The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Noboru Nakamura, 1964)

(C) Shochiku 1964Despite having two films nominated for a best foreign language Oscar and a handful of foreign festival hits under his belt, Noboru Nakamura has been largely forgotten by Western film criticism though a centennial retrospective of three of his most well regarded films at Tokyo Filmex in 2013 has helped to revive interest. The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Yoru no Henrin), Nakamura’s 1964 Shochiku melodrama focussing on the suffocating life of a young woman pulled into the Tokyo red light district, was one of the three newly restored films featured and was also screened in Berlin and Venice to great acclaim. Making full use of its vibrant colour palate, The Shape of Night paints its city as a constant tormentor filled with artificial light and false promises.

As we meet her, melancholy street walker Yoshie (Miyuki Kuwano) has been trapped in her dead end existence for six years and has lost all hope of living a “normal” life filled with love and happiness. A chance encounter with a supercilious client, Fujii (Keisuke Sonoi), prompts her into a series of recollections in an effort to explain exactly how it was she ended up in such a sorry state. As the eldest daughter of a poor family Yoshie left school early to work in a factory (making those neon tubes you see everywhere) while supplementing her income by working as a barmaid (not a hostess, just a girl behind the bar). Just shy of her 20th birthday, she meets a handsome “salaryman”, Eiji (Mikijiro Hira), who starts coming to the bar regularly to see her. The pair became a couple, and then lovers, and then cohabiters, but Eiji isn’t a “salaryman” so much as a low level gangster with a gambling problem whose street name is “princess”. Continual losses put Eiji in a tight spot with his crew and he begins borrowing money from Yoshie before asking her to prostitute herself to get him out of a hole. Thinking it will just be a one time thing, Yoshie resolves to make a sacrifice for her man but, of course, it wasn’t a one time thing.

Yoshie’s story is a sadly familiar one – an innocent woman duped by a duplicitous man whose empty promises aim to mask his continued fecklessness. Eiji, despite his smart suits and coolly confident attitude, is unlikely to make much of himself in the yakuza world yet is as tied into its hellish system of loyalty and reciprocity as Yoshie is in her non-marriage to the man she thinks she loves. Seeking constant approval, Eiji thinks nothing of living off a woman and his childishly excited smile on re-entering the apartment after Yoshie has sacrificed herself to save his face is a grim reminder of his priorities. When pleading doesn’t work Eiji turns violent, prompting Yoshie to finally consider leaving him but she’s too late – the yakuza world has already got its hooks into her and any attempt to escape will be met with terrifying resistance.

Fujii may seem as if he presents another option for Yoshie, a chance for a better, kinder existence but he too is merely another man trying to tell her how she should live her life. Hypocritical at best (as he freely admits), Fujii pays Yoshie to “ease his sexual urges” but expresses disgust and disapproval of her lifestyle and seeks to “save” her from her life of humiliating immorality, “purifying” her just like the dam he is building is supposed to do to the Sumida river. Fujii’s obvious saviour complex is worrying enough in itself though there is also the additional worry of what his “salvation” may entail if Yoshie decides to make a break from her yakuza chains and run off to the comparative safety of provincial Hokkaido. Fujii may claim to have fallen in love with her, but so did Eiji and who’s to say Fujii’s idea of wedded bliss will be any better than Eiji’s brutal reign as a common law spouse.

The situation is further complicated by Eiji’s gradual shift from a violent, overbearing, abusive boyfriend to a genial figure of gentle domesticity and what that shift later provokes in Yoshie. Rendered physically impotent by an incident during a gang fight, Eiji is literally and figuratively emasculated. Though his sudden inability to satisfy Yoshie originally provokes his jealously, it soon robs him of his violent impulses and turns Eiji into a willing housewife who dutifully does the couple’s washing and prepares the meals much to Yoshie’s consternation. This transformation is what finally kills her love for him, but still Yoshie cannot find it in herself to sever her connection with the man who has been the cause of all her suffering. Not quite hate or loathing, Yoshie’s burned out love has become a burden of care as she finds herself duty bound to look after a man she now believes incapable of looking after himself.

While Yoshie and Eiji sit in a bar one night after “work”, the television plays a report featuring the sad news of the death of a female student at the ANPO demonstrations. Prompting Yoshie to exclaim “what is ANPO anyway?”, the news report lays bare just how isolated her life as become – as all of Tokyo is aflame with with righteous indignation and the streets are filled with the largest protest in living memory, Yoshie is trapped in her tiny neon world which promises so much and delivers so little.

Nakamura makes fantastic use of sound design to capture Yoshie’s interior world – the background music rising over the droning voice of a boring client who hasn’t quite made up his mind, the radio cutting out at intense moments of violence, the terrible clanging of Eiji’s geta on the iron staircase which leads to his flat. Fading into blue dissolves of memory, Nakamura makes a hellish wonderland of nighttime Tokyo whose flashing neon lights, crowded bars and oddly darkened streets turn it into a prison of dubious delights. Finally making a drastic decision, Yoshie attempts to free herself from her burdens and sever the chains which bind her to her misery but in cutting the cord she finds the knots tightening, realising she will never be released from the source of all her suffering.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Twinkle (きらきらひかる, Joji Matsuoka, 1992)

TwinkleThe end of the Bubble Economy created a profound sense of national confusion in Japan, leading to what become known as a “lost generation” left behind in the difficult ‘90s. Yet for all of the cultural trauma it also presented an opportunity and a willingness to investigate hitherto taboo subject matters. In the early ‘90s homosexuality finally began to become mainstream as the “gay boom” saw media embracing homosexual storylines with even ultra independent movies such as A Touch of Fever becoming unexpected box office hits. Based on the book by Kaori Ekuni, Joji Matsuoka’s Twinkle (きらきらひかる, Kira Kira Hikaru) tackles this subject head on in examining the changing nature of the modern family as personal freedom and greater social liberalism conflict with familial duty and centuries old tradition.

We first meet Shoko (Hiroko Yakushimaru) in the office of a doctor who assures her that her “problems” are nothing to worry about and the best thing to do is find “a nice man” and get married after which she’s sure to feel much better. On the taxi ride home, her mother suddenly pulls out an omiai photo she’s apparently been carrying in her bag the whole time and proposes Shoko try meeting this particular prospect just as the doctor suggested.

Her “date” is Mitsuki (Etsushi Toyokawa) – an unmarried middled aged doctor who doesn’t seem very interested in the omiai business either. After a brief period of bickering, Shoko and Mitsuki get some time to themselves at which point Mitsuki reveals that the reason he isn’t married is because he has a boyfriend. Despite this, the pair come to an understanding and decide to get married to finally get their relatives off their backs. However, if they thought the pressure would go away after the wedding, they were mistaken. Though both sets of parents know about their children’s reasons for originally avoiding marriage, they don’t know about those of the spouses and when they find out it’s just going to get even more complicated.

We don’t find out exactly what “problems” Shoko may have had in the past. On the morning of the omiai her family dog dies meaning she has an obvious reason to appear visibly upset, yet she also displays symptoms of ongoing depression right the way through the film, flitting between upbeat cheerfulness to impulsive behaviour and crying fits. She also has a long standing drink problem which can result in dangerous accidents such as an incident where Mitsuki returns home to find her passed out on the floor with the iron in one hand and an empty glass of whiskey apparently fallen out of the other.

Mitsuki is in a relationship with a much younger college student and, though they don’t seem to go out of their way to hide their relationship, they can’t exactly be open about it either. Kon did not approve of Mitsuki’s decision to get married and has been avoiding him but Shoko is keen for the two men’s relationship to continue, eventually befriending the young man and bringing him home as fully fledged member of their family. Mitsuki finds this arrangement quite confusing, trapped between two spouses and feeling a responsibility to both of them. In one notable exchange he’s asked to make the relatively simple choice between strawberry and vanilla ice-cream, but the question has taken on a much wider implication than just tonight’s dessert.

The arrangement starts out well enough, except that the growing affection between the married couple eventually begins to place a wedge between them, each knowing that they can never truly satisfy the demands of the other. Not satisfied with a marriage, the parents also expect children which is going to require medical assistance given the circumstances, but Mitsuki is still unsure about taking this next step. Shoko, though experiencing a intensification of her emotional volatility, now suggests a truly radical solution for the early ‘90s – that she undergo artificial insemination using the mixed sperm of both Mitsuki and Kon to essentially have “their” baby.

Shoko and Mitsuki are both trapped, in a sense, by their societal obligations – particularly that of producing children. Mitsuki’s parents know he’s gay, though they tolerate more than accept, yet they still pressure him into fathering a child for appearance’s sake alone. His father had come to terms with his son’s sexuality, even if Mitsuki refers to himself as a son who has “betrayed” his father, but he was against the marriage viewing it as cruel and irresponsible. Once Shoko’s parents discover the real reasoning they try to take over, ignoring Shoko’s views (and even her first clear stating of her problems with alcohol), acting as if they were the injured party.

Though slightly older, Shoko and Mitsuki have found themselves at the centre of a generational conflict as they fight to free themselves from parental control even in adulthood. The future they propose for themselves is an unusual one and unlikely to be accepted by society, yet it is finally their own decision and only by unshackling themselves from the same social pressures which brought them together can they learn to forge a new future. Ten years later, Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s Hush! would suggest a similar scenario which, though still not universally accepted, is greeted with much less resistance than the entirely radical arrangement of Shoko, Mitsuki, and Kon. An interesting look at the changing nature of  social bonds in the immediate post-bubble era, Twinkle is a melancholic though ultimately hopeful tale of three individuals who might be able to provide the stability each needs if only they can learn to withstand the overwhelming external pressures.


Original trailer (no subtitles)