Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Akio Jissoji, 2005)

Summer of the UbumeAkio Jissoji has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director to date. In a career that also encompasses the landmark tokusatsu franchise Ultraman and a large selection of children’s TV, Jissoji made his mark as an avant-garde director through his three Buddhist themed art films for ATG. Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Ubume no Natsu) is a relatively late effort and finds Jissoji adapting a supernatural mystery novel penned by Natsuhiko Kyogoku neatly marrying most of his central concerns into one complex detective story.

Freelance writer Tatsumi Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) and occult expert Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) become intrigued by the bizarre story of a woman who has apparently been pregnant for twenty months. If that weren’t enough weirdness, the woman’s husband also went missing a year ago and now her sister has approached the pair hoping they can investigate and figure out what’s really going on. Unbeknownst to him, Sekiguchi has a longstanding connection with several of the people involved and himself plays a role in the central mystery. Demons foreign and domestic, past trauma, infanticide and multiple personality disorder are just some of the possible solutions but as Kyogokudo is keen to remind us, there is nothing in this world that is truly strange.

The mystery conceit takes the form of a classic European style detective story complete witha drawing room based finale in which each of our potential suspects is assembled for Kyogokudo so that he can deliver his final lecture and tick them all off the list as he goes along. The tale takes place in the summer of 1952 and so the spectre of Japan’s wartime past, as well as its growing future, both have a part to play in solving this extremely complex crime. The original supernatural question concerns two otherworldly entities which have become conflated – the Chinese Kokakucho which abducts children, and the Japanese Ubume which offers its child to passersby. Needless to say, the answer to all of our questions lies firmly within our own world and is in no small part the result of relentless cruelty masked as tradition.

The opening scene includes a lengthy discussion between Kyogokudo an Sekiguchi debating the nature of reality. We only experience the world as we perceive it, seeing and unseeing at will. Everybody, to an extent, sees what they need to see, therefore, memory proves an unreliable narrator when it comes to recalling facts which may run contrary to the already prepared narrative.

Jissoji brings his trademark surrealist approach to the material which largely consists of interconnecting flashbacks often intercut with other dreamlike imagery. Filming with odd angles and unusual camera movements, Jissoji makes the the regular world a destabilising place as the strange mystery takes hold. The canted angles and direct to camera approach also add to a slight hardboiled theme which creeps in around the otherwise European detective drama though this mystery is much more about solving a series of puzzles than navigating the dangerously dark world of the noir. That said this is a very bleak tale which, for all its frog faced children weirdness, has some extremely unpleasant human behaviour at its roots.

Supernatural investigator Kyogokudo quickly dispenses with the demonic in favour of the natural but the solutions to this extremely complicated set of mysteries are anything but simple. Making space for the original novel’s author to show up as a travelling picture storyteller with some Shigeru Mizuki inspired illustrations on his easel, Summer of Ubume is not entirely devoid of whimsy but its deliberately arch tone is one which it manages to make work with its already bizarre set up. The enemy is the unburied past, or more precisely the unacknowledged past which generates its own series of ghosts and phantasms, always lurking in the background and creating havoc wherever they go. Occasionally confusing, Summer of Ubume is a fascinating supernatural mystery which takes its cues much more from European detective stories and gothic adventure than from supernatural horror or fantastical ghost story.


Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s source novel is available in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith (published by Vertical in the US).

Original trailer (no subs):

The Music (音楽, Yasuzo Masumura, 1972)

The MusicIf the under seen yet massively influential director Yasuzo Masumura had one recurrent concern throughout his career, passion, and particularly female passion, is the axis around which much of his later work turns. Masumura might have begun with the refreshingly innocent love story Kisses, but later he dived deep into the depths of depravity in Blind Beast and of manipulation in Manji before cycling back around the intense freudian character study which is The Music (音楽, Ongaku) in 1972. Based on a novel by Yukio Mishima (Mishima and Masumura – a match made in heaven), The Music is the story of one woman’s corrupted sexuality caused by a series of inappropriate sexual encounters during her childhood.

The film begins with a symbolic title sequence in which a large pair of scissors opens and closes rhythmically before being superimposed over the body of a woman – Reiko, our protagonist. She has made an appointment with a psychiatrist because, she claims, she has strange symptoms including constant nausea which led her to believe she was pregnant though medical doctors can’t find the cause of her sickness. The other thing is she can’t hear music, she can hear voices and sound effects but if music starts playing it’s like she goes deaf. Her psychiatrist isn’t quite convinced by Reiko and can tell she’s misleading him.

Sure enough he asks her to come back and she admits not hearing music was a symbolic way of explaining that she derives no pleasure from sex. Her boyfriend is a good man and she loves him, she doesn’t think the problem is with him, but she simply feels nothing when he touches her and it’s causing a rift in the relationship. This is the “music” she was talking about and which will become a recurrent motif throughout the film. Later, Reiko finds that she is able to derive a kind of satisfaction from sexual acts with men who are either dying or impotent, but should they simply get better she again loses all interest in them.

As might be expected, the reasons for Reiko’s strange behaviour lie in her childhood. Her fascination with scissors derives from a game of rock paper scissors she once played with the boy to whom she was betrothed to marry when they came of age. Reiko is the only girl in the group and when she loses the boys suddenly declare she’ll have to have her “thing” cut off – only she’s a girl and never had one in the first place. This leaves her feeling disturbed, humiliated, and in some way inherently deficient. From this point on she develops a masculine sensibility symbolised by one side of the closing scissors which becomes her own “thing”, leaving her with a desire for both cutting and being cut.

We also discover that Reiko was assaulted at a young age and that she also experienced early sexual contact with a family member as well as witnessing her aunt engage in an inappropriate relationship which greatly disturbed her. In all, it’s not surprising that Reiko is experiencing such a degree of confusion given all of the traumatic events that have followed her since her youth. Involved in an obsessive, incestuous sexual relationship Reiko is unable to move on with a “normal” life until she addresses the true cause of all her problems.

The psychiatrist is wiley guy, he can spot a lie a mile off and he has Reiko’s number pretty quickly. Amusingly, she does our job for us of trying to diagnose herself with the obvious solutions that seems to emerge from the latest story she’s told, only for the doctor to remind her it’s not so simple and untrained people shouldn’t try to analyse themselves. This is a little ironic in some respects as a trained psychologist would probably give much of Mishima’s cod Freudianism short shrift, but it works well enough in the context of the film. Reiko is about as unreliable a narrator as it’s possible to find but it does seem at last that the truth has been uncovered and Reiko set free from her improper sexual desires.

There’s a degree of campness involved in The Music with its heavy atmosphere and overtly theatrical melodrama. Masumura films with a perverse eye, animating Reiko’s recollections like dreams complete with bizarre perspectives and symbolic imagery to complete his Freudian approach to filmmaking. The Music may not be his most accomplished work, but it is nevertheless interesting and a late career return to his most pressing concerns.


Unsubtitled trailer (NSFW):

Detective Story (探偵物語, Kichitaro Negishi, 1983)

Dective Story 1983Yusaku Matsuda became a household name and all round cool guy hero thanks to his role as a maverick private eye in the hit TV show Detective Story, however despite sharing the same name, Kichitaro Negishi’s Detective Story movie from 1983 (探偵物語, Tantei Monogatari) has absolutely nothing to with the identically titled drama series. In fact, Matsuda is not even the star attraction here as the film is clearly built around top idol of the day Hiroko Yakushimaru as it adapts a novel which is also published by the agency that represents her and even works some of her music into the soundtrack.

As far as plot goes, Detective Story is the kind of good natured, innocent crime thriller that has all but disappeared since the 1980s. Yakushimaru plays teenage student Naomi who is due to move to America to be with her father in the very near future. However, Naomi is an inquisitive, mildly rebellious sort with a habit of sneaking out of her room through the window despite the fact that no one is preventing her simply leaving through the front door. Consequently someone or other has hired a detective, Tsujiyama (Matsuda), to keep an eye on her. This he does pretty well until he puts a stop to Hiroko making a huge mistake with a fellow student in a love hotel. Though Naomi is very not happy about a creepy old guy following her about everywhere, she gradually gets used to it and when Tsujiyama’s ex-wife gets caught up in a hotel room murder case, Naomi gets the inspiration to embark on some detective work of her own.

Despite the shadiness of the world that rich girl Naomi is about to get embroiled in, the film maintains a bright and cheerful tone – perhaps because of Naomi’s own straightforward innocence. Even if she very nearly falls for the advances of an obvious creep (seriously, the guy actually borrows money from his “girlfriend” ? right in front of Naomi to take her out on a date, after which he tries to persuade her to join him in a love hotel), Naomi’s teenage spunkiness largely keeps her out of trouble for the rest of the movie which sees her getting mixed up with nightclubs, showgirls and yakuza. Somehow there is very little feeling of actual danger in the film leaving this all feeling like the kind of thing that happens to Naomi all the time and is simply just one last adventure before she heads off to America.

It must have been something of a coup to get arguably the biggest movie star of the day, Yusaku Matsuda, to play second fiddle in a mainstream teen idol movie especially as his other film choices of the time seem to indicate a desire to get away from his tough guy persona into more dramatic roles. Tsujiyama is cool presence in his stylish brown suit, smoking away in the shadows content to simply keep watch. He’s the omniscient type who always seem to have a plan in motion yet it’s Naomi herself who takes the lead here, solving the case whilst saving Tsuijiyama and his damaged show girl of an ex-wife in the process.

As is common with these kinds of stories there is a light romantic subplot which is a little unseemly when you consider Yakushimaru was only 19 at the time and her character around the same age whereas Matsuda was already in his 30s. This plot strand is played a little strangely throughout the film with a tacked on airport gate conclusion which dissolves itself almost straightway but does play into the film’s coming of age themes as Naomi develops greater sense of herself as an adult woman rather than a reckless teenager.

Detective Story is no lost classic, it’s very much of its time and has perhaps faded a little as has the fame of its tentpole star. That said it’s a perfectly enjoyable cute teen idol detective story which overall succeeds in doing exactly what it sets out to do even if it proves a little dull in the execution. An interesting watch for fans of its two stars Hiroko Yakushimaru and Yusaku Matsuda and even for its director Kichitaro Negishi who has gone on to win some later critical acclaim particularly with the prestige drama Villon’s Wife in 2009, Detective Story is perhaps not worth an all night stakeout but at least warrants a cursory investigation.


Unsubtitled trailer:

and here’s a video of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the (very catchy) title song at a concert celebrating the 35th anniversay of her film debut (video has a bit about the concert at the beginning, fastfoward to 1:13 for the song only)

 

No Grave for Us (俺達に墓はない, Yukihiro Sawada, 1979)

No Grave for Us posterThough he might not exactly be a household name outside of Japan, the late Yusaku Matsuda was one of the most important mainstream stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Had he not died at the tragically young age of 40 after refusing chemotherapy for bladder cancer to star in what would become his final film, Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, he’d undoubtedly have continued to move on from the action genre in which he’d made his name. No Grave For Us (俺達に墓はない, Oretachi ni Haka wa Nai) is fairly typical of the kinds of films he was making in the late ‘70s as he once again plays a cool, streetwise hoodlum mixed up in a crazy crime world where no one can be trusted.

The film begins with a humorous incident in which a man sets fire to a small parcel in the ladies’ area of a department store and loudly starts shouting about a bomb before using the resulting panic and chaos to calmly extract the money from the nearby tills. His plan is going perfectly except for one cashier who’s rooted to the spot, confused by the rat who lives under the counter who isn’t perturbed by the presence of a “bomb”. Shima makes off with his money and starts planning a new job which he plans to carry out with his longtime friend and brother in arms Ishikawa. The pair carry out a robbery on a rival gang but an ex-yakuza, Takita, tries to make off with the loot. Shima and Takita bond and agree to split the money but Ishikawa gets captured and subjected to humiliating treatment by the gangsters. The intrusion of Takita and of the resurfacing problematic shopgirl, Michi, slowly drive a wedge between the previously inseparable Shima and Ishikawa.

No Grave for Us is, as the title suggests, a noir inflected B-movie in which the lowlife punk Shima contends with the various trials and tribulations associated with a life of petty crime. Child of an uncaring society, he’s been in and out of trouble since adolescence. He met Ishikawa when the pair were both in reform school together, Shima for assault and Ishikawa for drug related offences. Shima is not a drug user and seems to disapprove of his friend’s habit but makes no great protest against it. When Michi turns up at Ishikawa’s bar (just by coincidence) she’s lost her job at the department store after being accused of taking the money that Shima stole. It turns out that she too is a junkie and has been living a life of dissipation since being picked up for prostitution during middle school. She fits right in with Shima and Ishikawa but, predictably, begins to prefer the more assured Shima to the loose cannon Ishikawa which begins to present something of a problem for the pair.

Shima and Takita originally reach an understanding based on a gangster code of honour which they both understand. Ishikawa aside, the pair would make a good team but their growing comradeship only adds to Ishikawa’s sense of insecurity causing him to take matters into his own hands with fairly disastrous consequences. A misunderstanding makes Takita and Shima mortal enemies putting an end to any kind of alliance that might have been possible. There’s no comradeship here, no true friendship. Every relationship is a possible betrayal waiting to take place, every warmth a weakness.

Director Yukihiro Sawada had mostly worked in Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno line other than co-helming Sogo Ishii’s first feature, Panic High School, the previous year but No Grave for Us is refreshingly light on exploitative content. There is some brief nudity but nothing particularly out of keeping for a regular studio picture of the time. Likewise, the fights are of a more realistic nature and bloodshed kept to a minimum. The look of the film is also very typical of its era though Sawada only rarely uses the extreme zooms which are the hallmark of ‘70s cinema opting for a more straightforward, often static, approach. The film’s jazz inspired score also helps to bring out its noir undertones as these three guys who could have been allies find themselves turning on each other for the most trivial of reasons.

In many ways there’s nothing particularly special about No Grave for Us save for being an excellent example of mainstream action cinema in the late ‘70s. The film is full of knowing references to other recent genre hits as well as popular culture of the time including a lengthy tribute to top idol group Pink Lady whose song Zipangu also features on the soundtrack, and has an all round “cool” sensibility to it that was no doubt very popular at the time of its original release. An enjoyable enough genre effort, No Grave for Us is an impressively handled slice of late ‘70s noir inspired B-movie action but perhaps has little else to recommend it.


Unsubtitled trailer:

and a clip of Pink Lady performing Zipangu, just because