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)