Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン, Yukiko Mishima, 2012)

“Plain bread is nice too” a short-term visitor concedes having reached an epiphany after a few days’ stay at Cafe Mani in Yukiko Mishima’s slice of comfort cinema, Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン, Shiawase no Pan). Perhaps in its own way a reaction to the devastating earthquake and tsunami of the previous year which is referenced in the closing arc, Mishima’s drama is one of a series of films from the 2010s advocating for a simpler life built on empathy and mutual compassion as a bulwark against the increasing disappointments of a relentlessly consumerist society. 

The heroine, Rie (Tomoyo Harada), was a lonely child who buried herself in a fantastical children’s book about a little boy, Mani, who was best friends with the Moon. Touched by Mani’s words when the Moon asked him to take down the sun because its brightness made his life unbearable that “what matters most is that it shines on you and that you shine on others”, Rie resolved to find her own Mani but has long since given up. She and her her husband Mizushima (Yo Oizumi) have recently relocated to a Hokkaido ranch where they run a cafe bakery that has quickly become a community hub tending to the wounded souls of the local area and sometimes even beyond. 

The urban/rural contrast is rammed home by the couple’s first guest, Kaori (Kanna Mori ), a young shop girl from Tokyo who was supposed to be going to Okinawa with her boyfriend but he stood her up and she’s come to Hokkaido instead. Although originally grumpy and sullen, Kaori begins to warm to the charms of rural life complaining that in Tokyo people have to force themselves to smile. Her words accidentally hurt the feelings of local boy Tokio (Yuta Hiraoka), conversely jealous of big city opportunity but lacking the courage to strike out from his small-town life in which ironically enough he works as a points switcher at the local railway. What Kaori learns through her various experiences and the kindness of the Mizushimas isn’t that country life is better just that small happinesses are often all you need, there is pleasure in simplicity, and there’s no need to submit herself to the pretentiousness of city life explaining that she’s going to tell her coworkers the truth about her Okinawan holiday and bring some of the wholesome homemade bread back for them too. 

But then, it isn’t always so easy as the couple discover trying to help a sad little girl in the wake of marital breakdown. In a slightly surprising twist, Maki (Yuki Yagi) has been abandoned by her mother who has left the family and is struggling to accept both her loss and the change in circumstances which goes with it. The dilemma revolves around a bowl of pumpkin soup which Maki refuses to eat despite having previously longed to taste her mother’s signature dish. The realisation she comes to is that something can be different but that doesn’t make it bad, bonding with her equally dejected father (Ken Mitsuishi) thanks to the gentle support of the Mizushimas who seem to have a knack for knowing just what everyone who comes through their door needs. 

That goes double for the elderly couple who turn up late one night in the dead of winter, husband Fumio (Katsuo Nakamura) worryingly explaining that they’ve lived long enough, that while you’re young you still have the possibility of change, of becoming “a different you”, but old age has no further possibility nor the ability to change. Having lost their daughter in the tsunami the old couple are trapped in an inertia of grief from which they are gradually awakened by the gentle care of the Mizushimas and the sight of the beautiful moon that shines down on Cafe Mani. 

Rie meanwhile remains privately dejected, longing for her own Mani but convinced she’ll never find him only to realise he’s been there all along. Just like the words in the picture book, Rie and Mizushima have resolved to be the light, Fumio later sending them a letter claiming that they have discovered the ideal form of happiness in their simple life doing as they please surrounded by friends who have already become family and offering love and support to all who come through their doors through the medium of delicious seasonal food. With a host of quirky side characters including an omniscient glass blower (Kimiko Yo), genial postie (Chikara Honda), farmers with an ever expanding family, and a regular customer who carries a mysterious trunk around, while narrated (seemingly) by a sheep with the voice of a child Mishima’s gentle drama is foodie pure comfort cinema in which good bread and a warm fire may yet save the world.


Bread of Happiness until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (華岡青洲の妻, Yasuzo Masumura, 1967)

The close relationship between two women is disrupted by the reintroduction of a man in Yasuzo Masumura’s fictionalised account of the rivalry between the wife and mother of pioneering Japanese doctor Seishu Hanaoka. Scripted by Kaneto Shindo and adapted from the novel by Sawako Ariyoshi, the refocusing of the narrative is apparent in its title, not the life of but The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (華岡青洲の妻, Hanaoka Seishu no Tsuma) less a tale of scientific endeavour than of domestic rivalry born of the inherently patriarchal social codes of the feudal society which cannot but help pit one woman against another while forcing each of them to play a role they may not wish to fulfil in order to secure their status and therefore their survival. 

Samurai’s daughter Kae (Ayako Wakao) first catches sight of the beautiful Otsugi (Hideko Takamine) at only eight years old and is instantly captivated by her, a fascination which persists well into adulthood when she is approached to marry into the Hanaoka household as wife to oldest son Seishu (Raizo Ichikawa) away studying to become a doctor like his father. Kae’s father originally objects to the match because of the class difference between the two families, Seishu’s father Naomichi (Yunosuke Ito) being only a humble country doctor of peasant stock whereas they had envisaged a grander station for their only daughter. Yet Kae is already old not to be married and continues to decline prospective suitors and so her mother and nanny (Chieko Naniwa) are minded to put it directly to her discovering that she is in fact more than willing to become a Hanaoka though mostly it seems in order to get close to Otsugi whom she has continued to idolise. 

The strange thing is that the wedding is conducted in Seishu’s absence, a medical text standing in for him while Kae in effect marries her mother-in-law Otsugi. These early days are spent in blissful tranquility as Kae does her best to be the ideal daughter-in-law, Otsugi even remarking that she’s come to love her more than a daughter. The two women share a room, Kae often staring longingly at the back of Otsugi’s head, their relationship one of mutual respect and affection that allows them to forget their respective stations but when three years later Seishu finally returns, it forces them apart in reverting to the roles of wife and mother their statuses conferred only by proximity to a man. 

Pregnant with her first child and about to become a mother herself, Kae’s resentment towards Otsugi begins to boil over. In an ironic premonition of the way the relationship between Masumura and his muse would eventually break down, she claims to have seen through Otsugi’s beauty and concluded that she is cold and calculating believing that she only brought her into the household as an unpaid servant forcing her to work a loom to raise money for Seishu’s medical training. Alternately jealous and condescending, Otsugi’s resentment is mediated through attempts to undermine her daughter-in-law’s authority finally leading to an ironic and absurdist battle between the two as they attempt to outdo each other volunteering to become test subjects for Seishu’s ongoing experiments to discover a safe anaesthetic in order save patients who require surgery but cannot endure the trauma. 

The marriage itself perhaps represents a moment of change in the feudal society, it becoming clear that the samurai are on their way down while skill and knowledge will define success in this new age of enlightenment. While Seishu works on his anaesthetic, the superstitious local community begins to view the Hanaokas with suspicion, believing that the misfortune that befalls them is the result of a curse owing to the large number of cats and dogs which have become casualties of Seishu’s failed experiments while a pedlar brings news of a mysterious disease attributed to the rain which is in fact due to mass malnutrition following a famine caused by the bad weather. When news of Seishu’s prowess as a doctor spreads they are soon overwhelmed with patients, many of whom cannot pay but are seemingly treated anyway. 

Seishu’s eventual victory is one of science over superstition, but it also requires faith which is the battleground contested between wife and mother. Having found a successful solution in cats, Seishu needs human test subjects with both instantly volunteering only to become locked into an absurd, internecine contest to prove who is the most self-sacrificing. The competition goes so far that it effectively becomes a game of dare with each determined to be the one to die for Seishu’s discovery but later realising that the stakes are even higher than first assumed because the winner will be dead but the loser saddled with guilt and possible ostracisation as someone who allowed their mother/daughter-in-law to die to in their place. 

Even so, the pair of them are described as “wonderful examples of womanhood” in their willingness to risk their lives for their “master’s success”. Kae is reminded that a woman’s job is to give birth to a healthy baby, later weaponising her ability to do so as currency in realising that Otsugi has all the control but the one thing she can’t do is bear Seishu’s child. Ironically enough, the cases Seishu is trying to treat are of aggressive breast cancer, the oft repeated maxim being that a woman’s breasts are her life and to remove them is as good as killing her contributing to the sense that maternity is the only thing that gives a woman’s life meaning. It’s not without irony that the first successful surgery under anaesthesia directly juxtaposes a massive tumour removed from a woman’s breast with a baby being removed from a pregnant Kae who, at this point having lost her sight as a consequence of Seishu’s experiments, must bear the pain with no relief. 

Brought together by tragedy, Kae comes to a better understanding of her relationship with her mother-in-law only after she dies learning to see her once again as the kind and beautiful woman she met at eight years old while her unmarried sister-in-law having witnessed their painful war of attrition prays that she won’t be reborn as a woman glad that she was never forced to become a bride nor a mother-in-law. “The struggles of the women in this house were in the end just to bring up one man” she laments, suggesting that Seishu most likely noticed the conflict between the two and used it to his advantage in getting them to participate in his experiments as they desperately tried to prove themselves the better through dying for his love. 

Going one step further, it seems that being a woman is an exercise in futility the only source of success lying paradoxically in birth or death alone, the natural affection between Otsugi and Kae neutered by the presence of Seishu who inserts himself as the pole around which they must dance for their survival. Kae becomes a local legend, a woman who sacrificed her sight in service of her husband but now rejects this mischaracterisation of her life along with the implication that it’s somehow a wife’s duty to deplete herself for her husband’s gain retreating entirely from the society of others while Seishu’s practice continues to prosper. Even so Masumura ends on a note of irony in the literal transformation of Kae into the figure of Otsugi recreating the opening scene as she walks among the bright flowers she can no longer see.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Temptation (誘惑, Ko Nakahira, 1957)

Ko Nakahira made his name with the seminal Sun Tribe movie Crazed Fruit, a nihilistic tale of bored, affluent post-war youth. Released a year later, Temptation (Yuwaku), adapted from a novel by Sei Ito, is in some ways its inverse pitting a melancholy widower harping on dreams of lost love against his relentlessly practical daughter for whom “Sex is life. Art is money” but finding in the end perhaps more commonality than difference save for the fact the youth of today may have no real dreams to betray. 

Now 55 years old, Sugimoto (Koreya Senda) is the proprietor of the Sugimoto Dried Goods store in upscale Ginza. Father to an only daughter, Hideko, now that his wife has passed away he finds himself carried back towards the past and is planning to turn the upstairs space in the store into a small gallery. For her part Hideko (Sachiko Hidari) and her coterie of artist friends are hoping to convince him to allow them to exhibit in the gallery for cheap, but he, slightly more conservative in his old age, views them all as low class Bohemians and fails to understand why Hideko hangs out with them in the first place. He has, it seems, an internal conflict symbolised by the beret he’s taken to wearing in which he is unable to let go of the broken dreams of his youth when he was a struggling artist forced to give up his first love, Eiko (Izumi Ashikawa), because he had no money or prospects while she eventually consented to an arranged marriage.  

The world of 1931 being very different, Sugimoto and Eiko never did anything beyond holding hands (later a key plot point), though in her parting letter she laments that she regrets not having let him kiss her and mildly berates him for not having been more forceful. A slightly uncomfortable sentiment, but diffidence seems to be the force defining Sugimoto’s life. At the store he finds himself dissatisfied with his senior salesgirl Junko (Misako Watanabe) whose brusque manner with customers and refusal to wear makeup he fears are harming sales, but is unable to say anything until his rather half-hearted attempt to talk to her provokes a mutual misunderstanding, he thinking she may be anxious about being fired and she wondering if he’s about to make a proposal. 

For unclear reasons, Junko seems to have a crush on Sugimoto, something which becomes a minor problem when he also becomes a target for Kotoko (Yukiko Todoroki), a middle-aged woman/insurance agent from Hideko’s floral arrangement class. Privy to their interior monologues, we can hear the two women squaring off against each other, Junko complaining that Kotoko is “meddling, talkative, and fat”, while Kotoko fires back that Junko wears “no makeup at all and is so stuck up” as they glare at each other through the shop window. Yet it’s not Sugimoto who eventually provokes a change in Junko, but another eccentric, struggling artist, Sohei (Shoji Yasui), who bluntly tells her that she is pretty and so should put some makeup on to bring it out. 

Junko later characterises this intervention as an act of salvation that sees her re-embrace her femininity, not only wearing makeup and having her hair styled but beginning to talk warmly with customers, improving the business but ironically giving Sugimoto the mistaken idea her friendly new demeanour may be partly for his benefit. For his part, Sohei, an unkempt artist suffering a seemingly permanent lice infestation, claims not to have cared very much about money or possessions which led him to accidentally abuse the generosity of his artist friends but has now been awakened, it seems, to a kind of consumerist mentality thanks to the interest of Junko and recognition of his art when some of Sugimoto’s old friends (well known artists Taro Okamoto, Seiji Togo, and critic Kimihide Tokudaiji) praise his paintings on seeing them in the gallery leading to them fetching a high price from prominent collectors. 

“The value of a work of art hinges on whether or not it sells” one of Hideko’s friends points out while she adds “We should be proud that art is profitable”, a sentiment that hugely offends Shohei (Ryoji Hayama), the beret-wearing leader of another artist circle the gang enlist to help them pay for the rental of the gallery. Though he concedes to Hideko’s argument that her father’s gallery is a business enterprise, not a charity, Shohei is somewhat horrified by the casual equation of art and commerce, shocked that the girls view their flower arranging as a practical more than an aesthetic skill. Still, in another irony it turns out that his talent is for business rather than art, shrewdly steering Sohei’s success rather than his own when it’s clear his work is the standout in the gallery. Just like Sugimoto had, he eventually resolves to give up his artistic dreams after falling in love with Hideko, planning to marry into her family and take over the Sugimoto store. She meanwhile, had described him as not good marriage material, “no poor painters for me, only rich men” but is apparently in favour of his selling out if only in that it ironically makes him more himself. 

As we discover there are more than a few reasons besides the beret that Sugimoto keeps feeling Shohei reminds him of someone else even as he finds himself wary of him, pointlessly trying to set Hideko up with someone more “suitable” just as she makes a point of inviting a series of alternative widowed, middle-aged ladies to the gallery opening not so much because she particularly objects to Kotoko but she’s worried her dad might get bamboozled into something without properly surveying his options. While Sugimoto remains maudlin and filled with regret though perhaps putting the past aside through a symbolic act of closure, the youngsters are cheerfully cynical, practical in the way the older generation are always telling them to be but are perhaps disappointed in them for not having dreams or aspirations beyond those of claiming or maintaining or their chosen status in life. “Art is money” Hideko is fond of saying, and it’s true enough in so much as money is an art and the one which seems at least to have captivated the post-war generation eagerly awaiting the advent of the consumerist revolution. 


Sasuke and His Comedians (真田風雲録, Tai Kato, 1963)

Criminally unknown in the Anglophone world, where Tai Kato is remembered at all it’s for his contribution to Toei’s ninkyo eiga series though his best known piece is likely to be post-war take on High Noon made at Shochiku, By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him in which a jaded doctor finds himself caught in the middle of rising tensions between local Japanese gangsters and Zainichi Koreans. Kato’s distinctive visual style shooting from extreme low angles with a preference for long takes, closeups and deep focus already make him an unusual presence in the Toei roster, but there can be few more unusual entries in the studio’s back catalogue than the wilfully anarchic Sasuke and his Comedians (真田風雲録, Sanada Fuunroku), a bizarre mix of musical comedy, historical chanbara, and ninja movie, loosely satirising the present day student movement and the limits revolutionary idealism. 

An opening crawl introduces us to the scene at Sekigahara, a legendary battle of 1600 that brought an end to Japan’s warring states period and ushered in centuries of peace under the Tokugawa. Onscreen text explains that this is the story of the boys of who came of age in such a warlike era, giving way to a small gang of war orphans looting the bodies of fallen soldiers and later teaming up with a 19-year-old former samurai realising that the world as he knew it has come to an end. Soon the gang is introduced to the titular Sasuke who, as he explains, has special powers having been irradiated during a meteor strike as a baby. Recognising him as one of them, the war orphans offer to let Sasuke join their gang, but he declines because he’s convinced they’ll eventually reject him in fear of his awesome capabilities. Flashing forward 15 years, the kids are all grown up and the only girl, Okiri (Misako Watanabe), is still carrying a torch for Sasuke (Kinnosuke Nakamura) who dutifully reappears as the gang find themselves drawn into a revolutionary movement led by Sanada Yukimura (Minoru Chiaki) culminating in the Siege of Osaka in 1614. 

Don’t worry, this is not a history lesson though these are obviously extremely well known historical events the target audience will be well familiar with. A parallel is being drawn with the young people of early ‘60s Japan who too came of age in a warlike era and who are now also engaging in minor revolutionary thought most clearly expressed in the mass protests against the ANPO treaty in 1960 which in a sense failed because the treaty was indeed signed in spite of public opinion. Kato’s Sanada Yukimura is a slightly bumbling figure, first introduced banging his head on a low-hanging beam, wandering the land in search of talented ronin to join up with the Toyotomi rebellion against the already repressive Tokugawa regime. His underling sells this to the gang as they overlook a mile long parade of peasants headed to Osaka Castle as a means of bringing about a different future that they can’t quite define but imply will be less feudal and more egalitarian which is how they’ve caught the attention of so many exploited farmers. 

Of course, we all already know how the Siege of Osaka worked out (not particularly well for anyone other than the Tokugawa) so we know that this version of the 16th century better world did not come to pass the implication being that the 1960s one won’t either. The nobles are playing their own game, the Toyotomi trying to cut deals but ultimately being betrayed, while the gang fight bravely for their ideals naively believing in the possibility of victory. Sasuke, for his part, is a well known ahistorical figure popular in children’s literature and this post-modern adventure is in essence a kids’ serial aimed at a student audience, filled with humorous anachronisms and silliness while Kato actively mimics manga-style storytelling mixed with kabuki-esque effects. Boasting slightly higher production values than your average Toei programmer, location shooting gives way to obvious stage sets and fantastical set pieces of colour and light which are a far cry from the studio’s grittier fare with which Kato was most closely associated. That might be one reason that the studio was reportedly so unhappy with the film that it almost got Kato fired, but nevertheless its strange mix of musical satire and general craziness remain an enduring cult classic even in its ironic defeatism. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hungry Soul / Hungry Soul, Part II (飢える魂 / 続・飢える魂, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

When you think of the family drama, you think of a young woman getting married and that her marriage is an unambiguously good and righteous thing despite the pain it may bring to her parents who will obviously miss her yet must comfort themselves that they’ve done everything right. In melodrama, however, we get quite a different picture of the “modern” marriage in which it is not quite so unambiguously good or righteous but a patriarchal trap enabled by a kind of gaslighting which tells women that suffering is the natural condition of life and that they should wear their unhappiness as a badge of honour.  

Nowhere does this seem truer than in the films of Yuzo Kawashima who in general takes quite a dim view of romance as a path to freedom and finds his heroines struggling to escape outdated social codes to seize their own freedom. Hungry Soul (飢える魂, Ueru Tamashii) finds one still comparatively young woman and another middle-aged discovering that they want more out of life than their society thinks a woman is supposed to have but continuing to wrestle with themselves over whether or not they have the right to pursue their personal happiness in a rigidly conservative society. 

Reiko (Yoko Minamida), a woman in her early 30s, married Shiba (Isamu Kosugi), 23 years her senior, 10 years previously apparently out of a mix of youthful naivety and post-war desperation. Shiba has supported her financially and apparently enabled her brother’s career, but it’s clear that he thinks of her as little more than a glorified housemaid, treating her with utter contempt even in public. He makes her carry her own bags at the station rather than wait for a porter and forces her to accompany him on business trips where he shows her off to colleagues and then retires her to the hotel with nothing to do all day. Tyrannised, Reiko has been been raised to be obedient and does her best to be a good wife, but Shiba repeatedly reminds her that he bought her while openly talking about his relationships with other women even at one point bringing a geisha home with him while Reiko cringes in the front seat next to the driver. 

Perhaps what she’s learning is that obedience is not an unambiguously good quality, but still she struggles to let go of the necessity of measuring up to the standards of social propriety. When Shiba unwittingly introduces her to handsome politician Tachibana (Tatsuya Mihashi), her accidental attraction to him awakens her to all the ways her married life is a hell of disappointment. Shiba reminds her that he keeps her in comfort, little understanding that she may hunger for something more than the material, while Reiko realises that she may starve to death for lack of love but has been conditioned to think that a woman’s emotional needs are not only unimportant but entirely taboo. 

Mayumi (Yukiko Todoroki), meanwhile, has known love but feels obliged to live on the memory of her late husband and fulfil herself only though caring for her two teenage children. To do that, paradoxically, she has seized her independence as a working woman with a job in real estate, later hoping to manage a ryokan traditional style hotel, only for her children to resent her perceived rejection of motherhood in favour of individual fulfilment. “School is for people who have two parents” her son tells her, threatening to move out into a dorm, while her daughter at one point considers suicide simply because she suspects her mother may be sleeping with her late father’s best friend. 

In Reiko’s case, her desire for liberation is kickstarted by a hunger for love, though as we later realise Tachibana is also perhaps looking to break with the past and with conventional male behaviour in that he has been a womanising playboy involved in relationships with women from the red light district which to him were always casual while they, like Reiko and Mayumi, longed for more. Mayumi’s relationship with Shimozuma (Shiro Osaka), by contrast, is complicated by the fact he is married to a woman with a long-term illness, though what he craves (besides Mayumi herself for whom he seems to have been carrying a torch for many years) is a conventional family home, jokingly chiding Mayumi that her interest in business may be making her less “womanly”.  

Both women try, and fail, to break free of patriarchal control to claim their own agency, discovering that romance is not the best way to find freedom. Despite her love for and possibly misplaced faith in Tachibana, Reiko is both too brutalised by her abusive husband and constrained by the taboo of being a woman ending a marriage for another man to definitively escape Shiba’s control. Mayumi, meanwhile, is shamed by the reflection of herself in her children’s eyes and motivated to reassume her maternity but does so also as a way of rejecting easy romantic fulfilment in the hope of discovering more of herself as a middle-aged woman embracing all the freedom that might offer while her children, though grateful to have her return to them, are also chastened and guilty in having realised that their mother is a woman too and ultimately they just want her to be happy. As often in Kawashima, no one quite gets what they wanted, but they do at least find a kind of resolution. Their souls may still be hungry, but their appetites have returned and there is the promise of future fulfilment if still tempered by the restrictions of a cruelly repressive society.


Hungry Soul opening (no subtitles)

Hungry Soul, Part II opening (no subtitles)

The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Ballad posterA year after his box office smash The Inugami Family, Kon Ichikawa returns to the world of eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi with The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Akuma no Temari Uta). Like many a Kindaichi mystery, Devil’s Ballad finds him called upon to delve back into the past to satisfy an ageing detective’s anxiety about an old case, only to be faced with a series of new ones as a consequence. This time, however, the mystery leans less on buried secrets than deeply held grudges, betrayals, and lingering feudal feuds as the post-war society tries and fails to free itself from ancient oppressions.

The film opens with a tryst between two adolescent lovers in the ominously named “Devil’s Skull Village” in 1950. Yasu (Yoko Takahashi), the girl, is at pains to let her boyfriend, Kanao (Koji Kita), know that she is keen to take the relationship to the next level but he is old fashioned and wants to wait until their union is formalised. The pair are interrupted by some of their friends who are in the middle of planning a celebration for a visit from a girl who moved to the city, Chie (Akiko Nishina). Meanwhile, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) has arrived at the inn owned by Kanao’s mother Rika (Keiko Kishi) on invitation from a retired policeman, Isokawa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who wants Kindaichi to look into the murder of Rika’s husband twenty years ago. Isokawa, then a young rookie, is convinced that Rika’s husband was not the victim but the murderer and the corpse actually belonged to another man entirely – Onda, a drifter who defrauded half the village with a wreath making scam.

Rika and her children – 20-year-old Kanao and his younger sister Satoko (Eiko Nagashima) who has prominent facial birthmarks and rarely leaves the house, came to the village with her husband and are therefore slightly divorced from the longstanding social rivalries. The village has two noble families – the Yuras and the Nires. Feeling the need to modernise, the Nires bet everything on vineyards and it paid off. The Yuras, by contrast, were defrauded by Onda’s wreath scam and lost their fortune and social standing. Yasu, Kanao’s girlfriend, is a daughter of the Yuras, but the Nire’s have been petitioning Rika for quite some time to have her son marry their daughter, Fumiko (Yukiko Nagano), who also has a crush on him (though this is largely irrelevant to her father’s dynastic ambitions). When the younger generation start getting bumped off in ways eerily similar to a local folk song, Kindaichi and Isokawa are on the case, wondering if these new murders have anything to do with their old one.

Despite its 1950 setting, Devil’s Ballad is unusual in resolutely making an irrelevance of the war which only receives a brief mention as an explanation for why some of the case files have been destroyed and for why marriage is such a hot button issue given the lack of men and abundance of women. Nevertheless, the crimes span a turbulent 20 years of Japanese history with the original murder taking place in the early ‘30s during a period of economic instability following the Manchurian Incident. In the socially conservative pre-war era, it seems Onda also got around and may have fathered several illegitimate children with women in the village, some of them noble, some not. These buried secrets seem primed to bubble to the surface now that the children are coming of age and marriage again becomes an issue as worried parents try to think of acceptable ways to block potentially “inappropriate” matches without sending their children off into ruinous elopements or tipping off the wrong people that their kids may not be their kids.

The crimes themselves, old fashioned as they are, are partly reactions to a changing society. We discover that the reason Rika and her husband were forced to come back to the village was that their showbiz careers were stalling – she was a vaudeville performer specialising in shamisen, and he a “benshi” (narrator of silent films) who became convinced his job was obsolete after witnessing a subtitled print of Morocco. Likewise, the two rival families cannot let go of their petty provincial privileges, and as Kanao angrily snaps back at his mother, Japan is now a democratic country and he is free to choose his own wife at a time of his own choosing with or without parental blessing. This remote village is perhaps isolated from the privations of the post-war world but it’s also stuck in the past, hung up on past transgressions and unable to move forward into the new era. However, the primary motivations for murder are as old as time – guilt, humiliation, and self preservation.

Ichikawa keeps things simple but splices in a few strange, avant-garde sequences of kokeshi dolls menacingly bouncing balls coupled with shifts to black and white, fast-paced reaction shots, and stuttering still frame sequences all while Kindaichi showers innocent passersby with his famous dandruff, the idiot police officer continues to offer ridiculous theories while his sergeant dutifully follows him around, and the local bobby perfects a line in hilarious pratfalls. Overlong at two and a half hours and falling prey to the curse of the prestige crime drama in spoiling its mystery through casting, the Devil’s Ballad may not be the best of the Kindaichi mysteries but offers enough of a satisfying twist to prove worthy of the Kindaichi name.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Mummy’s Love (木乃伊の恋, Seijun Suzuki, 1973)

vlcsnap-2018-05-28-23h20m55s542After getting fired from Nikkatsu for making films which made no sense and no money, Seijun Suzuki cemented his place as a thorn in the side of the establishment by suing them for breach of contract. The “dispute” dragged on, eventually seeing him blacklisted by the other major studios and unable to make a feature film for ten years. This did not mean however that Suzuki was entirely idle between the releases of Branded to Kill and his 1977 “comeback” movie A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness. Like many other directors who found themselves adrift in the changing film industry, Suzuki busied himself with short projects for television, both commercials and stand alone episodes of anthology series including one for Eiji Tsuburaya’s Twilight Zone-esque Horror Theater Unbalance.

Horror Theater Unbalance, produced by Tsuburaya Pro, was in keeping with the studio’s other similarly themed horror and science fiction SFX series but took the form of 13 one off one hour dramas. Although production began in earnest in 1969, filming didn’t finish until 1972 and the series eventually aired in 1973. Many of the episodes were inspired by well known mystery stories and each also featured a framing sequence in which author/actor/TV personality (and later politician) Yukio Aoshima introduced and then wrapped up the tale à la Alfred Hitchcock, Rod Serling, or perhaps Cookie Monster whilst sitting in a creepy mansion filled with weird skeletal objet d’art. Tsuburaya Pro was able to mop up some prime Nikkatsu talent which was gradually seeping out of the studio as it crept towards its eventual rebirth as the producer of Nikkatsu Roman Porno. This included not only Suzuki but also Yasuharu Hasebe and Toshiya Fujita among others, as well as outlying figures from the independent world such as Kazuo Kuroki.

The first to be broadcast, Suzuki’s episode was adapted from a short story by Fumiko Enchi whose recurrent themes share much with those of the director in her frequent use of fantasy and eroticism. A Mummy’s Love (木乃伊の恋, Miira no Koi) is technically a triple tale as it contains an internal framing sequence in addition to the broader one common to the series. The lead is actually Shoko (Misako Watanabe) – a widowed middle-aged editor working with her now elderly professor on a new version of a classic tale from Japanese literature. Her memory is sparked when she catches sight of an oddly vacant-looking monk in the back of a car – eerily like the one in the story which revolves around the discovery of a monk who was buried alive as way of achieving enlightenment but has recently (or perhaps not) begun ringing his bell to alert those above to his conscious presence.

One of the villagers, Shoji, becomes fascinated with the idea of the unsleeping monk. When they dig up the corpse it’s a stiff, strangely robust skeleton which some of the villagers end up using for a game of punt the monk, but little by little his flesh returns. He is not, however, as enlightened as one might hope. To begin with he’s a gibbering wreck, and then finally something more like a crazed sex pest whose pent up amorous energy eventually wears out his new “wife” in a matter of days when she suddenly gives “birth” to a small army of mini dust buddhas. Shoji is sick of the monk and wants to get rid of him, but when he takes his own wife sometime later all he can hear is the sound of a little tinkling bell and suddenly he can’t bear to touch her.

The theme seems to be that unquenched desire will drive you insane with the ambiguous addition that desire itself is best overcome rather than satisfied. Having recounted to us the story of the monk, Shoko finds his tale echoing in her own life. A war widow she lost her husband young and has experienced near constant sexual harassment from her former professor, now bedridden and defeated. Unbeknownst to her, the professor has been keeping her engagement photo in his study for the last decade. He claims that it’s not impossible for an ordinary many to resurrect himself solely through the power of enduring sexual desire, rightly (but somewhat inappropriately) implying that Shoko too harbours lingering desires which have gone unsatisfied since her husband’s passing.

The story culminates with Shoko’s pleading hope for a resurrection as she unwittingly arrives at the place of her husband’s death where she encounters a strange man who might or might not be her late spouse. Making either real or hallucinatory love atop a grave with either a resurrected corpse, a ghost, a phantom of memory, out of body spirit, or just a random rough man talking shelter from the rain, Shoko is a prisoner of her desires but the source of her visitation remains difficult to discern.

Working within a TV budget, Suzuki reins himself in but lends his idiosyncratic sense of ironic fun to an otherwise gloomy, dread-laden tale as the villagers gleefully kick around the dried corpse of the old monk as if he were a long buried football and then seem to meet an unquiet knowingness in his ever hungry eyes. Peppered with surrealist touches, Suzuki’s contribution to Horror Theater Unbalance is a heady affair but one imbued with his characteristic twinned sense of irony and wistful melancholy in a tale of those undone by unresolved longing.


Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

o0500070913581105946Nikkatsu’s main stock in trade during its 50s/60s heyday was the youth movie – films which captured the frustrations of being young (and usually male) in the scrappy post-war years. It’s a surprise then that the hero of Seijun Suzuki’s “action” movie Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Jusango Taihisen Yori: Sono Gososha wo Nerae) is a genial middle-aged man who’s more Cary Grant in North by Northwest than Japanese James Dean. A programme picture, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the movie on paper but it’s among the first in which Suzuki indulges his talent for the surreal including a number of fantastically choreographed action sequences.

The film opens with a warning as a sniper trains his sights on a set of road signs which state that many accidents have occurred in this area. The one which is about to befall unlucky prison warden Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima) is however entirely man made. Momentarily confused by the figure of a woman watching the bus from the roadside, Tamon is blindsided when the sniper opens fire and kills several of the passengers while another, Goro (Shoichi Ozawa), cowers in the back. Tamon is suspended for six months but isn’t particularly upset about it. He’s not a detective and he knows he should leave it to the professionals, but he’s desperate to know why someone would bother attack such a lowly crew of petty criminals. Wondering who the woman was and how she fits into the case, who the snipers were aiming for and if they got them, and perhaps wanting to assuage his own feelings of powerlessness during the attack Tamon gets on the case.

Tamon is not your typical Nikkatsu action hero. He’s a little on the old side for starters – hardly the marquee face the studio was beginning to favour with its collection of “Diamond Guys”. He’s also not a policeman or a detective, he has no idea what he’s doing or what he’s getting himself into. What Tamon is is a righteous man. Almost immediately he’s sucked into the seedy underbelly of late ‘50s Tokyo with its strip clubs, trafficked women, and petty gangsters. This world is alien to him and he’s disgusted by it. Meeting the female manager of the “talent agency” which supplies in-room strippers to sleazy hotels where businessmen go when they’ve told their wives they’re at a conference, Tamon is horrified to hear her admit she thinks of the girls as “merchandise”. He pauses to explain to her that he always thought of the felons he looked after as “humans” rather than “criminals”, no matter what it was they’d done. Such naive humanitarianism is too much for Yuko (Misako Watanabe) – she’s instantly smitten, which is a problem because it means she needs to play both sides of her own game.

The pair end up in an uneasy alliance as Tamon’s goodness begins to work its magic. An unlikely white knight, Tamon finds himself wanting to save all the ladies threatened by “Akiba’s” dastardly plan from the icy charms of Yuko to Goro’s cabaret girl Tsunako (Mari Shiraki), and another young one, Shoko (Kyoko Natsu), about to get sucked into the Akiba web. What he discovers is a nasty trail of exploitation running from the bars and clubs of the city centre to the genial holiday spa towns where the moderately wealthy travel to pursue their discrete pleasures.

Tamon may be a little older than your average Nikkatsu action star, but he’s also a perfect fit for a film noir hero in wrong man mould. Tamon is not on the run, but he is out of place in this world, perhaps harking back to a presumably more innocent age where honesty and compassion still counted for something. He views his job as a prison warden as a public service, believing that there is goodness in everyone and it’s the job of people like him to find it and bring it to the surface. This he does at least seem to accomplish with Yuko who (despite her role in events so far) seems to have “reformed” and intends to follow Tamon’s lead in taking her “talent agency” in a more legitimate direction. 

Suzuki often claimed that Youth of the Beast was the first of his films where he was able to fully embrace his madcap desires, but Take Aim at the Police Van contains a fair few Suzuki touches of its own from the bold opening sequence shot through the sights of a sniper rifle, to the show girl killed by an arrow to her bare breast, bizarre murder by petrol tanker set piece, and exciting train station finale. Keeping the camera fluid, Suzuki captures a world in motion, seemingly running away from our noble hero until justice, in the form of an unstoppable steam train, finally arrives.


Attack on the police van clip (English subtitles)

Youth of the Beast (野獣の青春, Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

youth of the beast posterSeijun Suzuki had been directing for seven years and had made almost 20 films by the time he got to 1963’s Youth of the Beast (野獣の青春, Yaju no Seishun). Despite his fairly well established career as a director, Youth of the Beast is often though to be Suzuki’s breakthrough – the first of many films displaying a recognisable style that would continue at least until the end of his days at Nikkatsu when that same style got him fired. Building on the frenetic, cartoonish noir of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Suzuki once again casts Jo Shishido in the the lead only this time as an even more ambiguous figure playing double agent to engineer a gang war between two rival hoodlums.

Suzuki opens in black and white as the bodies of a man and a woman are discovered by a small team of policemen. Finding a note from the deceased female which states that she settled on taking her own life because she loved her man and thought death was the only way to keep him, the police assume it’s an ordinary double suicide or perhaps murder/suicide but either way not worthy of much more attention, though discovering a policeman’s warrant card on the nightstand does give them pause for thought.

Meanwhile, across town, cool as ice petty thug Jo Mizuno (Jo Shishido) is making trouble at a hostess bar but when he’s taken to see the boss, it transpires he was really just making an audition. The Nomoto gang take him in, but Mizuno uses his new found gang member status to make another deal with a rival organisation, the Sanko gang, to inform on all the goings on at Nomoto. So, what is Mizuno really up to?

As might be expected, that all goes back to the first scene of crime and some suicides that weren’t really suicides. Mizuno had a connection with the deceased cop, Takeshita (Ichiro Kijima), and feels he owes him something. For that reason he’s poking around in the local gang scene which is, ordinarily, not the sort of world straight laced policeman Takeshita operated in which makes his death next to a supposed office worker also thought to be a high class call girl all the stranger.

Like Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Youth of the Beast takes place in a thoroughly noirish world as Mizuno sinks ever deeper into the underbelly trying to find out what exactly happened to Takeshita. Also like Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Youth of the Beast is based on a novel by Haruhiko Oyabu – a pioneer of Japanese hardboiled whose work provided fertile ground for many ‘70s action classics such as The Beast Must Die and Resurrection of the Golden Wolf, but Suzuki’s ideas of noir owe a considerable debt to the gangster movies of the ‘30s rather than the moody crime dramas of twenty years later.

Jo Shishido’s Mizuno is a fairly typical ‘40s conflicted investigator, well aware of his own flaws and those of the world he lives in but determined to find the truth and set things right. The bad guys are a collection of eccentrics who have more in common with tommy gun toting prohibition defiers than real life yakuza and behave like cartoon villains, throwing sticks of dynamite into moving cars and driving off in hilarious laughter. Top guy Nomoto (Akiji Kobayashi) wears nerdy horn-rimmed glasses that make him look like an irritated accountant and carries round a fluffy cat he likes to wipe his knives on while his brother Hideo (Tamio Kawaji), the fixer, is a gay guy with a razor fetish who likes to carve up anyone who says mean stuff about his mum. The Sanko gang, by contrast, operate out of a Nikkatsu cinema with a series of Japanese and American films playing on the large screen behind their office.

The narrative in play may be generic (at least in retrospect) but Suzuki does his best to disrupt it as Mizuno plays the two sides against each other and is often left hiding in corners to see which side he’s going to have to pretend to be on get out of this one alive. Experimenting with colour as well as with form, Suzuki progresses from the madcap world of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! to something weightier but maintains his essentially ironic world view for an absurd journey into the mild gloom of the nicer end of the Tokyo gangland scene.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bare Essence of Life (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー , Satoko Yokohama, 2009)

©Little More Co.

bare essence of life posterThere might be a pun involved in the title of Bare Essence of Life – another example of a Japanese film with a katakana English title, Ultra Miracle Love Story (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー), given a completely different English language title for overseas distribution, but that would be telling. Following her feature debut German + Rain, Satoko Yokohama once again tells a tale of small town misfits only this time of an Aomori farm boy whose brain is wired a little differently to everyone else’s – “not broken, just different”. Though everyone in the village knows Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama) and is familiar with his sometimes unusual behaviour, a young visitor taking a temporary job in a quaint rural backwater may need a little more time to acclimatise.

Yojin is, as he says, a little different from the others. Neatly signalling a problem with executive functioning, he lives his life to the tune of several different alarm clocks with deliberately different sound cues to help him remember what he’s supposed to be doing. Grandma also helps with that too through use of a giant whiteboard which has Yojin’s daily itinerary on it so he can keep track of where he is and record his thoughts about the day. Yojin’s grandfather has passed away but has left him some valuable horticulture tips on a cassette tape which Yojin listens to diligently every day whilst tending to his cabbages, trying to work out a good way of keeping them safe from creepy crawlies seeing as grandma doesn’t really trust him with insecticide (later events will prove this to be wise).

Everything changes when brokenhearted school teacher Machiko (Kumiko Aso) arrives all the way from Tokyo as temporary cover for maternity leave at the local nursery. Oddly, seeing as there are so few young people around, the school seems pretty busy with youngsters but then again perhaps they’ve come from neighbouring villages which would explain why the parents are sometimes so late coming to pick their kids up. In any case, Machiko instantly captures Yojin’s heart and he becomes fixated on the idea of making her his one and only. Machiko, however, is battling her own romantic woes and is originally quite taken aback by Yojin’s odd combination of directness and innocence.

Yojin is, undoubtedly, a lot to take in, but the villagers are all very used to his ways and mostly just shrug his various antics off even when they entail inconveniences like office paperwork suddenly scattered to the wind, or getting pelted with vegetables after taking issue with Yojin’s sales patter. Grandma bears the brunt of his rudeness not to mention self-centred attitude and otherwise difficult behaviour but she also worries how he’s going to look after himself when she’s gone. Hence the vegetable patch – a literal testing ground. Machiko makes Yojin wish he were different, and a half-baked experiment in which he buries himself up to the neck in his cabbage patch (perhaps to better understand cabbages so that he can figure out how to grow them) and a neighbourhood boy sprinkles him with pesticide shows him a way he can make it happen.

So begins Yojin’s long, strange path towards “evolution” as he discovers that exposure to various chemicals helps him slow everything down so he can be a little more like everyone else. Moving into the centre ground makes his presence more palatable to Machiko, giving them time to bond during nighttime walks as Machiko outlines her curious theories on the forward motion of the human race. Machiko wonders if humanity’s need to control the unpredictable, smooth out rough edges and tame nature is limiting its ability to change and grow, yet even as she says so Yojin is attempting to temper his own wildness expressly for Machiko. Nevertheless, getting to know him Machiko comes to the conclusion that maybe what Yojin needs is to become more Yojin, rather than dousing himself in dangerous chemicals which seem to have provoked some kind of strange metamorphosis as yet unknown to medical science.

Chemicals aside, Yojin’s world takes a turn a definite turn for the surreal as he chats with headless ghosts and then temporarily joins the ranks of the undead himself. Yokohama has a point or two to make about the use of pesticides – a neighbourhood woman warns Machiko to head indoors when she first arrives because it’s crop spraying day, but then refuses to buy Yojin’s “organic” vegetables because she’s not convinced anything grown without chemical assistance could really be “safe” or “clean” enough for consumption. This need to control nature may eventually ruin it, and us too – much as Machiko’s hypothesis posited. Maybe Yojin is the most evolved us all, defiantly in touch with his essential nature and, perhaps, finally allowing his soul to find its true home if in the strangest of ways.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (English subtitles)