The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Bad Sleep Well posterThere’s something rotten in the state of Japan – The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru), Akira Kurosawa’s take on Hamlet, unlike his previous two Shakespearean adaptations, is set firmly in the murky post-war society which, it becomes clear, is so mired in systems of corruption as to be entirely built on top of them. Our hero, like Hamlet himself, is a conflicted revenger. He intends to hold a mirror up to society, reflecting the ugly picture back to the yet unknowing world in the hope that something will really change. Change, however, comes slow – especially when it comes at the disadvantage of those who currently hold all the cards.

We open at a wedding. A small number of attendants lineup around a lift waiting for the arrival of the married couple only for a carriage full of reporters to pour out, apparently in hope of scandal though this is no gossip worthy society function but the wedding of a CEO’s daughter to his secretary. The press is in attendance because the police are – they believe there will be arrests today in connection with the ongoing corruption scandal engulfing the company in which a number of employees are suspected of engaging in kickbacks on government funded projects.

The rather strange wedding proceeds with the top brass sweating buckets while the bride’s brother (Tatsuya Mihashi), already drunk on champagne, takes to the mic with a bizarre speech “refuting” the claims that the groom, Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), has only married the bride, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), for financial gain before avowing that he will kill his new brother-in-law if he makes his little sister sad. Nishi, as we later discover, has indeed married with an ulterior motive which is anticipated by the arrival of a second wedding cake in the shape of a building at the centre of a previous corruption scandal with one black rose sticking out of the seventh floor window from which an employee, Furuya, committed suicide five years previously.

The police are keen to interview their suspects, the press are keen to report on scandal, but somehow or other the system of corruption perpetuates itself. The top guys cover for each other, and when they can’t they “commit suicide” rather than embarrass their “superiors” by submitting themselves to justice. The system of loyalty and reward, of misplaced “honour” mixed with personal greed, ensures its own survival through homosocial bonding with backroom deals done in hostess bars and the lingering threat of scandal and personal ruin for all should one rogue whistleblower dare to threaten the governing principle of an entire economy.

Nishi chooses to threaten it, partly as an act of revolution but mainly as an act of filial piety in avenging the wrongful death of his father who had, in a sense, cast him aside for financial gain and societal success. Wanting to get on, Nishi’s father refused to marry his mother and instead married the woman his “superiors” told him to. Later, his father threw himself out of a seventh floor window because his “superiors” made him understand this was what was expected of him. Furuya wasn’t the last, each time a man’s transgressions progress too far his “superiors” sacrifice him to ensure the survival of the system. Strangely no one seems to rebel, the men go to their deaths willingly, accepting their fate without question rather than submitting themselves to the law and taking their co-conspirators down with them though should someone refuse to do the “decent” thing, there are other ways to ensure their continuing silence.

Reinforcing the post-war message, Nishi chooses a disused munitions factory for his secret base. Both he and his co-conspirator, a war orphan, had been high school conscripts until the factory was destroyed by firebombing and thereafter were forced to live by their wits alone on the streets. Nishi swears that he wants to take revenge on those who manipulate the vulnerable, but finds himself becoming ever more like his prey and worse, hardly caring, wanting only to steel himself for the difficult task ahead.

In any revolution there will be casualties, but these casualties will often be those whom Nishi claims to represent. Chief among them his new wife, Yoshiko, who has been largely cushioned from the harshness of the outside world thanks to her father’s wealth and seeming care. She loves her husband and wants to believe in her father or more particularly that the moral arc of her society points towards goodness. Nishi, tragically falling for his mark, married his wife to destroy her family but ironically finds himself torn between genuine love for Yoshiko, a desire for revenge, and a mission of social justice. Can he, and should he, be prepared to “sacrifice” an innocent in the same way the “superiors” of the world sacrifice their underlings in order to end a system of oppression or should he abandon his plan and save his wife the pain of learning the truth about her husband, her father, and the world in which she lives?

In the end, Nishi will waver. Yoshiko’s father, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), will not. Goodness becomes a weakness – Iwabuchi turns his daughter’s love and faith against her, subverting her innocence for his own evil. He makes a sacrifice of her in service of his own “superiors” who may be about to declare that they “have complete faith” in him at any given moment. The only thing that remains clear is that Iwabuchi will not be forgiven, the wronged children of the post-war era will not be so quick to bow to injustice. Let the great axe fall? One can only hope.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Thirst for Love (愛の渇き, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967)

(C) Nikkatsu 1967

Thrill for love posterIf The Warped Ones showed us a hellish, uncivilised world in which people acted on their base desires with little thought for others, Thirst for Love (愛の渇き, Ai no Kawaki) shows us the opposite as desire repressed eats away at those unable to find fulfilment in their assigned social roles. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s swirling artistry may have proved too much for studio bosses at Nikkatsu (Thirst for Love would be the last film he’d make as a regular director for the studio), but it finds a perfect match in the florid world of Yukio Mishima.  A tale of inequalities and misunderstandings, the rarefied atmosphere of Thirst for Love is just as “warped” as that of Nikkatsu’s gritty youth dramas in which desire and gratification become tools of currency in a grand game of wounds given and received.

Our heroine, Etsuko (Ruriko Asaoka), is a young widow living with her late husband’s family. Following the death of her husband, Etsuko has become the mistress of the family’s tyrannical patriarch, Yakichi (Nobuo Nakamura) – a successful businessman apparently forced out of the company he founded and into an early retirement. Yakichi resents the rest of his family whom he regards as feckless freeloaders. Oldest son Kensuke (Akira Yamanouchi) is a part-time classics professor and full-time neurotic intellectual. He and his wife Chieko (Yuko Kusunokiare unable to have children of their own (something else that annoys Yakichi), while daughter Asako (Yoko Ozono) has come back to her family home following a divorce with two children in tow. The family are all “aware” of the strange dynamic between Yakichi and his daughter-in-law but are too polite to bring it up. Nevertheless, Kensuke also has a thing for Etsuko which Chieko is aware of but not particularly worried about because she really does respect and trust her husband.

Etsuko is not particularly interested in Kensuke. There’s nothing he could really offer her. Though she keeps up a pretence of happiness with her current living standards, even going so far as to write a fake diary expressly intended for Yakichi to read, Etsuko feels nothing but contempt for and boredom with the emotionally cold and controlling family patriarch. Her faith in human emotions is low, but still she feels desire. When the teenage gardener Saburo (Tetsuo Ishidate) catches her admiring a beautiful statue and remarks on Etsuko’s own beauty, he puts untoward ideas in her head.

Even in the post-war world, women like Estuko have little agency. After her husband died, she could have stuck it out alone – found a job, supported herself. She could have remarried or perhaps have received financial support from the family while living alone, but she’s chosen to remain with them even given her somewhat degrading role as her father-in-law’s mistress-cum-plaything. When Saburo tells her she is beautiful he oversteps the established laws of class separation and Etsuko is too clever not to know how clichéd her new found lust for a peasant boy really is but she can’t unsee his broad shoulders and muscular frame or the sweat that crowds his brow as he labours on her behalf.

She begins making coy overtures which Saburo, unwittingly or otherwise, deflects. The situation is complicated by another woman, Miyo (Chitose Kurenai), who may or may not be something like Saburo’s girlfriend though as we will later find out, Saburo is a typically immature young man who regards his relationships with women as essentially inconsequential. Deferent towards his mistress, he demands to be released from her cruel games. Yet Etsuko had hardly realised that’s what they were. She cannot simply voice her desire or make her interest plain. Hers is not the first move to make. Several times Etsuko comes close to crossing a line but she always pulls back – inflicting necessary suffering on herself through her inability realise her desires.

Suffering, in a sense, becomes the point and almost a bizarre source of pleasure. In a climactic moment of drunken dinner party truthfulness, Kensuke attempts to apologise for a potentially destructive speech by revealing that he meant to smash everything to bits but has only succeeded in destroying himself. Etsuko too means to hurt others, partly as a kind of revenge, but in truth only to increase her own suffering. Her plan stumbles when she realises that Saburo is and always has been entirely indifferent towards her. He saw her as the mistress of the manor, an elegant and attractive woman, but felt no more desire for her than for any other. As he puts it, they live in different worlds – she is nothing to him, and nothing she does can change that. Etsuko has only destroyed herself, a self-immolation of repressed desire which threatens to burn the world with its ferocious intensity.

If Etsuko is to free herself from the burden of her need, she will pay a heavy price to do so. Kurahara shifts into an avant-garde register more in keeping with the more or less contemporary work of Kiju Yoshida in his anti-melodrama phase, but Kurahara’s approach is, in keeping with the source material, altogether less serious, fully embracing the melodramatic but taking pains to underpin it with deeply felt emotion. Asaoka excels as the neurotic housewife driven slowly mad in a stultifying, moribund household where she is forced to submit to the sexual whims of her bossy father-in-law and has little more to occupy her time than walking the dog and dreaming of a roll in the hay with the not yet 20 gardener.

Kurahara paints her world as one of sensations – the blood that becomes both symbol of life and death, the symbolic pleasures of a pomelo, and the fearsome flapping of chickens even as their throats are slit. Shifting to still frames for moments of high emotion – much as Shinoda had done in the finale of With Beauty and Sorrow two years before, Kurahara mixes ironic voiceover with intertitles and unexpected editing choices to capture the flightiness of Etsuko’s mind but he allows himself one luxury in letting her leave to a bright red sky, a woman on fire thirsting for love.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Tadashi Imai, 1953)

inlet of muddy water dvd coverTadashi Imai was among the greatest directors of the golden age though his name remains far less known than contemporaries Ozu or Mizoguchi. Despite beginning in outright propaganda films during the war, Imai is best remembered as a staunchly left wing director whose films are known for their gritty realism and opposition to oppressive social codes. An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Nigorie) very much fits this bill in adapting three stories from Japanese author Ichiyo Higuchi. Higuchi is herself a giant figure of Japanese literature though little of her work has been translated into English. Like Imai’s films, Higuchi’s stories are known for their focus on female suffering and the prevailing social oppression of the late Meiji era which had seen many changes but not all for the better. Higuchi was not a political writer and her work does not attack an uncaring society so much as describe it accurately though her own early death from tuberculosis at only 24 certainly lends weight to the tragedy of her times.

In the first part of the film which is inspired by one of Higuchi’s best known stories, The Thirteenth Night, a young woman returns home to her parents, no longer able to bear living with an emotionally abusive husband. Oseki (Yatsuko Tanami) had been raised an ordinary, lower middle-class girl but, like many a heroine of feudal era literature, caught the eye of a prominent nobleman who determined to marry her despite their class difference. Life is not a fairytale, and so the nobleman quickly tired of his beautiful peasant wife, belittling her lowly status, lack of education, and failure to slot into the elite world he inhabits.

Oseki’s plight elicits ambivalent reactions in each of her parents though they both sympathise with her immensely, if in different ways. Her mother (Akiko Tamura) is heartbroken – having long believed her daughter to be living a blissful life of luxury, she feels terribly guilty not to have known she had been suffering all this time and believes Oseki has done the right thing in leaving. Her father (Ken Mitsuda), however, also feels sad but reacts in practicality, pointing out that to leave her husband now would mean losing her son forever and probably a long, lonely life of penury. He, somewhat coldly, tells her to go back, grin and bear it. Oseki can see his point and considers resigning herself to return if only to look after her son.

On her way home she runs into a childhood friend whom she might have married if things had not turned out the way they did. “Life gets in the way of the things we want to do”, she tells him by of explanation for not staying in touch. Rokunosuke (Hiroshi Akutagawa), once a fine merchant, is now a ragged rickshaw driver, bereaved father, and divorcee. Like Oseki his life is a tragedy of frustration with the added irritant that he and Oseki might have been happy together, rather than independently miserable, if an elite had not suddenly decided to interfere by crossing class lines just because he can rather than out of any genuine feeling.

The callousness of elites is also a theme in the second story, The Last Day of the Year, in which a young maid, Omine (Yoshiko Kuga), works for a wealthy household dominated by a moody, penny pinching mistress whose mistreatment of her staff is more indifference than deliberate scorn. Omine’s uncle, who raised her, has fallen ill. At the beginning of his illness he took out a loan but he’s got no better and still needs to pay it back so he asks Omine to ask the mistress for an advance of the paltry sum of two yen in the hope that his son will be able to enjoy a new year mochi like the other kids. The mistress says yes and then changes her mind, leaving Omine to consider a transgressive act of social justice.

Where The Thirteenth Night and The Last Day of the Year pointed the finger at uncaring elites, Troubled Waters broadens its disdain to the entire world of men in focussing on two women caught on either side of the red light district – Oriki (Chikage Awashima), a geisha stalked by a ruined client, and the client’s wife, Ohatsu (Haruko Sugimura), who endures a life of penury thanks to her husband’s geisha obsession. Oriki’s sad story is recounted to a wealthy patron (So Yamamura) who is more fascinated in learning the secrets of her soul than her kimono, but like many of her age it begins with parental strife, orphanhood and perpetual imprisonment as a geisha wondering what will become of her when her looks fade and she’s no longer number one. She has no control over the men who spend time with her but is worried by Gen (Seiji Miyaguchi) who ruined himself buying her time and now stalks her in and around the inn. Infatuated and obsessed with Oriki, Gen has turned against his noble wife Ohatsu who is working herself to the bone to support the family while Gen has resorted to a life of casual labour but rarely does much of anything at all.

Recalling Higuchi’s famous diary, Imai opens each of the segments with a brief voiceover detailing the inconsequential details of the weather with a world weary, often melancholy tone as the writer laments too much time spent on fiction and resolves to tell the story of the world as it really is. There is no real connection or overarching theme which unites the three stories, save for the continued suffering of women at the hands of men and the society they have devised. Oseki must return to her abusive husband, Omine will continue to work for her heartless mistress, and Ohatsu will have to make do on her own after being so thoroughly let down by her husband. There is no recourse or escape, no path forward that will allow the women to break free of their oppression or even to learn to be free within it. Each of the stories is bleak, ending on a note of resignation and acceptance of one’s fate as terrible as that may be but Imai’s ending is most terrible of all, reminding us that today is simply another day and the heavy atmosphere of dread and oppression is certain to endure as long as we all remain resigned.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

An Autumn Afternoon (秋刀魚の味, Yasujiro Ozu, 1962)

an-autumn-afternoonAn Autumn Afternoon (秋刀魚の味, Sanma no Aji) was to be Ozu’s final work. This was however more by accident than design – despite serious illness Ozu intended to continue working and had even left a few notes relating to a follow up project which was destined never to be completed. Even if not exactly intended to become the final point of a thirty-five year career, An Autumn Afternoon is an apt place to end, neatly revisiting the director’s key concerns and starring some of his most frequent collaborators.

Returning to the world of Late Spring, An Autumn Afternoon once again stars Chishu Ryu as an ageing father, Shuhei, though this time one with three children – the oldest, a son, married and left home, the middle one a daughter not yet married at 24, and the youngest boy still a student living at home. Michiko (Shima Iwashita), like Noriko, is devoted to the family home and has no immediate plans to marry despite the urgings of her father’s good friend who has already picked out a good prospect for an arranged marriage.

Shuhei had been content with this arrangement, after all as a 50-something man of 1962 he’s in need of someone to look after him and likes having his daughter around the house. A class reunion with some of his friends and an old teacher begins to change his mind when “The Gourd” (as the boys liked to call him) speaks somewhat unkindly of his unmarried, middle-aged daughter, later regretting that he acted selfishly in turning down marriage proposals which came her way because he wanted to keep her at home for his own upkeep. Taking the extraordinarily drunk The Gourd home, Shuhei and his friend encounter the daughter for themselves (as played by frequent Ozu collaborator Haruko Sugimura) and find her just as embittered and shrewish as The Gourd had implied. What they don’t see are her tears of heartbroken frustration at being left all alone to deal with this hopeless case of her dead drunk, elderly father.

At the end of the film, following the inevitable marriage, Shuehei retreats to a friendly bar just as the father of Late Spring had done before him though this time he goes there alone, not wanting to return to his now much quieter home before time. Whilst there the mama-san (Kyoko Kishida) for whom Shuhei has developed a fondness as something about her reminds him of his late wife, notices his attire and asks if he’s just been to a funeral. “Something like that”, he replies. Shuehei is being a little maudlin and self indulgent but what he says is almost true – he has, in a sense, lost a daughter though the Japanese way of doing things does not quite allow for the rejoinder of gaining a son.

All of this is to be expected, it is the best outcome. Time moves on and the baton passes from one generation to the next, one family is broken so that another may be created. Ozu revisited this universally tragic element of the life cycle several times throughout his career and even echoes himself in the final shots as Chishu Ryu sits with his back to the camera, less visibly shaken than in Late Spring but no less bereft. What Ozu gives us next is not the image of transience in the ebbs and flows of a stormy sea, but a parade of emptiness in which Michiko is ever present in her absence. Shuehei is not alone, he has his younger son Kazuo, but the house is now a soulless and colourless place filled with uninhabited rooms and mirrors with nothing to reflect.

In the end, life is defined by this final loneliness as children depart, setting off on a path which has to be entirely their own. The Gourd laments that he is all alone despite having, in part, destroyed his child’s chances of personal happiness in order to maintain his own, but Shuhei and his friends are also left to reflect on the same problem as fathers who’ve each successfully married off daughters only to find themselves rendered obsolete in the new family order. The times have changed, but they have not changed in this. Shuhei is left alone with his memories of youth, trying to bully his sadness into submission by humming a popular military march from his wartime glory days but the pleasures of the past are always hollow and melancholy, at best a mirage and at worst quicksand.

Ozu maintains his trademark style, mixing humour with wistful sorrow, resigned to the inherent sadness of life but determined to find the warmth there too. His sympathies, however, have shifted as he reserves a little of his bite for the modern young couple as exemplified by Shuehei’s oldest son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), and his wife (Mariko Okada) whose concerns are material (refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, handbags and golf clubs) rather than existential as they struggle to attain the “aspirational” quality of life the burgeoning post-war boom promises and have to rely on frequent “loans” from Shuehei to maintain it. The world moves on apace and leaves old sailors behind, alone and adrift on seas now much quieter than they have ever been but the peace and solitude is the sign of a life well lived and in a strange way its reward as the time slips by unhurriedly and only as painful as it needs to be.


Original trailer (no subtitles)