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)

A Chain of Islands (日本列島, Kei Kumai, 1965)

nihon retto posterKei Kumai made just 19 films films in his 40 year career, but even since his earliest days he ranked among the most fearless of directors, ready to confront the most unpleasant or taboo aspects of contemporary Japan. His first film, The Long Death, interrogated wartime guilt through drawing inspiration from a real life 1948 mass poisoning case in which materials manufactured in a Manchurian lab may have led to the deaths of post-war civilians. Having begun in this possibly controversial vein, Kumai pressed on with 1965’s A Chain of Islands (日本列島, Nihon Retto, AKA The Japanese Archipelago) which he set in 1959 as Japanese youth protested the renewal of the ANPO treaty which placed Japan under the military protection of the American Armed forces in return for allowing the presence of those forces on Japanese soil.

Despite the contemporary setting Kumai opens with a explanatory voice over detailing the depth of the American military presence and the function of the CID which exists solely to investigate crimes committed by American servicemen. The CID is staffed by both Americans and Japanese nationals who, the voiceover explains, often feel conflicted in stepping onto American soil each morning as prolonged exposure gradually erodes their sense of difference and finally of “Japaneseness”. Akiyama (Jukichi Uno) is a translator/investigator at CID and he’s about to be handed an unusual request from his boss – reopen a cold case from the previous summer in which an American Sergeant was found floating in Tokyo bay. Akiyama’s new boss was a friend of the late soldier and would like to know what happened.

Akiyama’s investigations lead him down a dark path of corruption, murder, conspiracy, and governmental complicity. Beginning to investigate the case, Akiyama discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. A couple of policeman from the original investigation arrive to help him and echo their frustrations with the way the case was handled. Despite the police investigation, the American authorities did their best to interfere – commandeering the body and claiming jurisdiction in contravention of Japan’s standing as a sovereign nation. The Americans are no longer occupying forces but honoured guests who should obey international protocol in cases like these, but they rarely do. Despite the existence of the CID, crimes by American servicemen are generally covered up as the military insists the matter will be dealt with internally only for suspects to be suddenly “transferred” overseas.

Sgt. Limit was, however, one of the good ones and Akiyama’s investigation seems to point towards a murder and cover up instigated because Limit had got too close to the truth in investigating a sudden flood of counterfeit cash. The Americans, to the surprise of all, are only the middle man in the grand conspiracy which leads right back to the dark heart of Japan and the vast spy networks operated during the militarist era. As might be expected, these valuable networks are left wide open with the collapse of Japanese fascism but are perfectly primed to facilitate widespread crime spanning the Asian world and all with the tacit approval of the American and Japanese states.

Kumai also implicates the spy ring in a series of “mysterious” rail incidents, but makes sure to reserve some of his ire more the more usual injustices. Akiyama is caring for his young nephew whose father was killed in mining explosion which has claimed the lives of nearly every young man in the village leaving his sister unable to cope with her children alone. He is also battling a personal tragedy which is intensely connected to his decision to join CID which is currently inundated with cases of rape and murder in which American servicemen are implicated. The “foreign” becomes suspect but mostly for its hypocrisy as in the Catholic priest who becomes a major suspect in subverting the legitimate devotion of a Godly woman who only sought to live under the Christian teachings of love and kindness, while the American forces claim to stand for honour and justice but actively facilitate organised crime at an interstate level to further the progress of Capitalism whilst also facilitating civil unrest in volatile nations for financial and political gains.

That all of this happens immediately before the renewal of the ANPO treaty is no coincidence and Kumai even includes aerial footage of the mass protests filling the streets around the Diet building as the youth of Japan question why their nation has seen fit to make itself so complicit in the questionable foreign policy of another country. The outcome looks bleak for our protagonists who discover themselves to be mere pawns at the mercy of greater forces which cannot be circumvented or denied, but just as it all looks hopeless a new hope arises. Pledging to fight harder and continue the work which has been started, those left behind dedicate themselves to equipping the young with the tools to build a happier, fairer world in contrast to the one they seem primed to inherit from those who should know better. The final sequence shows us a young woman walking gloomily past the Diet building which seems to be looming over her as a veritable symbol of oppression but then her face brightens, her step quickens and she leaves the Diet far behind to walk forward towards the work which awaits her. 


A comprehensive overview of the 1960 ANPO protests.

Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Junya Sato, 1977)

proof of the man posterOne could argue that Japanese cinema had been an intensely Japanese affair throughout the golden age even as the old school student system experienced its slow decline. During the ‘70s, something appears to shift – the canvases widen and mainstream blockbusters looking for a little something extra quite frequently ventured abroad to find it. Pioneering producer Haruki Kadokawa was particularly forward looking in this regard and made several attempts to crack the American market in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before settling on creating his own mini industry to place a stranglehold around Japanese pop culture. Sadly, his efforts mostly failed and faced the same sorry fate of being entirely recut and dubbed into English with new Amero-centric scenes inserted into the narrative. Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Ningen no Shomei) is one of Kadokawa’s earliest attempts at a Japanese/American co-production and, under the steady hands of Junya Sato, is a mostly successful one even if it did not succeed in terms of overseas impact.

Based on the hugely popular novel by Seiichi Morimura, Proof of the Man stars the then up and coming Yusaku Matsuda as an ace detective, Munesue, investigating the death by stabbing of a young American man in Japan. The body was discovered in a hotel lift on the same night as a high profile fashion event took place with top designer Kyoko Yasugi (Mariko Okada) in attendance. After the show, an adulterous couple give evidence to the police about finding the body, but the woman, Naomi (Bunjaku Han), insists on getting out of the taxi that’s taking them home a little early in case they’re seen together. On a night pouring with rain, she’s knocked down and killed by a young boy racer and his girlfriend who decide to dispose of the body to cover up the crime rather than face the consequences. Kyohei (Koichi Iwaki), the driver of the car, is none other than the son of the fashion designer at whose show the central murder has taken place.

Like many Japanese mysteries of the time, Proof of the Man touches on hot-button issues of the immediate post-war period from the mixed race children fathered by American GIs and their precarious position in Japanese society, to the brutality of occupation forces, and the desperation and cruelty which dominated lives in an era of chaos and confusion. The only clues the police have are that the victim, Johnny Hayward (Joe Yamanaka), said something which sounded like “straw hat” just before he died, and that he was carrying a book of poetry by Yaso Saiji published in 1947. Discovering that Hayward was a working-class man of African-American heritage from Harlem whose father took a significant risk in getting the money together for his son to go to Japan (hardly a headline holiday destination in 1977), the police are even more baffled and enlist the assistance of some regular New York cops to help them figure out just why he might have made such an unlikely journey.

The New York cops have their own wartime histories to battle and are not completely sympathetic towards the idea of helping the Japanese police. Munesue, of a younger generation, is also harbouring a degree of prejudice and resentment against Americans which stems back to a traumatic incident in a market square in which he witnessed the attempted gang rape of a young woman by a rabid group of GIs. Munesue’s father tried to intervene (the only person to do so) but was brutally beaten himself, passing away a short time later leaving Munesue an orphaned street kid. In an effort to appeal to US audiences, Proof of the Man was eventually recut with additional action scenes and greater emphasis placed on the stateside story. Doubtless, the ongoing scenes of brutality instigated by the American troops would not be particularly palatable to American audiences but they are central to the essential revelations which ultimately call for a kind of healing between the two nations as they each consider the ugliness of the immediate post-war era the burying of which is the true reason behind the original murder and a secondary cause of the events which led to the death of Naomi.

Naomi’s death speaks more towards a kind of growing ugliness in Japan’s ongoing economic recovery and rising international profile. Kyohei is the son not only of high profile fashion designer Kyoko, but can also count a high profile politician (Toshiro Mifune) as his father. Spoiled and useless, Kyohei is the very worst in entitled, privileged youth driving around in flashy cars and going to parties, living frivolously on inherited wealth whilst condemning the source of his funds as morally corrupt citing his mother’s acquiescence to his father’s frequent affairs. Yet aside from anything else, Kyohei is completely ill-equipped for independent living and is essentially still a child who cannot get by without the physical and moral support of his adoring mother. 

Johnny Hayward, by contrast, retains a kind of innocent purity and is apparently in Japan in the hope of restoring a long severed connection as echoed in Saiji’s poem about a straw hat lost by a small boy on a beautiful summer’s day. The words of the poem are later repeated in the title song by musician Joe Yamanaka who plays Johnny in the film and is of mixed race himself. As in most Japanese mystery stories, the root of all evil is a secret – in this case those of the immediate post-war period and things people did to survive it which they now regret and fear the “shame” of should they ever be revealed. Some of these secrets are not surmountable and cannot be forgiven or overcome, some atonements (poetic or otherwise) are necessary but the tone which Sato seems to strike encourages a kind of peacemaking, a laying to rest of the past which is only born of acceptance and openness. Despite the bleakness of its premiss on both sides of the ocean, Proof of the Man does manage to find a degree of hopefulness for the future in assuming this task of mutual forgiveness and understanding can be accomplished without further bloodshed.


Original trailer (no subtitles) – includes major plot spoilers!

Cops vs. Thugs (県警対組織暴力, Kinji Fukasaku, 1975)

cops vs thugs J BDCops vs Thugs – a battle fraught with friendly fire. Arising from additional research conducted for the first Battles Without Honour and Humanity series and scripted by the author of the first four films, Kazuo Kasahara, Cops vs Thugs (県警対組織暴力, Kenkei tai Soshiki Boryoku) shifts the action west but otherwise remains firmly within the same universe. This is a world of cops and robbers, but like bored little boys everyone seems to forget which side it was they were on – if they truly were on any other side than their own. There are few winners, and losers hit the ground before feeling the humiliation, but the one thing which is clear is that the thin blue line is so thin as to almost be transparent and if you have to choose your defenders, a thug may do as well as a cop.

A dodgy looking guy in a dirty mac roughs up some equally dodgy looking kids. Given that the shady looking fella is played by Bunta Sugawara you’d peg him for a petty thug, but against the odds Kuno is a cop – just one with a taste for crumpled raincoats. The town he’s policing is one in the midst of ongoing gang strife following a series of breakaways and civil wars throughout the ‘50s. Things are coming to a head as rival bosses of the two breakaway factions, Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata) and Kawade (Mikio Narita), vie for power while a former yakuza politician, Tomoyasu (Nobuo Kaneko), does his best to stir up trouble between them that Kuno is trying to keep from exploding into all out war.

Cops vs Thugs is as cynical as they come but slightly more sympathetic to its desperate, now middle aged men whose youth was wasted in the post-war wasteland. The central tenet of the film is neatly exposed by a drunken gangster who points out that at heart there’s little difference between a cop and a yakuza aside from their choice of uniform. Policemen, like gangsters, follow a code – the law, carry a gun, are fiercely loyal to their brotherhood, and at the mercy of their superiors. Good jobs were hard to come by in the devastation following the surrender, in fact one of the reasons company uniforms became so popular was that no one had decent clothes to wear and a providing a uniform was a small thing that a company could to do increase someone’s sense of wellbeing, community, and engender the feeling of family within a corporate context. The police uniform, even if it’s reduced to a badge and a gun, does something similar, as do a yakuza’s tattoos. They literally say someone has your back and will come running when you’re in trouble.

These drop outs with nowhere left to turn eventually found themselves one side of a line or on the other – the choice may have been arbitrary. Kuno says he became a cop because he wanted to carry a gun, something he could have done either way but for one reason or another he chose authority over misrule. Cops being friends with yakuza sounds counter intuitive, but many of these men grew up alongside each other, attended the same schools, perhaps even have relatives in common.

Both the police and the yakuza claim to be the defenders of honest, working people but neither of them quite means what they say. Police brutality is rife while yakuza battles reach new levels of violent chaos including, at one point, a beheading in the middle of a sunlit street. Yet the greatest threats to the population at large aren’t coming from such obvious sources, they’re hardwired into the system. Sleazy politico Tomoyasu spends his time in hostess bars and schmoozes with gangsters he uses to do his dirty work while the press look on gleefully at having something to report. Kuno may not be a candidate for police officer of the year, but he tells himself that his policy is one of appeasement, and that working with organised crime is the best way to protect the ordinary citizen. When you’re forced to work within a corrupt system, perhaps there is something to be said for flexibility.

For all of the nihilistic cynicism Fukasaku retains his ironic sense of humour, staging a violent, inefficient, and bloody murder in a tiny room where a sweet song about maternal love in which a woman sings of her hopes for the bright future of her son is playing a healthy volume. Corruption defines this world but more than that it’s the legacy of post-war desperation that says on the one hand that it’s every man for himself, but that it’s also necessary to pick a side. Cops, thugs – the distinction is often unimportant. There is sympathy for these men, and sadness for the world that built them, but there’s anger here too for those who play the system for their own ends and are content to see others pay the price for it.


Available now from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Originally published by UK Anime Network.

The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kabei: Our Mother (母べえ, Yoji Yamada, 2008)

KabeiYoji Yamada’s films have an almost Pavlovian effect in that they send even the most hard hearted of viewers out for tissues even before the title screen has landed. Kabei (母べえ), based on the real life memoirs of script supervisor and frequent Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami, is a scathing indictment of war, militarism and the madness of nationalist fervour masquerading as a “hahamono”. As such it is engineered to break the hearts of the world, both in its tale of a self sacrificing mother slowly losing everything through no fault of her own but still doing her best for her daughters, and in the crushing inevitably of its ever increasing tragedy.

Summer, 1940. The Nogamis are a happy family who each refer to each other by adding the cute suffix of “bei” to their names. The father, Tobei (Bando Mitsugoro X), is a writer and an intellectual opposed to Japan’s increasing militarism and consequently has found himself in both political and financial difficulties as his writing is continually rejected by the censors. Eventually, the secret police come for him, dragging him away from his home in front of his terrified wife and daughters. After Tobei is thrown into jail for his “thought crimes”, the mother, Kabei (Sayuri Yoshinaga), is left alone with her two young girls Hatsuko and Teruyo (Hatsubei and Terubei in family parlance).

Though devastated, Kabei does not give up and continues to try and visit her husband, urging his release and defending his reputation but all to no avail. Thankfully, she does receive assistance from some of her neighbours who, at this point at least, are sympathetic to her plight and even help her get a teaching job to support herself and the children in the absence of her husband. She also finds an ally in the bumbling former student, Yamazaki (Tadanobu Asano), as well as her husband’s sister Hisako (Rei Dan), and her brother (Tsurube Shofukutei) who joins them for a brief spell but ultimately proves a little too earthy for the two young middle class daughters of a dissident professor.

The time passes and life goes on. The war intensifies as do the attitudes of Kabei’s friends and neighbours though the family continues its individual struggle, sticking to their principles but also keeping their heads down. By the war’s end, Kabei has lost almost everything but managed to survive whilst also ensuring her children are fed and healthy. A voice over from the older Teryuo calmly announces the end of the conflict to us in such a matter of fact way that it’s impossible not wonder what all of this was for? All of this suffering, death and loss and what has it led to – even more suffering, death and loss. A senseless waste of lives young and old, futures ruined and families broken.

Yet for all that, and to return to the hahamono, the Nogami girls turned out OK. Successful lives built in the precarious post-war world with careers, husbands and families. Unlike many of the children in the typical mother centric movie, Hatsuko and Teruyo are perfectly aware of the degree to which their mother suffered on their behalf and they are both humbled and grateful for it. Kabei was careful and she kept moving to protect her children in uncertain times. Seen through the eyes of a child, the wartime years are ones of mounting terror as fanatical nationalism takes hold. Bowler hatted men seem to rule everything from the shadows and former friends and neighbours are primed to denounce each other for such crimes as having the audacity to wear lipstick in such austere times. In one notable scene, the neighbourhood committee begins its meeting by bowing at the Imperial Palace, until someone remembers the paper said the Emperor was in a different palace entirely and they all have to bow the other way just in case.

Though the tale is unabashedly sentimental, Yamada mitigates much of the melodrama with his firmly domestic setting. We see the soldiers massing in the background and feel the inevitable march of history but the sense of tragedies both personal and national, overwhelming as it is, is only background to a testament to the strength of ordinary people in trying times. An intense condemnation of the folly of war and the collective madness that is nationalism, Kabei is the story of three women but it’s also the story of a nation which suffered and survived. Now more than ever, the lessons of the past and the sorrow which can only be voiced on the deathbed are the ones which must be heeded, lest more death and loss and suffering will surely follow.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Snow Woman (怪談雪女郎, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1968)

snow womanThe Snow Woman is one of the most popular figures of Japanese folklore. Though the legend begins as a terrifying tale of an evil spirit casting dominion over the snow lands and freezing to death any men she happens to find intruding on her territory, the tale suddenly changes track and far from celebrating human victory over supernatural malevolence, ultimately forces us to reconsider everything we know and see the Snow Woman as the final victim in her own story. Previously brought the screen by Masaki Kobayashi as part of his Kwaidan omnibus movie, Tokuzo Tanaka’s expanded look at the classic tale (怪談雪女郎, Kaidan Yukijoro) is one of extreme beauty contrasting human cruelty with supernatural inevitability and the endless quest for compassion.

As in the original folktale, the film begins with two sculptors venturing into snow filled forests looking for the perfect tree to carve a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kanon, for the local temple. Having finally located the longed for tree, the pair spend the night in a cabin only to receive a visit from the Snow Woman herself who freezes the older man but is taken by the younger one’s beauty and spares his life, instructing him never to speak of these events.

Yosaku is taken back to the village followed not long after by the tree trunk. In tribute to his master, the head of the temple asks him to complete the statue himself despite his relative lack of experience. Later, a beautiful yet mysterious woman takes shelter from the intense rain under Yosaku’s roof and is taken in by his adoptive mother and wife of his former master. Eventually, Yosaku and “Yuki” fall in love and marry but the two quickly come to the notice of the higher samurai orders who seem determined to ruin their happy union.

Inspired by Lafcadio Hearn’s version of the story, this retelling adds a layer of social commentary with the constant interference of the higher echelons who exist solely to plague those below them with their petty games of subjugation. We first meet the local bailiff Jito when he rides into town trailing a massive entourage and immediately stars beating some of the local children who were playing with piles of wood. When Yosaku’s adoptive mother pleads with them to stop, he beats her too for having the temerity to speak to a samurai. Unfortunately, he has it in for Yosaku because he has another master sculptor he wants to use for the statue, and now he’s also taken a liking to the beautiful Yuki and will stop at nothing to have his wicked way with her. He is in for quite a nasty shock but even so, the higher orders remain the higher orders and those below them are left with no recourse but simply to follow suit.

The real villain of the film is this enforced class system which allows or even encourages those at its summit to run rampant over those below. The samurai will have their way and the people have nothing to oppose them with save their sense of personal integrity. The Snow Woman then becomes the film’s unlikely heroine. By the time we reach the film’s emotionally devastating finale, Yuki claims that she learned human compassion in her life with Yosaku and their child and ultimately sacrifices her own happiness to preserve that of her husband and son. Yosaku finds himself in competition with the other sculptor who manages to complete a beautiful statue but the temple priest finds it wanting, its expression is soulless and devoid of the sense of compassion he was looking for in the face of a goddess of mercy. Yosaku finds the very look he needs in his wife’s face, exhausted from lending her supernatural strength to save the life of a small child and her husband’s freedom, and in her eyes as she prepares to bid goodbye to him.

The Snow Woman is only obeying her own nature and cannot be blamed for merely being what she is, but the human cruelty and selfishness inherent in the feudal world is a matter of choice. Jito is an evil man, doubtless his world has also made him cruel and selfish but the choice always remains for him not to be – a choice which he is incapable of making. Men like Yosaku toil away endlessly and honestly but their rewards are fragile, personal things rarely recognised by the world at large. Only the Snow Woman, a cold creature, possesses the necessary warmth to breath life into a monument to mercy built solely by a pair of sincere hands.

Tanaka creates a stunning visual world using mostly simple effects and optical trickery to bring the Snow Woman’s icy domain into the ordinary feudal environment. The Snow Woman glides eerily through impressively layered snow scenes, dissolving from one world only to reappear in another. Beautifully filmed and filled with warmth and compassion despite its frozen aesthetic, The Snow Woman is deeply moving plea for empathy in a cruel world which successfully makes a tragic heroine out of its supernatural protagonist.


Original trailer (no subtitles)