The Scent of Incense (香華, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1964)

Scent of Incense still 1Sometimes regarded as overly sentimental, Keisuke Kinoshita’s later career grew progressively harder around the edges, as if he began to lose faith in the efficacy of human goodness but never it seems in its capacity for endurance. Spanning more than 50 years in the turbulent history of mid-20th century Japan, The Scent of Incense (香華, Koge) reverses the path of the hahamono in dramatising the complicated relationship of two women – a “selfish” mother and her “self-sacrificing” daughter who finds herself unable to give up on maternal approval despite the many disappointments of her life.

We open in late Meiji with a funeral interrupted by news from the Russo-Japanese war. Shortly after, young widow Ikuyo (Nobuko Otowa) argues with her mother, Tsuna (Kinuyo Tanaka), over custody of her five-year-old daughter Tomoko. Ikuyo is planning to remarry and her new husband has three children of his own. Fearing Tomoko would be an inconvenience, Ikuyo proposes to make her heir to her mother’s family, leaving her behind in her grandmother’s care. Though Tsuna loves Tomoko dearly, she resents her daughter’s intention to abandon them just because she’s got a better offer, and perhaps privately wonders how long she’ll actually stick it out for seeing as, as we later see, she has a strong tendency to give up when the going gets tough.

The prediction proves accurate. Ikuyo persuades her new husband to abandon his existing children and family home for the bright lights of Tokyo, while Tomoko and her grandmother live on alone in the country. Ikuyo has another daughter, Yasuko, but the couple quickly become impoverished without access to her husband’s family money. When Tsuna dies, Ikuyo decides to fetch Tomoko from the family residence, but then sells her to a geisha house. A few years later, she too falls into the sex trade but as a less exulted “oiran”, embarrassingly re-encountering her daughter from the other side of a brothel. Despite her abandonment and shame over her mother’s profession, Tomoko (Mariko Okada) continues to try to help her, maintaining an awkward familial relationship with a woman who only pays attention to her when she needs something.

Perhaps ironically, in one sense, Tomoko ends up becoming a successful, independent woman in pre-war Japan but is forever denied the kind of familial life she craves as a conventionally respectable wife and mother of the kind her own was not. In the course of her work, she meets dashing military cadet Ezaki (Go Kato) and, despite the warnings of her madam (Haruko Sugimura) who cautions her that she’s the type to fall in love too deeply, embarks on a longterm affair with him. Though he is obviously aware that she is a geisha, he is confident that his family would accept a marriage, but Tomoko’s hopes are later dashed when his pre-marital investigations turn up the fact that Ikuyo has worked as a “common prostitute”. Heartbroken, she resents once again paying the price for her mother’s transgressions, but does not break with her completely.

Tomoko’s liminal status is further brought home to her when her elderly patron, who has set her up with a geisha house of her own, suddenly dies and not only is she informed some days later by the madam at another house, but she’s not even permitted to attend the funeral. Another man, Nozawa (Eiji Okada), who’d had his eye on her but honestly admits that men of his class do not engage in “serious” relationships with geisha, asks her to become his mistress but she has had enough of the shadow life, vowing both that she doesn’t want to be “owned” anymore, and that her next man (if there is one) will have to marry her.

Loneliness renders that particular vow void as she finds herself embarking on a casual affair with Nozawa while Ikuyo considers getting married for the third time – this time, rather transgressively, with the family’s recently widowed former servant, Hachiran (Norihei Miki), who married into a wealthy family and apparently made something of himself. Hachiran, however, finds it difficult to shake off the old class attitudes, treating Ikuyo like a goddess while she bosses him around and makes a pretence of leaving every time she gets fed up.

Later we might wonder if Ikuyo’s sudden exit from Hachiran’s distant home is more that she missed her daughter than it was boredom with her husband. “I don’t think of her as a mother” each woman says, Ikuyo on learning that Tsuna is dangerously ill, and Tomoko when Nozawa suggests making a detour to visit Ikuyo and Hachiran. Ikuyo, it is true, is a cold woman who abandoned her daughter only to reclaim her in order to sell, later giving up two more children one of whom apparently disappears without trace. The proof of her love is found only in its end, while Tomoko suffers on all the long years otherwise alone, until in an immense act of circularity she at last becomes a kind of mother to another woman’s son.

Forever haunted by the spectre of soldiers, Tomoko loses everything in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but perseveres and rebuilds. She loses everything again in the firebombing of Tokyo, only later remembering her foresight in burying a large collection of crockery in the cellar which might allow her to open a restaurant. She resents her mother but keeps her close, while Ikuyo’s affections seem to ebb and flow as she disappears off to greener pastures only to resurface again when they’ve been thoroughly grazed. A flighty, perhaps selfish woman, Ikuyo too proves unable to sever connection from her daughter. Tomoko disapproves of her mother’s gaudiness, her unbridled lust for life and disregard of social conventions, but the two women are more alike than they first seem – each in their own way fiercely independent and unwilling to allow their desires to be defined or defeated by the world around them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Spring Dreams (春の夢, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1960)

vlcsnap-2019-01-10-00h23m29s867Let them eat sweet potato? The heartless bourgeoisie at the centre of Keisuke Kinoshita’s absurdist satire Spring Dreams (春の夢, Haru no yume) have found themselves accidentally engulfed by the revolution which seems to be attacking them on every front including from inside their palatial, Western-style mansion. Things are about to change in the Okudaira world, but then again maybe not all that much.

The Okudairas are the owners of a large scale pharmaceuticals firm. Widowed patriarch Shobei (Eitaro Ozawa) is the CEO, but he’s at the constant mercy of his mother-in-law (Chieko Higashiyama) who acts as the guardian of the family business’ legacy. Meanwhile, he has three problematic children – oldest daughter Tamiko (Yatsuko Tanami) who has become a promiscuous playgirl with a taste for “mothering” college students, Chizuko (Mariko Okada) who is the only “normal” one in the house and has fallen in love with an impoverished painter, and Mamoru (Yusuke Kawazu) who is a kind of melancholy Hamlet waxing on his existential angst while eating everything in sight.

Into this already strained household comes the unexpected figure of sweet potato salesman, Atsumi (Chishu Ryu). With the house empty for a change, romantically conflicted maid Umeko (Yukiyo Toake) calls one of her boyfriends down at the fish shop to get the potato guy to come round. Kimiko (Meiko Nakamura), the other maid, goes out to pick some up but ends up flirting with a delivery boy so sends Atsumi inside where Umeko ropes him into helping shift some furniture which is how he ends up having a minor stroke in the Okudaira’s living room. Luckily for Atsumi, the person who finds him is Shobei’s compassionate spinster secretary, Kazuko (Yoshiko Kuga), who has some sad experience in this area as her father passed away after a stroke when she was a teenager, they say because someone moved him too early. A visit from the family doctor (Shuji Sano) backs up her advice and Atsumi will be staying put in the living room for the foreseeable future.

Of course, this doesn’t go down well with most of the Okudairas. Shobei wants him gone but what can you do? Atsumi stays because on balance it would be awkward if he ended up dying and staining the Okudaira name. Sadly, greed and indifference are not unique to the bourgeoisie as we discover when a parade of “well wishers” from Atsumi’s tenement house begin showing up to see how he is. Aside from the kindly, filial Eiichi (Shinji Tanaka) who has taken time off work to look after the old man, everyone else thinks Atsumi’s time has come. They know his tragic history, that he’s all alone now since both his sons were killed in the war and the rest of his family lost in the bombing. They want to get in with him to be remembered in the will, or even get their hands on his wallet for something like an advance. Poor old Atsumi is just an object fit for exploiting – a symbol of the Okudaira’s largesse, and of a potential windfall when the inevitable happens.

Meanwhile, the winds of change are blowing. Shobei is tied up with a labour dispute at the factory, obsessed with the idea of crushing the unions while the workers’ rousing chorus of the Internationale echoes ever more loudly in the distance. Grandma advises “just fire them all”, but things aren’t as easy as they were back in Meiji. Grandma thinks Shobei is a bit useless, especially since her daughter died and he’s been allowed to get off easy. She needs to find a successor seeing as Mamoru’s too weird to take over which means one of the girls needs to get married. Tamiko’s ruled herself out thanks to her eccentric love life, which leaves only Chizuko who wants to marry a painter and has no real interest in saving the family business. Chizuko is determined to oppose the idea of an arranged marriage, she’s a post-war girl after all, but grandma is firm. When she was a girl they made her give up on her first love, who happened also to be named “Atsumi”, to marry an Okudaira and so Chizuko is merely being unreasonable.

Nevertheless the presence of Atsumi begins to soften grandma’s heart with memories of her youth and the cruelty with which her youthful dreams were stripped away. Love blossoms in the cold Okudaira mansion, genuine bonds between people are recognised while the opportunist are rejected, and the young regain their freedom from the old who now recognise how destructive the old order could be. Will the house of the Okudaira’s fall? Probably not. Revolutions don’t take hold over night, but greed at least is on its way out paving the way for a better, kinder future for all.


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

Floating Clouds (浮雲, Mikio Naruse, 1955)

(C) 1955 Toho

floating clouds poster“The past is our only reality” the melancholy Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) intones, only to be told that her past was but a dream and now she is awake. Adapted from a novel by Fumiko Hayashi – a writer whose work proved a frequent inspiration for director Mikio Naruse, Floating Clouds (浮雲, Ukigumo) is a story of the post-war era as its central pair of lovers find themselves caught in a moment of cultural confusion, unsure of how to move forward and unable to leave the traumatic past behind.

We begin with defeat. Shifting from stock footage featuring returnees from Indochina, Naruse’s camera picks out the weary figure of a young woman, Yukiko, drawing her government issue jacket around her. She eventually arrives in the city and at the home of an older man, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), whom we later find out had been her lover when they were both stationed overseas working for the forestry commission but has now returned “home” to his family. Kengo had promised to divorce his wife, Kuniko (Chieko Nakakita), in order to marry Yukiko but now declares their romance one of many casualties of war. With only the brother-in-law who once raped her left of her family, Yukiko has nowhere left to turn, eventually becoming the mistress of an American soldier but despite his earlier declarations the increasingly desperate Kengo cannot bear to let her go and their on again off again affair continues much to Yukiko’s constant suffering.

Floating Clouds is as much about the post-war world as it is about a doomed love affair (if indeed love is really what it is). Kengo and Yukiko are the floating clouds of the title, unable to settle in the chaos of defeat where there is no clear foothold to forge a path into the future, no clear direction in which to head, and no clear sign that the future itself is even a possibility. Naruse begins with the painful present marked by crushing defeat and hopelessness, flashing back to the brighter, warmer forests of Indochina to show us the lovers as they had been in a more “innocent” world. At 22, Yukiko smiles brightly and walks tall with a lightness in her step. She went to Indochina in the middle of a war to escape violence at home and, working in the peaceful environment of the forestry commission, begins to find a kind of serenity even whilst dragged into an ill-advised affair with a moody older man more out of loneliness than lust.

Yet, Yukiko’s troubles started long before the war. Assaulted by her brother-in-law she escapes Japan but falls straight into the arms of Kengo who is thought a good, trustworthy man but proves to be anything but. Kengo, frustrated and broken, attempts to lose himself through intense yet temporary relationships with younger women. Every woman he becomes involved with throughout the course of the film comes to a bad end – his wife, Kuniko, dies of tuberculosis while Kengo was unable to pay for treatment which might perhaps have saved her, an inn keeper’s wife he has a brief fling with is eventually murdered by a jealous husband (a guilty Kengo later attempts to raise money for a better lawyer to defend him), Yukiko’s life is more or less destroyed, and goodness only knows what will happen to a very young errand runner for the local bar whom he apparently kissed in a drunken moment of passion.

The lovers remain trapped by the past, even if Kengo repeatedly insists that one cannot live on memory and that their love died in Dalat where perhaps they should have remained. Yukiko’s tragedy is that she had nothing else than her love for Kengo to cling to, while Kengo’s is that he consistently tries to negate the past rather than accept it, craving the purity of memory over an attainable reality, chasing that same sense of possibility in new and younger lovers but once again squandering each opportunity for happiness through intense self obsession. “Things can’t be the same after a war”, intones Kengo as an excuse for his continued callousness, but they find themselves retreating into the past anyway, taking off for tropical, rainy Yakushima which might not be so different from the Indochina of their memories but the past is not somewhere one can easily return and there can be only tragedy for those who cannot let go of an idealised history in order to move forward into a new and uncertain world.


A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, Juzo Itami, 1987)

A Taxing Woman posterIn bubble era Japan where the champagne flows and the neon lights sparkle all night long, even the yakuza are incorporating. Having skewered complicated social mores in The Funeral and then poked fun at his nation’s obsession with food in Tampopo, Juzo Itami turns his attention to the twin concerns of money and collective responsibility in the taxation themed procedural A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, Marusa no Onna). Once again starring the director’s wife Nobuko Miyamoto, A Taxing Woman is an accidental chronicle of its age as Japanese society nears the end of a period of intense social change in which acquisition has divorced mergers, and individualism has replaced the post-war spirit of mutual cooperation.

Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto), a single mother and assistant in the tax office, has a keen eye for scammers. She demonstrates this on a stakeout with a younger female colleague in which she keeps a shrewd eye on the till at her local cafe and comes to the conclusion that they’ve been running a system where they don’t declare all of their cheques. Running her eyes over the accounts of a mom and pop grocery store, she notices some irregularities in the figures and figures out the elderly couple feed themselves from the supplies for the shop but don’t “pay” themselves for their own upkeep. That might seem “perfectly reasonable” to most people, but it’s technically a small form of “embezzlement” and Ryoko doesn’t like figures which don’t add up. Seeing as the couple probably didn’t realise what they were doing was “wrong” she lets them off, this time, as long as they go by the book in the future. A more complicated investigation of a pachinko parlour finds a more concrete form of misappropriation, but Ryoko is fooled by the owner’s sudden collapse into inconsolable grief after being caught out and leaves him in the capable hands of his confused accountant.

Nevertheless, Ryoko may have met her match in sleezy corporate yakuza Hideki Gondo (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Dressing in a series of sharp suits, Gondo walks with a pronounced limp that hints at a more violent past but as his rival from the Nakagawa gang points out, violence is a relic of a bygone era – these days gangsters go to jail for “tax evasion” as means of furthering their “business opportunities” and facilitating ongoing political corruption. Gondo’s business empire is wide ranging but mainly centres on hotels, which is how he arouses Ryoko’s interest. She looks at the numbers, does a few quick calculations, and realises either the business isn’t viable or the correct figures aren’t being reported. Ryoko doesn’t like it when the books don’t balance and so she sets her sights on the seedy Gondo, but quickly discovers she has quite a lot in common with her quarry.

Itami was apparently inspired to make A Taxing Woman after the success of Tampopo shoved him into a higher tax bracket. Given Japanese taxes (at the time) were extremely high, getting around them had become something of a national obsession even if, in contrast to the preceding 30 years or so, there was plenty of money around to begin with. More than the unexpected tendency towards civil disobedience the times seemed to cultivate, Itami homes in on the increasingly absurd desire for senseless acquisition the bubble era was engendering. Thus Gondo who owns a large family home well stocked with symbols of his rising social status, also occupies a bachelor pad where he keeps a mistress which reflects the gaudy excess of the age right down to its random stuffed hyena. Nevertheless when one of the tax clerks asks for some advice as to how to have it all, Gondo replies that that’s easy – to save money, you simply avoid spending it. Gondo lets his glass run over and delights in licking the edges. It’s all about delayed gratification, apparently, and having a secret room full of gold bars to gaze at in order to relieve some of that anxiety for the future.

Gondo, like many of his ilk, has “diversified” – yakuza are no longer thuggish gangsters but incorporated organisations operating “legitimate” businesses through “illegitimate” means. Thus we first find him using a nurse who allows herself to be molested by an elderly, terminally ill client whose identity they will steal to found a company they can quickly dissolve when he dies to shift their assets around and avoid the tax man. Later he pulls another real estate scam by pressing a desperate family but his real focus is the love hotels, whose slightly embarrassing existence ensures that not many come poking around. Ryoko, however, is unlikely to let such a large scam slide and delights as much in closing loopholes as Gondo does in finding them. Noticing a kindred spirit, Gondo quite openly asks his new tax inspector “friend” what she’d think if he married his mistress, gave her all his money, and divorced her – divorce proceeds are after all tax free. Sounds great, she tells him, as long as you trust your wife not to skip town with all the doe.

Ryoko, a modern woman of the bubble era, single and career driven, is a slightly odd figure with her officious approach to her job and unforgiving rigour. Unlike her colleague who dresses in the glamorous and gaudy fashions of the times, Ryoko wears dowdy suits and her mentor boss is always reminding her about her “bed hair”, meanwhile she stays late at the office and offers instructions to her five year old son over the phone as to how to microwave his dinner. Though there is another woman working with her at the tax office, when she’s finally promoted to full tax inspector status she finds herself in a room full of guys who apparently hardly ever go home. On her first job she’s only really brought along because she’s a woman and they want to threaten a mob boss’ mistress with a strip search to find a missing key for a safety deposit box. The mistress, however, tries to throw them off the sent by publicly stripping off and encouraging them to check her “cavity” if they’re so keen to find this key, only for Ryoko to find it under the sink while all the guys are busy being shocked. Ryoko’s methods are occasionally as underhanded as Gondo’s and, like his schemes, built on gaming the system but she’s certainly a force to be reckoned with for those considering defrauding the Japanese government.

Gondo’s schemes excel because they aren’t entirely illegal, only clever ways of manipulating the system, but they’re also a symptom of a large conspiracy which encompasses improprieties right up the chain as banks, corporations, and politicians are all part of the same dark economy managed by a corporatising yakuza. Gondo takes frequent calls from a local representative who often “helps him out”. Later the same representative tries to put pressure on the tax office to back off, but Ryoko’s boss points out that he doesn’t need to because the press are already on the story so he should probably get started on his damage control rather than bothering public servants. Gondo and Ryoko, perhaps as bad as each other, lock horns in a battle wills but discover a strange degree of respect arising between them in having discovered a worthy adversary. There’s something undeniably absurd in Ryoko’s firm determination to catch out struggling businesses and the confused elderly with the same tenacity as taking on a yakuza fronted conspiracy, and there’s something undeniably amusing in Gondo’s attempts to beat the man by playing him at his own game, but the overall winner is Itami who once again succeeds in skewering his nation’s often contradictory social codes with gentle humour and a dispassionate, forgiving eye.


Currently available to stream in the US/UK via FilmStruck.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Junya Sato, 1977)

proof of the man posterOne could argue that Japanese cinema had been an intensely Japanese affair throughout the golden age even as the old school student system experienced its slow decline. During the ‘70s, something appears to shift – the canvases widen and mainstream blockbusters looking for a little something extra quite frequently ventured abroad to find it. Pioneering producer Haruki Kadokawa was particularly forward looking in this regard and made several attempts to crack the American market in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before settling on creating his own mini industry to place a stranglehold around Japanese pop culture. Sadly, his efforts mostly failed and faced the same sorry fate of being entirely recut and dubbed into English with new Amero-centric scenes inserted into the narrative. Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Ningen no Shomei) is one of Kadokawa’s earliest attempts at a Japanese/American co-production and, under the steady hands of Junya Sato, is a mostly successful one even if it did not succeed in terms of overseas impact.

Based on the hugely popular novel by Seiichi Morimura, Proof of the Man stars the then up and coming Yusaku Matsuda as an ace detective, Munesue, investigating the death by stabbing of a young American man in Japan. The body was discovered in a hotel lift on the same night as a high profile fashion event took place with top designer Kyoko Yasugi (Mariko Okada) in attendance. After the show, an adulterous couple give evidence to the police about finding the body, but the woman, Naomi (Bunjaku Han), insists on getting out of the taxi that’s taking them home a little early in case they’re seen together. On a night pouring with rain, she’s knocked down and killed by a young boy racer and his girlfriend who decide to dispose of the body to cover up the crime rather than face the consequences. Kyohei (Koichi Iwaki), the driver of the car, is none other than the son of the fashion designer at whose show the central murder has taken place.

Like many Japanese mysteries of the time, Proof of the Man touches on hot-button issues of the immediate post-war period from the mixed race children fathered by American GIs and their precarious position in Japanese society, to the brutality of occupation forces, and the desperation and cruelty which dominated lives in an era of chaos and confusion. The only clues the police have are that the victim, Johnny Hayward (Joe Yamanaka), said something which sounded like “straw hat” just before he died, and that he was carrying a book of poetry by Yaso Saiji published in 1947. Discovering that Hayward was a working-class man of African-American heritage from Harlem whose father took a significant risk in getting the money together for his son to go to Japan (hardly a headline holiday destination in 1977), the police are even more baffled and enlist the assistance of some regular New York cops to help them figure out just why he might have made such an unlikely journey.

The New York cops have their own wartime histories to battle and are not completely sympathetic towards the idea of helping the Japanese police. Munesue, of a younger generation, is also harbouring a degree of prejudice and resentment against Americans which stems back to a traumatic incident in a market square in which he witnessed the attempted gang rape of a young woman by a rabid group of GIs. Munesue’s father tried to intervene (the only person to do so) but was brutally beaten himself, passing away a short time later leaving Munesue an orphaned street kid. In an effort to appeal to US audiences, Proof of the Man was eventually recut with additional action scenes and greater emphasis placed on the stateside story. Doubtless, the ongoing scenes of brutality instigated by the American troops would not be particularly palatable to American audiences but they are central to the essential revelations which ultimately call for a kind of healing between the two nations as they each consider the ugliness of the immediate post-war era the burying of which is the true reason behind the original murder and a secondary cause of the events which led to the death of Naomi.

Naomi’s death speaks more towards a kind of growing ugliness in Japan’s ongoing economic recovery and rising international profile. Kyohei is the son not only of high profile fashion designer Kyoko, but can also count a high profile politician (Toshiro Mifune) as his father. Spoiled and useless, Kyohei is the very worst in entitled, privileged youth driving around in flashy cars and going to parties, living frivolously on inherited wealth whilst condemning the source of his funds as morally corrupt citing his mother’s acquiescence to his father’s frequent affairs. Yet aside from anything else, Kyohei is completely ill-equipped for independent living and is essentially still a child who cannot get by without the physical and moral support of his adoring mother. 

Johnny Hayward, by contrast, retains a kind of innocent purity and is apparently in Japan in the hope of restoring a long severed connection as echoed in Saiji’s poem about a straw hat lost by a small boy on a beautiful summer’s day. The words of the poem are later repeated in the title song by musician Joe Yamanaka who plays Johnny in the film and is of mixed race himself. As in most Japanese mystery stories, the root of all evil is a secret – in this case those of the immediate post-war period and things people did to survive it which they now regret and fear the “shame” of should they ever be revealed. Some of these secrets are not surmountable and cannot be forgiven or overcome, some atonements (poetic or otherwise) are necessary but the tone which Sato seems to strike encourages a kind of peacemaking, a laying to rest of the past which is only born of acceptance and openness. Despite the bleakness of its premiss on both sides of the ocean, Proof of the Man does manage to find a degree of hopefulness for the future in assuming this task of mutual forgiveness and understanding can be accomplished without further bloodshed.


Original trailer (no subtitles) – includes major plot spoilers!

Elegy of the North (挽歌, Heinosuke Gosho, 1957)

elegy of the north posterHeinosuke Gosho is perhaps among the most neglected Japanese directors of the “golden age”. A pioneer of the “shomingeki”, Gosho’s work is marked by a profound humanism but also a refusal to reduce the complexity of human emotions to the superficially immediate. Elegy of the North (挽歌, Banka) takes him much further in the direction of standard melodrama than he would usually venture, echoing contemporary American or European romantic dramas filled with soaring scores and moments of intense emotion bridged by long periods of restraint and repression. Yet it is also among the most psychologically complex of Gosho’s narratives, telling stories of death and rebirth in place of the usual coming of age and first heartbreak for which the genre is so well loved. In Reiko (Yoshiko Kuga) he presents us with a heroine we can’t be sure we like and certainly are not intended to approve of even as we sympathise with her pain and long for an end to her (often self inflicted) suffering.

Walking along the smoking volcanic soil of frozen Hokkaido, Reiko offers us the first of many voiceovers in which she tells us about her left arm – withered and almost numb due to childhood arthritis. When her withered arm is bitten by a dog, Nellie, owned by a melancholy architect, Katsuragi (Masayuki Mori), she barely feels it but Katsuragi is mortified. “She’s never bitten anyone before”, he tells Reiko by way of explanation, “I’ve never been bitten before”, Reiko fires back but bitten she certainly has been. Captivated by the idea of Katsuragi, she doesn’t immediately take him up on the offer of coming to his house and possibly adopting a puppy but catches sight of him around town and then decides to pay him a visit. He isn’t in, but Akiko (Mieko Takamine), his wife, is. Reiko didn’t want to see Katsuragi’s wife so she makes a speedy escape.

Having caught sight of Akiko, Reiko is equally intrigued. Akiko, as Reiko discovers, is having an (unhappy) affair with a much younger medical student, Tatsumi (Fumio Watanabe). Failing to read the emotional landscape of this sorry scene, Reiko regards this information as a juicy piece of gossip in her ongoing campaign to win over Katsuragi. She spies on the lovers, childishly eavesdropping on them in a local cafe, even suddenly delivering their coffee for them so she can get a proper look at Akiko – not that she really sees her or the distraught look on her face, she merely observes her rival – the wicked woman who has betrayed her beloved Katsuragi.

Reiko is constantly berated by her father and grandmother for her unwomanliness. Compared with the typical Japanese woman of the time and particularly with the stoic yet miserable Akiko, Reiko can certainly be thought unusual. Dressing in androgynous loose trousers, polo neck jumper and overcoat, without makeup and with unkempt hair, her aesthetic is one of rambunctious child or rebellious teenager. Her habit of throwing out awkward, inappropriate questions at first seems like childish ineptness but later seems calculated to unbalance. She is often cruel, perhaps deliberately so, but then remorseful (if only for selfish reasons). Though Reiko seems to feel that it’s her disability that marks her out as an outcast, unfit for marriage or a “normal” life, her family appear much more concerned with her unconventional rejection of femininity in her boldness, masculine dress, and refusal to learn the traditionally feminine crafts of housework and cookery so necessary to becoming the ideal wife.

What Reiko sees in Akiko is an image of her idealised self – beautiful, poised, elegant, and the wife of Katsuragi. As part of her nefarious plan, Reiko decides to “befriend” Akiko while Katsuragi is away on a business trip. What she never expected is that she would come to genuinely care for both Akiko and the couple’s small daughter Kumiko (Etsuko Nakazato), making her position as a potential home wrecker impossible. Reiko’s father blames himself for her unwomanliness, having raised her alone after his wife died, denying her of a maternal influence from whom she would have learned all the essentials of femininity which she now seems to lack. Akiko, a few years older, becomes both friend and surrogate mother – Reiko even begins calling her “Mamma” just as Kumiko does. Akiko’s distant poise begins to thaw when Reiko crawls in through her door one night after contracting pneumonia. Nursing Reiko as a mother would brings the two women closer together but it also unwittingly drives them apart in deepening Reiko’s sense of guilt in being torn between two loves in the knowledge that she must destroy one of them or herself.

Akiko, the tragic heroine of the piece, remains a cypher precisely because of her adherence to the rules of traditional femininity. Reiko is first drawn to her because of her sad smile – something she later brings up again in their fiercely undramatic yet heartrending parting scene as Reiko tries to undo the harm she has just done only for Akiko to mildly reject her by instructing her that she needs to take better care of herself. Her relationship with Katsuragi appears to have floundered and, trapped in a lonely marriage, Akiko has found herself in an emotionally draining entanglement with a younger man whose life she fears she is ruining. Tatsumi, needled, is irritated by Reiko’s buzzing around Akiko, asking her an awkward question of his own in accusing her of being a lesbian, to which Reiko gives one of her infuriately barbed replies with “call it what you want”. Reiko’s intentions probably do not run that way (at least consciously), so much as she longs for the love and affection she missed out on after losing her mother at such a young age. Akiko, however, may see things differently. Her life appears lonely, and her friendship with Reiko, whom she brands “reckless yet somehow cheerful” (again, like an infuriating child), is one of its few bright spots. The betrayal is not so much that Reiko has slept with her husband, but that Reiko has deliberately ruined their friendship by exposing it as a cruel ruse in the most wounding of ways. The last time we see Akiko, she is wearing the necklace that Reiko gave to her – a sure sign that her final decision is, in someway, taken on Reiko’s behalf.

Reiko’s tragedy is that her intense self loathing which she attributes to her withered arm, leads her to suspect each act of kindness is only one of pity and that no one can truly love her, they’re just overcompensating because of her “deformity”. At the beginning of the film she asks herself if her mind is as warped as her body. Her actions are often “warped”, as in she works against herself and ultimately destroys the very thing she wanted most yet there is a kind of settling that occurs through her interactions with Akiko. In the final sequence, Reiko has shed her dowdy, dark coloured, worn trousers and jumpers for an elegant skirt and blouse, and has learned to accommodate a certain level of domesticity. Even if she is merely echoing Akiko, Reiko has at least attempted to move forward in exploring the areas of femininity she had hitherto rejected outright. That it is not to say her “unusual” nature is tamed in favour of conforming to social norms, merely that a side of herself which she had decided to keep locked has been opened up for examination (and may then be rejected with greater self knowledge). Elegy of the North lives up to its name in singing a long and painful song of mourning, but Gosho ends on a note of hopeful, in pained, optimism for his contrary heroine, literally forced to move past the scene of her crime towards a possibly happier future.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Farewell Rabaul (さらばラバウル, Ishiro Honda, 1954)

Farewell Rabaul dvd coverReleased in 1954, Farewell Rabaul (さらばラバウル, Saraba Rabaul) was the last in a string of war films directed by Ishiro Honda for Toho immediately before the mega hit Godzilla redefined his career and turned him into a director of science fiction and special effects movies. Like the later tokusatsu classics, Honda worked alongside Eiji Tsuburaya to craft the film’s effects which are largely used to recreate the epic dogfights taking place over the island as the airmen and ground crew come to terms with the imminent arrival of American forces. Though he takes care to show the bravery and determination of the Japanese pilots, Honda’s attitudes to the war and the government who waged it are not so kind.

Late into the conflict, at an outpost in the Papa New Guinean city of Rabaul, ace pilot Captain Wakabayashi (Ryo Ikebe) leads a rapidly depleting squad of airmen trying to defend Japanese forces from American air attacks. Known as “Devil” Wakabayashi, he rules with an iron fist – taking issue with men who spend their time in local bars and pointedly refusing to send rescue craft for crashed pilots. Ruthless and cold as he seems, the war is starting to get to Wakabayashi and his resolve crumbles when faced with a gracious American POW and the attentions of a kindly nurse, Komatsu (Mariko Okada).

Honda keeps the action to a minimum, preferring to focus on the life within the military base. Though the effects on the local population are not much addressed, the opening scenes take place in a bar in which Papa New Guinean women dance to tribal drums while Japanese military personnel drink and watch. The waitresses are largely Japanese women dressed in kimono, though it seems the exoticism of local girl Kim (Akemi Negishi), dancing barefoot with flowers in her hair, is the main draw. Eventually Kim falls in love with a Japanese soldier and the two plan to flee but fate always gets in the way.

Wakabayashi, rechristened the “Devil” by Kim – a nickname which seems to stick, objects to his men blowing off steam in the bar for purely practical reasons – he needs them at top form for an upcoming mission and a hungover pilot could be a risk to the entire squad. Walking around looking sullen and refusing to explain himself, it’s no wonder Wakabayashi is unpopular with some of the men even if his skills are widely recognised. Asked to send a rescue squad for a lost pilot, Wakabayashi’s reply is a flat no with no further details offered. Only when a junior officer interjects during a briefing does he offer his reasoning – the crash site is in enemy territory and it’s too risky to send more men in to fetch one pilot who is probably already dead. His reasoning is sound and probably the correct command decision but the cutting coldness with which he delivers his judgement does little to assuage his reputation as a heartless misanthrope.

This is, however, not quite the case. When an extremely young member of his squad is shot down Wakabayashi shouts out to him, trying to advise the rookie on ways to control the aircraft but all to no avail. The pilot cannot bail out as Japanese pilots, particularly those flying the featherweight 0 fighters, are not equipped with parachutes. This is brought up again when a downed American pilot is brought in as a POW. The journalist attached to the unit is able to speak fluent English and interprets for Wakabayashi and the others as the American gives them an improbably frank analysis of Japanese airborne warfare. He tells them that the Americans were once afraid of the 0s and their high speed manoeuvring but have figured out their weaknesses. In the hands of a skilled pilot, the 0 is a powerful weapon but in unskilled hands it’s a liability – its lightweight form makes it easy pickings when the pilot does not know how to fly defensively. If it weren’t for this fighter they call “Devil” they’d be picking them off with ease. The lack of parachutes came as a surprise to the Americans. The 0s need to be as light as possible, but no one could believe that the Japanese government valued life so cheaply that they’d send a man up there with no way down. That’s why, the American says, they will win – no government so unwilling to look after its own could ever expect to.

The senselessness of it all eventually gets to Wakabayshi, even leading him to reverse his original stance and proceed into enemy territory to rescue a fallen comrade himself. He is, however, wounded, his plane damaged, and his friend doesn’t make it. Rabaul falls, and its hero falls with it in a turn which is both melancholy and defiant. Honda refuses to glorify the destruction but ends on a note of sadness, reprising the titular song sung by the women aboard a boat they hope will take them home but that, like everything else, remains so hopelessly uncertain.