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)

Pleasures of the Flesh (悦楽, Nagisa Oshima, 1965)

Pleasures of the Flesh posterHaving joined Shochiku apparently on a whim, Nagisa Oshima dramatically walked out on his home studio when they abruptly shelved his incendiary film Night and Fog in Japan citing political concerns following the assassination of the Socialist Party president by a right wing agitator. Oshima’s decision to abandon the studio system and form his own independent production company would eventually develop into a small movement, leading into that which would retrospectively be termed the “Japanese New Wave”. The first film produced by Sozo-sha, Pleasures of the Flesh (悦楽, Etsuraku), was perhaps a shift towards “pink film” aesthetics though, as in much of Oshima’s work, eroticism is more tool and trap than it is a mechanism for liberation. Ironically titled, Pleasures of the Flesh is a tale of desire frustrated by an oppressive society provoking nothing more than nihilistic need for psychological abandon.

Wakizaka (Katsuo Nakamura), an unsuccessful young man, pines for his first love – a young girl he tutored when he was a college student and she a precocious high schooler. Shoko (Mariko Kaga) has, however, married – her new husband someone more in keeping with her class and social standing. Wakizaka sees himself attend Shoko’s wedding, dreaming of her running away from the altar in her wedding dress to return to him but, no, he remains little more than a pleasant memory for the woman who has come to define his life. So devoted to Shoko was Wakizaka that when he learned from her family that a man who had molested her when she was just a child had returned to cause yet more harm by attempting to blackmail them, Wakizaka wanted to help. Seeing the man and paying him off convinced Wakizaka that the man would never give up and there would be no final payment or assurance of silence. Following him onto his train home Wakizaka took drastic action for justice, or perhaps it was revenge, or even out of a strange kind of jealousy, but nevertheless he transgressed by pushing the man from a moving train and thereby ending the threat posed to his beloved.

Wakizaka’s problems, however, are far from over. As ever in Japanese cinema, someone is always watching – in this case, a corrupt government official looking for a likely stooge with whom to stash a large amount of embezzled cash. Irony, a minor theme of the picture, rears its head as Wakizaka finds himself blackmailed over the murder of a blackmailer. The official makes a deal with him – Wakizaka must keep living in his same old horrible apartment and hang on to the suitcase full of money without opening it until he gets out of jail which is where he assumes he will shortly be headed now that his scam is reaching the tipping point. Wakizaka has little choice but to agree but when Shoko marries someone else he comes to believe his original transgression has been in vain, his life is now meaningless, and all that remains for him is a lonely death. Hence, he might as well go in style by spending all of that stolen doe, committing a bizarre act of revenge against Shoko and an unkind society by enjoying a year of debauchery followed by suicide before the official gets out of jail and turns him in as another act of retaliation.

Rejected in love, Wakizaka’s quest becomes one of continual search for conquest as he attempts to force himself on various women he wants to pretend are Shoko though of course knows are not. His approaches are many and various but begin with the obvious – he rents a fancy apartment and convinces a bar girl who looks a little like Shoko to live with him as his wife in return for a generous salary and the promise that the arrangement will only last a year. Hitomi (Yumiko Nogawa) is willing enough to submit herself to Wakizaka’s demands but he is dissatisfied by the inescapable hollowness of the relationship, uncertain who is using whom in this complicated series of transactions. His second choice is a married woman whose ongoing misery arouses in him a taste for sadism, convinced that the only way to make her “happy” is to plunge her into pain and suffering. The third woman, Keiko (Hiroko Shimizu), proves his biggest challenge – a feminist doctor afraid of men, she keeps him at arms length until he finally attempts to rape her, though this too she manages to frustrate insisting that he marry her even if they divorce a month later when Wakizaka’s time limit rolls around. Sick of Keiko’s resistance, Wakizaka opts for a mute prostitute who literally cannot talk back to him but finally makes her own defiant act of self actualisation despite Wakizaka’s attempt to assert total dominance over her existence.

Wakizaka uses the money for a life of “pleasure” but finds only despair and emptiness in each of his manufactured relationships. Having failed to “earn” it, he tries to buy love, but what he really chases is death and oblivion along with a way out of his ruined life and the humiliation he feels in his perceived failure to win Shoko’s heart. An idealised figure of elegance and purity, Shoko is an unattainable prize – the parents gentle pressing of an envelope into his hands following his “handling” of the blackmail case a subtle reminder that he is a servant, and now one perhaps cast out as tainted with a scandal they all wish to forget. Money, another recurrent motif, brings with it only sorrow and resentment. The embezzled cash didn’t do anyone any good, and neither of the blackmailers manages to make their scheme work out for them. Wakizaka is a haunted man, not so much by his crime which he sees as morally justified and feels no particular guilt over, but by his unresolvable desires as surfacing in his frequent hallucinations of Shoko who echoes in and round each and every woman in a form created entirely by her adoring suitor. In the end, reality betrays where the simulacrum remains true, but it is Wakizaka who betrays himself in allowing his pure love to become perverse revenge in the ultimate individualist act of self harm.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Chain of Islands (日本列島, Kei Kumai, 1965)

nihon retto posterKei Kumai made just 19 films films in his 40 year career, but even since his earliest days he ranked among the most fearless of directors, ready to confront the most unpleasant or taboo aspects of contemporary Japan. His first film, The Long Death, interrogated wartime guilt through drawing inspiration from a real life 1948 mass poisoning case in which materials manufactured in a Manchurian lab may have led to the deaths of post-war civilians. Having begun in this possibly controversial vein, Kumai pressed on with 1965’s A Chain of Islands (日本列島, Nihon Retto, AKA The Japanese Archipelago) which he set in 1959 as Japanese youth protested the renewal of the ANPO treaty which placed Japan under the military protection of the American Armed forces in return for allowing the presence of those forces on Japanese soil.

Despite the contemporary setting Kumai opens with a explanatory voice over detailing the depth of the American military presence and the function of the CID which exists solely to investigate crimes committed by American servicemen. The CID is staffed by both Americans and Japanese nationals who, the voiceover explains, often feel conflicted in stepping onto American soil each morning as prolonged exposure gradually erodes their sense of difference and finally of “Japaneseness”. Akiyama (Jukichi Uno) is a translator/investigator at CID and he’s about to be handed an unusual request from his boss – reopen a cold case from the previous summer in which an American Sergeant was found floating in Tokyo bay. Akiyama’s new boss was a friend of the late soldier and would like to know what happened.

Akiyama’s investigations lead him down a dark path of corruption, murder, conspiracy, and governmental complicity. Beginning to investigate the case, Akiyama discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. A couple of policeman from the original investigation arrive to help him and echo their frustrations with the way the case was handled. Despite the police investigation, the American authorities did their best to interfere – commandeering the body and claiming jurisdiction in contravention of Japan’s standing as a sovereign nation. The Americans are no longer occupying forces but honoured guests who should obey international protocol in cases like these, but they rarely do. Despite the existence of the CID, crimes by American servicemen are generally covered up as the military insists the matter will be dealt with internally only for suspects to be suddenly “transferred” overseas.

Sgt. Limit was, however, one of the good ones and Akiyama’s investigation seems to point towards a murder and cover up instigated because Limit had got too close to the truth in investigating a sudden flood of counterfeit cash. The Americans, to the surprise of all, are only the middle man in the grand conspiracy which leads right back to the dark heart of Japan and the vast spy networks operated during the militarist era. As might be expected, these valuable networks are left wide open with the collapse of Japanese fascism but are perfectly primed to facilitate widespread crime spanning the Asian world and all with the tacit approval of the American and Japanese states.

Kumai also implicates the spy ring in a series of “mysterious” rail incidents, but makes sure to reserve some of his ire more the more usual injustices. Akiyama is caring for his young nephew whose father was killed in mining explosion which has claimed the lives of nearly every young man in the village leaving his sister unable to cope with her children alone. He is also battling a personal tragedy which is intensely connected to his decision to join CID which is currently inundated with cases of rape and murder in which American servicemen are implicated. The “foreign” becomes suspect but mostly for its hypocrisy as in the Catholic priest who becomes a major suspect in subverting the legitimate devotion of a Godly woman who only sought to live under the Christian teachings of love and kindness, while the American forces claim to stand for honour and justice but actively facilitate organised crime at an interstate level to further the progress of Capitalism whilst also facilitating civil unrest in volatile nations for financial and political gains.

That all of this happens immediately before the renewal of the ANPO treaty is no coincidence and Kumai even includes aerial footage of the mass protests filling the streets around the Diet building as the youth of Japan question why their nation has seen fit to make itself so complicit in the questionable foreign policy of another country. The outcome looks bleak for our protagonists who discover themselves to be mere pawns at the mercy of greater forces which cannot be circumvented or denied, but just as it all looks hopeless a new hope arises. Pledging to fight harder and continue the work which has been started, those left behind dedicate themselves to equipping the young with the tools to build a happier, fairer world in contrast to the one they seem primed to inherit from those who should know better. The final sequence shows us a young woman walking gloomily past the Diet building which seems to be looming over her as a veritable symbol of oppression but then her face brightens, her step quickens and she leaves the Diet far behind to walk forward towards the work which awaits her. 


A comprehensive overview of the 1960 ANPO protests.