Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Blood is Dry (血は渇いてる, Kiju Yoshida, 1960)

Blood is dry DVD coverIn the new post-war economy, everything is for sale including you! Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida’s second feature Blood is Dry (血は渇いてる, Chi wa Kawaiteru) takes its cues from Yasuzo Masumura’s earlier Technicolor corporate satire Giants and Toys, and Frank Capra’s 1941 comedy Meet John Doe in taking a faceless corporate drone and giving him a sense of self only through its own negation. The little guy is at the mercy not only of irresponsible capitalist fat cats, but of his own imagination and the machinations of mass media who are only too keen to sell him impossible dreams of individual happiness.

The action opens with a grandstanding rooftop speech from a former CEO to his distressed workforce informing them that because of “indifferent capitalism” this small business is going bust and everyone’s out of a job. Then, dramatically, our hero Kiguchi (Keiji Sada), steps out with a pistol and threatens to shoot himself, proclaiming that he no longer cares for his own life but doesn’t want anyone else to lose their job. Another worker, Kanai (Masao Oda), tackles Kiguchi and the gun goes off. Thankfully, he is only mildly wounded but Kiguchi’s case reaches the papers who make it into a human interest issue exemplifying the precarious economic conditions of the modern society. While he’s still somewhat current, an enterprising advertising executive hits on the idea of getting Kiguchi to act as the face of their campaign, bizarrely attempting to sell life insurance with the image of a man putting a gun to his head while proclaiming that “it’s high time everyone is happy”.

When we first meet him, Kiguchi is indeed a faceless, broken man at the end of his tether. His noble sacrifice is interpreted as an act of war on an unfair capitalist society, but as he later affirms in exasperation, Kiguchi had no political intent and never considered himself as acting with a greater purpose, he was simply terrified at the prospect of losing his job which is, in a sense, also his entire identity. Shy and mild-mannered, he stammers through speeches and curls himself into a hostile ball of awkwardness in front of the camera but ad exec Nonaka (Mari Yoshimura) is sure that only makes him a better sell for being “real” and relatable. Like the hero of Meet John Doe, however, Kiguchi starts to buy into his own hype. He fully embraces his role as the embodiment of the everyman, at once gaining and losing an identity as he basks in the unexpected faith of his adoring populace.

Kiguchi’s conversion wasn’t something Nonaka had in mind and it frightens her to realise she has lost control of her creation. Meanwhile, Nonaka’s ex, a paparazzo with a penchant for setting up celebrities in compromising situations in order to blackmail them, has it in for Kiguchi as the personification of his own dark profession. He resents the idea of using “suicide” as a marketing tool and the cynical attempt to sell the idea of happiness through the security of life insurance which, it has to be said, is a peculiarly ironic development.

Kiguchi’s liberal message of happiness and solidarity does not go down well with all – he’s eventually attacked in a taxicab by a right-wing nationalist posing as a reporter who accuses him of being a traitor to Japan, and it’s certainly not one which appeals to the forces which created him. Nevertheless, he does begin to capture something of the spirit of the man in the street who just wants to be “happy” only to have his message crushed when his image is tarnished by tabloid shenanigans and left wondering if the only way to reclaim his “artificial” identity is to once again destroy himself in sacrifice to his new ideal.

Yet Kiguchi’s motivation is both collectivist and individual as he claims and abandons his identity in insisting that he belongs to the people. His confidence is born only of their belief in him and without it he ceases to exist. Kiguchi’s entire identity has been an artificial creation with an uncertain expiry date and his attempts to buy it authenticity only damn him further while his actions are once again co-opted by outside forces for their own aims. The little guy has achieved his apotheosis into a corporate commodity leaving the everyman firmly at the mercy of his capitalist overlords, dreaming their dreams of consumerist paradise while shedding their own sense of self in service of an illusionary conception of “happiness”.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Spring Dreams (春の夢, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1960)

vlcsnap-2019-01-10-00h23m29s867Let them eat sweet potato? The heartless bourgeoisie at the centre of Keisuke Kinoshita’s absurdist satire Spring Dreams (春の夢, Haru no yume) have found themselves accidentally engulfed by the revolution which seems to be attacking them on every front including from inside their palatial, Western-style mansion. Things are about to change in the Okudaira world, but then again maybe not all that much.

The Okudairas are the owners of a large scale pharmaceuticals firm. Widowed patriarch Shobei (Eitaro Ozawa) is the CEO, but he’s at the constant mercy of his mother-in-law (Chieko Higashiyama) who acts as the guardian of the family business’ legacy. Meanwhile, he has three problematic children – oldest daughter Tamiko (Yatsuko Tanami) who has become a promiscuous playgirl with a taste for “mothering” college students, Chizuko (Mariko Okada) who is the only “normal” one in the house and has fallen in love with an impoverished painter, and Mamoru (Yusuke Kawazu) who is a kind of melancholy Hamlet waxing on his existential angst while eating everything in sight.

Into this already strained household comes the unexpected figure of sweet potato salesman, Atsumi (Chishu Ryu). With the house empty for a change, romantically conflicted maid Umeko (Yukiyo Toake) calls one of her boyfriends down at the fish shop to get the potato guy to come round. Kimiko (Meiko Nakamura), the other maid, goes out to pick some up but ends up flirting with a delivery boy so sends Atsumi inside where Umeko ropes him into helping shift some furniture which is how he ends up having a minor stroke in the Okudaira’s living room. Luckily for Atsumi, the person who finds him is Shobei’s compassionate spinster secretary, Kazuko (Yoshiko Kuga), who has some sad experience in this area as her father passed away after a stroke when she was a teenager, they say because someone moved him too early. A visit from the family doctor (Shuji Sano) backs up her advice and Atsumi will be staying put in the living room for the foreseeable future.

Of course, this doesn’t go down well with most of the Okudairas. Shobei wants him gone but what can you do? Atsumi stays because on balance it would be awkward if he ended up dying and staining the Okudaira name. Sadly, greed and indifference are not unique to the bourgeoisie as we discover when a parade of “well wishers” from Atsumi’s tenement house begin showing up to see how he is. Aside from the kindly, filial Eiichi (Shinji Tanaka) who has taken time off work to look after the old man, everyone else thinks Atsumi’s time has come. They know his tragic history, that he’s all alone now since both his sons were killed in the war and the rest of his family lost in the bombing. They want to get in with him to be remembered in the will, or even get their hands on his wallet for something like an advance. Poor old Atsumi is just an object fit for exploiting – a symbol of the Okudaira’s largesse, and of a potential windfall when the inevitable happens.

Meanwhile, the winds of change are blowing. Shobei is tied up with a labour dispute at the factory, obsessed with the idea of crushing the unions while the workers’ rousing chorus of the Internationale echoes ever more loudly in the distance. Grandma advises “just fire them all”, but things aren’t as easy as they were back in Meiji. Grandma thinks Shobei is a bit useless, especially since her daughter died and he’s been allowed to get off easy. She needs to find a successor seeing as Mamoru’s too weird to take over which means one of the girls needs to get married. Tamiko’s ruled herself out thanks to her eccentric love life, which leaves only Chizuko who wants to marry a painter and has no real interest in saving the family business. Chizuko is determined to oppose the idea of an arranged marriage, she’s a post-war girl after all, but grandma is firm. When she was a girl they made her give up on her first love, who happened also to be named “Atsumi”, to marry an Okudaira and so Chizuko is merely being unreasonable.

Nevertheless the presence of Atsumi begins to soften grandma’s heart with memories of her youth and the cruelty with which her youthful dreams were stripped away. Love blossoms in the cold Okudaira mansion, genuine bonds between people are recognised while the opportunist are rejected, and the young regain their freedom from the old who now recognise how destructive the old order could be. Will the house of the Okudaira’s fall? Probably not. Revolutions don’t take hold over night, but greed at least is on its way out paving the way for a better, kinder future for all.


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Noboru Nakamura, 1964)

(C) Shochiku 1964Despite having two films nominated for a best foreign language Oscar and a handful of foreign festival hits under his belt, Noboru Nakamura has been largely forgotten by Western film criticism though a centennial retrospective of three of his most well regarded films at Tokyo Filmex in 2013 has helped to revive interest. The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Yoru no Henrin), Nakamura’s 1964 Shochiku melodrama focussing on the suffocating life of a young woman pulled into the Tokyo red light district, was one of the three newly restored films featured and was also screened in Berlin and Venice to great acclaim. Making full use of its vibrant colour palate, The Shape of Night paints its city as a constant tormentor filled with artificial light and false promises.

As we meet her, melancholy street walker Yoshie (Miyuki Kuwano) has been trapped in her dead end existence for six years and has lost all hope of living a “normal” life filled with love and happiness. A chance encounter with a supercilious client, Fujii (Keisuke Sonoi), prompts her into a series of recollections in an effort to explain exactly how it was she ended up in such a sorry state. As the eldest daughter of a poor family Yoshie left school early to work in a factory (making those neon tubes you see everywhere) while supplementing her income by working as a barmaid (not a hostess, just a girl behind the bar). Just shy of her 20th birthday, she meets a handsome “salaryman”, Eiji (Mikijiro Hira), who starts coming to the bar regularly to see her. The pair became a couple, and then lovers, and then cohabiters, but Eiji isn’t a “salaryman” so much as a low level gangster with a gambling problem whose street name is “princess”. Continual losses put Eiji in a tight spot with his crew and he begins borrowing money from Yoshie before asking her to prostitute herself to get him out of a hole. Thinking it will just be a one time thing, Yoshie resolves to make a sacrifice for her man but, of course, it wasn’t a one time thing.

Yoshie’s story is a sadly familiar one – an innocent woman duped by a duplicitous man whose empty promises aim to mask his continued fecklessness. Eiji, despite his smart suits and coolly confident attitude, is unlikely to make much of himself in the yakuza world yet is as tied into its hellish system of loyalty and reciprocity as Yoshie is in her non-marriage to the man she thinks she loves. Seeking constant approval, Eiji thinks nothing of living off a woman and his childishly excited smile on re-entering the apartment after Yoshie has sacrificed herself to save his face is a grim reminder of his priorities. When pleading doesn’t work Eiji turns violent, prompting Yoshie to finally consider leaving him but she’s too late – the yakuza world has already got its hooks into her and any attempt to escape will be met with terrifying resistance.

Fujii may seem as if he presents another option for Yoshie, a chance for a better, kinder existence but he too is merely another man trying to tell her how she should live her life. Hypocritical at best (as he freely admits), Fujii pays Yoshie to “ease his sexual urges” but expresses disgust and disapproval of her lifestyle and seeks to “save” her from her life of humiliating immorality, “purifying” her just like the dam he is building is supposed to do to the Sumida river. Fujii’s obvious saviour complex is worrying enough in itself though there is also the additional worry of what his “salvation” may entail if Yoshie decides to make a break from her yakuza chains and run off to the comparative safety of provincial Hokkaido. Fujii may claim to have fallen in love with her, but so did Eiji and who’s to say Fujii’s idea of wedded bliss will be any better than Eiji’s brutal reign as a common law spouse.

The situation is further complicated by Eiji’s gradual shift from a violent, overbearing, abusive boyfriend to a genial figure of gentle domesticity and what that shift later provokes in Yoshie. Rendered physically impotent by an incident during a gang fight, Eiji is literally and figuratively emasculated. Though his sudden inability to satisfy Yoshie originally provokes his jealously, it soon robs him of his violent impulses and turns Eiji into a willing housewife who dutifully does the couple’s washing and prepares the meals much to Yoshie’s consternation. This transformation is what finally kills her love for him, but still Yoshie cannot find it in herself to sever her connection with the man who has been the cause of all her suffering. Not quite hate or loathing, Yoshie’s burned out love has become a burden of care as she finds herself duty bound to look after a man she now believes incapable of looking after himself.

While Yoshie and Eiji sit in a bar one night after “work”, the television plays a report featuring the sad news of the death of a female student at the ANPO demonstrations. Prompting Yoshie to exclaim “what is ANPO anyway?”, the news report lays bare just how isolated her life as become – as all of Tokyo is aflame with with righteous indignation and the streets are filled with the largest protest in living memory, Yoshie is trapped in her tiny neon world which promises so much and delivers so little.

Nakamura makes fantastic use of sound design to capture Yoshie’s interior world – the background music rising over the droning voice of a boring client who hasn’t quite made up his mind, the radio cutting out at intense moments of violence, the terrible clanging of Eiji’s geta on the iron staircase which leads to his flat. Fading into blue dissolves of memory, Nakamura makes a hellish wonderland of nighttime Tokyo whose flashing neon lights, crowded bars and oddly darkened streets turn it into a prison of dubious delights. Finally making a drastic decision, Yoshie attempts to free herself from her burdens and sever the chains which bind her to her misery but in cutting the cord she finds the knots tightening, realising she will never be released from the source of all her suffering.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

The Sting of Death (死の棘, Kohei Oguri, 1990)

Sting of DeathKohei Oguri’s The Sting of Death (死の棘, Shi no Toge) won the prestigious jury prize at the Cannes film festival in 1990 but has since passed into obscurity. Adapted from the “I Novel” by Toshio Shimao, Sting of Death is an absurdist, caustic look at a collapsing marriage beset by difficulties on all sides as the pair try to navigate the confusing post-war society.

Toshio and Miho are a married couple with two young children. Miho has recently discovered that her husband has been carrying on with a neighbour for quite some time and is uncertain how to deal with this unexpected revelation. The film opens with a serious marital argument which is almost chilling in its calmness. Toshio is sorry, he doesn’t intend to leave his marital home and pledges to stop seeing this other woman – he’ll stay in 24/7 and not even go out without his wife and children if it means he can defend his family. Miho is definitely not happy with this compromise but accepts it and the couple attempt to get back to a kind of normality. However, the peace does not last long as Miho becomes increasingly depressed and paranoid before hurtling headlong into a nervous breakdown.

The “I Novel” is an integral part of Japanese literature and has often provided the basis for many of the country’s prestige films even though its specific style is a necessarily literary one which is hard to dramatise on screen. The genre is centred around the ideas of naturalism and the main tenet is that the writer is recounting real events from the world he sees around him, though perhaps through a thin veil of fictionalisation. That said, it’s never quite “autobiography” and it may sometimes be better to think of them as “hyperreal” rather than just naturalistic.

Oguri attempts to evoke this strange sense of uncanniness by opting for an ethereal, dreamlike tone akin to avant-garde or absurdist theatre. The couple speak to each other in a slightly heightened, deliberate manner, often posed unnaturally facing away from each other literally divided by the film’s framing. Toshio is also haunted by visions from his wartime service somewhere in the pacific where he seems to have received some kind of stomach injury. Emerging from a cave he suddenly sees saluting soldiers, or remembers a passing religious ceremony as if the past is always with him like a Fury tormenting his mind.

The Sting of Death is very close to the experiences of the author who uses his own name for that of the protagonist and that of his own wife for the central female character, Miho. Shimao’s own wife became seriously mentally ill during their marriage eventually having to be admitted to a hospital where Shimao took the unusual step of living with her. Though this uncommon gesture is widely praised as displaying his deep love for his wife, it was in part born of guilt as he believed he had caused her distress through his frequent infidelities, just as Toshio does in the film.

The couple live together in a perpetual nightmare world. Though Miho exclaims at one point that they both need to do their best now for their children they both consider suicide more than once, alternately saving or frustrating one another. They both suffer, they both try to go on but Miho’s position becomes increasingly difficult leading to a period of mental decline which climaxes in a strangely humorous yet violent episode in which she tries to exact revenge on her husband’s mistress only to be offered a lesson in civility – “I don’t know what’s going on here but none of us have the right to act like savages”, says the perfectly genial other woman (the silent casualty in all of this).

Oguri shoots the majority of the film in near darkness, as if the couple are enveloped in a night without end. They haunt each other like living ghosts, emerging from shadows moving slowly like those without hope or purpose. Oguri adds to the surreal, dreamlike atmosphere by sticking to static camera shots filled with strange tableaux and little discernible action. The film paints a bleak picture of marriage and the family unit as the central couple remain locked in an odd game-like battle of suffering while their two innocent children look on helplessly. A strange and beguiling film, The Sting of Death pulls no punches when it comes to describing the way in which adults wound each other with childish games but is also filled with quite beautiful, if sometimes unsettling, iconography.


The Sting of Death is available with English subtitles on R3 Hong Kong DVD as part of Panorama’s Century of Japanese cinema collection.

Opening scene of the film (unsubtitled)