Freezing Point (氷点, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1966)

freezing point posterRevenge is a dish best served cold, so they say, but just how cold can you go before your own heart freezes over? Based on a novel by Ayako Miura, Freezing Point (氷点, Hyoten) is a somewhat unusual family drama centring on parental responsibility, familial love, and the necessity of forgiveness following betrayal and tragedy. Maintaining Miura’s characteristic Hokkaido setting with its appropriately snowbound vistas, Yamamoto sidesteps the author’s Christianising viewpoint whilst embracing her views on the nature of sin and the innocence of children.

Ophthalmologist Keizo (Eiji Funakoshi) returns home one day to find his wife, Natsue (Ayako Wakao), playing the piano, seemingly in a kind of self involved rapture. The maid has taken their son, Toru, out, and their daughter, Ruriko, is supposedly playing outside. Only, she isn’t – Ruriko has gone missing. Some time later they find the little girl’s body at the riverside, apparently strangled. The killer is caught and commits suicide in prison. Natsue has a breakdown and spends some time in a hospital but on her release Keizo decides to adopt a baby to help her recover from losing Ruriko.

More exactly, Keizo is torn between altruistic, humanist values and a deep and cruel desire for revenge on the wife he believes neglected their daughter while she entertained a lover at home. Keizo’s plan is to adopt the now orphaned baby girl of the man who murdered his daughter both as a way of proving himself a good, forgiving person and of getting his own back on his wife by forcing her to raise a murderer’s child, only revealing the truth once she has come to love it like her own.

Natsue’s heart truly is broken by the death of her daughter. It’s not exactly unusual for small children to be playing outside in ‘60s Japan – in this Natsue is not at fault. Here is the first grain of “sin” – there was indeed someone else in the house that day, another doctor from Keizo’s hospital, Murai (Mikio Narita). What exactly happened is not clear but Keizo is convinced the pair have been having an affair for some time and assumes his wife had asked the maid to take their son out and put Ruriko outside so that her lover could visit unseen. Natsue is also unable to bear any more children due to complications with a previous pregnancy and Keizo seems to think she gave herself free reign in having an affair seeing as there could be no “consequences”. Keizo’s “revenge” is as much about his betrayal as a husband as it is resentment in holding his wife responsible for the death of their daughter even though, as another friend points out, unexpected, random events occur all the time and this one was no one’s fault but the killer’s.

Parenthood, or more specifically motherhood, becomes a persistent theme as Natsue becomes pre-occupied with being a “good mother”. Time moves on and the baby, Yoko (Michiyo Okusu billed here as Michiyo Yasuda), grows up only for Natsue to discover the truth by accident after she finds a letter Keizo had written to a friend in which he expresses his inability to love Yoko knowing what she is. Yoko is not and cannot be responsible for her father’s crime but its effects are visited on her as she is branded a “murderer’s child” or a carrier of “murderous genes”. Once Natsue knows the truth the relationship changes and becomes one of artificial game playing as she and Keizo tiptoe around the issue, each unwilling to give the other the satisfaction of knowing that the game is up. Yoko realises she must be an adopted child but remains cheerful, kind, and innocent, not wanting to be a burden to the family to which she is desperate to belong.

Matters come to a head when Yoko approaches adulthood. Brother Toru (Kei Yamamoto), overhearing his parents’ ugly argument, discovers Yoko is not his blood sister and develops complicated, inappropriate romantic feelings for her (feelings which his mother almost wants to encourage if only as a kind of revenge against Keizo). Meanwhile, he also brings home a university friend, Kitahara (Masahiko Tsugawa), as a possible suitor for her and way out of this dead end tragic love story. Natsue tries to put an end to this by literally getting in the middle of it – cutting off the correspondence between Yoko and Kitahara before trying it on with him herself either as a way of frightening him off completely or positioning herself as a direct rival to her adopted daughter. Rival she already is in the eyes of her son, and also perhaps those of Keizo whose eyes linger on the daughter he couldn’t force himself to love a little too long in realising she is no longer a child and no blood relation. Thus it comes as a relief to him when a family friend offers to make Yoko her heir, paying for a college education or foreign travel if those are things Yoko would like to do.

Yoko, however, wants nothing more than to stay with her family forevermore. This is a common sentiment from a daughter in a family drama, one which usually changes when an appropriate marriage partner is found, but it means more for Yoko whose single concern is feeling unwanted by her parents whilst also feeling grateful to them for taking her in. Her romance with Kitahara provokes a revelation which leaves her feeling internally destroyed. A classically “good” person, she did not want to see any “bad” in herself but now finds out her birth father committed a heinous, senseless crime against people she loves. This, she says, is the freezing point of her heart. Realising that “sin” is everywhere and even if it hadn’t been her father there would be other instances of wrongdoing somewhere in her lineage she feels as if her heart is frozen, her spirit killed, and she can no longer continue.

Of course, there are more revelations to come provoked by yet another tragedy which threatens to bring the whole thing full circle. Nobody expected or intended this as a result of their own petty desires for revenge, but then all they really thought about was themselves and the way they’d been slighted. Keizo asked his doctor friend who facilitated his adoption whether there existed two people in the world who’d be able to love the child of the man who’d killed their own. His friend is sure such people do exist (though it turns out he had his own solution to this particular problem), but Keizo’s desires are less about trying to prove himself one of them than exacting the most painful kind of emotional wound on a wife he feels has humiliated him. This family is a fraud and the only “innocent” member is the adopted daughter whose capacity for goodness they have in part destroyed. Bleak, probing, and extremely uncomfortable, Yamamoto’s adaptation of Miura’s novel is an artfully composed dissection of family values, such as they are, in the post-war world.


Actress (映画女優, Kon Ichikawa, 1987)

actressKon Ichikawa was born in 1915, just four years later than the subject of his 1989 film Actress (映画女優, Eiga Joyu) which uses the pre-directorial career of one of Japanese cinema’s most respected actresses, Kinuyo Tanaka, to explore the development of Japanese cinema itself. Tanaka was born in poverty in 1909 and worked as a jobbing film actress before being “discovered” by Hiroshi Shimizu and becoming one of Shochiku’s most bankable stars. The script is co-written by Kaneto Shindo who was fairly close to the action as an assistant under Kenji Mizoguchi at Shochiku in the ‘40s before being drafted into the war. A commemorative exercise marking the tenth anniversary of Tanaka’s death from a brain tumour in 1977, Ichikawa’s film never quite escapes from the biopic straightjacket and only gives a superficial picture of its star but seems content to revel in the nostalgia of a, by then, forgotten golden age.

The film begins with the young Tanaka awaiting a visit from her mentor, Hiroshi Shimizu (Toru Watanabe), whom her family are keen to thank for bringing them all to Tokyo away from their life of hardship. Although everyone is very happy for Tanaka’s success, there is shadow hanging over the party in the form of missing oldest brother Ryosuke who went on the run to avoid the draft and has not been heard of since.

Shimizu gives Tanaka (Sayuri Yoshinaga) her first roles at Shochiku where she becomes a contract player but is put out when another director, Heinosuke Gosho (Kiichi Nakai), wants to give her a leading role. Overruled by studio bosses, Shimizu becomes increasingly jealous of Tanaka’s career – a situation which is further complicated by the couple’s growing romantic entanglement which sees them living together in an unofficial marriage allowing Tanaka to continue acting. However, Shimizu continues to meddle in Tanaka’s professional life whilst also continuing his hard drinking, womanising playboy lifestyle. The couple eventually divorce but reunite from time to time on the film set.

Vowing never to marry again, the rest of Tanaka’s life is dedicated to acting and sees her working with some of the best directors of the age including Ozu (Shigemitsu Ogi) and later Mizoguchi (Bunta Sugawara). It is Tanaka’s professional and personal relationship with Mizoguchi which occupies the second half of the film. Judging by the first experience on the now lost Woman of Osaka in 1940, you wouldn’t think the two would ever wish to work together again though they eventually completed fifteen films together over the next fifteen years.

Mizoguchi’s process is completely different from any other Tanaka had worked with. Rather than meeting to rehearse and discuss the work, Mizoguchi abruptly sends her a lifetime’s supply of books about bunraku and changes the script that she has painstakingly committed to memory with on set rewrites communicated via a large blackboard he expects the actors to read from. Exasperated, Tanaka finally asks him for actual direction but he coldly states that she’s the actress and her acting is not part of his job description. Mizoguchi and Tanaka are very different people but each driven and ambitious so their frequent locking of horns produces a fiercely creative collaboration in which each was able to find worth even if it was frequently difficult.

The film ends around the time of Life of Oharu which would mark the final time the pair would work together. In terms of the film’s narrative, this unspoken development is foreshadowed by the idea that the two artists are heading in different directions but in the real world the reasons are a little less clear. Tanaka became the second woman to direct a feature film with Love Letters in 1953 which was even featured at Cannes, but for reasons unknown Mizoguchi attempted to block her access to the Director’s Guild of Japan, effectively ending both their friendship and any professional relationship. Ironically enough, Actress seems to imply that Tanaka’s desire to direct may have been inspired by Mizoguchi and his all powerful on set status prompting her to wonder how he does it, and, perhaps how she could do it too.

Ichikawa weaves the history of Japan through its cinema into the narrative to recount the changing tastes of the eras as naturalism came in and out of fashion and Japanese films began to experience international as well as domestic acclaim. Skipping huge portions of time to focus on the two directors – Shimizu and Mizoguchi, Ichikawa avoids mentioning Tanaka’s post-war visit to America which had a profound impact on her later career, not only in what she learned there but also in the extremely hostile reception she received on returning home. The main takeaway from his depiction of Tanaka is a woman ahead of her time, independent and headstrong, willing to work hard to achieve the things she wanted to achieve even if flying in the face of social convention though it makes no particular judgement on her character other than in her success as an actress.

Taking on the conceit of being a film about film, Ichikawa’s sets are theatrical, creating a deliberately artificial, half unreal world. This also extends into the scriptwriting which is extremely talky and more like a stage play than film, offering pointed, long stretches of monologuing which are already far away from the more naturalistic approach of early talking cinema. Characters have improbable, exposition filled conversations in which they each tell each other things they already know for the audience’s benefit – an effect which enhances the overall theatricality, but does draw attention to itself and eventually becomes wearing. Ichikawa’s picture of Tanaka is one of steely determination and of a woman ahead of her time, but even if Actress proves less than enlightening regarding its subject it does help to shed some light on both classic Japanese cinema and that of the late 1980s.


Original trailer (traditional Chinese subs only)