subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer: