The Garden of Women (女の園, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1954)

garden of women still 1Things changed after the war, but not as much as some might have hoped. Sadly still topical, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Garden of Women (女の園, Onna no Sono) takes aim both at persistent and oppressive patriarchal social structures and at a compromised educational system which, intentionally or otherwise, systematically stifles attempts at progressive social change. A short few years before student protests would plunge education into crisis, Kinoshita’s film asks why it is that the establishment finds itself in conflict with the prevailing moods of the time and discovers that youth intends to have its brighter future even if it has to fight for it all the way.

The setting is an exclusive private woman’s university in the elegant historical city of Kyoto. The ladies who attend this establishment are mostly from very wealthy families who have decided to educate their daughters at the college precisely because of its image of properness. As one student will later put it, there are two kinds of girls at the school – those who genuinely want to study in order to make an independent life for themselves and intend to look for work after graduation, and those who are merely adding to their accomplishments in order to hook a better class of husband. Everyone, however, is subject to a stringent set of rules which revolves around the formation of the ideal Japanese woman through strictly enforced “moral education” which runs to opening the girls’ private letters and informing their families of any “untoward” content, and requiring that permission be sought should the girls wish to attend “dances” or anything of that nature.

As might be expected, not all of the girls are fully compliant even if they superficially conform to the school’s rigid social code. Scolded for her “gaudy” hair ribbon on the first day of school, Tomiko (Keiko Kishi) rolls her eyes at the over the top regulations and enlists the aid of the other girls to cover for her when she stays out late with friends but her resistance is only passive and she has no real ideological objection towards the ethos of the school other than annoyance in being inconvenienced. Tomiko is therefore mildly irritated by the presence of the melancholy Yoshie (Hideko Takamine). Three years older, she’s come to college late and is struggling to keep up with classes but is, ironically enough, prevented from studying by the same school rules which insist she go to bed early.

Meanwhile, dorm mate Akiko (Yoshiko Kuga), from an extraordinarily wealthy and well connected family, is becoming increasingly opposed to the oppressive atmosphere at the school. However, as another already politically active student points out, Akiko’s background means there are absolutely no stakes for her in this fight. She has never suffered, and likely never will, because she always has been and always will be protected by her privilege. Fumie (Kazuko Yamamoto), a hardline socialist, doubts Akiko’s commitment to the cause, worrying that in the end she is only staging a minor protest against her family and will eventually drift away back to her world of ski lodges and summer houses. Despite her ardour, Akiko finds it hard to entirely dispute Fumie’s reasoning and is at constant battle with herself over her true feelings about the state of the modern world as it relates to herself individually and for women in general.

This is certainly a fiercely patriarchal society. Even though these women are in higher education, they are mostly there to perfect the feminine arts which are, in the main, domestic. They are not being prepared for the world of work or to become influential people in their own right, but merely to support husbands and sons as pillars of the rapidly declining social order that those who sent them there are desperate to preserve. For many of the girls, however, times are changing though more for some than others. Tomiko rolls her eyes and does as she pleases, within reason, and even if she eventually wants to see things change at the school it is mostly for her own benefit. She sees no sense in Akiko’s desire for reform as a stepping stone to wider social change, and perhaps even fears the kinds of changes that Akiko and Fumie are seeking.

Akiko and Fumie, and to an extent, Tomiko, seem to have a degree of agency that others do not as seen in the tragic story of Yoshie whose life has been largely ruined thanks to the selfish and heartless actions of her father. From a comparatively less wealthy family, Yoshie worked in a bank for three years during which time she met and fell in love with an earnest young man named Shimoda (Takahiro Tamura). However, her father, having become moderately successful, developed an appetite for social climbing and is determined she marry “well” to increase his own sense of superiority as a fully fledged member of the middle classes. He sees his daughter as nothing more than a tool or extension of himself and cares nothing for her thoughts or feelings. In order to resist his demands for an arranged marriage, Yoshie enrolled in school and is desperate to stay long enough for Shimoda to finish his education so they can marry.

Yoshie is trapped at every turn – she cannot rely on her family, she cannot simply leave them, she cannot yet marry, if she leaves the school she will be reliant on a man who effectively intends to sell her, but her life here is miserable and there is no one who can help her. All she receives from the educational establishment is censure and the instruction to buck up or get kicked out. She feels herself a burden to the other girls who regard her as dim and out of place thanks to their relatively minor age gap and cannot fully comprehend her sense of anxiety and frustration.

Finally standing up to the uncomfortably fascistic school board the girls band together to demand freedoms both academic and social, insisting that there can be no education without liberty, but the old ways die hard as they discover most care only for appearances, neatly shifting the blame onto others in order to support their cause. “Why must we suffer so?” Yoshie decries at a particularly low point as she laments her impossible circumstances. Why indeed. The oppressive stricture of the old regime may eventually cause its demise but it intends to fight back by doubling down and the fight for freedom will be a long one even if youth intends to stand firm.


Titles and opening scene (no subtitles)

Floating Clouds (浮雲, Mikio Naruse, 1955)

(C) 1955 Toho

floating clouds poster“The past is our only reality” the melancholy Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) intones, only to be told that her past was but a dream and now she is awake. Adapted from a novel by Fumiko Hayashi – a writer whose work proved a frequent inspiration for director Mikio Naruse, Floating Clouds (浮雲, Ukigumo) is a story of the post-war era as its central pair of lovers find themselves caught in a moment of cultural confusion, unsure of how to move forward and unable to leave the traumatic past behind.

We begin with defeat. Shifting from stock footage featuring returnees from Indochina, Naruse’s camera picks out the weary figure of a young woman, Yukiko, drawing her government issue jacket around her. She eventually arrives in the city and at the home of an older man, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), whom we later find out had been her lover when they were both stationed overseas working for the forestry commission but has now returned “home” to his family. Kengo had promised to divorce his wife, Kuniko (Chieko Nakakita), in order to marry Yukiko but now declares their romance one of many casualties of war. With only the brother-in-law who once raped her left of her family, Yukiko has nowhere left to turn, eventually becoming the mistress of an American soldier but despite his earlier declarations the increasingly desperate Kengo cannot bear to let her go and their on again off again affair continues much to Yukiko’s constant suffering.

Floating Clouds is as much about the post-war world as it is about a doomed love affair (if indeed love is really what it is). Kengo and Yukiko are the floating clouds of the title, unable to settle in the chaos of defeat where there is no clear foothold to forge a path into the future, no clear direction in which to head, and no clear sign that the future itself is even a possibility. Naruse begins with the painful present marked by crushing defeat and hopelessness, flashing back to the brighter, warmer forests of Indochina to show us the lovers as they had been in a more “innocent” world. At 22, Yukiko smiles brightly and walks tall with a lightness in her step. She went to Indochina in the middle of a war to escape violence at home and, working in the peaceful environment of the forestry commission, begins to find a kind of serenity even whilst dragged into an ill-advised affair with a moody older man more out of loneliness than lust.

Yet, Yukiko’s troubles started long before the war. Assaulted by her brother-in-law she escapes Japan but falls straight into the arms of Kengo who is thought a good, trustworthy man but proves to be anything but. Kengo, frustrated and broken, attempts to lose himself through intense yet temporary relationships with younger women. Every woman he becomes involved with throughout the course of the film comes to a bad end – his wife, Kuniko, dies of tuberculosis while Kengo was unable to pay for treatment which might perhaps have saved her, an inn keeper’s wife he has a brief fling with is eventually murdered by a jealous husband (a guilty Kengo later attempts to raise money for a better lawyer to defend him), Yukiko’s life is more or less destroyed, and goodness only knows what will happen to a very young errand runner for the local bar whom he apparently kissed in a drunken moment of passion.

The lovers remain trapped by the past, even if Kengo repeatedly insists that one cannot live on memory and that their love died in Dalat where perhaps they should have remained. Yukiko’s tragedy is that she had nothing else than her love for Kengo to cling to, while Kengo’s is that he consistently tries to negate the past rather than accept it, craving the purity of memory over an attainable reality, chasing that same sense of possibility in new and younger lovers but once again squandering each opportunity for happiness through intense self obsession. “Things can’t be the same after a war”, intones Kengo as an excuse for his continued callousness, but they find themselves retreating into the past anyway, taking off for tropical, rainy Yakushima which might not be so different from the Indochina of their memories but the past is not somewhere one can easily return and there can be only tragedy for those who cannot let go of an idealised history in order to move forward into a new and uncertain world.


Tokyo Knights (東京騎士隊, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

Tokyo Knights posterUnlike those from elsewhere, Japanese teen movies can often exist inside their very own bubbles in which the central characters refuse their coming of age stories and either die senselessly or simply carry on from their zany adventures as if nothing had really happened. Tokyo Knights (東京騎士隊, Tokyo Knight) definitely falls into the comedy category as its teen heartthrob hero, played by the then up and coming matinee idol Koji Wada, pulls a Hamlet in being called back from overseas studies to become CEO in waiting to his late father’s company only to suspect there’s something rotten in the state of Matsubara Construction. Quirky high school antics quickly give way to conspiracy thriller, but Koji (Koji Wada) remains steadfast and unwavering in the face of adversity as he faces off against the forces of darkness with little more than Nikkatsu spirit.

The film opens with a rather strange ceremony in which high school student Koji is instated as the new CEO of his father’s company. Koji’s dad apparently died suddenly in a freak accident meaning Koji has had to come home early from studying abroad in the US. Despite apparently being an amazing student who is good at absolutely everything and has joined all the after school clubs on offer, Koji has chosen the Catholic Elizabeth Academy because it’s well known as a coasting school where you can graduate with average grades. Fairly low attainment goals might be just as well because Koji is about to have his hands full with another mission. He’s convinced his dad’s death wasn’t an “accident” and he suspects his deputy, Mishima (Nobuo Kaneko), who is also getting close to his mum, might know more about it than he’s letting on.

In the grand tradition of heroes in Japanese teen drama, Koji has just found himself at the centre of a huge and dark conspiracy involving dodgy yakuza construction deals, blackmail, and murder. He does not lose heart or look to the grown ups for help but decides to handle the problem himself, settling back into the Hamlet-esque role he’s been assigned in neatly setting traps for the treacherous Mishima only doing it with a little more cosmopolitan flair carried back from abroad. Swapping roles like one of his much loved Noh costumes, he then becomes a kind of Romeo to the high school darling Yuriko (Mayumi Shimizu) whose dad, unbeknownst to her, turns out to be a horrible gangster who might be involved in the nefarious plan to take over the family firm. Enjoying a minor romance with the melancholy Yuriko, Koji considers the best way to get revenge and expose evil while protecting his mother, surrogate little sister figure, and his newfound love (?) Yuriko who will undoubtedly suffer now that she knows what kind of man her father really is.

Suzuki apparently incited the wrath of studio bosses when he took a serious crime script and turned it into an anarchic teen comedy but then you have to wonder what they thought it was he would do with it. The impossibly cool Koji is certainly an unrealistic hero, presented unironically he’d be sure to irritate – guys like Koji are, after all, more usually the antagonist set up to make our imperfect everyman feel inferior while he progresses towards some kind of self actualisation as a result of the standard narrative. Koji is, however, heroic and easily likeable as he assumes complete control, handling every situation with practiced ease and remembering to remain kind and just while he does so. He even stops to listen to his mother’s problems, sympathising with her when she reveals her unhappiness with his father, and urging her to grasp happiness wherever she sees it without worrying whatever he or anyone else might think.

Perhaps because of the relative simplicity of the plot, and the opportunity to shoot in colour, Suzuki flexes his muscles a little more than usual in adding in a fair few post-modern techniques including on screen graphics such as a series of large question marks zooming out of the major players Koji suspects may be involved in his father’s death and making a joke out of the need to include the songs of the day with frequent cuts to a teen cabaret club. For all of the tale’s darkness and almost Shakespearean overtones, Suzuki keeps his tongue firmly in cheek with a cartoonish sense of fun and lightness, allowing our heroes to emerge from their ordeal fairly unscathed while honour and justice are preserved. Who knew Catholic school could be so much fun?


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Eight Hours of Terror (8時間の恐怖, Seijun Suzuki, 1957)

(C) Nikkatsu 1957

Eight Hours of Terror poster 2Mr. Thank You meets The Lady Vanishes? Seijun Suzuki’s early slice of claustrophobic social drama Eight Hours of Terror (8時間の恐怖, Hachijikan no Kyofu) is another worthy example Japanese cinema’s strange obsession with buses, transposing John Ford’s Stagecoach to the Japanese mountains as a disparate collection of travellers is forced onto a perilous overnight journey in the hope of making their city-bound connection. Shooting in academy ratio and with a mix of studio shot interior action and on location footage, Suzuki keeps the tension high but maintains his detached sense of humour, finding the comedy in the petty prejudices and selfish preoccupations which take hold when civilisation is abandoned and bandits run free.

When a typhoon causes a landslide and halts the trains, the anxious travellers in a small mountain town are left with the choice of waiting until the tracks are clear or piling into a rundown rail replacement service and driving through the mountains overnight to meet their Tokyo-bound connection set to leave at midday. They are warned that there has recently been a bank robbery and the police have issued a general alert for loose bandits. Those whose journey is not “urgent” might do better to wait, but the bus is the only solution for anyone wanting to get back to the city in good time.

Tense as Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the bus journey throws together a group of people who would never normally keep company with each other and largely have no interest in bonding in their shared hardship. Businessmen moan endlessly about potentially missed meetings while student radicals ironically mirror them, giving mini lectures on leftwing politics to a disinterested audience and trying to raise rousing choruses of Russian folk songs to lift the spirits of the masses. Meanwhile, a suicidal mother with a young baby sadly bides her time, a pan pan makes the best of a bad situation, an elderly couple frets anxiously about making it back to the city to see their seriously ill daughter, and a policeman escorts a man arrested for the murder of his former wife and her new husband.

The spectre of the war haunts them all – almost like a fare-dodging stowaway concealed somewhere on the back of the bus. The driver lost his son and grandchildren in Manchuria, the nervous lingerie salesman claims to have led a motorised brigade but is constantly terrified by every little set back, and the convict turns out to be a former army doctor battling some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder coupled with intense rage and regret for his post-war fate. The student radicals regard the presence of the bandits as a symptom of social breakdown (a narrative they can get behind in the general failures of capitalism) while the fat cat CEO and his ridiculously bejewelled wife angrily bark at the young men who can’t find work in the struggling post-war economy, attributing their economic difficulties to pure laziness and failure to slot into to the demands of a conformist society.

The twin dramas revolve around the intertwined fates of the young woman and her baby, and the bank robbers who eventually turn up and hijack the bus. Despite a need to pull together in the face of adversity, many of the passengers are content to ignore the pain and suffering of those around them in order to achieve their own selfish goals. The lingerie salesman, panicked by the delay, attempts to drive the bus over a rickety bridge the driver is currently checking for safety at the risk of everyone’s lives. Meanwhile the woman and her baby are missing. Later found seriously ill, the woman recovers but the baby struggles. The pan pan, who becomes the de facto leader of group, suggests getting the convict, a former doctor, to treat the baby but not everyone is happy about uncuffing a potential killer even if it means life and death for an innocent child. Similarly, after the pan pan helps to despatch one of the hijackers, many of the passengers want to drive off and leave her behind with only the convict eventually coming to her rescue. Despite all she’d done for them, the passengers reject her once again when directly confronted by the taboo nature of her work as a prostitute at the American bases after someone steals her purse and finds a picture of a black GI inside the fold.

The world outside the bus is changing. The pan pan fears for her future now the occupation is coming to an end, as do some of the young men who’d relied on the presence of the American troops for their employment. The CEOs and lingerie salesmen of the world are content to remain within their own bubbles, ignoring everyone else they protect their elitist status while the idealistic student activists are perhaps no better – they too want to take the hijackers’ ill gotten gains and repurpose them for social good by getting more leftists elected to parliament. The convict and the pan pan are the kindest and the most human, finding an unexpected bond in their shared humanism while the aspiring actress finds joy in treating everything like a fantastic adventure only to give up on her dreams of stardom after realising she’d be forced to kiss a bunch of guys she didn’t like in order to achieve them.

Mixing studio shot rear projection and location shooting of the bus making its precarious journey along winding mountain roads, Suzuki keeps the tension high as the passengers bicker and bond, eventually banding together despite themselves in order to despatch the final bandit who finally takes care of himself. Things do, however, end by going back to normal. Crisis averted, the same old prejudices return as soon as “civilisation” reappears on the horizon. 


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.

Intimidation (ある脅迫, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960)

Intimidation still 1Social class as a means of social control is rarely dealt with overtly in Japanese cinema, but it’s been there all along from the feudal concerns of the jidaigeki to the inherent unfairness of the post-war world which made so many false promises to ambitious young go-getters, misselling dreams of social mobility in a newly meritocratic society. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Intimidation (ある脅迫, Aru Kyohaku) is a noirish tale of blackmail and inexorable fall, but the title refers not just to the act literal act but to the oppression of a society in which the unscrupulous prosper and friendship, even love, is willingly sacrificed for the superficial comforts of wealth and status.

Bank manager Takita (Nobuo Kaneko) is riding high. He’s just been awarded an important new promotion but his success is less down to his innate talents, than to the fact he’s married the chairman’s daughter, Kumiko (Yoko Kosono). While Takita went to university and catapulted himself into the upper middle-classes, his childhood friend Nakaike (Ko Nishimura) only graduated middle school and has been working hard as a clerk in the same bank ever since. To make matters worse, Kumiko was once Nakaike’s sweetheart and Takita the lover of Nakaike’s sister, Yukie (Mari Shiraki). Where Nakaike is meek and earnest, Takita has abused every privilege he’s been given – illegal loans, backhanders, dodgy business deals and even an affair or two have left him wide open to blackmail. Takita’s party is about to end – Kumaki (Kojiro Kusanagi), a Tokyo hood, has proof of Takita’s improprieties and he threatens to expose all if he doesn’t get a sizeable amount of cash. It’s money that Takita doesn’t have, but Kumaki has a plan – Takita needs to rob his own bank. After all, who would expect the bank manager to raid his own vault?

Takita’s rise is as much down to societal corruption as it is his own lack of moral integrity. He’s got on by the traditionally “corrupt” ways that society condones – i.e. a dynastic marriage. He may have worked hard to get into university and get a good job that would enable him to be the kind of match a middle-class father would seek to arrange for his daughter, but everything after that is as straightforward and inevitable as a pair of train tracks. Takita has made it – his father-in-law will take care of everything else, all he has to do is sit back and avoid making any catastrophic mistakes. Perhaps because of the oppressive simplicity of his life, Takita has a lot going on the side – the “playing with fire” that he jokes about in his affairs and illicit backdoor deals are perhaps his ways of bucking the system, laughing at if not quite biting the hand that feeds. 

Meanwhile, mild-mannered Nakaike has been patiently muddling through waiting for a break that society just does not want to give him. Leaving school early (for circumstances which are never revealed but probably easy to guess) has defined his life prospects. Takita went to university, married Nakaike’s teenage sweetheart, and then became his boss – it isn’t fair, but it’s how things work. Not content with swiping Nakaike’s prospects, Takita continues to lord it over him, pretending to be “friends” like old times but belittling Nakaike behind his back and even continuing to carry on with his sister Yukie who has never given up on the childhood sweetheart who threw her over for career opportunity. Nakaike is bound by the superficial rules of society and men like Takita laugh at him for it, they think he’s a fool who doesn’t understand how the system works and only exists as a mechanism for them to exploit.

When Takita gets Nakaike roaring drunk as a part of his nefarious plan, Nakaike admits that he always found Kumiko intimidating – he has a natural deference to and mild fear of her upper-class elegance. Takita has no such qualms – he wants into that club, and he doesn’t care what he has to do or who he has to step on to get there. Yukie blames her brother for their present situation. She thinks his meekness makes him an obvious doormat, that if he had any kind of spine he wouldn’t have let Takita walk all over him and marry Kumiko which would mean she wouldn’t be trapped in the never-ending torment that is being Takita’s mistress rather than his wife. Playing lady Macbeth she needles and provokes her brother, though even if he should snap there’s not a lot that he could do.

Kurahara begins with the passage of a train and later ends on the same image. Our two protagonists are each railroaded towards their fates even if they think they can make a break for pursuing their own destinies. They both think they’ve won, got ahead of the other and the various things which chased them, beaten the intimidation of the society in which they live which attempts to “railroad” them onto a set of pre-ordained courses, but all each of them do is lose. The train rolls silently onward, there is no point of disembarkation save that which it allows, and its conductors are everywhere.


Robbery scene (dialogue free)

The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (峠を渡る若い風, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass posterSeijun Suzuki made his first colour film in 1960 – Fighting Delinquents starred young matinee idol Koji Wada as a noble hearted construction worker with a temper who suddenly learns that he is the heir to an aristocratic fortune. Suzuki would make another two youth dramas starring Wada before getting to 1961’s The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (峠を渡る若い風, Toge wo Wataru Wakai Kaze, AKA Breeze on the Ridge) – this slice of colourful anarchy is a world away from Nikkatsu’s usual action fare though it does make space for the odd pop song or two.

Naive and cheerful university student Shintaro (Koji Wada) loves to travel and has taken off to wander around alone during the summer break. Getting thrown off a regular city bus for not having the cash for a ticket (his request to defer payment is not looked on kindly), Shintaro catches a lift with a group of travelling performers heading into the summer festival in the next town. Once there Shintaro showcases his lack of forethought once again when he happily sets down to start selling some of the “merchandise” he was given as a salary when the last place he worked at went bust. Not having realised that one generally needs a permit to sell goods in a market, Shintaro gets into an argument about the evils of monopolies and freedom verses regulation with the guy on the next stand all of which brings him to the attention of the yakuza. Luckily for Shintaro, he’s run into the nice kind of yakuza who just think he’s funny and invite him to travel on with them for a bit. Being so essentially good hearted and innocent, Shintaro agrees without thinking about all the reasons travelling around with a bunch of shady yakuza might not be a good idea.

Connecting with both the yakuza and the travelling players, Shintaro becomes involved in a number of interconnected crises – the biggest being the fate of the performers when a local gangster type swipes their headline act. The head of the troupe, Kinyo Imai (Shin Morikawa), is a traditional magician who performs in exaggerated Chinese dress complete with Fu Manchu moustache, but it doesn’t really matter how good he is, the rural audience is only here for the strip show. No stripper means no bookings which Kinyo knew already but it’s still a huge blow to his self esteem to realise that his magic doesn’t do the business anymore, especially as he’d always been conflicted about the strippers anyway.

Shintaro is one of Nikkatsu’s wandering heroes but unlike most he’s a cheerful soul who wanders out of a sense of curiosity and adventure rather than a need to escape something or someone at home. He likes meeting new people, even if the relationships are transitory and necessarily shallow, and treats everyone he meets with kindness and an open mind. In return he meets only kind and open people – even the yakuza are a generally decent sort who treat him like a new friend and can be relied upon to come to his aid if called. The only note of sourness arrives in the form of shady gangster Akita (Hiroshi Kondo) who pinches the troupe’s stripper, and their sometime patron who makes an indecent proposal to Kinyo as a kind of bet to decide whether he continues to fund their moribund performing career.

This being a regular program picture there’s not a lot of scope for experimentation but as it’s also a slightly odd entry to the Nikkatsu catalogue Suzuki does have the freedom to spice things up in his own particular way. Making the best use of colour film, Suzuki has a ball capturing Japan’s unique summer festival culture with its giant floats and cheerful market atmosphere. Wandering around the festival in a lengthy POV shot manages to exoticise something which would be quite ordinary to many viewers (at least those not born in large cities) but Suzuki’s other innovations are mostly relegated to one extremely interesting sequence in which Shintaro has a paint fight with yakuza he’s fallen out with (don’t worry, they both end up laughing like school boys). Every time Shintaro gets hit with paint, the entire screen tints to match neatly intensifying the effect and marking an early example of Suzuki’s love of colour play. Warm and goodnatured, The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass is a gentle tale of youth finding its path but also one in which Suzuki takes advantage of the travelling motif to break from the regular programming and present an anarchic carnivale of music and song.


The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass is the second of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)