Actress (映画女優, Kon Ichikawa, 1987)

actressKon Ichikawa was born in 1915, just four years later than the subject of his 1989 film Actress (映画女優, Eiga Joyu) which uses the pre-directorial career of one of Japanese cinema’s most respected actresses, Kinuyo Tanaka, to explore the development of Japanese cinema itself. Tanaka was born in poverty in 1909 and worked as a jobbing film actress before being “discovered” by Hiroshi Shimizu and becoming one of Shochiku’s most bankable stars. The script is co-written by Kaneto Shindo who was fairly close to the action as an assistant under Kenji Mizoguchi at Shochiku in the ‘40s before being drafted into the war. A commemorative exercise marking the tenth anniversary of Tanaka’s death from a brain tumour in 1977, Ichikawa’s film never quite escapes from the biopic straightjacket and only gives a superficial picture of its star but seems content to revel in the nostalgia of a, by then, forgotten golden age.

The film begins with the young Tanaka awaiting a visit from her mentor, Hiroshi Shimizu (Toru Watanabe), whom her family are keen to thank for bringing them all to Tokyo away from their life of hardship. Although everyone is very happy for Tanaka’s success, there is shadow hanging over the party in the form of missing oldest brother Ryosuke who went on the run to avoid the draft and has not been heard of since.

Shimizu gives Tanaka (Sayuri Yoshinaga) her first roles at Shochiku where she becomes a contract player but is put out when another director, Heinosuke Gosho (Kiichi Nakai), wants to give her a leading role. Overruled by studio bosses, Shimizu becomes increasingly jealous of Tanaka’s career – a situation which is further complicated by the couple’s growing romantic entanglement which sees them living together in an unofficial marriage allowing Tanaka to continue acting. However, Shimizu continues to meddle in Tanaka’s professional life whilst also continuing his hard drinking, womanising playboy lifestyle. The couple eventually divorce but reunite from time to time on the film set.

Vowing never to marry again, the rest of Tanaka’s life is dedicated to acting and sees her working with some of the best directors of the age including Ozu (Shigemitsu Ogi) and later Mizoguchi (Bunta Sugawara). It is Tanaka’s professional and personal relationship with Mizoguchi which occupies the second half of the film. Judging by the first experience on the now lost Woman of Osaka in 1940, you wouldn’t think the two would ever wish to work together again though they eventually completed fifteen films together over the next fifteen years.

Mizoguchi’s process is completely different from any other Tanaka had worked with. Rather than meeting to rehearse and discuss the work, Mizoguchi abruptly sends her a lifetime’s supply of books about bunraku and changes the script that she has painstakingly committed to memory with on set rewrites communicated via a large blackboard he expects the actors to read from. Exasperated, Tanaka finally asks him for actual direction but he coldly states that she’s the actress and her acting is not part of his job description. Mizoguchi and Tanaka are very different people but each driven and ambitious so their frequent locking of horns produces a fiercely creative collaboration in which each was able to find worth even if it was frequently difficult.

The film ends around the time of Life of Oharu which would mark the final time the pair would work together. In terms of the film’s narrative, this unspoken development is foreshadowed by the idea that the two artists are heading in different directions but in the real world the reasons are a little less clear. Tanaka became the second woman to direct a feature film with Love Letters in 1953 which was even featured at Cannes, but for reasons unknown Mizoguchi attempted to block her access to the Director’s Guild of Japan, effectively ending both their friendship and any professional relationship. Ironically enough, Actress seems to imply that Tanaka’s desire to direct may have been inspired by Mizoguchi and his all powerful on set status prompting her to wonder how he does it, and, perhaps how she could do it too.

Ichikawa weaves the history of Japan through its cinema into the narrative to recount the changing tastes of the eras as naturalism came in and out of fashion and Japanese films began to experience international as well as domestic acclaim. Skipping huge portions of time to focus on the two directors – Shimizu and Mizoguchi, Ichikawa avoids mentioning Tanaka’s post-war visit to America which had a profound impact on her later career, not only in what she learned there but also in the extremely hostile reception she received on returning home. The main takeaway from his depiction of Tanaka is a woman ahead of her time, independent and headstrong, willing to work hard to achieve the things she wanted to achieve even if flying in the face of social convention though it makes no particular judgement on her character other than in her success as an actress.

Taking on the conceit of being a film about film, Ichikawa’s sets are theatrical, creating a deliberately artificial, half unreal world. This also extends into the scriptwriting which is extremely talky and more like a stage play than film, offering pointed, long stretches of monologuing which are already far away from the more naturalistic approach of early talking cinema. Characters have improbable, exposition filled conversations in which they each tell each other things they already know for the audience’s benefit – an effect which enhances the overall theatricality, but does draw attention to itself and eventually becomes wearing. Ichikawa’s picture of Tanaka is one of steely determination and of a woman ahead of her time, but even if Actress proves less than enlightening regarding its subject it does help to shed some light on both classic Japanese cinema and that of the late 1980s.


Original trailer (traditional Chinese subs only)

Dark Water (仄暗い水の底から, Hideo Nakata, 2002)

dark-water

Review of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water first published by UK Anime Network.


For good or ill, the J-horror boom came to dominate Japanese cinema at the turn of the century and if anyone can be said to have been instrumental in ushering it in, director Hideo Nakata and novelist Koji Suzuki, whose landmark collaboration on The Ring has become symbolic of the entire genre, must be at the head of the list. Dark Water (仄暗い水の底から, Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara) finds the pair working together again on another supernaturally tinged, creepy psychological thriller. Neatly marrying the classic J-horror tropes of freaky children and dripping wet ghosts, Dark Water also embraces aspects of the uniquely Japanese “hahamono” or mother movie which prizes maternal sacrifice and suffering above all else.

Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), a nervous middle aged woman, is in the middle of a messy divorce with her exceedingly smug salaryman husband. Despite having been less than present during the marriage, Yoshimi’s husband now wants full custody of the couple’s five year old daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno). In order to aid her case, Yoshimi quickly finds an apartment and starts looking for a job. All seems to be going well except for the mysterious dripping stain on the ceiling which the building manager doesn’t seem very interested in fixing. Before long, strange events begin unfolding including unexplained puddles, a mysterious red children’s shoulder bag which keeps reappearing after being thrown out, and brief sightings of a little girl in a yellow raincoat….

Nakata opens the film with what is in effect a flashback sequence as Yoshimi waits for her own mother to pick her up from primary school. It quickly becomes apparent that Yoshimi’s relationship with her birth mother was an imperfect one which later ended in neglect and abandonment. Yoshimi continues to have frequent flashbacks to her childhood and harbours and intense fear of inflicting the same kind of damage her mother inflicted on her onto her own daughter. Ikuko is also left waiting at school when Yoshimi is kept late at a job interview – something which is eventually used against her in the court case. Though Yoshimi’s aunt reassures her that she’s doing a much better job than her mother did for her, Yoshimi is filled with doubts as to her suitability as a mother which are only further compounded by her intense love for her daughter and fear of losing her.

On top of her maternal worries and residual abandonment issues, Yoshimi also has a history of mental distress which her ex-husband uses to discredit her. It’s open to debate exactly how much of what appears to be happening is actually happening and how much a manifestation of a possible nervous breakdown, but aside from the supernatural shenanigans there are also real world dangers to consider including the missing posters for a girl who was around Ikuko’s age when she disappeared two years previously. The primary school headmaster is convinced that the girl was abducted by a third party but it also transpires that Mitsuko, like Yoshimi and as Yoshimi fears for Ikuko, was abandoned by her mother.

When it comes right down to it, Dark Water lays the blame for its supernaturally tinged evil firmly at the feet of divorce and family breakdown. The supposedly progressive primary school in which the main aim is to allow children freedom of expression is quick to tell the already overwrought Yoshimi that the “strange behaviour” they’ve been witnessing in Ikuko is essentially all her fault because of the divorce and disruption to Ikuko’s home life. Similarly, the central supernatural threat is born of maternal neglect, a symptom of the selfish individualism of the mother who has chosen to leave her child behind. Yoshimi has been jettisoned by her controlling ex-husband and her only thought is to keep her daughter with her, yet she is being made to pay for a social prejudice against atypical families such as those resulting from a “selfish” decision to dissolve a marriage.

Dark Water cleverly recasts Yoshimi as an idealised mother willing to sacrifice all to protect her child. As the situation intensifies, Yoshimi begins to feel as if she’s becoming a toxic presence in her daughter’s life. Rather than risk the same fate befalling her own daughter as has befallen her, Yoshimi opts to make herself the last link in the chain of abuse, freeing her daughter from her own baggage. In contrast with both Yoshimi and Mitsuko, Ikuko will always know that her mother loved her and will always be with her even if protecting her from afar.

Nakata conjures up a supremely creepy atmosphere filled with everyday horrors. The run down apartment complex in which Yoshimi finds her (presumably very reasonably priced) apartment is an unsettling world of its own with its strangely moist, dripping walls, eccentric residents, and rapidly decaying exterior. One of the most effective and visually interesting entries in the J-horror genre, Dark Water perfectly mixes creepy, supernatural horror with psychological drama culminating in a final sequence which doesn’t stint on the scares but proves emotionally devastating in the process.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Abacus and Sword (武士の家計簿, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2010)

•Žm‚̉ƌv•ë•The stories of samurai whose soul is placed not in the sword but in another tool are quickly becoming a genre all of their own. Coming from the same screen writer as A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story, Abacus and Sword is a similarly structured tale of penny pinching samurai accountants and a pean to the undersung heroes of the admin department without whom everything would fall apart.

Abacus and Sword (武士の家計簿, Bushi no Kakeibo) could almost be titled “a story of my father” as it begins with a voice over by the youngest adult generation seen in the film, Nariyuki Inoyama, who is at the time of speaking a naval accountant in the new post restoration world. As good an account as he is (and he must be, given his position), he feels he pales in comparison to his father, Naoyuki, whose skills with the abacus were somewhat legendary even if his people skills were often not on the same level.

Dubbed an abacus fanatic by his colleagues, Naoyuki’s top maths abilities get him into trouble right away when he notices an extreme discrepancy in the accounts details for the imperial rice dole. Around this time there are riots from farmers who are being squeezed to deliver more grain to the authorities during a time of famine but not seeing enough returned to them as well as starving people petitioning for food in the streets, so when Naoyuki asks why around a third of the rice is disappearing from the accounts or listed as “reserved” his superiors start getting nervous. As a mini underling, Naoyuki is not in a position to stop his bosses from exploiting their authority in the most devious of ways – creating a food panic and then profiting on the side through black market trading, and is simply instructed to “ensure the final accounts balance”. Unwilling to falsify his precious calculations, Naoyuki finds himself facing the possibility of exile from the imperial centre but eventually finds his persistence rewarded when the scam is finally uncovered by a higher level.

Accountants are often not respected in this era of samurai warriors who place an almost religious faith in the power of the sword. Their pay is low, hours long and taxing, and they have little prospects of advancement. After hearing the story of Naoyuki’s career Nariyuki returns to the subject of himself a little more as the conflict between austere father and wayward son takes centre stage. Naoyuki is a pragmatic man, he sees their family debts are unsustainable and embarks of prolonged plan of austerity in which he forces the entire extended family to sell all their non essential possessions and live as cheaply as possible until the debts reach a more manageable level so they can at least keep the social position their larger family home affords them rather than being moved to something less prestigious. This is an unusual move in status driven samurai circles and proves embarrassing for the rest of the family such as in one episode where Naoyuki can’t afford to buy fish for his son’s coming of age ceremony so simply puts a painting of a fish at each place setting. Creative accounting at its finest!

Nariyuki, however, can’t quite give up on the idea of the sword and goes off to fight in the various civil wars which erupt during the Meiji Restoration causing great worry to his parents, wife and children. He too becomes an accountant and is at first disappointed that it’s his skills with an abacus that can best serve the country rather than those needed on the frontlines but later comes to understand the tactical importance of maintaining the smooth financial functioning of an army.

A late career effort from the prolific Yoshimitsu Morita, Abacus and Sword is an uneven experience which is more or less devoid of the director’s usual attempts at experimentation pushing for a more general, sometimes even televisual approach to storytelling. At heart the film praises the virtues of living a thrifty, honest, and balanced life in which hard work is always fairly rewarded in the end and even when not provides its own set of rewards. However, virtuous as it is to live honestly and simply in tune with the clack of an abacus, it can prove fairly dull which is unfortunately also true of Abacus and Sword which despite brief episodes of light humour never quite engages with its twin dynamics of father son conflict which echoes that of the changing world as it emerges into the new Meiji era, and of shining a light on the forgotten admin workers who keep the world turning when everything else is falling apart. Morita’s anti-consumerist, transparency in government sympathies come to the fore and are once again timely, but like Naoyuki he fails to make his complaints sufficiently engaging to ensure his messages are received by those with the ability to take action.


English subtitled trailer: