The Hungry Lion (飢えたライオン, Takaomi Ogata, 2017)

Hungry lion posterRumour has a strange power. A baseless lie, no matter how innocuous, can quickly derail a life but the power of lie with a tiny grain of, if not truth exactly but circumstantial evidence, can prove ruinous when there are vested interests at play which make belief an attractive prospect. The heroine of Takaomi Ogata’s The Hungry Lion (飢えたライオン, Ueta Lion) finds herself at the centre of such a storm through no fault of her own, becoming a victim not only of her country’s restrictive social codes, tendency towards victim blaming, and reluctance to deal openly with “unpleasant” topics, but also more directly of the latent jealousy lurking in her closest friends which finds a convenient home in someone else’s scandal. Nobody will come to her rescue, her “disgrace” has exiled her from the group and she finds herself abandoned as a lonely a sacrifice to the hungry lion that feeds on social shame.

High school teacher Mr. Hosono is not exactly popular with his students. He is strict with the boys but less so with the girls, as he proves greeting one tardy student who blames a train accident for his late arrival by berating him about his regulation busting necklace while allowing a female student, Hitomi (Urara Matsubayashi), who arrives a couple of minutes later to take her seat unharrassed. Midway through the register, Mr. Hosono is called away and eventually arrested in connection with the viral video all the kids were looking at before he arrived which appears to show him in a compromising position with a student. For one reason or another, a rumour spreads that Hitomi is the girl in the video. She isn’t, but few believe her strenuous denials and her life becomes one of constant strife not only because of the bullying itself, or the injustice of being falsely accused and then disbelieved by those closest to her, but by the way she is made to feel embarrassed and shamed for causing trouble to others even though she herself has done nothing wrong.

A “relationship” between a teacher and a student is never appropriate, and Mr. Hosono has at least been removed from his position at the school, but no one seems very interested in identifying the girl in the video in order to help her, only to spread ruin and rumour. Hitomi is not the girl in the video, but even if she had been there is no support on offer to her as a person who has been abused by someone in a position of power she should have been able to trust, nor are there any measures in place to ensure her academic life will not be unduly damaged by becoming involved in such a traumatic incident. Aware of the rumours, the school accepts Hitomi’s assertion that she is not the girl but still suspends her to avoid “awkwardness” and protect their own reputation. Likewise, her own mother and sister are far from supportive, berating her for bringing shame on the family and creating problems for them in making the family a target rather than standing by her in her ordeal whether she had been the girl or not.

The rumour itself seems to spring from persistent shaming and stigmatisation of atypical families. Hitomi is 18 and she has a boyfriend who a little older. He has some shady friends and likes to push buttons as he does by causing mild embarrassment to Hitomi by taking her into the curtained off “adult” section of the local video store in an attempt to shock her. Nevertheless the pair eventually make their way to a love hotel (where they are not age checked) and he films her in a compromising position. Girls talk and Hitomi’s friends all know about her relationship which is also plastered all over her social media on which she is something of a star. Some of her friends are jealous but also harbour a degree of disapproval and the mere fact that she is already sexually active ties her to the girl in the video and casts her in an “impure” light in the cute and innocent world of high school girls. Similarly, her boyfriend’s estimation of her drops after she consents to sleep with him while his leering friends make lewd comments and regard her as an “easy” girl who has lost the right to refuse their advances.

Ostracised for essentially becoming a “fallen woman”, Hitomi is left entirely alone with no one to turn to for support. Later, authorities are keen to stress that it’s important to speak out if you’re suffering because adults will always help children but like everything else they are just empty words. The school give out a pamphlet on the importance of prudence when using social media, but refuse to accept their responsibility in failing to protect their students. The news meanwhile becomes obsessed with tearing apart Hitomi’s family, laying the blame at their feet, insisting that Hitomi’s downfall is in someway a result of her parents’ divorce even blaming her mother for having the audacity to find a “boyfriend” before her children were fully grown. The image we had of Hitomi is suddenly reversed. No longer is she a “slutty schoolgirl” involved in an illicit relationship with her teacher, but a neglected child damaged beyond repair by “liberal modern society”.

Reputation is what matters, but reputation is easily manipulated and rewritten, muddy even when objective truth is revealed. Ogata shoots in brief vignettes, each severed from the next by a stark black screen which forces us to examine the objectivity of each scene as distinct from the others, assembling our own versions of “objective” truth which are in fact guided by Ogata’s carefully crafted editing. Fake news has an agenda, truth does not, but it’s often much easier to believe the lie especially if the lie benefits us much more than the truth or enables us to feel superior to someone we secretly think needs taking down a peg or two. Society is a hungry lion which feeds on shame, externalised and internalised, as those who find themselves on the wrong sides of a series of social taboos become unwilling sacrifices to its unkind, unforgiving, and unrelenting hunger for suffering.


Screening at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 30th June, 2.45pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Manhunt (追捕, John Woo, 2017)

Manhunt30 years ago John Woo was one of Hong Kong’s most bankable directors. The father of heroic bloodshed, Woo’s bullet ballet sent shockwaves through action cinema not only in his home country but around the world. Unsurprisingly Hollywood came calling and Woo was one of the first Asian directors to enjoy mainstream US success with ‘90s hits Broken Arrow and Face/Off before his overseas career began to stall and he eventually returned to Hong Kong directing period epics Red Cliff and The Crossing. Manhunt (追捕, Zhuībǔ) is intended as a kind return to source as Woo gets back into the groove of his beautifully choreographed ‘80s action hits but intentionally or otherwise he sails dangerously close to self parody with a mix of Big Pharma conspiracy and wrong man thriller.

Chinese corporate lawyer Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) is a trusted employee of a Japanese pharmaceuticals company but is shortly to be transferred overseas, much to CEO Sakai’s (Jun Kunimura) displeasure – Du knows too much about the company’s less than transparent operations. Sakai sets up a honey trap to convince Du to stay but before it can spring Du is accosted by another woman, Mayumi (Qi Wei), who wants to talk to him about a difficult case three years previously in which an employee ended up committing suicide. After talking with Mayumi, Du goes home but the next thing he remembers is waking up in bed next to a dead woman. Du does the right thing and calls the cops, but the cops are working for Big Pharma and soon he finds himself on the run while maverick police chief Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) and two female assassins (Ha Ji-won & Angeles Woo) try to track him down.

Manhunt is inspired by the 1976 film starring Ken Takakura which was one of the first non-native movies to open in China following the Cultural Revolution. Woo apparently made the film as a kind of tribute to the actor after he passed away in 2014, but he takes his cues from the source novel by Juko Nishimura rather than the Takakura film and the 2017 Manhunt shares little in common with the 1976 version other than a general plot outline involving a man on the run and unethical practices in the pharmaceuticals trade. Du Qiu is not a stuffy, by the book, prosecutor but a compromised employee of a shady organisation who is oblivious to his own complicity in its extremely unpalatable way of doing business.

Despite this, Du Qiu is just as lucky as Takakura’s Morioka in that everyone he meets immediately wants to help him. Even sworn enemies with their hearts set on revenge eventually wind up joining team Du as they each descend on the pharmaceuticals research laboratory where the deadly secrets will be revealed. Woo returns to his heroic bloodshed roots in allowing dogged policeman Yamura and the increasingly confused Du to form an odd couple buddy duo which begins with spiky one liners and ends with becoming one as each places his uncuffed hand on the same pistol to take down a few bad guys through the power of togetherness.

Woo’s action credentials remain unchanged as he races from set piece to set piece from the opening surprise massacre to Du’s subway chase escape, jet ski race, and mansion showdown before getting anywhere near the endgame of the research lab. Perfectly choreographed, the sequences bear out Woo’s distinctive sense of humour while also poking fun at his back catalogue through a series of homages including an entire coop full of white doves just waiting for their chance to fly.

Set entirely in Japan, Manhunt shifts between Japanese and Mandarin though it has to be said that the film suffers from its reliance on English which is often poorly delivered and deliberately stylised to ape classic action movie one liners the like of which have been out of fashion for two decades. Woo neatly sends himself up with an opening discussion of “old movies” allowing one of the film’s two female assassins to develop an odd fascination with Du which leads to her eventual awakening from company brainwashing, but he also pays his dues with the theme music to Sato’s 1976 version playing over the first scene of mass bloodshed. Woo may have slipped into self parody with his deliberately over the top theatrics, but he has fun doing it and his gleeful self skewering proves extremely hard to resist.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who swing and those who…don’t – a metaphor which works just as well for baseball and, by implication, facing life’s challenges as it does for music. Shinobu Yaguchi returns after 2001’s Waterboys with a film that’s…almost exactly the same only with girls instead of boys and concert halls instead of swimming pools, but it’s all so warm and charming that it hardly matters. Taking the classic sports movie formula of eager underdogs triumphing against the odds but giving it a teen comedy drama spin, Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ) is a fitting addition to the small but much loved high school girls vs music genre which manages to bring warmth and humour to its admittedly familiar narrative.

It’s summer and it’s hot and sunny but the school is filled with yankis and dreamers, forced to spend this lovely day indoors. While one group is busy ignoring their maths teacher, the school band is getting ready to accompany the baseball team on an important match. Unfortunately, the bus leaves before the bento boxes they’ve ordered are delivered so enterprising high school girl Tomoko (Juri Ueno) suggests they blow off the maths class and show solidarity with those representing the school by making sure their fellow students are well fed. Unfortunately, they fall asleep and miss their stop on the train meaning by the time they get there it’s a very late lunch and these bento boxes containing fish and eggs etc have all been in the hot sun for a fair few hours. After nearly killing all their friends, the girls are forced to join the band in their stead, despite having almost no musical experience between them.

As might be expected, the girls start to get into their new activity even if they originally dismiss sole boy Takuo’s (Yuta Hiraoka) interest in big band jazz as the uncool hobby of pretentious old men. However, this is where Yaguchi throws in his first spanner to the works as the original band recover far sooner than expected leaving our girls oddly heartbroken. This allows us to go off on a tangent as the girls decide they want to carry on with their musical endeavours and form their own band but lack the necessary funds to do so. Being a madcap gang of wilful, if strange, people the schemes they come up with do not go well for them including their stint as supermarket assistants which they get fired from after nearly setting the place on fire, and a mushroom picking trip which leads to an encounter with a wild boar but eventually holds its own rewards.

The girls’ embittered maths teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), who just happens to be a jazz aficionado offers some key advice in that it’s not so much hitting the notes that matters as getting into the swing of things. It might take a while for the Swing Girls (and a boy) to master their instruments, but the important thing is learning to find their common rhythm and ride the waves of communal connection. Tomoko quickly takes centre stage with her largely self centred tricks which involve pinching her little sister’s games system to pawn to buy a saxophone, and almost messing up the all important finale through absentmindedness and cowardice. Other characters have a tendency to fade into the background with only single characteristics such as “worried about her weight”, or “hopelessly awkward”, or even with “folk duo in love with punk rockers”. Other than the one girl lusting after the baseball star and the two punk rockers annoyed by their earnest suitors, Yaguchi avoids the usual high school plot devices of romantic drama, fallings out, and misunderstandings whilst cleverly making use of our expectation for them to provide additional comedy.

What Swing Girls lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and good humour as the band bond through their recently acquired love of music, coming together to create a unified sound in perfect harmony. Ending somewhat abruptly as the gang win over their fellow musicians after having overcome several obstacles to be allowed to play, the finale does not prove quite as satisfying as might be hoped but is certainly impressive especially considering the music really is being provided by the cast who have each learned to play their intstruments throughout the course of the film just as their characters have been doing. Warm, funny and never less than entertaining, Swing Girls lacks the necessary depth for a truly moving experience but does provide enough lighthearted fun to linger in the memory.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Heat Wave (陽炎, Hideo Gosha, 1991)

heat-waveHideo Gosha had something of a turbulent career, beginning with a series of films about male chivalry and the way that men work out all their personal issues through violence, but owing to the changing nature of cinematic tastes, he found himself at a loose end towards the end of the ‘70s. Things picked up for him in the ‘80s but the altered times brought with them a slightly different approach as Gosha’s films took on an increasingly female focus in which he reflected on how the themes he explored so fully with his male characters might also affect women. In part prompted by his divorce which apparently gave him the view that women were just as capable of deviousness as men are, and by a renewed relationship with his daughter, Gosha overcame the problem of his chanbara stars ageing beyond his demands of them by allowing his actresses to lead.

Heat Wave (陽炎, Kagero), which was to be the director’s penultimate feature, is a homage to late ‘70s gangster movies with a significant nod to Toei’s Red Peony Gangster series. Set in 1928, the action follows cool as ice professional itinerant gambler Rin Jojima (Kanako Higuchi) whose high stakes life becomes even more complicated when she accidentally runs into her adopted little brother, apparently on the hook to some petty gangsters. Dropping her commitments to help him out of his sticky situation and recover the family restaurant, Rin comes face to face with the yakuza who killed her father in a gambling dispute more than twenty years previously but vengeance is just one of many items on her to do list.

The title Heat Wave was apparently selected for the film to imply that Gosha was back on top form and ready to burn the screen with thrilling action but when producers saw his rushes they knew that their hopes were a little misplaced. Gosha was already seriously ill and was not able to direct with the fire of his youth. Heat Wave is undoubtedly a slow burn as Rin figures out the terrain and designs her campaign with the opposing side coming up with a counter plan, but the gradual acceleration begins to pay off in the film’s elaborate smoke and flames finale as Rin takes a bundle of dynamite to the disputed territory and then fights her way out with sword and pistol aided by an unlikely ally. Downbeat but leaving room for the hoped for sequels, Heat Wave is very much in the mindset of Gosha’s heyday in which, as Rin laments, the good die young and the bad guys win.

In keeping with many gambling films much of the action is taken up with tense games of hanafuda which may prove confusing to the uninitiated and are not particularly engaging in any case, though Gosha does not overly rely on the game to fill the screen. This may be early Showa, but save for the trains the action could almost be taking place a hundred years previously. Rin may have an unusual degree of autonomy as an unmarried woman travelling alone and earning her money through back alley gambling but her world is still a traditional one in which the honour of the game is supposed to matter, even if it is ignored by the unscrupulous who would be prepared to undercut their rivals away from the gaming table by attacking their friends and allies. Rin gains and then loses, reduced to an endgame she never wanted to play and which she fully intends to win by destroying herself only to be saved by her greatest rival.

Gosha’s reputation for vulgarity was not quite unjustified, even if perhaps overstated. Rin apparently inhabits the male world of her profession in a full way as an odd scene in which she’s taken to an inn to watch a live lesbian sex show seems to demonstrate though there is no dramatic purpose to its inclusion save to emphasise Rin’s impassive poise. Though nudity is otherwise kept to a minimum, Rin’s yakuza tattoos are on full show as a clear indication of her position in the underworld. The appearance of such extensive tattooing on female gangsters is a rare sight and Gosha does his best to make the most of its transgressive qualities.

When the producers realised Gosha was not as filled with intensity as they’d hoped, they hatched on the idea of attaching a hard rock song to the end to give the film more edge (apparently much to the consternation of the composer). This might explain the strange entry to the credits sequence which is accompanied by a very up to the minute burst of synthesiser music accompanied by computer graphics loading the faces of the stars across the screen in strips. Perhaps meant to bring the ‘70s inspired action into the present day the sudden entry of the modern world is jarring to say the least though perhaps it kept viewers in their seats long enough to enjoy the post credits sting of Rin giving it her best “you shall perish”, presumably to whet appetites for a sequel. Even if not quite as impressive as some of Gosha’s previous work, Heat Wave makes up for its flaws in its exciting finale which brings all of his choreographical and aesthetic abilities to their zenith as Rin basks in both victory and defeat with the legacy of the good people who took her in burning all around her.


Selection of scenes from the the film (no subtitles)

Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Masayuki Suo, 2014)

lady-maikoWhen Japan does musicals, even Hollywood style musicals, it tends to go for the backstage variety or a kind of hybrid form in which the idol/singing star protagonist gets a few snazzy numbers which somehow blur into the real world. Masayuki Suo’s previous big hit, Shall We Dance, took its title from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song featured in the King and I but it’s Lerner and Loewe he turns to for an American style song and dance fiesta relocating My Fair Lady to the world of Kyoto geisha, Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Maiko wa Lady) . My Fair Lady was itself inspired by Shaw’s Pygmalion though replaces much of its class conscious, feminist questioning with genial romance. Suo’s take leans the same way but suffers somewhat in the inefficacy of its half hearted love story seeing as its heroine is only 15 years old.

Country bumpkin Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) arrives in the elegant Kyoto geisha quarters with only one hope – to become a maiko! However, despite the scarcity of young girls wanting to train, Haruko’s hopes are dashed by the head geisha who finds it impossible to understand anything she’s saying thanks to her extraordinarily rare accent which is an odd mix of north and south country dialects. Luckily for her, a linguistics professor who has an unhealthy obsession with rare dialectical forms overhears her speech patterns and is instantly fascinated. Striking up a bet with another tea house patron, Kyono (Hiroki Hasegawa) takes on the challenge of training Haruko to master the elegant Kyoto geisha accent in just six months.

The teahouses and the culture which goes with them are a part of the old world just barely hanging on in the bright new modern era. Haruko first became infatuated with all things maiko thanks to an online blog kept by the teahouse’s only current star, Momoko (Tomoko Tabata) – the daughter of the proprietor still only a maiko at age thirty precisely because of the lack of candidates to succeed her. Despite this intrusion of the modern, the way of the geisha remains essentially the same as it has for centuries with all of the unfairness and exploitation it entails. Hence, most of the women working in the teahouses are part-timers brought in for big events with only rudimentary training and even those who have spent a significant amount of time learning their craft lament that they don’t get paid a real salary and even their kimono and accessories technically belong to the teahouse.

Despite being on the fringes of the sex trade, as the professor’s assistant takes care to warn Haruko, there’s still something glamorous about the the arcane teahouse world bound up in ancient traditions and complicated rituals of elegance. Haruko faces a steep learning curve as a clumsy country girl who doesn’t even know how to sit “seiza” without her legs going numb. Learning to speak like a Kyoto native may be the least of her worries seeing as she has to learn how to dress in kimono, play a taiko drum and shamisen, and perform the traditional dances to perfection.

This is a musical after all and so the maiko dance routines eventually give way to more conventional choreography and large scale broadway numbers. The title song is particularly catchy and resurfaces at several points though the score as a whole is cheerful and inventive, incorporating a classic broadway sound with modern twist fused with the traditional music of the teahouse. Naoto Takenaka makes a typically creepy appearance displaying a fine voice for a comic number dedicated to the art of being a male maid to a geisha house but the big set piece is reserved for a comic take on the “Rain in Spain” in which the linguistics professor oddly wonders where all the water goes when it’s “pissing it down in Kyoto”. Unfortunately much of this revolves around linguistic jokes which are impossible to translate though the scene as a whole does its job well enough in introducing us to Haruko’s travails in the world of elocution. Other routines featuring the backstories of some of the minor characters also have a pleasantly retro quality inspired by period cinema complete with painted backdrops and old fashioned studio bound cinematography.

Though charming enough, Haruko’s progress is perhaps too conventional to move Lady Maiko far beyond the realms of cheerful fluff. Though Suo wisely keeps the romance to a minimum, Haruko’s growing feelings for the professor as well as a possible connection with his assistant are a little uncomfortable given her youth and the age differences involved even if the professor remains completely unaware. Unlike the source material Haruko’s passage is otherwise presented without complication (save for brief forays into the darkside of the geisha trade) as the country girl makes good, achieving her goals through hard work, perseverance, and the support of the community. In the end it’s all just far too nice, but then that’s not such a bad problem to have and there are enough pretty dance routines and warmhearted comedy to charm even the most jaded of viewers.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ley Lines (日本黒社会 LEY LINES, Takashi Miike, 1999)

ley-linesThe three films loosely banded together under the retrospectively applied title of the Black Society Trilogy are not connected in terms of narrative, characters, tone, or location but they do all reflect on attitudes to foreignness, both of a national and of a spiritual kind. Like Tatsuhito in the first film, Shinjuku Triad Society, the three young men at the centre of the final instalment, Ley Lines (日本黒社会 LEY LINES, Nihon Kuroshakai LEY LINES), have each faced prejudice and discrimination due to their Chinese heritage. Fleeing their small town blues and heading for the big city, they want out of the homeland which can find no place for them to try their luck in pastures new, but desperation breeds poor choices and if they find their freedom it may not be in the way they might have hoped.

Angry young man Ryuichi (Kazuki Kitamura) seems to have been in some trouble with the law recently, at least that’s the reason the pedantic government official gives for rudely rejecting Ryuichi’s attempts to get a passport whilst subtly underlining the fact that a “real” Japanese person would know you can’t have one whilst on probation. Offended, Ryuichi picks up a small potted tree and hits the uncooperative desk jockey on the head with it. With Brazil off the cards and no work or prospects on the horizon, Ryuichi decides to blow town with some friends. All but three of them change their minds at the train station but Ryuichi, his sensitive younger brother Shunrei (Michisuke Kashiwaya), and their friend the impulsive Chan (Tomorowo Taguchi) head for the sleazy streets of Shinjuku hoping to find someone to forge their papers for passage overseas.

Once there, hotheaded Ryuichi immediately begins to cause trouble and the trio get mixed up in an ongoing series of gang problems with the traditionally minded Chinese gangsters and a petty thug (Show Aikawa) selling what he claims is a new wonder drug, Toluelene. Teaming up with a brutalised local prostitute, Anita (who previously ripped them off leading to their ill advised Tolulene adventures), also desperate to get the hell out of Shinjuku, the four form an unconventional mini family but a last ditch solution to their dilemma will turn out to be a gamble too far.

Neatly uniting the themes of the previous two movies in the Black Society Trilogy, Ley Lines casts its heroes as multilayered outsiders. Miike begins the film with deliberately retro, aged footage of the brothers as young boys playing happily on a beach until some Japanese kids turn up and remind them that they’re different. Never allowed to just fit in, Ryuichi has become angry and frustrated whereas Shunrei studies harder than anyone trying to earn his place in a competitive society. If their Chinese heritage had set them at odds with their small town peers, the boys are just as much adrift in the big city, a trio of bumpkins wandering into all the wrong places naively thinking they can scrap their way out of Japan. Anita, also Chinese, shares in their desperation as her situation has become unsustainable. Shackled to a useless pimp and forced to endure frightening and barbaric treatment, Anita needs out of the flesh trade and the guys might just be her ticket to ride.

As he would later do so splendidly in Audition, Miike deliberately wrong foots us in the beginning as if he’s about to embark on a standard tale of a young man making his first big set of mistakes which will set him on a path to becoming a better person, but of course this isn’t where we’re going. The original Japanese title, “Japan Black Society” hints at the all pervading darkness which exists below the everyday world into which our trio of hapless dreamers have fallen. The guys are ordinary young men making ordinary mistakes which have a familiar, often comedic quality which only serves to deepen the agony they’re about to face.This underworld belongs to people like the mad gangster Wang (Naoto Takenaka) dreaming of his Chinese homeland and forcing young women to tell him folktales to remind him of it, the pimp the who mishandles the desperate Anita, and the deluded drug dealer Ikeda convinced he’s onto the next big thing. The boys don’t stand a chance. Ending with a typically poetic, bittersweet set of images as some of our heroes find a kind of freedom in an endless sea, Miike does not stint on the irony but his sympathy is very much with these disenfranchised youngsters, denied their futures at every turn and finally backed into a corner by the cruel and unforgiving nature of the Black Society which they inhabit.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tokyo Bordello (吉原炎上, Hideo Gosha, 1987)

yoshiwara-enjoHideo Gosha maybe best known for the “manly way” movies of his early career in which angry young men fought for honour and justice, but mostly just to to survive. Late into his career, Gosha decided to change tack for a while with a series of female orientated films either remaining within the familiar gangster genre as in Yakuza Wives, or shifting into world of the red light district as in Tokyo Bordello (吉原炎上, Yoshiwara Enjo). Presumably an attempt to get past the unfamiliarity of the Yoshiwara name, the film’s English title is perhaps a little more obviously salacious than the original Japanese which translates as Yoshiwara Conflagration and directly relates to the real life fire of 1911 in which 300 people were killed and much of the area razed to the ground. Gosha himself grew up not far from the location of the Yoshiwara as it existed in the mid-20th century where it was still a largely lower class area filled with cardsharps, yakuza, and, yes, prostitution (legal in Japan until 1958, outlawed in during the US occupation). The Yoshiwara of the late Meiji era was not so different as the women imprisoned there suffered at the hands of men, exploited by a cruelly misogynistic social system and often driven mad by internalised rage at their continued lack of agency.

Opening with a voice over narration from Kyoko Kishida, the film introduces us to the heroine, 19 year old Hisano (Yuko Natori), as she is unwillingly sold to the red light district in payment for her father’s debts. After a strange orientation ceremony from the Yoshiwara police force where one “kindly” officer explains to her about the necessity of faking orgasms to save her stamina, Hisano is taken to the brothel which is now her home to begin her training. Some months later when Hisano is due to serve her first customer, she runs from him in sheer panic, leaping into a lake where a young Salvation Army campaigner, Furushima (Jinpachi Nezu), tries and fails to help her escape.

Taken back to the brothel and tied up in punishment, Hisano receives a lesson in pleasure from the current head geisha, Kiku (Rino Katase), after which she appears to settle into her work, getting promoted through various ranks until she too becomes one of the top geisha in the area. Sometime later, Furushima reappears as a wealthy young man. Regretting his inability to save her at the river and apparently having given up on his Salvation Army activities, Furushima becomes Hisano’s number one patron even though he refuses to sleep with her. Though they eventually fall in love, Hisano’s position as a geisha continues to present a barrier between the pair, forcing them apart for very different reasons.

Despite having spent a small fortune accurately recreating the main street of the Yoshiwara immediately prior to the 1911 fire, Gosha is not interested in romanticising the the pleasure quarters but depicts them as what they were – a hellish prison for enslaved women. As Hisano and Furushima later reflect, the Yoshiwara is indeed all built on lies – a place which claims to offer freedom, love, and pleasure but offers only the shadow of each of these things in an elaborate fake pageantry built on female suffering. Hisano, like many of the other women, was sold to pay a debt. Others found themselves sucked in by a continuous circle of abuse and exploitation, but none of them are free to leave until the debt, and any interest, is paid. Two of Hisako’s compatriots find other ways out of the Yoshiwara, one by her own hand, and another driven mad through illness is left alone to die like an animal coughing up blood surrounded by bright red futons in a storage cupboard.

As Kiku is quick to point out, the Yoshiwara is covered in cherry blossoms in spring but there is no place here for a tree which no longer flowers. The career of the courtesan is a short one and there are only two routes forward – become a madam or marry a wealthy client. Kiku’s plans don’t work out the way she originally envisioned, trapping her firmly within the Yoshiwara long after she had hoped to escape. Hisano is tempted by a marriage proposal from a man she truly loves but finds herself turning it down for complicated reasons. Worried that her lover does not see her as a woman, she is determined to take part in the upcoming geisha parade to force him to see her as everything she is, but her desires are never fully understood and she risks her future happiness in a futile gesture of defiance.

Defiance is the true theme of the film as each of the women fight with themselves and each other to reclaim their own freedom and individuality even whilst imprisoned and exploited by unassailable forces. Hisano, as Kiku constantly reminds her (in contrast to herself), never accepts that she is “just another whore” and therefore is able to first conquer and then escape the Yoshiwara even if it’s through a second choice compromise solution (albeit one which might bring her a degree of ordinary happiness in later life). Land of lies, the Yoshiwara promises the myth of unbridled pleasure to men who willingly make women suffer for just that purpose, further playing into Gosha’s ongoing themes of insecurity and self loathing lying at the heart of all physical or emotional violence. Though the ending voiceover is overly optimistic about the climactic fire ending centuries of female oppression as the Yoshiwara burns, Hisano, at least, may at last be free from its legacy of shame even whilst she watches the object of her desire destroyed by its very own flames.


Oiran parade scene (dialogue free)