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)

Romantic Prelude (おと・な・り, Naoto Kumazawa, 2009)

otonariSometimes when you live in the city it’s difficult to build meaningful connections with other people. You might find yourself a little lost, caught between the rat race and what it was that brought you to the city in the first place, but if you just close your eyes and listen, you can hear that you’re not alone. Romantic Prelude (おと・な・り, Oto-na-ri) is the story of two such people who build up a strange connection even though they’ve never really met.

Satoshi (Junichi Okada) and Nanao (Kumiko Aso) are next door neighbours in a small apartment block where the walls are paper thin. They’re both vaguely aware that a person of the opposite sex and around the same age lives next door, but they don’t know each other – in fact, they wouldn’t even recognise each other if they passed in the street. Still, they’re each aware of the other person through their particular soundscapes – Nanao hears Satoshi’s keys jangling on his belt as he leaves each morning and his rice cooker beeping in the evening, where as he thinks of Nanao as the humming girl and enjoys getting a free French lesson as he hears her language tapes through the wall.

Both are beginning to get frustrated with their lives in the city. Satoshi is a professional photographer doing fashion shoots but his real passion is landscape photography. He’s planning to go to Canada for a photo project but keeps getting held back as he only got into the fashion stuff because his childhood friend became a model and the two have now become entirely dependent on each other to keep working. When the friend, Shingo, finds out about Satoshi’s Canada plans, he goes missing causing his pregnant girlfriend Akane to come crashing into Satoshi’s life for a while.

Likewise Nanao is a lonely woman in her early thirties who works in a florist’s shop and plans to go to France to study flower arrangement after she’s passed the highest rank of exams. The guy at the local combini she often shops at seems to have developed a crush on her and Nanao isn’t really sure what to do with that but uses all of her time pursuing her dream of becoming a top florist.

Satoshi and Nanao are both feeling adrift, as if their lives are passing them by and it’s getting too late to not be getting anywhere. Just hearing the familiar sounds coming through the wall provides a comforting presence to not feel so alone. Though they don’t know each other, each has perhaps built up an image in their minds of the other person based on the sounds they create – keys, coffee, cooking vs French, classical music and humming an all too familiar song. Feeling the other person’s presence becomes reassuring and an absence of a familiar sound at its expected hour is unexpectedly disconcerting even if you really have no right to expect it.

Though Nanao is annoyed by the noisy and unprecedented arrival of Akane (who is not a good match for the rather uptight Satoshi) and slightly confused by her friendly greeting from the adjacent balcony, she still continues to derive comfort from the gentle presence of her neighbour. After having undergone a cruel humiliation and in something of a crisis, Nanao breaks down inside her apartment. Hearing her distress, Satoshi places his hand on the wall as if in comfort but rather than going next door to see if everything’s OK, he begins to hum and then sing the song he’s heard Nanao humming all along and eventually she too comes to sit beside the wall singing the song back to him.

As implied in the film’s English title, Romantic Prelude, music, and more particularly the symphony of sound that makes up a city, is the film’s major motif. This is further brought out by the original Japanese title which is a perfectly composed sonata of its own – Oto-na-ri. “Otonari” is Japanese for neighbour but the syllables which make up the word also have their own distinct meanings in that “oto” on its own means “sound” but put together “otona” means adult and then “nari” can also mean “to become”. Satoshi and Nanao are engaged in a blind slow dance where they’re falling in love with a stranger based on nothing other than a feeling of connection coupled with bond created by their shared soundscape.

Less a romance than an urban character study, Romantic Prelude is that rare case of a genuinely intriguing love story in which you’re really not sure which way things are going to go. This could just be another story of a tragic missed connection where Nanao heads off to France and Satoshi to Canada and they never even meet or it could give the audience the satisfying true love ending that it almost certainly wants but could have made either direction work. In the end, the important thing is seeing the pair work through their own difficulties and sort things out for themselves in the absence of each other before they finally begin to live the lives they’ve been yearning to lead.


The Japanese release of Romantic Prelude contains English subtitles.

Unsubtitled trailer:

and here’s the song they both keep singing – Kaze wo Atsumete by Happy End

Poppoya (鉄道員, Yasuo Furuhata, 1999)

img_0The late Ken Takakura is best remembered as cinema’s original hard man but when the occasion arose he could provoke the odd tear or two just the same. 1999’s Poppoya (鉄道員) directed by frequent collaborator Yasuo Furuhata sees him once again playing the tough guy with a battered heart only this time he’s an ageing station master of a small town in deepest snow country which was once a prosperous mining village but is now a rural backwater.

Otomatsu Sato has spent his life in service to the railway. Like his father before him who believed the key to the modernisation of Japan after its defeat in the second world war was in its transportation network, Sato started as an engineer before being promoted to station master. Morning and evening in the freezing cold he bid in and sent out each passenger and freight train travelling through his one track station. However, though he clearly loves his job Sato has experienced a great deal of personal tragedy in pursuit of his career. He wasn’t there when his baby daughter died, nor was he there when his wife lay dying in hospital. He was where he always is, on the platform until the last train goes out. Now, however, the mine has closed, the town is full of old people and there are no passengers on the train so the line will be closing. Having given his life to something which will be so unceremoniously erased, what is a man like Sato to do now?

In true Takakura fashion, Sato appears tough and fairly unapproachable on the outside but actually he’s quite well respected in the town and even if some of the other residents bemoan his rigid ways, they grudgingly respect him for being the way he is. He takes his duties seriously and would never countenance breaching them for something as trivial as personal concerns, even when those concerns are something as understandable as the death of a family member. The way he sees things, this is his duty and must be fulfilled, properly each day no matter what. This may seem a little obsequious in Western eyes, though many of the other (particularly female) characters also agree Sato takes things much further than he needs to, but dedication to one’s duty is, after all, an admirable trait.

However, now it’s all been for nowt. The railway line is to be closed, the land will engulf it once again erasing the years of Sato’s work just as if he were never there. He’s sacrificed final moments with his wife and child – not even that, just sacrificed moments. He’s given all to the railway and now there’s no place left there for him. His best friend, the father of a son also in the railway business, is to take another job at a hotel complex but Sato is a railwayman through and through – he’ll work on the tracks or not at all.

Around this time Sato also starts seeing some strange new children around. He assumes they’ve come to stay with grandparents in the village, this being the time of the New Year holiday. The little one has a strangely old fashioned looking doll that reminds Sato of one he bought for his infant daughter only she never really had the chance to enjoy it. Then he meets an older sister who’s kind of a live wire before meeting the oldest – a high school student dressed in an old fashioned looking uniform who really reminds him of someone he used to know. All these strange encounters force Sato to further re-examine his past, reliving old regrets and assessing a life lived in service to an ideal at the expense of the joy he might have felt as a happy family man.

Beautifully photographed with picturesque shots of trains against the deep snows of Northern Japan, Poppoya was Japan’s submission for the 1999 Oscars and does have all the trappings of a prestige melodrama. It unabashedly pulls at the hearts strings and even if the rather sentimental score takes things too far, Poppoya does nevertheless manage to draw the odd tear for Sato’s lonely, regretful old age. Sentimental yet genuinely affecting, Poppoya is an effectively crafted weepy which serves as a timely reminder to embrace the things which are most important to you while there’s still time.


The Hong Kong blu-ray release of Poppoya includes English subtitles (though they are a little “imperfect”).

Only trailer I can find has Korean subs: