Fire Festival (火まつり, Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985)

By 1985 the Japanese economy was approaching its zenith yet along with increasing economic prosperity had come social change of which small-town Japan was either casualty or sacrificial victim. “Nigishima will stay as it is” declares the last holdout of an increasingly obsolete way of life in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s intense modernity drama, Fire Festival (火まつり, Himatsuri), a manly mountain man and animalistic force of nature by several metrics unsuited to life in the contemporary society into which he is ultimately unable to progress. 

There are many things which it seems have not changed in Nigishima for generations, one being the animosity between the cohorts of its bifurcated community, those who live by land and those who live by sea. Rural depopulation may have forced them to come closer but it has also increased their sense of mistrust while both industries continue to suffer in an economy which no longer prizes their humble rural output. Despite being catapulted into a promised modernity by the advent of the railway to great fanfare in 1959, it now seems that Nigishima cannot survive without a new road which could be paid for by the development of a marine park only mountain man Tatsuo (Kinya Kitaoji) owns the property right in the middle of the earmarked area and has hitherto refused to sell further increasing the tension between the two communities. 

Tatsuo is thought of, and thinks of himself, as a big man in the area quite literally it seems as part of the reason he enjoys this status is down to his being unusually well-endowed. He believes himself to have a special relationship with the mountain goddess, often joking to the other men about having a sexual relationship with her while sometimes describing her as his girlfriend. Several times he is mistaken for an animal, firstly by the boatman bringing his childhood sweetheart and sometime mistress Kimiko (Kiwako Taichi) back to the island who assumed he was a monkey crawling along the cliff edge thoughtlessly throwing rocks at them, while he often gambols through the forest whooping like some kind of Tarzan. Entirely unreconstructed, his worldview is patriarchal and misogynistic. All of his banter with the other men is sexual, constantly referring to his penis while greeting his friends with lewd hand gestures thrusting his fist into his pocket as if waving with an erection. The cure for offending the goddess he tells his young protege Ryota (Ryota Nakamoto) is to drop his trousers and display his manhood, Tatsuo strangely believing this would appease her for taking wood from a sacred tree or killing without permission. 

Smearing the blood of a sacrificial animal over his chest and forearms he dedicates the death to the goddess, a gesture he will repeat in the film’s violent and tragic conclusion yet there is also arrogance in his conduct as if he believes himself above natural law, protected as the goddess’ favourite even as he describes himself as “suffocated” by the women in his life from his mother and five older sisters all of whom indulge him to his wife, kids, and mistresses. He has trained his dogs to hunt wild boar without the use of guns in a method he admits even other hunters describe as “cruel” while breaking a local taboo shooting monkeys in the forest well aware of nature red in tooth and claw. As such, there is little nobility to be seen in his determination to preserve this already obsolete way of life. His virility maybe contrasted with that of the ageing land broker Yamakawa (Norihei Miki) and his failed attempts to bed sex worker Kimiko who tricks him into paying off her debts, but he at least knows the way the wind is blowing explaining to her that towns such as Nigishima survive only through things like marine parks or hotels or even nuclear power plants. Without the road, the town will die. 

Yet in 1959 they were told the railway would save them and it seems it did not. Tatsuo’s love making with Kimiko in a boat borrowed from a treacherous fisherman who later agrees to sail it transgressively into sacred waters is intercut with memories of the rail line’s opening ceremony, two teenagers who might have been them or at least of around the same age ride an elephant on the jetty while the townspeople arrange themselves into the formation of the character for “celebration” captured by the aerial photographer above. For Tatsuo as a boy, was this a rebirth of Nigishima or the beginning of its demise as the coming modernity began to eat away at its foundations? 

The fire festival is “for men”, according to Tatsuo, “to drive out evil spirits”, his manliness getting the better of him as he disrupts the proceedings to attack a man he accuses of having brought “false fire”. These are the lessons he teaches to surrogate son Ryota whose devotion to him borders on the homoerotic, Tatsuo cradling him during the climactic rain storm and he seeming to develop a fascination for Kimiko as a kind of indirect fixation. Ryota has learned Tatsuo’s chauvinism mimicking his lewd hand gestures and swaggering walk, his cruelty in sacrificing 1000 yen to trick Yamakawa into injuring his hand in a bear trap, and his arrogance ensuring that his problematic masculinity will survive into another generation presumably no more capable of halting the march of modernity than he has been. Tatsuo poisons the waters with fuel oil which as one of the greek chorus of fish wives points out does not catch fire, Tatsuo himself smouldering until an inevitable explosion. Receiving some kind of epiphany during a mystical congress with the goddess in the middle of a storm, he knows what he must do and accepts that he cannot progress into the modern society. Smoulderingly intense in its small-town animosity and primeval sensibilities, Yanagimachi’s poetic tragedy of futility and the broken promises of a badly distributed modernity may accept the the sacrifice but mourns it all the same. 


Fire Festival screens at the BFI on 20/27 December as part of BFI Japan.

Clip (English subtitles)

Violent Cop (その男、凶暴につき, Takeshi Kitano, 1989)

By and large, policemen in Japanese cinema are at least nominally a force for good. They may be bumbling and inefficient, occasionally idiotic and easily outclassed by a master detective, but are not generally depicted as actively corrupt or malicious. A notable exception would be within the films of Kinji Fukasaku whose jitsuroku gangster movies were never afraid to suggest that the line between thug and cop can be surprisingly thin. Fukasaku was originally slated to direct Violent Cop (その男、凶暴につき, Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni tsuki), casting top TV variety star “Beat” Takeshi in the title role in an adaptation of a hardboiled parody by Hisashi Nozawa. The project later fell apart due to Kitano’s heavy work schedule which eventually led to him directing the film himself, heavily rewriting the script in order to boil it down to its nihilistic essence while rejecting the broad comedy his TV fans would doubtless have been expecting. 

Kitano’s trademark deadpan is, however, very much in evidence even in this his debut feature in which he struggled to convince a veteran crew to accept his idiosyncratic directorial vision. He opens not with the “hero”, but with a toothless old man, a hobo beset by petty delinquents so bored by the ease of their comfortable upperclass lives that they terrorise the less fortunate for fun. Azuma (Takeshi Kitano), the violent cop, does not approve but neither does he intervene, later explaining to his boss that it would have been foolish to do so without backup. Having observed from the shadows, he tails one of the boys to his well-appointed home, barges past his mother, and asks to have a word, immediately punching the kid in the face as soon as he opens the door. Rather than simply arrest him, he strongly encourages that he and his friends turn themselves in at the police station the next day or, he implies, expect more of the same. The kid complies. 

Azuma embodies a certain kind of justice acting in direct opposition to the corruptions of the Bubble era which are indirectly responsible for the creation of these infinitely bored teens who live only for sadistic thrills. He arrives too late, however, to have any effect on the next generation, cheerfully smiling at a bunch of primary school children running off to play after throwing cans at an old man on a boat. Children always seem to be standing by, witnessing and absorbing violence from the world around them as when a fellow officer is badly assaulted by a suspect following Azuma’s botched attempt to arrest him in serial rather than parallel with his equally thuggish colleagues. But for all that Azuma’s violence is inappropriate for a man of the law, it is never condemned by his fellow officers who regard him only as slightly eccentric and a potential liability. Even his new boss on hearing of his reputation tells him that he doesn’t necessarily disapprove but would appreciate it if Azuma could avoid making the kind of trouble that would cause him inconvenience. 

That’s obviously not going to happen. What we gradually realise is that Azuma may be in some ways the most sane of men or at least the most in tune with the world in which he lives, only losing his cool when a suspect spits back that he’s just as crazy as his sister who has recently been discharged from a psychiatric institution. Azuma has accepted that his world is defined by violence and no longer expects to be spared a violent end. He smirks ironically as he slaps his suspects, connecting with them on more than one level in indulging in the cosmic joke of existential battery. To Kitano, violence is cartoonish, unreal, and absurd. The only time the violence is shocking and seems as if it actually hurts is when it is visited directly on Azuma, the camera suddenly shifting into a quasi-PV shot as a foot strikes just below the frame. The targets are otherwise misdirected, a young woman caught by a stray bullet while waiting outside a cinema or a cop shot in the tussle over a gun, and again the children who only witness but are raised in the normalisation of violence. 

Meanwhile, organised crime has attempted to subvert its violent image by adopting the trappings of the age, swapping post-war scrappiness for Bubble-era sophistication. Nito (Ittoku Kishibe), the big bad, has an entire floor as an office containing just his oversize desk and that of his secretary. These days, even gangsters have admin staff. Minimalist in the extreme with its plain white walls and spacious sense of emptiness, the office ought to be a peaceful space but the effect of its deliberately unstimulating decor is quite the reverse, intimidating and filled with anxiety. Behind Nito the ordinary office blinds look almost like prison bars. Meanwhile, the police locker room in much the same colours has a similarly claustrophobic quality, almost embodying a sense of violence as if the walls themselves are intensifying the pressure on all within them. 

Azuma is indeed constrained, even while also the most “free” in having decided to live by his own codes in rejection of those offered by his increasingly corrupt society. He walks a dark and nihilistic path fuelled by the futility of violence, ending in a Hamlet-esque tableaux with only a dubious Fortinbras on hand to offer the ironic commentary that “they’re all mad”, before stepping neatly into another vacated space in willing collaboration with the systemic madness of the world in which he lives. With its incongruously whimsical score and deadpan humour Violent Cop never shies away from life’s absurdity, but has only a lyrical sadness for those seeking to numb the pain in a world of constant anxiety. 


Violent Cop is the first of three films included in the BFI’s Takeshi Kitano Collection blu-ray box set and is accompanied by an audio commentary by Chris D recorded in 2008, plus a featurette recorded in 2016. The first pressing includes a 44-page booklet featuring an essay on Violent Cop by Tom Mes, as well as an introduction to Kitano’s career & writing on Sonatine by Jasper Sharp, a piece on Boiling Point from Mark Schilling, an archival review by Geoff Andrew, and an appreciation of Beat Takeshi by James-Masaki Ryan.

The Takeshi Kitano Collection is released 29th June while Violent Cop, Boiling Point, and Sonatine will also be available to stream via BFI Player from 27th July as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Night’s Tightrope (少女, Yukiko Mishima, 2016)

night's tightrope japanese posterKanae Minato is known for her hard-hitting crime stories from Confessions to Chorus of Angels, The Snow White Murder Case, and Penance but in adapting her second novel, Shojo (少女), Yukiko Mishima has moved away from the mystery for a no less penetrating look at the death of childhood in the story of two best friends each dealing with traumatic pasts and presents. Childhood is a place of tightly controlled powerlessness, but adulthood offers little more than corruption and selfishness with its predatory teachers, abusive parents, and dirty old men so obsessed with school uniforms they barely see the girl inside them. Adolescent anxiety provokes a fascination with the idea of death which perhaps reflects this transitionary stage, but at its centre is the fracturing of a friendship which has endured all else.

The film opens with a strange avant-garde play being performed in a church by a group of girls in austere school uniforms. The monologue offered by the collective reads like an instruction booklet for the birth of fascism with its calls for genetically engineered test tube babies and universal childcare in which each child is “equal” and receives “exactly the same” education and resources. The girls are students at a strict Christian fundamentalist school where they’re also expected to participate in strange rituals including dancing round the maypole (incongruous as that may seem).

Atsuko (Mizuki Yamamoto) – a former kendo champion with a limp, and Yuki (Tsubasa Honda) who has a large scar across her hand resulting from domestic abuse, have been lifelong friends but have recently begun to drift apart. Given the overriding survival of the fittest atmosphere in the school, it’s not surprising that the other girls have turned on Atsuko and proceeded to make her life a misery by telling her to die either in person, on line, or in one particularly grim episode by shoving a sanitary towel into her locker with the message written on it in blood. Yuki is trying to help her but doesn’t know how and has taken to writing everything down in a book instead.

The world of teenage girls can often be a vicious one but there’s a strange kind of mania in the way Atsuko’s schoolmates set about pushing her towards the edge. Formerly a top kendo player, Atsuko has vivid, panic attack inducing flashbacks to her life changing accident in which she recalls her teammates prentending to comfort her but secretly hurling accusations under their breaths while Yuki looks on in horror from the stands.

Yuki has been writing their story in the form of a novel she calls Night’s Tightrope but the completed manuscript goes missing. The girls’ teacher who has longstanding dreams of literary stardom steals it, sends it to a magazine, and even wins a prestigious literary prize for brand new novelists. Yuki’s revenge is swift but has terrible, unforeseen consequences which add to her obsession with death and dying, eventually culminating in the worrying desire to see someone die in order to fully understand the nature of the “phenomenon”.

While Yuki develops a friendship with a boy she met in a library while she was destroying copies of the teacher’s stolen story, Atsuko goes in a different direction by falling under the spell of troubled transfer student Shiori (Ryo Sato). Recently witnessing a dead body herself, Shiori is just as death obsessed as the other girls but her vision is darker. Shiori introduces Atsuko to her world of blackmail and exploitation, pulling her into a high school girl scam in which they accuse a nearby salaryman of groping them and then blackmail him. Shiori may think she’s taking revenge on venal older men who lust after school uniforms – there are plenty of these on offer from skeevy old men luring school girls to abandoned houses and then trying to get them to do laundry, to teachers visiting love hotels with their students – but actions have consequences and ramifications can be severe.

The girls are caught in a kind of limbo, walking a tightrope into adulthood but doing it blind and alone. Splitting up they take similar paths with Atsuko volunteering at an old people’s home, and Yuki spending time with terminally ill children but soon enough their death obsession changes form as their twin causes eventually overlap. Stepping away from Minato’s sometimes nihilistic pessimism, Night’s Tightrope leaves a space for hope in the reconciliation of the protagonists who rediscover their shared pasts once the message buried in the novel is finally delivered. The adult world may be mired in the dark of night but the girls have recaptured the sunlight, taking solace in the depth of their friendship and stepping off the tightrope and into the world of adulthood hand in hand.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sorekara (それから, AKA And Then, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1985)

Sorekara PosterYoshimitsu Morita had a long and varied career (even if it was packed into a relatively short time) which encompassed throwaway teen idol dramas and award winning art house movies but even so tackling one of the great novels by one of Japan’s most highly regarded authors might be thought an unusual move. Like a lot of his work, Natsume Soseki’s Sorekara (And Then…) deals with the massive culture clash which reverberated through Japan during the late Meiji era and, once again, he uses the idea of frustrated romance to explore the way in which the past and future often work against each other.

Daisuke (Yusaku Matsuda) is a youngish man approaching early middle age. Thirty years old and a “gentleman” of leisure, he lives in a world of perpetual ennui where he even has to hold his hand to his chest to check that his heart is indeed still beating. His days might have gone on aimlessly had it not been for the unexpected return of an old friend from university, Hiraoka (Kaoru Kobayashi), who has been dismissed from his job following a series of problems with his superiors which has also landed him with a considerable debt to repay and no prospects of further employment. Adding to his sorrows, Hiraoka and his wife, Michiyo (Miwako Fujitani), have recently lost their infant child and have been told that due to Michiyo’s poor health they may not be able to have any more. Daisuke wants to help them, but he’s also facing a lot of pressure from his family to accept an arranged marriage which will further his father and brother’s prospects and is becoming conscious of the relative lack of freedom his life of dependent idleness entails.

Men of Daisuke’s era have perhaps had it hardest coming of age during a period of massive social change which is incomprehensible to the older generation. He’s a well educated man, an intellectual, who can speak several languages and is given to introspective contemplation, but he’s also inherited the worst of European classism as he’s come to believe that working for money is beneath his dignity as a gentleman. He’s completely unable to identify with his friend who needs to work to eat and enjoys none of the various safety nets which are provided by his own wealth and privilege. Nevertheless, he does want to try and help Hiraoka and is dismayed to discover just how little power he has do anything for him.

Hiraoka and Daisuke were part of a group of friends at university which also included another boy who, sadly, died of an illness and his sister – Michiyo, who eventually married Hiraoka. At the time, Daisuke himself had fallen in love with Michiyo but out of a misconceived idea of “chivalry” – another unnecessary adoption of European romanticism, he stepped aside in favour of his friend. This has proved to be a disaster all round and Michiyo and Hiraoka are trapped in an unhappy union which has made Michiyo physically weak and caused Hiraoka to spend the money he should be using to pay back his massive debts on drink and geisha so he can avoid going home. Daisuke’s adherence to a code of morality which is more affectation than anything else is shown up to be cowardice, another way of avoiding adulthood, as he uses his intellectual ideas to mask what is really a fear of rejection.

Daisuke later comes to believe what he did in not acknowledging his own feelings towards Michiyo was “a crime against nature”. He now finds himself at another crossroads as he faces the choice between conforming to the rigidity of his upperclass life in marrying the woman his father has chosen for him and continuing to be financially dependent, or embracing his individuality and striking out on his own to finally claim the woman he’s always loved (and, tragically, has always loved him). In choosing to make a life with Michiyo, Daisuke would be taking several transgressive actions – firstly acting against his own self image by entering the world of working men and secondly by stealing a married woman away from her husband which is no simple matter in the still relatively conservative Meiji era society.

Ultimately, the film is much more a story of Daisuke’s journey of self realisation than it is a melodrama with a love triangle at its centre though Sorekora certainly embraces these aspects too. Morita opts for a more classical tone here with a number of long, unbroken takes and static camera shots yet he also affects a strange, dreamlike tone in which the present and the past seem to co-exist, each drifting one into the other. He intercuts scenes which echo the film’s ending into the main body of the action as well as showing us the early days of Daisuke and Michiyo’s unresolved romantic connection which is poignantly brought out by an experimental technique in which the foreground appears almost like a freeze frame while the rain carries on falling behind them. At certain points there are also some surreal sequences in which Daisuke is travelling on a train but is surrounded by fellow passengers who suddenly each pull out a large sparkler or another where a gaggle of men all dressed just like him are crowded into the the other end of the train and looking at the moon through the open roof of the carriage.

A prestige picture, but one with a healthy dose of strangeness, Sorekara is an inexpressibly sad film full of the tragedy of wasted time and the regret that comes with not having acted in way which satisfies your authentic self. In order to live a life that’s true to himself Daisuke must finally learn to risk losing everything but the film’s ambiguous ending may ask whether the cost of following your heart may not be too heavy a one to pay.


Unsubtitled trailer: