Supermarket Woman (スーパーの女, Juzo Itami, 1996)

By 1996 Japan had entered an extended period of economic stagnation which signalled the end of post-war aspiration but for many at least the false promises of the Bubble era proved hard to dispel. In what would be his penultimate film, Supermarket Woman (スーパーの女, Supa no Onna), Juzo Itami turns his attentions to the insular world of the nation’s family-held, independent supermarkets to ask a few questions about integrity in business which cut straight to the heart of what kind of society post-Bubble Japan intended to be given yet another opportunity to make itself anew. 

As the opening text crawl explains, this is a story not about giant supermarket chains but your friendly indie local. “Honest Mart” is a family-owned, mid-range supermarket in a declining industrial area nominally run by absentee CEO Goro (Masahiko Tsugawa) who was bequeathed the place by his father but is a melancholy drunkard delegating responsibility to his manager. The store has a huge problem in that a rival has recently re-opened under the new name “Discount Demon” and seems primed to steal all their business. On a stakeout of the new place, Goro runs into a childhood friend, Hanako (Nobuko Miyamoto), who is now a widow returning to the area. With her lifelong experience as a veteran housewife, Hanako knows a few things about supermarkets and she’s not very impressed with Discount Demon, doing a few quick calculations to realise the supposed discounts aren’t as enticing as they seem while common gimmicks like the all pervasive red glow that makes their meat look fresher than it really is only irritate her. Goro asks her for a “professional” opinion on Honest Mart without telling her who he is, only to discover she’s even less impressed with them, certain that his place is on the way out thanks to its dated decor, uninviting atmosphere, and low quality produce. 

The irony is Honest Mart is not much better than Discount Demon, both stores are subject to the same industry standards in which a certain degree of obfuscation is permissible. “In business honesty doesn’t pay” Hanako is told by the onsite butcher after she questions his tendency to mix meats to pass them off as more expensive cuts, while she later discovers that the store engages in the practice of repackaging unsold meat and fish with new expiration dates and is not very particular about its suppliers when it comes to buying in ready-made products. Brought on board to save the store, Hanako breezes in with a new mission to win the hearts and minds of her customers, and she can’t do that if she can’t have confidence in her stock. In any case, her the customer is always right policy quickly brings her into conflict with the store manager, an older more conservative man who actively resists innovation and resents having his authority undercut by an interloping woman. 

Meanwhile, we can also see that customer attitudes have changed. There’s a problem with availability of trolleys because, perhaps unusually for Japan, customers are just abandoning them willy-nilly in the carpark instead of retuning them to the trolley point like responsible shoppers. One man is even for some reason intent on stealing a large number of shopping baskets, caught by Hanako loading them into his car. Everybody wants cheap, which is understandable especially given the economic situation, and they might even be a little underhanded when it comes to getting it, but they also expect a reasonable level of quality and to be able to trust that the food they’re buying is safe to feed their families. Hanako is most alarmed that the ladies who work in the kitchen area, who are obviously wives and mothers themselves, do not shop at Honest Mart because they know what goes on at the store and they don’t trust it. 

“A housewife knows” Hanako is fond is saying. Her revolution is in essence a vindication of “the housewife”, perhaps the most maligned and dismissed figure of the mid-90s society, putting to good use all of her veteran experience both of running a home and of working a series of part-time jobs including those in supermarkets which she claims to love. Approaching the problem from the point of view of a consumer, she attempts to help Goro achieve his dream of making Honest Mart number one in Japan not through making it the most financially successful but the most loved by listening to women like her in the form of a focus group of local aunties some of whom had previously been serial complainers. 

Then again, some of her decisions are in a sense contradictory as she attempts to streamline the business along classically capitalistic lines in suggesting that the store doesn’t really need its overqualified butcher and fishmonger because the part-timers could be trained to do a “good enough” job. “Good enough” is in a sense her business philosophy, only not in the sense that somewhere like Discount Demon which falsely advertises regular steak as discount Wagyu means it, rather that her customers are after an everyday level of produce and so it’s not surprising that premium meats don’t sell. She wants to get rid of the butcher, who turns out to be on the fiddle, and the melancholy fishmonger disappointed no one wants his top quality seafood, because their “artistic temperament” is disruptive to the flow of the store and their presence is perhaps emblematic of the bloated, pretentious management style which is holding it back. 

Positioning the “housewife’s choice” as the ultimate seal of approval, Supermarket Woman advocates for a return to wholesome, small-town values, prioritising a sense of integrity as Honest Mart projects itself as a corporate force their customers can trust, perhaps anticipating a trend in dedicating itself to providing good quality fresh produce at fair prices in direct opposition to Discount Demon and its underhanded trickery. “Honest Mart keeps its word” Goro assures, pledging to honour a mistaken ad which promised eggs at prices so good it caused minor riot. In the end, it’s all about trust and integrity. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything and the housewives of post-Bubble Japan will it seems vote with their feet. 


Currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sing, Young People (歌え若人達, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

Keisuke Kinoshita has sometimes been dismissed by Western critics for his supposed sentimentality, but his mid-career comedies can be surprisingly cynical. Scripted not by Kinoshita but Taichi Yamada, 1963’s Sing, Young People (歌え若人達, Utae Wakodotachi) is in someways an exception to the rule, a breezy take on the student comedy updated for the present day, but underneath all the absurdist humour and jibs about youthful ennui is a real sense of adolescent hopelessness as these aimless young men ponder their “pitch-black” futures in a rapidly changing Japan where the best they can hope for is fulfilling the salaryman dream.  

Shooting in glorious colour, Kinoshita opens with a lengthly pan over contemporary Tokyo which the jaunty voice over describes as “the number-one city in the world” before homing in on the incongruous figure of a strangely dressed man holding a sign advertising “sensual massage beauties”. A relic of an earlier advertising age, the wandering sign man nevertheless catches sight of someone even “weirder” than he is, a student wearing a student’s cap! Kinoshita then takes us on a brief detour through Japan’s major universities demonstrating that no one is so uncool as to wear a student’s cap in the age of protest, drawing a direct contrast to the student comedies of old while showing us a series of scenes of students “playing” hard with part-time jobs in bands or as models, training hard in preparation for the upcoming Olympics, fomenting the revolution, or fighting in the streets. In the first of many meta touches, our hero, Mori, is eventually woken by the narrator after falling asleep in class, his eyes “gleaming with hopes for the future”. 

Or, perhaps not, he’s just tired. Mori (Tsutomu Matsukawa) is as he describes himself a man without hopes or dreams who believes that the road ahead of him is “pitch black”. Dropping a brush from the window washers’ platform at one of his part-time jobs, he asks himself if there shouldn’t be more to life than this. The only son of his widowed mother, he’s pinned everything on graduating from a top university but feels powerless and empty, adrift in the post-war landscape. Where his calculating friend Miyamoto (Yusuke Kawazu) fills the void with romance and a determination to “get lots of As” and then land a top job, his roommate Okada (Shinichiro Mikami) earnestly studies hard afraid to disappoint his austere family but also quietly resentful in his lack of autonomy, and the dopey Hirao (Kei Yamamoto) simply goes about being nice to people more or less forcing them to eat the traditional treats his loving mother is forever sending. 

Yet for all the bleakness Mori seems to see in his future, he only ever falls up. Luck follows him and he’s presented with ever more fantastic opportunities at every turn. In fact, it’s his slightly grumpy expression as he cleans the windows of an office building that leads to them snapping a picture and making him a cover star without ever bothering to ask his permission though they do eventually pay. Still Mori remains indifferent, telling a reporter who tries to interview him that he had nothing to do with the cover, he has no dreams or aspirations for the future but lives his life day by day. He describes himself only as “nervous”. His words run ironically over the magazine literally becoming tomorrow’s chip paper, used by a stall owner to wrap her croquettes, as a stand for a hot pot, and otherwise bundled up to be pulped. Nevertheless, the cover leads to great opportunities from a TV network looking for a fresh face to front their new youth-orientated drama serial. 

Despite all the promise, Mori remains indifferent, later irritating a new colleague and potential love interest (Shima Iwashita) when he idly suggests he might just give up acting and fall back on the salaryman dream. As she points out, she had to fight all the way to achieve her dreams of becoming an actress so hearing someone say they’re going to throw away a tremendous opportunity that came to them entirely by chance is mildly offensive. Miyamoto meanwhile is growing lowkey resentful, realising that maybe nothing matters after all it’s all just dumb luck. Mori deliberately didn’t do anything because he thought his life was pointless but everything has landed right at his feet while Miyamoto’s life is crumbling. He’s lost all his girlfriends and endured a lonely New Year alone in the dorm, coming to the conclusion that his future really is “pitch black”.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to remain resentful about a friend’s accidental success and so each of the men eventually finds direction in even in directionlessness. Mori realises that he might as well ride his wave of fame for as long as it lasts, accepting in part at least his sense of powerlessness, while Okada does the reverse in deciding to rebel against his authoritarian family by marrying in secret. Miyamoto resolves to make a success of himself in his own way, and Hirao seemingly accepts the hand fate has dealt him with good humour. Kinoshita ramps up the meta comedy with Mori joining Shochiku, encouraged to try and work for that “excellent” director Keisuke Kinoshita, later referencing Garden of Women, while Mariko Okada and Keiji Sada turn up as onstage guests at an event launching him as a young actor. Playfully using outdated, quirky screen wipes and opening with an artsy title sequence featuring colourful confetti falling up, Kinoshita perhaps adopts a slightly ironic tone in satirising the all pervasive sense of confusion and hopelessness among the younger generation but does so with only sympathy for those coming of age in uncertain times. 


Night and Fog in Japan (日本の夜と霧, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

night and fog in japan posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Nagisa Oshima entered the world of filmmaking almost by chance. While studying law at Kyoto University, he’d become deeply involved in the leftist student movement and reportedly joined Shochiku’s assistant director program in 1954 solely because no other company would hire him. His path there too was hardly typical and saw him become a leading light of the studio’s extremely temporary bid to play Nikkatsu at their own game with a series of gritty youth dramas which included the melancholy Cruel Story of Youth and infinitely bleak The Sun’s Burial. It was his fourth film, however, which proved the most controversial perhaps unexpectedly given its otherwise dry subject matter. Named for Alain Resnais’ incendiary documentary, Night and Fog in Japan (日本の夜と霧, Nihon no Yoru to Kiri) was pulled from cinema screens following the assassination of the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party by a right-wing nationalist just three days after the film’s release.

Oshima’s film is in itself an attack on the left, though one from an entirely different angle. The failure of the student movement would become a preoccupation for the left-leaning avant-garde movement of the early ‘70s, but one could argue that though the movement had been dealt a huge blow by the failure to stop the renewal of the ANPO treaty despite the mass protests of 1960 it had not yet “failed”. Indeed, protests continued and intensified throughout the 1960s until weakened by a government crackdown in the run up to the treaty’s renewal in 1970 and were only really ended by the horror exposed by the Asama-Sanso Incident in 1972.

In a strange way, Oshima’s impassioned attack on the misguided rigidity of radical student politics almost presages the dark place into which the movement would eventually fall through the already emergent generation gap between the earnest contemporary students keeping up the fight, and the jaded post-war generation who have long since given up the struggle for bourgeois comforts. He opens, of all places, at a wedding notable for its solemnity as a young student radical, Reiko (Miyuki Kuwano), weds a newspaper reporter, Nozawa (Fumio Watanabe), she met at the climatic June 15 protest. The wedding is later interrupted by two melancholy outsiders – one the leader of the students currently on the run from the police, and the other an older man coming in from the cold, though both with the intention of confrontation.

As we might have assumed, the younger man, Ota (Masahiko Tsugawa), is not the jilted lover of the bride. It’s the revolution he’s come to accuse her of betraying through her rejection of their comrade, Kitami – missing since the failed raid on the Diet building, whom Ota assumes to have been her lover now thrown over for the “cage” of family. Reiko’s “betrayal” is mirrored in the drama between the older generation as we gradually discover the complicated history between the groom and Misako (Akiko Koyama), the dejected wife of the current head of the Socialist Party, Nakayama (Takao Yoshizawa).

The demands of ideological purity are mirrored in the strangely moralistic attempts to police female desire in suggesting that both women have made “practical” choices at the expense of their personal integrity. The major drama, however, revolves around the older students’ overreaction to having caught a “spy” in their dorm, keeping him imprisoned while they try to bully him into betraying his true masters. One student however, Takao (Masahiro Sakon) – nursing an unrequited crush on Misako, refuses to believe the man is guilty and is thereafter accused of betraying the movement by allowing him to escape. Takumi (Ichiro Hayami), the second ghost at the feast, has come to ask if it was the movement which betrayed Takao by ignoring his emotional fragility, causing him to abandon faith not only in it but in himself.

Throughout it all, Nakayama remains the stoical voice of authority, blaming anything negative on the nebulous figure of the “imperialists” while insisting on superficial “unity” which really means do as I say and don’t rock the boat. The students want more and they look to the older generation for guidance, but the old guard have lost the faith. Even among the youngsters, few think the cause can be won. The struggle is between those who give up, and those who keep fighting anyway for the right to “march towards a brighter tomorrow”. As a student, Nakayama had dismissed the “spy” as unworthy of their revolution because he was an uneducated worker, but now dismisses the students because they exist outside of the economic structure and therefore cannot occupy a space within a workers’ movement. This wedding, which might have been the unification bringing together the old and the new, has become a funeral that marks the death of post-war idealism, betrayed by the bourgeois need for respectability. The students know their movement will fail, but they move anyway. Nakayama, meanwhile, makes speeches about unity to his dejected contemporaries, berating the students for their lack of “realism” as if insisting that the route to social change lies in concession to populist conservatism.

“I feel empty and sad” the post-war students lament, watching their movement withering on the vine. Betrayed by the older generation, the contemporary students have no role models to follow and no real hope for the future, but still they fight on earnestly. A fierce condemnation of political hypocrisy, dogmatic rigidity, and bourgeois paternalism, Night and Fog in Japan sees no way out of its existential malaise as its would-be-revolutionaries remain lost in a fog confusion with no exit in sight.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Sun’s Burial (太陽の墓場, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

sun's burial poster“Love and hope for the youth!” reads a prominent sign in the middle of a hopeless slum in Oshima’s bitterly nihilistic youth drama The Sun’s Burial (太陽の墓場, Taiyo no Hakaba). Then at Shochiku, home of polite melodrama, Oshima was one of a handful of youngsters (that also included Kiju Yoshida and Masahiro Shinoda) bumped up to director ahead of schedule in an attempt to find voices who could speak to youth in much the same way Nikkatsu was doing with its incendiary tales of the new bright young things. The Sun’s Burial would be Oshima’s penultimate film for the studio before he stormed out after they pulled his next film Night and Fog in Japan from cinemas fearing its fierce critique of a divided left torn apart by dogmatic rigidity and generational conflict was too on the nose in wake of the assassination of the Socialist Party leader by a right-wing nationalist.

Set in the slums of Kamagasaki, Osaka, The Sun’s Burial follows a collection of desperate adolescents trying to survive in an intensely hostile environment. Our “hero” the conflicted Takeshi (Isao Sasaki), is inducted into a street gang after getting beaten up by young tough Yasu (Yusuke Kawazu). Along with his friend Tatsu, he is originally quite taken with the idea of becoming a gang member, but blanches when he passes a room full of captive women, one of whom is being beaten for having conceived a child.

Meanwhile, across town, his polar opposite, the cynical survivor Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) is running a blood racket, literally bleeding the proletariat to sell their bodily fluids on to the cosmetics trade. Technically operating under the aegis of her petty thug father Yosematsu (Junzaburo Ban), Hanako is in business with a doctor and a couple of minions but later has her authority undercut by a mad old imperialist known as “The Agitator” (Eitaro Ozawa) who keeps insisting that the Russians are coming and they have to be ready.

Not permitted to maintain power in her own right, Hanako is forced to shuttle between male protectors, occasionally pitting one against the other in a bid to come out on top. In addition to her blood business, she also engages in casual sex work and seemingly has no qualms about wielding her sex appeal as a weapon in order to manipulate male power. Pushed out by The Agitator, she turns to gang leader Shin (Masahiko Tsugawa) for a temporary alliance. When he too cuts her out, she thinks about tipping off the area’s big Yakuza boss, Ohama (Gen Shimizu), to Shin’s whereabouts, always looking a few moves ahead while the callous Shin remains wary and ever vigilant.

In a move which surprises and disturbs the naive Takeshi who is nevertheless captivated by her cynical self assurance, Hanako is entirely indifferent to the suffering of other women, willingly co-operating with Shin while knowing that he runs an abusive prostitution ring. Takeshi’s loss of innocence comes early when he is sent to go out and find some victims with his friend Tatsu who convinces him to club a high school boy canoodling with his girlfriend over the head so they can rob him. Takeshi looks on in mild confusion and horror as Tetsu proceeds to rape the young woman, turning to Hanako for guidance but all she does is shrug. The high school boy later commits suicide, presumably unable to bear the shame of having failed to protect his girlfriend, leaving Takeshi feeling as if he has blood on his hands. To Hanako, however, the boy’s death is no one’s fault but his own, a product of his own weakness. A strong person, she posits, would have sought revenge. What sort of person ups and dies without a fight?

Meanwhile, back in the slum, a man hangs himself after falling victim to The Agitator’s latest scam – getting involved with a dodgy gangster’s exploitative scheme to buy up legitimate IDs from desperate people and sell them to even more desperate undocumented migrant workers. Full of tales of Empire, The Agitator declares that he’s going to march them all up to Tokyo and teach those noisy students a lesson, proving somehow that populist militarism is not yet dead in quiet corners of Japan. The Agitator has several followers among the middle-aged and older denizens of Kamagasaki, taken in by his bluster and lacking any other sources of hope. They follow him because he demands to be followed and because he made them a series of promises. Only when they realise his plans rest on exploiting people even more unfortunate than they are, and suddenly realising he never got round to paying them either, do they finally rebel, burning down the slum in protest of their hopeless circumstances.

Berated for her cynicism by the now compromised Takeshi, Hanako offers only the defence that she has survived and will continue to survive where others may not if they allow their consciences to take precedence over self-preservation. Bleak as it gets, Oshima ends on with a note of anxious industry as his determined heroine dusts herself off and gets “back to work”, escaping from the ruins of the burned out slum in the bright morning sun. “No hope for Japan now” an embittered member of the older generation laments, and Oshima, it seems, is apt to agree.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Good-for-Nothing (ろくでなし, Kiju Yoshida, 1960)

Good for nothing dvd coverIn the mid-1950s, Nikkatsu had accidentally provoked social outrage with a series of films later known as “taiyozoku” or Sun Tribe movies which revolved around aimless post-war youth who largely rejected the strident ambition of their parents for lives of dissipated abandonment. While the original author of the book that kickstarted it all fully intended to create moral panic, Nikkatsu perhaps hoped to capitalise on the inherent cool of adolescent rebellion and did it seems find an audience they hoped to continue courting with their youth movies even after the forced end of the taiyozoku movement. Shochiku, the home of polite melodrama, was a world away from Nikkatsu’s brand of angry young man but declining receipts encouraged them to get in on the action and so they began giving some of their younger ADs a chance to direct features in the hope of finding bold new voices who could speak to youth (a demographic their usual fare was not perhaps reaching).

Among these directors, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida would go on to greater heights of avant-garde cinema but his Shochiku debut is perhaps more or less the kind of thing the studio was looking for. Released in the same year as Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones, Good-for-Nothing (ろくでなし, Rokudenashi) is another tale of youth gone wild only one with a much deeper sense of self pitying futility which casts its ill-fated hero as a noble soul left without purpose in the rapidly stratifying society of post-war Japan.

Against a heady yet whimsical jazz score (composed by Shochiku stalwart Chuji Kinoshita, brother of Keisuke), the action opens with a gang of petty delinquents kidnapping the secretary of one of their fathers, Hisako (Kakuko Chino), as she leaves the local bank. Toshio (Yusuke Kawazu) is in many ways the typical taiyozoku hero in that he is extremely rich and therefore filled with ennui because his life has no real purpose. He is not, however, the hero of Yoshida’s film. Gradually, our focus shifts to the intense figure of university student Jun (Masahiko Tsugawa) who, unlike the other members of the gang, remains internally conflicted as to the forward direction of his life and his complicated relationship with Toshio.

Whereas the taiyozoku films most often focussed on the bright young things of the new era – the children of those who had become rich in the post-war economy but had few values and were content to bury themselves in imported hedonistic pleasures, the “heroes” of Good-For-Nothing are the collaborators. If the taiyozoku were despised by the older generation as parasites living off inherited wealth and contributing nothing to society, then the guys like Jun are the parasites on the parasites. This is perhaps a view Jun holds of himself, wilfully embracing the “rokudenashi” label as expression of his intense self-loathing and acting in accordance with its values as an act almost of self-harm.

Toshio rebels against his sense of powerlessness in the darkest of ways – by setting his sights on taking his father’s “haughty” secretary down a peg or two. He may not like her confidence, self possession, and earnest determination towards honest industry but it is exactly these qualities which begin to attract Jun as representative of the society he has rejected but secretly longs to belong to. A poor student, he’s tried doing things the “right” way – part-time jobs, hard work etc, but has little interest in the student movement and views himself as “weak” for allowing himself to be swayed by the easy life of those like Toshio even in the full knowledge that he cannot live that way forever and his time at the beach will be as short as a summer vacation.

Hisako sees the conflict in Jun and tries to pull him towards a more positive path but is also attracted to him because of his darkness and nihilistic ennui. She too is unhappy with the status quo, living with her brother and his wife who quarrel about money and the disappointments of the salaryman dream while the office playboy hassles her at work and is only spurred on by her constant rejections. Hisako knows getting involved with Jun is playing with fire, especially if it keeps her in the orbit of the continually declining Toshio whose worrying behaviour is perhaps enabled by his well meaning liberal (though arch capitalist) father who is hoping his son will find his own way through hitting rock bottom, but salvation is a temptation it’s difficult to resist.

The heroes of the taiyozoku movies are aimless because they have no economic imperatives towards individual progress, but those like Jun or indeed like those of The Warped Ones are aimless because they see no sense of purpose in an intensely class bound society in which, paradoxically, all the cards are held by men like Toshio. Some, like Jun’s gang mate, decide the best way forward is to become a willing underling living off Toshio’s largesse who is, in his own way, intensely lonely and filling the friendship void with minions. Others, like Hisako, decide to plug on anyway despite the disappointments of socially conservative success. For men like Jun, however, the prognosis is as grim as in much of Yoshida’s later work, suggesting his nihilism is justified because there is no hope for men without means lost in the widening gulf of post-war inequality where any attempt at moral righteousness is likely to be rewarded only with further suffering.


Original trailer (Japanese with French/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Juzo Itami, 1997)

woman in witness protection posterJuzo Itami’s fearless taste for sending up the contradictions and hypocrisies of his home nation knew no bounds, eventually bringing him into conflict with the very forces he assumed so secure it was safe to mock – his 1992 film Minbo led to brutal attack by a gang of yakuza unhappy with how his film portrayed the world of organised crime. Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Marutai no Onna), continuing the “Woman” theme from previous hits A Taxing Woman and the more recent Supermarket Woman, would be Itami’s final feature as he died in mysterious circumstances not long after its completion and like Minbo it touched an open nerve. In 1997, crazy cult violence was perhaps no laughing matter nor as ridiculous as it might have seemed a few years earlier, yet Itami makes the actions of brainwashed conspirators the primary motivator of a self-centred actress’ gradual progress towards accepting the very thing his previous films might have satirised – her civic duty as a Japanese woman.

Itami breaks the film into a series of vignettes bookended by title cards beginning with the first which introduces us to our leading lady – Biwako Isono (Nobuko Miyamoto). Biwako is currently in rehearsals for an avant-garde play about giving birth (“a woman’s moment of glory”) during which she reduces her assistant to tears prompting her resignation, decrying Biwako’s self-centred bitchiness as she goes. Chastened, Biwako spends the evening doing vocal exercises outside her apartment which is how she comes to witness the botched murder of a lawyer by a crazed cultist (Kazuya Takahashi) during which she is almost murdered herself and only survives because the killer’s gun jams. As the only witness Biwako suddenly becomes important to the police which works well with her general need for attention but less so with her loathing for hassle. Seeing as Biwako is a famous actress, her involvement also precipitates increased press interest for the murder and accidentally threatens the ongoing police investigation not least because Biwako likes to play up for the camera and isn’t quite sure how best to deal with her divided responsibilities. With the killer still at large, the police decide to give Biwako protection in the form of two detectives – Chikamatsu (Yuji Murata), a cultured man who’s a big fan of Biwako’s stage career, and Tachibana (Masahiko Nishimura), a rather stiff gentleman who never watches films and rarely indulges in entertainment.

Bringing up cult violence in 1997 just two years after Japan’s only real terrorist incident perpetrated by a crazed cult, might be thought taboo but taboo was not something that Itami had ever run away from. Crazed cults had also popped up during A Taxing Woman’s Return though back then they mostly represented the hypocrisy of the new yakuza as a front for organised crime that thought nothing of bleeding vulnerable people dry while feeding them a lot of semi-religious claptrap to make them feel a part of something bigger while the bubble economy continued its puffed up attempts to make them feel inadequate. This time around our cultists are less well drawn but clearly a collection of unlucky people duped into believing the strange philosophies of the “Sheep of Truth” which teach that the world can only be saved by its followers dividing the world into white sheep and black sheep. Like the policeman and later Biwako, the killer believes he is only doing “that which must be done” in the best interests of the world. He is unaware of the cult’s shadiness and shocked when their lawyer threatens his family in an effort to convince him not to talk once the police have managed to break his programming, ironically through exactly the same methods – manipulating his feelings towards his wife and son.

The cult is however merely background to Biwako’s ongoing character drama. Despite experiencing emotional trauma from witnessing a murder and then being threatened herself, Biwako enjoys being the centre of the attention with the police as well as the warm glow she feels in being able to help them with their enquiries, but balks at the additional hassle of having to be involved in the trial (even if she would be given quite a sizeable platform as a witness in a high profile court case). She resents having the two policemen follow her around – especially as she has quite a busy schedule which includes an affair with her married manager. Nevertheless she gradually allows them into her life with Tachibana even making his stage debut as spear carrier in a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. Tachibana’s steadfast defence of her person even at the risk of his own life begins to teach Biwako a few things about civic responsibility and the importance of duty, even if her final moment of realisation is another of her staged set pieces in which she conjures a poignant monologue from the accidentally profound mutterings of Tachibana, a little of Cleopatra, and the earlier line from the maternity play repurposed as she affirms that testifying against the cultists will be her “moment of glory”.

Rather than end on Biwako’s sudden moment of enlightenment, Itami cuts to an ironic epilogue in which a police detective watching the movie we have just seen complains about its authenticity while emphasising that no one in protective custody has ever been attacked. A little tongue in cheek humour from Itami that is followed by the more usual disclaimer before the credits resume, but perhaps anticipating another dose of controversy from both law enforcement and cult devotees. Lighter in tone and noticeably less surreal than some of Itami’s earlier work, Woman in Witness Protection is the story of a vacuous actress learning the purpose of her stage as her particular brand of artifice meets that of the less innocently self-centred cultists head on and eventually becomes the best weapon against it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Farewell to Spring (惜春鳥, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1959)

(C) Shochiku 1959

Farewell to Spring posterFor Keisuke Kinoshita, people are basically good even if the world around them often isn’t. Even so, there are limits to goodness. Can friendship survive if an intimate trust is abused, or will betrayal cut the cord once and for all? Unlike many of his contemporaries, “youth” was not a theme in which Kinoshita was particularly interested – or, at least, not quite in the same way. Farewell to Spring (惜春鳥, Sekishuncho) is in some senses an awkward fit for his usual concerns but then the concerns here are perhaps closer to the personal in examining the changing fortunes of a group of five male childhood friends who find themselves scattered in the complicated post-war landscape, facing their mutual troubles in solitary, manly fashion while their friendship withers under the weight of their individual sorrows.

The drama begins when Iwagaki (Yusuke Kawazu) returns to his Aizu mountain village after being away at university for the previous two years. As Iwagaki’s parents have died and his half-brother moved to Hokkaido with his family, Iwagaki has no “home” in his hometown as he sadly tells a familiar face spotted on the train. Nevertheless, his friends are very excited to see him and have all rallied round without even being asked. Iwagaki will be staying at an inn owned by the family of his friend, Minemura (Kazuya Kosaka). The other boys all stayed in the village – Makita (Masahiko Tsugawa), the illegitimate son of a bar owner is being primed to take over the family business while sort of dating the step-daughter of his estranged father; Teshirogi (Akira Ishihama), the younger son of an impoverished former samurai family, is working at a local factory and heavily involved in the labour movement; while Masugi (Toyozo Yamamoto), who is disabled with a lame leg thanks to a childhood accident, works alongside his parents in a traditional lacquerwork shop but finds his livelihood threatened by political troubles with China.

Once a tight group of small-town friends, none of the boys quite wants to acknowledge how far they have drifted apart – not just from each other, but from the young men they once were even though comparatively little time has actually passed. Nevertheless, the shadow of their old bond still exists – it is obvious to all the boys that Iwagaki has returned in some kind of disgrace. A favourite of their teacher, Iwagaki had been given a valuable opportunity to better himself by going to university in Tokyo but has apparently fallen out with his sponsor and into hard times. The story he tells his friends is dark – they’d heard it had to do with a “dalliance” with a maid which annoyed his patron but the way he describes it sounds more like a rape revenge followed by an unwanted romance which he eventually ran away from. Iwagaki is not making himself look good which might suggest that he trusts his friends enough to tell them the truth, or perhaps just doesn’t quite see the various ways in which his conduct discredits him, but either way there is deepening gulf between each of the men in which none is quite being honest with the other.

Iwagaki’s arrival doesn’t so much stir up old troubles as occur alongside them. The central drama revolves around a squaring off between Makita and Teshirogi over a girl, Yoko (Yukiyo Toake), who is the niece of Makita’s biological father – a nouveau riche pawnbroker with a steely wife, Tane (Teruko Kishi), who hates Makita’s mother for obvious reasons. The mistress and the wife are locked into an internecine battle of wills and resentments and so both are opposed to a marriage between Makita and Yoko even though they have fallen in love independently. As there is no son in the family, Makita’s father needs someone to marry in through marrying Yoko – it would obviously be ideal for him if his “real” son could inherit his estate, but Makita’s mother wants him to take over her bar and Tane is directly opposed to suffering the humiliation of a mistress’ son living under her roof and so they are at an impasse. Meanwhile, Tane has been trying to arrange a socially beneficial marriage and has settled on Teshirogi – the impoverished son of an aristocratic family.

A confluence of post-war problems, the first question pits the traditional arranged marriage against the youngster’s right to choose. Yoko doesn’t want the arranged marriage – she’s doing everything she can to fight it even if she ends up alone, but Makita has already given up believing the situation is futile. Teshirogi tries to ask him if it’s OK to pursue Yoko, but Makita doesn’t really answer. What he says is does as you see fit, but Teshirogi hears only what he wants to hear and fails to notice that Makita minds quite a lot and has only said that out of a sense of despondency and a possible romanticisation of his emotional suffering. Yoko is living in the post-war reality – she rejects the idea of arranged marriage and of her adoptive parents’ right to control her future, but she is unable to fully resist alone – she needs Makita to stand with her, but he doesn’t have her courage. Meanwhile, Makita is also consumed by thoughts of romantic impossibility thanks to the sad story of his melancholy uncle (Keiji Sada) who tried to run off with a geisha (Ineko Arima) only for her to be dragged back by her madam because of an outstanding debt.

Debt bondage is something else that’s thankfully on its way out in the post-war world thanks to the prostitution laws which are contributing to a decline in the fortunes of Minemura’s inn. Feudalism, however, is doing its best to cling on – especially in tiny mountain backwaters. Teshirogi may now be a proletarian factory worker flying the red flag and taking an active part in the labour movement as a striker protesting for better pay and conditions, but at heart he’s still a nobleman and has a natural sense of entitlement and superiority towards his friends which is only deepened by his resentment over his comparative financial inferiority. Yoko asks him to turn down the marriage proposal because she’s in love with Makita and fears her family won’t listen to her alone, but Teshirogi roughly tells her he doesn’t care much for her feelings and will make his own decision. Later he insists on giving his answer “the proper way” by going through his father, and submits himself entirely to the processes of the pre-war society. Making a half-hearted justification to Makita, Teshirogi confesses that his decision to push for the marriage was motivated by his poverty and a desire to regain his status if also partly because he too is attracted to Yoko and admires her spiky spirit even if it otherwise seems to contradict his conservative views.

Teshirogi breaks the bro code in favour of self interest, not actually caring very much if it costs him friendships which he appears not to value. As openly gay as it was possible to be in the late 1950s, Kinoshita creates an intensely homosocial world of male honour-based bonding, but makes a tragic hero of the innocent Masugi who is in a sense feminised by his disability which prevents him from participating in the manly rituals of the other boys – most notably in the coming of age sword dance in which he becomes narrator rather than sword bearer. Teshirogi, in an early instance of smug insensitivity, throws a mildly barbed comment at Masugi in tersely suggesting that his affection for Iwagaki runs beyond friendship – something which the group seems to be aware of but does not want to go into, or at least not really like this. Masugi and Minemura emerge as the most pure hearted and the most hurt among the friends, clinging on to the idea of their friendship even as they are betrayed by those closest to them while Makita wonders if betrayal is an essential component of connection or merely its inevitable end.

Despite the central betrayal, the boys eventually manage to salvage something of their friendships, leaving the field of battle together and alive if also wounded and sorrowful. Unlike the tragic White Tigers in the song which recurs throughout the film who elected mass suicide on believing their battle was lost, the boys move forward – Makita, at least, spurred on by his uncle’s tragic romance decides that love is worth fighting for after all and that he doesn’t have to blindly accept the profound inertia of small-town Aizu life or the natural authority if the hypocritical Teshirogi who shouts socialist slogans but insists on his social superiority. Friendship may not survive the compromises of adulthood, but perhaps the bonds between people aren’t so easily broken after all even if they consistently break your heart.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍, Naoki Segi, 2011)

Ramen Samurai posterSet in the ‘90s, Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍) is in many ways a post-Showa story or a tale of one man’s reaction to bubble era disillusionment. It’s also in the fine tradition of legacy movies in which a troubled child reflects on a complicated relationship with a late parent and struggles to accept their role as an inheritor of skills and knowledge they’d spent much of their youth attempting to reject. Yet the hero of Ramen Samurai, though he maybe reluctant, is more willing than most to pick up his father’s burden, walking back through family history with his long-suffering mother and rediscovering the heroism which lay behind his sometimes difficult father’s tough guy exterior. Hikaru (Dai Watanabe) does not see himself as a man like his father – he’s no “hero” and bears no natural inclination towards rebellion, but only through addressing his father’s life can he learn to define his own. This is all, of course, a roundabout way to discovering the soul of ramen lies in the confidence of the chef.

In 1990 Hikaru, a graphic designer, gets a call at work from his mum to let him know his father has had a stroke. Hikaru left town in a hurry some years earlier, rejecting the idea of taking over the ramen restaurant for a life in bubble era Tokyo. On his father’s death he assumes his natural responsibility and comes home but customers say his ramen’s not as good as his dad’s, and he has trouble keeping his staff in line because they simply don’t accept him. Try as he might, Hikaru just can’t seem to find a way to replicate his father’s recipe, in the store or in life.

Yet there’s a nostalgia in him that sees him want to try. Kurume, a small town in Kyushu, is defined by its ramen – a local delicacy that once brought tourists and general prosperity to the area, but during bubble era “modernisation”, the “backward” yatai ramen stands with their colourful tarpaulins were deemed too reminiscent of post-war privation to survive. The carts were shunted away from the new sophisticated city centre while the police started restricting licenses to run them, eventually prohibiting their sale and limiting their inheritance to direct family members. Hikaru is at least his father’s son and so has a natural right to take over the business even if he has hitherto rejected it.

Rather than a cooking tale, Ramen Samurai steps back to tell the story of its vicarious protagonist – the problematic figure of Hikaru’s dad who is, in many ways, the idealised figure of the Showa era “hero”. That’s not to say he was perfect – he drank to the point of financial ruin and frequently caused problems for his family, but his heart was always in the right place and so he was mostly forgiven. A salt of the Earth type and cool with it, Hikaru’s dad was the big man around town and the defacto leader of the yatai owner community. He brooked no injustice, stood up to the yakuza (who only had the profoundest respect for him), and sought to protect those who were unable to protect themselves. Seeing a sleazy yakuza molesting a young girl, Hikaru’s dad kicked him out and later offered the girl, who is mute, a job and a place to stay, almost adopting her into his family until another act of random kindness accidentally reunites her with her own long-lost father.

Faced with such an intense legacy, it’s no wonder Hikaru struggled. A sensitive, artistic soul he tried his luck in bubble era Tokyo working in an advertising agency where he found the coolness of his colleagues puzzling and difficult to bear. Hikaru’s boss loudly discusses pub lunches and evenings spent in hostess bars, often throwing away the lovingly made bento provided by his wife. Returning home with an empty lunchbox is, he says, his way of showing love though his refusal to eat it perhaps a reaction against a salaryman’s lack of freedom. Nevertheless, even if they clashed in terms of personal morality, Hikaru’s boss compliments him on his commitment to hard work and growth as an artist even whilst admitting that the work itself is often frivolous and ultimately thankless.

Hikaru eventually learns to channel his artistic inclinations into his ramen, seeing himself as a “ramen artist” incorporating his father’s legacy into a dish which is entirely his own. In a sense, Hikaru retreats into the safety of the Showa era past, or that is the cosy 1970s in which he lived a comfortable, if eventful, childhood under a yatai’s awning while dad made trouble but only for the best of reasons. A samurai’s duty is, after all, to protect and Hikaru has decided to do exactly that in “restoring” his hometown to its former glory, dragging retro yatai culture into the rapidly disintegrating post-bubble world and bringing warmth and community back with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Juzo Itami, 1988)

Taxing Woman 2 posterA Taxing Woman introduced us to Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto) – an oddball detective working as an insurance inspector who met her Irene Adler in a tax dodging corporate gangster with a limp. A year later she’s back, still the only woman working with the tax inspectorate and apparently still a dogged pursuer of those who would seek to defraud the Japanese government of its rightful earnings. Ryoko may have been a stickler for the rules who applied the same dog with a bone approach to a mom and pop store chowing down on its own supplies as to a dodgy yakuza led conspiracy, but she also believed in justice – something which stands her in good stead when she rubs up against a dodgy cult which, again, is a yakuza front but adds insult to injury by deliberately manipulating the vulnerable.

The action opens with some kids poking at the dead body of a “landshark” floating in a pond before flashing to a meeting of officials sucking crab meat from the shell and wondering what they’re going to do about this land they need cleared now their heavy is out of the picture. The corrupt politician from the first film, Urushibara (Takeya Nakamura), is apparently still involved in semi-legal land deals but palms the assignment off on a colleague. The big wigs need to empty a dated housing complex on some valuable land so they can build a vanity skyscraper – office space apparently being scarce in mid bubble Tokyo.

To do this they enlist the services of dodgy cult leader Onizawa (Rentaro Mikuni) and his troop of yakuza goons. Most of the tenants have already signed but they have three key holdouts – a diner owner clinging on to the family legacy, a stubborn paparazzo, and an intellectual professor who heads up the housing association. Unlike the yakuza of Taxing Woman, these guys have not reformed – they are the new/old style of lawless thugs who are perfectly prepared to threaten women and children to get their own way. Making it impossible for the tenants to stay through intimidation and noise torture, they stoop to blackmail to seal the deal.

Despite arriving only a year after A Taxing Woman, Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Marusa no Onna 2) takes place in a much darker, though more obviously comedic, world. Whereas the earlier film adopted a noticeably ambivalent attitude to the tax inspectors and the enterprising gangsters, the villains of A Taxing Woman’s Return are so heinous and morally bankrupt as to be entirely indefensible even if the inspectorate takes a turn for the bumbling to compensate. The “cult” is, of course, merely a convenient money laundering front and tax dodge for the yakuza – religious organisations are exempt from taxation in the vast majority of cases which may be why the local tax office records hundreds of registered “religious bodies” in its jurisdiction alone. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its loyal followers, often vulnerable people looking for spiritual fulfilment but being bled dry by the money hungry cultists while the leader’s wife swans around in sables costing more than the average annual salary. A desperate devotee in need of a loan puts his own teenage daughter up as collateral only to see her raped by Onizawa, eventually becoming pregnant by him at only 16 years of age and thereafter becoming his devoted concubine in a bizarre instance of Stockholm Syndrome.

Yet for all the background darkness of weird cultists and nasty yakuza backed up by corrupt and venial politicians, Itami ups the cartoonish sense of the absurd with our hero Ryoko clambering over rooftops to listen in to the bad guys while her boss throws himself down flights of stairs and has to battle piercing sirens to get into the villains’ secret vault. It is however a dark humour as the opening makes plain with its troupe of little children staring at the strange shape floating in the water – a motif later repeated when a yakuza is gunned down in the street only for another group of children to pour over him as he expires, a single tear rolling down his cheek. The original spongy white body gives way to the businessmen sucking spongy white crab out its shell while insensitively discussing the late land shark, and the yakuza are unafraid to deploy a maggot infested severed hand (thankfully a fake picked up from a friend who makes horror movies) to convince the tenants they mean business.

At the end of A Taxing Woman, the gangster and the inspector reached something of a truce but one which came down, broadly, on the side of right. This time things aren’t quite so simple. The conspiracy is bigger and deeper, stretching all the way into the Diet and about more than just office space in still developing Tokyo. Onizawa, regarding himself as public servant, tries to say he did it all for his country, that if someone didn’t get their hands dirty Tokyo would be eclipsed by Hong Kong or Seoul. A post-war justification for a bubble era problem, but one that takes us straight back to the first film in Onizawa’s second proposition that only through money does he truly feel “immortal”. He may be a liar and a cheat, but he’s only a symptom of rapidly spreading infection, one which Ryoko and her team are powerless to cure, trapped on the wrong side of the fence while the bad guys build monuments to economic hubris, indulging in vanity in an era of bad faith which is about to be brought to a rather abrupt close.


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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)