Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Nagisa Oshima, 1972)

The complicated relationship between mainland Japan and the Okinawan islands is played out in the youthful identity crises of two adolescents struggling to understand the world their parents have left to them in an uncharacteristically breezy effort from Nagisa Oshima, Dear Summer Sister (Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Natsu no Imoto). Part Rohmerian travelogue, Oshima takes a tour around the island in the immediate aftermath of its reversion to Japan but rather than the busy tourist spots explores a legacy of colonialism and exploitation in the islands’ war memorials and red light districts. 

The irony is that Sunaoko (Hiromi Kurita) finds the person she’s looking for immediately after disembarking from the boat she’s taken from the mainland only she never realises it. Having received a letter from a boy, Tsuruo (Shoji Ishibashi), claiming that he may be her half-brother but isn’t entirely sure, Sunaoko has accepted his offer to come to Okinawa where he will show her his “brotherly affection”. Unbeknownst to her, however, he mistook the figure of her father’s much younger fiancée Momoko (Lily) for that of the teenage Sunaoko with the older woman half-heartedly trying to head off a potential crisis while understandably curious and seeking to know the truth behind her future husband’s hidden past. 

The figure of Tsuruo’s mother, Tsuru (Akiko Koyama), comes to stand in for that of Okinawa yet the central problem as we discover is that she was raped firstly by Sunaoko’s father Kikuchi (Hosei Komatsu) and subsequently by local Okinawan policeman Kuniyoshi (Kei Sato) who had previously passed her off as his younger sister. Even so the trio seem to interact with each other as if nothing had happened and they were simply old university friends reuniting after years of separation. Despite his present occupation in law enforcement, Kuniyoshi had been in prison at the time having been arrested as a student protestor and on his release raped Tsuru after she told him she had been raped by Kuniyoshi in an attempt to reclaim her body and send his sperm as a kind of advance division to prevent Kikuchi’s successfully colonising her womb with the consequence that Tsuru cannot of course be sure whose child Tsuruo is settling finally for “mine” in an answer which at least earns her Sunaoko’s respect. 

Obviously still somewhat naive and additionally provoked on discovering the attraction between Momoko and Tsuruo, Sunaoko had been unfairly judgmental in preemptively accusing Tsuru implying that she been immoral in maintaining relationships with two men at the same time. What occurs is a gradual sense of disillusionment in her father the judge when confronted, it has to be said with confusing frankness, with his own immorality in his misuse of Tsuru which is also of course a metaphor for Japan’s misuse of Okinawa, a thread picked up more directly by the old soldier Sakurada (Taiji Tonoyama) who has apparently come to Okinawa looking for a local willing to kill him in atonement for atrocities he half-heartedly claims not to have committed himself but feels responsible for simply as a Japanese person. Ironically enough he finds such a person in Rintoku (Rokko Toura), a teacher of traditional Okinawan folk music who is looking for “a Japanese who deserves my killing him”.

Nevertheless the relationship between the old men turns into one of playful animosity which does not seem to hint towards violence, a playful fight breaking out between the pair on a boat in the middle of the sea in the film’s concluding scenes in which Sunaoko offers an ironic commentary to the effect that the “killer” and his “victim” are still “singing and drinking” despite the earlier claim that there were only two kinds of people, Okinawans and Japanese, in counter to the claim that the only two kinds of people were men and women. Meanwhile, Kikuchi attempts to process the implications of his friendship and actions explaining that Kuniyoshi’s Okinawan roots were not an obstacle between them while admitting that he never thought about the position of Okinawa during their youth and wonders what he thought back then as to Okinawa’s future, whether it should revert to Japan or become independent. Kuniyoshi claims not to remember, while Tsuru explains how difficult it was to travel to the mainland under the occupation and implies that it’s better now that “we can go where we please”. 

The implication is, perhaps, that Tsuruo is his mother’s child but also a kind of orphan creating a new identity in a new Okinawa having symbolically rejected both of his potential fathers if seeking a brotherhood with his half-sister though even in this the waters are muddied with the undercurrents of incestuous desire which seem to run both ways. Even so Oshima hints at the secondary colonisation of America in conducting what doesn’t seem to be an entirely appropriate series of conversations with the young Sunaoko concerning the history of sex work on the island and the number of bars geared towards American servicemen returning from Vietnam with the suggestion that the islands remain economically dependent on the US despite the reversion while Sukurada makes similarly crass comments about his relationships with Okinawan sex workers during the war. They cast themselves as Urashima Taro travelling to the magical underwater palace of the Dragon King but wary of opening the box of truth they’ve been given lest their world crumble beneath their feet. Picturesque and strangely cheerful, Oshima’s Okinawan odyssey shot with breezy immediacy offers a characteristically thorny take on relations between the two island nations but reaches an unexpectedly hopeful conclusion in the young people’s rejection of their parents’ legacy and intention to move forward in mutual solidarity. 


Dear Summer Sister screens at Japan Society New York May 14 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Images: © 1971 Oshima Productions

The New Morning of Billy the Kid (ビリィ★ザ★キッドの新しい夜明け, Naoto Yamakawa, 1986)

“Isn’t this style called surrealism?” a little girl asks, watching a WWII GI giving John Ford’s Monument Valley a post-modern makeover depicting John Lennon and a Martian in preparation for a live concert by hip girlband ZELDA. Arriving at the beginning of the Bubble era, Naoto Yamakawa’s 35mm commercial feature debut The New Morning of Billy the Kid (ビリィ★ザ★キッドの新しい夜明け, Billy the Kid no Atarashii Yoake) was the first film to be produced by the entertainment arm of department store chain Parco (along with record label Vap) which also distributed and draws inspiration from several stories by genre pioneer Genichiro Takahashi who at one point appears on screen proclaiming singer-songwriter Miyuki Nakajima, a version of whom appears as a character, as one of the three greatest Japanese poets of the age. What transpires is largely surreal, but also a kind of post-modern allegory in which the world is beset by the “anxiety and destruction” of salaryman society. 

Yamakawa opens in black and white and in Monument Valley in which only the figure of a young man in a cowboy outfit is in vivid colour while a voiceover from the American President warns that a savage band of gangsters is currently holding the world to ransom. Yet “Monument Valley” turns out to be only an image filling the wall of Bar Slaughterhouse, the cowboy, Billy the Kid (Hiroshi Mikami) stepping out of the painting having lost his horse and apparently in search of a job. The barman (Renji Ishibashi) is reluctant to give him one, after all he has six bodyguards already ranging from the legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi to an anthropomorphism of Directory Enquiries, 104 (LaSalle Ishii). Nevertheless, after threatening to leave (through the front door) Billy asks for a job as a waiter instead in return for food and board while collecting the bounty for any gangsters he kills in the course of his duties. 

The bar is in some senses an imaginary place, or at least a space of the imagination, the sanctuary of “construction and creation” where half-remembered pop culture references mingle freely. In that sense it stands in direct opposition to the salaryman reality of Bubble-era Japan where everyone works all the time and the only interests which matter are corporate. Billy takes a liking to a young office lady, “Charlotte Rampling” (Kimie Shingyoji), who complains that she’s overcome with a sense of anxiety in the crushing sameness of her life, often woken by the sound of herself grinding her teeth that is when she’s not too tired to fall asleep. The “gangsters” which eventually crash in (literally) are businessmen and authority figures, one revealing as he raids the till that he’s a dissatisfied civil servant who determined that in order to become the best of the salarymen you need an “interesting” hobby so his is being in a gang. Another later gives a speech remarking again on this sense of inner anxiety that in their soulless desk jobs they’re moving further and further away from this world of “creation and construction”, and that the sacrifice of their individuality has provoked the kind of violent madness which enables this nihilistic “terrorist” enforcement of the corporatist society against which Miyuki (Shigeru Muroi), another of the bodyguards dressed as a retro 50s-style roller diner waitress, rebels through her poetry. 

Envisioned as a single set drama (save the bookending Monument Valley scenes apparently filmed on location in Arizona) Yamanaka’s drama is infinitely meta, in part a minor parody of Seven Samurai featuring a Miyamoto Musashi inspired by Kurosawa’s Kyuzo who was himself inspired by Miyamoto Musashi as the seven pop culture bodyguards stand guard over a saloon-style cafe bar beset by the forces of “order” turned modern-day bandits intent on crushing the artistic spirit in order to facilitate the rise of a boring salaryman corporate drone society. Yet for all of its absurdist humour, Harry Callahan (Yoshio Harada) telling a strange story about being a race horse, there is something quietly moving in Yamakawa’s ethereal transitions, the camera gently pulling back as a little girl who wanted to travel is suddenly surrounded by snow or the face of anxious young office lady fading into that of a prairie woman telling a bizarre tale of her life with a venomous snake. Equally a vehicle for girlband ZELDA whose music recurs throughout, the first stage number a hippyish affair set in a summer garden and the second an emo goth aesthetic more suited to what’s about to happen, Yamakawa’s zeitgeisty, post-modern drama is an advocation for the importance of the creative spirit if in another meta touch itself a rebellion against the corporate and consumerist emptiness of Bubble-era Japan. 


The New Morning of Billy the Kid streams worldwide 3rd to 5th December with newly prepared English subtitles alongside two of Yamakawa’s earlier shorts courtesy of Matchbox Cine.

Original trailer (English subtitles available via CC button)

Miyuki Nakajima’s debut single, Azami-jo no Lullaby (1975)

ZELDA’s Ogon no Jikan

Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenji Misumi, 1965)

An orphaned son’s attempts to overcome his cursed destiny are poisoned by the duplicities of the samurai society in third part of Kenji Misumi’s loose “Sword Trilogy”, Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenki). Perhaps unfairly dismissed by some as a mere genre craftsmen, Misumi was also an intense visual stylist, a quality very much on show in this vibrant drama which pits the beauty of the natural world against the samurai order but eventually finds its hero succumbing to cruelties of his age unable to outrun himself or his destiny. 

In the prologue which opens the film, shot in an arty theatrical style, a young peasant woman formerly a maid to the late Lady Makino gives birth to a “stranger’s” child after having been promoted and given a place in the women’s quarters as a reward for her loyalty in continuing to serve her mistress in the depths of her “madness”. Lady Makino claims that Kin’s kindness brought her back to reality and is keen to ensure she continues to be taken care of after her death, but also asks her to take charge of her precious pooch hoping that she will treat it “as herself”. This is perhaps why it is rumoured that the child, given the name “Hanpei” which ironically is in part inspired by the dog-like “Spot” coupled with a suffix which implies a lowly rank, is in fact the product of a taboo union between the maid and the dog (rather than admit he is almost certainly the illegitimate son of Lord Masanobu). For some reason this bizarre rumour persists throughout the boy’s life, cast out as he is from the palace and raised in an ordinary village as the son of a low-ranking samurai who appears to be kind and loving, worried enough about Hanpei’s (Raizo Ichikawa) future to advise him to find a special skill that will allow him to support himself and perhaps overcome some of the persistent prejudice against him after the old man’s death. 

The skill he perfects, however, continues to set him apart from his fellow men in that he chooses the cultivation of flowers. A particularly snotty neighbour describes Hanpei’s art as “annoying”, though others are impressed enough by his skill to marvel that they have such a man in their clan while also pointing out that in these times of peace becoming a samurai florist might be much more useful than perfecting the art of the sword. Ironically, however, it drags him back towards the court and intrigue when he’s invited to craft a flower garden to cheer up the present young lord who seems to be succumbing to the same “madness” as his mother. The trouble starts when the garden is completed to the lord’s satisfaction but marred by the sudden and apparently unexpected arrival of a bumblebee which damages the lord’s tranquility and provokes a violent outburst in which he begins to hack at the flowers hoping to punish the one which “rudely” invited the bee to the garden. Hiding behind a tree, Hanpei perfectly aims a rock at the lord’s head to prevent him destroying his precious work and is spotted by his chief retainer, Kanbei (Kei Sato), who earmarks him for future use in his nascent conspiracy. 

Hanpei finds himself at the centre of intrigue, increasingly seduced by promises of advancement that he might be “titleless” no more and perhaps in fact escape his lowly position as the son of a dog. He ingratiates himself by, like his mother, being one of the few servants willing to bear the lord’s violent rages in volunteering to accompany his horse even though he has none of his own and has to run along behind thereby demonstrating his slightly supernatural athletic ability that gives further credence to his canine origins. In similar fashion he learns by observation, captivated rather than appalled on witnessing an old ronin practicing his sword technique by cutting in half a butterfly in the forest. Preoccupied by his lowly status and consequent lack of sword skills, Hanpei is reassured by the man’s explanation that there’s nothing more to it than draw, strike, and sheath but takes yet another step towards the samurai dark side in accepting the gift of a sword. Later he breaks it, meaning to break with the cruel path on which fate has set him, only to pick up another, supposedly cursed sword to which he was attracted because of its “evil spirit”.

Osaki (Michiko Sugata), a kind and innocent woman seemingly attracted to Hanpei because of his difference in his gentle sensitivity in contrast to the rough men around her, refuses to believe the rumours he has become an assassin working for Kanbei because no one who loves flowers like he does could be a coldblooded killer. This is in fact what he has become, sent, like a dog, after Kanbei’s enemies killing without even knowing who it is who must die only to be remorseful on discovering he has killed someone known to him. There is division and sedition within the court caused by the lord’s madness, Kanbei and his associates keen to rule in his stead while keeping his mania secret from the shogun while others, a small group of lower samurai rebels, prefer to depose him in favour of his adopted heir. Hanpei is once again a pawn, taking no side in this debate but unthinkingly doing Kanbei’s dirty work in the service of his sword. He hopes that by taking the “evil” instrument in his hands he might double his bad luck to overcome his unhappy destiny, gazing at his distorted face in its reflection, but discovers himself merely outcast once again as the villagers begin to realise he is an obstacle to their rebellion and responsible for the assassinations of their loved ones. 

The ironic conclusion finds the hero’s planned flower garden, a shared endeavour with love interest Osaki, rendered a bloody graveyard, men cut down like weeds as Hanpei’s quick draw philosophy makes a mockery of their fancy samurai fencing. The poisonous samurai legacy, infected with madnesses literal and figural, destroys everything, all beauty and grace falling under Hanpei’s “evil” sword as he finds himself, quite literally, chased out of town like a stray dog condemned to wander exiled from human society. 


The Catch (飼育, Nagisa Oshima, 1961)

The Catch poster1960 was a turbulent year for many, not least among them Nagisa Oshima who dramatically broke his contract with Shochiku after the studio withdrew Night and Fog in Japan on grounds of sensitivity after the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party was murdered by a right-wing assassin live on TV. 1961’s The Catch (飼育, Shiiku), an adaptation of a novel by Kenzaburo Oe, was Oshima’s first post-studio picture and as uncompromising as anything else he’d worked on up to that point. Unlike many other filmmakers of the post-war generation who had been keen to use the corruption of the war as an excuse for a failure of humanity they now thought could be repaired, Oshima suggests that the rot was there long before and all the war did was give it justification.

In the summer of 1945, a small village captures a black American airman (Hugh Hurd) shot down over a nearby forest. They are originally quite jubilant about their act of heroism, believing that they will eventually be rewarded by the authorities, but are then irritated by their new responsibility. They are already low on food, and now they’ll have to feed this full grown man or risk being branded as amoral war criminals. Predictably, nobody wants to be saddled with looking after him until the authorities arrive with further instructions or knows what to do now, so in time-honoured fashion they tie him up in a shed and hope for the best. Only latterly when one of the children points it out do they realise that they should probably remove the bear trap attached to the airman’s foot which may already be infected seeing as he seems to be in a considerable amount of pain and is running a high fever.

It goes without saying that villagers are extremely racist, using quite pointed racial slurs and dehumanising language to describe their captive, even when others stop to remind them that he is after all human too even if he’s an enemy. Just as their sons and husbands are overseas fighting, and dying, bravely for the emperor so was this man valiantly risking his life for his country. Shouldn’t he be accorded some respect just for that? Wouldn’t they want that for their sons too?

Sadly thoughts are thin on the ground, as is food. Jiro (Toshiro Ishido), a young man shortly to enlist, wants a bag of rice off his dad to take into town to buy a woman, but his dad doesn’t have any because he’s already in debt to the immensely corrupt village chief (Rentaro Mikuni). Jiro eventually satisfies himself with a sexually liberated high school girl evacuated from the city and thereafter disappears – the first of many negative events to be randomly blamed on the captive airman. Meanwhile the village chief is responsible for a series of problems because of his out of control need for sexual dominance which sees him apparently abusing his daughter-in-law (Masako Nakamura) and attempting to assault a young widow (Akiko Koyama) with two children evacuated from the city and otherwise undefended in the village.

The rot here is feudalism, the idea that gives free rein to the village chief to misuse his position for his own satisfaction – extracting sexual favours from the women and controlling the men economically. Because he’s the village chief no one really questions his authority or his orders, so when he says all the problems are new and caused by the “black monster” they’ve brought into the village then everyone believes it to be true. The airman, who cannot be responsible for any of these crimes because he is still recovering and locked up in the shed, becomes a scapegoat for every bad thing that has ever happened in the village. More than an embodiment of the war, he is a symbol of all the external pressures that the village would like to pretend are the reasons it has turned in on itself.

Yet the airman is only one kind, the deepest kind, of other. The village hasn’t quite even integrated its evacuees who also constitute a secondary community. The young woman’s two starving children are repeatedly caught with their fingers in other people’s rice jars and receive little sympathy from the villagers, but their crimes only expose the fact that the man who has sheltered them, and also owns the shed where the airman is kept, has been keeping quiet about people thieving his potatoes. He knows it’s not the widow because there are simply too many taken to feed a small family of three, which means that there are probably several “thieves” among the villagers, content to betray their neighbours in thinking that the wealthy farmer won’t miss a measly few root vegetables.

Predictably, rather than deal with the problem, everyone obsesses over the idea that the corruption is born only of the airman and if they could just eliminate him everything would go back to “normal” – i.e. the feudal past in which everyone does what the village chief says and lives in superficial harmony without complaining about their reduced status as lowly peasants forced to live in penury by an unfair and essentially corrupt system. To cure the discord between them, they decide that the airman must be killed, no longer caring about the censure they may face from the authorities. Only two young boys stick up for him, remaining sane amid the madness all around them in insisting that the airman is a person too, is unrelated to the village drama, and deserves his dignity and respect. Sadly, however, the madness has already taken hold.

On learning that the war is over, the villagers refuse to reflect on their behaviour and seek only to bury the past, superficially smoothing over their barbarity with convenient justification. They receive the news that the American authorities do not trust the Japanese with surprise and hurt, despite the fact they are living proof of the reasons why they would be foolish to do so. We gave him white rice while we ate potatoes, he had goats milk, they say, what more could he have wanted? The answer is self evident, but it’s already been forgotten. The villagers start blaming each other, and eventually settle on another scapegoat – a deserter, as if another death could tie all of this into a neat bundle to be burned away on a funeral pyre as if it never existed at all. The evacuees are invited to leave, and the villagers start thinking about the harvest festival, as if the evil has been excised and everything is returning to the way it’s supposed to be, but this “peace” is brokered on the back of secrecy and an abnegation of responsibility. A grim exposé of man’s essential cruelty and selfishness, The Catch rejects the tenets of post-war humanism to suggest that the corruption of feudalism has not and may never be eliminated at least as long as a nation remains content to bury its past along with its shame.


Short clip (English subtitles)

Night and Fog in Japan (日本の夜と霧, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

night and fog in japan posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Nagisa Oshima entered the world of filmmaking almost by chance. While studying law at Kyoto University, he’d become deeply involved in the leftist student movement and reportedly joined Shochiku’s assistant director program in 1954 solely because no other company would hire him. His path there too was hardly typical and saw him become a leading light of the studio’s extremely temporary bid to play Nikkatsu at their own game with a series of gritty youth dramas which included the melancholy Cruel Story of Youth and infinitely bleak The Sun’s Burial. It was his fourth film, however, which proved the most controversial perhaps unexpectedly given its otherwise dry subject matter. Named for Alain Resnais’ incendiary documentary, Night and Fog in Japan (日本の夜と霧, Nihon no Yoru to Kiri) was pulled from cinema screens following the assassination of the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party by a right-wing nationalist just three days after the film’s release.

Oshima’s film is in itself an attack on the left, though one from an entirely different angle. The failure of the student movement would become a preoccupation for the left-leaning avant-garde movement of the early ‘70s, but one could argue that though the movement had been dealt a huge blow by the failure to stop the renewal of the ANPO treaty despite the mass protests of 1960 it had not yet “failed”. Indeed, protests continued and intensified throughout the 1960s until weakened by a government crackdown in the run up to the treaty’s renewal in 1970 and were only really ended by the horror exposed by the Asama-Sanso Incident in 1972.

In a strange way, Oshima’s impassioned attack on the misguided rigidity of radical student politics almost presages the dark place into which the movement would eventually fall through the already emergent generation gap between the earnest contemporary students keeping up the fight, and the jaded post-war generation who have long since given up the struggle for bourgeois comforts. He opens, of all places, at a wedding notable for its solemnity as a young student radical, Reiko (Miyuki Kuwano), weds a newspaper reporter, Nozawa (Fumio Watanabe), she met at the climatic June 15 protest. The wedding is later interrupted by two melancholy outsiders – one the leader of the students currently on the run from the police, and the other an older man coming in from the cold, though both with the intention of confrontation.

As we might have assumed, the younger man, Ota (Masahiko Tsugawa), is not the jilted lover of the bride. It’s the revolution he’s come to accuse her of betraying through her rejection of their comrade, Kitami – missing since the failed raid on the Diet building, whom Ota assumes to have been her lover now thrown over for the “cage” of family. Reiko’s “betrayal” is mirrored in the drama between the older generation as we gradually discover the complicated history between the groom and Misako (Akiko Koyama), the dejected wife of the current head of the Socialist Party, Nakayama (Takao Yoshizawa).

The demands of ideological purity are mirrored in the strangely moralistic attempts to police female desire in suggesting that both women have made “practical” choices at the expense of their personal integrity. The major drama, however, revolves around the older students’ overreaction to having caught a “spy” in their dorm, keeping him imprisoned while they try to bully him into betraying his true masters. One student however, Takao (Masahiro Sakon) – nursing an unrequited crush on Misako, refuses to believe the man is guilty and is thereafter accused of betraying the movement by allowing him to escape. Takumi (Ichiro Hayami), the second ghost at the feast, has come to ask if it was the movement which betrayed Takao by ignoring his emotional fragility, causing him to abandon faith not only in it but in himself.

Throughout it all, Nakayama remains the stoical voice of authority, blaming anything negative on the nebulous figure of the “imperialists” while insisting on superficial “unity” which really means do as I say and don’t rock the boat. The students want more and they look to the older generation for guidance, but the old guard have lost the faith. Even among the youngsters, few think the cause can be won. The struggle is between those who give up, and those who keep fighting anyway for the right to “march towards a brighter tomorrow”. As a student, Nakayama had dismissed the “spy” as unworthy of their revolution because he was an uneducated worker, but now dismisses the students because they exist outside of the economic structure and therefore cannot occupy a space within a workers’ movement. This wedding, which might have been the unification bringing together the old and the new, has become a funeral that marks the death of post-war idealism, betrayed by the bourgeois need for respectability. The students know their movement will fail, but they move anyway. Nakayama, meanwhile, makes speeches about unity to his dejected contemporaries, berating the students for their lack of “realism” as if insisting that the route to social change lies in concession to populist conservatism.

“I feel empty and sad” the post-war students lament, watching their movement withering on the vine. Betrayed by the older generation, the contemporary students have no role models to follow and no real hope for the future, but still they fight on earnestly. A fierce condemnation of political hypocrisy, dogmatic rigidity, and bourgeois paternalism, Night and Fog in Japan sees no way out of its existential malaise as its would-be-revolutionaries remain lost in a fog confusion with no exit in sight.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Sun’s Burial (太陽の墓場, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

sun's burial poster“Love and hope for the youth!” reads a prominent sign in the middle of a hopeless slum in Oshima’s bitterly nihilistic youth drama The Sun’s Burial (太陽の墓場, Taiyo no Hakaba). Then at Shochiku, home of polite melodrama, Oshima was one of a handful of youngsters (that also included Kiju Yoshida and Masahiro Shinoda) bumped up to director ahead of schedule in an attempt to find voices who could speak to youth in much the same way Nikkatsu was doing with its incendiary tales of the new bright young things. The Sun’s Burial would be Oshima’s penultimate film for the studio before he stormed out after they pulled his next film Night and Fog in Japan from cinemas fearing its fierce critique of a divided left torn apart by dogmatic rigidity and generational conflict was too on the nose in wake of the assassination of the Socialist Party leader by a right-wing nationalist.

Set in the slums of Kamagasaki, Osaka, The Sun’s Burial follows a collection of desperate adolescents trying to survive in an intensely hostile environment. Our “hero” the conflicted Takeshi (Isao Sasaki), is inducted into a street gang after getting beaten up by young tough Yasu (Yusuke Kawazu). Along with his friend Tatsu, he is originally quite taken with the idea of becoming a gang member, but blanches when he passes a room full of captive women, one of whom is being beaten for having conceived a child.

Meanwhile, across town, his polar opposite, the cynical survivor Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) is running a blood racket, literally bleeding the proletariat to sell their bodily fluids on to the cosmetics trade. Technically operating under the aegis of her petty thug father Yosematsu (Junzaburo Ban), Hanako is in business with a doctor and a couple of minions but later has her authority undercut by a mad old imperialist known as “The Agitator” (Eitaro Ozawa) who keeps insisting that the Russians are coming and they have to be ready.

Not permitted to maintain power in her own right, Hanako is forced to shuttle between male protectors, occasionally pitting one against the other in a bid to come out on top. In addition to her blood business, she also engages in casual sex work and seemingly has no qualms about wielding her sex appeal as a weapon in order to manipulate male power. Pushed out by The Agitator, she turns to gang leader Shin (Masahiko Tsugawa) for a temporary alliance. When he too cuts her out, she thinks about tipping off the area’s big Yakuza boss, Ohama (Gen Shimizu), to Shin’s whereabouts, always looking a few moves ahead while the callous Shin remains wary and ever vigilant.

In a move which surprises and disturbs the naive Takeshi who is nevertheless captivated by her cynical self assurance, Hanako is entirely indifferent to the suffering of other women, willingly co-operating with Shin while knowing that he runs an abusive prostitution ring. Takeshi’s loss of innocence comes early when he is sent to go out and find some victims with his friend Tatsu who convinces him to club a high school boy canoodling with his girlfriend over the head so they can rob him. Takeshi looks on in mild confusion and horror as Tetsu proceeds to rape the young woman, turning to Hanako for guidance but all she does is shrug. The high school boy later commits suicide, presumably unable to bear the shame of having failed to protect his girlfriend, leaving Takeshi feeling as if he has blood on his hands. To Hanako, however, the boy’s death is no one’s fault but his own, a product of his own weakness. A strong person, she posits, would have sought revenge. What sort of person ups and dies without a fight?

Meanwhile, back in the slum, a man hangs himself after falling victim to The Agitator’s latest scam – getting involved with a dodgy gangster’s exploitative scheme to buy up legitimate IDs from desperate people and sell them to even more desperate undocumented migrant workers. Full of tales of Empire, The Agitator declares that he’s going to march them all up to Tokyo and teach those noisy students a lesson, proving somehow that populist militarism is not yet dead in quiet corners of Japan. The Agitator has several followers among the middle-aged and older denizens of Kamagasaki, taken in by his bluster and lacking any other sources of hope. They follow him because he demands to be followed and because he made them a series of promises. Only when they realise his plans rest on exploiting people even more unfortunate than they are, and suddenly realising he never got round to paying them either, do they finally rebel, burning down the slum in protest of their hopeless circumstances.

Berated for her cynicism by the now compromised Takeshi, Hanako offers only the defence that she has survived and will continue to survive where others may not if they allow their consciences to take precedence over self-preservation. Bleak as it gets, Oshima ends on with a note of anxious industry as his determined heroine dusts herself off and gets “back to work”, escaping from the ruins of the burned out slum in the bright morning sun. “No hope for Japan now” an embittered member of the older generation laments, and Oshima, it seems, is apt to agree.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blood is Dry (血は渇いてる, Kiju Yoshida, 1960)

Blood is dry DVD coverIn the new post-war economy, everything is for sale including you! Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida’s second feature Blood is Dry (血は渇いてる, Chi wa Kawaiteru) takes its cues from Yasuzo Masumura’s earlier Technicolor corporate satire Giants and Toys, and Frank Capra’s 1941 comedy Meet John Doe in taking a faceless corporate drone and giving him a sense of self only through its own negation. The little guy is at the mercy not only of irresponsible capitalist fat cats, but of his own imagination and the machinations of mass media who are only too keen to sell him impossible dreams of individual happiness.

The action opens with a grandstanding rooftop speech from a former CEO to his distressed workforce informing them that because of “indifferent capitalism” this small business is going bust and everyone’s out of a job. Then, dramatically, our hero Kiguchi (Keiji Sada), steps out with a pistol and threatens to shoot himself, proclaiming that he no longer cares for his own life but doesn’t want anyone else to lose their job. Another worker, Kanai (Masao Oda), tackles Kiguchi and the gun goes off. Thankfully, he is only mildly wounded but Kiguchi’s case reaches the papers who make it into a human interest issue exemplifying the precarious economic conditions of the modern society. While he’s still somewhat current, an enterprising advertising executive hits on the idea of getting Kiguchi to act as the face of their campaign, bizarrely attempting to sell life insurance with the image of a man putting a gun to his head while proclaiming that “it’s high time everyone is happy”.

When we first meet him, Kiguchi is indeed a faceless, broken man at the end of his tether. His noble sacrifice is interpreted as an act of war on an unfair capitalist society, but as he later affirms in exasperation, Kiguchi had no political intent and never considered himself as acting with a greater purpose, he was simply terrified at the prospect of losing his job which is, in a sense, also his entire identity. Shy and mild-mannered, he stammers through speeches and curls himself into a hostile ball of awkwardness in front of the camera but ad exec Nonaka (Mari Yoshimura) is sure that only makes him a better sell for being “real” and relatable. Like the hero of Meet John Doe, however, Kiguchi starts to buy into his own hype. He fully embraces his role as the embodiment of the everyman, at once gaining and losing an identity as he basks in the unexpected faith of his adoring populace.

Kiguchi’s conversion wasn’t something Nonaka had in mind and it frightens her to realise she has lost control of her creation. Meanwhile, Nonaka’s ex, a paparazzo with a penchant for setting up celebrities in compromising situations in order to blackmail them, has it in for Kiguchi as the personification of his own dark profession. He resents the idea of using “suicide” as a marketing tool and the cynical attempt to sell the idea of happiness through the security of life insurance which, it has to be said, is a peculiarly ironic development.

Kiguchi’s liberal message of happiness and solidarity does not go down well with all – he’s eventually attacked in a taxicab by a right-wing nationalist posing as a reporter who accuses him of being a traitor to Japan, and it’s certainly not one which appeals to the forces which created him. Nevertheless, he does begin to capture something of the spirit of the man in the street who just wants to be “happy” only to have his message crushed when his image is tarnished by tabloid shenanigans and left wondering if the only way to reclaim his “artificial” identity is to once again destroy himself in sacrifice to his new ideal.

Yet Kiguchi’s motivation is both collectivist and individual as he claims and abandons his identity in insisting that he belongs to the people. His confidence is born only of their belief in him and without it he ceases to exist. Kiguchi’s entire identity has been an artificial creation with an uncertain expiry date and his attempts to buy it authenticity only damn him further while his actions are once again co-opted by outside forces for their own aims. The little guy has achieved his apotheosis into a corporate commodity leaving the everyman firmly at the mercy of his capitalist overlords, dreaming their dreams of consumerist paradise while shedding their own sense of self in service of an illusionary conception of “happiness”.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (新宿泥棒日記, Nagisa Oshima, 1969)

Shinjuku thief posterIn Sing a Song of Sex, Nagisa Oshima had lamented the depressing decline of political consciousness among the young who remained so preoccupied with their sexual desires that they’d forgotten all about the revolution. In Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (新宿泥棒日記, Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki), once again a story told through song, he examines the same problem from the other side – if repressed desires frustrate the battle for social change, then perhaps the sexual revolution must precede the political.

Our “hero” if you can call him that, is a man calling himself “Birdey Hilltop” (Tadanori Yokoo). Birdey gets off on shoplifting books from the huge Kunokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku. One day he is caught by a feisty young woman, Umeko (Rie Yokoyama), who we later discover is merely posing as an employee in one of the film’s many acts of role play. Umeko drags the shoplifting Birdey up to see her “boss”, Mr. Tanabe (the real life boss of Kunokuniya playing “himself”), who, to be honest, isn’t very interested in dealing with a petty thief but is quite interested in this strange pair of awkward young people and becomes something between invested audience member and accidental director in setting them off on a journey to explore the nature of their peculiar sexualities.

These largely seem to lean on the idea of anonymous theft, that neither Birdey nor Umeko are able to accept the reality of altruistic connection and value only that which is actively taken (preferably in secret). Umeko allows herself to be “stolen” in skipping out on already arranged date with a man who had threatened to take what he wanted by force to undergo an unfulfilling sexual experience with Birdey which nevertheless provokes in her a desire to shatter the realities of time and space. Given money to enjoy themselves, neither of the pair quite want to accept it – the idea of splitting it amicably isn’t appealing, or perhaps the magnanimity of insisting the other take it all more pleasurable, but neither of them want anything that isn’t in some way a transgressive transaction.

Yet perhaps what it is they long to steal is an identity. Neither Birdey nor Umeko has been entirely truthful with the other and they are each only too happy to inhabit various other roles as they act their way through life. The final apotheosis of the self occurs solely in the theatrical realm but apparently carries a level of essential truth which finally allows the pair to integrate their identities into a comfortable whole which liberates their bodies from sexual repression and perhaps becomes a kind of revolution of its own.

Nevertheless, their strange journey is massaged by a number of dubious guides from the sex therapist who reaches a series of bizarre conclusions based on little more than appearance and vague reactions to classic pornography to the gentle machinations of Tanabe who eventually declares himself too old for this particular game, and the entire legacy of world literature which crowds their heads with competing thoughts and leaves no room for originality. During their “therapy” session the pair are encouraged to get literally naked in front of the analyst who correctly points outs that they are each wearing masks (though his eagerness to see them disrobe does not seem entirely innocent) while also poking and prodding at their various dualities – Birdey is too “effeminate” and Umeko “too strong”, their gender atypicality apparently the root of all their problems. Birdey wonders if on some level he would rather be a woman, and if Umeko would rather be a man before deciding to search for himself on the stage.

Another of the dubious mentors, avant-garde stage performer and legendary figure of the Japanese underground theatre movement Juro Kara makes frequent appearances throughout the film strumming a guitar and singing a song about Alibaba while dressed in a deliberately gaudy modern take on traditional stage costuming. One of several real life figures Oshima cast in the film, Juro Kara more than any of the others is here to remind us that everything we see is affectation – something Oshima further rams home with his jarring transitions from elegant black and white photography to oversaturated colour filled with the deep red of passion and desire. Frequent title cards, surrealist imagery, rapid shifts in tone and style, and a free floating approach to narrative – Oshima out Godards Godard and even if his messages are obscure in the extreme, his images hold their power all the same.


Diary of a Shinjuku Thief was screened as part of the Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival 2018.

Opening sequence (no subtitles)

Three Resurrected Drunkards (帰って来たヨッパライ, Nagisa Oshima, 1968)

Three Resurrected Drunkards posterThe pop star movie has a long and distinguished history in Japanese cinema, but one might not have expected it to include Nagisa Oshima – a legendary iconoclast and conscientious objector to this particular strain of pop culture frivolity. Then again, taking a much hated form and turning it in on itself as a multifaceted form of protest is exactly the sort of thing one might expect Oshima to do. Therefore we find him in 1968 teaming up with The Folk Crusaders – a folk rock band enjoying a sudden flash of popularity after pressing their own indie record and seeing it go gold when radio stations picked up their North Korean themed Imujingawa and turned it into a giant hit. The band’s best known hit remains Kanashikute Yarikirenai which was released the same year, but it was perhaps Imujingawa with its melancholy Korean theme which attracted Oshima’s attention. A Monkees-esque surreal pop-star vehicle, Three Resurrected Drunkards (帰って来たヨッパライ, Kaette Kita Yopparai) is the third and most direct (strangely) in a series of films critiquing Japan-Korea relations, pushing further into the contemporary era with additional questions to ask about American imperialism and the complicity of both nations in the ongoing conflict in Vietnam.

Three students, played by the three members of The Folk Crusaders, frolic on a beach recreating the famous Vietnam war photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a prisoner in the street, before stripping off to go swimming. While they’re enjoying the waters, a hand rises up from beneath the sand and exchanges their clothes for a set of Korean military uniforms and some cash. The boys put on the strangers’ clothes and try to go home, but run into trouble when they try to scam an old grandma running a tobacco stand by pretending to have forgotten the price of cigarettes has gone up by 10 yen, assuming a dotty old grandma out in the sticks might not know anyway. Instantly suspicious, and seeing as this is “crack down on stowaways week”, the grandma tips off the authorities. After all, no Japanese person could be unaware of the rise in the price of cigarettes, so our heroes must be the “them” everyone is looking for.

What transpires is a surreal adventure of mistaken identities and rampant xenophobia in which our three students become temporarily transposed with their Korean counterparts – a draft dodging corporal trying to escape being sent to die in Vietnam, and his friend who’s come with him in the hopes of getting into a Japanese university. The third student, “Beanpole”, gets to keep his “Japanese” identity as a kind of control, but finds himself punished alongside his “Korean” friends as they face the harshest of punishments in this increasingly cruel and arbitrary world.

The three “stowaways” are then chased by the “real” Koreans who want to kill them and fake their own deaths to become Japanese. Later the three turn the tables on their pursuers but find themselves unable to pull the trigger because “Koreans don’t kill other Koreans”. In a bold piece of narrative reframing, Oshima abruptly resets the narrative halfway through, literally “resurrecting” our three drunkards who are instantly aware of what’s going on and determine to do things differently this time around – offering the grandma the right money, not taking the Korean uniforms with them when they leave the bathhouse etc, but they still get caught by the “real” Koreans and manage to survive only by “becoming” Koreans themselves, owning their new identities and rejecting their Japaneseness whilst turning their captors’ questions back on them and accusing them of being Japanese.

Meanwhile, the students take to the streets for an extended voxpop session in which they ask the question “are you Japanese?” to which all of their interviewees reply “No.”, asked “so how’s that then?”, they all calmly state it’s because they’re Korean. Aside from a pointed shot at a Westerner, Oshima seems to be making the rather banal point that Japanese and Koreans cannot be distinguished visually despite what some rather ignorant people might think – hence the identity confusion resulting from putting on “Korean” clothes, but he goes a little further in muddying the waters with a comparison between ongoing American imperialism and that of the Japanese past. Koreans in Japan experience oppression and xenophobic racism, but their nation as a whole also suffers from external oppression born of their government’s reliance on America for military support in the event that their truce with the North will someday be broken. Hence they find themselves packed off to another controversial war killing other Asians at the behest of a foreign government and its intense cold-war paranoia. 

Japan of course is also subject to this same oppression in reliance on American military power and so is also complicit in the horrors of Vietnam. These twin threads meet not only in the melancholy folk song penned by The Folk Crusaders, but in the final image which sees the executed Vietnamese man replaced by a Korean “stowaway” and the soldier by a Japanese policeman. Concentric circles flash in and out but Korea is always left in the middle, suffering at the hands of external powers, though Oshima remains largely silent on that presented by the authoritarian government of the day save criticising its determination to cling to American military might. A pop star movie with a title named for one of the band’s biggest hits – the high pitched and cartoonish Kaette Kita Yopparai which is itself a nonsense adventure of silliness, Three Resurrected Drunkards is a psychedelic treatise against systemic prejudices, complicity, and the seemingly inescapable cycle of geopolitical manoeuvring such prejudices fuel and enable.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Imujingawa

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (無理心中日本の夏, Nagisa Oshima, 1967)

Japanese summer double suicide posterThe youth of Japan can’t get no satisfaction in Nagisa Oshima’s 1967 absurdist odyssey Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (無理心中日本の夏, Muri Shinju: Nihon no Natsu). A liberated woman craves sexual pleasure but can find no man willing to satisfy her, so obsessed are they with their solipsistic concerns of death, violence, and the search for self knowledge. The nymphomaniac and disillusioned warrior yearning for a death that will restore his sense of self meet on an empty highway only to wander on aimlessly until reaching their mutually “satisfying” yet inevitable conclusion.

Nejiko (Keiko Sakurai), a sexually frustrated teenage woman, watches some municipal workers scrub at the word Japan graffitied on a bathroom wall but takes off when she realises no one here is going to give her what she wants. Throwing her underwear off a bridge in a symbolic act of abandon she catches sight of naked swimmers trailing a Japanese flag before running into collections of marching soldiers and chanting monks. She takes up with a deserter, Otoko (Kei Sato), who is on a quest for death though his desire is not so much for the act of non-existence as it is for self knowledge. He does not want to kill himself, but to be killed by another person in whose eyes he will see himself reflected and, in his final moments, reach a realisation of everything he is.

After wandering arid, sunbaked deserts the pair are picked up by a mysterious paramilitary group who keep them prisoner in a kind of bunker where they eventually meet a gun crazed teen who just wants to kill, a middle-aged man who gets his kicks through the penetrative act of stabbing, and a wise old gangster who knows what it is to carry the weight of a weapon of death. Meanwhile, once a vengeful guy with a TV turns up, they become aware of a crisis in the outside world involving a rampaging foreigner loose with a rifle on a random shooting spree.

Guns and knives are persistent obsessions. These men are obsessed with phallic objects but indifferent to their phalluses. Nejiko pleads with each of them to satisfy her sexual frustrations but none of them is interested. Her need is for pleasure and relief, seemingly free of social or cultural taboos and born of naturally given freedom. The male urge is, by contrast, destructive – they chase death and violence without pretence or justification. When questioned, one of the bunker henchmen retorts that the situation outside is not war but only killing. All there is is violence without cause or explanation, existing solely because of male destructive impulses.

The situation outside is eerie in the extreme. This is a Japan of silence and emptiness where monks chant on the motorway and shadows people the landscape. Nejiko and Otoko find themselves frequently trying to fit in to human shapes cut into the Earth, finding them far too big or in someway constraining. Yet they also become these shadow figures, birthing new shades of themselves to leave behind as they shed evermore aspects of their essential selves. What caused this situation is not revealed, but everyone seems to be carrying on as normal. There is a crazed killer on the loose and the police have asked civilians to remain in their homes but civilians have ignored them for the most characteristic reasons for uncharacteristic insubordination – they all went to work.

Eventually Nejiko manages to convince some of the men to make love to her, but she remains unsatisfied. Likewise, the teenage “gang member” who wandered into the bunker looking for a gun gets one and succeeds in an act of random killing but discovers that it was not “exciting” after all. Desire is misplaced or its satisfaction unattainable. In this world of pure nihilism there is no pleasure and no relief, no need can be met and no peace brokered. All there is is senseless violence, devoid of meaning or purpose and born of nothing more than a desperation to quell a need which can never be fulfilled.

Death and Eros approach the same end – the “double suicide” of the title though even this is essentially passive and desperate. Youth wanders blindly towards its inevitable conclusion, lacking the will or the strength to fight back. There is no self, there is no higher purpose. All there is is a great expanse of emptiness peopled by shadows, fading slowly from a world gradually falling apart.


Original trailer (no subtitles)