Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain, Yoji Yamada, 1988)

Downtown Heroes posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Yoji Yamada was an infrequent visitor to the youth movie. Best remembered for his long running Tora-san series, Yamada’s later output is marked by an alternation of laughter and tears, running between raucous family comedies and poignant examinations of wartime loss. Set in the immediate postwar period, 1988’s Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain) adapts the autobiographical novel by Akira Hayasaka for a twin tale of endings and beginnings as a group of boys prepare to leave the Japan of their childhood behind and set out into the brand-new post-war future.

Our narrator for the tale is Hayasaka’s stand-in, Kosuke (Hashinosuke Nakamura), a sensitive young man from the mountains studying at the prestigious boys’ boarding school in town. The Matsuyama high school is one of the last to still be operating in Japan’s pre-war educational model. In fact, when the boys graduate the school will shut down in favour of the American 6-3-3 standard model of organising the educational system. Nevertheless, Kosuke and his friends enjoy what seems like a fantastically broad curriculum to modern eyes, much of which consists of classic German literature. Rather than their family names, the boys refer to each other with a series of nicknames inspired by their studies and have been heavily influenced by European left-wing political ideology. Accordingly, they are less than happy about the imposed American “reforms” and, paradoxically, the restrictions placed on their individual “freedom” by the “imperialist” occupation.

The central drama revolves around two episodes occurring one after another during the final year of high school. The first involves Kosuke’s friend Arles (Toshinori Omi) and a prostitute he helps to rescue from the red light district – Sakiko (Eri Ishida) was supposed to elope with a student from the school, but he didn’t show up and if the people from the brothel she was sold to find her she’ll be in big trouble. Her suitor turns out to be a fraud, but the boys are committed to saving her and hide Sakiko in their dorm, sharing their meagre rations with her before helping her escape to her home town. Meanwhile, the boys are also preparing for the very last culture festival the school will ever see at which they will present their adaptation of a classic German play. The snag is, the play needs a girl. Eventually the gang enlist the help of Fusako (Hiroko Yakushimaru) – a student at the girls’ school recently repatriated from Manchuria who also happens to be the young lady Kosuke had a meet cute with on the road and has been in love with ever since. Trouble brews when Gan (Tetta Sugimoto), the play’s director, falls in love with her too.

Told from the POV both of the old and the young Kosuke, the atmosphere is one of intense melancholy and inescapable nostalgia. Though these were times of hardship – rationing is fierce and intense, so much so that the school no longer serves meals at all on Sundays and the boys largely subsist on rice gruel, they were also times of joy and possibility. These are however youngsters in the best tradition of the sensitive young men of Japanese literature. They feel everything deeply, fully aware that they are living on the cusp of something new, which necessarily also means to be standing atop a grave. Their world is collapsing and the values they’ve been given (progressive though they seem to be) are about to be thrown out of the window. They have been taught that nothing is more important than their personal autonomy and that personal freedom is attained only through overcoming hardship, but their lives will increasingly be dictated by occupying forces and they feel themselves robbed of something without the right to reply.

Nevertheless their problems are also ordinary teenage ones of romantic crises and friendship dilemmas. Kosuke struggles with his love at first sight crush on Fusako but remains too diffident to say anything until it’s almost too late, while he also struggles to figure out what the most proper thing to do is when Gan reveals he is also in love with her. Gan, a sensitive writer, apparently burns with longing – so much so that he’s written a book long confession of love in apology for being unable to declare himself in person. Kosuke, a good friend, agrees to deliver the letter but both of them have neglected to consider Fusakao’s feelings so bound up are they in their own solipsistic dramas. Fusako was also struck by the love bug on her first meeting with Kosuke and has been patiently waiting for him to say something (as is the custom of the time). She is therefore doubly hurt and offended when he delivers a mini-tome on the theme of love from someone else before attempting to leave abruptly in a huff. Truth be told, there are few women who would enjoy being handed a thesis as a confession, but Fusako is really not in the mood to read one now.

Ending on a melancholy epilogue in which the old Kosuke looks on at field of young men playing American football before some others in running shorts brush past him and a young couple enjoy an evening walk, Yamada embraces the mild sense of deflation that has been building since the beginning. Young love faded and the dreams of youth were destined to come to nothing – not quite a tragedy, or perhaps only one of the ordinary kind, but food for the regrets of age all the same. The times were hard, and then they got better but somehow they were never so happy again. A youth drama indeed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Theme song “Jidai” performed by Hiroko Yakushimaru

The Little House (小さいおうち, Yoji Yamada, 2014)

the-little-houseIf there is a frequent criticism directed at the always bankable director Yoji Yamada, it’s that his approach is one which continues to value the past over the future. Recent years have seen him looking back, literally, in terms of both themes and style with remakes of films by two Japanese masters – Ozu in his Tokyo Story homage Tokyo Family, and Kon Ichikawa in Her Brother. While he chose to update both of those pieces for the modern day, 2008’s Kabei sent him back to the traumatic years of militarism and warfare for a story of maternal sacrifice and national tragedy. The Little House (小さいおうち, Chiisai Ouchi) brings this recent meandering around the past full circle with its deliberately Ozu-esque aesthetic and flashback tale of atonement as one woman leaves the truth she could never bear to speak on paper as a last dying confession.

After the death of his great-aunt Taki (Chieko Baisho), who never married and has no other family besides himself, his sister, and father, Takeshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) discovers a biscuit box with his name on it filled with keepsakes and the conclusion of a kind of autobiography he’d been encouraging Taki to write in the last few months of her life. Cutting back and forth between the contemporary interactions of the older Taki and her great-nephew, and the younger Taki’s (Haru Kuroki) life as a Tokyo maid from the mid-1930s to the end of the war, The Little House takes its cues from The Go Between as an innocent bystander becomes the unwilling guardian of a secret the holding of which will prove to be a lifelong burden.

An 18 year old girl in 1935 from a poor family in Japan’s frozen North, Taki’s options are few – early marriage, geisha house, or maid. All things considered, maid is the best option and Taki is thrilled to be travelling to the big city with all of its untold excitements. After a spell working for a famous novelist, Taki becomes the housekeeper of the “Little House” – a curiously cute Western style cottage with a bright red roof out in the suburbs. Her mistress, Tokiko (Takako Matsu), is an oddly flighty woman, fiercely independent of spirit but living within the confines of her time. Crisis approaches the family not with the onset of war but with the arrival of Mr. Hirai’s sensitive, artistic, colleague, Shoji (Hidetaka Yoshioka), whose softly spoken ways quickly find their way into Tokiko’s heart.

In fact, The Little House, is not a million miles away from an expansion of a similar narrative device previously employed in Kabei but this time Tokiko is no pillar of strength, singlehandedly upholding the traditionally saintly virtues of the Japanese mother but a flesh and blood woman caught in the storm of a turbulent era. Taki becomes our passive observer as she sits, almost invisibly, in the corner of every scene, unwilling chaperone or accidental accomplice. As she witnesses the growing attraction between Tokiko and Shoji begin to spark into something more dangerous she finds herself conflicted, not knowing the best way to help her mistress. Should Tokiko be discovered, it wouldn’t just be a scandal leading to the end of a marriage, but considering the stringency of the times the outcome could be far more serious for all concerned.

When Takeshi eventually meets Tokiko’s son Kyoichi (Masakane Yonekura), he echoes many of the older Taki’s sentiments but adds that it was an era in which everyone was “forced to make an unwilling choice”. Taki finds herself forced to choose between action and inaction and does something she thinks is for the best, but is then forced to live with the suffering of wondering if she did the right thing.

The film does not seem entirely clear on her motives for her choice – it half commits to a possible love triangle between Taki, Tokiko, and Shoji by emphasising Taki and Shoji’s shared Northern roots and by Shoji’s subsequent inclusion of both women in his artwork. Taki, however, seems to be looking more to her mistress than her suitor, wanting nothing other than to stay in the Little House with Tokiko and Kyoichi for evermore. A later scene featuring a “mannish” university friend of Tokiko seems to reinforce the directions of Taki’s unspoken desire, though if her declaration of loyalty to the Little House following a disastrous marriage proposal was intended to voice it, it falls on deaf ears.

This being the case, Taki and Shoji become almost mirrors of each other – each somehow on pause, still living inside the Little House long after it ceased to exist. The loss of the Little House is not just the destruction of a building but the obliteration of everything it stood for, not only in terms of Taki’s investment in the family who live there, but in its evocation of early Showa dreams, individuality and innocence.

As the well educated Takeshi points out, Taki’s memories are often too rosy to tally with the history books, but even given the grimness of the times as they seem in hindsight, she has a right to the romanticism of her youth. The increasingly difficult political circumstances rarely impinge on the female centred domestic environment, but are made felt firstly through the husband’s toy business which begins by chasing the Chinese market and then is reduced to making wooden toys only and trying to marry off its eligible employees to woo more investment, and through the family’s excitement about the upcoming Tokyo Olympic games which are subsequently canceled. Tokiko’s later exclamation of “Isn’t it awful everything’s disappearing” does not just refer to the sudden absence of luxury from soaps to previously ordinary foodstuffs, but to her whole bourgeois way of life suddenly brought crashing down by a series of events she has no control over.

Yamada channels Ozu with initially distracting obviousness both in the contemporary and period sequences, matching his famous compositions from the straight to camera dialogue to the mid level tatami mat view and propensity for shooting through corridors and doorways. The world of the Little House is a curiously artificial one as Yamada shoots on an obvious stage set complete with tiny twinkling lights for stars which both looks forward to the artwork at the film’s conclusion and signals its nature as an unreal, constructed, environment existing only within Taki’s memory. Were it not that the Ozu compositions creep into the contemporary sequences, it could almost be read as a representation of Takeshi’s internal dramatisation of Taki’s memoirs as mediated through classic cinema.

The Little House is, indeed, resolutely old fashioned. Far too subtle for its own good (an extremely rare quality in a Yamada film), The Little House is an exercise in restraint in which the central love triangle never even hits the simmer, let alone the boil. Given the well trodden nature of the narrative, even the most inattentive viewer will have correctly guessed the big reveal well before Takeshi puts two and two together, rendering the final explanatory segment entirely redundant. Never quite as affecting as it would like to be, The Little House is a muted experience, perpetually pulling back each time it approaches doing something more interesting with its material. Nevertheless, it does provide an interesting perspective on its period setting as its collection of tragically romantic heroes march forward blindly into a maelstrom of oncoming destruction.


HK trailer (English/traditional Chinese subs)

Belladonna of Sadness (哀しみのベラドンナ, Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973)

belladonnaLoosely based on Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière (Satanism and Witchcraft) which reframed the idea of the witch as a revolutionary opposition to the oppression of the feudalistic system and the intense religiosity of the Catholic church, Belladonna of Sadness (哀しみのベラドンナ, Kanashimi no Belladonna) was, shall we say, under appreciated at the time of its original release even being credited with the eventual bankruptcy of its production studio. Begun as the third in the Animerama trilogy of adult orientated animations produced by legendary manga artist Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Productions, Belladonna of Sadness is the only one of the three with which Tezuka was not directly involved owing to having left the company to return to manga. Consequently the animation sheds his characteristic character designs for something more akin to Art Nouveau elegance mixed with countercultural psychedelia and pink film compositions. Feminist rape revenge fairytale or an exploitative exploration of the “demonic” nature of female sexuality and empowerment, Belladonna of Sadness is not an easily forgettable experience.

Beginning in true fairytale fashion with a gentle voiceover, the tale introduces us to Jean (Katsutaka Ito) and Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama), two ordinary medieval French peasants blissfully in love. Being the good, honest, Christian kids they are, they want to get married but as we’re told, this is the beginning of the story, not its end. Following tradition to the letter the pair turn up at the castle with their families to inform the Baron of their union and pay the marriage tax but the Baron takes a fancy to Jeanne and whacks up the price to a level Jean could never pay even if the entire village sold everything they had to help him, so that the Baron may exercise his droit du seigneur by claiming Jeanne’s maidenhead. After kicking everyone else out the Baron brutally rapes Jeanne before letting all of his cronies have a go too.

Finally crawling home bruised, broken, and violated Jeanne seeks comfort from her gentle husband Jean but despite his fine words, he is unable to accept what has happened and eventually retreats from her. At this point the weirdness begins as Jeanne’s intense inner rage and sadness summons forth a tiny demon friend who looks just like an overly friendly penis and also grows in size a little bit when you stroke him in just the right way. This starts Jeanne on her ultimate path towards becoming a master sorceress and eventual mistress of the devil himself. Jeanne’s fortunes rise in line with her sexual empowerment but an empowered female is not always popular with the ruling elite.

Jeanne’s empowerment and the subsequent threat it poses to the accepted political fabric is the main thrust of the narrative but it’s also important to remember that the process began with a brutal act of rape. Jeanne continues to be raped by her ever growing demon friend until achieving a kind of oneness with the Devil himself but the unwanted acts of Jeanne’s “demon”, who describes himself simply as a part of Jeanne, are mitigated because she is depicted as enjoying them (only guilt makes her say otherwise) and, after all, they form part of her sexual education. Jeanne’s power stems from the intense resentment she feels at her continued lack of agency, eventually buying her power and status enough to threaten the Baron and all he stands for.

Even if Jeanne’s power comes from the darkest of places, everything she uses it for is morally good (at least from a “modern” standpoint). When the Baron returns from a war to find Jeanne ruling the roost, he attempts to canvass some of his subjects hoping to hear tales of her cruelty or ineptitude but finds only praise. Jeanne heals the sick, helps a couple with too many children find a solution to maintain their married harmony without the risk of bearing any more, and even helps an elderly woman make contact with the depths of hell (wasn’t exactly what she had in mind, but she was thrilled to bits anyway).

The worst thing Jeanne’s power provokes is the large scale and extremely strange orgy which takes place in her hair, sees her copulating with the entire village, and even transforms genitals into bizarre creatures. This purely pleasurable exercise, even if against the prevailing moral code, has no real world consequences such as a failed harvest or ruined city brought about by the villager’s abandonment of duty for physical pleasure.

However filled with “goodness” her actions are, Jeanne herself is branded a witch and the only reason she is not burned at the stake immediately is that the Baron and his advisors fear that if Jeanne is burned whilst still bound to the devil, the demonic elements inside her will be set free and could “pollute” the other women in the village with a nasty desire to be taken seriously as people. This fear is later borne out as each of the village women emerges with Jeanne’s impassive face before time jumps on a few hundred years to the French Revolution and its vanguard of valiant women seeking social justice as evidenced by Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting Victory Leading the People which forms the final image of the film.

Belladonna of Sadness seems conflicted over whether this kind of empowerment is a good thing or not. Jeanne’s journey begins with violence which gives birth to rage and an eventual “succumbing” to the dark arts which facilitates her revenge. Everything about Jeanne becomes satanic and her sexuality is the weapon which she wields against male subjugation. The empowered Jeanne is independently monstrous, rather than just monstrous to the Baron and the true forces of evil, thanks to her involvement with illicit supernatural entities. Her independent spirit does indeed pollinate as the Baron feared it might, but whether these women are to be read as having been “freed” or as vengeful harpies robbing men of their rightful place whilst intent on upending the social order, might be a matter for debate.

Yamamoto opts for a mix of styles making great use of still paintings and more primitive animation to enhance the effect. Combined with the very contemporary sounding folk music, the later ventures into the realm of psychedelia lend the film a new age fable quality to present a broadly feminist rape revenge fairytale. However, this particular story offers no happy ending for its heroine even if it does retroactively add one in the form of the ongoing social change her various transgressions engender. Wildly experimental, often extremely beautiful, and necessarily explicit, Belladonna of Sadness is, as its name suggests, a melancholy tale but one just as passionately free as its tragic heroine.


Cinelicious Pics restoration trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)