Where Chimneys are Seen (煙突の見える場所, Heinosuke Gosho, 1953)

vlcsnap-2016-07-07-01h01m06s792Where Chimneys are Seen (煙突の見える場所, Entotsu no Mieru Basho) is widely regarded as on of the most important films of the immediate post-war era, yet it remains little seen outside of Japan and very little of the work of its director, Heinosuke Gosho, has ever been released in English speaking territories. Like much of Gosho’s filmography, Where Chimneys are Seen devotes itself to exploring the everyday lives of ordinary people, in this case a married couple and their two upstairs lodgers each trying to survive in precarious economic circumstances whilst also coming to terms with the traumatic recent past.

Ryukichi Ogata (Ken Uehara) is our primary narrator, introducing us to his humble circumstances and, for the moment, happy home. He’s married to a cheerful and kindly woman, Hiroko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who was widowed during the war, and the couple rent out their upstairs to a man, Kenzo (Hiroshi Akutagawa), and a woman, Senko (Hideko Takamine) , who aren’t a couple but each rent a room separately. They’re desperately poor, so much so that they have complicated measures in place to try and avoid having any children – a luxury which they can in no way contemplate. However, unbeknownst to Ryukichi, Hiroko has taken on a part-time job outside the home by working at the bicycle races. He’s upset by this because he resents feeling as if his wife has been hiding things from him, though his pride is wounded too. The worry planted in his mind by the idea of not knowing everything there is to know about his wife’s past is brought to the fore when a baby is suddenly abandoned on their doorstep with a note claiming to be from Hiroko’s first husband which states this is “her” child and she ought to look after it from now on.

The titular “magic” chimneys belong to a large scale factory and, in truth, there are four of them, but depending on where you stand they blend into each other, increasing or decreasing in number. This rundown, backwater town is a three chimney sort of place – not quite rock bottom, but almost. All anyone can think about is trying to keep their head above the water and food on the table. Upstairs lodger Senko works as a public announcer in the shopping district along with another woman who has a rather different approach to life and is in some kind of compensatory relationship with a businessman whom she’s apparently going to marry. Senko is a little upset about this, possibly envious, but at any rate is going to lose a friend at work and in a way she doesn’t entirely approve of. At one point she declares that she envies the baby in one sense – children are allowed to cry whenever they want and make as much noise as they please, but adults are expected to grin and bear it no matter how painful it might be.

Kenzo, by contrast, is a government official in that he’s a kind of bailiff trying to enforce taxation fines and threatening to seize the property of those that can’t pay. This kind of work contrasts strongly with his sense of social justice as he can see that most of the people he visits just don’t have the means to pay but do have plenty of other problems of their own, what good will it serve turning them out onto the streets? Predictably he’s developed a bit of a crush on Senko though given both of their dire financial circumstances, he’s afraid to pursue it. His need for “justice” sends him out on a quest to track down Hiroko’s former husband and find out what’s really going on though his investigation takes far longer than expected and soon begins to depress him. When eventually uncovered, the facts of the matter shock and upset, leaving Kenzo wishing that he’d never bothered in the first place.

Having gone to so much trouble to avoid having children (they have a very prominently marked calendar hanging on the wall), that Ryukichi and Hiroko should be saddled with an abandoned child is especially ironic though the baby serves as more than a physical burden, becoming a manifestation of a hitherto buried past. Both of the women in the film have suffered heavily in the war. Hiroko lost her entire family and was reduced to stealing scraps of discarded food behind the evacuation centre. After losing everything she came to resent the whole of humanity for becoming involved in this senseless war and just wanted to live alone, but came to feel a life of mere subsistence was not worth living. She got herself a new family register and started again planning not to look back. She didn’t tell Ryukichi much about her former life because she wanted to forget it, it was painful to her.

Senko had similar experiences, losing family members in extremely cruel ways leaving her with a degree of resistance to forming new bonds. The baby, perhaps a temporary visitor, perhaps not, forces them to reconsider their choices, reawakening an emotional connection that had been severed due to the war’s hardships. The past is quite literally visited upon them, but how they decide to deal with it is very much a matter for the present. In the end, this extreme stress test on the various relationships of the central characters proves effective as their bonds eventually strengthen rather than break.

Using the four chimneys as an effective, if occasionally overworked, metaphor, Gosho remains resolutely non-judgemental, reminding us that things often look very different depending on where you stand. Everybody here is struggling, but everyone is trying to survive. If the film has a central message, it’s that you have to let the past go. The “right time” may never come, so you just have to make the best of things now. Happiness is fragile, but possible, if only you can learn to accept the various compromises which necessarily accompany it.


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)