Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

Killing Yoshiwara posterHaving led a somewhat floating life, Tomu Uchida returned to Japan in only in 1953 after a sustained period with the Manchurian Film Cooperative followed by a brief flirtation with Maoism. Before the war Uchida had been closely identified with the Keiko Eiga movement of broadly left-wing filmmaking but later fell hard for the inherent romanticism of militarist ideology during his time in Manchuria. Nevertheless it was apparently the Maoist doctrines of progress through contradiction that influenced his later dramatic philosophy in which he came to think of narrative as a series of conflicts which culminate in an explosive act designed to resolve them (or not, as we will see). 1960’s Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Yoto Monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara Hyakunin-giri, AKA Hero of the Red Light District) is perhaps a prime example as it takes a seemingly generic story inspired by a kabuki play and uses it to tell a melancholy tale of parallel yet mutually thwarted desires for vengeance against a cruel and oppressive society.

Ostensibly, our “hero” is Jiro (Chiezo Kataoka) – a successful silk merchant. A good and kind man, Jiro is beloved of all his staff for his careful consideration of them as people as well as employees. This concern is, however, perhaps not as wholly “good” as it seems. Jiro’s major problem in life is that he is an adopted child, taken in by his parents who auspiciously discovered him abandoned on the anniversary of their own child’s death. Jiro, apparently of noble birth, was abandoned because he has a prominent grey birthmark “staining” his face. This is the reason he has so far been unable to find a wife despite his good character and relative wealth. Desperately grateful to the couple who took him in “despite” his “imperfection”, Jiro feels this failure heavily in his current inability to provide them with a male heir to take over the family business.

Being good and earnest, Jiro has never dared to fritter money away in the red light district but is tempted when invited by a valued client whom he would not want to offend by refusing. Nevertheless, his first visit to the Yoshiwara is not an altogether pleasant experience as even the seasoned courtesans find it difficult to bear the sight of his “monstrous” face. Embarrassed, the innkeepers finally decide to employ a lowly servant, Otsuru (Yoshie Mizutani), who is not a trained courtesan but a woman convicted for illegal prostitution, to minister solely to Jiro. Otsuru does her work and is relatively unbothered by Jiro’s facial abnormality – something which endears her to Jiro’s heart and has the desired effect of hooking him through his weakness.

Otsuru, later “Tamarazu” the courtesan, is in many ways our villainess but she is also Jiro’s mirror and merely another outsider trying to escape oppression through any means possible. Uchida is careful to frame Otsuru not as a cruel and amoral adventurer, but someone who has decided to survive and can at least be honest about her intentions. We see her caged, imprisoned inside the Yoshiwara to do inside it what was declared “illegal” outside and acknowledging that she may well die here to met by a lonely funeral and rest unnamed in a communal grave. Otsuru decides that if she has to stay in the Yoshiwara then she will be its queen and then use that success to catapult herself into a more comfortable life even if she knows that it will be little more than a nicer kind of cage.

Jiro and Otsuru are each victims of the oppressive society in which they live as symbolised by the cruelly hypocritical worldview of the brothel owners who set out to exploit them both. Otsuru, worldly wise, is fully aware of the ways in which she is and will continue to be exploited but has chosen to be complicit within them as a means of effecting her escape. Jiro, meanwhile, is obviously aware that the “stain” across his face is the reason for his unhappy destiny but has only ever sought to minimise the distress his appearance causes to others. Thus he overcompensates by being relentlessly nice and infinitely humble, grateful for each and every concession which is extended to him as a fully human being rather than the “monster” which he is later branded by the innkeepers in a rare moment of candour which exposes their venial desires. 

This extreme desire for acceptance is in itself a symptom of his self loathing and internalised shame regarding his appearance which is after all merely an accident of birth over which he had no control. Abandoned by his birthparents who left him with a “cursed” destiny in the form of an unlucky sword, Jiro has been working overtime to overcome social prejudice but finding his path continually blocked. He latches on to Otsuru simply because she was nice to him without understanding the peculiar rules of interactions within the Yoshiwara, or as she later puts it “no money, no love”. Jiro ruins himself out of frustrated loneliness and a forlorn hope of repaying the debt he owes the couple who took him in by being able to provide them with a male heir to inherit the family business.

It is these mutual conflicts which eventually lead to the explosive finale hinted at by the violence of the title. Otsuru’s star rises while Jiro’s falls – not only is he fleeced by the innkeepers and an unrepentant Otsuru, his business also fails thanks to an act of God while his reputation lies in tatters once his associates get to know of his “frivolous” behaviour in the Yoshiwara. This in itself is doubly hypocritical as it was this same major client who introduced Jiro to the “pleasure” quarters in the first place only to remind him that business is a matter of trust and that they no longer trust him because he has broken his promise of keeping away from the Yoshiwara.

Pushed to the brink by successive humiliations, Jiro’s rage erupts in a singular act of violence which takes the sword not only to the Yoshiwara but the entrenched systems of oppression and exploitation which it represents. Otsuru, now an oiran, is literally trapped by her ostentatious outfit (in reality the very purpose it is designed to serve) as she struggles to escape male violence, her hand on the gate of the Yoshiwara which refuses to release her. Their parallel quests for revenge eventually converge only to defeat each other in a staggering act of futility which remains unresolved as the curtain falls on a moment of unanswerable rage.


Love Under the Crucifix (お吟さま, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1962)

Love Under the Crucifix cap 1A legendary screen actress, Kinuyo Tanaka completed only six films in her career as a director. The last film that she would ever make, Love Under the Crucifix (お吟さま, Ogin-sama), is the only one to be set in the historical past taking place against the backdrop of turbulent late 16th century politics just forty years or so before the nation would embark on 200 years of self imposed isolation undertaken in the name of preserving the national character while solidifying a political regime. As in her other films, however, Tanaka employs a standard melodrama narrative in order to subvert it. Her heroine defies all “for love”, but not so much in itself as for the right to it and to the legitimisation of her feelings as a human woman with all the rights and freedoms that ought to entail.

The film begins in the 15th year of Tensho (or 1587). Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Osamu Takizawa) is attempting to solidify his command over a Japan which is in a state of constant warfare. Meanwhile, foreign trade and influences, including Christianity, are flooding into the nation. There is growing suspicion among Hideyoshi’s advisors that Christian converts are nothing more than foreign spies working to undermine the social order and cannot be trusted. Therefore, Christianity is a spanner thrown in the works of Hideyoshi’s plans for peace and unification, only no one is quite sure as yet what to do about it except disapprove.

Meanwhile, our heroine, Ogin (Ineko Arima), is the step-daughter of prominent tea master Rikyu (Ganjiro Nakamura). She has long been in love with Ukon (Tatsuya Nakadai) – a young lord who has converted to Christianity and is in fact already married. Despite the impossibility of her love, Ogin holds fast to its purity and has refused all entreaties to marry. However, she is placed in a difficult position when it is made clear that a prominent suitor affiliated with the local lord desires her. Rikyu affirms that he will follow Ogin’s will, but Mozuya (Hisaya Ito) is too important a man to be refused out of hand and the consequences of turning him down may be severe. Ogin searches for a sign from Ukon, but he coldly tells her to marry, refusing any confirmation of the feelings which she believes to exist between them.

The film’s English title, Love Under the Crucifix, reminds us that this is not so much a story of religious freedom as social oppression. Divorced form its Christianising context, the crucifix was in this era the primary punishment for sexual transgression, most often for both men and women committing adultery or daring to love in places where society would not approve. Thus Ogin lives her life under it in being reminded of the potential costs of her inappropriate emotions. Even so, observing a young woman tied to the cross (Keiko Kishi) and apparently electing to go to her death rather than become the concubine of the local lord against her will, Ogin sees in it not censure but defiance and path towards personal empowerment if only in ultimate negation.

The literal crucifix becomes a noose around Ogin’s neck in the form of the necklace given to her by Ukon. Ogin remains unconvinced by Ukon’s religiosity even if she respects it but later resents the austerity it provokes in him while wondering if his friendship with her was only ever a pathway to conversion. Ukon’s troubles are multiple, not only is he oppressed by the social strictures of his time but also by an additional burden of Christianising morality which instructs him that his feelings are sinful and must be rejected.

Later, Ogin berates Ukon insisting that all of this suffering and the predicament they now find themselves in might have been avoided if only he had not kept his feelings hidden. Ukon’s religiosity obliges him to behave in ways which are cruel and selfish, and which ultimately bring him little other than additional suffering and unhappiness. This emotional tension has also played into the hands of the ruling regime who are content to use their feelings, and the prevailing tendency towards properness, against them as a plot against Rikyu and to prevent Ukon’s return as a military rival.

Despite Rikyu’s best efforts, Ogin has indeed become a pawn in the hands of men. Rikyu, as we’re reminded at the film’s conclusion, fell from favour and committed ritual suicide at the age of 70. Like Ogin, he remained true to himself even when politically unwise, advancing his philosophies of simplicity and respect for the natural world in the face of what he saw as Hideyoshi’s increasingly gaudy superficiality. Thus he councils Ogin that there is nothing wrong in her feelings and her only duty to him or to anyone else is to try to live happily even if that means she must live in hiding with the less courageous Ukon who refuses to abandon his faith but struggles to find the courage to fight for love, or more specifically for the right to love, as Ogin has done all her life.

Ogin is, in a sense, already on the cross as she continues to suffer not for faith but for faith in love and in her own right to her individual feelings and agency. Faced with being forced to surrender her body to a man she does not love because of a cruel game played by men for men, Ogin prefers death and finds in it the ultimate expression of her personal freedom and emotional authenticity.


Boyhood (少年期, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

Boyhood (Kinoshita) screencapIt’s easy to look back in judgement with the benefit of hindsight, but much less so to see clearly in the moment. Keisuke Kinoshita’s Boyhood (少年期, Shonenki), arriving just six years after the events that it depicts, is a painful if sympathetic look at the conflicts of the age seen through the eyes of a conflicted adolescent as he struggles to understand his place in a world which is becoming ever colder.

In the spring of 1944, 16-year-old Ichiro (Akira Ishihama) and his mother (Akiko Tamura) investigate the possibilities of retreat, back to the country and away from the increasingly fraught and dangerous city. Their first prospect which offered the comfort of family nevertheless proves too inconvenient and so Ichiro’s mother decides perhaps Suwa, a rural area not quite so out of the way, might be better even if it would mean starting all over again with no friends or family to offer support. Ichiro, however, doesn’t want to leave at all. He is afraid of being thought a coward and doesn’t see why he should have to leave his school and classmates behind just because there’s a war on. If he had his druthers, he’d be a pilot dropping bombs, not a resentful schoolboy torn between his feelings for his family and the increasingly austere demands of militarism.

Ichiro may be 16, and if it were not for his poor health perhaps he might already have been drafted, but he seems younger and is trapped in the difficult gulf between boy and man which makes him petulant and occasionally unreasonable. His father (Chishu Ryu), a professor of English literature, is a well known social liberal which is a problem that eventually makes it impossible for the family to stay on in the city. They decide to sell the house and move to Suwa, allowing Ichiro to stay behind alone as a lodger for the family of greengrocers who are the new occupants, but despite his insistence on his independence Ichiro is not yet ready for self sufficiency and misses his family, especially his mother, dearly, while he also experiences harsh treatment from the military instructors at school thanks to his general lack of soldiering aptitude.

Like his nation, Ichiro is lost in a fog of confusion – torn between the prevailing ideology of the age and that of his gentle hearted father. His problem is that as he is still “a child” and the conditions in which they find themselves make openness difficult, nobody is willing to talk to him seriously about the issues at hand – his father perhaps less out of fear or reticence than because he is acutely aware that his son must come to his own conclusions even if those conclusions prove contrary to his own. Thus, much to Ichiro’s consternation, he refuses to allow him to enrol at a military academy but does not explicitly state why, leaving him with only the vague idea that his father is “anti-war” and therefore a social pariah in a nation where everyone is expected to do their duty.

Ichiro begins to resent his father for the family’s plight, certain that he is the reason they were forced out of their home and also the ongoing cause of his mother’s suffering as she finds herself becoming the family breadwinner as an unlikely milk lady – a job she was only able to get thanks to the friendship of a gregarious neighbour, herself a fellow evacuee in a similar position. Far from the community spirit such situations are said to engender, Ichiro and his family find themselves perpetually excluded, viewed with suspicion as “outsiders” and at the bottom of the pile when it comes to the distribution of resources. “Extra” people get only the extra after the real villagers have had their fill. Meanwhile, Ichiro is bullied by the full on fascists at school, one of whom is the son of a local military commander and has fallen completely under the militarist spell.

Everyone is always telling Ichiro that he will come to understand when he is older. Being young, he resents this intensely but eventually comes to see that they were right, some things can only be understood with the weight of experience. With the war’s end and the eventual defeat of militarism, the fog begins to lift, allowing him to see that the prevailing ideology is not always the correct one and that there’s something to be said for quiet resistance and sticking steadfastly to one’s principles even if it would be much easier to go along with the majority. His father, however, reminds him that those who chose to do just that can hardly be blamed and will likely suffer in whatever is to come. They will need the all love and compassion in the world in order to find a new, less destructive path than the one they had been obliged to walk through a time of fear and madness. Using imperialistic song and propaganda to ironic, somewhat chilling effect Kinoshita presents a characteristically empathetic portrait of a “difficult age” in the life of a young man and his country who each find themselves emerging from chaos and confusion into something completely unknown and perhaps frightening but open and filled with possibility.


Title sequence and opening (no subtitles)

The Good Fairy (善魔, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

Good fairy DVDAlthough one of the more prominent names in post-war cinema, the work of Keisuke Kinoshita has often been out of fashion, derided for its sentimental naivety. It is true to say that Kinoshita values heroes whose essential goodness improves the world around them though that is not to say that he is entirely without sympathy for the conflicted or imperfect even if his equanimity begins to waver with age. 1951’s The Good Fairy (善魔, Zemma), however, working from a script penned not by himself but Kogo Noda and adapted from the novel by Kunio Kishida, seems to turn his life philosophy on its head, wondering whether the tyranny of puritanical goodness is an evil in itself or merely the best weapon against it.

After beginning with a hellish, ominous title sequence set against the flames, the film opens with newspaper editor Nakanuma (Masayuki Mori) getting a hot tip regarding a politician’s wife who seems to have mysteriously disappeared. He hands the assignment to rookie reporter Rentaro Mikuni (played by the actor Rentaro Mikuni who subsequently took his stage name from this his debut role) who specialises in political corruption. Mikuni doesn’t like the assignment. He thinks it’s unethical and whatever happens between a man and his wife is no one’s business, but ends up going to see the politician, Kitaura (Koreya Senda), anyway and instantly dislikes him. Mildly worried by Kitaura’s lack of concern over his wife’s sudden absence, Mikuni stays on the case and visits the wife’s father (Chishu Ryu) up in the mountains where he also meets her sister, Mikako (Yoko Katsuragi), who eventually leads him to the woman herself, Itsuko (Chikage Awashima), who has taken refuge with a friend after becoming disillusioned with her husband’s “vulgar” pursuit of success at the continuing cost of human decency.

To pull back for a second, in any other Kinoshita film, Itsuko would be among the heroes in standing up against her husband’s corrupting influences, but for reasons which will later be explained she lingers on the borders of righteousness owing to having made a mistaken choice in her youth which was, in many ways, defined by the times in which she lived. Nukanuma had not been entirely honest with Mikuni in that he had known and secretly been in love with Itsuko when they were both students but he was poor and diffident and so he never declared himself, his only attempt to hint as his feelings either tragically or wilfully misunderstood. Where Itsuko, who married for money and status as a young woman was expected to do in the pre-war society, has mellowed with age and gained compassionate morality, Nakanuma who became a reporter to fight for justice against the background of fascist oppression has become cynical and selfish. Never having quite forgotten Itsuko, he has been in a casual relationship with a young actress, Suzue (Toshiko Kobayashi), for the last two years never realising that she has really fallen in love with him.

Thinking back on his college relationship with Itsuko, Nakanuma remembers talking with her about unsuccessful romances, that if a man tries his best to make a woman happy but isn’t able to then it must be because she doesn’t love him. Itsuko agrees, adding that men never seem to know what makes a woman happy in love but that friendship is a different matter. She says something similar when she tells him she’s getting married but doesn’t want to lose his friendship, and when he begins floating the idea of marriage hinting that he wants to marry her but perhaps giving the mistaken impression that there’s someone else in stating that it’s sad when a friend marries because the relationship with never be the same again and knowing that he intends to marry she now treasures their friendship even more. In a sense, Nakanuma thinks of Suzue as a “friend” with whom he occasionally sleeps, believing that their relationship is only ever liminal and temporary but mutually beneficial and capable of continuing even if the sexual component had to end.

Having failed once in love, Nakanuma is resolved not to do so again and determined to fight to win Itsuko rather than lose her through cowardice, but to do so he will cruelly wound Suzue who has treated him with nothing other than tenderness. By this time, Mikuni has fallen in chaste, innocent love with Mikako who reminds him of the parts of himself he feels are being erased by his compromising job as part of the mass media machine. Mikuni’s terrifying “goodness” is largely a positive quality which leads him to fight for justice against oppression even within his own organisation but his love for the saintly Mikako only intensifies his moral purity and threatens not only to turn him into an insufferable prig but to create in him a new oppressor, spreading guilt and unhappiness like the self-righteous hero of an Ibsen play.

Early on, following their mild disagreement about journalistic ethics, Mikuni and Nakanuma have dinner together over which they debate the power of the press to bring about social change and hold power to account. Nakanuma says he’s become cynical because hating injustice isn’t enough and there’s nothing that the individual can do against an oppressive system. What he’s telling Mikuni is that he used to be like him, but time has taught him righteousness is not an effective weapon against entrenched social privilege. He recounts a dark story from a Buddhist monk who told him that good can never win over evil because it isn’t strong enough, only evil is strong enough to fight evil and so in order to counter it you will need to affect its weapons. Later, crazed by grief and exhaustion, Mikuni’s “goodness” seems to pulse out of him with ominous supernatural force as he takes Nakanuma to task for his callous treatment of Suzue only for he and Itsuko to come to the conclusion that they’ve heard the voice of “evil” and are now condemned by their past choices to lives of morally pure unhappiness.

This central conundrum seems to contradict Kinoshita’s otherwise open philosophies in its unwelcome rigidity which says that there are no second chances and no possibility of ever moving on from the past with positivity. Itsuko made the “wrong” choice when she was young in choosing to marry for material gain, but she was only making the choice her society expected her to make in the absence of other options – it wasn’t as if she had any reason to wait around for Nakanuma whose regret over his romantic cowardice has made him cold and bitter. She realised her mistake too late and resolved to correct it, but the “Good Fairy” won’t let her, it says she has to pay (for the crimes of an oppressive society) by sacrificing again her chance of happiness in the full knowledge of all she’s giving up. Kinoshita’s films advocate the right to love by will, free of oppressive social codes or obligations but Itsuko is denied a romantic resolution despite having “reformed” herself and made consistently “correct” choices since discovering her husband’s “fraud”. She is denied this largely because of Nakunuma’s failing in being unkind to one who loved him, which is, in a round about way, still her fault for not having realised he loved her and deciding to marry him instead. In fact, the only one who seems to get off scot-free is Kitaura whose fraudulent activities will be covered up on the condition he consent to Itsuko’s divorce petition and sets her fully “free” so she can be fully burdened by the weight of her romantic sacrifice.

In the end, it’s difficult to see a positive outcome which could emerge from all this unhappiness which seems primed only to spread and reproduce itself with potentially disastrous consequences. Mikuni’s purity has become puritanical, unforgiving and rigid, condemning all to a hellish misery from which there can be no escape. The cure is worse than the disease. No one could live like this, and no one should. Goodness, tempered by compassion and understanding, might not be enough to fight the darkness all alone but it might be better to live in the half-light than in the hellish flickering of the fires of righteousness.


Title sequence and opening scene (no subtitles)

An Autumn Afternoon (秋刀魚の味, Yasujiro Ozu, 1962)

an-autumn-afternoonAn Autumn Afternoon (秋刀魚の味, Sanma no Aji) was to be Ozu’s final work. This was however more by accident than design – despite serious illness Ozu intended to continue working and had even left a few notes relating to a follow up project which was destined never to be completed. Even if not exactly intended to become the final point of a thirty-five year career, An Autumn Afternoon is an apt place to end, neatly revisiting the director’s key concerns and starring some of his most frequent collaborators.

Returning to the world of Late Spring, An Autumn Afternoon once again stars Chishu Ryu as an ageing father, Shuhei, though this time one with three children – the oldest, a son, married and left home, the middle one a daughter not yet married at 24, and the youngest boy still a student living at home. Michiko (Shima Iwashita), like Noriko, is devoted to the family home and has no immediate plans to marry despite the urgings of her father’s good friend who has already picked out a good prospect for an arranged marriage.

Shuhei had been content with this arrangement, after all as a 50-something man of 1962 he’s in need of someone to look after him and likes having his daughter around the house. A class reunion with some of his friends and an old teacher begins to change his mind when “The Gourd” (as the boys liked to call him) speaks somewhat unkindly of his unmarried, middle-aged daughter, later regretting that he acted selfishly in turning down marriage proposals which came her way because he wanted to keep her at home for his own upkeep. Taking the extraordinarily drunk The Gourd home, Shuhei and his friend encounter the daughter for themselves (as played by frequent Ozu collaborator Haruko Sugimura) and find her just as embittered and shrewish as The Gourd had implied. What they don’t see are her tears of heartbroken frustration at being left all alone to deal with this hopeless case of her dead drunk, elderly father.

At the end of the film, following the inevitable marriage, Shuehei retreats to a friendly bar just as the father of Late Spring had done before him though this time he goes there alone, not wanting to return to his now much quieter home before time. Whilst there the mama-san (Kyoko Kishida) for whom Shuhei has developed a fondness as something about her reminds him of his late wife, notices his attire and asks if he’s just been to a funeral. “Something like that”, he replies. Shuehei is being a little maudlin and self indulgent but what he says is almost true – he has, in a sense, lost a daughter though the Japanese way of doing things does not quite allow for the rejoinder of gaining a son.

All of this is to be expected, it is the best outcome. Time moves on and the baton passes from one generation to the next, one family is broken so that another may be created. Ozu revisited this universally tragic element of the life cycle several times throughout his career and even echoes himself in the final shots as Chishu Ryu sits with his back to the camera, less visibly shaken than in Late Spring but no less bereft. What Ozu gives us next is not the image of transience in the ebbs and flows of a stormy sea, but a parade of emptiness in which Michiko is ever present in her absence. Shuehei is not alone, he has his younger son Kazuo, but the house is now a soulless and colourless place filled with uninhabited rooms and mirrors with nothing to reflect.

In the end, life is defined by this final loneliness as children depart, setting off on a path which has to be entirely their own. The Gourd laments that he is all alone despite having, in part, destroyed his child’s chances of personal happiness in order to maintain his own, but Shuhei and his friends are also left to reflect on the same problem as fathers who’ve each successfully married off daughters only to find themselves rendered obsolete in the new family order. The times have changed, but they have not changed in this. Shuhei is left alone with his memories of youth, trying to bully his sadness into submission by humming a popular military march from his wartime glory days but the pleasures of the past are always hollow and melancholy, at best a mirage and at worst quicksand.

Ozu maintains his trademark style, mixing humour with wistful sorrow, resigned to the inherent sadness of life but determined to find the warmth there too. His sympathies, however, have shifted as he reserves a little of his bite for the modern young couple as exemplified by Shuehei’s oldest son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), and his wife (Mariko Okada) whose concerns are material (refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, handbags and golf clubs) rather than existential as they struggle to attain the “aspirational” quality of life the burgeoning post-war boom promises and have to rely on frequent “loans” from Shuehei to maintain it. The world moves on apace and leaves old sailors behind, alone and adrift on seas now much quieter than they have ever been but the peace and solitude is the sign of a life well lived and in a strange way its reward as the time slips by unhurriedly and only as painful as it needs to be.


Original trailer (no subtitles)