Suspicion (疑惑, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1982)

Suspicion posterBy the early ‘80s, Japan had successfully shaken off post-war desperation for burgeoning consumerism, but even as the nation rocketed into a more comfortable future, social equality proved slow to arrive. Once again adapting a novel by Seicho Matsumoto, Yoshitaro Nomura’s Suspicion (疑惑, Giwaku) makes allies of two very different women who are each in one way or another rejected by the conservative, infinitely rigid society in which they live.

Former bar hostess Kumako (Kaori Momoi) falls under suspicion when she alone survives the car accident that takes her husband’s life. A brassy, aloof woman, Kumako does not behave in the way the police might expect a recently bereaved spouse to behave which instantly turns them against her. This becomes a real problem once they discover that her husband, Shirakawa (Noboru Nakaya), was an extraordinarily wealthy man on whom she had recently taken out a number of life insurance polices. Shirakawa’s public profile ensures that the potentially salacious case is taken up by the newspapers who waste no time proclaiming Kumako a gold digging murderess while openly baying for her blood. Intimidated by the public outcry, the police are determined to charge Kumako with her husband’s murder despite the only existing evidence being extremely circumstantial.

After a prominent lawyer declines to take her case, her legal council stands down citing his poor health leaving Kumako entirely undefended. The court eventually appoints her a new lawyer, a woman – Ritsuko Sahara (Shima Iwashita), more practiced in civil than criminal law and just as much of an outcast as Kumako though in very different ways. Ritsuko has divorced her husband and he has custody of their young daughter whom Ritsuko makes a point of seeing once a month. Though the arrangement seems to suit her well enough, her status as a career woman who has “rejected” the roles of wife and mother also makes her one viewed with “suspicion” by those around her.

The central issue is indeed Kumako’s character. A former bar hostess with a traumatic childhood, Kamako has four previous convictions including assault and blackmail as well as an abrasive personality and a tendency to rub people up the wrong way. She doesn’t do herself any favours, but no kind of justice would be served if she were sentenced to death not for her husband’s murder but for the crime of being an “unpleasant” woman in a society which expects women to be docile and polite.

The papers, however, are very invested in the story of the coldblooded, gold digging murderess. Akitani (Akira Emoto), a local reporter, cosies up to the police for insider information, and does his best to root out Kumako’s sordid past including a sometime boyfriend who might have been her “pimp”. Ritsuko makes “trial by media” a key part of her defence strategy, arguing that her client’s case has been unfairly prejudiced by the image the press has sought to construct of her, but is unaware of the extent to which the police investigation has been distorted by the desire to appease the media or the various ways in which a venal press has gently perverted the course of justice in search of a better story.

Cool and efficient, Ritsuko isn’t really sure whether Kumako did it or not but is determined to ensure she is tried by the codes of law and not of conventional morality. A disgraced Akitani later barks at her that he sees no need to defend “a woman like that” in the papers, but Ritsuko’s having none of it – the purpose of the law is precisely to ensure guilt or innocence is assessed rationally on the basis of the evidence presented, as free of personal prejudice as it’s possible to be. An idealistic claim, given Japan’s famously implacable legal system, but one that sits well with a functioning democracy.

Ritsuko’s defence of Kumako is not particularly a feminist exercise, though a grudging kind of mutual respect eventually arises between the two women who have each in one sense or another rejected socially defined gender roles. While Ritsuko proclaims herself happy enough to be a mother once a month on Sundays, her husband’s new wife is a more territorial sort, eventually asking her to stop seeing her own daughter because she would rather raise her believing that she is hers alone. Kumako, however, is entirely unrepentant, even emboldened, vowing that she will continue using men until the day she dies. The two women remain mirror images of each other, both rejected, viewed with “suspicion” for the choices they have made, and forever at odds with a society which has already found them each “guilty” in the court of public opinion.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Scent of Incense (香華, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1964)

Scent of Incense still 1Sometimes regarded as overly sentimental, Keisuke Kinoshita’s later career grew progressively harder around the edges, as if he began to lose faith in the efficacy of human goodness but never it seems in its capacity for endurance. Spanning more than 50 years in the turbulent history of mid-20th century Japan, The Scent of Incense (香華, Koge) reverses the path of the hahamono in dramatising the complicated relationship of two women – a “selfish” mother and her “self-sacrificing” daughter who finds herself unable to give up on maternal approval despite the many disappointments of her life.

We open in late Meiji with a funeral interrupted by news from the Russo-Japanese war. Shortly after, young widow Ikuyo (Nobuko Otowa) argues with her mother, Tsuna (Kinuyo Tanaka), over custody of her five-year-old daughter Tomoko. Ikuyo is planning to remarry and her new husband has three children of his own. Fearing Tomoko would be an inconvenience, Ikuyo proposes to make her heir to her mother’s family, leaving her behind in her grandmother’s care. Though Tsuna loves Tomoko dearly, she resents her daughter’s intention to abandon them just because she’s got a better offer, and perhaps privately wonders how long she’ll actually stick it out for seeing as, as we later see, she has a strong tendency to give up when the going gets tough.

The prediction proves accurate. Ikuyo persuades her new husband to abandon his existing children and family home for the bright lights of Tokyo, while Tomoko and her grandmother live on alone in the country. Ikuyo has another daughter, Yasuko, but the couple quickly become impoverished without access to her husband’s family money. When Tsuna dies, Ikuyo decides to fetch Tomoko from the family residence, but then sells her to a geisha house. A few years later, she too falls into the sex trade but as a less exulted “oiran”, embarrassingly re-encountering her daughter from the other side of a brothel. Despite her abandonment and shame over her mother’s profession, Tomoko (Mariko Okada) continues to try to help her, maintaining an awkward familial relationship with a woman who only pays attention to her when she needs something.

Perhaps ironically, in one sense, Tomoko ends up becoming a successful, independent woman in pre-war Japan but is forever denied the kind of familial life she craves as a conventionally respectable wife and mother of the kind her own was not. In the course of her work, she meets dashing military cadet Ezaki (Go Kato) and, despite the warnings of her madam (Haruko Sugimura) who cautions her that she’s the type to fall in love too deeply, embarks on a longterm affair with him. Though he is obviously aware that she is a geisha, he is confident that his family would accept a marriage, but Tomoko’s hopes are later dashed when his pre-marital investigations turn up the fact that Ikuyo has worked as a “common prostitute”. Heartbroken, she resents once again paying the price for her mother’s transgressions, but does not break with her completely.

Tomoko’s liminal status is further brought home to her when her elderly patron, who has set her up with a geisha house of her own, suddenly dies and not only is she informed some days later by the madam at another house, but she’s not even permitted to attend the funeral. Another man, Nozawa (Eiji Okada), who’d had his eye on her but honestly admits that men of his class do not engage in “serious” relationships with geisha, asks her to become his mistress but she has had enough of the shadow life, vowing both that she doesn’t want to be “owned” anymore, and that her next man (if there is one) will have to marry her.

Loneliness renders that particular vow void as she finds herself embarking on a casual affair with Nozawa while Ikuyo considers getting married for the third time – this time, rather transgressively, with the family’s recently widowed former servant, Hachiran (Norihei Miki), who married into a wealthy family and apparently made something of himself. Hachiran, however, finds it difficult to shake off the old class attitudes, treating Ikuyo like a goddess while she bosses him around and makes a pretence of leaving every time she gets fed up.

Later we might wonder if Ikuyo’s sudden exit from Hachiran’s distant home is more that she missed her daughter than it was boredom with her husband. “I don’t think of her as a mother” each woman says, Ikuyo on learning that Tsuna is dangerously ill, and Tomoko when Nozawa suggests making a detour to visit Ikuyo and Hachiran. Ikuyo, it is true, is a cold woman who abandoned her daughter only to reclaim her in order to sell, later giving up two more children one of whom apparently disappears without trace. The proof of her love is found only in its end, while Tomoko suffers on all the long years otherwise alone, until in an immense act of circularity she at last becomes a kind of mother to another woman’s son.

Forever haunted by the spectre of soldiers, Tomoko loses everything in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but perseveres and rebuilds. She loses everything again in the firebombing of Tokyo, only later remembering her foresight in burying a large collection of crockery in the cellar which might allow her to open a restaurant. She resents her mother but keeps her close, while Ikuyo’s affections seem to ebb and flow as she disappears off to greener pastures only to resurface again when they’ve been thoroughly grazed. A flighty, perhaps selfish woman, Ikuyo too proves unable to sever connection from her daughter. Tomoko disapproves of her mother’s gaudiness, her unbridled lust for life and disregard of social conventions, but the two women are more alike than they first seem – each in their own way fiercely independent and unwilling to allow their desires to be defined or defeated by the world around them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sada (SADA〜戯作・阿部定の生涯, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1998)

Sada poster“Facts can easily become fiction when recounted by someone, even by oneself. But with a bit of sincerity lies can become truth”, our genial guide explains, paradoxically telling us that the heroine, a woman he regards as a loveable kid sister, wants to tell us her story herself. Apologising in advance for her “rudeness”,  he reveals to us that the woman is none other than the “notorious” Sada Abe, a woman who, apparently now forgotten, was once a front page sensation for having killed her lover and cut off his penis to carry him with her always.

Despite the narrator’s claims that Sada’s fame has faded, her story has proved fertile cinematic ground, most famously inspiring Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses which sees her claustrophobic descent into sexual obsession as a reaction to the intense austerity of militarism. Obayashi, however, is keen to remember that that aside from the newspaper headlines, the salaciousness and peculiar romanticism of her story, Sada was a real woman who suffered in an intensely patriarchal society and was perhaps seeking something that the world was unable to give her.

As she reminds us, Sada too had a childhood. Obayashi opens the film with a young Sada innocently throwing hoops over a tall phallic object. Six years later, her life changes when a college boy drags her off the street into a nearby inn and rapes her, claiming that she is well known as a good time girl and that he is perfectly entitled to behave in the way he is behaving. Deed done, the college boy leaves but Sada (Hitomi Kuroki) is rescued by the gentlemanly figure of sickly medical student Okada (Kippei Shina) who has a patch over his eye and a romantic disposition. Okada gives her not only a lifelong and strangely erotic attachment to donuts, but a junai foundation in an eternally unrealisable longing for a pure and innocent love.

Okada, as Obayashi later tells us, is also a “real” person though he has no real evidence that he and Sada ever crossed paths. He gives her the knife she will later use to sever her lover’s penis and tells her to use it to cut out his heart, which belongs to her. Okada, claiming that he will forever watch over her, introduces a secondary theme in that he is a sufferer of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, then thought incurable and “treated” only by exile. Sada loses her pure love and never knows why, but sadly chooses not take his advice to remember that she is an honest girl and refuse to be corrupted by her trauma. Now unable to marry and it remaining a virtual impossibility to enter any other kind of profession, Sada becomes a geisha, later giving that up for the more lucrative world of casual sex work.

Perhaps ironically, it’s through her life as a sex worker that Sada begins to find a degree of freedom amidst the impassioned atmosphere of increasing militarism. While the men are caught up in destructive games of martial glory, Sada is just trying to live her many lives and dreaming her dream of love. It’s that dream of love that brings her to Tatsuzo (Tsurutaro Kataoka), a married, poetic ladies’ man with whom she eventually retreats into an isolationist kingdom of two. Yet their intensely co-dependent relationship is never quite enough for her because it fails to marry her physical need with the emotional, and the figure of Okada, the innocent, romanticised white knight of her youth, lingers in her mind. Sada kills Tatsuzo not quite by accident, attempting to take ownership of something which can never be hers in her fiercely patriarchal world where her clients coldly chide her for not being “polite” enough and despite the earning potential of her profession, she remains dependent on men to escape it.

Sada’s “crime” might not quite be revenge for all she’s suffered but it is a pointed act of rebellion towards a conformist society. She laments that her notoriety soon faded, that if being forgotten is like dying then she died long ago, but for a short time all of Japan was captivated not by the outrageous horror of her transgression but by an idea of “romance” that stood behind it as if Sada had moved beyond double suicide into new territories of eternal love through seeking to possess her lover even in death. The narrator, Sada’s sometime pimp, tells us that few remember Sada now and suggests that Japan is once again in a dark age, stopping only to remark that people were beautiful then too despite or perhaps because of the darkness. Fittingly the figure of the “real” Sada retreats and we’re left again with her legend, an imagined future for a woman who faded into pre-war tragedy as a symbol of its dangerous intensity. Even so, Obayashi is intent to show us that there was indeed a woman named Sada Abe who found herself at the mercy of her times but tried to live all the same, dreaming of impossible love in a world of corruption.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Inugami Family (犬神家の一族, Kon Ichikawa, 1976)

the inugami family 1976 posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Kon Ichikawa was able to go on working through the turbulent ‘70s and ‘80s because he was willing to take on purely commercial projects. The phenomenal and hugely unexpected success of 1976’s The Inugami Family (犬神家の一族, Inugami-ke no Ichizoku) set him in good stead for the rest of the decade during which he followed up with another four movies starring Koji Ishizaka as the eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi as featured in the novels of Seishi Yokomizo each of which was a bonafide box office success partially thanks to the effect of Haruki Kadokawa’s intensive multimedia marketing strategy then still in its infancy. In fact, Ichikawa would return to the sordid world of the Inugamis for his final picture in which he dared to remake his “greatest hit” with a now much older Koji Ishizaka reprising his role exactly 30 years later. Ichikawa might have been making “commercial” movies, but he never lost his experimental spirit.

Old Sahei Inugami (Rentaro Mikuni) finally drops dead in 1947 after a lifetime of seemingly doing exactly as he pleased. As a 17-year-old orphan he was taken in by a kindly priest and thereafter founded one of the biggest pharmaceuticals companies in Japan which is to say he leaves behind him a vast estate and desirable name. Unfortunately, he also leaves a messy family situation. Sahei was never legally married, but fathered three daughters with three different women who each have a son. In his 50s, he also fathered a son with his maid who would be about the same age as the grandchildren if anyone knew where he was. Sahei’s will, which in dramatic fashion can only be read with everyone present, leaves everything to a young woman, Tamayo (Yoko Shimada), who isn’t even part of the family but was doted on all the same by the elderly patriarch. In order to inherit, Tamayo must consent to marry one of the three grandsons – Suketake (Takeo Chii), Suketomo (Hisashi Kawaguchi), or Sukekiyo (Teruhiko Aoi) with whom she seems to have shared a past attachment. The will stresses that she is free to choose though if she decides to marry someone else entirely, the fortune will be divided in five with one part each to the grandsons and the rest to the maid’s son. As one can imagine, the daughters are furious.

Kindaichi is called in by a clerk (Hajime Nishio) at the solicitor’s office who has seen the will and finds it all decidedly strange (plus he’s in love with Tamayo so it’s very bad news for him). The clerk gets murdered before he can spill the beans, but the solicitor himself, Furudate (Eitaro Ozawa), decides to enlist Kindaichi’s help in figuring all of this out before it claims any more lives. Unfortunately, claim more lives it will.

Greed, as ever, is at the root of all evil but like the other entries in the Kindaichi series the crimes are largely a result of the world which surrounds them. Old Sahei made his money in some dubious ways. Ingratiating himself with the rich and powerful, later becoming a militarist for what seems like opportunistic reasons, he got himself special dispensation to grow poppies for their medicinal properties. Which is to say, he got rich selling opium to the masses. Inugami pharmaceuticals profited hugely from suffering incurred in wars spanning the century – with Russia, with China, through the first world war and the second. There was Inugami, ready to fuel the fire by numbing the pain.

Yet it’s his own unresolved emotional suffering that seems to have sent him such a dark and amoral path. Later we discover that a strange and emotionally difficult set of circumstances involving a quasi-incestuous, bisexual love triangle seem to have left him craving something to numb his own pain but only succeeding in passing it on to those around him. Firstly through the women he kept around to satisfy his carnal desires and then sent away, keeping the children with him but in a loveless, austere home. The sisters – Matsuko (Mieko Takamine), Takeko (Miki Sanjo), and Umeko (Mitsuko Kusabue) share an uneasy sort of camaraderie but are quick to turn on each other when it becomes clear that only one of them will inherit the family fortune and that they are now each rivals for the hand of Tamayo.

Like their grandfather, the Inugami boys are not an especially good catch. Two of them eventually attempt to rape Tamayo in an attempt to force her into marriage through shame (despite the fact that one has already fathered a child with his cousin), while she also has her doubts that Sukekiyo, with whom she has always felt a connection, is really who he says he is. Having gone away to the war, Sukekiyo did not return home after being demobbed because of intense survivor’s guilt. He also sustained severe burns to his face which require him to wear a latex mask over his entire head making positive identification difficult seeing as his voice, which he rarely uses, is also changed.

Rather than submit himself to the necessarily pokerfaced approach common to prestige murder mysteries from across the globe, Ichikawa uses the saleability of the property as an excuse to go all out. His tone varies wildly, almost to the point of parody in his frequent cuts to Kindaichi causing another of his famous anxiety induced dandruff avalanches. The blood eventually flies as do severed heads while upended corpses do handstands in lakes. The story of the Inugami family is a strange one filled with moments of bizarre whimsy but somehow it all works. As in many a Japanese mystery, the past refuses to die and the guilty eventually realise how misguided their enterprise has been, but there is hope for those left behind if they can free themselves from the cycle of guilt and suffering on which the Inugami name was built.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Devil’s Island (獄門島, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Island posterKon Ichikawa revisits the world of Kosuke Kindaichi for the third time in Devil’s Island (獄門島, Gokumon-to). Confusingly enough, Devil’s Island is adapted from the second novel in the Kidaichi series and set a few years before Ichikawa’s previous adaptation The Devil’s Ballad (the twin devils are just a coincidence). As with his other Kindaichi adaptations, Ichikawa retains the immediate post-war setting of the novel though this time the war is both fore and background as our tale is set on profane soil, a pirate island once home to Japan’s most heinous exiled criminals, which is to say it is the literal fount of every social failing which has informed the last 20 years of turbulent militarist history.

In 1946, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) travels to Kasaoka to catch the ferry to the island. On the way he runs into a demobbed soldier hobbling along on crutches only to catch sight of the man quickly picking his up crutches and running across the railway tracks when he thought no one was looking. Kindaichi is in luck – before he even reaches the boat he runs into the very man he’s come to see, Reverend Ryonen (Shin Saburi), for whom he has a message. Posing as a fellow soldier, Kindaichi reveals he has a “last letter” from a man named Chimata who sadly passed away right after the cessation of hostilities having contracted malaria. Chimata, as we later find out, was the legitimate heir of the island’s most prominent family. Kindaichi chooses not to reveal his true purpose, but the truth is that Chimata suspected his death would put his three younger sisters in danger from various unscrupulous family members attempting to subvert the succession.

Your average Japanese mystery is not, as it turns out, so far from Agatha Christie as one might assume and this is very much a tale of petty class concerns, island mores, and changing social conventions. The extremely confusing island hierarchy starts with the head of household who doubles as the head of the local fishing union and then shuffles out to the branch line and brassy sister-in-law Tomoe (Kiwako Taichi) who is keen claim all the authority she is entitled to. The old patriarch, Yosamatsu (Taketoshi Naito), went quite mad at the beginning of the war and is kept in a bamboo cage in the family compound where he screams and rails, only calmed by the gentle voice of Sanae (Reiko Ohara), a poor relation raised in the main house alongside her brother Hitoshi who hasn’t yet returned from the war. Aside from Yosamatsu, the absence of the two young men means the main house is now entirely inhabited by women, looked after by veteran maid Katsuno (Yoko Tsukasa).

Then again, Japanese mysteries hinge on riddles more than they depend on motives and there are certainly plenty of those on this weird little island where they don’t like “outsiders”. Ichikawa hints at the central conceit by flashing up haiku directly on the screen along with a few original chapter headings for Kindaichi whose eccentricities might seem less noticeable in such an obviously crazy place but strangely seem all the more overt, his trademark dandruff falling like rain from his tousled hair. It has to be said that Kindaichi fails in his otherwise pure hearted aims – he doesn’t make a great deal of effort to “save” the sisters and only attempts to solve the crimes as they occur, each one informing the next. This time around he gets trouble from both irritatingly bumbling detective Todoroki (Takeshi Kato) and his assistant Bando (Kazunaga Tsuji) , and the local bobby who immediately locks Kindaichi up and declares the crimes solved on the grounds that they only started happening after Kindaichi arrived.

Meanwhile, there are rumours of an escaped “pirate” running loose, demobbed soldiers, and a host of dark local customs contrasting strongly with the idyllic scenery and the strange “pureness” of this remote island otherwise untouched by the war’s folly save for the immediate events entirely precipitated by the absence of two young men taken away to die on foreign shores. Though the various motives for the crimes are older – shame, greed, classism, a bizarre dispute between Buddhists and Shamans, none of this would have been happening if the war hadn’t stuck its nose into island business and unbalanced the complex local hierarchy. Tragically, the crimes themselves all come to nought as a late arriving piece of news renders them null and void. Just when you think you’ve won, the rug is pulled from under you and the war wins again. Ichikawa opts for a for a defiantly straightforward style but adopts a few interesting editing techniques including fast cutting to insert tiny flashbacks as our various suspects suddenly remember a few “relevant” details. This strange island, imbued with ancient evils carried from the mainland, finds itself not quite as immune from national struggles as it once thought though perhaps manages to right itself through finally admitting the truth and acknowledging the sheer lunacy that led to the sorry events in which it has recently become embroiled.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Ballad posterA year after his box office smash The Inugami Family, Kon Ichikawa returns to the world of eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi with The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Akuma no Temari Uta). Like many a Kindaichi mystery, Devil’s Ballad finds him called upon to delve back into the past to satisfy an ageing detective’s anxiety about an old case, only to be faced with a series of new ones as a consequence. This time, however, the mystery leans less on buried secrets than deeply held grudges, betrayals, and lingering feudal feuds as the post-war society tries and fails to free itself from ancient oppressions.

The film opens with a tryst between two adolescent lovers in the ominously named “Devil’s Skull Village” in 1950. Yasu (Yoko Takahashi), the girl, is at pains to let her boyfriend, Kanao (Koji Kita), know that she is keen to take the relationship to the next level but he is old fashioned and wants to wait until their union is formalised. The pair are interrupted by some of their friends who are in the middle of planning a celebration for a visit from a girl who moved to the city, Chie (Akiko Nishina). Meanwhile, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) has arrived at the inn owned by Kanao’s mother Rika (Keiko Kishi) on invitation from a retired policeman, Isokawa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who wants Kindaichi to look into the murder of Rika’s husband twenty years ago. Isokawa, then a young rookie, is convinced that Rika’s husband was not the victim but the murderer and the corpse actually belonged to another man entirely – Onda, a drifter who defrauded half the village with a wreath making scam.

Rika and her children – 20-year-old Kanao and his younger sister Satoko (Eiko Nagashima) who has prominent facial birthmarks and rarely leaves the house, came to the village with her husband and are therefore slightly divorced from the longstanding social rivalries. The village has two noble families – the Yuras and the Nires. Feeling the need to modernise, the Nires bet everything on vineyards and it paid off. The Yuras, by contrast, were defrauded by Onda’s wreath scam and lost their fortune and social standing. Yasu, Kanao’s girlfriend, is a daughter of the Yuras, but the Nire’s have been petitioning Rika for quite some time to have her son marry their daughter, Fumiko (Yukiko Nagano), who also has a crush on him (though this is largely irrelevant to her father’s dynastic ambitions). When the younger generation start getting bumped off in ways eerily similar to a local folk song, Kindaichi and Isokawa are on the case, wondering if these new murders have anything to do with their old one.

Despite its 1950 setting, Devil’s Ballad is unusual in resolutely making an irrelevance of the war which only receives a brief mention as an explanation for why some of the case files have been destroyed and for why marriage is such a hot button issue given the lack of men and abundance of women. Nevertheless, the crimes span a turbulent 20 years of Japanese history with the original murder taking place in the early ‘30s during a period of economic instability following the Manchurian Incident. In the socially conservative pre-war era, it seems Onda also got around and may have fathered several illegitimate children with women in the village, some of them noble, some not. These buried secrets seem primed to bubble to the surface now that the children are coming of age and marriage again becomes an issue as worried parents try to think of acceptable ways to block potentially “inappropriate” matches without sending their children off into ruinous elopements or tipping off the wrong people that their kids may not be their kids.

The crimes themselves, old fashioned as they are, are partly reactions to a changing society. We discover that the reason Rika and her husband were forced to come back to the village was that their showbiz careers were stalling – she was a vaudeville performer specialising in shamisen, and he a “benshi” (narrator of silent films) who became convinced his job was obsolete after witnessing a subtitled print of Morocco. Likewise, the two rival families cannot let go of their petty provincial privileges, and as Kanao angrily snaps back at his mother, Japan is now a democratic country and he is free to choose his own wife at a time of his own choosing with or without parental blessing. This remote village is perhaps isolated from the privations of the post-war world but it’s also stuck in the past, hung up on past transgressions and unable to move forward into the new era. However, the primary motivations for murder are as old as time – guilt, humiliation, and self preservation.

Ichikawa keeps things simple but splices in a few strange, avant-garde sequences of kokeshi dolls menacingly bouncing balls coupled with shifts to black and white, fast-paced reaction shots, and stuttering still frame sequences all while Kindaichi showers innocent passersby with his famous dandruff, the idiot police officer continues to offer ridiculous theories while his sergeant dutifully follows him around, and the local bobby perfects a line in hilarious pratfalls. Overlong at two and a half hours and falling prey to the curse of the prestige crime drama in spoiling its mystery through casting, the Devil’s Ballad may not be the best of the Kindaichi mysteries but offers enough of a satisfying twist to prove worthy of the Kindaichi name.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Shohei Imamura, 1983)

ballad of narayama imamura 1983 posterWhen Keisuke Kinoshita decided to dramatise The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama Bushiko), adapted from a recent novel inspired by the ancient legend of “ubasute”, he recast it is as myth – a parabolic morality play adopting the trappings of kabuki to tell a timeless tale of transience and sacrifice. As much as Kinoshita praised the heroine’s kindness and altruistic sense of duty, he also questioned her failure to question the cruel and arbitrary social codes which defined her life, sacrificing her deep familial love for the cold austerity of religious reward. Shohei Imamura, slightly younger than Kinoshita, had also read the novel when it came out though he was not sufficiently progressed in his career to have considered adapting it for the screen. Unlike Kinoshita’s highly stylised approach, Imamura opts for his trademark sense of realism, exposing nature red in tooth and claw as he attempts to restore rural earthiness to the rarefied cinema screen.

Deep in the mountains, a small village does what it can to survive in harsh terrain. 69-year-old Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is as strong as they come but she is preparing to meet her end. In the villages of these parts, men and women of 70 are carried by their children to summit of Mount Narayama where they are left as a sacrifice to the god, praying for snow to hasten an otherwise long and drawn out death. Orin’s husband disappeared 30 years ago, the laughing stock of the village for his sentimental aversion to carrying his own mother up the mountain, and her son, Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) seems equally reluctant to accept that Orin will making her own journey as soon as the next snows arrive.

Existence is indeed cruel. The custom of “obasute” or “throwing away” one’s old people, originated because of a lack of food. There not being enough sustenance to support a large population, the old sacrifice themselves in the name of the young. Life is cheap and of little consequence. Tatsuhei’s simple-minded younger brother, Risuke (Tonpei Hidari), notices the body of a newborn baby emerging from the melting snow to the edge of his rice paddy but the sight does not disturb or sadden him – he is annoyed that someone has “dumped” their “rubbish” on his land. Baby boys, oddly, are worthless – just another mouth to feed until it becomes strong enough to work, but baby girls are a boon because they can be sold. Orin herself sold her baby daughter in desperation following a bad harvest, and when the salt seller calls in unexpectedly Orin is at pains to tell him they’ve still not made a decision as to whether to sell her granddaughter who has been left without a mother following the death of Orin’s daughter-in-law in a freak accident.

She needn’t have worried however because the salt seller is bringing good news – a new wife for Tatsuhei, meaning Orin can make her final journey with an unburdened heart knowing that the household will be taken care of. Tamayan (Aki Takejo), a kind and cheerful woman much like Orin herself, fits right in despite the objections of Tatsuhei’s teenage son, Kesakichi (Seiji Kurasaki), who has got his girlfriend pregnant and wants to “marry” her – bringing not one but two extra mouths into his household. Orin loves him dearly, but all Kesakichi can do is make fun of his granny for still having all her teeth and resentfully enquire if she isn’t needed somewhere up a mountain sometime about now.

Kesakichi’s coldness and selfishness is contrasted with the goodness and warmth of Orin and her son. Hardship, far from bringing people together in their shared struggle, has made beasts of all. Imamura splices in frequent shots of animals copulating or feasting on each other – rats gnawing on the body of a snake giving way to a snake swallowing the body of a twitching grey mouse. Yet it is nature that will win in the end. Early on the village men chase a hare in the snow, Tatsuhei shooting it dead, only for an eagle to swoop down and make off with the prize. On the mountain, strewn with bones, a host of flapping crows emerges from a battered rib cage. 

Catching a thief is no different to catching a hare. Convinced that the thief’s family is a curse on the village, the villagers determine that they must all be eliminated – the roots of a poisoned tree must be burned away. Breaking into the home, friends and former neighbours tie up and kidnap an entire family, burying them alive and then redistributing all their worldly goods in “recompense” for what they’d “lost”. The cycles of loss and redistribution continue, as Tatsuhei observes finding Orin’s belongings draped around other shoulders. Kesakichi, having lost one lover, quickly takes another forgetting the first while Tatsuhei struggles to come to terms with the loss of his mother and the knowledge that someday he too, and Kesakichi, and the sons of Kesakichi, will make this same journey to this same spot.

Kinoshita’s secondary concern had been with the cruelty of the custom and the mechanisms of social conformity which enforced it, but Imamura almost seems to be in agreement with the villagers, finding horror but also beauty in the sacrifice of Orin who accepts her fate with transcendent beatification and willingly sacrifices herself to the mountain gods. The world is cruel, and tender. A son’s acceptance of his mother’s sacrifice becomes the greatest expression of a love he must destroy by honouring.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Queen Bee (女王蜂, Kon Ichikawa, 1978)

queen beeKon Ichikawa may be best remembered for his mid career work, particularly his war films The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain as well as his melodramas Ototo and Bonchi, but he was one of the few directors who was prepared to keep one foot in the commercial arena as well as making more personal, “artistic” efforts. For this reason he was able to go on working through the creatively dry ‘80s when other big name directors, in particular Akira Kurosawa, found themselves locked out of the cinematic arena in their native country. Ichikawa’s biggest box office success was in fact the literary adaptation of a popular mystery novel The Inugamis (which he actually remade in 1999 as his final feature film). 1978’s Queen Bee (女王蜂, Jooubachi) is one of five films that Ichikawa made based on the work of popular mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo which feature the eccentric detective Kousuke Kindaichi.

In many ways, Queen Bee is the perfect synthesis of European and Japanese mystery styles as it technically plays host to its strange detective but places him off centre, more as an onlooker to events than the protagonist. Though it follows something like a classical Agatha Christie approach, it also brings in the Japanese love of puzzles and the importance of long buried secrets bubbling to the surface and coming back to haunt everyone involved in the original incident. It’s also important to note that Ichikawa is deliberately playing up the camp comedy of the situation too as he makes his bumbling policeman a definite figure of fun as well as sending Kindaichi tumbling into a pond among other oddly comic elements for this multiple murder mystery.

The story itself begins in 1932 as two students, Hitoshi and Ginzo, leave a small town where they’ve been learning all about the local folklore. Hitoshi later returns under less than pleasant circumstances as he’s come to get his grandmother’s ring back after giving it to a local girl, Kotoe, whom he’d agreed to marry, only his mother objects so now he wants to hold off a bit. Unfortunately this is not a good idea as Kotoe is already pregnant with his child. Sometime later Hitoshi dies in mysterious circumstances and we flash forward to 1936 when the daughter, Tomoko, is three years old and Ginzo comes back to propose to Kotoe.

Now we fast forward to 1952 when Tomoko is about to turn 19. Kotoe has died, Tomoko has been adopted by Ginzo, and three folklore loving students have set their eyes on her as a bride. Unfortunately, one of these suitors also winds up getting killed with Tomoko the prime suspect and it looks like history may be about to repeat itself.

Queen Bee may be a more mainstream effort, but Ichikawa films in a noticeably anarchic fashion with extremely strange cuts and juxtapositions, not to mention the almost parodic tone of the film. He adopts a fairly perverse approach to the entire enterprise even allowing his veteran star Tatsuya Nakadai to play the 20 year old version of himself in the brief 1930s scenes which is, it has to be said, something of a mistake. As fine an actor as Nakadai is, playing a 20 year old at 50 is a stretch and one which serves as a point of alienation during the deepest historical layer of the film.

As is usual with Japanese mysteries, the plot relies on the solution of various puzzles, riddles and the mechanics of crime much more so than the human psychology and importance placed on motive that dominate Western detective tales. As well as the long buried secrets, Queen Bee brings in some commentary on the place of social class in the post-war world, the folly of misplaced love, and how the failure to act honestly and in the best interests of others by putting your own feelings aside can cause extreme repercussions not only in your own future but those of generations to come. Once again, only by exposing previously unexpressed emotions and lies both accidental and deliberate can the trauma be resolved and crises come to an end.

Queen Bee is a strange film which plays up its European detective novel atmosphere complete with the drawing room lecture that has become a hallmark of the genre but also adds in a layer of irony and an almost winking jokiness that make for an oddly amusing tone. The mystery element itself is satisfying enough to keep even the most seasoned crime fan guessing with plenty of red herrings and misinformation along the way. That said, Queen Bee is also very much of its time and perhaps fails to offer much more than an enjoyably old fashioned detective story, albeit one which is anchored by strong performances from its veteran cast.


Unsubtitled trailer: