The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Masaki Kobayashi, 1985)

The Empty TableJapanese cinema of the 1980s is marked by an increasing desire to interrogate the idea of “the family” in an atmosphere of individualist consumerism. Yoshimitsu’s Morita’s The Family Game had blown the traditional ideas of filial piety and the primacy of the patriarch wide open in exposing his ordinary middle-class family as little more than a simulacrum as its various members sleepwalked through life playing the roles expected of them free of the true feeling one would expect to define familial bonds. A year later, Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family took a different, perhaps more positive approach, in depicting a family descending into madness through the various social pressures of maintaining a conventional middle-class life in the cramped environment of frenetic Tokyo. Masaki Kobayashi, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not so much interested in families as in individuals whose struggles to assert themselves in a conformist society became his major focus. The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Shokutaku no nai Ie) is not perhaps “a family drama” but it is, if indirectly, a drama about family and the ways in which the wider familial context of society at large often seeks to misuse it.

Set in 1973, The Empty Table is also among the earliest films to tackle the aftermath of the 1972 Asama-Sanso Incident. For ten days in February, the nation watched live as the police found themselves in a stand off with five United Red Army former student radicals who had taken the wife of an innkeeper hostage and holed up in a mountain lodge, refusing to give themselves up to the police. The discoveries surrounding the conduct of the United Red Army which had descended into a cult-like madness involving several murders of its members (including one of a heavily pregnant woman) shocked the nation and finally ended the student movement in Japan.

Kidoji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the father of one of the student radicals, Otohiko (Kiichi Nakai), who took part in the siege. In Japanese culture, it’s usual for the parents of a person involved in a scandal to come forward and offer an official apology to the nation on behalf of the their children. During the siege itself the family had also been weaponised as mothers, particularly, were enlisted to shout from outside the inn, offering poignant messages intended to get their sons to give themselves up and come home. Kidoji, unlike the other fathers (one of whom hanged himself in shame), refuses his social obligation on the grounds that the actions of his grownup son are no longer his responsibility. 

As a scientist, Kidoji is used to thinking things through in rational terms and outside of Japan his logic may seem unassailable – after all, it is unreasonable to hold the conduct of a family member against an otherwise upright and obedient citizen. In Japan however his actions make him seem cold and unfeeling, as if he has disowned both his son and his position as the father of a family with whom rests ultimate responsibility for those listed on his family register. This way of thinking may be very feudal, but it is the way things work not just in the late 20th century, but even in the early 21st.

Kidoji’s refusal to do what is expected of him eventually leads to the crumbling of the family unit. Far from the cheerful scene we see of Kidoji, his wife, and their three children seated around a dinner table in celebration, the family now eat separately and Kidoji returns home to cold meals and an empty table. Kidoji’s wife, Yumiko (Mayumi Ogawa), has had a breakdown and had to be hospitalised, while his daughter Tamae (Kie Nakai) is forced to break off her engagement only to resort to underhanded methods to be allowed to marry the man she loves. While Otohiko languishes in prison, only his younger brother Osamu (Takayuki Takemoto) remains at home.

Kobayashi’s central concern is the conflict in Kidoji’s heart as he faces a choice between maintaining his principles and saving his family pain. It’s not that Kidoji feels nothing – on the contrary, he is profoundly wounded by all that has happened to him, but ironically enough, puts on the face society expects but does not want in maintaining his composure in a situation of extreme difficulty. Kidoji’s deepest anxieties rest in the need to “take responsibility”, something he must do in acknowledging that it’s not his son’s disgrace which has destroyed his family but his own rigidity in refusing to bend his principles and obey social convention. What Kidoji wants is for his son to take responsibility for his own choices as an individual rather than expecting his family to carry his load for him. He must, however, also take responsibility for the effect his choices have had on others, including on his family, and accept his role both as an individual and as a member of a society with rights and obligations.

Kidoji’s refusal to apologise on behalf of his son looks to the rest of society like an abnegation of his paternal authority, and without paternal authority the family unit crumbles like a feudal household whose lord has been murdered. Yet Kidoji, like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, refuses to compromise his principals no matter how much personal pain they eventually cause him. Where the rules of society make no sense to him, he will ignore (if not quite oppose) them, remaining true to his own notions of moral righteousness.

In many ways, Kidoji is the archetypal Kobayashi hero – standing up to social oppression and refusing to simply give in even when he knows how beneficial that may be to all concerned. He is also, however, just as problematic in allowing his family to continue suffering in preservation of his personal beliefs. Kobayashi’s final feature film, The Empty Table is extremely dated in terms of shooting style with its overly theatrical dialogue and frequent use of voice over and monologue which were long out of fashion by the mid-1980s. Kobayashi does, however, return to the more expressionist style of his earlier career, moving towards an etherial sense of poetry as his hero contemplates his place in a society which often asks him to behave in ways which compromise his essential value system. The family, broken as it is, is also (partly) mended once again as Kidoji begins to reconcile his various “responsibilities” into a more comprehensive whole as he prepares to welcome a new generation seemingly as determined to live in as principled and unorthodox a way as he himself has.


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.

Sword of the Beast (獣の剣, Hideo Gosha, 1965)

sword of the beast posterHideo Gosha’s later career increasingly focussed on men at odds with their times – ageing gangsters who couldn’t see their eras were ending. His second feature, Sword of the Beast (獣の剣 Kedamono no Ken), is much the same in this regard but its youthful hero knows perfectly that change is on the horizon. Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira) tries to ride that change into a better, more equal future but the forces of order will not allow him. The cinematic samurai world of the post-war era is no longer that of honourable men, manfully living out the samurai code even when it pains them to do so. It is one of men broken by oppressive feudal rule, denied their futures, and forced to betray themselves in service to systemic hypocrisy. Yet even if men think of reforming the system, they rarely think to escape it unless it actively spits them out.

When we first meet Gennosuke, he’s crawling around in a muddy grass field, dishevelled and hungry. A lone woman spots him and plies her trade leading Gennosuke to embrace his baser instincts and give vent to his lust, but the pair are interrupted by the sound of approaching horses. Gennosuke is on the run from his clan for his part in the murder of a lord. His pursuers scream at him, “have you no pride?”, lamenting his lack of stoical resignation to one’s fate so central to the samurai ideal. “To hell with name and pride” Gensosuke throws back, “I’ll run and never stop.”

Gennosuke’s odyssey leads him into the path of petty bandits who’ve been swiping gold out of the local river. Unbeknownst to them, a couple from another clan have been living an isolated life in a small cottage where they too have been skimming the Emperor’s gold, only they’ve been doing it for their lord. The man, Jurota (Go Kato), is excited about this work because he thinks when it is completed he’ll finally be accepted as a true samurai and the future for himself and his wife, Taka (Shima Iwashita), will be much brighter. He is quite wrong in this assumption.

Gennosuke, it is later revealed, committed his fateful act of murder upon the assumption that he was part of a revolutionary vanguard, removing cruel and corrupt lords from their positions so fairer minded, decent men could rule in their stead. Instead he realises he’s been rendered a disposable pawn in a political game and that the new master he believed would usher in a brighter future only envisaged one for himself. Jurota has been duped in much the same way, asked to do something illicit, immoral, and against the samurai code under the assumption that he will finally be accepted as “one of us”. He has not considered the corruption of those he wants to join, and does not see that his crime likely means he cannot be allowed to live.

Gennosuke and Jurota are cynical men who nevertheless possess true faith in the way of the samurai. Exiled from his clan, Gennosuke is a wandering beast who pretends not to care about the people he meets, but ends up saving them anyway. Yet if Gennosuke has been “freed” from his illusions, Jurota’s devotion to them makes him a less heroic figure. When Taka is captured by bandits who threaten her life, Jurota has a difficult decision to make – surrender the gold or his wife. Jurota chooses poorly and abandons his wife to a fate worse than death at the hands of uncivilised ruffians. Taka finds this hard to forgive. No longer wishing to stay with a man who values her so lightly she turns to Gennosuke – her accidental saviour, and reveals to him that she longs to become “a beast” like him. Now “freed” of her own illusions as regards her husband’s love, their shared mission, and the fallacy of their future together as noble samurai, Taka is prepared to exile herself from the samurai world as Gennosuke has, but, as he tells her, the wife of a retainer cannot choose the life of a beast.

This world of samurai is facing its own eclipse. The Black Ships have arrived, the spell has been broken, and the modern world awaits. Gennosuke can see this future, he tried to grasp it in the murder of his lord, but it is not here yet. Gennosuke’s friend, Daizaburo (Kantaro Suga), is duty bound to take his revenge as the fiancé of the murdered lord’s daughter though he’d rather not do it, and does so only to give Gennosuke an “honourable” death. The daughter, Misa (Toshie Kimura), is understandably angry and filled with hate but she pays dearly for her vengeance. Following their ordeal, neither Daizaburo or Misa can return to their clan. They are also “freed”, their illusions broken, their debts forgiven. Breaking with the burden of their past, they would now follow Gennosuke into his new world, even if none of them know exactly where they’re going.

These private revolutions amount to a kind of deprogramming, reawakening a sense of individual agency but one which is unselfish and carries with it the best of samurai honour. Gennosuke may be a “beast” on the run, reduced to a creature of needs rather than thoughts, but there’s honesty in this uncivilised quest for satisfaction which leaves no room for artifice or hypocrisy. It may be a rough world and lonely with it, but it is not unkind. To hell with name and pride, Gennosuke will have his honour, even as a nameless beast, a self-exile from a world of cruelty, greed, and inhumanity.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Illusion of Blood (四谷怪談, AKA Yotsuya Kaidan, Shiro Toyoda, 1965)

vlcsnap-2017-07-01-00h50m36s347Shiro Toyoda, despite being among the most successful directors of Japan’s golden age, is also among the most neglected when it comes to overseas exposure. Best known for literary adaptations, Toyoda’s laid back lensing and elegant restraint have perhaps attracted less attention than some of his flashier contemporaries but he was often at his best in allowing his material to take centre stage. Though his trademark style might not necessarily lend itself well to horror, Toyoda had made other successful forays into the genre before being tasked with directing yet another take on the classic ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談) but, hampered by poor production values and an overly simplistic script, Toyoda never succeeds in capturing the deep-seated dread which defines the tale of maddening ambition followed by ruinous guilt.

As usual, Iemon (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a disenfranchised samurai contemplating selling his sword due to his extreme poverty. Iemon had been married to a woman he loved, Oiwa (Mariko Okada), whose father called her home when Iemon lost his lord and therefore his income. Oiwa’s father is also in financial difficulty and Iemon has now discovered that he has been prostituting Oiwa’s sister, Osode (Junko Ikeuchi), and plans a similar fate for Oiwa.

Still in love with his wife, Iemon decides that his precious sword is not just for show and determines to take what he wants by force. Murdering Oiwa’s father, Iemon teams up with another reprobate, Naosuke (Kanzaburo Nakamura), who is in love with Osode and means to kill her estranged fiancee. Framing Osode’s lover Yoshimichi (Mikijiro Hira) as the killer, Iemon resumes his life with Oiwa who subsequently bears their child but as his poverty and lowly status continue Iemon remains frustrated. When a better offer arrives to marry into a wealthier family, Iemon makes a drastic decision in the name of living well.

The themes are those familiar to the classic tale as Iemon’s all consuming need to restore himself to his rightful position ruins everything positive in his life. Tatsuya Nakadai’s Iemon is among the less kind interpretations as even his original claims of romantic distress over the loss of his wife ring more of wounded pride and a desire for possession rather than a broken heart. Selling one’s sword is the final step for a samurai – it is literally selling one’s soul. Iemon’s ultimate decision not to is both an indicator of his inability to let go of his samurai past and his violent intentions as the fury of rebellion is already burning within him.

Iemon defines his quest as a desire to find “place worth living in”, but he is incapable of attuning himself to the world around him, constantly working against himself as he tries to forge a way forward. Oiwa’s desires are left largely unexplored despite the valiant efforts of Mariko Okada saddled with an underwritten part, but hers is an existence largely defined by love and duty, pulled between a husband and a father. Unaware that Iemon was responsible for her father’s death, Oiwa is happy to be reunited with him and expects that he will honour her father by enacting vengeance. Only too late does she begin to wonder what her changeable husband’s intentions really are.

An amoral man in an amoral world, Iemon’s machinations buy him nothing. Haunted by the vengeful spirit of the wife he betrayed, Iemon cannot enjoy the life he’d always wanted after purchasing it with blood, fear, and treachery. Despite the odd presence of disturbing imagery from hands in water butts to ghostly presences, Toyoda never quite achieves the level of claustrophobic inevitability on which the tale is founded. Hampered by poor production values, shooting on obvious stage sets with dull costuming and a run of the mill script, Illusion of Blood has a depressingly unambitious atmosphere content to simply retell the classic tale with the minimum of fuss. Only the final scenes offer any of Toyoda’s formal beauty as Okada appears under the cherry blossoms to offer the gloomy message that there is no true happiness and her husband’s quest has been a vain one. Achieving her vengeance even whilst Iemon affirms his intention to keep fighting right until the end, Oiwa leaves like the melancholy ghost of eternal regret but it’s all too little too late to make Illusion of Blood anything more than a middling adaptation of the classic ghost story.