Muddy River (泥の河, Kohei Oguri, 1981)

The post-war era refuses to die in Kohei Oguri’s heartbreaking exploration of childhood friendship and the costs of experience, Muddy River (泥の河, Doro no Kawa). Adapted from the novel by Teru Miyamoto and situating itself in the Osaka of 1956, Oguri’s realist drama takes place at a moment of transition not only in the life of the young hero but also of the nation which was at long last beginning to leave post-war privation behind thanks to increasing economic prosperity. Yet for men like young Nobuo’s father Shinpei (Takahiro Tamura), the traumas not only of the war itself but its aftermath will not be so easy to escape. 

A shy child who often wets the bed, 9-year-old Nobuo (Nobutaka Asahara) lives with his parents Shinpei and Sadako (Yumiko Fujita) above a small riverside noodle bar mainly frequented by sailors and workmen such as Shioda (Gannosuke Ashiya), a regular who pulls a horse and cart for a living. Nobuo can’t stop staring at Shioda’s ruined ear, presumably a battlefield injury though the avuncular gentleman tries to raise his spirits with false cheerfulness explaining that he’s seen the writing on the wall and the days of cart pullers are coming to an end. He jokes about giving his horse to Nobuo as a pet though obviously he has no need for or ability to keep a horse, explaining that he’s going to buy a second-hand truck so he won’t be left behind in the race for modernity. Unfortunately, however, as Nobuo follows him out Shioda’s cart gets stuck in the mud. Somewhat bluntly he violently beats the horse to make him free it, but the cart ends up blocking the bridge and the horse is spooked by oncoming traffic. Crushed by his falling load, Shioda is pulled under the wheels and killed, his hopes for the future dashed while his wife and child are left without economic support. 

Emulating the visual imagery of silent cinema, Oguri frames this sequence perfectly with an inescapable anxiety that captures the inevitability of the moment. This is Nobuo’s first glimpse of death, running confused back to his father to tell him that the cart man’s dead, Shinpei at first not quite comprehending but later reflecting that he was like him another casualty of the post-war era as if his death were merely delayed remembering that he’d once said the war had already killed him and so he’d never die again. On an awkward train journey Shinpei opens a newspaper and reads that “the post-war period is over”, but of course for him it isn’t and perhaps never will be. Reflecting on the last 10 years of his life, he wonders if it was worth it, there must be many people who think it would have been better to die in the war than suffer as they did afterwards. Young Nobuo, born to him in his 40s, is his only achievement. Sadako meanwhile harbours her own guilt in feeling as if she wronged another woman with whom Shinpei had previously been involved after the war by stealing him away and building this life together in burned out Osaka which, while far from perfect, is comfortable enough and happier than most. 

That Nobuo learns for himself when he befriends another boy staring at the abandoned cart. 9-year-old Kiichi (Minoru Sakurai) and his sister Ginko (Makiko Shibata) live on a houseboat recently moored opposite, something which Nobuo finds unusual and mysterious but not itself bad. Still innocent and too young to have incorporated moral judgement, Nobuo simply befriends the other boy bonding over a strange tale of a monstrous carp in the river though perhaps also feeling sorry for him on noticing his ragged clothes and the holes in his shoes. On visiting their houseboat, he only hears only the voice of Kiichi’s mother Shoko (Mariko Kaga) a mysterious disembodied presence who lives in a separate area of the boat accessible only via a different entrance. When she instructs Kiichi to give him some raw sugar and tell him not to come back too often, he takes it that he’s unwanted later confused when his father tells him that it’s fine for his new friends to visit but he shouldn’t go near the boat after dark. 

Understanding people, neither Shinpei or Sadako, instantly grasping the situation, reject the family because of the stigma of sex work realising that people do what they have to to survive and in any case it isn’t the children’s fault or responsibility. On hearing Kiichi enthusiastically singing an old imperial song about losing friends in Manchuria, Shinpei begins to feel a kinship with his late father as another old soldier claimed by the muddy river of the post-war society. Like the cart man, and an old fisherman Nobuo witnessed “disappear” from his boat never to be seen again, he was simply a casualty of the times one of many unable to enter the new society promised by rising economic prosperity. Shinpei fears he may also be one of these men, left behind unable to break free of wartime survivor’s guilt and the traumas of what came afterwards. He also disappears from his son’s life abruptly and without warning if only temporarily, but accidentally deserts him at the time he needs him most allowing his fragile new friendship to fracture as the two boys fatefully return to the boat after dark and Nobuo encounters a loss of innocence on several levels Kiichi realising that something is now broken between them. 

Something is perhaps broken in the times, the end of Nobuo’s childhood coinciding with the the dawning of a new era free of post-war privation but one that also threatens to leave those who can’t catch up to it behind Kiichi’s boat bound for further down the river while Nobuo remains firmly on land his own foundation perhaps more secure now that his father has exorcised some of guilt over the recent past. Shot with a nostalgic realism in black and white and in academy ratio, Oguri’s quietly devastating drama sets one boy’s loss of innocence against the lingering affects of another as the adults all around him struggle to acclimatise themselves to a changing society but all he sees is the muddy river flowing past him taking his friend away because he saw something he shouldn’t have leaving him with nothing but sorrow and loneliness on the other side of an unbreachable divide. 


Muddy River screens at the BFI on 12/23 December as part of BFI Japan.

Opening sequence

Onimasa (鬼龍院花子の生涯, Hideo Gosha, 1982)

onimasaWhen AnimEigo decided to release Hideo Gosha’s Taisho/Showa era yakuza epic Onimasa (鬼龍院花子の生涯, Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai), they opted to give it a marketable but ill advised tagline – A Japanese Godfather. Misleading and problematic as this is, the Japanese title Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai also has its own mysterious quality in that it means “The Life of Hanako Kiryuin” even though this, admittedly hugely important, character barely appears in the film. We follow instead her adopted older sister, Matsue (Masako Natsume), and her complicated relationship with our title character, Onimasa, a gang boss who doesn’t see himself as a yakuza but as a chivalrous man whose heart and duty often become incompatible. Reteaming with frequent star Tatsuya Nakadai, director Hideo Gosha gives up the fight a little, showing us how sad the “manly way” can be on one who finds himself outplayed by his times. Here, anticipating Gosha’s subsequent direction, it’s the women who survive – in large part because they have to, by virtue of being the only ones to see where they’re headed and act accordingly.

Beginning with its end, Onimasa’s story finishes with the discovery of the body of his only biological child, Hanako (Kaori Tagasugi ), in 1940. Found bled out and alone in the red light district of Kyoto, the suspected cause of death is a miscarriage. Tragically, our heroine, Matsue, arrives only a couple of hours too late after having spent years searching for her younger sister. We then skip back to 1918 when Matsue was adopted by Onimasa and his rather cool wife, alongside another boy who later ran away. An intelligent girl, Matsue earns her adopted father’s respect but neither he nor his wife, Uta (Shima Iwashita), are particularly interested in the emotional side of raising children. Things change when one of Onimasa’s mistresses gives birth to his biological child who awakens a sense of paternal interest in the ageing gangster beyond rule and possession.

Onimasa’s behaviour is frequently strange and contradictory. Originally intending to adopt only a boy, he and his wife come away from a poor family with two of their children, only for the son to run away home. Having picked her out like a puppy in a pet store window, Onimasa views Matsue as an inalienable possession. When a man arrives and wants to marry her, he goes crazy assuming the man must have been sleeping with her behind his back (despite the fact that this man, Tanabe (Eitaro Ozawa), has only just been released from prison where Onimasa had himself dispatched Matsue to visit him). Exclaiming that Matsue is “his”, has always been “his”, and no one else’s, he forces Tanabe to cut off his finger yakuza style to swear Matsue’s honour is still intact. However, this need for total control manifests itself in a less than fatherly way when he later tries to rape Matsue and is only brought to his senses when she threatens to cut her own throat with a broken glass. Despite this act of madness which he tries to justify with it somehow being for her own good, Matsue remains a dutiful daughter to both of her adopted parents.

Matsue’s innate refinement and reserve contrast’s strongly with Onimasa’s loose cannon nature. Commenting on the long history of “honourable” cinematic yakuza, Onimasa embraces an odd combination of traditions in believing himself to be the embodiment of chivalry – standing up for the oppressed and acting in the interests of justice, yet also subservient to his lord and walking with a swagger far beyond his true reach. All of this contributes to his ongoing problems which begin with a petty clan dispute over a dogfight which sees a rival leaving town in a hurry only to return and raise hell years later. Similarly, when his boss sends him in to “discourage” strike action, the union leader’s reasonable objections which point out the conflicts with Onimasa’s doctrine of chivalry and imply he’s little more than a lapdog, have a profound effect on his life. Severing his ties with his clan and attempting to go it alone, Onimasa does so in a more “honourable” way – no longer will he engage in harmful practices such as forced prostitution no matter how profitable they may be, but old disagreements never die easy and it’s a stupid ancient argument which threatens to bring his old fashioned world crashing down.

Despite concessions to the bold new Taisho era which saw Western fashions flooding into traditional culture from Onimasa’s trademark hat to the record players and whiskey glasses clashing with his sliding doors and tatami mat floors, Onimasa’s world is a childishly innocent one where honour and justice rule. Despite this he often excludes his own behaviour – one minute turning down the offer of his rival’s woman to pay a debt with her body, but later attempting to rape a young woman who had been his daughter in a drunken bid for a kind of droit du seigneur. The times are changing, it’s just that Onimasa’s traditionalist mind can’t see it. Tragically trying to rescue his daughter from a situation it turns out she had no desire to be rescued from he eventually spies the writing on the wall and puts down his sword, defeated and demoralised. Tragically, it seems Hanako may have needed him still though her rescue arrives too late to be of use.

The Onimasa family line ends here, as does this particular strand of history under the darkening skies of 1940. Out goes Taisho era openness and optimism for the eventual darkness of the militarist defeat. Matsue, now a widow – her left wing intellectual husband another victim of her father’s mistakes rather than political stringency, remains the sole source of light in her shining white kimono and pretty parasol even as she’s forced to identify the body of the sister she failed to save. The life of Hanako was a sad one, trapped by her father’s ideology and finally destroyed by her own attempts to escape it. Fittingly, she barely features in her own tale, a peripheral figure in someone else’s story. Slightly lurid and occasionally sleazy, Onimasa is another workmanlike effort from Gosha but makes the most of his essential themes as its accidental “hero” is forced to confront the fact that his core ideology has robbed him of true happiness, caused nothing but pain to the women in his life, and eventually brought down not only his personal legacy but that of everything that he had tried to build. The “manly way” is a trap, only Matsue with her patience backed up by a newfound steel inspired by her cool mother, Uta, is left behind but is now free to pursue life on her own terms and, presumably, make more of a success of it.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)