Alone Across the Pacific (太平洋ひとりぼっち, Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

Alone Across the PacficKon Ichikawa made two sorts of movies – the funny ones and the not so funny ones. Despite the seriousness of the title, Alone Across the Pacific (太平洋ひとりぼっち, Taiheiyo hitori-botchi) is one of the funny ones. Like many of Ichikawa’s heroes, Horie is a man who defies convention and longs for escape from the constraining forces of his society yet is unable to fully detach himself from its cultural norms. Based on the real life travelogue of solo sailor Kenichi Horie, Alone Across the Pacific is less the story of a man battling the elements, than a cheerful tale of a man battling himself in a floating isolation tank bound for the “land of the free”.

Kenichi (Yujiro Ishihara) is a strange man. He has few friends (aside from the family dog, Pearl) and is obsessed with the idea of running away to sea. Inspired by the tales of other intrepid sailors, his dream is to sail all alone across the Pacific Ocean from Osaka to San Fransisco. Despite the fact that it is illegal for small boats to leave Japanese waters (and that he is too impatient to wait for his passport to come through), Kenichi has custom made his own yacht, one without an engine, and has set off on his longed for voyage under the cover of darkness.

Rather than filming Kenichi’s journey naturalistically, Ichikawa opts for an adventurer’s tale as Kenichi provides an ironic voice over detailing some of his naive failings as a rookie sailor undertaking such a daunting mission. Each of Kenichi’s crises links back to a memory from his shore life, reminding us why he’s on this journey in the first place. Kenichi’s struggles are the same as many a young man in post-war Japan and, in fact, many of those previously played by the poster boy for youthful rebellion, Yujiro Ishihara.  Unwilling to live a life hemmed in by the predetermined path of a job for life, wife, children and total social conformity, Kenichi longs to be free of his cultural baggage by abandoning his civility during a long process of isolation therapy free of overbearing fathers, fretting mothers, indifferent sisters and a generally noisy world.

Kenichi’s father (Masayuki Mori) is the very personification of authority, berating his son for his fecklessness and pointless obsession with sailing – a sport a working class boy like Kenichi can barely afford. Kenichi’s determination to achieve his goal sees him leave school early, take a job in his father’s workshop only to quit suddenly for a more lucrative one delivering luggage for a travel agents, and quitting that too to work full time on his boat. While his father huffs and puffs his mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) worries, hoping her mad son won’t really go through with it but knowing that he will.

When Kenichi finally reaches San Fransisco, he’s assaulted by congratulatory voices from all directions. Towed into harbour by a motor boat, Kenichi first has to deal with mundane problems like the customs patrol wanting to know if he’s got any fruit left on the boat before a crowd gathers to shake his hand asking where he’s come from and why, what he wants to do now, and praising him for his daring feat of solo sailing glory. In Japan however, things are different. Dragged out for an interview by the press, Kenichi’s worried mother avows that she’s just happy to know her son is safe while his father bows deeply and reassures everyone that he will absolutely put a stop to any such random acts of individualism his wayward son may attempt in the future. 

Kenichi evades the twin pulls of his mother’s apron strings and his father’s handcuffs by taking off alone but even at sea he’s never free of his cultural programming, checking the wide empty ocean before removing his clothes and then stepping back down into the cabin to finish the job. Kenichi’s failure to acquire a passport is an ironic one seeing as part of what he’s running from is being Japanese but even as his quest is one for self determination it is also intensely selfish and self involved. In this Kenichi commits the ultimate act of individualism, caring nothing for the thoughts and feelings of others in the all encompassing need to achieve his goal. Kenichi may have found a home at sea, but on land he’s caged once again, a prisoner both of social conformity and his own need to defy it.


Available on R2 DVD from Eureka Masters of Cinema.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Moon Has Risen (月は上りぬ, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1955)

the moon has risen bookletOne of the most celebrated actresses of the 1930s, Kinuyo Tanaka’s post-war career took a couple of unexpected turns. In 1949, she was one of a small number of performers sent to tour America as a cultural ambassador but the reception upon her return was anything but welcoming as her old fans openly criticised her “Americanised” ways. In the same year, she ended her long standing contract with Shochiku to go freelance which meant she could pick and choose her projects from across a wider field of directors and actors she wanted to work with. What she wanted, however, was somewhat unheard of – she wanted to direct. The second woman to ever helm a feature film in Japan, Kinuyo Tanaka made her behind the camera debut in 1953 with the extremely impressive melodrama Love Letter which was penned by the ever supportive Keisuke Kinoshita. Tanaka’s directing career was almost derailed by her good friend and long time collaborator Kenji Mizoguchi who, for reasons which remain unclear, attempted to block her acceptance into the directors guild of Japan (ending their working relationship in the process), but after eventually joining Nikkatsu as a director she was able to begin work on her second film – The Moon Has Risen (月は上りぬ, Tsuki wa Noborinu), ironically enough scripted buy Shochiku stalwart Yasujiro Ozu.

In the classic Ozu mould, The Moon Has Risen is a family drama but Tanaka pulls the focus a little to home in on the central three sisters. Cared for by widowed patriarch Mokichi (Chishu Ryu), the Asai family consists of widowed oldest sister Chizuru (Hisako Yamane), reserved middle sister Ayako (Yoko Sugi), and the exuberant youngest sister Setsuko (Mie Kitahara) who is in a kind of relationship with the currently out of work intellectual, Shoji (Shoji Yasui). When an old school friend of Shoji’s, Amamiya (Ko Mishima), pays a surprise visit whilst he’s in the area to take a look at a broadcast tower, Setsuko sees it as an opportunity to set him up with her shy sister Ayako once Amamiya makes a few wistful remarks about remembering her from their school days.

The first part of the film stays firmly in the realms of comedy as Setsuko sets her plan in motion. She and Shoji do everything they can to find out whether there is any romantic possibility between the pair – baiting Amamiya to come to a non-existent clandestine meeting and then timing him to see how long he’ll wait before giving up, and convincing each of them that the other has something very important to say which can only be said under the romantic light of a full moon. Youthful as she is Setsuko’s plans largely backfire but then the moonlight gets inside them and something shifts.

The courtship of Ayako and Amamiya is quiet and restrained. They keep their romance a secret, communicating with each other through secret codes leading to poignant passages from the Manyoshu – the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, which everyone in the family is desperate to figure out but can’t quite get to grips with. Chizuru can’t decide if this painfully innocent path to romantic connection is very old fashioned or very modern but it certainly captures something of the cultural shift of post-war society – the marriage is “arranged” in a sense with Setsuko as a matchmaker but it’s also self determined as Ayako and Amamiya come to recognise their mutual feelings for each other, embrace their love match, and make their own independent decisions to marry.

Modern girl Setsuko has also made a proactive decision in her attachment to Shoji but their shared matchmaking quest eventually drives a wedge between them. As she later puts it, they spent so long worrying about Ayako that they forgot all about worrying about themselves. Shoji’s problem is a common one in being both out of work and soft hearted as he proves when he finds a job but decides to recommend a needier friend for it instead. A blazing row nearly threatens to end things but, again, the pair rely on gentle, well meaning advice from their elders and eventually realise they’re about to make themselves miserable in a fit of pigheadedness.

Though Tanaka mimics the veteran director with iconic Ozu-inspired compositions and frequent use of pillow shots, her emotional canvas is more direct than her mentor’s stoical resignation. Steering clear of Ozu’s trademark tatami mat view and preference for direct to camera speech, Tanaka’s lensing is shier and avoids faces altogether to focus on the physical. She lingers on clasped hands, or on uncertain feet, as they hug the ground unwilling to stay or go. Having ignored her for most of the film, Tanaka turns back to Chizuru whose lonely widowhood seems like a forgone conclusion, as her eyes brim with tears on hearing her perceptive father’s acknowledgement of a possible new suitor.

Mokichi’s inevitable loneliness is background rather than foreground as his daughters take centerstage, leaving him to wonder why young people prefer the “dusty, dirty Tokyo”, to his peaceful Nara but in any case he remains perfectly content for each of them to find their own path to wherever it is they’re supposed to be. In her attempt to film Ozu’s script with Ozu’s camera, The Moon has Risen may seem like a step backwards for Tanaka following the more inventive Love Letter but even while working within such constraints she manages outdo the master in her essential emotional immediacy and well observed depiction of lives and loves post-war women.


Hime-anole (ヒメアノ~ル, Keisuke Yoshida, 2016)

hime-anole posterSome people are odd, and that’s OK. Then there are the people who are odd, but definitely not OK. Hime-anole (ヒメアノ~ル) introduces us to both of these kinds of outsiders, attempting to draw a line between the merely awkward and the actively dangerous but ultimately finding that there is no line and perhaps simple acts of kindness offered at the right time could have prevented a mind snapping or a person descending into spiralling homicidal delusion. To go any further is to say too much, but Hime-anole revels in its reversals, switching rapidly between quirky romantic comedy, gritty Japanese indie, and finally grim social horror. Yet it plants its seeds early with two young men struggling to express their true emotions, trapped and lonely, leading unfulfilling lives. Their dissatisfaction is ordinary, but these same repressed emotions taken to an extreme can produce much more harmful results than two guys eating stale donuts everyday just to ask a pretty girl for the bill.

Okada (Gaku Hamada) is a young man lost. He has a dead end construction job he doesn’t like and isn’t particularly good at, but treading cement all over the finished floors at least helps him bond with his mentor, Ando (Tsuyoshi Muro), who seems to view him as a friend even if constantly referring to him as “Okamura”. Okada takes the opportunity to explain his malaise to Ando – that he feels his life slipping away from him in its emptiness, going through the motions with no real hobbies or girlfriend to give his existence meaning. Ando does not really understand this, he says dissatisfaction is natural and the driving force of all life but, on the other hand, he is not particularly dissatisfied because he lives for love!

Ando has a crush on a girl at the local cafe, Yuka (Aimi Satsukawa), who actually hasn’t noticed him because she’s pre-occupied with the blond guy who got there before Ando and sits outside everyday just staring at her. Luckily or unluckily, the guy in question, Morita (Go Morita), is an old high school acquaintance of Okada’s and so Ando asks him to find out what’s going on with this scary looking guy and his angelic lady love.

So far, so Japanese indie rom-com, but when the title card flashes up about a third of the way in, we’re in very different territory. Suddenly the colour drains from the screen and Yoshida changes his aesthetic and shooting style almost entirely. Gone is the comforting, slightly washed out colour scheme and the static, middle-distance camera of the opening. Now we are the voyeur, held helpless behind Yoshida’s erratic shaky cam, hiding behind the bins as Morita goes about his bloody business. Morita’s world is dark yet realistic, he’s shot and positioned with the arch naturalism familiar to the Japanese indie and the violence he inflicts is not movie violence, it is shocking, sickening, and visceral.

Hime-anole does not shy away from the consequences of its actions. This is, in a way, its point. At one time or another everyone concludes the increasingly surreal events they become engulfed in must be all their fault because they all have at some point acted in a way they do not quite approve of. Guilt is another of the emotions that is hard to express, especially when it’s mixed with humiliation or fear, but left unaddressed it is these corrosive agonies which develop into deep psychoses. Morita, a violent sociopath, was once (or so it would seem) an ordinary young boy who liked video games and had few friends. Perhaps if he hadn’t been the victim of humiliating, sadistic treatment, or if someone had found the courage to stand up for him, none of this might be happening.

Then again, the world is a strange place filled with people who have trouble deciding where the lines are when it comes to appropriate behaviour. Poor Yuka seems to have become something of a nutter magnet, stalked by two guys at the same time and chatted up in the street by persistent suitors who only leave her alone when they realise she’s waiting for another man. Okada is the only man who’s treated her like a regular human being for a very long time so it’s no surprise that she begins to prefer him to his awkward friend. Ando is, it has to be said, odd. Convinced Yuka is the one for him yet completely uninterested in her feelings, he vows to persevere. Yet for all his talk of chainsaws, Ando is basically harmless (to others at least) and just another lonely guy who doesn’t know how to express himself in way in which he will be understood. Morita, by contrast, is instantly creepy and has no interest in connection, he only wants to take and possess in a kind of ongoing vengeance for truly horrific events in his childhood following which something inside him became very broken.

That Hime-anole ends with a Brazil-style fantasy only adds to its strangely melancholy air as it insists on sympathy for the devil even whilst showing each of his sadistic crimes for the ugly, bloody messes they really are. Maybe the reason everybody feels they’re to blame is that in some way they are yet everyone has done things they regret or aren’t proud of, wishing they’d done things differently or managed to find the courage to do what they thought was right rather than choosing to protect themselves or keep their head down when they could have saved someone else pain. Betrayals can be small things, but they fester – like those unspoken emotions which were making our guys so unhappy in the first place. There are no innocents in Hime-anole save perhaps for the ones pushed further than they could endure, but there are those finally facing up to their own flaws and attempting to do things differently now they know better. If that’s not progress, what is?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dawn of the Felines (牝猫たち, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2017)

dawn of the felines poster largerTowards the end of the 60s and faced with the same problems as any other studio of the day – namely declining receipts as cinema audiences embraced television, Nikkatsu decided to spice up their already racy youth orientated output with a steady stream of sex and violence. The Roman Porno line took a loftier approach to the “pink film” – mainstream softcore pornography played in dedicated cinemas and created to a specific formula, by putting the resources of a bigger studio behind it with greater production values and acting talent. 40 years on Roman Porno is back. Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines (牝猫たち, Mesunekotachi) takes inspiration from Night of the Felines by the Roman Porno master Noboru Tanaka but where Tanaka’s film is a raucous comedy following the humorous adventures of its three working girl protagonists, Shiraishi’s is a much less joyous affair as he casts his three lonely heroines adrift in Tokyo’s red light district.

Masako (Juri Ihata), Rie (Michie), and Yui (Satsuki Maue) are best friends, though they don’t even know each other’s real names. They each work for a shady escort agency in Tokyo’s red light district where they’re ordered and dispatched by their two-bit hustler of a manager Nonaka (Takuma Otoo) and driven around by the assistant who it turns out has been secretly filming them and posting the videos on YouTube as a kind of exposé on the sex trade.

Each of the women “has their tale to tell” as one puts it but none of them are particularly unhappy in their work, prostitution is simply their way of life and to that extent completely normalised. It does, however, interfere with their ability to form relationships, not just practically but emotionally. For unclear reasons possibly connected to debt collection Masako is technically homeless despite the large amounts of money she can earn, sleeping in cheap motels or all night manga cafes and carting all of her worldly possessions around with her in a tiny carry on size suitcase on wheels. One of her regulars, a millionaire shut in (Tomohiro Kaku), offers to let her stay with him but their relationship is strange and strained – somewhere between business and pleasure with the lines permanently unclear.

Rei, by contrast, is saddled with an elderly client who usually just wants to talk but eventually takes things in an extreme direction. Her path into prostitution is in a sense more positive even if it stems from a kind of vengeance in that the feeling of being needed and providing a valuable service gives her life meaning.

Yui looks for meaning through romance but rarely finds it thanks to the various potential mates she meets through her work. Yui’s young son Kenta has worrying bruises on his face, arms and torso, rarely speaks, and is frequently abandoned by his mother who pays a shady guy to look after him while she spends her time looking for love.

Working for a lenient agency the girls are more or less free agents rather than abused street walkers trapped by debt-bondage and could quit any time they wanted. Yui and Masako may be looking for an escape from this dead-end world – Yui at least is conscious of her age and the declining bookings, but neither names that as something that they are actively pursuing. Rei, by contrast, has made her escape already but has travelled in the opposite direction – from stifling bourgeois life to Belle du Jour liberation, but her eventual destination may be a much darker one than she’d anticipated.

This darkness hovers round the edges as the threat of violence is only ever indirectly expressed or fetishised as in a sequence led by Yui’s possible new partner and the bondage club he works at as one half of a warmup manzai act. Only towards the end does its reality finally surface, making plain how vulnerable and unprotected the women remain whilst on the job. Far from the liberated laughter of Night of the Felines, Shiraishi’s film traps its women with their own despairs as they wallow in an inescapable well of loneliness, satisfying the needs of others but unable to satisfy their own. Bleak but subtly ironic, Dawn of the Felines finds no joy in the sun rising, only the relief of the end of a working day as its three stray cats wander the streets looking for their place to belong.


Dawn of the Felines was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Assignation (密会, Ko Nakahira, 1959)

Aside from the genre defining Crazed Fruit which kick-started the era of the “seishun eiga” and, in its own way, the Japanese New Wave, Ko Nakahira has remained under seen and under appreciated outside of Japan. Completed just three years after the youth fuelled frenzy of Crazed Fruit with its freewheeling playboys and their speedboat crises, The Assignation (密会, Mikkai) is a much more measured, mature meditation on social constraint, guilt and the slow drip feed of poisonous thought. Nakahira wastes none of his characteristic energy in the necessarily tight 76 minute runtime, but this is an exercise in high tension as a pair of illicit lovers are suddenly confronted with their crime after accidentally witnessing a murder.

Neglected at home by her studious professor husband, Kikuko (Yoko Katsuragi) has embarked on affair with one of his students, Ikuo (Seiji Miyaguchi). Canoodling at a deserted woodland spot, the pair muse on their impossible love prompting Ikuo to wonder how it would be if Kikuko’s husband simply died. Kikuko quickly puts a stop to Ikuo’s dark and desperate thought but the seed of death has already been sown in the relationship as they’re quickly spotlighted by a pair of unexpected car headlights. Hiding behind a nearby bush, Kikuko and Ikuo witness some kind of struggle inside a taxi before a young man drags and older one out of the car and takes off at a run.

Traumatised, Ikuo and Kikuko finish dressing and attempt to rejoin regular society by avoiding the unusual level of traffic in this remote spot which includes another truck and, as luck would have it, a policeman on a bike. Troubled, the pair bid each other goodbye with the suggestion that they’d better not see each other for a while but the tension continues to mount as Ikuo’s youthful desire to do his civic duty conflicts with Kikuko’s middle aged preoccupation with her reputation and the possible scandal that would occur should the police discover the whole story of their sordid love affair.

Nakahira begins with a careful panning of trees against the film’s bouncy jazz soundtrack neatly underlining the dread hanging somewhere overhead. Scandalous for 1959, the ongoing affair between the naive student and the melancholy housewife is already tinged with doom from the outset despite the relaxed quality of their post-coital coversation. Ikuo is pained, he wants a full life with Kikuko, but she dampens his youthful dreams by already thinking of the end. Adopting a maternal tone, she talks about his future – graduation, a successful career, a lovely young girl his own age who become will his wife. She even wonders if he’ll invite her to the wedding so she can meet the woman who will complete his life in a way she never can. Though she may say she wants to stay with him forever in the throws of passion, hers is a pragmatic love which is more need than desire. The archetypal middle-class housewife, Kikuko may have made this brief weekday evening transgression but throwing off the constraints of propriety is not a step she she envisages taking.

Already guilt ridden over her moral transgression, Kikuko views the incident in the woods as some kind of karmic revenge for her carnal sin. A very frank discussion with her forthright sister-in-law who quizzes her about the marriage’s lack of offspring reveals the depths of her despair and loneliness as her husband barely acknowledges her existence and there is almost nothing for her to do around the house. Taking cooking classes just to get out for a while, she runs into Ikuo whose story is an equally common one of a young man’s infatuation with the pretty yet sad younger wife of his professor.

If mutual loneliness brought them together, guilt and fear will later tear them apart as they face their shared “crime” from opposing sides. For Kikuko her illicit meetings with man much younger than herself are a shameful secret which must be concealed at all costs. Ikuo, however, is in love and sees nothing “wrong” in his courtship of the older woman even if he sympathises with her desire to avoid a scandal and does not want to cause her pain. What bothers him is a sense of justice and social responsibility. He saw the killer’s face – if he goes to the police, the victim’s wife and children might at least be able to gain some peace of mind knowing that the perpetrator is behind bars even if little else will change for them. Kikuko, by contrast, can think of nothing other than herself and is willing to sacrifice all to keep her reputation intact.

The threat of discovery is ever present as Nakahira litters the scene with clues and threats from the constant flagging of possible witnesses to an errant leaf resting on the pot which Kikuko has so calculatedly prepared to back up her cooking class alibi. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades as superimposition and montage segue into Kikuko’s flights of fancy from her memories of the beginning of the affair to a premonition of the newspaper furore which awaits her should Ikuo follow through with his intention of revealing all to the police. In the end, someone is always watching. Despite the youthful tone and jaunty jazz soundtrack, the morality police will tolerate no transgression. The wages of sin are death, but it’s fear driven by guilt and social constraint which is its executioner.


 

3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Motomu Ida, 1967)

three-minutes-before-explosionIf Nikkatsu Action movies had a ringtone it would probably just be “BANG!” but nevertheless you’ll have to wait more than three rings for the Kaboom! in the admittedly cartoonish slice of typically frivolous B-movie thrills that is 3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Bakuha 3-byo Mae). Once again based on a novel by Japan’s master of the hard boiled Haruhiko Oyabu, 3 Seconds Before Explosion is among his sillier works though lesser known director Motomu Ida never takes as much delight in making mischief as his studio mate Seijun Suzuki. What he does do is make use of Diamond Guy Akira Kobayashi’s boyish earnestness to keep things running along nicely even if he’s out of the picture for much of the action.

Like most of the more outlandish Nikkatsu action fests, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has a complicated relationship with narrative but we begin with former boxer Yabuki (Akira Kobayashi) in the middle of being brainwashed with flashing lights and high pitched noises until he agrees to become a shady government (?) assassin. Perhaps in an effort to save our sanities too, he relents and his first job is ensuring some jewels which were stolen during in the war don’t get into the hands of an evil nazi who will presumably be wanting them for evil nazi business. Anyway, Yabuki does his ninja stuff and thinks he’s tracked the jewels down but runs into a former colleague, Yamawaki (Hideki Takahashi), who is working for a businessman who already has the jewels and wants to keep them. Yamawaki quit being a super spy because he fell in love, which Yabuki thinks is a bit lame but still knows his friend has right stuff and would rather not have to kill him or anything.

Somewhere between the less serious yakuza/gang movies Nikkatsu were making in the late ’60s and a spy spoof, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has its fair share of oddness from strangled dogs to the mini Chinese theme in which one of the henchmen, Yang, wanders around in traditional Chinese garb while another girl at the club enjoys flirting in Mandarin for no apparent reason. It also goes without saying that the evil Nazi is played by an American spouting unconvincing German whilst chewing the scenery to a pulp. Realism is not where we are, but there’s something a little old fashioned about the way Ida chooses to stage his weirdness even if the film is filled with crazy contemporary youth touches such as in the achingly hip Club Casba.

The interpersonal drama comes as Yabuki and Yamawaki face off about their life choices much more than the case at hand. Yamawaki grew tired of the spy life and decided to leave it behind for his lady love, only to get mixed up in all of these petty gangster shenanigans. Still, if he can keep Yabuki away from the jewels until the time limit he’ll be free forever. Nothing is really said about Yabuki’s brainwashing at the beginning of the film, but Yamawaki’s choice does seem to prompt him into a consideration of his own lifestyle. That said, life as a government assassin doesn’t seem so bad – Yabuki doesn’t even really kill people much, just spends his life sneaking into places and leaping heroically between rooftops whilst making use of clever gadgets to evade his foes. The gangsters, however, are pretty evil and keep killing people after claiming to let them go which offends Yabuki’s sense of honour.

Yabuki may not kill, but the film does seem to make a point of killing off all the female characters in case they get in the way of the manly stuff like fighting and making bombs. An innocent kidnapped secretary who had nothing to do with anything is machine gunned down, another girl is murdered by the evil Nazi, and a final one gets marched into a mine field by her boyfriend before returning for revenge and getting unceremoniously taken down anyway. To lose one woman is careless but to kill off (all) three in a short time seems a step too far or perhaps too “realistic” for this otherwise cartoonish approach to violence.

Lacking the visual flair of other Nikkatsu efforts, 3 Seconds to Explosion is never as exciting as its title promises. Despite the athletic displays of the slightly bulkier Kobayashi, there’s a kind of clumsiness to the action and a straightforwardness in approach which does not gel with the ridiculousness of the premise. On lower end of Nikkatsu’s B-movie output, 3 Seconds to Explosion does not stint on the silliness but could do with enjoying itself a little more rather than trying to corral its non-sensical plot into something with serious intent.


 

Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Ko Nakahira, 1964)

© 1964 Nikkatsu CorporationDespite being among the directors who helped to usher in what would later be called the Japanese New Wave, Ko Nakahira remains in relative obscurity with only his landmark movie of the Sun Tribe era, Crazed Fruit, widely seen abroad. Like the other directors of his generation Nakahira served his time in the studio system working on impersonal commercial projects but by 1964 which saw the release of another of his most well regarded films Only on Mondays, Nakahira had begun to give free reign to experimentation much to the studio boss’ chagrin. Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Suna no Ue no Shokubutsu-gun), adapted from the novel by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, puts an absurd, surreal twist on the oft revisited salaryman midlife crisis as its conflicted hero muses on the legacy of his womanising father while indulging in a strange ménage à trois with two sisters, one of whom to he comes to believe he may also be related to.

After a brief prologue in which our hero, cosmetics salesman Ichiro Igi (Noboru Nakaya), imagines a scenario for a novel in which a dying husband becomes so jealous of the man that may succeed him in his wife’s life that he sets about plotting to make her the weapon of that very man’s destruction, Igi heads to his regular barber and longtime family friend where he takes the time to probe him about his late father’s womanising habits. Igi’s father died young at only 34 for years of age, three years younger than the age Igi is now. His father’s spitting image, Igi cannot help seeing him everywhere he goes and feels unable to evade his ongoing influence, almost as if he were possessed by his father’s (un)departed spirit.

The major preoccupation Igi has is that his wife (Yukiko Shimazaki) may have slept with his father before they were married while she was just a teenager. The barber tells him he’s pretty sure not, but Igi cannot let the idea go and repeatedly brings it up with his wife, creating discord in the family home. Meeting a precocious schoolgirl at the Marine Tower one evening, Igi finds himself taking her to a hotel and deflowering her even though she begins to resist him at the last minute. The girl, Akiko (Mieko Nishio), then makes a strange request of him – she wants Igi to seduce and “hurt” her older sister Kyoko (Kazuko Inano) whose sanctimonious attitude she can no longer stand. Igi does indeed visit the bar where Kyoko works as a hostess and embarks on an intense affair with her but Akiko’s pleas to “hurt” her sister are complicated by Kyoko’s masochistic tendencies and Igi’s descent into a kind of madness.

Beginning with the painting by Paul Klee which gives the film its name, Nakahira asks us to imagine what would happen if a large dash of red were suddenly to appear, disrupting the comforting harmony of Klee’s perfectly matched colours. The discomforting redness does dutifully appear as strangely shaped squares on the canvas but the symbolic value of the colour is felt throughout the black and white narrative from the dark stain of Akiko’s broken maidenhead to the affectation of her lipstick and constant references to red seas and suns.

Though Igi’s world may have seemed just as perfectly ordered as Klee’s painting from the outside, his constant preoccupations with his father become the disruptive influence which leads to all of the redness later leaking in. Haunted by his father as he is, seeing his face everywhere from train windows to the barber shop mirror, Igi’s attempt at a plot for a murder mystery takes on a strangely Oedipal quality as we begin to wonder if it’s his father rather than Igi himself who has assumed the role of the “protagonist”, leaving a time bomb for his wayward son, the inheritor of his woman, just as Igi laid out in his prologue. Bizarre reality or another symptom of Igi’s increasingly fractured mind, the plot seems likely to succeed at least in a sense as Igi declines into a dishevelled mess, prone to hallucinations and uncertain visions.

Nakahira gives us several of these as Igi panics and struggles with a key only to open a door into bright white light and nothingness or another in which he and Kyoko dine in an empty restaurant which is suddenly filled with the noisy chatter of other diners. Strange touches such as the German beerhall with a Spanish guitarist, or the odd peepshow in which Igi and his two friends take on the appearance of demons or impassive Buddhist statues thanks to the light reflected into their eyes, add to the unbalanced atmosphere as do the frequent closeups of lips and hands, and the symbolic value of seeds never meant to be planted which nevertheless flower at an unintended moment. Shooting in black and white, Nakahira begins with a colour sequence featuring the abstract artwork with occasional flashes of colour as well as voice over and occasional intertitle-style captions adding to the absurdist atmosphere.

A surreal and complex psychological exploration of sex, power, obsession, identity, and legacy Flora on the Sand finds Nakahira flexing his experimental mussels for a drama rife with ambiguity and strangeness. Sadly this brand of innovation was not entirely welcome at Nikkatsu head offices and so he found himself left out in the cold eventually ending up in Hong Kong making action movies for Shaw Brothers. Despite some later success at international festivals, Nakahira’s work remains sadly neglected but the unusual degree of sophistication and almost playful atmosphere seen in Flora on the Sand make him worthy of attention as more than just an almost was of the rising New Wave.


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