The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (月夜釜合戦, Leo Sato, 2018)

Kamagasaki couldron warAs far as Japanese cinema has been concerned, the city of Osaka is renowned for two very specific things – gangsters and comedy. The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (月夜釜合戦, Tsukiyo no Kamagassen), the debut narrative feature from Leo Sato, neatly brings them both together in an anarchic tale of social inequalities and the pettiness of organised crime. A warmhearted exploration of the eponymous “invisible slum”, Kamagasaki Cauldron War delights in everyday resistance as its ordinary citizens attempt to live their ordinary lives all but forgotten in a society intent on swallowing them whole.

The drama begins with drifter Henmi – a casual labourer with a young son, Kantaro (Tumugi Monko), who dreams of joining the local yakuza gang Kamitari but is rudely rejected by its foot soldiers. In revenge, he steals their precious “kama” sake bowl which is the symbol of their clan and essential for carrying out the succession ritual. This is all the more embarrassing because the elderly boss is thinking of retiring now that his son, Tamao (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), has been released from a 20-year prison stretch. Tamao, however, is secretly pleased because he doesn’t much fancy taking over while the petty yakuza who’s been running the show all this time is also quite happy because he doesn’t really want to give up control. Nevertheless, the precious Kama must be recovered at all costs or the gang will continue to face a significant loss of street cred.

Meanwhile, a bigger drama is underway. Kamagasaki is home to a significant proportion of “homeless” people, many of whom congregate around Sankaku Park where a regular soup kitchen runs next to the giant symbolic Kama cauldron in the park’s centre. It also the last remaining undeveloped post-war area and is therefore rich pickings for unscrupulous property developers such as Capital Beat who are primed to bulldoze the welfare centre to build more housing and therefore need to clear the park of the homeless in order to make the area seem attractive. Already trying to prevent the homeless from settling, the city has put up a series of insidious barriers including floral centrepieces and more obvious metal barriers but is nervous of taking direct action such as physical evictions. Which is where the yakuza come in. Working with Capital Beat and corrupt police, the yakuza take clubs to the soup kitchen and get vulnerable people to commit arson by setting fire to live rats and having them run into “derelict” buildings.

At the centre of events, orphan Nikichi (Yota Kawase) tries to keep himself afloat when the only gigs going are transfers to Turkish nuclear power plants by taking advantage of the Kama crisis and getting his hands on as many as possible little knowing that he is actually in possession of the Kamitari sake bowl thanks to little Kantaro whom he has been persuaded to adopt with his sex worker girlfriend Mei (Naori Ota) who grew up with him in the same orphanage. Coincidentally, the pair were also childhood friends with Tamao who has apparently been holding a torch for Mei all these years as well as grudge against Nikichi for an embarrassing injury caused during a sports contest at school. While they’re busy scrapping it out, the local area decides to fight back against Capital Beat by protesting the city’s treatment of the homeless leaving Nikichi an accidental figurehead for a campaign he doesn’t quite believe in and is only tangentially involved with.

Decrying that there is “no place to rest in the whole world” some enterprising homeless guys have built a tunnel under the giant Kama while others attempt to repurpose their penury by declaring that “garbage is the weapon of the people”. Recalling the anarchic spirit of the student protests (including a surprising cameo by Masao Adachi), the residents of Kamagasaki rise up against social intransigence by taking on the yakuza armed with pots and pans before the police stick their oar in and end up becoming a mutual point of irritation. Filmed on retro 16mm, Kamagasaki Cauldron War offers no real solutions to its various problems but delights in the everyday anarchism of its workaday world in which its scrappy residents do their best to get by in an often hostile environment, finding whatever ways they can to resist societal oppression while maintaining a sense of humour and world weary hope for the future.


The Kamagasaki Cauldron War was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Three Resurrected Drunkards (帰って来たヨッパライ, Nagisa Oshima, 1968)

Three Resurrected Drunkards posterThe pop star movie has a long and distinguished history in Japanese cinema, but one might not have expected it to include Nagisa Oshima – a legendary iconoclast and conscientious objector to this particular strain of pop culture frivolity. Then again, taking a much hated form and turning it in on itself as a multifaceted form of protest is exactly the sort of thing one might expect Oshima to do. Therefore we find him in 1968 teaming up with The Folk Crusaders – a folk rock band enjoying a sudden flash of popularity after pressing their own indie record and seeing it go gold when radio stations picked up their North Korean themed Imujingawa and turned it into a giant hit. The band’s best known hit remains Kanashikute Yarikirenai which was released the same year, but it was perhaps Imujingawa with its melancholy Korean theme which attracted Oshima’s attention. A Monkees-esque surreal pop-star vehicle, Three Resurrected Drunkards (帰って来たヨッパライ, Kaette Kita Yopparai) is the third and most direct (strangely) in a series of films critiquing Japan-Korea relations, pushing further into the contemporary era with additional questions to ask about American imperialism and the complicity of both nations in the ongoing conflict in Vietnam.

Three students, played by the three members of The Folk Crusaders, frolic on a beach recreating the famous Vietnam war photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a prisoner in the street, before stripping off to go swimming. While they’re enjoying the waters, a hand rises up from beneath the sand and exchanges their clothes for a set of Korean military uniforms and some cash. The boys put on the strangers’ clothes and try to go home, but run into trouble when they try to scam an old grandma running a tobacco stand by pretending to have forgotten the price of cigarettes has gone up by 10 yen, assuming a dotty old grandma out in the sticks might not know anyway. Instantly suspicious, and seeing as this is “crack down on stowaways week”, the grandma tips off the authorities. After all, no Japanese person could be unaware of the rise in the price of cigarettes, so our heroes must be the “them” everyone is looking for.

What transpires is a surreal adventure of mistaken identities and rampant xenophobia in which our three students become temporarily transposed with their Korean counterparts – a draft dodging corporal trying to escape being sent to die in Vietnam, and his friend who’s come with him in the hopes of getting into a Japanese university. The third student, “Beanpole”, gets to keep his “Japanese” identity as a kind of control, but finds himself punished alongside his “Korean” friends as they face the harshest of punishments in this increasingly cruel and arbitrary world.

The three “stowaways” are then chased by the “real” Koreans who want to kill them and fake their own deaths to become Japanese. Later the three turn the tables on their pursuers but find themselves unable to pull the trigger because “Koreans don’t kill other Koreans”. In a bold piece of narrative reframing, Oshima abruptly resets the narrative halfway through, literally “resurrecting” our three drunkards who are instantly aware of what’s going on and determine to do things differently this time around – offering the grandma the right money, not taking the Korean uniforms with them when they leave the bathhouse etc, but they still get caught by the “real” Koreans and manage to survive only by “becoming” Koreans themselves, owning their new identities and rejecting their Japaneseness whilst turning their captors’ questions back on them and accusing them of being Japanese.

Meanwhile, the students take to the streets for an extended voxpop session in which they ask the question “are you Japanese?” to which all of their interviewees reply “No.”, asked “so how’s that then?”, they all calmly state it’s because they’re Korean. Aside from a pointed shot at a Westerner, Oshima seems to be making the rather banal point that Japanese and Koreans cannot be distinguished visually despite what some rather ignorant people might think – hence the identity confusion resulting from putting on “Korean” clothes, but he goes a little further in muddying the waters with a comparison between ongoing American imperialism and that of the Japanese past. Koreans in Japan experience oppression and xenophobic racism, but their nation as a whole also suffers from external oppression born of their government’s reliance on America for military support in the event that their truce with the North will someday be broken. Hence they find themselves packed off to another controversial war killing other Asians at the behest of a foreign government and its intense cold-war paranoia. 

Japan of course is also subject to this same oppression in reliance on American military power and so is also complicit in the horrors of Vietnam. These twin threads meet not only in the melancholy folk song penned by The Folk Crusaders, but in the final image which sees the executed Vietnamese man replaced by a Korean “stowaway” and the soldier by a Japanese policeman. Concentric circles flash in and out but Korea is always left in the middle, suffering at the hands of external powers, though Oshima remains largely silent on that presented by the authoritarian government of the day save criticising its determination to cling to American military might. A pop star movie with a title named for one of the band’s biggest hits – the high pitched and cartoonish Kaette Kita Yopparai which is itself a nonsense adventure of silliness, Three Resurrected Drunkards is a psychedelic treatise against systemic prejudices, complicity, and the seemingly inescapable cycle of geopolitical manoeuvring such prejudices fuel and enable.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Imujingawa

Caterpillar (キャタピラー, Koji Wakamatsu, 2010)

Koji Wakamatsu made his name in the pink genre where artistic flair and political messages mingled with softcore pornography and the rigorous formula of the genre. Wakamatsu rarely abandoned this aspect of his work but in adapting a well known story by Japan’s master of the grotesque Edogawa Rampo, Wakamatsu redefines his key concern as sex becomes currency, a kind of trade and power game between husband and wife. Caterpillar (キャタピラー), aside from its psychological questioning of marital relations, is a clear anti-war rallying call as a small Japanese village finds itself brainwashed into sacrificing its sons for the Emperor, never suspecting all their sacrifices will have been in vain when the war is lost and wounded men only a painful reminder of wartime folly.

Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Onishi) has returned from the war. This makes him luckier than many of the other young men who disappeared from the village over the last few years. His return, however, provokes howls of fear and disbelief from his long suffering wife, Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), who refuses to believe the creature they’ve brought back from the battlefield is really her husband. Kyuzo has lost all of his limbs, has facial disfigurement from burns, and has also lost his voice and hearing. Sitting across from the remnants of her brother, Shigeko’s sister-in-law remarks that she’s glad they didn’t “send Shigeko back to her family” because she is obviously the one who will have to look after this entirely helpless though apparently conscious battle scarred man.

This being early in the war, the village is in a fury of patriotic zealotry, determined to make Japan glorious again in the name of the Emperor. Far from letting the case of Kyuzo dissuade them from their warlike fervour, his sacrifice becomes a totem. He’s not a man destroyed by war but a “war god” and the pride of the village, a testament to their love and devotion that they would send a son of theirs to war who would return to them even in such a ruined form. Shigeko, quickly getting over her initial revulsion, comes to realise that her husband’s new-found status is also her own. As the wife of the war god, she becomes his voice and mistress in a way she had never been permitted before.

Truth be told, the war did not ruin Kyuzo’s character. The marriage of Kyuzo and Shigeko was never a happy one and perhaps her initial reeling, wailing flight on learning of her husband’s return was more out of fear than disbelief and compassion. Despite a lengthy marriage the couple had no children (perhaps an explanation for that early “sent back” comment), and Kyuzo regularly beat his wife for her failure to bear him a male heir. Now his carer, the roles are reversed as Shigeko babies her defeated husband, lamenting that all he is is urge – sleep, eat, sex. Kyuzo’s needs are animal and definite despite the signs of intelligent communication in his eyes. Shigeko, constrained to satisfy them, bends his need to her own advantage.

Emasculated in a deeper way by Shigeko’s increasing dominance, Kyuzo first attempts to assert himself in resentment at being trotted out to sell the virtues of war in his pristine uniform even as a man destroyed by nationalised violence. Spitting in Shigeko’s face as she dresses him, he attempts to refuse but is powerless to reject her authority. As time wears on and Kyuzo submits to female authority, memories of his atrocities haunt him as the fire which marked his face mingles with the faces of the Chinese women he raped and killed as a brave son of Japan on Manchurian soil.

For Wakamatsu war and sexualised violence are synonymous as the local women train for defending their village by repeatedly penetrating hey bales with long spears crying out patriotic slogans as they go. The flag waving and furore never waver despite the evidence of Kyuzo’s suffering and the numerous young men who will never come home or have done so in square boxes wrapped with white cloth. Only nearing the end is Shigeko left wondering what will become of her war god husband when no one needs a talisman. What will the nation do with these men who’ve sacrificed so much and received nothing in return?

Wakamatsu’s message is an unmistakably anti-war one though the curious inclusion of the executions of the lower class war criminals “hanged by the country they fought to protect” almost undercuts it even if his sympathy lies with those who succumbed to a national madness and have been made to pay a personal price. Kyuzo becomes the literal caterpillar of the title, taunted by Shigeko as he writhes and crawls around, condemned to eternal undulation, but it’s Shigeko who has been in a chrysalis all this time waiting to emerge from the fear and tyranny which has marred her married life into something with more freedom and autonomy – much like a nation waking up and realising that its Emperor is just a man and the long years of suffering nothing more than brainwashed madness.


Original trailer (English subtitles)