Kokoro (こころ, Kon Ichikawa, 1955)

kokoro coverAmong the most well-regarded of his works, Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro (こころ) is a deeply felt mediation on guilt, repression, atonement, and despair as well as an examination of life on a temporal threshold. Kon Ichikawa’s long career would be marked by literary adaptations both of classics and genre fiction but even among these Kokoro is something of an exception, marshalling all of his skills bar his trademark irony in a melancholy tale of loneliness, self loathing, and the destructive effects self-destruction on those caught in the cross fire.

Ichikawa opens in media res as Nobuchi (Masayuki Mori) and his wife, Shizu (Michiyo Aratama), appear to have had an argument. She darns angrily while he paces and eventually seems to relent on his decision not to let her accompany him to the grave of a mutual friend, Kaji (Tatsuya Mihashi), who died when Nobuchi was still a student. Eventually Nobuchi goes alone but is disturbed in the graveyard by the approach of an enthusiastic young university student, Hioki (Shoji Yasui), who has been redirected by Shizu after turning up to ask to borrow some books. Nobuchi is not really in the mood to talk but the two men chat, eventually sharing a drink together in the local bar before Nobuchi abruptly returns home, pausing only to invite Hioki to visit another time for the books he wanted to borrow.

Though the marriage of Nobuchi and Shizu may seem to be a model one, their lives together are mostly performance. Nobuchi is a melancholy, gloomy man who does not work and lives the life of a scholar, living off family money. The household is not wealthy but they are able to afford one maid and live in reasonable comfort. They have no children and, it seems, the marriage may be one of companionship rather than passion.

On their first meeting Nobuchi refuses to tell Hioki the reason why he is the way he is, but decides he must explain and that Hioki is the only person he can unburden himself to. Badly let down by those who should have had his best interests at heart at a young age, Nobuchi has learned not to trust, believes that love is a “sin”, and that he is unworthy of any kind of personal happiness or fulfilment. As a young man, Nobuchi did something completely unforgivable for the most selfish (and fiendishly complicated) of reasons and his best friend, Kaji, later died as a direct result.

Where Nobuchi is cynical, Kaji is ascetic and closed off but sincere in his Buddhist practice. Nobuchi’s actions are not only hurtful in their deliberate betrayal, but amount to a slow implosion of Kaji’s entire spiritual universe. Having been tempted away from his religious beliefs by irrepressible desire, Kaji’s path to spiritual fulfilment has been severed and his path to other kinds of happiness blocked by Nobuchi’s own panicked act of personal betrayal. Unable to reconcile his cowardly, cruel actions which have, in a sense, broken Kaji’s “heart”, Nobuchi resolves to deny himself the life he stole from his friend, committing himself to a living death defined by the absence of physical love, desire, or success.

Hioki first meets Nobuchi when he sees him attempt to walk into the sea and saves him from drowning. Immediately drawn to him, Hioki believes he and the man he calls “sensei” share the same kind of existential loneliness. His eagerness to forge a friendship with the older, aloof scholar may seem strange but Ichikawa is keen to build on a much disputed subtext of the original novel in Nobuchi’s possible repressed homosexuality. Hioki steps into the space vacated by Kaji which has been empty the last 15 years as the sort of man who might understand Nobuchi’s “heart”.

Shizu attempts to ask the question directly, both about Nobuchi’s relationship with Kaji whose name she is forbidden to mention and to new friend Hioki whom she fears maybe taking Kaji’s place in her husband’s affections. Pleading that she just wants to understand his “heart”, Shizu tries to get some clarification on the empty hell that is her married life, but Nobuchi’s heart is firmly closed to her and she’s shut out once again.

On hearing of the death of the Emperor Meiji, Nobuchi’s gloom descends still further as he feels himself to be a man who’s outlived his age. At one point, long before, he pushes Kaji on his spiritual weaknesses prompting him to admit he doesn’t know whether to go forward or back. Nobuchi, cynical and perceptive, points out that there likely is no back even if you wanted to go there. Taking the teacher/student relationship to its natural conclusion, Nobuchi’s final testament in which he confesses the circumstances which have led to his spiritual death is intended only for Hioki in the hope that the younger man can learn from his mistakes and prepare himself to step forward into the bright new age where Nobuchi fears to tread. Once again his actions are selfish in the extreme, but there is something universally understood in Nobuchi’s particular pain and the steps he takes to ease it.


Previously available on DVD from Eureka, now sadly OOP.

Scene from midway through the film

Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Yoji Yamada, 1965)

flag in the mist poster 2In theory, we’re all equal under the law, but the business of justice is anything but egalitarian. Yoji Yamada is generally known for his tearjerking melodramas or genial comedies but Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Kiri no Hata) is a rare step away from his most representative genres, drawing inspiration from America film noir and adding a touch of typically Japanese cynical humour. Based on a novel by Japanese mystery master Seicho Matsumoto, Flag in the Mist is a tale of hopeless, mutually destructive revenge which sees a murderer walk free while the honest but selfish pay dearly for daring to ignore the poor in need of help. A powerful message in the increasing economic prosperity of 1965, but one that leaves no clear path for the successful revenger.

Kiriko (Chieko Baisho), a twenty year old typist from Kyushu, has taken an arduous train journey into Tokyo to get a meeting with a top lawyer she hopes will defend her older brother and only living relative from a trumped up murder charge. The clerk attempts to dissuade her – Mr. Otsuka (Osamu Takizawa) charges a hefty sum for his services and, in any case, his docket is too full to be travelling back and forth to Kyushu never mind the additional travel and accommodation costs. Kiriko is disappointed but undeterred – she thinks she can manage the expenses, but asks for a discount on the fee. The clerk finds this amusing and does at least ask Otsuka who finally agrees to see Kiriko seeing as she’s come all this way. She makes an impression on him but ultimately he tells her he’s just too busy and she’s better off looking for a lawyer closer to home.

Kiriko leaves disappointed but refuses to give up, missing her original train to try again by telephone but Otsuka has already gone out “to see clients” and so she finally has to accept her mission to save her brother may have stalled. While Kiriko was using the public phone, she was overheard by a reporter, Abe (Yosuke Kondo), who wants to write something on the case but his Tokyo based bosses aren’t so keen on a local interest story from halfway across the country.

A year later, Kiriko’s brother Masao (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) has been convicted and sentenced to death. After his second appeal fails, Masao dies of illness in prison before the sentence could be carried out. Kiriko writes a bitter letter to Otsuka blaming him for her brother’s death which forces Otsuka to reconsider his decision not to take the case. He comes to the conclusion that the case was unwinable and therefore his decision not to take it made no difference but then, he spots something that no one else seems to have noticed.

A tenacious and strong willed young woman – you’d have to be to jump on a long distance train from a tiny village all the way to the big city on your own in 1965, Kiriko is determined to save her brother but finds herself facing an uphill battle against a society deliberately structured to ignore her voice and those of everyone like her. Kiriko is an orphan and so her older bother is also a kind of father figure as well as the only living relative she has left. Masao had been a primary school teacher, which is to say a respected member of society, but found himself involved with a loanshark who was later murdered after he lost some cash collected from students to pay for a school trip and borrowed money he couldn’t pay back from a ruthless old woman. Masao has made a mistake he’s going to pay for dearly – disgraced and humiliated, it was easy work to frame him for a violent crime and force him into a confession through the usual police methods. Kiriko won’t stand for it, but she’s powerless to help him.

Otsuka is, in a sense, entitled to charge what he wants for his services. He’s clearly a talented lawyer, very much in demand, and so why “should” he trek all the way out to Kyushu for a case that doesn’t interest him when he has enough clients already. He does, at least, bother to listen to Kiriko’s pitch before letting her down gently, but just when it seems he might be about to change his mind he tells his clerk to cancel all his appointments and winds up on the golf course with his girlfriend. So much for being too busy to save an innocent man’s life.

Kiriko’s “whole life has been desecrated by one incident” as she cuttingly writes later in a letter which forms a crucial part of her plot of revenge against the man who refused to save her brother’s life (half talking about something else). Forced out of her hometown where she’s the murderer’s sister, she finds work as hostess going by the club name of Rie in a Tokyo bar which has a Kyushu theme. This brings her back into contact with the reporter, Abe, and that isn’t the last of the coincidences as Kiriko finds herself swept up by circumstances which allow her to turn an unfortunate series of events into a cunning plan to ruin Otsuka by neatly echoing the precise circumstances of her brother’s case. Now it’s Otsuka forced to plead with her night after night, begging on his knees that she agree to testify and turn over key evidence that proves his client is innocent all while Kiriko adamantly sticks to her story.

Yamada conjures a tense and gloomy film noir world, following Kiriko down foggy passageways as she tries to navigate the city from the shadows, chasing the spectre of the unjust but losing herself in the process. Masao dies because he was too poor to hire a good lawyer to save him from the police who were supposed to be protecting him, but decided it was easier to stitch up someone without influence than find the real killer. His sister destroys herself to get revenge not just on lawyers more interested in fame and success than in serving justice but on an entire society which believes her existence is insufficiently important to merit full consideration. Otsuka is not a bad man, he is not corrupt or incompetent, he is merely selfish in all the ways his society encourages him to be. Originally letting himself off the hook with the excuse that his decision made no difference, he’s genuinely horrified when he realises he’s noticed a crucial clue which could have exonerated Masao even if it’s an equally selfish guilt he feels more than a recognition that he’s failed his duty to justice by letting an innocent man die while a guilty one lives to kill again. No one wins in this case, everyone emerges ruined and broken by the increasing inequalities and selfish individualism of the post-war world. Justice is blind, so they say, but perhaps she needs to open her eyes.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Human Condition (人間の條件, Masaki Kobayashi, 1959-61)

human-condition

Review of Masaki Kobayashi’s magnum opus The Human Condition (人間の條件, Ningen no Joken) first published by UK Anime Network


If Masaki Kobayashi had an overriding concern throughout his career, it was the place of the conflicted soul within an immoral society. Nowhere is this better articulated than in his masterwork – the nine and a half hour epic, The Human Condition. Adapted from a novel by Junpei Gomikawa, Kobayashi’s film also mirrors his own wartime experiences which saw him conscripted into the army and sent to Manchuria where he was accounted a good soldier, but chose to mark his resistance to the war effort by repeatedly refusing all promotions above the rank of Private. Kaji, by contrast, essentially sells his soul to the devil in return for a military exemption so that he can marry his girlfriend free of the guilt that comes with dragging her into his uncertain future. At this point Kaji can still kid himself into thinking he can change the system from within but to do so means compromising himself even further.

The first of three acts, No Greater Love, takes place in Manchuria during the Japanese expansion where Kaji is working for a Japanese steel company. Fully aware that the company is using forced and exploitative labour, Kaji has been tasked with increasing productivity and has written a comprehensive report indicating that introducing better working conditions would positively affect efficiency as there would be less absenteeism and fewer sickness related gaps in the line. His boss is impressed and presents him with an offer of promotion managing a mine in the North. Kaji is conflicted but ultimately decides to accept as the post comes with a certificate of military exemption so he can finally marry his girlfriend, Michiko. However, his progressive ideals largely fall on deaf ears.

Road to Eternity finds him in the army where his left leaning ideas are even less appreciated than they were at the mine. Asked to train recruits, Kaji once again enacts a progressive approach which takes physical reinforcement out of the process and focusses on building bonds between men but his final battle comes too early leaving his team dangerously exposed. Kaji is briefly reunited with Michiko who has made a perilous journey to visit him but neither of the pair knows when or if they will see each other again.

The concluding part, A Soldier’s Prayer, finds a defeated Kaji wandering the arid land of Northern Manchuria on a desperate quest south with only the thought of getting back home to Michiko keeping him going. Eventually he is taken prisoner by Soviet forces but far from the people’s paradise he’d come to believe in, the Russians are just as unforgiving as his own Japanese. In the army he was a “filthy red” but now he’s a “fascist samurai”.

As much as Kaji is “good” man filled with humanistic ideals, he is also an incredibly flawed central presence. Already compromised by working for the steel company in Manchuria in the first place fully knowing the way the company behaves in China, his decision to take the mining job is an act of self interest in which he trades a little more of his integrity for military exemption and a marriage license. Needless to say, the head honchos at the mine who’ve been at the coal face all along do not take kindly to this baby faced suit from head office suddenly showing up and telling them they’ve been doing everything wrong. Far from listening to their experiences and arguing his point, Kaji attempts to simply overrule the mining staff taking little account of the already in place complex inter-office politics. This creates a series of radiating factions, most of whom side with Kaji’s rival and have come to view the cruel treatment of workers as a sort of office perk.

The complicity only deepens as Kaji becomes ever more a part of the machine. Kaji feels distraught after he loses his temper and strikes a subordinate, but before long he’s physically whipping a crowd of starving men in an attempt to stop them killing themselves through overeating. His biggest crisis comes when a number of Chinese prisoners are caught trying to escape and Kaji is unable to help them after specifically guaranteeing nobody would be killed. Forced to watch the botched execution of a brave man who refused to capitulate even at the end, Kaji is forced to acknowledge his own role in the deaths of these men, his complicity in the ongoing system of abuse, and his complete powerlessness to effect any kind of change in attitudes among the imperialist diehards all around him.

Kobayashi pulls no punches when it comes to examining the recent past. The steel company is built entirely on the exploitation of local workers who are progressively stripped of their humanity, whipped and beaten, starved and humiliated. The situation is only made worse when Kaji is forced to accept a number of “special labourers” from the military police. Tagged as prisoners of war, these men are not soldiers but displaced locals from Northern villages razed by Japanese troops. The train they arrive on is worse than a cattle truck and some of the men are already dead of heat, thirst, and starvation. The others pour out, zombie-like, searching desperately for food and water. Kaji is further compromised when the head of the mine has a plan of his own to subdue the men which involves procuring a number of comfort women which Kaji eventually does even if the entire process makes him sick. This is where the system has brought him – effectively to the level of a people trafficker, pimping vulnerable women to enslaved men.

Kaji comes to believe in a better life across the border where people are treated like human beings but anyone who’s read ahead in the textbooks will know this doesn’t work out for him either. Equally scathing about the left as of the right, The Human Condition has very little good to say about people, especially when people begin to act as a group. Even Kaji himself who has so many high ideals is brought low precisely because of his self-centred didacticism which makes it impossible for him to take other people’s views into account. With his faith well and truly smashed, Kaji has only the vague image of Michiko to cling to. Even so, he trudges on alone through the snowy landscape, deluded by hope, still dreaming of home. Trudging on endlessly, driven only by blind faith, perhaps that’s the best definition of the human condition that can be offered. A brutal exercise in soul searching, The Human Condition is not always even certain that it finds one but still retains the desire to believe in something better, however little in evidence it may be.


Trailers for each of the three parts (English subtitles)

 

I Want to Be a Shellfish (私は貝になりたい, Shinobu Hashimoto, 1959)

shellfishAfter Japan was defeated and later occupied by the Americans, there came the painstaking exercise of examining what exactly had happened during the conflict and assessing is who, if anyone, could be held accountable for any wrongdoing. The so called “war criminals” were divided into classes according to the severity of their crimes with Tojo himself at the top who eventually paid with his life. However, many of the men who were given the same Class A rating were just rank and file soldiers who had been “following orders”, often because they feared for their own lives if they refused. The debut directorial effort from writer Shinobu Hashimoto who provided scripts for some of Akira Kurosawa’s most famous works, I Want to be a Shellfish (私は貝になりたい, Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai), examines just one of these tragically absurd cases.

Barber Shimizu has finally started to make headway in his very own shop where he lives happily with his wife and son when he’s unexpectedly drafted into the army towards the end of the war. Unused to heavy physical labour and a fairly gentle man, he doesn’t take well to the soldier’s life and gets himself into trouble with his C/O. Stationed near Tokyo, Shimizu’s squad is charged with searching for a pair of US airmen thought to have bailed out after their plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid over the city. When they eventually find the pilots, both have already died of their injuries.

At this point Shimizu’s captain makes a cruel and rash decision – rather than sending the bodies back to HQ or burying them there, he decides to use them as target practice for his raw recruits. When ordered to pick out the two weakest soldiers, the NCO picks Shimizu and another man, Takita, who are then ordered to bayonet the corpses to prove what fine soldiers they have become. Though they both fail the first time the captain berates them until they finally comply.

The war ends and Shimizu goes home to his family only to receive a knock on the door from the war crimes commission who drag him off to Tokyo for trial. The trial itself is a farce, Shimizu is charged with executing a prisoner of war – the fact the pilots were both dead when found and therefore were never executed and were never even prisoners is never revealed by anyone. Finally classified as a Class A War Criminal, Shimizu is sentenced to death for having stabbed a corpse.

It goes without saying that, yes, terrible crimes were committed during the war and some of them deliberately and wilfully. However, in Shimizu’s case his crime is an absurd one. Though the way in which his superiors have treated the fallen soldiers of their enemies is far from humane, Shimizu has committed no murder and was just following the orders of his superiors. Improper as it may have been, it hardly warrants the loss of his own life and that he’s being placed in the same category as members of execution squads and those who wilfully participated in crimes against civilians is more than a little disproportionate.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the film is that Shimizu seems to have been denied a fair trial. To those who can understand both languages, or even just from the subtitles provided for the translation of the American prosecutor’s questions, it’s obvious that the way in which his questioning is being conducted is far from ideal. The translation gap between the two languages is immense and leads to a series of misunderstandings which in no way aid Shimizu’s case.

It’s also clear that the panel in charge of the trial have very little understanding of how the Japanese military works and how this might differ from American military law. Shimizu is repeatedly questioned about how he feels about the order he was given – a strange question given that the idea of not following an order is not one which immediately presents itself. Shimizu repeats the credo he was taught that an order from his C/O is the same as one coming directly from the Emperor. However, when translated, the prosecutor infers that Shimizu thinks his order came from the Emperor himself and stupidly asks if Shimizu actually met the Emperor in person. Likewise, they ask why he didn’t simply refuse to follow the order and when he replies that he believed he would be shot, they ask why he didn’t ask to be referred to a military court which is just not something that would have been reasonably feasible for a Japanese soldier in this sort of situation.

The fact that the soldiers were already dead to begin with is never even mentioned, by anyone. The highest ranking officer who ordered the search is held responsible even though his orders were to bring the men in alive. Shimizu’s captain has since killed himself, conveniently, leaving everyone else to take the fall for his inhumane decision.

At the end of the film as Shimizu is faced with saying goodbye to a world which has dealt him nothing but hardship other than the wife and son he will be forced to leave behind, Shimizu utters the film’s title. He wishes he were a shellfish buried deep at the bottom of the ocean far from humans and their capacity for cruelty. No poverty, no draft, no war, no absurd trials – free from this world of torment. A lament for the little guy paying the price for world gone mad, I Want to be a Shellfish is a bleak and tragic tale which is filled with universal quality of melancholic absurdity which continues into its heartbreaking final moments.


Bonus trivia – Frankie Sakai (more usually seen as a singer or in comedic roles) also played Shimizu the previous year in an enormously successful TV drama. This story has in fact been filmed several times, most recently as a feature film in 2008 and was inspired by the book by Tetsutaro Kato who was sentenced to death as a war criminal though later had his sentence commuted and was released for “good behaviour” in 1952 (but may not have been quite as innocent as poor old Shimizu).

 

Enjo (炎上, Kon Ichikawa, 1958)

a0212807_23483150Kon Ichikawa turns his unflinching eyes to the hypocrisy of the post-war world and its tormented youth in adapting one of Yukio Mishima’s most acclaimed works, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Inspired by the real life burning of the Kinkaku-ji temple in 1950 by a “disturbed” monk, Enjo (炎上, AKA Conflagration / Flame of Torment) examines the spiritual and moral disintegration of a young man obsessed with beauty but shunned by society because of a disability.

The film begins near its ending as a young boy with a monk’s haircut sits in a police interrogation room. He was found passed out in the woods behind a burning temple with two knife wounds on his chest plus the knife and a packet of matches lying next to him. The police would quite like to know why he, obviously, set fire to one of Japan’s most popular historical monuments, but the boy refuses to speak.

At this point we enter a series of extended flashbacks as the boy, Goichi (Raizo Ichikawa), enters the Soen Temple after his father’s death as an apprentice to the head monk there, Tayama, who was a friend of his father’s. The assistant chief monk is unhappy about this as he’s long wanted his own son to be accepted as a novice with an eye to one day inheriting the temple as the current head monk is not married and has no son of his own. When the other monks find out that the reason Goichi rarely speaks is his stammer, they begin to doubt his suitability to become a representative of their organisation.

Having grown up in a temple, Goichi idolised his father and wants nothing other than to become a monk himself. His father also loved the golden temple, “Shukaku-ji” more than anything else in the world and so it has come to symbolise a shining pillar of purity for the young Goichi who will stop at nothing to protect it. Simply being allowed to be near it is enough for him. That the temple survived the wartime air raids and subsequent chaos is nothing short of a miracle, if not proof of the gods’ love for it.

Yet, Goichi burns it down. He destroys this thing that he loved above all else, so why did he do it? The temple is too good for the world, too pure to be permitted to exist. Simply put, we don’t deserve it. One of Goichi’s earliest attempts to protect the sacred environs of the monument sees him physically push a woman away from its doors. The woman, dressed in a very modern style, had been having an argument with a GI and though it originally looks as if Goichi may come to her rescue it’s the temple he runs for. After the woman lands flat on her back, the GI thanks him for saving them “a lot of trouble with the baby”.

After having committed an unintended sin in defending his beloved temple from being defiled by an impure woman, Goichi has the urge to confess but never quite brings himself to do it. This begins to create a rift between himself and his mentor the head priest. Though the priest had been his champion, Goichi always doubted that he really saw him as a possible successor because of his stammer and only now realises that the priest has lost faith in him because of his cowardliness in not informing him of the incident with woman outside Shukaku-ji. After this slight the priest goes on supporting Goichi but not with the same warmth as before and Goichi eventually comes to resent him.

The priest has feet of clay – though it’s not unusual for priests to marry and have families, Tayama has nominally dedicated himself to the temple only, leaving himself with a problem as to its succession. However, Goichi discovers that the priest has a mistress in one of the most popular geisha houses in Kyoto. The monks are some of the wealthiest people around thanks to pimping out Shukaku-ji as a major tourist attraction and Tayama has already forgotten himself, becoming lost in the “worldliness” necessary to manage a religious establishment which is actually a lucrative business enterprise. The temple is itself defiled, prostituted, by the very people who are supposed to be protecting it and the proceeds fed back into funding an “immoral” lifestyle for its “CEO”.

This hypocrisy adds to the injustice dealt Goichi by the uncharitable nature of the monks who also, like just about everyone else, shun him because of his stammer. Though he never stammers reading the sutras and can even speak English plainly, his lifelong stutter has left him reluctant to speak and he finds only one friend at the temple. Later he meets another bad tempered man with a lame leg and the two develop an odd bond based on their shared “deformities”. Kashiwagi (Tatsuya Nakadai) is at odds with the world and encourages Goichi further onto the course of mistaken anger born of insecurity. He urges Goichi to test Tayama’s true virtue by constantly provoking him which only leads to a further fall in Goichi’s fortunes. However, Kashiwagi is also shown up for a hypocrite who exploits other people’s reactions to his disability for his own advantage.

All of Goichi’s idols fall. His parents – his mother an adulteress and his father a sickly heartbroken monk, his mentor a lecherous hypocrite and his friend a self hating coward. The world he saw in Shukaku-ji can never exist, humans are fallible and always will be including Goichi himself who is tormented by dark thoughts. An idealistic absolutist, the existence of Shukaku-ji in this imperfect world becomes to much for him to bear.

Ichikawa tells his story in a fractured, dreamlike way full of gentle dissolves as one period segues into another without warning. Goichi’s memories become more disparate and keenly focussed at the same time as his spiritual health deteriorates. Ichikawa tries to capture some of Goichi’s inner claustrophobia through the oppressive architecture of the temple environment but can’t get close to the pervading sense of dread in Mishima’s novel. Enjo is the dissection of one man’s self immolation in the fire of his own spiritual disintegration but is also a condemnation of the corrupting modern world which enables such pollution to take place and its tale of the doomed innocence of the idealist is one which is retold throughout history.


I can’t seem to find any video clips of this film, but as a side note 炎上 is current Japanese netslang for a flamewar so I did find a bunch of other “interesting” stuff.

Here’s a short video featuring clips from several of Ichikawa’s films including Enjo which you’ll be able to spot what with the temple on fire and everything…

The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (江分利満氏の優雅な生活, Kihachi Okamoto, 1963)

81zKsQWUtKL._SL1442_Kihachi Okamoto might be most often remembered for his samurai pictures including the landmark Sword of Doom but he had a long and extremely varied career which saw him tackle just about every conceivable genre and each from his own characteristically off-centre vantage point. The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (江分利満氏の優雅な生活, Eburi Man-shi no Yugana Seikatsu) sees him step into the world of the salaryman comedy as his hapless office worker reaches a dull middle age filled with drinking and regret imbued with good humour.

The film opens with an exciting, strangely edited setup of young people having fun singing, dancing and playing sports on a rooftop while a middle aged man sits apart from them looking gloomy with his head in his hands. Eburi is a depressed ad exec who laments that nothing really interests him anymore. It’s all so crushingly dull that he’s taken to drink, only he’s not very good at it so no one wants to join him. When Eburi drinks, he tends to go off on long and often non sensical rants which is probably quite funny for the first half hour but perhaps less so at 3am. One day he runs into some people from a magazine and gets so roaring drunk that he accidentally promises to write them the best magazine serial they’ve ever seen. Only problem being Eburi’s a copywriter, not a novelist, so he’s no idea what he’s doing. Going with “write what you know” he turns his everyday life into a humorous exposé of modern society and ends up becoming one of the most popular writers around.

The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman is based on the prize winning magazine serial by Hitomi Yamaguchi which was also inspired by the author’s own life. Yamaguchi and Eburi are both of the generation who came of age around the end of the war, spared the front lines but not the post-war chaos. Somehow, they were the ones who were supposed to rebuild their nation whilst trying to make a life for themselves in the difficult post-war economic environment. Eburi spins a humorous yarn about how he ended up marrying his wife for reasons of financial necessity and the pair didn’t even get a proper honeymoon because they hadn’t bothered to book ahead so all of the inns in the resort town they ended up at were full. Eburi also lost his job twice when the companies he worked for went under and seems a little mystified that he has this pretty good position in the ad agency (even if he doesn’t like it much and no one seems to think he’s very good at it).

There’s an awful lot of social comedy here as the Eburis try to lead their “elegant” lifestyle on his relatively modest salary. The family – Eburi, his wife, son, and father, all live in “company accommodation” which is a complex of small homes where all the employees live close to each other. Eburi’s neighbour works in his office and is a much younger man who’s been married for six months and, in contrast to Eburi, comes straight home at 6pm to have dinner with his wife whom he adores. Eburi is wearing army surplus suits, cheap underwear from the thrift store and a vest which is full of holes in contrast to his neighbour who is wearing swanky sports underwear and fashionable outfits including unshined shoes – unthinkable to Eburi (though his own footwear is in such a state that the shoeshine boys send him packing). Eburi’s wife is also quite excited when she realises their garden might just be a little bigger than next door’s, something which also gives Eburi a lot of pleasure.

In keeping with the source material, Okamoto opts for a first person narrative style with Eburi narrating his life in the manner of his book only employing a fair few other devices in addition to the wild and radical editing. When Eburi goes further back into the past to tell the story of how his no good father became a rich man by exploiting the populace during the years of militarism, the film suddenly becomes a chaplin-esque silent comedy complete with over emphasised acting and pantomime-like painted sets before turning into a full on cartoon. He mixes montage with onscreen graphics which appear way ahead of their time considering this is a film from 1963 and a fairly mainstream comedy at that.

The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman is also extremely funny. Obviously owing a lot to its source material, the script is one of the wittiest ever written and even if it’s talking about early 1960s social mores, the humour has barely dated at all. Much of the success of this is owed to the committed performance of the leading man, Keiju Kobayashi, who is able to give Eburi a sort of soulful weariness as his cynical rants take on an odd quality of warmth, appearing both strangely energetic and endlessly tired.

Whatever else he says and does, Eburi loves and has a duty to his family that proves extremely stressful for him as he feels the pressure to provide though he only wants the best for them (even at one point lamenting that he’s had to give up thinking about suicide because of the responsibilities he now has). These simple things must have struck a cord with the men of Eburi’s age who found themselves in a similar position of feeling eclipsed by the younger generation coupled with resentment towards their parents who had lead Japan into the folly of war and left the mess for their kids to clean up. Keenly observed, hilariously recounted and brilliantly brought to the screen, The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman might just be one of the funniest films ever made and an unjustly neglected masterpiece of early 1960s Japanese cinema.


Reviewed at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 at London’s ICA 10th February 2016.

 

Kwaidan (怪談, Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

tumblr_ly5zbgdNH61rn3yrmo1_1280Kwaidan (怪談) is something of an anomaly in the career of the humanist director Masaki Kobayashi, best known for his wartime trilogy The Human Condition. Moving away from the naturalistic concerns that had formed the basis of his earlier career, Kwaidan takes a series of ghost stories collected by the foreigner Lafcadio Hearn and gives them a surreal, painterly approach that’s somewhere between theatre and folktale.

The first tale, Black Hair, is the story of an ambitious young samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who abandons his one true love to marry a wealthy woman and advance his career. However, his second marriage is far from happy and he begins to appreciate just what it is he’s cast aside. Eventually returning home he meets his former wife again and harbours the desire to start afresh. However, when the sun comes up all is not as it seems.

Tale two, The Woman of the Snow, begins when two woodsmen are caught in a blizzard and a mysterious woman appears to suck one of them dry of blood. She spares the other, Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), because she’s moved by his youth but she instructs him never to reveal the events of that evening or she will return to finish what she started. Minokichi returns home and meets another mysterious woman who later becomes his wife and bears him three children but will he remember to keep his secret even from the love of his life?

The third tale is perhaps the most famous, Hoichi the Earless, and features the sad tale of a blind biwa player (Katsuo Nakamura) whose storytelling ability is so great that the dead themselves petition him nightly to recount their story. Eventually the head monk finds out and disapproves of Hoichi’s dealings with the supernatural so the monks paint sutras all over his body to protect him from the malevolent spirits. However, like achilles and his vulnerable heel, they forget to paint Hoichi’s ears…

The fourth tale, A Cup of Tea, is a little more whimsical and opens with a framing sequence lamenting the fact that some ancient tales were never finished for one reason or another. The tale within the tale features a samurai who keeps seeing a face appear in his tea. Obviously this is quite disturbing, but eventually he just decides to drink it anyway only for the owner of the face to suddenly appear and complain about soul having been stolen.

Like all good fables the stories each have a moral to offer but also, crucially, paint the protagonists as victims of circumstance more than rash or unwise people. The samurai feared poverty so he abandoned his love in search of riches only to discover he’d been chasing the wrong kind of dreams. Minokichi momentarily forgot himself, perhaps entrapped by the Snow Woman’s final trick, Hoichi just wanted to play his biwa but his desires were frustrated by the powers at be who further mess things up for him by botching the sutra application. The protagonist of A Cup of Tea does choose to drink the tea himself but the resultant madness is not something that could ever have been reasonably expected. These are worlds of spirits where the doorway to the supernatural is always ajar, waiting for some ordinary person to tumble through accidentally.

Though employing slightly different styles for each of the four segments, Kobayashi sets his stage with a deliberately theatrical, almost hyperreal set design. Obviously shot on a soundstage, the tales take on the feeling of stories which have been told and retold, replayed countless times across the great theatre of life. Black Hair steers closest to a traditional kabuki play, an effect aided by Toru Takemitsu’s more traditional score but The Woman of the Snow gives way to intense color play full of cold blue ice vistas mixed with impressionistic, passionate red skies. Hoichi’s tale begins with an overlay of a scroll painting recounting the famous The of the Heike of which Hoichi sings his song. Full of epic battle scenes, ghostly apparitions and a whole load of biwa music, this segment is the lengthiest but also the meatiest when it comes to subtext. The final tale by contrast is much more straightforward and brings a little chanbara exuberance to the otherwise heavy atmosphere though it does leave us with one of the most haunting images in the entire film.

Kwaidan may look like an exercise in style for Kobayashi – it was also his first colour picture and he makes full use of that aspect of the film. However, that isn’t to say he’s abandoned his recurrent concerns. The people in the stories are all ordinary, they’re flawed but they aren’t evil. The samurai comes closest to bringing his fate on himself when he makes the selfish decision to abandon his loving wife for money and status though he pays a heavy price when he finally realises his foolishness. Minokichi’s crime is a loss of faith of perhaps of having doubted the truth of his tale in itself. In the end, he simply forgot his promise rather than making a conscious decision break it like the samurai. Hoichi is something of a passive player here as his blindness renders him unable to understand his plight – he is unable to keep his promise to the fallen samurai firstly because of the physical toll it’s taking on him and secondly as he’s prevented by his superiors. The protagonist of the final tale simply gives in to temptation and then to madness perfectly symbolising human weakness. Kobayashi maybe more artful here than acerbic but his bleak view of human nature still wins out. However, what Kobayashi crafted in Kwaidan is a beautiful, dreamlike canvas of supernatural visions which continue to dazzle in their artistry long after the screen has gone dark.


Kwaidan is available on blu-ray in the US from Citerion and on DVD in the UK from Eureka Masters of Cinema.