The House of Hanging (病院坂の首縊りの家, Kon Ichikawa, 1979)

Unlike many directors of his generation who either shifted into television or saw their careers stall, Kon Ichikawa was able to continue working throughout the difficult 70s and 80s precisely because he was less averse to taking on commercial projects such as 1976’s The Inugami Family, an ensemble mystery adapted from the bestselling book by Seishi Yokomizo and starring his famed detective Kosuke Kindaichi. The film proved an unexpected hit, an early success for Haruki Kadokawa’s new multimedia marketing model which would allow him to dominate cinema screens throughout the bubble era, and spawned a series of Kindaichi adaptations produced for Toho boasting a host of A-list stars. By 1979, however, the age of the prestige country house mystery was perhaps coming to a close and The House of Hanging (病院坂の首縊りの家, Byoinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie) would be the last in the cycle of movies starring Koji Ishizaka who would eventually return to the role in Ichikawa’s 2006 remake of the original Inugami Family. 

Set quite specifically in 1951 (Showa 26), House of Hanging is among the more complex of Kindaichi’s cases and rests not on war trauma, which is only a background presence in the present venality of the post-war society, but on the decline of a once noble house ruined, as we find out, through the legacy of sexual immorality and abuse. For the moment, however, Kindaichi gets roped into the mystery after visiting an author friend (played by Seishi Yokomizo himself in a cameo) who recommends a photo studio he could visit in order to get a picture taken for his passport as he plans to travel to America. The photographer, Naokichi (Koji Shimizu), takes on an odd job from a strange young woman who asks them to take wedding photos of her sister but abruptly leaves explaining she’ll send a car later to bring them to an undisclosed location. That turns out to be the bombed-out former home of the Hogen family who own the local hospital. Escorted by a creepy young man, Naokichi finds himself in front of a traditional gold screen backdrop but feels uncomfortable because the bride does not seem to be very present and he worries that perhaps she’s been drugged and something untoward may have been going on. He shows the photo to Kindaichi for advice and is later called back to the same location to discover the severed head of the groom hanging from a ceiling light.  

In slightly comedic fashion, the circumstances of the case are so confusing that they have even Kindaichi admitting that he doesn’t quite follow while his temporary sidekick, photographer’s apprentice Mokutaro (Masao Kusakari), proudly holds up a chart he’s made to help keep track. Though the why is in this case more important than it might usually be, it boils down to the same old problem of buried secrets and past shame. We learn that the Hogen family is descended from a line of prominent doctors, though the family tree is complicated because it appears many of the sons of previous generations had illegitimate children, some of whom were later adopted or married to other adopted children in a quasi-incestuous union. With no one quite sure whose children are whose, incest appears to be the original sin which condemns the family, though as we later realise it’s another kind of abuse which sets the present events in motion.

The murdered man, Toshio (Teruhiko Aoi), was apparently part of travelling jazz band earning their living playing on American bases (the photographer also has a sideline in blackmarket army surplus). Aside from the original sin that connects the murders with melancholy fatalism, the additional victims damn themselves through their amoral greed, foolishly engaging in blackmail in the hope of improving their circumstances. Nevertheless, the sin remains the same, the theory being that Toshio was murdered by missing sister Koyuki who killed him in order to escape his inappropriate romantic obsession with her. The additional complication is that Koyuki looks near identical to Yukari (Junko Sakurada), daughter of the Hogen family, connecting the crime with the traumatic events of some years’ previously which led to the cottage becoming known as the “house of hanging” when the body of a young woman was found there having taken her own life. 

As in many of the other Kindaichi mysteries, the detective has only sympathy for those caught up in this complicated murder plot, many of whom are also victims acting simply to protect themselves ironically enough from the past trauma that has in a sense led to this sorry turn of events. Justice, in the end, takes care of itself though Kindaichi will also do his bit to protect those in need acting from a place of moral compassion rather than judicial censure. This final instalment in the Kindaichi cycle has slightly lower production values and a much less starry ensemble but sees Ichikawa adding a few idiosyncratic touches such as his fast, multi-angle cuts to a single person’s speech and a brief theatrical reconstruction sequence, while making time for the return of bumbling inspector Todoroki (Takeshi Kato) and the ironic comedy the series is known for. “Old things pass, that’s when new things are born” Yokomizo sagely advises in his cameo, Kindaichi apparently taking his leave from a corrupted post-war Japan for the bright lights of San Francisco, perhaps never to return. 


Original trailers (no subtitles)

Caterpillar (キャタピラー, Koji Wakamatsu, 2010)

Koji Wakamatsu made his name in the pink genre where artistic flair and political messages mingled with softcore pornography and the rigorous formula of the genre. Wakamatsu rarely abandoned this aspect of his work but in adapting a well known story by Japan’s master of the grotesque Edogawa Rampo, Wakamatsu redefines his key concern as sex becomes currency, a kind of trade and power game between husband and wife. Caterpillar (キャタピラー), aside from its psychological questioning of marital relations, is a clear anti-war rallying call as a small Japanese village finds itself brainwashed into sacrificing its sons for the Emperor, never suspecting all their sacrifices will have been in vain when the war is lost and wounded men only a painful reminder of wartime folly.

Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Onishi) has returned from the war. This makes him luckier than many of the other young men who disappeared from the village over the last few years. His return, however, provokes howls of fear and disbelief from his long suffering wife, Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), who refuses to believe the creature they’ve brought back from the battlefield is really her husband. Kyuzo has lost all of his limbs, has facial disfigurement from burns, and has also lost his voice and hearing. Sitting across from the remnants of her brother, Shigeko’s sister-in-law remarks that she’s glad they didn’t “send Shigeko back to her family” because she is obviously the one who will have to look after this entirely helpless though apparently conscious battle scarred man.

This being early in the war, the village is in a fury of patriotic zealotry, determined to make Japan glorious again in the name of the Emperor. Far from letting the case of Kyuzo dissuade them from their warlike fervour, his sacrifice becomes a totem. He’s not a man destroyed by war but a “war god” and the pride of the village, a testament to their love and devotion that they would send a son of theirs to war who would return to them even in such a ruined form. Shigeko, quickly getting over her initial revulsion, comes to realise that her husband’s new-found status is also her own. As the wife of the war god, she becomes his voice and mistress in a way she had never been permitted before.

Truth be told, the war did not ruin Kyuzo’s character. The marriage of Kyuzo and Shigeko was never a happy one and perhaps her initial reeling, wailing flight on learning of her husband’s return was more out of fear than disbelief and compassion. Despite a lengthy marriage the couple had no children (perhaps an explanation for that early “sent back” comment), and Kyuzo regularly beat his wife for her failure to bear him a male heir. Now his carer, the roles are reversed as Shigeko babies her defeated husband, lamenting that all he is is urge – sleep, eat, sex. Kyuzo’s needs are animal and definite despite the signs of intelligent communication in his eyes. Shigeko, constrained to satisfy them, bends his need to her own advantage.

Emasculated in a deeper way by Shigeko’s increasing dominance, Kyuzo first attempts to assert himself in resentment at being trotted out to sell the virtues of war in his pristine uniform even as a man destroyed by nationalised violence. Spitting in Shigeko’s face as she dresses him, he attempts to refuse but is powerless to reject her authority. As time wears on and Kyuzo submits to female authority, memories of his atrocities haunt him as the fire which marked his face mingles with the faces of the Chinese women he raped and killed as a brave son of Japan on Manchurian soil.

For Wakamatsu war and sexualised violence are synonymous as the local women train for defending their village by repeatedly penetrating hey bales with long spears crying out patriotic slogans as they go. The flag waving and furore never waver despite the evidence of Kyuzo’s suffering and the numerous young men who will never come home or have done so in square boxes wrapped with white cloth. Only nearing the end is Shigeko left wondering what will become of her war god husband when no one needs a talisman. What will the nation do with these men who’ve sacrificed so much and received nothing in return?

Wakamatsu’s message is an unmistakably anti-war one though the curious inclusion of the executions of the lower class war criminals “hanged by the country they fought to protect” almost undercuts it even if his sympathy lies with those who succumbed to a national madness and have been made to pay a personal price. Kyuzo becomes the literal caterpillar of the title, taunted by Shigeko as he writhes and crawls around, condemned to eternal undulation, but it’s Shigeko who has been in a chrysalis all this time waiting to emerge from the fear and tyranny which has marred her married life into something with more freedom and autonomy – much like a nation waking up and realising that its Emperor is just a man and the long years of suffering nothing more than brainwashed madness.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Scene at the Sea (あの夏、いちばん静かな海, Takeshi Kitano, 1991)

scene-at-the-seaReview of Takeshi Kitano’s A Scene at the Sea – first published by UK Anime Network.


Takeshi Kitano’s third feature, A Scene at the Sea (あの夏、いちばん静かな海, Ano natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi), is about as much of a departure as it is possible to make from his first two films. Not only does Kitano not star, but he eschews his focus on down and dirty, grimy crime thrillers in favour of a poetic tale about a boy who falls in love with the sea. Largely told without dialogue, A Scene at the Sea is Kitano in one of his more contemplative moods as he creates an existential fable of one man’s search to find his place.

Shigeru (Claude Maki) has a dull and unfulfilling life as a dustman, endlessly staring out over the beautifully blue seas of his harbour town as if searching the horizon for some kind of destiny. His luck changes when he finds an old broken surfboard on one of his rounds and manages to repair it. Lacking the proper equipment, Shigeru takes to the seas to indulge his new sport after stripping down to his pants and T-shirt while his girlfriend Takako (Hiroko Oshima) watches him from the sands, lovingly folding his clothes as she waits for him. Over time Shigeru’s love for surfing begins to pull him away both from Takako and from his everyday life on land as he starts skipping work to spend more time riding the waves.

Shigeru is deaf and mute and his girlfriend Takako is more or less silent too, hence the overall lack of dialogue in the film though words are not especially necessary in their relationship. Shigeru is constantly isolated from all social groups (aside from his friendship with Takako) whether it be his inability to join in with workplace banter or the rejection of the snobbish surfers who laugh at his original attempts on the board whilst also grudgingly praising his determination to brave the cold seas without even a wet suit. Though he also had a kind of ally in his partner for dust round, the only person to try and help Shigeru is the owner of a surf shop who sees potential in him and convinces Shigeru to enter a competition. However, at the competition itself there is no one to help him participate – Shigeru misses his opportunity to surf because he can’t hear them call his name. The surf shop owner berates the other surfers for not helping Shigeru, but they continue to ignore him even after he’s been semi-admitted to the group.

Shigeru perseveres despite his lack of ability and paucity of equipment to hone his skills and quickly become a competent surfer. As his obsession with the sea deepens he moves further and further away from Takako. The sea becomes his lover and the surfing a kind of congress or quest for conquest in his new romance. Takako can forgive this growing need for the ocean, but finds herself hurt when she catches Shigeru peeling another girl’s oranges (not a euphemism). Kitano employs another of his beautifully composed long shots to show us Takako wordlessly approaching the pair, who after all are only sitting together on a beach, before stopping indecisively and leaving again without being seen.

The Japanese title of the film, Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi, translates as “That Summer, the Quietist of Seas” which is a little ironic given that calm seas are good for sailors but the opposite of what a surfer needs. The tinge of nostalgic melancholy is clearer here and it’s more obvious that we’re dealing with the remembrance of a past summer, taken from a specific viewpoint, rather than something which is occurring in real time in the present. This may explain some of Kitano’s stranger repeated imagery such as the footballers who never play football and more lyrical, less linear approach to narrative.

Kitano may be in a maudlin mood, but he still injects some of his trademark dark humour notably in the pair of hangers on who follow Shigeru into the world of surfing but spend much of their time bickering about whose turn it is on their shared surfboard, as well as brief appearance from frequent Kitano star Susumu Terajima as a van driver who picks a fight with the police (and loses). Still, A Scene at the Sea is a melancholic vista of a boy lost among the waves, looking for a home on the water. A beautiful, if sad, summer story, Kitano’s third feature is one of his most romantic (in the wider sense) and bears testimony to his talent for crafting intensely moving cinematic poetry.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Eel (うなぎ, Shohei Imamura, 1997)

The EelDirector Shohei Imamura once stated that he liked “messy” films. Interested in the lower half of the body and in the lower half of society, Imamura continued to point his camera into the awkward creases of human nature well into his 70s when his 16th feature, The Eel (うなぎ, Unagi), earned him his second Palme d’Or. Based on a novel by Akira Yoshimura, The Eel is about as messy as they come.

Mild-mannered salary man Yamashita (Kouji Yakusho) receives a handwritten letter filled with beautiful calligraphy delivering the ugly message that his wife has been entertaining another man whilst he enjoys his weekly all night fishing trips. Confused at first, the note begins to work its way into Yamashita’s psyche and so he decides to leave his next fishing trip a little earlier than usual. Peeping through the keyhole, he finds his beloved wife enjoying energetic, passion filled sex with another man. Drawing a knife from a nearby shelf, he enters the room and attacks the pair killing the woman but letting the lover get away.

Yamashita immediately and with perfect calmness turns himself in at the local police station, still covered in his wife’s blood and carrying the murder weapon. Released on a two year probationary period after eight years in jail, there is no one to meet Yamashita when he comes out and so he remains under the guardianship of a Buddhist priest in a nearby town. Accompanied by his only friend, a pet eel, Yamashita takes possession of a local disused barbershop and sets about trying to rebuild his life.

Things change when Yamashita comes across an unconscious woman lying in the grass while he’s out looking for things to feed his eel. The strange thing is, this woman looks exactly like his wife. Eventually, Keiko (Misa Shimizu) recovers and comes to work with Yamashita in his new enterprise but as the pair grow closer the spectres of both of their troubled pasts begin to intrude.

As the small town residents of Yamashita’s new home often remark, Yamashita is a strange man. His deepest relationship is with his eel which the prison guards, who seem quite well disposed towards him, allowed him to keep in the prison pond even though pets are not generally allowed. When asked why he likes his eel so much, Yamshita replies that the eel listens to him and doesn’t tell him the things he does not wish to hear. Like Yamashita, the eel is isolated inside his tank, content to absent himself from interacting with other creatures, both protected and constrained by transparent walls.

After his release from prison, Yamashita begins to reflect on his crime which he doesn’t so much regret but has no desire to repeat. His other double arrives in the form of fellow inmate and double murderer Tamasaki (Akira Emoto) who keeps trying to convince Yamashita that he is living dishonestly by not having visited his wife’s grave or read sutras for her. Though Yamashita pays no heed to most of his advice which is more self-pity and anger than any real concern for Yamashita’s soul, some things begin to get to him, most notably that perhaps the fateful letter never existed at all and is nothing more than the manifestation of Yamashita’s jealous rage.

Though the film presents everything that happens to Yamashita as “real”, his state of mind is continually uncertain. Not only is the provenance of the letter doubted, he doubts the existence of Keiko because she looks (to him at least) like the returned ghost of the woman he killed, and even the final confrontational arguments with Tamasaki take on an unreal quality, as if Yamashita were arguing with himself rather than another man who also represents his own worst qualities – impulsivity, violence, self doubt and insecurity. The film is so deeply embedded in Yamashita’s subjective viewpoint that almost nothing can be taken at face value.

Yamashita is, in a sense, trapped in a hall of mirrors as his own faults are reflected back at him through the people that he meets. Keiko, rather than being physically murdered by a jealous lover, attempted to take her own life after being misused by a faithless (married) man. Her past troubles are, in some ways, the inverse of Yamashita’s as she finds herself at the mercy of dark forces but internalises rather than externalises her own anger. Cheerful and outgoing, she quickly turns Yamshita’s barbershop into a warm and welcoming place which the local community takes to its heart.

Yamashita, however, remains as closed off as ever though he does strike up something of a relationship with a lonely young man who wants to use his barber’s pole to try and call aliens. When Yamashita asks him what he’s going to do if the aliens actually come, the young man replies that he wants to make friends with them. Yamashita astutely remarks that the young man’s desire to meet aliens is down to a failure to connect with people from his own planet – an idea which the young man equally fairly throws back at him. Perhaps out of fear rather than atonement, Yamashita exiles himself from the world at large though gradually through continued exposure to the genial townsfolk and Keiko’s deep seated faith in him, he does begin to swim towards the surface.

Imamura adopts his usual, slightly ironic tone to lighten this otherwise heavy tale allowing the occasional comic set piece to shine through. Yakusho delivers another characteristically nuanced performance as this entirely unformed man, unsure of reality and trapped in a spiral of self doubt and confusion. His original crime of passion is at once chilling in its calmness but also messy and violent as he gives in to animalistic rage. After showing us a street lamp glowing an ominous red, Imamura steeps us in blood as his camera becomes progressively more stained making it impossible to forget the shocking betrayal of this unexpected violence.

Yamashita remarks at one point that he died that day alongside his wife. The Eel is a story of rebirth as its protagonists begin to swim towards the shore in support of each other, though like the titular marine creature there is no guarantee that they will make there alive. Yamashita is a cold blooded murderer and creature of suppressed rage yet Imamura is not interested in moral judgements as much as he is in the messier sides of human nature. A chance offering of redemption for the unredeemable, The Eel offers hope for the hopeless in a world filled with goodhearted eccentrics where all faults are forgivable once they are understood.


Original trailer (no subtitles)