Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (母と暮せば, Yoji Yamada, 2015)

nagasaki-memories-of-my-sonAfter such a long and successful career, Yoji Yamada has perhaps earned the right to a little retrospection. Offering a smattering of cinematic throwbacks in homages to both Yasujiro Ozu and Kon Ichikawa, Yamada then turned his attention to the years of militarism and warfare in the tales of a struggling mother, Kabei, and a young a woman finding herself a haven from the ongoing political storm inside The Little House. Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (母と暮せば, Haha to Kuraseba) unites both of these impulses in its examination of maternal grief set amidst the mass tragedy of the atomic bomb and in the obvious reference hidden inside Japanese title (another Yamada trend) to the 2004 Kazuo Kuroki film The Face of Jizo (父と暮せば, Chichi to Kuroseba), itself based on a play by Hisashi Inoe. Whereas the young woman of Hiroshima found herself literally haunted by the image of her father to the extent that she was unable to continue living in the present, the mother at the centre of Nagasaki is approaching the end of her life but only now, three years after the bombing, is she ready to allow the idea of her son’s death to cement itself within her mind.

Nobuko’s (Sayuri Yoshinaga) son Koji (Kazunari Ninomiya) left as normal on that fateful morning, in a hurry as always, leaping onto the outside of a crowded bus that would take him to the university for a lecture on anatomy. That was three years ago and now it’s August again but in the absence of a body Nobuko has never been able to accept the death of her son, despite the picture on the altar and the two previous trips she’s made to the family grave on this date along with Koji’s girlfriend, Machiko (Haru Kuroki). Finally, Nobuko is beginning to feel it’s time to accept the inevitable, that her son is not lost somewhere and unable to find his way home but in some other world. This grudging acceptance of Koji’s death is the thing which returns him to her as the prodigal son suddenly appears one evening in spirit form to reminisce with his mother about the carefree pre-war days.

Kazunari Ninomiya’s Koji is, appropriately enough, a larger than life presence. A cheerful chatterbox, Koji blusters in to his old family home with the same kind of amusing energy he’d always lent it, laughing raucously to his mother’s polite but strange under the circumstances greeting of “have you been well?”. Reminiscences generally lean towards happier times but each time Koji becomes upset he suddenly disappears again, leaving his mother alone with all her sorrows. Nobuko lost both her sons to the war and her husband to TB and so she is quite alone now save for the kindhearted attentions of Machiko who continues to stop by and help her with house work or just keep her company.

The two women share an intense bond in their shared grief. Almost like mother and daughter Nobuko and Machiko help each other to bear the weight of their loneliness in the wake of such overwhelming tragedy. However, Nobuko is beginning to feel guilty in monopolising the life of this young woman who might have been her daughter-in-law or the mother of her grandchildren by now if things were different. Can she really ask her to sacrifice the rest of her life to a memory? Machiko swears that she has no desire to ever marry, preferring to remain loyal to her true love. “Shanghai Uncle” a black marketeer who brings Nobuko all the hard to find items not available through the normal channels, offers to set up an arranged marriage for the young woman but Nobuko is quick to turn it down on her behalf. In this new age of democracy, she says, young women ought to have the right to choose their own path whatever that may be. Nobuko respects Machiko’s choice, but after talking things over with Koji, urges her to consider letting the past go and honouring Koji’s memory by living fully while there is still time.

Interestingly enough, Machiko’s potential suitor, Kuroda – an injured war veteran and fellow teacher at the school where she teaches, is played by Tadanobu Asano who also played the shy researcher who began to reawaken the heart of the daughter at the centre of The Face of Jizo, Mitsue. Mitsue’s problem was more obviously one of survivor’s guilt, literally haunted by the friendly spirit of her genial father who continually urges her to embrace this last opportunity for happiness, to go on living even whilst others can’t. Nobuko’s journey is almost the reverse as she, essentially, attempts to cleave herself away from her life by ensuring Machiko is taken care of and knows that she has nothing to feel guilty about in seeking happiness even if it can’t be with Koji.

Despite the innovative opening sequence featuring the cockpit and targeting system of the plane which eventually dropped the bomb and the chilling effects sequence as it takes hold, Yamada then reverts to a kind of classical stateliness which is never as effective as Kuroki’s eerie magical realism. Adding in the Christian imagery associated with Nagasaki, the film takes a turn for the mawkish during the final sequence which descends into a series of heavenly cliches from fluffy white clouds to angelic choirs. Warm and melancholy, Nagasaki: Memories of My Son is a poignant exploration of life in the aftermath of preventable tragedy but one which also makes the case for moving on, honouring the legacy of the past with a life lived richly and to the full.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Onimasa (鬼龍院花子の生涯, Hideo Gosha, 1982)

onimasaWhen AnimEigo decided to release Hideo Gosha’s Taisho/Showa era yakuza epic Onimasa (鬼龍院花子の生涯, Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai), they opted to give it a marketable but ill advised tagline – A Japanese Godfather. Misleading and problematic as this is, the Japanese title Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai also has its own mysterious quality in that it means “The Life of Hanako Kiryuin” even though this, admittedly hugely important, character barely appears in the film. We follow instead her adopted older sister, Matsue (Masako Natsume), and her complicated relationship with our title character, Onimasa, a gang boss who doesn’t see himself as a yakuza but as a chivalrous man whose heart and duty often become incompatible. Reteaming with frequent star Tatsuya Nakadai, director Hideo Gosha gives up the fight a little, showing us how sad the “manly way” can be on one who finds himself outplayed by his times. Here, anticipating Gosha’s subsequent direction, it’s the women who survive – in large part because they have to, by virtue of being the only ones to see where they’re headed and act accordingly.

Beginning with its end, Onimasa’s story finishes with the discovery of the body of his only biological child, Hanako (Kaori Tagasugi ), in 1940. Found bled out and alone in the red light district of Kyoto, the suspected cause of death is a miscarriage. Tragically, our heroine, Matsue, arrives only a couple of hours too late after having spent years searching for her younger sister. We then skip back to 1918 when Matsue was adopted by Onimasa and his rather cool wife, alongside another boy who later ran away. An intelligent girl, Matsue earns her adopted father’s respect but neither he nor his wife, Uta (Shima Iwashita), are particularly interested in the emotional side of raising children. Things change when one of Onimasa’s mistresses gives birth to his biological child who awakens a sense of paternal interest in the ageing gangster beyond rule and possession.

Onimasa’s behaviour is frequently strange and contradictory. Originally intending to adopt only a boy, he and his wife come away from a poor family with two of their children, only for the son to run away home. Having picked her out like a puppy in a pet store window, Onimasa views Matsue as an inalienable possession. When a man arrives and wants to marry her, he goes crazy assuming the man must have been sleeping with her behind his back (despite the fact that this man, Tanabe (Eitaro Ozawa), has only just been released from prison where Onimasa had himself dispatched Matsue to visit him). Exclaiming that Matsue is “his”, has always been “his”, and no one else’s, he forces Tanabe to cut off his finger yakuza style to swear Matsue’s honour is still intact. However, this need for total control manifests itself in a less than fatherly way when he later tries to rape Matsue and is only brought to his senses when she threatens to cut her own throat with a broken glass. Despite this act of madness which he tries to justify with it somehow being for her own good, Matsue remains a dutiful daughter to both of her adopted parents.

Matsue’s innate refinement and reserve contrast’s strongly with Onimasa’s loose cannon nature. Commenting on the long history of “honourable” cinematic yakuza, Onimasa embraces an odd combination of traditions in believing himself to be the embodiment of chivalry – standing up for the oppressed and acting in the interests of justice, yet also subservient to his lord and walking with a swagger far beyond his true reach. All of this contributes to his ongoing problems which begin with a petty clan dispute over a dogfight which sees a rival leaving town in a hurry only to return and raise hell years later. Similarly, when his boss sends him in to “discourage” strike action, the union leader’s reasonable objections which point out the conflicts with Onimasa’s doctrine of chivalry and imply he’s little more than a lapdog, have a profound effect on his life. Severing his ties with his clan and attempting to go it alone, Onimasa does so in a more “honourable” way – no longer will he engage in harmful practices such as forced prostitution no matter how profitable they may be, but old disagreements never die easy and it’s a stupid ancient argument which threatens to bring his old fashioned world crashing down.

Despite concessions to the bold new Taisho era which saw Western fashions flooding into traditional culture from Onimasa’s trademark hat to the record players and whiskey glasses clashing with his sliding doors and tatami mat floors, Onimasa’s world is a childishly innocent one where honour and justice rule. Despite this he often excludes his own behaviour – one minute turning down the offer of his rival’s woman to pay a debt with her body, but later attempting to rape a young woman who had been his daughter in a drunken bid for a kind of droit du seigneur. The times are changing, it’s just that Onimasa’s traditionalist mind can’t see it. Tragically trying to rescue his daughter from a situation it turns out she had no desire to be rescued from he eventually spies the writing on the wall and puts down his sword, defeated and demoralised. Tragically, it seems Hanako may have needed him still though her rescue arrives too late to be of use.

The Onimasa family line ends here, as does this particular strand of history under the darkening skies of 1940. Out goes Taisho era openness and optimism for the eventual darkness of the militarist defeat. Matsue, now a widow – her left wing intellectual husband another victim of her father’s mistakes rather than political stringency, remains the sole source of light in her shining white kimono and pretty parasol even as she’s forced to identify the body of the sister she failed to save. The life of Hanako was a sad one, trapped by her father’s ideology and finally destroyed by her own attempts to escape it. Fittingly, she barely features in her own tale, a peripheral figure in someone else’s story. Slightly lurid and occasionally sleazy, Onimasa is another workmanlike effort from Gosha but makes the most of his essential themes as its accidental “hero” is forced to confront the fact that his core ideology has robbed him of true happiness, caused nothing but pain to the women in his life, and eventually brought down not only his personal legacy but that of everything that he had tried to build. The “manly way” is a trap, only Matsue with her patience backed up by a newfound steel inspired by her cool mother, Uta, is left behind but is now free to pursue life on her own terms and, presumably, make more of a success of it.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)

The Age of Shadows (밀정, Kim Jee-woon, 2016)

age-of-shadowsWhen the country of your birth has been occupied by another nation, what do you do? Do you fight back, insist on your independence and expel the tyrants, or quickly bow to your new overlords and resign yourself to no longer being what you once were? Kim Jee-woon becomes the latest director to take a look at Korea’s colonial past with the Resistance based thriller Age of Shadows (밀정, Miljung) which owes more than a little to Melville’s similarly titled Army of Shadows, as well as classic cold war spy dramas The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The film opens with an impressive set piece in which two Resistance members, Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), and Joo (Seo Young-joo) are betrayed whilst trying to sell a Buddhist statue. Joo is captured but Jang-ok makes a run for it as what looks like the entire Japanese garrison of Seoul chases him, running gallantly over the picturesque Korean rooftops. Cornered, Jang-ok is confronted by Korean born Japanese policeman Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), once a Resistance member himself and a former comrade in arms of Jang-ok. This is the point Jung-chool’s carefully crafted collaboration beings to fracture – his friend, rather than allow himelf to be captured, shouts “Long Live Korea” and blows his own brains out.

His mission a failure, Jung-chool is then moved onto the next investigation which aims to dig out the Resistance top brass in the city. Jung-chool’s Japanese boss Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants him to infiltrate the cell headed by antique dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) in the hope that it will lead them to head honcho, Jung (Lee Byung-hun). However, Higashi also saddles him with a very young but high ranking Japanese official, Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), to “help” him bring in Woo-jin.

In Jung-chool’s final conversation with Jang-ok, his friend berates him for the decision to turn traitor and work for the Japanese rather than against them. Jung-chool asks him if he thinks independence is a credible aim, implying he’s long since given up believing in the idea of the Japanese ever being overthrown. Jang-ok evidently believed in it enough to sacrifice his own life, but other comrades have also abanoned the cause and actively betrayed the movement in much more serious ways than Jung-chool’s pragmatic side swapping.

Even if Jung-chool has decided that if you can’t beat the Japanese you may as well join them, he’s coming to the realisation that his superiors, even if they’ve previously treated him warmly, will never regard him as equal to the Japanese personnel. Hashimoto’s sudden arrival undercuts Jung-Chool’s career progress and reminds him that he serves a very distinct purpose which may soon run out of currency. Higashi, having seduced Jung-chool with promises of a comfortable life and praise for his skills, does not trust his Korean underling enough to send him out on his own. This personal wound may do more to send him reeling back to the other side than anything else, especially as his “replacement” Hashimoto is a crazy eyed psychopath who has half a mind to burn the entire city just to be sure of getting his man.

A man who’s been turned once can be turned again and so mastermind Jung decides to prod Jung-chool in the hope that he’ll become an asset rather than a threat. As he puts it, what’s more frightening than feeling your heart move and Jung-chool’s certainty has already been shaken. Song Kang-ho perfectly inhabits Jung-chool’s conflicted soul as his old patriotic feelings start to surface just as he begins to truly see his masters for what they are. Always keeping his intentions unclear, Jung-chool is the ideal double agent, playing both sides or maybe neither with no clear affiliation.

Like Army of Shadows, the final nail in the coffin is delivered by a sentimental photograph. In this chaotic world of betrayals and counter betrayals, there can be no room for love or compassion other than loyalty to one’s comrades and to the movement. Yet against the odds Woo-jin comes to trust Jung-chool implicitly, certain that he will finally choose the side of freedom rather than that of the oppressor. The relationship between the two men provides the only real moments of comic relief, though others members of the group are less well defined including an underwritten part for Woo-jin’s Chinese love interest (Han Ji-min) who isn’t permitted to do very much other than model some elegant twenties outfits.

Maintaining tension throughout, Kim intersperses psychological drama as betrayal piles on betrayal, with intense action sequences including a particularly claustrophobic train based game of hide and seek. Inspired by real historical events, Kim does not claim any level of authenticity but sets out to tell the story of the double dealing inside a man’s heart as he weighs up duty and self interest and asks himself how far he’s willing to go for the sake of either. The age of “shadows” indeed, these are hollow men whose identities have been eroded, living only for today but in certainty of the bright tomorrow. Kim’s examination of this turbulent period is both a big budget prestige picture with striking production values, and a tense, noir-inflected thriller in the mould of Melville, but also a nuanced human drama unafraid to ask the difficult questions which lie at the heart of every spy story.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nobody to Watch Over Me (誰も守ってくれない, Ryoichi Kimizuka, 2009)

Nobody to Watch Over MeWhen a crime has been committed, it’s important to remember that there may be secondary victims whose lives will be destroyed even if they themselves had no direct involvement in the case itself. This is even more true in the tragic case that person who is responsible is themselves a child with parents and siblings still intent on looking forward to a life that their son or daughter will now never lead. This isn’t to place them on the same level as bereaved relatives, but simply to point out the killer’s family have also lost a child who they have every right to grieve for, though their grief will also be tinged with guilt and shame.

Nobody to Watch Over Me (誰も守ってくれない, Dare mo Mamotte Kurenai) takes the example of one particular case in which an 18 year old boy has brutally stabbed two little girls in a park and then returned home as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. After the boy is arrested, his family is caught up in a firestorm of police and press interest, barely able pause and come to terms with the surreal events that are taking place. No sooner has their son been dragged off in handcuffs than a troupe from the family court arrives with pre-printed documents which will arrange for a divorce and remarriage between the parents so that they can revert to the wife’s maiden name in an attempt to avoid the stigma of being related to a child killer. After being bamboozled into signing a number of papers with barely any explanation the family is then split up for questioning and taken to separate locations to try and throw off the press.

Grizzled detective Katsuura (Koichi Sato) is charged with looking after the murderer’s younger sister, Saori (Mirai Shida) – a 15 year old high school student. Katsuura is enduring some familial conflict of his own and was due to be taking a family holiday to try and work things out, so he’s a little distracted and put out about needing to shield this quite uncooperative teenager from the baying masses. He’s also suffering a degree of PTSD from a traumatic incident some years previously in which a case he was involved in went horribly wrong resulting in the death of a small boy. Understandably, Saori is in a state of shock, left alone with strangers to try and cope with this extremely stressful situation and unwilling to betray her brother by submitting to the police’s constant demands for information.

The police themselves aren’t always the benign and and comforting presence one might hope for on such an occasion as Katsuura’s superior has one eye on a possible promotion if he can exploit this high profile case for all its worth and is intent on pressing this innocent teenage girl as if she were some kind of war criminal. The family are treated with a degree of suspicion and contempt, as if they were directly or indirectly complicit in the violence created by their son or brother.

In actuality, there may be a grain of truth in this as the film also begins to offer some social critique of the modern family and the pressures placed on young people in the contemporary world. When questioned about their son, the mother remains more or less silent but the father angrily replies that he raised his son “strictly”. The family had high expectations and didn’t take academic failure lightly. From middle school onwards, they kept their son at home to study allowing him little outlet for anything else and, it seems, he was sometimes physically disciplined for a lack of progress.

Katsuura’s family is under threat too, perhaps placed under pressure following Katsuura’s personal disintegration over having been prevented in his attempts to save the life of the small boy some years previously or just from the constant insecurities involved being the family of a policeman whose working schedule is necessarily unpredictable. Though originally becoming fed up with Saori’s lack of cooperation, Katsuura eventually develops a protective relationship with her perhaps because she reminds him of his own teenage daughter. Given that the police are to some degree her enemy as they are the ones that have taken away her brother and separated her from her parents, it’s not surprising that she doesn’t immediately warm to Katsuura but after being betrayed by someone she believed was a true ally, she finally understands that he is firmly on her side and trying to protect her from a very real series of threats.

The modern world is shown up for all of its voyeuristic obsession with the horrifying and the taboo. The family are swarmed by press but it’s the internet that becomes the major aggressor as it publishes not only the boy’s real name, but even his parents’ address and the addresses of other people involved with the case. Self proclaimed social justice crusaders react like parasites glued to bulletin boards trading information on notorious crimes for a kind of internet fame, not caring about the facts of the case or that there are real people involved here who are already grieving. Taking the “I blame the parents” mentality to its extreme, even more distant members of the killer’s family are expected to trot out an apology for the cameras even though it’s really nothing to do with them and isn’t going to do anyone any good anyway.

Kimizuka shoots the first part of the action with a breathless intensity, mimicking hand held, on the ground news reporting to convey just how frightening and disorientating this must be for anyone unlucky enough to be caught up in a media storm. The use of choral music and occasional melodramatic touches near the end perhaps undermine the film’s emotional power which never quite coalesces in the way it seems to want to. However, Nobody to Watch Over Me is a fascinating and rich exploration of the public’s obsession with true crime stories coupled with an extreme tendency towards victim blaming and the need to hold to account those close to the perpetrator of a crime even if they had little to do with it themselves. Frightening yet hopeful in equal measure, Nobody to Watch Over Me offers scant comfort but does at least begin to ask the question.


The region 3 Hong Kong DVD release of Nobody to Watch Over Me includes English subtitles.

English subtitled teaser trailer:

The Sting of Death (死の棘, Kohei Oguri, 1990)

Sting of DeathKohei Oguri’s The Sting of Death (死の棘, Shi no Toge) won the prestigious jury prize at the Cannes film festival in 1990 but has since passed into obscurity. Adapted from the “I Novel” by Toshio Shimao, Sting of Death is an absurdist, caustic look at a collapsing marriage beset by difficulties on all sides as the pair try to navigate the confusing post-war society.

Toshio and Miho are a married couple with two young children. Miho has recently discovered that her husband has been carrying on with a neighbour for quite some time and is uncertain how to deal with this unexpected revelation. The film opens with a serious marital argument which is almost chilling in its calmness. Toshio is sorry, he doesn’t intend to leave his marital home and pledges to stop seeing this other woman – he’ll stay in 24/7 and not even go out without his wife and children if it means he can defend his family. Miho is definitely not happy with this compromise but accepts it and the couple attempt to get back to a kind of normality. However, the peace does not last long as Miho becomes increasingly depressed and paranoid before hurtling headlong into a nervous breakdown.

The “I Novel” is an integral part of Japanese literature and has often provided the basis for many of the country’s prestige films even though its specific style is a necessarily literary one which is hard to dramatise on screen. The genre is centred around the ideas of naturalism and the main tenet is that the writer is recounting real events from the world he sees around him, though perhaps through a thin veil of fictionalisation. That said, it’s never quite “autobiography” and it may sometimes be better to think of them as “hyperreal” rather than just naturalistic.

Oguri attempts to evoke this strange sense of uncanniness by opting for an ethereal, dreamlike tone akin to avant-garde or absurdist theatre. The couple speak to each other in a slightly heightened, deliberate manner, often posed unnaturally facing away from each other literally divided by the film’s framing. Toshio is also haunted by visions from his wartime service somewhere in the pacific where he seems to have received some kind of stomach injury. Emerging from a cave he suddenly sees saluting soldiers, or remembers a passing religious ceremony as if the past is always with him like a Fury tormenting his mind.

The Sting of Death is very close to the experiences of the author who uses his own name for that of the protagonist and that of his own wife for the central female character, Miho. Shimao’s own wife became seriously mentally ill during their marriage eventually having to be admitted to a hospital where Shimao took the unusual step of living with her. Though this uncommon gesture is widely praised as displaying his deep love for his wife, it was in part born of guilt as he believed he had caused her distress through his frequent infidelities, just as Toshio does in the film.

The couple live together in a perpetual nightmare world. Though Miho exclaims at one point that they both need to do their best now for their children they both consider suicide more than once, alternately saving or frustrating one another. They both suffer, they both try to go on but Miho’s position becomes increasingly difficult leading to a period of mental decline which climaxes in a strangely humorous yet violent episode in which she tries to exact revenge on her husband’s mistress only to be offered a lesson in civility – “I don’t know what’s going on here but none of us have the right to act like savages”, says the perfectly genial other woman (the silent casualty in all of this).

Oguri shoots the majority of the film in near darkness, as if the couple are enveloped in a night without end. They haunt each other like living ghosts, emerging from shadows moving slowly like those without hope or purpose. Oguri adds to the surreal, dreamlike atmosphere by sticking to static camera shots filled with strange tableaux and little discernible action. The film paints a bleak picture of marriage and the family unit as the central couple remain locked in an odd game-like battle of suffering while their two innocent children look on helplessly. A strange and beguiling film, The Sting of Death pulls no punches when it comes to describing the way in which adults wound each other with childish games but is also filled with quite beautiful, if sometimes unsettling, iconography.


The Sting of Death is available with English subtitles on R3 Hong Kong DVD as part of Panorama’s Century of Japanese cinema collection.

Opening scene of the film (unsubtitled)

 

Poppoya (鉄道員, Yasuo Furuhata, 1999)

img_0The late Ken Takakura is best remembered as cinema’s original hard man but when the occasion arose he could provoke the odd tear or two just the same. 1999’s Poppoya (鉄道員) directed by frequent collaborator Yasuo Furuhata sees him once again playing the tough guy with a battered heart only this time he’s an ageing station master of a small town in deepest snow country which was once a prosperous mining village but is now a rural backwater.

Otomatsu Sato has spent his life in service to the railway. Like his father before him who believed the key to the modernisation of Japan after its defeat in the second world war was in its transportation network, Sato started as an engineer before being promoted to station master. Morning and evening in the freezing cold he bid in and sent out each passenger and freight train travelling through his one track station. However, though he clearly loves his job Sato has experienced a great deal of personal tragedy in pursuit of his career. He wasn’t there when his baby daughter died, nor was he there when his wife lay dying in hospital. He was where he always is, on the platform until the last train goes out. Now, however, the mine has closed, the town is full of old people and there are no passengers on the train so the line will be closing. Having given his life to something which will be so unceremoniously erased, what is a man like Sato to do now?

In true Takakura fashion, Sato appears tough and fairly unapproachable on the outside but actually he’s quite well respected in the town and even if some of the other residents bemoan his rigid ways, they grudgingly respect him for being the way he is. He takes his duties seriously and would never countenance breaching them for something as trivial as personal concerns, even when those concerns are something as understandable as the death of a family member. The way he sees things, this is his duty and must be fulfilled, properly each day no matter what. This may seem a little obsequious in Western eyes, though many of the other (particularly female) characters also agree Sato takes things much further than he needs to, but dedication to one’s duty is, after all, an admirable trait.

However, now it’s all been for nowt. The railway line is to be closed, the land will engulf it once again erasing the years of Sato’s work just as if he were never there. He’s sacrificed final moments with his wife and child – not even that, just sacrificed moments. He’s given all to the railway and now there’s no place left there for him. His best friend, the father of a son also in the railway business, is to take another job at a hotel complex but Sato is a railwayman through and through – he’ll work on the tracks or not at all.

Around this time Sato also starts seeing some strange new children around. He assumes they’ve come to stay with grandparents in the village, this being the time of the New Year holiday. The little one has a strangely old fashioned looking doll that reminds Sato of one he bought for his infant daughter only she never really had the chance to enjoy it. Then he meets an older sister who’s kind of a live wire before meeting the oldest – a high school student dressed in an old fashioned looking uniform who really reminds him of someone he used to know. All these strange encounters force Sato to further re-examine his past, reliving old regrets and assessing a life lived in service to an ideal at the expense of the joy he might have felt as a happy family man.

Beautifully photographed with picturesque shots of trains against the deep snows of Northern Japan, Poppoya was Japan’s submission for the 1999 Oscars and does have all the trappings of a prestige melodrama. It unabashedly pulls at the hearts strings and even if the rather sentimental score takes things too far, Poppoya does nevertheless manage to draw the odd tear for Sato’s lonely, regretful old age. Sentimental yet genuinely affecting, Poppoya is an effectively crafted weepy which serves as a timely reminder to embrace the things which are most important to you while there’s still time.


The Hong Kong blu-ray release of Poppoya includes English subtitles (though they are a little “imperfect”).

Only trailer I can find has Korean subs:

 

A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare, Ettore Scola, 1977)

4963Ettore Scola, one of the most celebrated filmmakers of Italian cinema in the late 20th century, returned to one of the country’s darkest moments for the film which is often regarded as his masterpiece – A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare). Set on one particular day in 1938 when Mussolini rolled out the red carpet for his fascist brother in arms, Adolf Hitler, it focusses less on this “historic” meeting of “likeminded” leaders of state than it does on two small figures each lonely and excluded from the festivities for very different reasons.

The film begins with a lengthy sequence of archive footage of Mussolini welcoming Hitler and other major German politicians of the time to a series of festivities in Rome. Today, there is to be a large scale parade to demonstrate Italy’s military prowess before their new allies. Antonietta (a surprisingly dowdy Sophia Loren), wakes her entire family including her six children and boorish husband so that they may get ready to attend the parade like good little fascists. She herself will not be going (though she would like to) as housewives and mothers do not get days off and she simply has too much to do. However, her day is disrupted when her pet mynah bird (Rosamunda) escapes and lands on a balcony opposite. Now she notices the gentleman who lives across the way hasn’t gone to the parade either so she decides to ask him if she can try and coax the bird back in through his window.

The man, Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni), is in something of a nervous mood. When we first see him he’s addressing a large number of envelopes whilst gazing mournfully at the photographs on his desk with half an eye on the pistol to his left. Somehow everything he does carries an air of finality, as if he’s tidying himself away, putting his affairs in order once and for all. Yet, Antonietta’s unexpected call reawakens something in him and suddenly he doesn’t want to be alone anymore. He tries to convince her to stay but she’s shy and slightly confused and, after all, she has so much to do, that she declines his offer and returns home only to feel a slight degree of regret and even resentment when she assumes he’s telephoned another woman right away. However, Gabriele pays a return visit on her and the two end up spending this very “special day” together.

A Special Day is about fascism and the fascist era in some senses, but in essence it’s about Antonietta and Gabriele – two lonely, lost souls each trapped in prisons to some degree of their own making but also those created by society. Antonietta is an ordinary middle-aged housewife. As a mother of six she’s more than fulfilled her societal role though she and her husband are thinking of another child as you get a special “big family bonus” with seven. Her husband is a high ranking fascist official and Antonietta herself is a big fan of Il Duce. Gabriele, by contrast, is an anti-fascist though perhaps more of a passive one. He had been part of the party for appearance’s sake but as we discover in passing fairly early on in the film, Gabriele is gay and an intellectual neither of which is particularly compatible with the fascist state.

Gabriele, played by Marcello Mastroianni brilliantly cast against type as the suave yet melancholy man out of place, has lost his job as a radio announcer precisely for the crimes of being gay and of being under committed to fascist principles. They fired him for not being a member of the party even though he was one because they said theirs was a party of “men”. The fascist credo says those who aren’t husbands, fathers and soldiers are not “real men” and Gabriele is none of these things. He also has a medical certificate which certifies him as not being a homosexual which is fairly counterproductive because, after all, who carries something like that around if they don’t have anything to prove in the first place.

Gabriele hates the fascist state most because it makes you deny what you are, to try to appear different to your authentic self so as to conform better to someone else’s ideals. Just as Gabriele’s identity has been erased by the desires of society at the time, so too has Antonietta’s though she is less well equipt to see it. She even has a scrapbook of fascist photos with slogans which proclaim that genius is something which only belongs to men and that a woman’s role is in the home, supporting her husband and raising his children. Effectively brainwashed, it had not previously occurred to Antonietta to question these ideas before but meeting Gabriele has planted the seed of doubt in her mind. She too has been forced to suppress her true nature and only now does she start to possess the courage to reassert herself.

Loren turns in virtuoso performance as an ordinary, aging housewife ashamed of the hole in her slippers and the ladder in her tights. Full of minor touches of brilliance such as her brief look into the mirror as if suddenly realising how old she’s become and starting to feel shy in front of this man she feels an obvious attraction to or her extended dreamy look towards the end of the film when suddenly surrounded by her family and finding herself mildly horrified by their fascist ideas, her performance in A Special Day must rank among her finest even in a career which is often marked by brilliance. Mastroianni, also cast against type, gives an equally accomplished performance as the quietly defiant Gabriele who knows what kind of fate awaits him and has already made his peace with the unfairness of his situation.

The film is cast in a heavy brown colour palate, almost sepia in tone, which gives it the feeling both of looking directly into history as if in a moving photograph and of emphasising the oppressive and rigidly restrictive society of the time. This is not a time for dreamers and outcasts, those who don’t readily conform to the fascist ideals will be ruthlessly discarded. However, through encountering each other and finding another weary, frustrated soul, something is reawakened in both of these isolated individuals. Here, there is hope for the first time. That if even two people can wake each other up enough to pierce this strange mass delusion then perhaps there might be a way out after all.


I actually had this queued up to post a little later but having just watched the film today I was slightly shocked to hear that director Ettore Scola has died at the age of 84 so I’ve moved it up a little to mark his passing. A Special Day is such a beautiful film that I could have written far more about it but it was running so long already.

A Special Day is available with English subtitles on Region A blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Unsubtitled scene from near the beginning of the film:

 

100 Yen Love (百円の恋, Masaharu Take, 2014)

165856_02Actress of the moment Sakura Ando steps into the ring, literally, for this tale of plucky underdog beating the odds in unexpected ways. It would be wrong to call 100 Yen Love (百円の恋, Hyaku Yen no Koi) a “boxing movie”, it’s more than half way through the film before the protagonist decides to embark on the surprising career herself and though there are the training sequences and match based set pieces they aren’t the focus of the film. Rather, the plucky underdog comes to the fore as we watch the virtual hikkikomori slacker Ichiko eventually become a force to be reckoned with both in the ring and out.

Ichiko Saito is a 32-year-old woman with no job who still lives at home in her parents’ bento store where she also refuses to help out. With unkempt hair, slobbish pyjamas and a bad attitude, she stays in all day playing video games with her nephew other than running out to the 100 yen store late at night for more cheap and nasty snacks. Her sister has recently moved home after a divorce and to put it plainly, the two do not get on. Finally the mother decides the sister is the one most in need and more or less throws Ichiko out onto the streets. She gets herself a little apartment and a job in the 100 yen store where she’s perved over by a sleazy colleague and amused by a crazy old lady who turns up each night to help herself to the leftover bento.

Ichiko also becomes enamoured with a frequent customer who they nickname “Banana Man” because he just comes in, buys a ridiculous number of bananas, and leaves without saying anything. He’s even more awkward than Ichiko though he seems to kind of like her too. Banana Man is an amateur boxer and eventually ends up staying in Ichiko’s apartment following a rather complicated chain of events. When this too goes wrong, Ichiko decides to try her hand at boxing herself, hoping to make the next set of matches before she passes the age threshold.

We aren’t really given much of a back story for Ichiko, other than that her polar opposite sister thinks she’s too much like their father who also seems to be a mildly depressed slacker only now in early old age. Her mother is at the end of her tether and her sister probably just has problems of her own but at any rate does not come across as a particularly sensitive or sympathetic person. Getting kicked out at this late stage might actually be the best thing for Ichiko though it’s undoubtedly a big adjustment with her family offering nothing more than possible financial support.

Working in the 100 yen store isn’t so bad but it doesn’t really suit Ichiko with her isolated shyness and lack of work experience. Mind you, it seems like it doesn’t suit anyone very well as her manager quits right away and her only co-worker is a lecherous criminal who literally will not stop talking or take no for an answer. Ichiko’s only real relationship is with Banana Man but even this is strange with Ichiko becoming infatuated and coming on too strong for the rather immature amateur boxer who’s just hit the end of his career. If Ichiko is going to get anywhere she’ll have to do it on her own and on her own terms, no one is going to help her or be on hand to offer any kind of life advice.

That is, until she starts boxing where she gets some coaching, if only inside the ring. The gloves give her a purpose, in getting to a real match before the age limit passes (it’s 32 and she is already 32) she finally has something concrete to work towards and strive for. She just wants to win, once, after all the awful and humiliating things that have happened to her, she just wants to hit back. Even if she falls at the final hurdle, these seemingly small elements have caused a sea change within her. No longer holed up at home, too fearful to engage with anything or anyone, Ichiko has her self respect back and can truly stand on her own two feet.

Indeed, the film might well be called sympathy for the loser – what attracts Ichiko to the sport to begin with is the mini shoulder hug at the end between the victorious and the defeated. With the idea that it’s OK to lose, there are no hard feelings between athletes and even a mutual respect for those who’ve done their best even if they didn’t quite make it, this moment of catharsis seems to give Ichiko the connection she’s been craving. However, the film’s ending is a little more ambiguous and where this rapid transformation of the “100 yen kind of girl” might take her may be harder to chart.


100 Yen Love is Japan’s submission for the 2016 Academy Awards.

Kwaidan (怪談, Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

tumblr_ly5zbgdNH61rn3yrmo1_1280Kwaidan (怪談) is something of an anomaly in the career of the humanist director Masaki Kobayashi, best known for his wartime trilogy The Human Condition. Moving away from the naturalistic concerns that had formed the basis of his earlier career, Kwaidan takes a series of ghost stories collected by the foreigner Lafcadio Hearn and gives them a surreal, painterly approach that’s somewhere between theatre and folktale.

The first tale, Black Hair, is the story of an ambitious young samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who abandons his one true love to marry a wealthy woman and advance his career. However, his second marriage is far from happy and he begins to appreciate just what it is he’s cast aside. Eventually returning home he meets his former wife again and harbours the desire to start afresh. However, when the sun comes up all is not as it seems.

Tale two, The Woman of the Snow, begins when two woodsmen are caught in a blizzard and a mysterious woman appears to suck one of them dry of blood. She spares the other, Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), because she’s moved by his youth but she instructs him never to reveal the events of that evening or she will return to finish what she started. Minokichi returns home and meets another mysterious woman who later becomes his wife and bears him three children but will he remember to keep his secret even from the love of his life?

The third tale is perhaps the most famous, Hoichi the Earless, and features the sad tale of a blind biwa player (Katsuo Nakamura) whose storytelling ability is so great that the dead themselves petition him nightly to recount their story. Eventually the head monk finds out and disapproves of Hoichi’s dealings with the supernatural so the monks paint sutras all over his body to protect him from the malevolent spirits. However, like achilles and his vulnerable heel, they forget to paint Hoichi’s ears…

The fourth tale, A Cup of Tea, is a little more whimsical and opens with a framing sequence lamenting the fact that some ancient tales were never finished for one reason or another. The tale within the tale features a samurai who keeps seeing a face appear in his tea. Obviously this is quite disturbing, but eventually he just decides to drink it anyway only for the owner of the face to suddenly appear and complain about soul having been stolen.

Like all good fables the stories each have a moral to offer but also, crucially, paint the protagonists as victims of circumstance more than rash or unwise people. The samurai feared poverty so he abandoned his love in search of riches only to discover he’d been chasing the wrong kind of dreams. Minokichi momentarily forgot himself, perhaps entrapped by the Snow Woman’s final trick, Hoichi just wanted to play his biwa but his desires were frustrated by the powers at be who further mess things up for him by botching the sutra application. The protagonist of A Cup of Tea does choose to drink the tea himself but the resultant madness is not something that could ever have been reasonably expected. These are worlds of spirits where the doorway to the supernatural is always ajar, waiting for some ordinary person to tumble through accidentally.

Though employing slightly different styles for each of the four segments, Kobayashi sets his stage with a deliberately theatrical, almost hyperreal set design. Obviously shot on a soundstage, the tales take on the feeling of stories which have been told and retold, replayed countless times across the great theatre of life. Black Hair steers closest to a traditional kabuki play, an effect aided by Toru Takemitsu’s more traditional score but The Woman of the Snow gives way to intense color play full of cold blue ice vistas mixed with impressionistic, passionate red skies. Hoichi’s tale begins with an overlay of a scroll painting recounting the famous The of the Heike of which Hoichi sings his song. Full of epic battle scenes, ghostly apparitions and a whole load of biwa music, this segment is the lengthiest but also the meatiest when it comes to subtext. The final tale by contrast is much more straightforward and brings a little chanbara exuberance to the otherwise heavy atmosphere though it does leave us with one of the most haunting images in the entire film.

Kwaidan may look like an exercise in style for Kobayashi – it was also his first colour picture and he makes full use of that aspect of the film. However, that isn’t to say he’s abandoned his recurrent concerns. The people in the stories are all ordinary, they’re flawed but they aren’t evil. The samurai comes closest to bringing his fate on himself when he makes the selfish decision to abandon his loving wife for money and status though he pays a heavy price when he finally realises his foolishness. Minokichi’s crime is a loss of faith of perhaps of having doubted the truth of his tale in itself. In the end, he simply forgot his promise rather than making a conscious decision break it like the samurai. Hoichi is something of a passive player here as his blindness renders him unable to understand his plight – he is unable to keep his promise to the fallen samurai firstly because of the physical toll it’s taking on him and secondly as he’s prevented by his superiors. The protagonist of the final tale simply gives in to temptation and then to madness perfectly symbolising human weakness. Kobayashi maybe more artful here than acerbic but his bleak view of human nature still wins out. However, what Kobayashi crafted in Kwaidan is a beautiful, dreamlike canvas of supernatural visions which continue to dazzle in their artistry long after the screen has gone dark.


Kwaidan is available on blu-ray in the US from Citerion and on DVD in the UK from Eureka Masters of Cinema.

 

Coup d’Etat (AKA Martial Law, 戒厳令 Kaigenrei, Kiju Yoshida 1973)

Snapshot-2015-11-18 at 01_34_49 PM-1660087891Having taken avant-garde story telling to its zenith in Heroic Purgatory, Yoshida returns to the realm of politics with a far more accessible effort in Coup d’Etat (AKA Martial Law, 戒厳令 Kaigenrei). Inbetween the two films, Yoshida had made another more mainstream offering, Confessions Among Actresses, which had been moderately successful with both audiences and critics but with Coup d’Etat he came back to the artistic fare he’d been pursuing since leaving Shochiku. Unlike the other two films in Arrow’s Love + Anarchy boxset, Coup ‘Etat deals with a right wing rebellion rather than the communists and anarchists which are more familiar to the post-war world.

The film begins with a nervous young man brutally stabbing an elderly businessman in the street before taking his own life. On claiming his remains, the man’s sister finds a letter addressed to Ikki Kita – a well known right wing intellectual in favour of the institution of martial law. Kita, or more particularly his work, becomes a figurehead for a putative revolution organised by young army officers who have become disillusioned with the elected government, its plans for increasing Westernisation and treatment of the poor. They seek to overthrow parliament and put the Emperor back in charge for a kind of paternalistic socialist state. Kita remains on the fringes of this movement, coming into contact with a young soldier who wants to join the revolution and advising him but repeatedly making it clear that he is not involved with the coup itself. Nevertheless, even if not directly involved, Kita will still pay the price for his radical ideas.

Less an examination of the historical events of the time or the coup itself, Coup d’Etat is a psychological portrait of Kita’s last days. Marking the only time Yoshida was not involved in the screenplay (this time leaving things entirely to playwright Minoru Betsuyaku) the film follows a much more linear structure rather than playing with time in the same way as Eros + Massacre or Heroic Purgatory. Kita had written a hugely influential book which advocated moving to a system of martial law under the paternalistic care of the emperor alongside nationalisation of industries, minimisation of private property and a better welfare state. However, Kita is a public intellectual not an activist. He takes no personal part in the armed struggle (though he is aware of each of the actions and close to the people who facilitated them), yet still he pays the price. Whether this is an indictment of his lack of physical commitment to the ideals that he spoke of, or an indictment of a system which seeks to shoot the messenger is up for debate but in any case Kita is “betrayed” by the very same emperor that he worshipped as a god.

Having said that, it’s Emperor Meiji who hangs on Kita’s wall. What Kita and the officer class wanted was a “Showa Restoration” in line with the “Meiji Restoration” but almost the reverse as they returned to a form of paternalistic government where personal freedoms were restricted but everyone was well cared for. We actually don’t learn a lot about Kita during the film (a strange thing to say about a “biopic” which is often how the film is described) but it seems that he had a strict childhood in which he was prohibited from feeling fear – each time a boy was a afraid, he was supposed to cut himself as a punishment. Yet Kita is afraid and this tension between intellectual thought and irrepressible emotion is one that restricts his physical actions to the point that he remains a solitary figure entrapped by his own ideology. That he is then betrayed by the very figures that he sought to exult is the very highest form of tragedy and it’s difficult not to believe that the real coup d’etat is being perpetrated against Kita himself.

Perhaps because of its relative narrative simplicity, Coup d’Etat is a visual masterpiece taking Yoshida’s especial gifts for composition to new heights of beauty. Once again shot in black and white 4:3 Academy ratio, the film is an unsettling maze of shadows and light coupled with uncomfortable angles and a musical score that’s almost like a science fiction film. Yoshida’s prognosis is indeed bleak – the young soldier for example who’s unable to carry out his part of the mission and eventually falsely confesses to having been a spy simply because he felt insignificant and wanted to be a part of something is symptomatic of the self-centred ineffectuality of the younger generation. Once again, youth has been evaluated and found wanting though age doesn’t fare much better in the end. The filming of Coup d’Etat was delayed for sometime as Yoshida underwent an operation to remove a tumour from his stomach. His ultimate satisfaction with the film and the feeling of having come to the end of a cycle coupled with the need to recuperate more fully kept Yoshida away from the director’s chair until 1986 though he’d never return to it with the same intensity as in his political trilogy.


Available now on blu-ray in the UK as part of Arrow Films’ Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism box set.

Scene from near the end of the film:

Reviews of the other movies in the set: