Fireworks Over the Sea (海の花火, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

In the films of Keisuke Kinoshita, it can (generally) be assumed that the good will triumph, that those who remain true to themselves and refuse to give in to cynicism and selfishness will eventually be rewarded. This is more or less true of the convoluted Fireworks Over the Sea (海の花火, Umi no Hanabi) which takes a once successful family who have made an ill-advised entry into the fishing industry and puts them through the post-war ringer with everything from duplicitous business associates and overbearing relatives to difficult romances and unwanted arranged marriages to contend with.

The action begins in 1949 in the small harbour town of Yobuko in Southern Japan. Tarobei (Chishu Ryu) and his brother Aikawa (Takeshi Sakamoto) run a small fishing concern with two boats under the aegis of the local fishing association. The business is in big trouble and they’re convinced the captain of one of the boats has been secretly stealing part of the catch and selling it on the black market. Attempts to confront him have stalled and the brothers are at a loss, unsure how to proceed given that it will be difficult to find another captain at short notice even if they are already getting serious heat from their investors and the association.

Luckily things begin to look up when a familiar face from the past arrives in the form of Shogo (Takashi Miki) – a soldier who was briefly stationed in the town at the very end of the war during which time he fell in love with Tarobei’s eldest daughter, Mie (Michiyo Kogure). Shogo has a friend who would be perfect for taking over the boat and everything seems to be going well but the Kamiyas just can’t seem to catch a break and their attempt to construct a different economic future for themselves in the post-war world seems doomed to failure.

The Kamiyas are indeed somewhat persecuted. They have lost out precisely because of their essential goodness in which they prefer to conduct business honestly and fairly rather than give in to the selfish ways of the new society. Thus they vacillate over how to deal with the treacherous captain who has already figured out that he holds all the cards and can most likely walk all over them. They encounter the same level of oppressive intimidation when they eventually decide to fight unfair treatment from the association all the way to Tokyo only to be left sitting on a bench outside the clerk’s office for three whole days at the end of which Tarobei is taken seriously ill.

However, unlike Kinoshita’s usual heroes, Tarobei’s faith begins to waver. He is told he can get a loan from another family on the condition that their son marry his youngest daughter Miwa (Yoko Katsuragi). To begin with he laughs it off but as the situation declines he finds himself tempted even if he hates himself for the thought. He never wanted to be one of those fathers who treats his daughters like capital, but here he is. Both Miwa, who has fallen in love with the younger brother of the new captain, and her sister are in a sense at the mercy of their families, torn between personal desire familial duty. Mie, having discovered that her husband died in the war, is still trapped in post-war confusion and unsure if she returns Shogo’s feelings but in any case is afraid to pursue them when she knows the depths of despair her father finds himself in because of their precarious economic situation. Shogo is keen to help, but he is also fighting a war on two fronts seeing as his extremely strange (and somewhat overfamiliar) sister-in-law (Isuzu Yamada) is desperate to marry him off to her niece (Keiko Tsushima) in order to keep him around but also palm off her mother-in-law.

Meanwhile, a lonely geisha (Toshiko Kobayashi) who has fallen into the clutches of the corrupt captain is determined to find out what happened to someone she used to know who might be connected to Shogo and the Kamiyas and falling in desperate unrequited love with replacement captain Yabuki (Rentaro Mikuni) who is inconveniently in love with Mie. Kinoshita apparently cut production on Fireworks short in order to jet off to France which might be why his characteristically large number of interconnected subplots never coalesce. Running the gamut from melancholy existential drama to rowdy fights on boats and shootouts in the street, Kinoshita knows how to mix things up but leaves his final messages unclear as the Kamiyas willingly wave their traumatic pasts out to sea with a few extra passengers in tow still looking for new directions.


Titles 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)

Farewell to Spring (惜春鳥, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1959)

(C) Shochiku 1959

Farewell to Spring posterFor Keisuke Kinoshita, people are basically good even if the world around them often isn’t. Even so, there are limits to goodness. Can friendship survive if an intimate trust is abused, or will betrayal cut the cord once and for all? Unlike many of his contemporaries, “youth” was not a theme in which Kinoshita was particularly interested – or, at least, not quite in the same way. Farewell to Spring (惜春鳥, Sekishuncho) is in some senses an awkward fit for his usual concerns but then the concerns here are perhaps closer to the personal in examining the changing fortunes of a group of five male childhood friends who find themselves scattered in the complicated post-war landscape, facing their mutual troubles in solitary, manly fashion while their friendship withers under the weight of their individual sorrows.

The drama begins when Iwagaki (Yusuke Kawazu) returns to his Aizu mountain village after being away at university for the previous two years. As Iwagaki’s parents have died and his half-brother moved to Hokkaido with his family, Iwagaki has no “home” in his hometown as he sadly tells a familiar face spotted on the train. Nevertheless, his friends are very excited to see him and have all rallied round without even being asked. Iwagaki will be staying at an inn owned by the family of his friend, Minemura (Kazuya Kosaka). The other boys all stayed in the village – Makita (Masahiko Tsugawa), the illegitimate son of a bar owner is being primed to take over the family business while sort of dating the step-daughter of his estranged father; Teshirogi (Akira Ishihama), the younger son of an impoverished former samurai family, is working at a local factory and heavily involved in the labour movement; while Masugi (Toyozo Yamamoto), who is disabled with a lame leg thanks to a childhood accident, works alongside his parents in a traditional lacquerwork shop but finds his livelihood threatened by political troubles with China.

Once a tight group of small-town friends, none of the boys quite wants to acknowledge how far they have drifted apart – not just from each other, but from the young men they once were even though comparatively little time has actually passed. Nevertheless, the shadow of their old bond still exists – it is obvious to all the boys that Iwagaki has returned in some kind of disgrace. A favourite of their teacher, Iwagaki had been given a valuable opportunity to better himself by going to university in Tokyo but has apparently fallen out with his sponsor and into hard times. The story he tells his friends is dark – they’d heard it had to do with a “dalliance” with a maid which annoyed his patron but the way he describes it sounds more like a rape revenge followed by an unwanted romance which he eventually ran away from. Iwagaki is not making himself look good which might suggest that he trusts his friends enough to tell them the truth, or perhaps just doesn’t quite see the various ways in which his conduct discredits him, but either way there is deepening gulf between each of the men in which none is quite being honest with the other.

Iwagaki’s arrival doesn’t so much stir up old troubles as occur alongside them. The central drama revolves around a squaring off between Makita and Teshirogi over a girl, Yoko (Yukiyo Toake), who is the niece of Makita’s biological father – a nouveau riche pawnbroker with a steely wife, Tane (Teruko Kishi), who hates Makita’s mother for obvious reasons. The mistress and the wife are locked into an internecine battle of wills and resentments and so both are opposed to a marriage between Makita and Yoko even though they have fallen in love independently. As there is no son in the family, Makita’s father needs someone to marry in through marrying Yoko – it would obviously be ideal for him if his “real” son could inherit his estate, but Makita’s mother wants him to take over her bar and Tane is directly opposed to suffering the humiliation of a mistress’ son living under her roof and so they are at an impasse. Meanwhile, Tane has been trying to arrange a socially beneficial marriage and has settled on Teshirogi – the impoverished son of an aristocratic family.

A confluence of post-war problems, the first question pits the traditional arranged marriage against the youngster’s right to choose. Yoko doesn’t want the arranged marriage – she’s doing everything she can to fight it even if she ends up alone, but Makita has already given up believing the situation is futile. Teshirogi tries to ask him if it’s OK to pursue Yoko, but Makita doesn’t really answer. What he says is does as you see fit, but Teshirogi hears only what he wants to hear and fails to notice that Makita minds quite a lot and has only said that out of a sense of despondency and a possible romanticisation of his emotional suffering. Yoko is living in the post-war reality – she rejects the idea of arranged marriage and of her adoptive parents’ right to control her future, but she is unable to fully resist alone – she needs Makita to stand with her, but he doesn’t have her courage. Meanwhile, Makita is also consumed by thoughts of romantic impossibility thanks to the sad story of his melancholy uncle (Keiji Sada) who tried to run off with a geisha (Ineko Arima) only for her to be dragged back by her madam because of an outstanding debt.

Debt bondage is something else that’s thankfully on its way out in the post-war world thanks to the prostitution laws which are contributing to a decline in the fortunes of Minemura’s inn. Feudalism, however, is doing its best to cling on – especially in tiny mountain backwaters. Teshirogi may now be a proletarian factory worker flying the red flag and taking an active part in the labour movement as a striker protesting for better pay and conditions, but at heart he’s still a nobleman and has a natural sense of entitlement and superiority towards his friends which is only deepened by his resentment over his comparative financial inferiority. Yoko asks him to turn down the marriage proposal because she’s in love with Makita and fears her family won’t listen to her alone, but Teshirogi roughly tells her he doesn’t care much for her feelings and will make his own decision. Later he insists on giving his answer “the proper way” by going through his father, and submits himself entirely to the processes of the pre-war society. Making a half-hearted justification to Makita, Teshirogi confesses that his decision to push for the marriage was motivated by his poverty and a desire to regain his status if also partly because he too is attracted to Yoko and admires her spiky spirit even if it otherwise seems to contradict his conservative views.

Teshirogi breaks the bro code in favour of self interest, not actually caring very much if it costs him friendships which he appears not to value. As openly gay as it was possible to be in the late 1950s, Kinoshita creates an intensely homosocial world of male honour-based bonding, but makes a tragic hero of the innocent Masugi who is in a sense feminised by his disability which prevents him from participating in the manly rituals of the other boys – most notably in the coming of age sword dance in which he becomes narrator rather than sword bearer. Teshirogi, in an early instance of smug insensitivity, throws a mildly barbed comment at Masugi in tersely suggesting that his affection for Iwagaki runs beyond friendship – something which the group seems to be aware of but does not want to go into, or at least not really like this. Masugi and Minemura emerge as the most pure hearted and the most hurt among the friends, clinging on to the idea of their friendship even as they are betrayed by those closest to them while Makita wonders if betrayal is an essential component of connection or merely its inevitable end.

Despite the central betrayal, the boys eventually manage to salvage something of their friendships, leaving the field of battle together and alive if also wounded and sorrowful. Unlike the tragic White Tigers in the song which recurs throughout the film who elected mass suicide on believing their battle was lost, the boys move forward – Makita, at least, spurred on by his uncle’s tragic romance decides that love is worth fighting for after all and that he doesn’t have to blindly accept the profound inertia of small-town Aizu life or the natural authority if the hypocritical Teshirogi who shouts socialist slogans but insists on his social superiority. Friendship may not survive the compromises of adulthood, but perhaps the bonds between people aren’t so easily broken after all even if they consistently break your heart.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Bad Sleep Well posterThere’s something rotten in the state of Japan – The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru), Akira Kurosawa’s take on Hamlet, unlike his previous two Shakespearean adaptations, is set firmly in the murky post-war society which, it becomes clear, is so mired in systems of corruption as to be entirely built on top of them. Our hero, like Hamlet himself, is a conflicted revenger. He intends to hold a mirror up to society, reflecting the ugly picture back to the yet unknowing world in the hope that something will really change. Change, however, comes slow – especially when it comes at the disadvantage of those who currently hold all the cards.

We open at a wedding. A small number of attendants lineup around a lift waiting for the arrival of the married couple only for a carriage full of reporters to pour out, apparently in hope of scandal though this is no gossip worthy society function but the wedding of a CEO’s daughter to his secretary. The press is in attendance because the police are – they believe there will be arrests today in connection with the ongoing corruption scandal engulfing the company in which a number of employees are suspected of engaging in kickbacks on government funded projects.

The rather strange wedding proceeds with the top brass sweating buckets while the bride’s brother (Tatsuya Mihashi), already drunk on champagne, takes to the mic with a bizarre speech “refuting” the claims that the groom, Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), has only married the bride, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), for financial gain before avowing that he will kill his new brother-in-law if he makes his little sister sad. Nishi, as we later discover, has indeed married with an ulterior motive which is anticipated by the arrival of a second wedding cake in the shape of a building at the centre of a previous corruption scandal with one black rose sticking out of the seventh floor window from which an employee, Furuya, committed suicide five years previously.

The police are keen to interview their suspects, the press are keen to report on scandal, but somehow or other the system of corruption perpetuates itself. The top guys cover for each other, and when they can’t they “commit suicide” rather than embarrass their “superiors” by submitting themselves to justice. The system of loyalty and reward, of misplaced “honour” mixed with personal greed, ensures its own survival through homosocial bonding with backroom deals done in hostess bars and the lingering threat of scandal and personal ruin for all should one rogue whistleblower dare to threaten the governing principle of an entire economy.

Nishi chooses to threaten it, partly as an act of revolution but mainly as an act of filial piety in avenging the wrongful death of his father who had, in a sense, cast him aside for financial gain and societal success. Wanting to get on, Nishi’s father refused to marry his mother and instead married the woman his “superiors” told him to. Later, his father threw himself out of a seventh floor window because his “superiors” made him understand this was what was expected of him. Furuya wasn’t the last, each time a man’s transgressions progress too far his “superiors” sacrifice him to ensure the survival of the system. Strangely no one seems to rebel, the men go to their deaths willingly, accepting their fate without question rather than submitting themselves to the law and taking their co-conspirators down with them though should someone refuse to do the “decent” thing, there are other ways to ensure their continuing silence.

Reinforcing the post-war message, Nishi chooses a disused munitions factory for his secret base. Both he and his co-conspirator, a war orphan, had been high school conscripts until the factory was destroyed by firebombing and thereafter were forced to live by their wits alone on the streets. Nishi swears that he wants to take revenge on those who manipulate the vulnerable, but finds himself becoming ever more like his prey and worse, hardly caring, wanting only to steel himself for the difficult task ahead.

In any revolution there will be casualties, but these casualties will often be those whom Nishi claims to represent. Chief among them his new wife, Yoshiko, who has been largely cushioned from the harshness of the outside world thanks to her father’s wealth and seeming care. She loves her husband and wants to believe in her father or more particularly that the moral arc of her society points towards goodness. Nishi, tragically falling for his mark, married his wife to destroy her family but ironically finds himself torn between genuine love for Yoshiko, a desire for revenge, and a mission of social justice. Can he, and should he, be prepared to “sacrifice” an innocent in the same way the “superiors” of the world sacrifice their underlings in order to end a system of oppression or should he abandon his plan and save his wife the pain of learning the truth about her husband, her father, and the world in which she lives?

In the end, Nishi will waver. Yoshiko’s father, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), will not. Goodness becomes a weakness – Iwabuchi turns his daughter’s love and faith against her, subverting her innocence for his own evil. He makes a sacrifice of her in service of his own “superiors” who may be about to declare that they “have complete faith” in him at any given moment. The only thing that remains clear is that Iwabuchi will not be forgiven, the wronged children of the post-war era will not be so quick to bow to injustice. Let the great axe fall? One can only hope.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

ballad of narayama kinoshita 1958 posterMany naughty children running low on filial piety have probably been told the folktale about a man who took his son along when he abandoned his senile father on a mountain to die only to have his son later do the same thing to him. In Japan, the mythical practice of “obasute” or “ubasute” is a kind of Logan’s Run equivalent in which elderly people elect to remove themselves from society in order to reduce the burden on the young. The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama-bushi Ko) has, perhaps, taken on an additional degree of pathos in ageing Japan in which many elderly people find themselves metaphorically cast out from a society in which they have become the majority, but the idea of “obasute” is intended to be a lesson to the young to treasure their elders and accept the responsibility to care for those who can no longer care for themselves in the knowledge that they too will one day be old.

Keisuke Kinoshita is sometimes criticised for his supposed sentimentalism but his central concern was always in the redemptive power of the relationships between people, that there is always kindness even in the worst of circumstances and that this is enough for hope to survive. In telling the sorry tale of Narayama in which those of over 70-years-of-age are forced into a ritual suicide by social convention, Kinoshita opts for alienation in deliberately shifting into a theatrical register inspired by kabuki featuring obvious studio sets, stylised action, and traditional narration, but his decision to pull back makes the message all the more painful, as does the insistence on the timelessness of his tale.

Long ago in the distant feudal past, 69-year-old Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) knows that it will soon be time for her widowed son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), to carry her to Narayama where she hopes to die of exposure in the New Year snows. She has made her peace with this, it is the will of the gods and she has no call to disobey. Her son, however, is distraught to think of the time he will be expected to carry his elderly mother to a remote spot in the mountains and leave her there, alone, to die of cold and starvation. When a messenger arrives from Orin’s home village to propose a match for Tatsuhei, a recently widowed woman of exactly the same age – Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), Orin is overjoyed – she can go to Narayama without fear or worry, her son and grandsons will be looked after even after she is gone.

The tradition began because the villages in this region are extremely poor. Tatsuhei and Orin will be enjoying their one and only bowl of white rice for the year in celebration of Bon. Orin’s self-centred grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) has made up a horrible song about his grandma in which he criticises her for still having all her own teeth at 70 – implying that, as she is not malnourished enough to have lost them, she must have been greedy and taken more than her fair share of food. Unable to bear such reproach, Orin smashes out her own front teeth to better conform to the conventions of her society and make herself a more acceptable sacrifice to the gods as a good and pious woman.

This early horrific act is perhaps the key in illuminating Kinoshita’s gentle critique of social conformity as a tool of social control – something which had become increasingly apparent during the militarist era. Orin, a kind and decent woman, is herself complicit in this abhorrent custom – her acceptance of it is part of her goodness, a sign of her altruistic self-sacrificing nature, but her own unwillingness to challenge the darker aspects of the society in which she lives leads only to their perpetuation and an ongoing descent into unkindness and cruelty.

Tatsuhei, a good and pious son, cannot reconcile himself to his mother’s fate, while his own son, Kesakichi, openly mocks his grandmother for not going sooner and Kesakichi’s pregnant girlfriend (Keiko Ogasawara) looks on enviously at the extra beans on offer if there were one less mouth to feed. Old and bent, Orin still plays a vital part in her community – she harvests the rice while Kesakichi lounges in trees, and she alone knows the best place to catch trout, a valuable skill in a village where food is scarce. Despite the possibility for disaster, Orin and Tama bond instantly as kindred spirits, both kind people in an often unkind world. It’s to Tama that Orin finally divulges her knowledge – something the village will be poorer for when she is gone, having passed her familial responsibilities to another woman and seen her son happily settled with a perfectly suited second wife.

When Tatsuhei returns, broken, after having performed the dreaded ritual he watches his own cruel son laughing and joking from within their shared home, caring only for himself and his easy pleasures. Tama, equally upset over the loss of Orin with whom she had bonded as mother, tries to comfort her husband but is eventually overcome by the tragedy of life, taking comfort only in the fact that, when they are 70, she and Tatsuhei will climb Narayama together.

Hardship, far from bringing people together in the famous harmony that Japanese society praises itself for, has forced them apart, infected them with a sense of mutual distrust and a them or us mentality. Orin feeds the senile old man cast out from his own unfeeling family, but she also urges him towards making a sacrifice of himself on Narayama, genuinely believing that both of their existences have become inappropriate, a greedy usurpation of time which rightfully now belongs to others. Kinoshita respects Orin for her stoicism and righteousness, but pities her for the cruelty of the world in which she lived and was so powerless to resist that it never occurred to her that she should. There is a painful sensitivity around those who willingly went to their deaths in service of something they believed to be right because their society said it must be so, never daring to consider the ways in which their society may be mistaken.

Heavily stylised and markedly experimental for a mainstream Shochiku melodrama of the late 1950s, Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama is a heartrending tale of transience and inevitability, but it’s also one of the various ways a stringent society erodes the bonds between people. The intense love of Tatsuhei for his mother is destroyed by a terrible custom that no one is brave enough to defy, leaving the family rudderless and the village poorer for having been robbed not only of Orin’s wealth of experience but of her warmth and kindness. Kinoshita ends on an ambiguous image showing us the modern train station which stands on the former village of “Obasute”, demonstrating the passage of time and arrival of “modernity” but also that ancient customs are never quite as “ancient” as they seem.


Scene from near the end of the film (English subtitles)

An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Tadashi Imai, 1953)

inlet of muddy water dvd coverTadashi Imai was among the greatest directors of the golden age though his name remains far less known than contemporaries Ozu or Mizoguchi. Despite beginning in outright propaganda films during the war, Imai is best remembered as a staunchly left wing director whose films are known for their gritty realism and opposition to oppressive social codes. An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Nigorie) very much fits this bill in adapting three stories from Japanese author Ichiyo Higuchi. Higuchi is herself a giant figure of Japanese literature though little of her work has been translated into English. Like Imai’s films, Higuchi’s stories are known for their focus on female suffering and the prevailing social oppression of the late Meiji era which had seen many changes but not all for the better. Higuchi was not a political writer and her work does not attack an uncaring society so much as describe it accurately though her own early death from tuberculosis at only 24 certainly lends weight to the tragedy of her times.

In the first part of the film which is inspired by one of Higuchi’s best known stories, The Thirteenth Night, a young woman returns home to her parents, no longer able to bear living with an emotionally abusive husband. Oseki (Yatsuko Tanami) had been raised an ordinary, lower middle-class girl but, like many a heroine of feudal era literature, caught the eye of a prominent nobleman who determined to marry her despite their class difference. Life is not a fairytale, and so the nobleman quickly tired of his beautiful peasant wife, belittling her lowly status, lack of education, and failure to slot into the elite world he inhabits.

Oseki’s plight elicits ambivalent reactions in each of her parents though they both sympathise with her immensely, if in different ways. Her mother (Akiko Tamura) is heartbroken – having long believed her daughter to be living a blissful life of luxury, she feels terribly guilty not to have known she had been suffering all this time and believes Oseki has done the right thing in leaving. Her father (Ken Mitsuda), however, also feels sad but reacts in practicality, pointing out that to leave her husband now would mean losing her son forever and probably a long, lonely life of penury. He, somewhat coldly, tells her to go back, grin and bear it. Oseki can see his point and considers resigning herself to return if only to look after her son.

On her way home she runs into a childhood friend whom she might have married if things had not turned out the way they did. “Life gets in the way of the things we want to do”, she tells him by of explanation for not staying in touch. Rokunosuke (Hiroshi Akutagawa), once a fine merchant, is now a ragged rickshaw driver, bereaved father, and divorcee. Like Oseki his life is a tragedy of frustration with the added irritant that he and Oseki might have been happy together, rather than independently miserable, if an elite had not suddenly decided to interfere by crossing class lines just because he can rather than out of any genuine feeling.

The callousness of elites is also a theme in the second story, The Last Day of the Year, in which a young maid, Omine (Yoshiko Kuga), works for a wealthy household dominated by a moody, penny pinching mistress whose mistreatment of her staff is more indifference than deliberate scorn. Omine’s uncle, who raised her, has fallen ill. At the beginning of his illness he took out a loan but he’s got no better and still needs to pay it back so he asks Omine to ask the mistress for an advance of the paltry sum of two yen in the hope that his son will be able to enjoy a new year mochi like the other kids. The mistress says yes and then changes her mind, leaving Omine to consider a transgressive act of social justice.

Where The Thirteenth Night and The Last Day of the Year pointed the finger at uncaring elites, Troubled Waters broadens its disdain to the entire world of men in focussing on two women caught on either side of the red light district – Oriki (Chikage Awashima), a geisha stalked by a ruined client, and the client’s wife, Ohatsu (Haruko Sugimura), who endures a life of penury thanks to her husband’s geisha obsession. Oriki’s sad story is recounted to a wealthy patron (So Yamamura) who is more fascinated in learning the secrets of her soul than her kimono, but like many of her age it begins with parental strife, orphanhood and perpetual imprisonment as a geisha wondering what will become of her when her looks fade and she’s no longer number one. She has no control over the men who spend time with her but is worried by Gen (Seiji Miyaguchi) who ruined himself buying her time and now stalks her in and around the inn. Infatuated and obsessed with Oriki, Gen has turned against his noble wife Ohatsu who is working herself to the bone to support the family while Gen has resorted to a life of casual labour but rarely does much of anything at all.

Recalling Higuchi’s famous diary, Imai opens each of the segments with a brief voiceover detailing the inconsequential details of the weather with a world weary, often melancholy tone as the writer laments too much time spent on fiction and resolves to tell the story of the world as it really is. There is no real connection or overarching theme which unites the three stories, save for the continued suffering of women at the hands of men and the society they have devised. Oseki must return to her abusive husband, Omine will continue to work for her heartless mistress, and Ohatsu will have to make do on her own after being so thoroughly let down by her husband. There is no recourse or escape, no path forward that will allow the women to break free of their oppression or even to learn to be free within it. Each of the stories is bleak, ending on a note of resignation and acceptance of one’s fate as terrible as that may be but Imai’s ending is most terrible of all, reminding us that today is simply another day and the heavy atmosphere of dread and oppression is certain to endure as long as we all remain resigned.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

The Assignation (密会, Ko Nakahira, 1959)

Aside from the genre defining Crazed Fruit which kick-started the era of the “seishun eiga” and, in its own way, the Japanese New Wave, Ko Nakahira has remained under seen and under appreciated outside of Japan. Completed just three years after the youth fuelled frenzy of Crazed Fruit with its freewheeling playboys and their speedboat crises, The Assignation (密会, Mikkai) is a much more measured, mature meditation on social constraint, guilt and the slow drip feed of poisonous thought. Nakahira wastes none of his characteristic energy in the necessarily tight 76 minute runtime, but this is an exercise in high tension as a pair of illicit lovers are suddenly confronted with their crime after accidentally witnessing a murder.

Neglected at home by her studious professor husband, Kikuko (Yoko Katsuragi) has embarked on affair with one of his students, Ikuo (Seiji Miyaguchi). Canoodling at a deserted woodland spot, the pair muse on their impossible love prompting Ikuo to wonder how it would be if Kikuko’s husband simply died. Kikuko quickly puts a stop to Ikuo’s dark and desperate thought but the seed of death has already been sown in the relationship as they’re quickly spotlighted by a pair of unexpected car headlights. Hiding behind a nearby bush, Kikuko and Ikuo witness some kind of struggle inside a taxi before a young man drags and older one out of the car and takes off at a run.

Traumatised, Ikuo and Kikuko finish dressing and attempt to rejoin regular society by avoiding the unusual level of traffic in this remote spot which includes another truck and, as luck would have it, a policeman on a bike. Troubled, the pair bid each other goodbye with the suggestion that they’d better not see each other for a while but the tension continues to mount as Ikuo’s youthful desire to do his civic duty conflicts with Kikuko’s middle aged preoccupation with her reputation and the possible scandal that would occur should the police discover the whole story of their sordid love affair.

Nakahira begins with a careful panning of trees against the film’s bouncy jazz soundtrack neatly underlining the dread hanging somewhere overhead. Scandalous for 1959, the ongoing affair between the naive student and the melancholy housewife is already tinged with doom from the outset despite the relaxed quality of their post-coital coversation. Ikuo is pained, he wants a full life with Kikuko, but she dampens his youthful dreams by already thinking of the end. Adopting a maternal tone, she talks about his future – graduation, a successful career, a lovely young girl his own age who become will his wife. She even wonders if he’ll invite her to the wedding so she can meet the woman who will complete his life in a way she never can. Though she may say she wants to stay with him forever in the throws of passion, hers is a pragmatic love which is more need than desire. The archetypal middle-class housewife, Kikuko may have made this brief weekday evening transgression but throwing off the constraints of propriety is not a step she she envisages taking.

Already guilt ridden over her moral transgression, Kikuko views the incident in the woods as some kind of karmic revenge for her carnal sin. A very frank discussion with her forthright sister-in-law who quizzes her about the marriage’s lack of offspring reveals the depths of her despair and loneliness as her husband barely acknowledges her existence and there is almost nothing for her to do around the house. Taking cooking classes just to get out for a while, she runs into Ikuo whose story is an equally common one of a young man’s infatuation with the pretty yet sad younger wife of his professor.

If mutual loneliness brought them together, guilt and fear will later tear them apart as they face their shared “crime” from opposing sides. For Kikuko her illicit meetings with man much younger than herself are a shameful secret which must be concealed at all costs. Ikuo, however, is in love and sees nothing “wrong” in his courtship of the older woman even if he sympathises with her desire to avoid a scandal and does not want to cause her pain. What bothers him is a sense of justice and social responsibility. He saw the killer’s face – if he goes to the police, the victim’s wife and children might at least be able to gain some peace of mind knowing that the perpetrator is behind bars even if little else will change for them. Kikuko, by contrast, can think of nothing other than herself and is willing to sacrifice all to keep her reputation intact.

The threat of discovery is ever present as Nakahira litters the scene with clues and threats from the constant flagging of possible witnesses to an errant leaf resting on the pot which Kikuko has so calculatedly prepared to back up her cooking class alibi. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades as superimposition and montage segue into Kikuko’s flights of fancy from her memories of the beginning of the affair to a premonition of the newspaper furore which awaits her should Ikuo follow through with his intention of revealing all to the police. In the end, someone is always watching. Despite the youthful tone and jaunty jazz soundtrack, the morality police will tolerate no transgression. The wages of sin are death, but it’s fear driven by guilt and social constraint which is its executioner.