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.


Red Angel (赤い天使, Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

_1_image_size_900_xRed Angel (赤い天使, Akai Tenshi) sees Masumura returning directly to the theme of the war, and particularly to the early days of the Manchurian campaign. Himself a war veteran (though of a slightly later period), Masumura knew first hand the sheer horror of warfare and with this particular film wanted to convey not just the mangled bodies, blood and destruction that warfare brings about but the secondary effects it has on the psyche of all those connected with it.

The story begins as idealistic young nurse Sakura Nishi is sent to a military hospital in mainland China as the Japanese army continues its expansion into Manchuria. At this point the situation isn’t desperate, however, Nishi has barely settled into her new work when she’s grabbed by a patient who attempts to assault her. Far from coming to her rescue or raising the alarm, some of the other patients hold her down or guard the door while Nishi is raped. Reporting the incident to her superior the next morning, Nishi finds out she’s the third nurse this has happened to and only now the matron decides to have the patient (whom she brands a malingerer with mental problems) shipped back to the front lines. The soldier even has the audacity to say goodbye before he leaves whilst leering unpleasantly and if that wasn’t enough the friend also remarks that he enjoyed “the show” and is looking forward to “his turn”.

Things only get worse as Nishi is sent to the front line field hospital which is overrun with the dead and dying. The new patients are delivered by the truckload and the resident surgeon, Dr. Okabe, has to make split second decisions about who is most likely to survive and will receive treatment. Operations here generally result in amputations (whether strictly necessary or not) as this is the best way to prevent the onset of gangrene and other life threatening infections. Okabe was a top surgeon before the war but now he wonders if he’s even a doctor at all – let them die or mame them for life, these are his only options. Eventually, Nishi and Okabe develop a bond but in this desperate and dangerous environment, can you really trust anything or anyone or is every action simply part of the final death throws of those facing the ultimate horror of war?

The frontline field hospital is barely distinguishable from a charnel house as limbs are severed with terrifying efficiency by the conflicted Okabe. There’s little anaesthetic or even medication available and the men scream in agony, asking for their mothers until they finally pass out. Nishi retains some of her youthful compassion wanting to do the best for her patients but Okabe is already lost to a kind of fatalistic blankness.He knows the war itself is hopeless and repeatedly exclaims that China is just too big with too many people in it and they’ll make no impact at all here. At home at least he felt as if he could do something positive, save people’s lives, but here even if he manages to help someone they’ll be sent straight back to fight. They won’t even let the amputees go home for fear that the sight of so many limbless men will damage the nation’s morale.

Okabe, like most of the other men in the film, also has a preoccupation with sex and specifically how these men’s injuries may impact their later quality of life. As for himself, he’s been addicted to morphine for some time which has made him impotent and also places a barrier between himself and his developing relationship with Nishi. Perhaps for this reason he suddenly changes his mind about operating on a patient because it would mean interfering with an area of nerves directly related to sexual arousal and with so little time he’s worried it may be botched and ruin the man’s life so, as it’s likely he may survive without the surgery, he opts to leave it to the more capable hands of a homeland surgeon at a later date. Similarly, a sympathetic patient of Nishi’s who’s lost both of his arms later asks her to provide the “relief” that he is no longer able to supply for himself. Nishi comes to regard this as another of her duties of care and gives the man a few last minutes of comfort. However, this abundance of kindness proves to much for the man and only leaves Nishi feeling even more conflicted than before.

Despite the harshness of the environment, Nishi maintains her youthful and idealistic vision of the world. Okabe cautions her not to get attached to the patients and that the only way through is to view everybody as a stranger, she however refuses. Gradually, Nishi’s love and perseverance reawaken Okabe’s desire for life but in a world as chaotic and fragile as this one all human connections are fleeting and born of the proximity to death.

Red Angel plays out like a horror film full of blood and mangled bodies. Having opened with a series of broken skeletons, the film does not skimp on the macabre imagery and the scenes of buckets full of limbs and corpses being flung from sheets into mass graves are some of the most hauntingly authentic captured on screen. It’s raw and it’s grim, the frankness of its desire to address the murky sexual life of the wartime forces is also surprising from a film made in 1966. Yet there is passion and real connection here too. Throughout it all, Nishi never loses her desire to help or her commitment to love even in the darkest hours. She doesn’t, and cannot, win but her spirit remains unbroken. A harsh look at the animalistic nature of war and its destructive effect on basic human civility, Red Angel is one of the few films to deal with wartime sexuality in a frank way and is still, unfortunately, well ahead of its time.


Red Angel is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from Fantoma and in the UK from Yume Pictures.

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.