A Woman and a War (戦争と一人の女, Junichi Inoue, 2013)

a-woman-and-warJunichi Inoue is better known as a screenwriter and frequent collaborator of avant-garde/pink film provocateur Koji Wakamatsu. A Woman and a War (戦争と一人の女, Senso to Hitori no Onna) marks his first time in the director’s chair and finds him working with someone else’s script but staying firmly within the pink genre. Adapted from a contemporary novel by Ango Sakaguchi published in 1946, A Woman and a War is an intense look at domestic female suffering during a time generalised chaos.

The unnamed “Woman” (Noriko Eguchi) is a former prostitute, sold to a brothel by her father as a child, now working as a bar hostess. Times being what they are, she decides there’s no future in bar work and wants to get married. Accordingly, she finds herself moving in with a moody novelist who frequents the bar, Nomura (Masatoshi Nagase). The woman becomes Nomura’s “wife”, but the relationship is strained as she finds it difficult to derive pleasure from sex and he is of a nihilistic mindset, convinced that Japan is about to lose the war. Nomura promises to live with her until the war’s end, at which time he assumes the country will cease to exist taking him with it.

Running parallel to this is the story of recently demobbed soldier and drinker at Woman’s bar, Ohira (Jun Murakami). Having lost an arm in the war, Ohira has been “lucky”, in a sense, and been sent home early. However, he has a wife and young son he’s been away from so long that they’re virtual strangers from each other. Ohira is not the man who went away to fight, he’s embittered and angry. Unable to enjoy normal relations with his wife, he finds himself aroused after failing to rescue a woman being gang raped by thugs which he then watches after being tied up while the men finish their business. After this, he despatches his family to the comparative safety of his wife’s parents and embarks on a career of violence, rape and murder.

Despite nominally being the story of the Woman, A Woman and a War has an unbalanced tripartite structure split between the three central characters. Of the three, Nomura’s story is the least explored but then is also the most clichéd in its familiar over sensitive novelist takes hack jobs and abuses all available substances to block out his crushing depression trope. Though the story ought to belong to Woman, she is often eclipsed by Ohira’s extreme descent into violent misogyny though in actuality these two strands dovetail into each other as Woman’s story is also one of continued exploitation.

This stems back well before the war as she was, in a sense, betrayed by her father when he sold her supposedly in desperation but apparently drank the money he got for her rather than using it to feed the rest of the family. Having spent so long in the brothel her body has become nothing more than a tool to her – something to be well maintained and then traded as a commodity. After her relationship with Nomura ends, Woman finds herself once again working as a prostitute – first at a facility set up for the American military, and then as a streetwalker targeting foreign servicemen. Eventually her path crosses with that of Ohira which results in the uncomfortable realisation that she too can only reach climax through violence.

Ohira is so deeply scarred by his wartime experiences that he has a compulsion to reenact them through random acts of sexual violence on unsuspecting women. The events he recounts from Manchuria are truly horrifying but he has an uncomfortable point when he repeats that the difference between what he did in the war and what he’s doing now is that between a medal and a death sentence. The people he killed in China weren’t soldiers or those who threatened his life, they were innocent civilians no different from the women he lured into the forests of Japan, so how was it right then and wrong now? The other uncomfortable fact is that Ohira is both perpetrator and victim of the wider war, a symbol of its cannibalistic whirlwind of destruction, the effects of which continue in perpetuity.

Coming as he does from the pink film world, Inoue adopts a detached frankness when it comes to sex. However, in keeping with the film’s themes there is an abundance of sexualised violence against women which, though every bit as unpleasant as it’s intended to be, does at times feel gratuitous. It’s also an unfortunate fact that there is a lot of gratuitous female nudity in the film but absolutely no male – at one point Woman bares her genitals to the open air and urges Nomura to do the same but the camera cuts to a rear shot as though embarrassed. In an interview with Diva Review Inoue admits he regrets the way this was handled and states it’s largely down to having bigger name actors in the two central roles, but in addition to deviating from the otherwise naturalistic intentions of the film, it also presents him with a set of thematic problems which undercut his central intentions.

However, A Woman and a War is one of the few (recent) films to seriously look at the traumatic afterlife of the war both on those who served and those who stayed at home using sexuality as a curiously reflective prism. A Woman and a War is a super low budget film and, in truth, looks it, though does make an attempt to do the best it can with what it has. The performances of the three leads are also each strong though something of the film’s tone never quite coalesces beyond the persistent unpleasantness into something more deeply probing. Troubling, concerning, and disturbing, A Woman and a War is a much needed look at this murky and often avoided area but one that finds it impossible to escape its own exploitative nature.

Original trailer (English subtitles):

Undulant Fever (海を感じる時, Hiroshi Ando, 2014)

Undulant FeverOne of the most surprising things about the 1978 novel When I Sense the Sea is that its author was only 18 years old when the book was published. Though the protagonist begins as a 16 year old high school girl, author Kei Nakazawa follows her on into adulthood as the damage done to her teenage psyche radiates like a series of tiny, branching chasms stretching far back into a difficult childhood. This 2015 adaptation from Hiroshi Ando, Undulant Fever (海を感じる時, Umi wo Kanjiru Toki), maintains a distant and detached tone which, while not shying away from the erotic nature of the discussion, is quick to underline the unfulfilling and often utilitarian nature of the central couple’s relationship.

Beginning in the “contemporary” 1970s era of the film, Emiko (Yui Ichikawa) and Hiroshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) enjoy a strangely lonely trip to the zoo and later an intimate, if odd, love making session at home. They seem a fairly settled couple but there’s something not quite right between them. On flashing back to their teenage years we learn how they met – as members of the high school newspaper club when Hiroshi was a year above Emiko. The pair quickly embark on a messy sexual relationship but when Emiko declares her love for him, Hiroshi coldly tells her that he was never interested in her as a person but merely as an anonymous body which could easily be replaced by any other female form. Despite his harsh treatment of her and her mother’s eventual discovery of the affair, Emiko continues to pursue Hiroshi until finally he does come to feel something for her which might be described as love. However, at this late stage of the game Emiko’s notions of love, sex, and desire have become so hopelessly confused that she is unable to comprehend the emotional landscape of her life.

It would be easy to read the case of Emiko as one of the “God-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later” blues (to borrow a phrase from Sondheim), but it’s a little more complicated than that. After her father died at a young age Emiko was raised alone by her widowed mother who seems to cut an austere and somewhat distant figure. Her reaction to finding out about Emiko’s relationship with Hiroshi, which only occurs in the first place due to an extreme betrayal of trust, is veering into Carrie territory and only further emphasises how little emotional support Emiko has received from her central parental figure.

After having battled so hard to win some kind of attention from her cold and distant mother, Emiko learns to allow herself to be used and abused by uncaring men in the hope of one day winning their love. Hiroshi is not the focus of the narrative and his problems are less well addressed but no less interesting. His constant pleas with Emiko to simply leave him alone because he because he doesn’t care about her take on a passive aggressive quality in which one starts to wonder if it’s an oddly sado-masochistic way of ensuring she does exactly the opposite. The more he ignores her, the more she is committed to staying by his side. Though Emiko seems to be aware of how cruelly he treats her, she is unable to stop needing him even if she ruins her own life for nothing more than the simple reward of remaining in his general vicinity.

Undulant Fever is a deeply probing exploration of sex and desire and particularly how early relationships can forge the course of a person’s life. An earnest character drama, the film moves at a considered pace which leaves ample room for its protagonists’ complicated emotions. The cold and dispassionate approach is a perfect match for the heroine’s depressed and confused emotional state which leaves her doubting her entire concept of self as she travels from unloved teenage girl to a confused adult woman approaching an unsettled middle age. The surprisingly astute observations of the novel also ring true in the film which captures the book’s late ‘70s feminist leanings whilst at the same time painting a fairly bleak picture of the troubled emotional life of a flawed and damaged modern woman caught in a confusing maelstrom of love and desire.

The R3 Hong Kong DVD of Undulant Fever includes English subtitles.