Stray Dog (野良犬, Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

“And, yes, I think the world’s not right. But it’s worse to take it out on the world” the conflicted policeman at the centre of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (野良犬, Nora Inu) explains as he struggles to reacquire his sense of authority while weighing up its limits and his own right to pass judgement on what is right or wrong or merely illegal. He must ask himself how he can enforce the law while faced with the reality that the man he chases is an echo of himself, the him that took another path amid the chaos, confusion, and despair that followed in the wake of defeat and occupation even as his well-meaning mentor insists that some people are good and others bad and he won’t be able to do his job if he gives it much more thought than that.

The policeman, Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), is perhaps the stray dog of the title who can only follow the straight path towards his missing gun taken from him on a sweltering bus in the middle of summer while he was distracted not only by the heat but by exhaustion having been up all night on a stakeout. As we later discover, Murakami is a rookie cop and recently demobbed soldier trying to make a life for himself in the post-war society. In this he is quite lucky. Many men returned home and struggled to find employment leaving them unable to marry or support families, a whole pack of stray dogs lost in an ever changing landscape. This must have weighed quite heavily on his mind as he made the decision to resign from the police force to take responsibility for the laxity that led to the gun possibly ending up in the wrong hands only to discover his superiors don’t regard it as seriously as he does. His boss tears up the letter and tells him to turn his defeat into something more positive by trying to do something about it, which might in its own way be a metaphor for the new post-war society. 

So closely does Murakami identify himself with his gun that on hearing it has been used in a violent robbery it’s almost as if he has committed the crime and is responsible for anything it might do. There is an essential irony in the fact that this weapon that was supposed to prevent crime is being subverted and used in its service as if mirroring the paths of the two men who both returned to a changed Japan and had their knapsacks stolen on their way back home. Murakami has chosen the law, while the thief Yusa (Isao Kimura) is thrown into nihilistic despair unable to make a life for himself. Murakami’s sense of guilt is further compounded on realising that he may have frustrated Yusa’s attempt to turn back, returning the gun to the underground pistol brokers who make their living through selling illegal weapons stolen from police or bought from occupation forces.

As he admits, Murakami could have ended up committing a robbery but realised he was at a dangerous crossroads and made a deliberate choice to join the police instead. He literally finds himself walking the other man’s path when he’s told by a pickpocket, Ogin (Noriko Sengoku), that the underworld pistol dealers will find him if he walks around downtown looking like he’s at the end of his rope. Ogin, the woman reeking of cheap perfume who stood next to him on the bus, was once known for her fancy kimonos but is now in western dress, signalling perhaps a further decline. In this age of privation, only kimonos and rice have held their value and it’s not unreasonable to assume that she’s sold all of hers and joined the modern generation. Ogin doesn’t have anything to do with the theft, but seems to take pity on Murakami seeing him as naive and essentially unable to understand the way things work on the ground. His mentor, Sato (Takashi Shimura), seems to understand too well, on one level looking down on those like Ogin as simply bad but otherwise happy in her company knowing exactly how to get what he wants through their oddly flirtatious conversation as they suck ice lollies and smoke illicit cigarettes in the interview room. 

Dressed in a ragged military uniform, Murakami wanders around the backstreets of contemporary Tokyo past street kids and sex workers and groups of men just hanging around. Kurosawa employs montage and superimposition to reflect the endless drudgery and maddening circularity his of passage under the stifling heat of summer in the city that allows him a better understanding of what it is to live in this world. Even so, the boy who eventually makes contact seems to see through him pointing out that he looks too physically robust to pass for a desperate drifter. Yusa meanwhile is wiry and hollow, a frightened man who uses Murakami’s gun to affect an authority he does not own which might explain why both of his victims are women. Sato emphasises the worthiness of their victimhood, explaining that the first was robbed of the money she’d saved over three years for her wedding meaning she might have to wait even longer at which point there would be no point getting married at all, while the second woman was killed at home alone and defenceless. We’re also told that her body was nude when discovered which raises the question of whether she might have been assaulted before she died which would cast quite a different light on Yusa’s crimes no longer an accidental killer but a crazed rapist well beyond salvation. 

Yet the accidental nature of Yusa’s fall does seem to be key. The trigger seems to have been a childhood friend he’d fallen in love with gazing at a dress he could never afford to buy for her, pushed into a corner by his wounded masculinity and taking drastic action to reclaim it in much the same way Murakami later does in searching for his missing gun. In their final confrontation they grapple violently in existential struggle in a small grove behind some posh houses where a woman plays a charming parlour tune on the piano pausing only for a few moments to peer out of the window on hearing gunshots. Murakami retrieves his gun and the pair fall to the ground side by side to be met by the sound of children singing, provoking a wail of absolute despair from a defeated Yusa suddenly hit by the full weight of his transgressions. He too was a stray dog heading straight in one direction driven out of mainstream society by the unfairness of the post-war world. Sato tells Murakami that he’ll eventually forget all about Yusa, that he’ll become “less sentimental” and accept the world is full of bad guys and those who fall victim to them, but Murakami doesn’t seem too convinced, for the moment at least unable to forget that Yusa was man much like himself only less lucky or perhaps simply less naive.


Stray Dog screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 1st & 13th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Rashomon (羅生門, Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

Is there such a thing as objective truth, or only an agreed upon “reality”? Like many of his early films, Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of a pair of short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa is concerned with the idea of authenticity, or the difference between the truth and a lie, but is also acutely aware that the lines between the two aren’t as clear as we’d like them to be largely because we lie to ourselves and come to believe our own perceptions as “truth” assuming that it is others who are mistaken or duplicitous. 

After all, the film opens with the words “I don’t understand”, as the woodsman (Takashi Shimura), who later tells us unprompted that he does not lie, tries to reconcile the conflicting testimonies of a series of witnesses at the trial of the bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) who is accused of raping a noble woman (Machiko Kyo) in the forest and killing her husband (Masayuki Mori). At the end of the film it becomes clear that most of his confusion is born of the fact that he witnessed more than he claimed, later presenting a more objective version of the events while justifying his decision not reveal it earlier by saying he didn’t want to get involved. Not wanting to get involved might be understandable, he has six children and presumably won’t be paid for his time nor will he want to risk being accused of something himself. Then again as the cynical peasant (Kichijiro Ueda) sheltering with him at the already ruined Rashomon Gate seems to have figured out, it might equally be that he took the precious dagger repeatedly mentioned in the trial before running off to find the police. He has six children to feed after all. 

The woodsman is simply confused if also guilty, but the Buddhist monk (Minoru Chiaki) who saw the couple on the road some days previously has been thrown into existential despair and is on the brink of losing his faith in humanity. He can’t bear to live in a world in which everyone is selfish and dishonest. Yet “dishonest” is not quite the right word to describe the testimony, for there’s reason to believe that the witnesses may believe what they say when saying it or have at least deluded themselves into believing a subjective version of the truth that shows them in a better light than the “objective” might have. At least, none of the suspects are lying in order to escape justice as each confesses to the crime though for varying reasons. 

The bandit flatters himself by assuming dominance over the situation, baldly stating that he killed the samurai to rape the wife only she took a liking to him and he killed the husband in a fair fight even remarking on his skill as a swordsman. As we later see Kurosawa frames these fights in a more naturalistic fashion than your average chambara. They are often clumsy and desperate, won more by chance than by skill. Tajomaru also describes the wife as “fierce” in an unwomanly fashion though she is meek and cheerful on the stand and later states that she fainted after her husband rejected her for her “faithlessness” and woke up to find her dagger in his chest, while his beyond the grave testimony delivered via spirit medium claims that he killed himself unable to bear the humiliation of his wife’s betrayal in agreeing to leave with Tajomaru. 

As the peasant points out, Tajomaru lies because he is insecure and so tells a story that makes him seem more “heroic” than he actually is, while the wife lies to overcome her shame, and the samurai to reclaim agency over his death and escape the twin humiliations of having been unable to protect his wife and being murdered by a petty bandit. As the three men sheltering under the Rashomon Gate concede, we don’t know our own souls and often resort to narrative to tell ourselves who we are. As usual, the truth is a little of everything, all the tales are partly true and less “lies” than wilful self-delusion to help the witness accept an unpalatable “reality”. Kurosawa perhaps hints at this in his use of extreme closeup while otherwise forcing the viewer into the roles alternately of witness and judge as if we were like the woodman watching from the bushes or hearing testimony from the dais while the action proceeds to the maddening rhythms of a bolero. Despite the hopeless of the situation, the reality that everyone lies and the world is a duplicitous place, the monk’s faith is eventually restored in the acknowledgment that there are truths other than the literal as he witnesses the woodsman’s compassion and humanity, the skies ahead of them beginning to clear as they leave the shelter of the ruined gate for a world which seems no less uncertain but perhaps not so cynical as it had before.


Rashomon is re-released in UK cinemas on 6th January courtesy of BFI.

Re-release trailer (English subtitles)

Untamed (あらくれ, Mikio Naruse, 1957)

“Don’t let guys control you. You have to make them men” the heroine of Mikio Naruse’s Taisho-era drama Untamed (あらくれ, Arakure, AKA Untamed Woman) advises a former rival, yet largely fails to do so herself in the fiercely patriarchal post-Meiji society. Based on a serialised novel by Shusei Tokuda published in 1915 but set in late Meiji rather than early Taisho, Naruse’s adaptation essentially drops a contemporary post-war woman into a by then almost unrecognisable Japan but finds her hamstrung firstly by feckless and entitled men and then by complicit women who themselves cannot accept her transgressive femininity. 

As the film opens, a teenage Shima (Hideko Takamine) has just married wealthy grocery store owner Tsuru (Ken Uehara) but the marriage is already a failure. Though Shima is compared favourably with Tsuru’s previous wife who was apparently in poor health, presumably suffering with TB which required a sojourn by the sea, it soon becomes clear that Tsuru is as trapped by the archaic patriarchal social system as she is. He was apparently in love with a woman from a higher social class he was too afraid to pursue and despite still seeing her also has a mistress near their factory in Hokkaido whom he often visits under the guise of a business trip. Yet when Shima tells him she thinks she may be pregnant, he is unimpressed immediately questioning the paternity of the child while harping on about her having been married before which it seems is not quite true. Perhaps the reason that she has ended up a second wife despite her youth and beauty, Shima ran out on a marriage to a childhood friend arranged for her by her adoptive parents the night before the wedding not realising they had already registered the union without her knowledge or consent. 

This transgressive act at once signals Shima’s total disregard for conventionality and insistence on her own autonomy, yet it is also indicative of the fact she married Tsuru in search of a better life, knowing that to marry her adoptive parents’ choice meant only a life of servitude on the family farm. She is not always a terribly likeable figure, coldly explaining that she didn’t mind being fostered out because the adoptive family were wealthier and could give her a better life than she had with her birth parents yet it’s this sense of familial dislocation and the liminal status it gives her that allow her to take agency over her life in the way other women might not unwilling to lose the familial security Shima may not feel she ever had. Tsuru is also an adopted son, but the price for disobedience for him may be even higher and indeed as we later hear his inability to sort out his love life eventually sees him out on his ear. His pettiness in refusing to accept the child is his leads to an argument which causes Shima to slip on the stairs and miscarry the implication being that she may not be able to bear more children leaving her unlikely to remarry and thereby spurring her desire for a tempered independence. 

The fall is the last straw, Tsuru divorces her citing her inability to play the role of the proper wife while her birth family, from whom she is emotionally estranged, refuse to take her back as do the adoptive parents because of the embarrassment she caused them with the marriage stunt. She is often described as “like a man”, unable to win as Tsuru at once insists she wear the frumpy kimonos left behind by his previous wife who was a decade older, complains she wears too much makeup, and tells her to loosen her kimono belt to de-emphasises her figure, while criticising her for being unfeminine in her refusal to simply put up with his bad behaviour as is expected for a wife in this era. Shima fulfils all her wifely duties and as we see is in fact running his business as the women of the family are often seen to do while their husbands spend the money they earn for them on other women whether drinking with geishas or supporting mistresses in second homes. When her husband hits her, she fights back rather than shrinking away chastened as intended. 

Yet she cannot overcome the sense that a man is necessary for her success which cannot be accomplished alone. Cast out from her family, her brother installs her in the mountains to work in a geisha house if only as kitchen staff but soon does a flit to reunite with his married lover who has left her husband for him. While there she falls for the quiet and sensitive inn owner Hamaya (Masayuki Mori), also an adopted heir, whose wife is again ill with TB. Hamaya may be treating his wife a little better than Tsuru did his, but quite clearly assumes she’ll die in starting an affair with Shima who is then sent away to an even more remote inn to avoid a potential scandal. As Tsuru did with the woman he apparently loved, Shima continues to see Hamaya until he too succumbs to TB as an ideal of an impossible love while simultaneously accepting that he failed her in being too weak and cowardly to fight for their romance outright refusing to become his mistress. 

This may be one reason she is determined never again to be an employee but to own her own store which is why she ends up marrying tailor Onoda (Daisuke Kato) who introduces her to textiles and seamstressing at which she quickly proves adept having mastered the modern sewing machine. She marries Onoda in believing him “reliable”, but soon comes to regard him as lazy and feckless. The first shop fails because he can’t keep up with her. The male employees are always taking breaks to drink tea and play shogi, Onoda complaining that he’s tired while she does all his work for him and the housework too. Yet he also criticises her for a lack of femininity, snapping back that it must be her time of the month when she berates him in front of their employees while later after they’ve become successful complaining it’s “embarrassing” that his workhorse wife doesn’t know the things a sophisticated society woman would such as ikebana while flirting with the teacher he’s hired ostensibility to teach her. He even forces her to wear a frumpy and already somewhat dated classically Edwardian dress with a fancy bonnet which more resembles something a country girl might wear to church than the latest in Western fashions in an attempt to advertise their tailoring which seems primed to backfire. 

That she learns to ride a bicycle in this rather ridiculous outfit is again a symbol of her desire to seize and manipulate modernity even giving rise to a piece of innuendo from her much younger assistant Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai) as to the pounding she’s been getting from the saddle. Kimura seems to think the problem with the business is that Onoda’s patterns are outdated, offering her a new modernity while she prepares to cut Onoda out on catching him with his mistress taking their best employee with her to ruin his business and start another of her own. Though once again she cannot leave alone only with a man the ending is perhaps more hopeful than might be expected from a Naruse film allowing Shima to commit herself fully to the sense of industry she embodies always ready to start again, work harder, and achieve her desires unwilling to be bound by conventional ideas of femininity or to simply put up with useless men who refuse to accept her for all she is. Yet she largely fails to make men of them, each of her various suitors failing to live up to her, ruined by an oppressive social system that encourages them to exploit female labour while taking it for granted in their intense sense of patriarchal entitlement. 


Mother (おかあさん, Mikio Naruse, 1952)

The hahamono or mother movie is a mainstay of post-war cinema, obsessed as it is with self-sacrificing maternity. Mikio Naruse, however, is not a name you’d expect to see associating itself with the genre and his 1952 film Mother (おかあさん, Okaasan), adapted from a child’s essay, is indeed subtly subversive, transgressively questioning the institution of motherhood itself while ostensibly remaining faithful to genre norms even as it makes an accidental villain of its teenage heroine who closes the film plaintively praying for her mother’s happiness having not so long ago shut down perhaps her only real hope of achieving it. 

The Fukuhara family ran a successful laundry before the war, but these days father Ryosuke (Masao Mishima) works at a factory and is nicknamed Papa Popeye by his kids because of his finely tuned muscles born of a lifetime training the iron. Matriarch Masako (Kinuyo Tanaka) and 18-year-old daughter Toshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), our narrator, help the family finances by running street food stalls, while oldest son Susumu (Akihiko Katayama) has become ill with a lung complaint caused by poor conditions at the wool factory where he was working. In addition to youngest daughter Chako who is still in school, the family has also taken in little Tetsu (Takashi Ito) the son of Masako’s sister Noriko (Chieko Nakakita) who is now a widow recently repatriated from Manchuria. 

Like many films of the occupation period, the family at the centre of Mother is determined to rebuild, pinning all their hopes on being able to renovate their home in order to be able to reopen the laundry. The war is very much a background presence but its influence is still deeply felt not least in the ruins and devastation glimpsed around the house and the constant references to loss and widowhood which seem to plague Masako, so many women having lost sons and husbands in the conflict. The tragedy is that Masako will eventually in one sense or another lose all her children by the end of the picture, Susumu succumbing to his illness after having discharged himself from hospital out of guilt and loneliness missing his mother, Chako eventually taken in by wealthier relatives who lost their son in the war, Tetsu soon to be retrieved by his mother, and Toshiko herself clearly heading towards marriage with the cheerful and surprisingly progressive baker Shinjiro (Eiji Okada) with whom she has become close. 

Perhaps surprisingly Toshiko seems remarkably immature for her age, her voiceover taken as it is from a child’s essay has a slightly stilted quality that nevertheless makes plain her poor grasp of the adult world and most particularly the reality of her mother’s life. Masako later tells us that she started working at 14 and continued until she married at not so much older than Toshiko is now despite later stating that Toshiko is too young to marry only to find her self shocked when confronted by the sight of her in a wedding dress stifling a brief wave of despair that her daughter may soon be a wife. Originally complaining about not being able to take dressmaking classes like some of the other girls, Toshiko belatedly swears to help support the family firstly to prevent Chako going to stay with relatives and secondly because her boyfriend inadvertently gives her the impression there’s truth in a local rumour that her mother plans to remarry following her husband’s death from overwork and poverty with a friend of their father’s who’s been helping them out in the shop, “Uncle POW” Mr. Kimura (Daisuke Kato). 

Shinjiro is quick to tell her that she’s being unreasonable. In the modern world parents shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice their personal desires for their children, her mother is also a woman and has the right to pursue happiness in marrying again if she chooses. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly concrete between Masako and Mr. Kimura besides a genial domesticity, the rumour is partly local wishful thinking in knowing that remarriage is sensible economic choice and the pair seem well suited. Toshiko objects strongly to the idea out of fear, jealousy, and outdated moralising resenting her mother for betraying her father’s memory but also fearing further changes in her familial relationships in an already uncertain world. 

In this her otherwise saccharine closing monologue in which she looks on as her mother plays with Tetsu and wonders if she’s really “happy” achieves its final irony, transgressively undercutting the primacy of the self-sacrificing mother to question the ideology of motherhood itself when it requires women to sacrifice their lives and desires in service of an ideal of “family”. Nevertheless, Mother is among the most ostensibly cheerful of Narusean dramas in the gentle comedy and naturalistic depiction of a warm and loving family committed to compassion, kindness, and mutual support as pathways towards a better post-war future.  


Mother is currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel

Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)

Wife (妻, Mikio Naruse, 1953)

The post-war world, to a certain way of thinking at least, promised a greater degree of freedom in which it might no longer be necessary to go on stoically bearing unhappiness in service to a social ideal. Then again, old habits are hard to break and not everyone is quite so equipped to acknowledge that misery can in a sense be a choice. Mikio Naruse’s Wife (妻, Tsuma) finds itself at a moment of transition in which the meaning of everything the word meant was perhaps beginning to change while the idea that a woman might choose to reject the role was no longer a taboo but an increasingly viable possibility. 

To the unhappily married Mineko (Mieko Takamine), however, the idea of independence remains somewhat distasteful. Each morning her husband, Nakagawa (Ken Uehara), leaves the house without a word. In fact, he doesn’t even look at her before silently walking away. She complains that she has no idea what he’s thinking, all he ever tells her is that he’s “tired” but she also resents him for failing to provide for her in the way that she perhaps expected. The couple live in a sizeable home, but Mineko has to rent out the upstairs to a series of lodgers as well as taking in sewing as a side job to make ends meet. What seems perfectly apparent is that the couple are ill suited, both in terms of temperament and of personal desires. Nakagawa is a soft hearted, romantic sort of man who isn’t particularly bothered if their lodgers pay their rent or not, while his wife is emotionally distant and infinitely practical as perhaps life has taught her to be. 

The peculiarities of life in Japan in 1953 place considerable strain on not only on the Nakagawas but on each of the other couples that we see. Those who married in haste during the war may be regretting their choices, while others, like Eiko (Chieko Nakakita) who rents the upstairs room with her husband Matsuyama (Hajime Izu), complain that the men they waited so long for came back changed. That Matsuyama cannot find a job in the difficult economic circumstances of the post-war society may not be his fault, but the necessity of relying on his wife for economic support has nevertheless eroded his sense of masculinity and left him a resentful drunk, destroying his wife’s love for him. Mineko is slightly scandalised when another tenant, art student Tanimura (Rentaro Mikuni), reveals that Eiko works not in a store but in a bar in Ginza, that being in truth the only kind of job that pays enough to support a married couple and a mother-in-law that a woman can get in 1953. Eventually Eiko leaves her husband, something else that scandalises Mineko, and resolves to live an independent life rather than remarry.

The idea of independence is repeatedly mentioned to her, but Mineko continues to reject it. Her sister jokingly suggests going into business together, while another customer, a widow with a young son, floats the idea of leaving the home of her late husband and opening a shop to support herself independently. She believes remarriage is not a viable option because she has a child, a thought echoed by another widow, Fusako (Yatsuko Tanami), who eventually decides to do something similar by returning to her hometown and going into business with a friend. Opening a shop is a popular option, but it of course requires investment and relies on having strong support, in Fusako’s case from female solidarity in teaming up with another woman in a similar situation. 

It might be easy enough to say that becoming financially independent is a choice on offer only to widows with children who have, in some way, already fulfilled their social obligations, while women like Eiko who chose childless self-sufficiency would still struggle to find acceptance even if their career were not dependent on an industry still itself taboo. That Nakagawa and Mineko have no children perhaps places an additional strain on the marriage. Nakagawa tells a colleague complaining about his family that he wonders if children might have made his life easier, while his only moment of contentment seems to be in playing with Fusako’s young son on the morning after spending an illicit night with her in an inn at Osaka. She sadly tries to ask what might be next for them, but he only wants to live in that moment knowing that their future is an impossibility. 

Despite his unhappiness, Nakagawa doesn’t seem motivated towards ending his marriage, perhaps out of guilt or because as friend later suggests it’s not so much Fusako that he loves as the possibility of a different future. On his return from his Osaka trip, he encounters a new tenant, Mineuchi, who has found her own way to be independent in becoming a mistress. Nakagawa seems to find the arrangement mildly distasteful, though it’s perhaps not so far off what he’s planning to do with Fusako. Mineuchi paid premium for the room and has even brought her own refrigerator and an electric gramophone so she is in a sense living the dream, especially as her “patron”, a furniture store owner, only visits twice a month. 

After learning that Nakagawa has fallen in love with Fusako, Mineko wonders if she should pay her a visit, but then receives one herself from the furniture store owner’s tearful wife who reveals that he is not a wealthy man and has ruined himself, and therefore her, after being bewitched by a Ginza bar hostess. Later, Mineko discovers that the furniture store owner’s wife took her own life in humiliation, lamenting that she didn’t have to go so far just because of her husband’s indiscretion, but also threatens to do the same herself to try and guilt Fusako into giving up her husband. 

Yet, pretty much everyone seems to tell Mineko that this is all her own fault and the reason her perfectly good husband has looked elsewhere is because she has failed as a wife. Sharp and emotionally distant, she alienates those around her but is devastated to realise that she’s lost her husband’s love and will most likely never be able to regain it. Her decision to talk not to him but to Fusako hints at the way in which women see each other as rivals and not as friends, actively holding each other back, as her sister Yoshimi (Michiyo Aratama) also does in insisting on the social order over personal feeling, rather than attempting to find understanding or mutual support. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that ending her husband’s dream of romantic escape through emotional manipulation is unlikely to improve the quality of her married life. 

Mineko, however, never contemplates independence. She tells Fusako that she won’t consent to a divorce just to claim alimony, but privately wonders what would become of her if she left her husband. She might be able to put a stop to it this time, but who’s to say he won’t find someone else. What she seems primed to choose is socially mandated misery, rejecting the “freedoms” of the post-war age to end an unhappy marriage because she can’t conceive of herself as anything other than a “wife” and being miserable is apparently better than being nothing at all. 


The Rickshaw Man (無法松の一生, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1958)

Japanese cinema has a special affinity with loveable rogues. We forgive their mischief and inconvenient troublemaking because deep down we know they’re kindhearted and even when they act impulsively it’s only out of an abundance of misplaced emotion. The wild Matsu is a case in point, brought to life by the great Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s remake of a story he first adapted 15 years previously but was apparently unhappy with because of the censorship demands of the time. What is surprising, therefore, is that despite his otherwise liberal outlook Inagaki largely echoes those problematic pre-war views, opting to focus on the tragic comic figure of Matsugoro rather than engage with the destructive visions of toxic masculinity that his well-meaning paternalism represents or with the latent feudalism which continues to inform the later course of his life. 

Beginning in 1897, Inakagaki introduces us to “The Wild Matsu” (Toshiro Mifune) on his “illegal” return to Kokura from which he had apparently been “banished” because of an “incident” the previous year. This time, Matsugoro has crawled back home apparently ill in bed and nursing his head after getting into an argument with a man who turned out to be the kendo instructor for the local police. Unafraid to embarrass himself, Matsugoro later relates the tale as a funny anecdote, admitting that the kendo master put an end to their fight in record time by striking him on the head and knocking him out. Typical Matsugoro, seems to be the reaction from all around him. Later he takes offence with a ticket seller who refuses him a comp to the show when free tickets are usually available to rickshaw drivers (publicity tools haven’t changed as much as you’d think), returning later in the evening and buying a ticket with a friend but setting up a mini stove to bake garlic and stink the place out as his revenge. A calm and rational mediator later explains to him that though he can understand why he was upset because it causes confusion when people refuse to abide by longstanding traditions, his stunt has ruined the evening of a lot of people who weren’t really involved in his vendetta. Immediately seeing the error of his ways, Matsugoro determines to make a full and complete apology to the spectators whom he’d so thoughtlessly inconvenienced. 

This incident demonstrates Matsugoro’s essential goodness. He may be impulsive and easily offended, but he means no harm and even his “revenge” is an amusing, petty affair rather than something dark or violent. The main thrust of the narrative, however, kicks in when he spots a lonely little boy being made fun of by his friends because he’s too scared to climb a tree. Matsugoro pauses to tell him that he needs to man up, but on his way back finds the other kids running away and the boy on the floor crying after having fallen and broken a leg. Finding out where he lives, Matsugoro picks the boy up and takes him home to his mother (Hideko Takamine) who further enlists him to take the child to a doctor. 

The boy, Toshio, lives in the old “samurai district” and is the son of army officer Kotaro Yoshioka (Hiroshi Akutagawa), a cheerful man who though holding similar views on manliness to Matsugoro, finds the incident faintly amusing. In fact, Kotaro had heard of “The Wild Matsu” because he was once very rude to an army general he was charged with conveying from place to place during a series of official events. He decides to invite Matsugoro to dinner and the two men hit it off, but Kotaro suddenly dies of a fever leaving his wife Yoshiko alone with their son, worrying that she won’t be able to cure his sensitivity and turn him into a “strong” young man now that he lacks a male role model. 

Matsugoro is perfectly happy to fill that role, bonding with the little boy but always encouraging him to be “manly” which, in this age, largely means strong and athletic, rational and obedient while manfully repressing his feelings, and finally a willingness and ability to fight. While all of this is going on, we see the tides of militarism rising even in the early years of the century. The Russo-Japanese war giving way to the taking of Qingdao while flags go up everywhere and patriotic celebrations of martial glory become ever more frequent, but the problematic quality of this age of hypermasculinty is never questioned even as it leads the nation towards a decidedly dark destiny. 

Meanwhile, Matsugoro seems to have fallen in deep yet impossible love with Yoshiko but is prevented from voicing his feelings because of a deep seated sense of social inferiority. Matsugoro’s life has been limited not only because he was born poor, but because of a traumatic childhood with a cruel step-mother. Denied a proper education, he is largely illiterate and rickshaw driving, which depends only on his physical strength and stamina (the most highly praised qualities of the age), is all that he can expect out of life. We never have any inkling of how Yoshiko views Matsugoro, if there are any romantic feelings on her part or she simply admires him as a robust and good hearted friend, but the futility of Matsugoro’s unresolvable longing eventually drives him to drink which he had previously given up, along with his “wild” nature, in the need to provide a more respectable example to the young Toshio. 

Similarly, we aren’t privy to the parallel tragedy which will inevitably leave Yoshiko lonely as comparatively young widow whose only son will naturally become distant from his mother, grow-up, and find a wife to start a family of his own. Her anxiety over her son’s participation in a group fight is dismissed as hysterical womanliness, destructive maternity that may prevent Toshio from becoming a “proper” man. Something which is perhaps borne out when Matsugoro, who’d gone to watch over him just in case, has to wade in to defend Toshio who is too frightened to participate.

Nevertheless, Matsugoro is a big hearted man despite his intense masculinity, always acting with selfless kindness but also meekly accepting the fate his cards have dealt him rather than railing against the systems which have caged him all his life from his poverty to the perceived class differences which demand he keep his distance from the beautiful Yoshiko. The wheels of his rickshaw turn on ceaselessly as if relentlessly pulling him on towards his inescapable destiny, but shouldn’t we be asking more for men like Matsugoro whose hearts are good than being resigned to loneliness because of a few outdated social codes?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Composition Class (綴方教室, Kajiro Yamamoto, 1938)

composition class posterChildren’s essay classes can yield unexpected revelations but sometimes it’s the tragedy behind the humour which catches the attention rather than a unique way of describing a situation not fully understood. Composition Class (綴方教室, Tsuzurikata Kyoshitsu) has something in common with the later Korean classic Sorrow Even Up in Heaven or even the more temporally proximate Tuition in drawing inspiration from the diaries of school age children but predictably it’s far less bleak in outlook. Though young Masako (nicknamed Maako) has her share of problems, her troubles are met with characteristic cheerfulness and a determination to carry on no matter what.

In a small town in North East Tokyo, 1938, Masako Toyoda (Hideko Takamine) lives with her parents and her two brothers in a humble home her family can barely afford. Disaster strikes when dad gets a letter from the court which he can’t read – Masako usually reads for him but letters from the court are still too difficult for a preteen schoolgirl. The family are behind on their rent and have heard that someone is trying to buy up the area with other families also facing possible eviction. Bright though she is, Masako might have to give up school and find a job as a maid while the family moves to stay with relatives who own a shoe shop. Luckily, none of that happens because the note was only about a rent increase (on the rent that haven’t paid for months).

The second crisis occurs when Masako’s teacher is taken with the essays she’s writing in class which are so real and honest that they espouse all the values he wants to teach the children. Around this time, the lady from next door, Reiko’s mother Kimiko, is leaving town (and her husband) and so gives away some her breeding rabbits as pets believing that a nice girl like Masako will be sure to take care of them and that they could use the extra money from selling the babies. Kimiko, thinking Masako is out of earshot, remarks that she was going to give some of the rabbits to the local bigwigs, the Umemotos, but even if they’re wealthy, they aren’t very nice and she wouldn’t like to think of her rabbits not being looked after. Masako naively records this minor detail in one of her essays which the teacher then sells to a local magazine. The Umemotos find out and aren’t happy which is a problem because dad gets most of his work through Mr. Umemoto who has a stranglehold on the local economy.

Through Masako’s diary and child’s eye view of the world, Kaijiro Yamamoto paints an oddly relaxed picture of depression era privation as the Toyodas endure their penury with stoicism and a belief the bad times will sometime end. Masako and her family have it a little better than some, but when bad weather puts an end to dad’s tinsmithing business and he’s forced into the precarious life of a day labourer things go from bad to worse. Now out of work more than in, the family are reliant on rice coupons to get by and spend one miserable New Year’s with no money for the first week of January when the biting cold makes it impossible to go out and forage for food. Masako writes of her embarrassment the first time her mother sent her to the shop with coupons and that she eventually got used to it, save for one occasion she ran into friends and had to quickly cover by saying she’d bought rice bran rather than collecting the rice dole. Like Masako, dad is a good natured soul though he’s also fond of drinking and is often let down or tricked out of his money, even being cheated out of his bicycle which he needs to keep working.

Sadness is all around from the man next door who’s so poor he doesn’t even have money for sake to the dejected Kimiko who eventually returns pale, drawn, and barely recognisable only to find her husband remarried to a much younger woman. Though Masako is a bright girl with a talent for writing her future is already limited. At one low point, her mother seems excited about the idea of selling Masako off to a geisha house where she will at least be fed, have pretty clothes, and maybe make a good match with the sort of man who marries former geishas. Needless to say, Masako is not very enthusiastic, and neither is her teacher who pledges to save her from such an unpleasant fate but luckily it never comes to that. Other girls will be going on to high school and university, but Masako counts herself lucky to have got a job in the local factory which will provide a steady income for her family. Though it’s a shame Masako is denied the same opportunities as the other girls because of her family’s poverty, she does at least pledge to keep writing even as she marches happily towards work and a (possibly) brighter future.


Marital Relations (夫婦善哉, AKA Meoto Zenzai, Shiro Toyoda, 1955)

Marriage is not always simple, but when you aren’t actually married (and one of you is technically still married to someone else) the difficulties can be all the more pronounced. Often neglected in comparison with some of his contemporaries, Shiro Toyoda is best remembered for his often humorous literary adaptations. Marital Relations (夫婦善哉 Meoto Zenzai), based on a 1940 novel by Sakunosuke Oda and runner up to Naruse’s Floating Clouds in Kinema Junpo’s top ten for 1955, is a prime example of his style as it examines the unconventional relationship between a spoilt younger son of a wealthy family and a feisty geisha who nevertheless remains devoted to him despite his often insensitive treatment.

In the early 1930s, the oldest son of a wealthy family has scandalised his conservative father by continuing to consort with a local geisha. Irritated, Ryukichi (Hisaya Morishige) elopes with Choko (Chikage Awashima) assuming that he will eventually get his own way only to find his father is just as stubborn as he is. Ryukichi is already married though living apart from his wife who has a serious illness and has returned to her family with their only child, Mitsuko. Nevertheless, Choko and Ryukichi manage to live together as man and wife even without the official paperwork, installing themselves at her parents’ tempura shop. Though the couple are happy enough, Ryukichi is unused to living without his family money and Choko soon has to go back to work.

Even in early Showa things were changing. Ryukichi, spoilt and made useless by access to his family fortune and previously secure path to succession, pouts and whines about his arranged marriage and the wife he’s abandoned, emphatically demanding a free choice of mate even if she happens to have been a geisha. Choko, a working class daughter of shopkeepers, seems to have been sold to the geisha house to fund her parents’ store – in fact, Choko’s abrupt decision to leave the geisha house will also have financial consequences which Ryukichi claims he will take up with his father. Even if Choko were not a geisha, she would likely not have been accepted by the traditional upper middle class family and her constant battle is always for recognition as Ryukichi’s significant other (or perhaps primary carer). Geisha she was though, and will be again thanks to Ryukichi’s recklessness and mistaken assumption that he will regain his former status simply by being his father’s son.

Not having had the luxury of a wealthy upbringing, Choko is (financially, at least) a realist and prepared to work hard for what she wants. Heading back into the geisha world as a hostess and entertainer, Choko is the sole breadwinner of their technically illegitimate union though Ryukichi cannot entirely break with his former habits, casually burning Choko’s carefully balanced housekeeping accounts book, and eventually spending all her savings on a night of debauchery. Nevertheless, it’s Choko who eventually takes the initiative and goes into business with a friend opening a successful night spot which cleverly caters to her internationalist clientele with a “traditionally Japanese” theme. Like many of Toyoda’s women, Choko is a hardworking, practical lady determined to make a success of everything she does even if she’s had the misfortune to find herself shackled to the inconvenient man child that is Ryukichi.

Eventually it all gets too much and Choko takes a drastic decision after receiving a cruel and thoughtless slight from Ryukichi’s brother-in-law who has been adopted as the heir to the family. This shocking incident aside, the tone is largely one of comic knowingness as Ryukichi continues with his various schemes to wheedle his way back into his elite social circle while Choko spends her time working hard to create something new. Ryukichi is the worst of the old world – lazy, entitled, often selfish and thoughtless (if well meaning and resolutely devoted to Choko), whereas Choko is the best of the new – resilient, hardworking, honest and kind. Towards the end, having settled some of their differences, Choko and Ryukichi appear to have cemented their coupledom for good but are suddenly confronted with another ugly aspect of class legacy when a former servant (and sort of friend) of Ryukichi’s passes them in the street now obviously raised in status, and blanks them even as they call out to him.

Ryukichi’s sister comments at one point that her brother’s personality has been warped by his strict upbringing and the pressure to conform to social conventions has meant that he doesn’t quite know himself, though at heart he is good and kind. She may indeed have a point, honest in his love, at least, both for his daughter and for Choko, Ryukichi finds he lacks the moral compass which comes with needing to live in an interconnected society rather than the deference associated with being “the young master”. Subtle political commentary aside, Marital Relations is a wry, humorous look at an unconventional family life as its put upon heroine does her best to rescue her consistently disappointing (if often amusing) unofficial spouse.