The Idiot (白痴, Akira Kurosawa, 1951)

“He was too good for this world” a matriarch finally concedes of the pure soul at the centre of Akira Kurosawa’s The Idiot (白痴, Hakuchi), though like most she had found his goodness unnerving. Adapted from the Dostoyevsky novel, Kurosawa’s poetic morality play is like much of his contemporary work a meditation on the post-war future but perhaps also an admission that this “faithless world” isn’t meant for pure souls and that goodness too can be destructive in its incompatibility with a world ruled by cruelty and selfishness. 

Relocated to a wintery Hokkaido, the film opens with former soldier Kameda (Masayuki Mori) travelling north to stay with a relative after a spell in a psychiatric hospital in Okinawa. Having been sentenced to death for war crimes in what he claims was a case of mistaken identity and then unexpectedly reprieved, Kameda suffered a nervous breakdown but also describes himself as having been reborn, as if everything that had happened to him up to that point had happened to someone else. Ever since then he’s been a pure soul, selfless and ethereal but also with, as someone later puts it, an eerie power to see into people’s hearts that leaves some feeling shamed or uncomfortable in the stinging light of his goodness. 

In the outdated language of the time, he is called an “idiot” because of his epilepsy which has he says caused him epileptic dementia. In the title cards that open the film, it is said that goodness is often conflated with idiocy as if to be good is only to be naive for sophistication necessarily favours calculation over feeling. He is an outcast firstly because of the stigma surrounding his condition and secondly because of the way his goodness reflects on others, leaving them feeling exposed or perhaps judged and found wanting. 

He finds his mirror in a young woman, Taeko (Setsuko Hara), who is loved by a man he met on the train, Akama (Toshiro Mifune), but is herself an outcast because she has been the mistress of a wealthy man, Tohata (Eijiro Yanagi), since she was only 14 years old. On seeing a photograph of her in a shop window near the station he remarks that she seems very unhappy, later explaining that in her eyes he saw only long years of lonely suffering that reminded him of the eyes of a young soldier executed by firing squad who looked back at him with eyes filled with reproach that he must be sacrificed for the folly of the war. But whereas Kameda’s awakening as a pure soul has opened him up to the world, Taeko’s internalised shame has made her cold and indifferent. Kameda’s recognition of her as another pure soul grants her the courage to escape one kind of suffering in abandoning the wealthy man who has ruined her life, but only provokes further destruction in her conviction that Kameda is the one man she can never love for she will only ruin him. 

Kameda, meanwhile, falls in love with the daughter of his relative, Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga), who is proud and largely unable to express her feelings honestly often saying the direct opposite of what she actually means. She too has her idea of goodness, breaking with her childhood sweetheart Kayama (Minoru Chiaki) when he is tempted by an offer from Tohata to enter into a sham marriage with Taeko for appearance’s sake in return for a large sum of money and guaranteed social advancement. Though Ayako originally rejects Kameda because of the shame and humiliation she would feel married to a man with a disability, she nevertheless fails in love with him but is unable to accept the equality of his love in his inability to abandon Taeko to whom he has come to represent a kind of salvation. 

Ayako later comes to believe that it was she who was truly the “idiot” in her petty jealousy lamenting that “if only we could all love without hatred” as Kameda had done though it was in the end his selfless love that sealed his fate, while for Akama it was perhaps the opposite in realising that he would never possess Taeko’s heart and that the only reason she returned to him was because she thought him to be a man of so little importance that ruining him was of no consequence and ruin him she did in the madness of his love. Guileless, Kameda is also a pauper cheated out of his inheritance by a relative and then again exploited by a duplicitous businessman, his poverty another proof of his goodness while others squabble over money. Having escaped an authoritarian father and come in to his inheritance, Akama wagers his fortune trying to buy Taeko from Tohata by gazumping Kayama who later redeems himself by letting the money burn but never really escapes the stain of his temptation. 

Kurosawa frames the tale as high gothic, filled with eerie winds and mist and fire in the midst of snow. The stove of Akama’s otherwise dark and gloomy mansion seems to flare with the intensity of confrontation as the passions of these four tortured souls rise and fall while each seeking a kind of salvation which necessarily cannot satisfy all. Originally intended to run in two parts over 265 minutes, the film was famously too big for producers at Shochiku for whom Kurosawa was working outside of his regular studio Toho. They cut 100 minutes to suit their exhibition needs, excising most of the prologue and inserting a number of clumsily placed intertitles absent from the rest of the film while undercutting the sense of mounting dread in the tragic backstories of each of these doomed romantics. But even in this compromised version, Kurosawa captures something of the gothic fatalism that surrounds Kameda, an innocent lamb in a world of wolves as Akama describes him, whose boundless, selfless love has no place in this faithless world. 


The Idiot screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 13th & 21st January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Rashomon (羅生門, Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

Is there such a thing as objective truth, or only an agreed upon “reality”? Like many of his early films, Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of a pair of short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa is concerned with the idea of authenticity, or the difference between the truth and a lie, but is also acutely aware that the lines between the two aren’t as clear as we’d like them to be largely because we lie to ourselves and come to believe our own perceptions as “truth” assuming that it is others who are mistaken or duplicitous. 

After all, the film opens with the words “I don’t understand”, as the woodsman (Takashi Shimura), who later tells us unprompted that he does not lie, tries to reconcile the conflicting testimonies of a series of witnesses at the trial of the bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) who is accused of raping a noble woman (Machiko Kyo) in the forest and killing her husband (Masayuki Mori). At the end of the film it becomes clear that most of his confusion is born of the fact that he witnessed more than he claimed, later presenting a more objective version of the events while justifying his decision not reveal it earlier by saying he didn’t want to get involved. Not wanting to get involved might be understandable, he has six children and presumably won’t be paid for his time nor will he want to risk being accused of something himself. Then again as the cynical peasant (Kichijiro Ueda) sheltering with him at the already ruined Rashomon Gate seems to have figured out, it might equally be that he took the precious dagger repeatedly mentioned in the trial before running off to find the police. He has six children to feed after all. 

The woodsman is simply confused if also guilty, but the Buddhist monk (Minoru Chiaki) who saw the couple on the road some days previously has been thrown into existential despair and is on the brink of losing his faith in humanity. He can’t bear to live in a world in which everyone is selfish and dishonest. Yet “dishonest” is not quite the right word to describe the testimony, for there’s reason to believe that the witnesses may believe what they say when saying it or have at least deluded themselves into believing a subjective version of the truth that shows them in a better light than the “objective” might have. At least, none of the suspects are lying in order to escape justice as each confesses to the crime though for varying reasons. 

The bandit flatters himself by assuming dominance over the situation, baldly stating that he killed the samurai to rape the wife only she took a liking to him and he killed the husband in a fair fight even remarking on his skill as a swordsman. As we later see Kurosawa frames these fights in a more naturalistic fashion than your average chambara. They are often clumsy and desperate, won more by chance than by skill. Tajomaru also describes the wife as “fierce” in an unwomanly fashion though she is meek and cheerful on the stand and later states that she fainted after her husband rejected her for her “faithlessness” and woke up to find her dagger in his chest, while his beyond the grave testimony delivered via spirit medium claims that he killed himself unable to bear the humiliation of his wife’s betrayal in agreeing to leave with Tajomaru. 

As the peasant points out, Tajomaru lies because he is insecure and so tells a story that makes him seem more “heroic” than he actually is, while the wife lies to overcome her shame, and the samurai to reclaim agency over his death and escape the twin humiliations of having been unable to protect his wife and being murdered by a petty bandit. As the three men sheltering under the Rashomon Gate concede, we don’t know our own souls and often resort to narrative to tell ourselves who we are. As usual, the truth is a little of everything, all the tales are partly true and less “lies” than wilful self-delusion to help the witness accept an unpalatable “reality”. Kurosawa perhaps hints at this in his use of extreme closeup while otherwise forcing the viewer into the roles alternately of witness and judge as if we were like the woodman watching from the bushes or hearing testimony from the dais while the action proceeds to the maddening rhythms of a bolero. Despite the hopeless of the situation, the reality that everyone lies and the world is a duplicitous place, the monk’s faith is eventually restored in the acknowledgment that there are truths other than the literal as he witnesses the woodsman’s compassion and humanity, the skies ahead of them beginning to clear as they leave the shelter of the ruined gate for a world which seems no less uncertain but perhaps not so cynical as it had before.


Rashomon is re-released in UK cinemas on 6th January courtesy of BFI.

Re-release trailer (English subtitles)

Untamed (あらくれ, Mikio Naruse, 1957)

“Don’t let guys control you. You have to make them men” the heroine of Mikio Naruse’s Taisho-era drama Untamed (あらくれ, Arakure, AKA Untamed Woman) advises a former rival, yet largely fails to do so herself in the fiercely patriarchal post-Meiji society. Based on a serialised novel by Shusei Tokuda published in 1915 but set in late Meiji rather than early Taisho, Naruse’s adaptation essentially drops a contemporary post-war woman into a by then almost unrecognisable Japan but finds her hamstrung firstly by feckless and entitled men and then by complicit women who themselves cannot accept her transgressive femininity. 

As the film opens, a teenage Shima (Hideko Takamine) has just married wealthy grocery store owner Tsuru (Ken Uehara) but the marriage is already a failure. Though Shima is compared favourably with Tsuru’s previous wife who was apparently in poor health, presumably suffering with TB which required a sojourn by the sea, it soon becomes clear that Tsuru is as trapped by the archaic patriarchal social system as she is. He was apparently in love with a woman from a higher social class he was too afraid to pursue and despite still seeing her also has a mistress near their factory in Hokkaido whom he often visits under the guise of a business trip. Yet when Shima tells him she thinks she may be pregnant, he is unimpressed immediately questioning the paternity of the child while harping on about her having been married before which it seems is not quite true. Perhaps the reason that she has ended up a second wife despite her youth and beauty, Shima ran out on a marriage to a childhood friend arranged for her by her adoptive parents the night before the wedding not realising they had already registered the union without her knowledge or consent. 

This transgressive act at once signals Shima’s total disregard for conventionality and insistence on her own autonomy, yet it is also indicative of the fact she married Tsuru in search of a better life, knowing that to marry her adoptive parents’ choice meant only a life of servitude on the family farm. She is not always a terribly likeable figure, coldly explaining that she didn’t mind being fostered out because the adoptive family were wealthier and could give her a better life than she had with her birth parents yet it’s this sense of familial dislocation and the liminal status it gives her that allow her to take agency over her life in the way other women might not unwilling to lose the familial security Shima may not feel she ever had. Tsuru is also an adopted son, but the price for disobedience for him may be even higher and indeed as we later hear his inability to sort out his love life eventually sees him out on his ear. His pettiness in refusing to accept the child is his leads to an argument which causes Shima to slip on the stairs and miscarry the implication being that she may not be able to bear more children leaving her unlikely to remarry and thereby spurring her desire for a tempered independence. 

The fall is the last straw, Tsuru divorces her citing her inability to play the role of the proper wife while her birth family, from whom she is emotionally estranged, refuse to take her back as do the adoptive parents because of the embarrassment she caused them with the marriage stunt. She is often described as “like a man”, unable to win as Tsuru at once insists she wear the frumpy kimonos left behind by his previous wife who was a decade older, complains she wears too much makeup, and tells her to loosen her kimono belt to de-emphasises her figure, while criticising her for being unfeminine in her refusal to simply put up with his bad behaviour as is expected for a wife in this era. Shima fulfils all her wifely duties and as we see is in fact running his business as the women of the family are often seen to do while their husbands spend the money they earn for them on other women whether drinking with geishas or supporting mistresses in second homes. When her husband hits her, she fights back rather than shrinking away chastened as intended. 

Yet she cannot overcome the sense that a man is necessary for her success which cannot be accomplished alone. Cast out from her family, her brother installs her in the mountains to work in a geisha house if only as kitchen staff but soon does a flit to reunite with his married lover who has left her husband for him. While there she falls for the quiet and sensitive inn owner Hamaya (Masayuki Mori), also an adopted heir, whose wife is again ill with TB. Hamaya may be treating his wife a little better than Tsuru did his, but quite clearly assumes she’ll die in starting an affair with Shima who is then sent away to an even more remote inn to avoid a potential scandal. As Tsuru did with the woman he apparently loved, Shima continues to see Hamaya until he too succumbs to TB as an ideal of an impossible love while simultaneously accepting that he failed her in being too weak and cowardly to fight for their romance outright refusing to become his mistress. 

This may be one reason she is determined never again to be an employee but to own her own store which is why she ends up marrying tailor Onoda (Daisuke Kato) who introduces her to textiles and seamstressing at which she quickly proves adept having mastered the modern sewing machine. She marries Onoda in believing him “reliable”, but soon comes to regard him as lazy and feckless. The first shop fails because he can’t keep up with her. The male employees are always taking breaks to drink tea and play shogi, Onoda complaining that he’s tired while she does all his work for him and the housework too. Yet he also criticises her for a lack of femininity, snapping back that it must be her time of the month when she berates him in front of their employees while later after they’ve become successful complaining it’s “embarrassing” that his workhorse wife doesn’t know the things a sophisticated society woman would such as ikebana while flirting with the teacher he’s hired ostensibility to teach her. He even forces her to wear a frumpy and already somewhat dated classically Edwardian dress with a fancy bonnet which more resembles something a country girl might wear to church than the latest in Western fashions in an attempt to advertise their tailoring which seems primed to backfire. 

That she learns to ride a bicycle in this rather ridiculous outfit is again a symbol of her desire to seize and manipulate modernity even giving rise to a piece of innuendo from her much younger assistant Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai) as to the pounding she’s been getting from the saddle. Kimura seems to think the problem with the business is that Onoda’s patterns are outdated, offering her a new modernity while she prepares to cut Onoda out on catching him with his mistress taking their best employee with her to ruin his business and start another of her own. Though once again she cannot leave alone only with a man the ending is perhaps more hopeful than might be expected from a Naruse film allowing Shima to commit herself fully to the sense of industry she embodies always ready to start again, work harder, and achieve her desires unwilling to be bound by conventional ideas of femininity or to simply put up with useless men who refuse to accept her for all she is. Yet she largely fails to make men of them, each of her various suitors failing to live up to her, ruined by an oppressive social system that encourages them to exploit female labour while taking it for granted in their intense sense of patriarchal entitlement. 


Sun Above, Death Below (狙撃, Hiromichi Horikawa, 1968)

“Fighting is the only way I have to live my life” according to a hitman battling existential ennui in Hiromichi Horikawa’s Toho action B-movie, Sun Above, Death Below (狙撃, Sogeki). A starrier affair than the studio’s other forays into moody crime, Horikawa’s psychedelic exploration of a killer drawn to death nevertheless situates itself very much in the world of 1968 in which the hero’s attempt to escape his sense of emptiness through killing is directly linked to an increasing economic prosperity and its concurrent costs in the nation’s current geopolitical positioning. 

As if to signal this sense of societal anxiety, the first target Matsushita (Yuzo Kayama) knocks off is sitting in the back row of the last carriage on the Shinkansen out of Tokyo. His next job, however, will apparently be more complicated. A criminal gang want him to take out “five or six” targets at a specific location in order to intercept a fortune in gold smuggled by, as later becomes clear, an international Chinese gangster, though the men at the waterside greet each other in Arabic. The hit does not go entirely to plan but Matsushita is later able to bring the situation under control allowing the gang to get their hands on the gold. The smugglers, meanwhile, are obviously unhappy with this turn of events and send in their best hitman (Masayuki Mori), who permanently travels with a blonde companion, to take back what’s theirs. 

Matsushita is a killer for hire so he doesn’t really care very much about the gold and is even annoyed when the gang try to pay him with it, correctly surmising they didn’t really expect him to succeed so haven’t bothered bringing any cash. As he explains to love interest Shoko (Ruriko Asaoka), he doesn’t really care about anything. He simply shoots at the best target, man, with his favourite gun. He kills to feel alive, explaining that the intense concentration in which he becomes one with the gun as if it were an extension of his own body allows him to overcome his sense of existential dread which is why he’s so ice cool all the time. 

A fashion model obsessed with rare butterflies and the paradise to be found New Guinea Shoko dreams of a time in which they can become one under the sun, envisioning a future in which Matsushita has become friends with all the creatures of the forest. Yet as Matsushita tells an old friend, Fukazawa (Shin Kishida), running a secondhand gun shop near a US army base as a front for his revolutionary activities, he has no dream or ideal and knows nothing other than killing. Whereas as his friend is apparently working for some kind of never quite explained but seemingly left-wing/anarchist cause, Matsushita simply lives out his days of emptiness on some level knowing he’ll probably never make it to Shoko’s New Guinean utopia. 

Fukazawa nevertheless hints at the political instability all around them, firstly agreeing to pawn a gun for a pair of Americans after beer money, and then by handing Matsushita an AK47 apparently smuggled back from Vietnam via the American base. Matsushita’s sense of ennui is born of this growing unease with empty capitalistic consumerism and a concurrent sense of powerless in Japan’s ongoing complicity with American foreign policy in Asia. Displaying a sense of Sinophobia familiar from many similar films of this era, the big boss turns out to be Chinese while many that surround him are also from outside of Japan even if Matsushita’s rival is just a slightly older, crueller version of himself. 

One of Toho’s more serious crime dramas, Horikawa often veers into experimental territory with his psychedelic butterfly imagery Matsushita apparently having some kind of vision while experiencing carnal ecstasy that equates climax with literal gunshot, while his usage of stock footage featuring the New Guinean indigenous community along with an out of place blackface tribal dance performed in a hotel room clearly display some outdated attitudes otherwise unacceptable and potentially offensive in the present day. Nevertheless, Sun Above, Death Below largely lives up to its hardboiled title, the Japanese “Sniping” perhaps also hinting at the various ways Matsushita eventually strays into the crosshairs of his own inevitable destiny. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (虎の尾を踏む男達, Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Like many directors of his age, Akira Kurosawa began his career during the war sometimes working on what were effectively propaganda films yet perhaps attempting to skirt around the least palatable implications of the task at hand. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (虎の尾を踏む男達, Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi) is an example of just that, repurposing a well known historical incident from its noh and kabuki roots and subtly undercutting it with a dose of irreverent humour unwelcome to those who liked historical tales because of their nationalistic connotations. This was not, however, the reason the film found itself out of favour so much as an ironically personal issue in which Kurosawa had apparently irritated one of the censors by pointing out his ignorance of cultural tradition leading him to conveniently leave Tiger’s Tail off the list of titles in production resulting in the American Censors rejecting it for being an unknown, illegal film which is why it languished on the shelf for seven years after filming was completed in 1945. The Americans may not have liked it much either given their aversion to period drama which they feared encouraged the kind of thinking incompatible with the democratic era, but like many of Kurosawa’s samurai dramas it has a rather ambivalent attitude to feudal loyalty both admiring of nobility and despairing of its austerity. 

Set in the late 12th century, the action takes place during a period of warfare in which warrior Yoshitsune (Iwai Hanshiro X) has returned a victory for his brother, the ruler. His brother Yoritomo, however, feels as if his victory has perhaps been too good and he is therefore a threat to him. Yoritomo accuses his brother of sedition and puts a purge in motion, leaving Yoshitsune with no option other than to flee. With six of his best retainers, he escapes dressed as an itinerant Buddhist monk and tries to make his way to neutral territory in the North. To get there, however, they need to pass through a series of checkpoints which is why they’re currently accompanied by a cheerful fool in the form of a lowly porter (Kenichi Enomoto) supposedly guiding them along a secret path through mountain forests. 

The porter is a new addition to the story added by Kurosawa for reasons of expediency and comic relief, yet his intrusion is also one which deeply angered the more nationalistic of the censors who resented the director’s irreverence towards a key historical event. Like many other of Kurosawa’s bumbling peasants, he’s both contemptuous and in awe of the world of the samurai, offering down to earth common sense takes on the politics of the day. He has already heard all about the Yoritomo/Yoshitsune drama and recounts it in the manner of a soap opera, quite reasonably asking if a quarrel between brothers could not have been sorted out with a good old-fashioned private fist fight rather than a state mandated manhunt which is also quite inconvenient for ordinary people in addition to being somewhat heartless. 

The samurai, not wanting to break cover, can only look sad and lament the cruelty of their codes, yet it’s precisely in the subversion of their ideology that they are able to escape. They have already transgressed, some with shaved heads and all already in the clothes of a monk. The porter looks at Yoshitsune, apparently a successful warrior, and remarks on his delicate physique and seeming femininity. Eventually he says too much, realises that the men are the fugitives everyone’s looking for and is suddenly afraid, forgetting for the moment that they need him to get out of the woods and knowing that samurai think nothing of killing “insignificant nobodies” like him. Nevertheless they do not kill him, but on hearing that there are lookouts on the horizon aware of Yoshitsune’s presence, they ask their lord to change places with a peasant, wearing his worn out clothes and carrying his heavy pack though the weight of it perhaps betrays him. As the porter points out, he does not have the look of a man used to trekking through the mountains and his delicate legs are already shaking under the unfamiliar strain. 

When the band is intercepted by loyal retainer Togashi (Susumu Fujita) who has been instructed to stop all priests in case Yoshitsune comes his way, Benkei (Denjiro Okochi), a real monk if also a warrior with a talent for bluff, manages to talk his way out of Togashi’s questioning, improvising an entire prospectus on the spot to convince him that they really are collecting money to repair a temple, quickly explaining that his robes are ornate because even ascetics have fashion sense. It’s not entirely clear if Togashi simply believes him, or if he too is wilfully subverting the code having recognised Yoshitsune and decided to help him escape. Might that not, in a certain sense, be the better way of serving a lord, preventing him from making a huge and painful mistake in killing his own brother out of a misplaced sense of paranoia? 

In any case, Benkei talks his way out of trouble only for a minor retainer to intervene, insisting that the porter is too pretty and bears a striking resemblance to Yoshitsune. Reacting quickly again, Benkei does the unthinkable. He strikes his lord and loudly berates him as if he really were a lazy porter failing in the duties for which he has been paid. The real porter becomes upset, placing himself in between Benkei’s staff and Yoshitsune’s body, either out of empathetic identification or horror in the betrayal of feudal loyalty. Benkei knows he must now be believed, no one would ever do what he has done because it is a complete and total negation of the samurai code. Yet in breaking it he saves his lord, which is all that really matters. Yoshitsune later forgives him, because he is a good lord after all and how could he not. But as Benkei was keen to keep pointing out, this isn’t the only checkpoint they must pass and their journey is without end, all they can do is “continue without rest”, taking this brief moment of unexpected levity provided by apology wine from Togashi and the hilarious antics from the porter before setting off once again. As for the porter, he is soon abandoned, left on one side of the samurai divide as the curtain closes on this brief strange tale. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

The Balloon (風船, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

The uncertainties of the post-war world are often conveyed through the familiar “cloud” metaphor, but in characteristic fashion Yuzo Kawashima opts for something earthier in the manmade “Balloon” (風船, Fusen). Less representative of its troubled humanists than the amoral villain Tsuzuki (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) who likes to know which way the wind is blowing so he can go that way too, these balloons are up in the air because they’re afraid to land fearing the inevitable pop if they pick the wrong spot.

Our hero, former painter Murakami (Masayuki Mori), has become the head of a successful camera firm. His son, Keikichi (Tatsuya Mihashi), works with him, while his 20-year-old daughter Tamako (Izumi Ashikawa) is a reluctant student still living in the family home. Out of step with his times, he’s known as a decent and compassionate boss, offering his staff a significant wage increase in excess of that recommended by the union just because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. Unfortunately, Keikichi is much more like his conservative mother and does not quite share his father’s egalitarian principles. He’s currently engaged in a “relationship” with widowed bar hostess Kumiko (Michiyo Aratama) but treats her extremely badly, throwing money on the side table as he leaves her apartment to make it clear that he views himself as a customer and not as a lover. When Murakami re-encounters a family friend, Tsuzuki, at his father’s funeral it sets off a chain of events that will change his life completely. Now a shady nightclub entrepreneur, Tsuzuki is dead set on making his singer, Mikiko (Mie Kitahara), a star and thinks a good way to help make that happen might be to get her married to someone with money, like, for instance, Keikichi. 

Raised in Shanghai, singing in French, and forever wearing berets, Mikiko may indeed be the face of avaricious post-war youth, apparently having floated along with Tsuzuki halfway across the world in search of a place in the sun. Urged on by her manager, she goes to war against Kumiko who, in contrast to the “bar girl” image, is earnest and naive. Working as a hostess places her on the fringes of the sex trade, but does not necessarily imply that she makes a living by sleeping with her customers, and she certainly seems less than grateful to receive money from Keikichi whom she believes to be her boyfriend. Mikiko willingly weaponises her sex appeal and seemingly endures no consequences for doing so, while Kumiko is roundly rejected as a “fallen woman” and deemed an unsuitable match by Keikichi’s snooty mother. 

Tamako, by contrast, actively reaches out to Kumiko and attempts to make her a member of the family, never for a second considering that she might not be welcome because she can see that Kumiko is a “nice” person. Much more like her kindly father, she finds herself uncomfortable at home and mostly holes up in the attic painting. After suffering childhood polio, she’s been left with muscle weakness in her left arm and is treated like a child by her mother and brother who openly tell people that the illness has also made her “simple”. Despite all that, however, she sees only the best in people and desperately wants those around her to be happy. 

The difference in her own family is brought home to her when her father takes her with him on a business trip to the much quieter, more traditional Kyoto where he has reunited with a pair of youngsters whose late parents once rented him a room when he was temporarily displaced by post-war confusion. Like Kumiko, Rui (Sachiko Hidari) is a kind person in difficult circumstances. She too is working in a bar and has done some work as a photo model, even glamour shots to earn money to pay her brother’s university fees. Rui doesn’t want to go on doing that in the future, but doesn’t feel too bad about it either because she only exposed the outside of herself, and really who cares about that. 

Beginning to regret some of his life choices, Murakami wonders if he mightn’t be better to move back into the attic room in Kyoto and pray at the temple everyday like before instead of trying to make money he feels has slowly corrupted his family. Confronted with Keikichi’s near sociopathic self-involvement over his relationships with Kumiko and Mikiko, he comes to the conclusion that all he can do is cut him loose and hope he learns some humility through being forced to stand on his own two feet. Given a talking to by his father Keikichi doubles down with his misogynistic world view, insisting that “all women are whores” and all relationships are essentially transactions while claiming that he, himself, as well as men in general, is the real victim because he’s being forced to carry the can for the way the world works. Murakami isn’t having any of it, calmly asking him if he’d say the same thing to his mother, which he sheepishly admits he couldn’t. 

Mikiko likens Tsuzuki to one off his metaphorical balloons, pointing out that he was an imperialist in Shanghai and now seems to have it in for the bourgeoisie, but for all his cynicism he seems to have a kind of admiration for a woman like Kumiko who carried on loving one man no matter how poorly he treated her. If only he had a woman like that, he might have found a place to land and his life would have been very different, he muses. Murakami, meanwhile, has rejected the modern city, certain that his son is the way he is because his life has been too easy and access to wealth has given him a superiority complex that’s put him out of touch with ordinary people. Disappointed with his own family, he decides to make a new one with the two cheerful youngsters in Kyoto, hoping that he will at least be able to save his daughter from the ravages of a rapidly declining society which seems primed to swallow the sensitive whole.


Currently available to stream on Mubi in the US.

Broken Drum (破れ太鼓, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1949)

The evils of of authoritarianism are recast as family drama in Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1949 satirical comedy, Broken Drum (破れ太鼓, Yabure Daiko). Co-scripted by Masaki Kobayashi, a student of Kinoshita’s who went on to forge a long career dedicated to interrogating the place of the conscientious individual within an oppressive system, Broken Drum is also a testament to changing times and new possibilities as the youngsters slowly find the strength to resist and insist on their right to individual happiness. 

As the film begins, the family’s maid is leaving in a hurry, sick to the back teeth of the treatment she receives from the head of the household. Though she admits that the wife and children are all lovely, the husband is a tyrant and, according to her, a nouveau riche upstart, all money and no class. Tsuda (Tsumasaburo Bando), a self-made construction magnate, runs his family like a small cult and everyone is so afraid of upsetting him that they find themselves entirely unable to stand up for themselves. Times are, however, changing and Tsuda’s business is in trouble, which means his power may be waning. Denied loans all over town, he tries to railroad his eldest daughter, Akiko (Toshiko Kobayashi), into marrying a wealthy suitor, Hanada (Mitsuo Nagata), and is deaf to her cries of resistance.

Despite the rather ironical speech from the maid who describes herself as a “feminist” which is why she’s unable to put up with Tsuda’s poor conduct, stopping to tell a pregnant dog not to let anyone push her around just because she’s a girl, the world of 1949 is still an incredibly sexist one. Tsuda’s long suffering wife Kuniko (Sachiko Murase) complains that her younger daughter spends all her time rehearsing for her role as Hamlet rather than learning “useful” skills for women like cooking and housekeeping. Akiko’s suitor sides with the maid, affirming that “men should be nice to women” and making a point of telling her that all his maids love him without quite realising that what he’s just said isn’t quite as nice as he thought it was. Akiko doesn’t want to get married and she doesn’t even like Hanada, but she’s too conflicted to fully resist, unsure if she has the right to go against the “tradition” of arranged marriage. She asks her mother how she felt, and learns that she too cried every day, somehow normalising the idea that a woman’s marriage is supposed to make her miserable. 

Meanwhile, Tsuda is slowly destroying his oldest son, Taro (Masayuki Mori), who has been trying to quit the family construction firm to go into business with his aunt making music boxes. Tsuda isn’t having any of it, he tells Taro that music boxes aren’t a manly occupation and that he’ll never make it on his own, but Taro has an advantage in knowing that the construction company is in a bad place and his father’s authority is weakened. He becomes the first of the children to escape by rejecting Tsuda’s influence, decamping to his aunt’s which becomes a point of refuge for the other members of the Tsuda family seeking escape. 

Akiko begins to gain the courage to walk away after bonding with a painter she meets after her father was extremely rude to him on a bus, poking a hole in his canvas and then blaming it on the driver. Luckily he dropped his sketchbook which has his name, Shigeki Nonaka (Jukichi Uno), inside so she can pay him a visit to return it. Unlike the Tsuda’s, the Nonaka household is one of cheerful family warmth. They are not wealthy, but they do not particularly care. Mr & Mrs Nonaka fell in love in Paris decades ago where she was charmed by the sound of his violin while she sketched in the streets. Tsuda, angrily rejecting Akiko’s attempt to cancel the marriage, tells his wife that even if she doesn’t like him now, Hanada’s wealth will make her happy in the long run, but it’s at the Nonaka’s that she discovers “the true happiness of family”, vowing to do whatever it takes to be able to marry Shigeki with whom she has fallen in love. 

Even after losing two of his children and finally alienating his wife, Tsuda fails to learn, blaming his family for the failure of his business rather than accept his old school authoritarianism is out of step with the modern world. His middle son, Heizo (Chuji Kinoshita), actually the most sympathetic of the children, has written a satirical song that likens his father to a “broken drum”, something that makes a lot of noise but is confusing and very unpleasant to listen to. It doesn’t help that Tsuda also has the habit of going into speech mode, raising his arm in a fascist salute as he barks out his orders. “Life is most miserable when there’s no one to love”, Heizo tries to warn him, calmly explaining that a family is made up of “lonely creatures” with individual lives, and that that strong connection only survives through trust and independence.

Beginning to see the light, Tsuda accepts that he’ll be deposed if he doesn’t allow his family its democratic freedoms. Undergoing a conversion worthy of Scrooge at the end of a Christmas Carol, he he suddenly realises that “you need other people to succeed in life”, and is re-embraced by his family who decide to give him a chance to be better than he’s been in the knowledge that he has no more power over them than they choose to give him. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

Floating Clouds (浮雲, Mikio Naruse, 1955)

(C) 1955 Toho

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

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

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

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

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


The Good Fairy (善魔, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

Good fairy DVDAlthough one of the more prominent names in post-war cinema, the work of Keisuke Kinoshita has often been out of fashion, derided for its sentimental naivety. It is true to say that Kinoshita values heroes whose essential goodness improves the world around them though that is not to say that he is entirely without sympathy for the conflicted or imperfect even if his equanimity begins to waver with age. 1951’s The Good Fairy (善魔, Zemma), however, working from a script penned not by himself but Kogo Noda and adapted from the novel by Kunio Kishida, seems to turn his life philosophy on its head, wondering whether the tyranny of puritanical goodness is an evil in itself or merely the best weapon against it.

After beginning with a hellish, ominous title sequence set against the flames, the film opens with newspaper editor Nakanuma (Masayuki Mori) getting a hot tip regarding a politician’s wife who seems to have mysteriously disappeared. He hands the assignment to rookie reporter Rentaro Mikuni (played by the actor Rentaro Mikuni who subsequently took his stage name from this his debut role) who specialises in political corruption. Mikuni doesn’t like the assignment. He thinks it’s unethical and whatever happens between a man and his wife is no one’s business, but ends up going to see the politician, Kitaura (Koreya Senda), anyway and instantly dislikes him. Mildly worried by Kitaura’s lack of concern over his wife’s sudden absence, Mikuni stays on the case and visits the wife’s father (Chishu Ryu) up in the mountains where he also meets her sister, Mikako (Yoko Katsuragi), who eventually leads him to the woman herself, Itsuko (Chikage Awashima), who has taken refuge with a friend after becoming disillusioned with her husband’s “vulgar” pursuit of success at the continuing cost of human decency.

To pull back for a second, in any other Kinoshita film, Itsuko would be among the heroes in standing up against her husband’s corrupting influences, but for reasons which will later be explained she lingers on the borders of righteousness owing to having made a mistaken choice in her youth which was, in many ways, defined by the times in which she lived. Nukanuma had not been entirely honest with Mikuni in that he had known and secretly been in love with Itsuko when they were both students but he was poor and diffident and so he never declared himself, his only attempt to hint as his feelings either tragically or wilfully misunderstood. Where Itsuko, who married for money and status as a young woman was expected to do in the pre-war society, has mellowed with age and gained compassionate morality, Nakanuma who became a reporter to fight for justice against the background of fascist oppression has become cynical and selfish. Never having quite forgotten Itsuko, he has been in a casual relationship with a young actress, Suzue (Toshiko Kobayashi), for the last two years never realising that she has really fallen in love with him.

Thinking back on his college relationship with Itsuko, Nakanuma remembers talking with her about unsuccessful romances, that if a man tries his best to make a woman happy but isn’t able to then it must be because she doesn’t love him. Itsuko agrees, adding that men never seem to know what makes a woman happy in love but that friendship is a different matter. She says something similar when she tells him she’s getting married but doesn’t want to lose his friendship, and when he begins floating the idea of marriage hinting that he wants to marry her but perhaps giving the mistaken impression that there’s someone else in stating that it’s sad when a friend marries because the relationship with never be the same again and knowing that he intends to marry she now treasures their friendship even more. In a sense, Nakanuma thinks of Suzue as a “friend” with whom he occasionally sleeps, believing that their relationship is only ever liminal and temporary but mutually beneficial and capable of continuing even if the sexual component had to end.

Having failed once in love, Nakanuma is resolved not to do so again and determined to fight to win Itsuko rather than lose her through cowardice, but to do so he will cruelly wound Suzue who has treated him with nothing other than tenderness. By this time, Mikuni has fallen in chaste, innocent love with Mikako who reminds him of the parts of himself he feels are being erased by his compromising job as part of the mass media machine. Mikuni’s terrifying “goodness” is largely a positive quality which leads him to fight for justice against oppression even within his own organisation but his love for the saintly Mikako only intensifies his moral purity and threatens not only to turn him into an insufferable prig but to create in him a new oppressor, spreading guilt and unhappiness like the self-righteous hero of an Ibsen play.

Early on, following their mild disagreement about journalistic ethics, Mikuni and Nakanuma have dinner together over which they debate the power of the press to bring about social change and hold power to account. Nakanuma says he’s become cynical because hating injustice isn’t enough and there’s nothing that the individual can do against an oppressive system. What he’s telling Mikuni is that he used to be like him, but time has taught him righteousness is not an effective weapon against entrenched social privilege. He recounts a dark story from a Buddhist monk who told him that good can never win over evil because it isn’t strong enough, only evil is strong enough to fight evil and so in order to counter it you will need to affect its weapons. Later, crazed by grief and exhaustion, Mikuni’s “goodness” seems to pulse out of him with ominous supernatural force as he takes Nakanuma to task for his callous treatment of Suzue only for he and Itsuko to come to the conclusion that they’ve heard the voice of “evil” and are now condemned by their past choices to lives of morally pure unhappiness.

This central conundrum seems to contradict Kinoshita’s otherwise open philosophies in its unwelcome rigidity which says that there are no second chances and no possibility of ever moving on from the past with positivity. Itsuko made the “wrong” choice when she was young in choosing to marry for material gain, but she was only making the choice her society expected her to make in the absence of other options – it wasn’t as if she had any reason to wait around for Nakanuma whose regret over his romantic cowardice has made him cold and bitter. She realised her mistake too late and resolved to correct it, but the “Good Fairy” won’t let her, it says she has to pay (for the crimes of an oppressive society) by sacrificing again her chance of happiness in the full knowledge of all she’s giving up. Kinoshita’s films advocate the right to love by will, free of oppressive social codes or obligations but Itsuko is denied a romantic resolution despite having “reformed” herself and made consistently “correct” choices since discovering her husband’s “fraud”. She is denied this largely because of Nakunuma’s failing in being unkind to one who loved him, which is, in a round about way, still her fault for not having realised he loved her and deciding to marry him instead. In fact, the only one who seems to get off scot-free is Kitaura whose fraudulent activities will be covered up on the condition he consent to Itsuko’s divorce petition and sets her fully “free” so she can be fully burdened by the weight of her romantic sacrifice.

In the end, it’s difficult to see a positive outcome which could emerge from all this unhappiness which seems primed only to spread and reproduce itself with potentially disastrous consequences. Mikuni’s purity has become puritanical, unforgiving and rigid, condemning all to a hellish misery from which there can be no escape. The cure is worse than the disease. No one could live like this, and no one should. Goodness, tempered by compassion and understanding, might not be enough to fight the darkness all alone but it might be better to live in the half-light than in the hellish flickering of the fires of righteousness.


Title sequence and opening scene (no subtitles)

The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Bad Sleep Well posterThere’s something rotten in the state of Japan – The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru), Akira Kurosawa’s take on Hamlet, unlike his previous two Shakespearean adaptations, is set firmly in the murky post-war society which, it becomes clear, is so mired in systems of corruption as to be entirely built on top of them. Our hero, like Hamlet himself, is a conflicted revenger. He intends to hold a mirror up to society, reflecting the ugly picture back to the yet unknowing world in the hope that something will really change. Change, however, comes slow – especially when it comes at the disadvantage of those who currently hold all the cards.

We open at a wedding. A small number of attendants lineup around a lift waiting for the arrival of the married couple only for a carriage full of reporters to pour out, apparently in hope of scandal though this is no gossip worthy society function but the wedding of a CEO’s daughter to his secretary. The press is in attendance because the police are – they believe there will be arrests today in connection with the ongoing corruption scandal engulfing the company in which a number of employees are suspected of engaging in kickbacks on government funded projects.

The rather strange wedding proceeds with the top brass sweating buckets while the bride’s brother (Tatsuya Mihashi), already drunk on champagne, takes to the mic with a bizarre speech “refuting” the claims that the groom, Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), has only married the bride, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), for financial gain before avowing that he will kill his new brother-in-law if he makes his little sister sad. Nishi, as we later discover, has indeed married with an ulterior motive which is anticipated by the arrival of a second wedding cake in the shape of a building at the centre of a previous corruption scandal with one black rose sticking out of the seventh floor window from which an employee, Furuya, committed suicide five years previously.

The police are keen to interview their suspects, the press are keen to report on scandal, but somehow or other the system of corruption perpetuates itself. The top guys cover for each other, and when they can’t they “commit suicide” rather than embarrass their “superiors” by submitting themselves to justice. The system of loyalty and reward, of misplaced “honour” mixed with personal greed, ensures its own survival through homosocial bonding with backroom deals done in hostess bars and the lingering threat of scandal and personal ruin for all should one rogue whistleblower dare to threaten the governing principle of an entire economy.

Nishi chooses to threaten it, partly as an act of revolution but mainly as an act of filial piety in avenging the wrongful death of his father who had, in a sense, cast him aside for financial gain and societal success. Wanting to get on, Nishi’s father refused to marry his mother and instead married the woman his “superiors” told him to. Later, his father threw himself out of a seventh floor window because his “superiors” made him understand this was what was expected of him. Furuya wasn’t the last, each time a man’s transgressions progress too far his “superiors” sacrifice him to ensure the survival of the system. Strangely no one seems to rebel, the men go to their deaths willingly, accepting their fate without question rather than submitting themselves to the law and taking their co-conspirators down with them though should someone refuse to do the “decent” thing, there are other ways to ensure their continuing silence.

Reinforcing the post-war message, Nishi chooses a disused munitions factory for his secret base. Both he and his co-conspirator, a war orphan, had been high school conscripts until the factory was destroyed by firebombing and thereafter were forced to live by their wits alone on the streets. Nishi swears that he wants to take revenge on those who manipulate the vulnerable, but finds himself becoming ever more like his prey and worse, hardly caring, wanting only to steel himself for the difficult task ahead.

In any revolution there will be casualties, but these casualties will often be those whom Nishi claims to represent. Chief among them his new wife, Yoshiko, who has been largely cushioned from the harshness of the outside world thanks to her father’s wealth and seeming care. She loves her husband and wants to believe in her father or more particularly that the moral arc of her society points towards goodness. Nishi, tragically falling for his mark, married his wife to destroy her family but ironically finds himself torn between genuine love for Yoshiko, a desire for revenge, and a mission of social justice. Can he, and should he, be prepared to “sacrifice” an innocent in the same way the “superiors” of the world sacrifice their underlings in order to end a system of oppression or should he abandon his plan and save his wife the pain of learning the truth about her husband, her father, and the world in which she lives?

In the end, Nishi will waver. Yoshiko’s father, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), will not. Goodness becomes a weakness – Iwabuchi turns his daughter’s love and faith against her, subverting her innocence for his own evil. He makes a sacrifice of her in service of his own “superiors” who may be about to declare that they “have complete faith” in him at any given moment. The only thing that remains clear is that Iwabuchi will not be forgiven, the wronged children of the post-war era will not be so quick to bow to injustice. Let the great axe fall? One can only hope.


Original trailer (English subtitles)