A Wife Confesses (妻は告白する, Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

Mountains are dangerous places in Japanese cinema. Yasuzo Masumura’s tense, claustrophobic courtroom noir A Wife Confesses (妻は告白する, Tsuma wa Kokuhaku Suru) was released in the same year as Toshio Sugie’s Death on the Mountain, adapted from a popular story by legendary mystery writer Seicho Matsumoto in which a veteran climber is ushered towards his death through a series of machinations by his friend which might or might not be regarded as “murderous” depending on your point of view. Masumura wants to ask us a similar question but from another angle as he puts a woman on trial not quite for the “murder” of her husband but the fact of her survival.

Opening outside the courthouse with a gum-chewing paparazzo, Masumura unwittingly makes us part of the baying mob watching intently as a young woman hides her face with her handbag while the press more than live up to their name, pinning her with questions about the salacious case at hand. Inside, however, he shifts the focus. We are now in the dock with Ayako (Ayako Wakao), looking up at the three men who will judge her for her “crime” from a literal moral high ground. A youngish widow, Ayako is charged with the murder of her husband who died during a freak mountain climbing accident. Caught between a handsome young man, Koda (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), and her abusive husband, Takigawa (Eitaro Ozawa), with no way up or down Ayako chose to cut the rope and let her husband fall. If she had not done so, both she and Koda would also be dead. Ayako is on trial because she refused to sacrifice herself for a wifely ideal. The question is, in many ways, if a woman’s or more to the point a wife’s life has worth, not just worth equal to that of her husband’s but any kind of worth at all. 

The first charge against Ayako is a lack of womanliness. A man at the scene testifies that they don’t usually allow wives or mothers to view bodies and Takigawa’s was in a particularly bad way but Ayako insisted on seeing it only to react with a calm he found suspicious. A policeman then echoes his sentiment, admitting that he arrested Ayako for her unwifeliness. “A wife should stick with her husband ’til the end no matter how tough it is” he says, adding that his own wife agrees with him. As her lawyer points out, had Ayako been a man, or the person below her on the rope a stranger, the policeman would not have arrested her but her refusal to die with her husband, which would have resulted in the “murder” of another man, is an arrestable offence. You can argue about the moralities of choosing to end someone else’s life to save your own, a kind of self defence permitted under Japanese law through the “necessity” legislation, but Ayako’s transgression is in believing that her life and her husband’s weigh the same and that she had a right to save herself. Many feel she should perhaps have cut the rope above her own head, saving Koda only in a lovers’ suicide with Takigawa. 

The policeman offers more grounds for suspicion having discovered that Ayako had taken out an insurance policy on her husband and hoped to profit from his “accidental” death, though as an act of premeditated murder this would certainly be quite an elaborate plot. Furthermore, the prosecution posit that she and Koda were having an affair but, for reasons which are not clear, Koda is not under suspicion or cited as a co-conspirator and is in fact testifying in her defence. He is also engaged to someone else, Rie (Haruko Mabuchi), though the marriage was arranged by his boss for strategic reasons because she is the daughter of a major client at their insurance firm and yes Koda drafted the policy which is currently being used as evidence against Ayako. All very Double Indemnity, but Ayako is certainly no cold and scheming Phyllis whether or not she made a conscious decision to free herself from a man who made her life a misery by literally cutting him loose. 

Yet Ayako’s victimisation is also used against her as further evidence of her unwomanly coldness. She testifies that she married Takigawa after he attempted to rape her and then proposed, confessing that she did so in order to escape a life of poverty that had already driven her into suicidal despair (she still has a vial of potassium cyanide she had taken from his office with just this in mind). She did not love him, but did her best to become a “good wife”, even beginning to wear kimono because he preferred it. Her predicament is no different than that of many other women who agreed to an arranged marriage and found themselves shackled to an unpleasant man with whom they could not get along but the marriage’s failure is laid squarely at Ayako’s feet for not trying hard enough and having insufficient love for the husband who treats her like a glorified maid, is cruel and emotionally abusive, and finally forces her to have an abortion against her will because he doesn’t want to spend money on a child. She asks for a divorce but he points out that as things stand a woman cannot escape a bad marriage without a husband’s consent and he has done nothing to break their marital contract and so to that extent he owns her. 

But for all she’s a cold woman who resented her husband and longed to be free of him, Ayako is also condemned for illicit passion in her secret love for Koda. Indeed we can see she is clearly fond of him, and in flashback we realise much of this is simply because he was kind to her though the extent of his kindness was only to the level of general civility. At heart, they are both “decent” people and so there is nothing more between them than unexpressed longing but still the kernel of their attraction remains and the prosecution has indeed found a grain of truth on which to found a motive for murder.

For his part, in another kind of film Koda would be the hero but here his “goodness” is intensely problematic in that he falls for Ayako precisely because of her suffering. His problem is that he later doubts her, swayed by arguments that paint her as a plotting femme fatale. Though amused by the whole affair, Koda’s boss warns him that women like Ayako are “trouble” and that he’s only been taken in because he is young and naive. Rie, meanwhile, is resentful and wounded, contemplating her own revenge but ultimately testifying in Ayako’s favour, she claims more for herself than for Koda or “justice” too embarrassed to take the stand and offer her own feminine “inferiority” as evidence against her romantic rival. Yet she later comes to admire her, seeing her as one who was bold enough to chase love at the expense of all else no longer caring what anyone might say or think. Ayako is the most liberated woman alive, and she would die for love but did not love her husband and so would not die for him. 

Koda is punished because he fell in love with an image of suffering womanhood but is afraid of Ayako’s transgressive femininity. He is conflicted in the knowledge that if she killed her husband her love for him may have been the reason, and is disturbed by her venality in that she would have taken the insurance money and lived well without finding it distasteful while he would have preferred to reject the settlement entirely lest it besmirch the innocence of their love. In real terms it doesn’t really matter why she did it, Ayako cut the rope and whether she did so out of an instinct for self preservation, in hate, or in love, the result is all the same. What she’s on trial for is defiance, that she acted, seized her own agency and made a choice to value her life over her husband’s which is still, as it turns out, a moral crime in the supposedly modern and democratic society of 1961. Masumura’s accusatory camera finds her pinned, confined, trapped at the edges of frames hiding her face with her single permitted feminine accessory while the subject of our judgemental gaze until the curtain finally closes leaving her in shadow but perhaps finally free of her cruel and oppressive society. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1964)

Little known outside of Japan, Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with post-war noir and particularly with adaptations of Seicho Matsumoto’s detective novels, yet he had a wide and varied filmography directing in several genres including musicals and period dramas. The son of silent movie director Hotei Nomura, he spent the bulk of his career at Shochiku which had and to some degree still has a strong studio brand which leans towards the wholesome even if his own work was often in someway controversial such as in the shocking child abuse drama The Demon or foregrounding of leprosy in Castle of Sand. Part of the studio’s series of double-length epics, 1964’s Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Goben no Tsubaki) is nevertheless an unusual entry in Nomura’s filmography, adapting a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto essentially setting a policier in feudal Japan and perhaps consequently shot largely on stage sets rather than on location. 

Nomura opens with artifice as Shino (Shima Iwashita) stares daggers at an actor on the stage but later returns to his rooms every inch the giggling fan before finally offing him with her ornate silver hairpin leaving behind only the blood red camellia of the title. The first in a series of killings later branded the Camellia Murders, we later realise that the actor had to die because of his illicit relationship with Shino’s mother whom he brands a “nympho” and as we later discover had several extra-marital lovers. Extremely close to her father who, as we’re told, perished in a fire while resting in the country due to his terminal tuberculosis, Shino is apparently on a quest for revenge against the faithless men who humiliated him though her feelings towards her mother seem far more complex. 

Indeed, Shino regards her mother’s carrying on as “dirty” and seems particularly prudish even as she wields her sex appeal as a weapon in her quest for vengeance. Yet it’s not so much the free expression of sexuality which seems to be at fault but excess and irresponsibility. Shino resents her mother primarily for the ways in which she made her father suffer, off having fun with random men while he shouldered the burden of her family business which, Shino might assume, has contributed to his illness. Aoki (Go Kato), the Edo-era policeman to whose narrative perspective the second half turns, advances a similar philosophy in that there’s nothing wrong with having fun, he has fun at times too, but people have or at least should have responsibilities towards each other which the caddish targets of the Camellia Killer have resolutely ignored. He can’t say that he condones the killer’s actions, but neither can he condemn them because her motivations are in a sense morally justifiable. 

Realising the end is near, Shino indulges in a very modern serial killer trope in leaving a note for Aoki alongside one of her camellias in which she claims that she is exacting vengeance for “crimes not punishable by law”. There was nothing legally wrong in the way these men treated her mother or any other woman, but it is in a sense a moral crime. “You’re a woman and I’m a woman too” she later tells another scorned lover, a mistress thrown over by her patron with two small children after he tired of her, as she hands over a large sum of money and encourages her to return to her family in the country. Shino’s quest is essentially feminist, directed against a cruel and patriarchal society in which the use and abuse of women is entirely normalised, yet it is also slightly problematic in her characterisation of her mother as monstrous in her corrupted femininity for daring to embrace her sexuality in exactly the same way as her male counterparts though they, ironically, mainly seem to have been after her money rather than her body. 

Shino’s mother’s death is indeed regarded as “punishment from heaven” presumably for her sexual transgressions and neglect of her family, rejecting both the roles of wife and mother in a ceaseless quest for pleasure. Yet even in her resentment, Shino’s ire is directed firmly at the men taking the last of her targets to task when he justifies himself that women enjoy sex too and are therefore equally complicit by reminding him that he gets his moment of pleasure for free but the woman may pay for it for the rest of her life. Just as Shino’s mother neglected her family, the men harm not only their wives in their illicit affairs but cause concurrent damage to the mistresses they may later disown and the illegitimate children they leave behind. Abandoning the naturalism of his contemporary crime dramas for something much more akin to a ghost film with his eerie lighting transitions and grim tableaux of the skewered victims, Nomura crafts a melancholy morality tale in which the wronged heroine turns the symbol of constrained femininity back on the forces of oppression but is eventually undone by the unintended consequences of her quest for vengeance even as she condemns the architect of her misfortune to madness and ruin. 


The Master Spearman (酒と女と槍, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

After the war during the American occupation, the samurai film encountered a de facto ban with the authorities worried that historical epics may encourage outdated fuedal and fascistic ideology. The period films of the post-war era, however, are often fiercely critical of the samurai order even as it stands in for the hypocrisies of the contemporary society. Two years before Masaki Kobayashi launched a similar assault on the notion of samurai honour in Harakiri, Tomu Uchida’s The Master Spearman (酒と女と槍, Sake to Onna to Yari) finds a loyal retainer similarly troubled when he is ordered to die only to be ordered not to and then finally told that yes he must commit suicide to serve a kind of honour in which he no longer believes. 

Takasada (Ryutaro Otomo) is a battlefield veteran with the Tomita clan much revered for his skill with the spear. As a retainer to the current regent, Hidetsugu (Yataro Kurokawa), he finds himself in trouble when the ageing Hideyoshi (Eijiro Tono) stages a coup to solidify his power, accusing his nephew of treason on abruptly “discovering” a stash of illegally obtained rifles. Takasada is outraged not to have been ordered to die with his master, but later resents being “strongly encouraged” to do so by his brother, the head of their clan. Storming out, he temporarily retreats into a drunken haze during which he convinces his favourite actress, Umeme (Hiromi Hanazono), to stay with him (just serving drinks, no funny business), before committing himself to public seppuku on a date of his own choosing. When the day arrives, Takasada is greeted by parades of “well wishers” keen to congratulate him for being such a fine samurai. Encouraging those in line to step out of it and stand horizontally without account of rank or status, he agrees to drink with them all, with the consequence that he becomes extremely drunk and passes out. 

Just as he’s about to cut his belly, a messenger arrives from Hideyoshi himself ruling Takasada’s suicide illegal. He if goes ahead and does it anyway, his clan will be disgraced. Takasada’s brother changes his tune and begs him not to proceed for the sake of the Tomita honour. Thoroughly fed up, Takasada has a sudden epiphany about the hypocrisies of the samurai code and decides to renounce his status, dropping out of court life to live simply in the country where he is eventually joined by Umeme who has fallen in love with him. 

Meanwhile, court intrigue intensifies. These are the quiet years leading up to the decisive battle of Sekigahara which in itself decided the course of Japanese history. While the elderly Hideyoshi attempts to hold on to power by ruling as a regent on behalf of his sickly son Hideyori, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Eitaro Ozawa) plots on the sidelines. Hideyoshi is advised by his steward Mitsunari (Isao Yamagata) to take a hard line with treachery, executing all 36 “spies” planted in his household by Ieyasu, including a number of women and children. Mitsunari is himself working with the other side, and the executions are nothing short of a PR disaster for Hideyoshi, provoking fear and resentment in the general populace who can’t accept the inherent cruelty of putting women and children to the sword. Sakon (Chikage Awashima), a kabuki actress and fiercely protective friend of Umeme, comes to a similar conclusion to Takasada, hating the samurai order for its merciless savagery. 

That’s perhaps why she’s originally wary of Takasada’s interest in Umeme, uncertain he will keep his promise to keep his hands off her and so staying over one night herself to make sure Umeme is safe. Umeme, meanwhile, may not have wanted him to be quite so honourable, leaving in the morning visibly irritated and exclaiming that Takasada is drunk on himself and understands nothing of women. That may be quite true, but it’s his sense of honour which eventually tells him that he must reject the samurai ideal. First they tell him honour dictates he must die, then that he must not, then when Hideyoshi dies and the prohibition is lifted, that he must die after all because his entire clan is embarrassed by his continuing existence. By this point, Takasada has decided to accept his “cowardice”. Sickened by the spectacle of his ritual suicide and the humiliation of its cancelation, he came to the conclusion that “loyalty and honour for world fame, glorious exploits etc” is all a big joke. He loves food, and wine, and his wife, and if that means others call him coward so be it because he’s finally happy and perhaps free. 

His spear, however still hangs over his hearth. He hasn’t truly let go of it or of the code with which he was raised. Sakon, perhaps on one level jealous and guarding her own feelings as she accepts that Umeme has chosen to leave the stage to retreat into an individual world with Takasada, warns her that her happiness will end if Takasada is convinced to accept a commission from the Tokugawa. He surprises her by once again renouncing his status as a samurai, choosing to stay a “coward” living a simple life of love and happiness. But as soon as he puts his hand on the spear intending to break it for good something in him is reawakened. He can’t do it. He finds himself at Sekigahara, confronted not only by samurai hypocrisy but by his own as Sakon does what he could not do to show him what he has betrayed. His rage explodes and he raises his spear once again but not for the Tokugawa, against the samurai order itself piercing the very banners which define it in an ironic assault on an empty ideology.  


Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)