Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空, Masaki Hamamoto, 2007)

Akanezora - Beyond the Crimson Sky poster“It’s not all about tofu!” screams the heroine of Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空), a film which is all about tofu. Like tofu though, it has its own subtle flavour, gradually becoming richer by absorbing the spice of life. Based on a novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora is co-scripted by veteran of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda and directed by Masaki Hamamoto who had worked with Shinoda on Owl’s Castle and Spy Sorge prior to the director’s retirement in 2003. Like the majority of Shinoda’s work, Akanezora takes place in the past but echoes the future as it takes a sideways look at the nation’s most representative genre – the family drama. Fathers, sons, legacy and innovation come together in the story of a young man travelling from an old capital to a new one with a traditional craft he will have to make his own in order to succeed.

The story opens in the early 18th century when a couple stop to chat to a friend and, while they aren’t paying attention, their small son Shokichi wanders off after a doll show. Fastforward a decade or so and a young man, Eikichi (Masaaki Uchino), arrives from Kyoto intent on opening up a tofu shop in the capital. Enjoying the delicious local water, he runs into cheerful local girl, Ofumi (Miki Nakatani), who insists on helping him find his way around an unfamiliar city.

Ofumi proves invaluable in helping him set up his small neighbourhood store, but as skilled as Eikichi is, Kyoto tofu and Edo tofu are much more different than one might think. Eikichi’s tofu is smaller in size and fluffy where Edo tofu is larger yet solid, and though its flavour is superior, it does not suit the local taste or cuisine. Ofumi helps him out again, and once the shop is doing better the two marry. Flashforward another 18 years and the couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, but as successful as they are, they are no longer free of familial disharmony.

Strange coincidences are in play, such as Eikichi’s tofu making heritage lining up perfectly with that of a lonely couple, Oshino (Shima Iwashita) and Seibe (Renji Ishibashi), still grieving the loss of their little boy whose fate remains an open mystery. Though their son remains lost to them, Oshino and Seibe see something of the man he might have been in Eikichi who is also a practitioner of the trade they intended to pass on to him. Eikichi is a down to Earth southerner – naive, in one sense, yet honest, straighforward, kind and courteous. Though all agree his craftsmanship is first rate and his tofu excellently made, they privately advise he consider firming it up in keeping with local tastes. Eikichi is as stubborn as he is genial – he will not betray the “tradition” which has been passed down to him from his master and which he fully intends to hand down to his sons, purveyors of refined Kyoto tofu in fashionable Edo.

Thanks to Seibe’s generous patronage and Ofumi’s perseverance, Eikichi is a success but clashes with his eldest son and presumptive heir, Eitaro (Kohei Takeda), who resents his role as a kind of sales rep for his dad’s company. Following a volcanic eruption and subsequent poor harvest, grain prices are at a premium yet Eikichi, following the “Kyoto way”, refuses to raise prices, much to the consternation of fellow merchants who take out their displeasure on the young and impressionable Eitaro. One in particular launches a plan to ruin Eikichi’s tofu shop and gain access to the best of the city’s wells by befriending the lonely young son, getting him hooked on gambling and then bankrupting him with the help of local gangster boss Denzo (Masaaki Uchino).

Eikichi’s tofu, as someone later puts it, prospered not only because of his hard work and dedication, but because it was made with the heart. His overwhelming dedication to his craft might seem to blunt his dedication to those he loves but he cares deeply about his wife and children even if his “straightforward” character means he has a funny way of showing it. A running joke circles around Eikichi’s country bumpkin Kyoto accent and though the culture clash goes further than debating the proper texture of tofu, he finds himself a home thanks to the kindness of strangers. Akanezora, like Eikichi’s tofu, proves a little too spongy, its narrative connections too subtle in flavour to make much of an impact when fed only with Hamamoto’s serviceable if plain visuals, the unexpectedly chirpy performance of Miki Nakatani as the energetic Ofumi, and Masaaki Uchino’s impressive double duty as the earnest Eikichi and omnipotent Denzo. Tragedy breaks one family only to bring another back together, somehow restoring a once broken cycle yet even if Akanezora’s rosy skies suggest a resurgent warmth, it isn’t quite enough to solidify its otherwise watery brew.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers 3 season dedicated to films about food.

Heat Wave (陽炎, Hideo Gosha, 1991)

heat-waveHideo Gosha had something of a turbulent career, beginning with a series of films about male chivalry and the way that men work out all their personal issues through violence, but owing to the changing nature of cinematic tastes, he found himself at a loose end towards the end of the ‘70s. Things picked up for him in the ‘80s but the altered times brought with them a slightly different approach as Gosha’s films took on an increasingly female focus in which he reflected on how the themes he explored so fully with his male characters might also affect women. In part prompted by his divorce which apparently gave him the view that women were just as capable of deviousness as men are, and by a renewed relationship with his daughter, Gosha overcame the problem of his chanbara stars ageing beyond his demands of them by allowing his actresses to lead.

Heat Wave (陽炎, Kagero), which was to be the director’s penultimate feature, is a homage to late ‘70s gangster movies with a significant nod to Toei’s Red Peony Gangster series. Set in 1928, the action follows cool as ice professional itinerant gambler Rin Jojima (Kanako Higuchi) whose high stakes life becomes even more complicated when she accidentally runs into her adopted little brother, apparently on the hook to some petty gangsters. Dropping her commitments to help him out of his sticky situation and recover the family restaurant, Rin comes face to face with the yakuza who killed her father in a gambling dispute more than twenty years previously but vengeance is just one of many items on her to do list.

The title Heat Wave was apparently selected for the film to imply that Gosha was back on top form and ready to burn the screen with thrilling action but when producers saw his rushes they knew that their hopes were a little misplaced. Gosha was already seriously ill and was not able to direct with the fire of his youth. Heat Wave is undoubtedly a slow burn as Rin figures out the terrain and designs her campaign with the opposing side coming up with a counter plan, but the gradual acceleration begins to pay off in the film’s elaborate smoke and flames finale as Rin takes a bundle of dynamite to the disputed territory and then fights her way out with sword and pistol aided by an unlikely ally. Downbeat but leaving room for the hoped for sequels, Heat Wave is very much in the mindset of Gosha’s heyday in which, as Rin laments, the good die young and the bad guys win.

In keeping with many gambling films much of the action is taken up with tense games of hanafuda which may prove confusing to the uninitiated and are not particularly engaging in any case, though Gosha does not overly rely on the game to fill the screen. This may be early Showa, but save for the trains the action could almost be taking place a hundred years previously. Rin may have an unusual degree of autonomy as an unmarried woman travelling alone and earning her money through back alley gambling but her world is still a traditional one in which the honour of the game is supposed to matter, even if it is ignored by the unscrupulous who would be prepared to undercut their rivals away from the gaming table by attacking their friends and allies. Rin gains and then loses, reduced to an endgame she never wanted to play and which she fully intends to win by destroying herself only to be saved by her greatest rival.

Gosha’s reputation for vulgarity was not quite unjustified, even if perhaps overstated. Rin apparently inhabits the male world of her profession in a full way as an odd scene in which she’s taken to an inn to watch a live lesbian sex show seems to demonstrate though there is no dramatic purpose to its inclusion save to emphasise Rin’s impassive poise. Though nudity is otherwise kept to a minimum, Rin’s yakuza tattoos are on full show as a clear indication of her position in the underworld. The appearance of such extensive tattooing on female gangsters is a rare sight and Gosha does his best to make the most of its transgressive qualities.

When the producers realised Gosha was not as filled with intensity as they’d hoped, they hatched on the idea of attaching a hard rock song to the end to give the film more edge (apparently much to the consternation of the composer). This might explain the strange entry to the credits sequence which is accompanied by a very up to the minute burst of synthesiser music accompanied by computer graphics loading the faces of the stars across the screen in strips. Perhaps meant to bring the ‘70s inspired action into the present day the sudden entry of the modern world is jarring to say the least though perhaps it kept viewers in their seats long enough to enjoy the post credits sting of Rin giving it her best “you shall perish”, presumably to whet appetites for a sequel. Even if not quite as impressive as some of Gosha’s previous work, Heat Wave makes up for its flaws in its exciting finale which brings all of his choreographical and aesthetic abilities to their zenith as Rin basks in both victory and defeat with the legacy of the good people who took her in burning all around her.


Selection of scenes from the the film (no subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Onimasa (鬼龍院花子の生涯, Hideo Gosha, 1982)

onimasaWhen AnimEigo decided to release Hideo Gosha’s Taisho/Showa era yakuza epic Onimasa (鬼龍院花子の生涯, Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai), they opted to give it a marketable but ill advised tagline – A Japanese Godfather. Misleading and problematic as this is, the Japanese title Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai also has its own mysterious quality in that it means “The Life of Hanako Kiryuin” even though this, admittedly hugely important, character barely appears in the film. We follow instead her adopted older sister, Matsue (Masako Natsume), and her complicated relationship with our title character, Onimasa, a gang boss who doesn’t see himself as a yakuza but as a chivalrous man whose heart and duty often become incompatible. Reteaming with frequent star Tatsuya Nakadai, director Hideo Gosha gives up the fight a little, showing us how sad the “manly way” can be on one who finds himself outplayed by his times. Here, anticipating Gosha’s subsequent direction, it’s the women who survive – in large part because they have to, by virtue of being the only ones to see where they’re headed and act accordingly.

Beginning with its end, Onimasa’s story finishes with the discovery of the body of his only biological child, Hanako (Kaori Tagasugi ), in 1940. Found bled out and alone in the red light district of Kyoto, the suspected cause of death is a miscarriage. Tragically, our heroine, Matsue, arrives only a couple of hours too late after having spent years searching for her younger sister. We then skip back to 1918 when Matsue was adopted by Onimasa and his rather cool wife, alongside another boy who later ran away. An intelligent girl, Matsue earns her adopted father’s respect but neither he nor his wife, Uta (Shima Iwashita), are particularly interested in the emotional side of raising children. Things change when one of Onimasa’s mistresses gives birth to his biological child who awakens a sense of paternal interest in the ageing gangster beyond rule and possession.

Onimasa’s behaviour is frequently strange and contradictory. Originally intending to adopt only a boy, he and his wife come away from a poor family with two of their children, only for the son to run away home. Having picked her out like a puppy in a pet store window, Onimasa views Matsue as an inalienable possession. When a man arrives and wants to marry her, he goes crazy assuming the man must have been sleeping with her behind his back (despite the fact that this man, Tanabe (Eitaro Ozawa), has only just been released from prison where Onimasa had himself dispatched Matsue to visit him). Exclaiming that Matsue is “his”, has always been “his”, and no one else’s, he forces Tanabe to cut off his finger yakuza style to swear Matsue’s honour is still intact. However, this need for total control manifests itself in a less than fatherly way when he later tries to rape Matsue and is only brought to his senses when she threatens to cut her own throat with a broken glass. Despite this act of madness which he tries to justify with it somehow being for her own good, Matsue remains a dutiful daughter to both of her adopted parents.

Matsue’s innate refinement and reserve contrast’s strongly with Onimasa’s loose cannon nature. Commenting on the long history of “honourable” cinematic yakuza, Onimasa embraces an odd combination of traditions in believing himself to be the embodiment of chivalry – standing up for the oppressed and acting in the interests of justice, yet also subservient to his lord and walking with a swagger far beyond his true reach. All of this contributes to his ongoing problems which begin with a petty clan dispute over a dogfight which sees a rival leaving town in a hurry only to return and raise hell years later. Similarly, when his boss sends him in to “discourage” strike action, the union leader’s reasonable objections which point out the conflicts with Onimasa’s doctrine of chivalry and imply he’s little more than a lapdog, have a profound effect on his life. Severing his ties with his clan and attempting to go it alone, Onimasa does so in a more “honourable” way – no longer will he engage in harmful practices such as forced prostitution no matter how profitable they may be, but old disagreements never die easy and it’s a stupid ancient argument which threatens to bring his old fashioned world crashing down.

Despite concessions to the bold new Taisho era which saw Western fashions flooding into traditional culture from Onimasa’s trademark hat to the record players and whiskey glasses clashing with his sliding doors and tatami mat floors, Onimasa’s world is a childishly innocent one where honour and justice rule. Despite this he often excludes his own behaviour – one minute turning down the offer of his rival’s woman to pay a debt with her body, but later attempting to rape a young woman who had been his daughter in a drunken bid for a kind of droit du seigneur. The times are changing, it’s just that Onimasa’s traditionalist mind can’t see it. Tragically trying to rescue his daughter from a situation it turns out she had no desire to be rescued from he eventually spies the writing on the wall and puts down his sword, defeated and demoralised. Tragically, it seems Hanako may have needed him still though her rescue arrives too late to be of use.

The Onimasa family line ends here, as does this particular strand of history under the darkening skies of 1940. Out goes Taisho era openness and optimism for the eventual darkness of the militarist defeat. Matsue, now a widow – her left wing intellectual husband another victim of her father’s mistakes rather than political stringency, remains the sole source of light in her shining white kimono and pretty parasol even as she’s forced to identify the body of the sister she failed to save. The life of Hanako was a sad one, trapped by her father’s ideology and finally destroyed by her own attempts to escape it. Fittingly, she barely features in her own tale, a peripheral figure in someone else’s story. Slightly lurid and occasionally sleazy, Onimasa is another workmanlike effort from Gosha but makes the most of his essential themes as its accidental “hero” is forced to confront the fact that his core ideology has robbed him of true happiness, caused nothing but pain to the women in his life, and eventually brought down not only his personal legacy but that of everything that he had tried to build. The “manly way” is a trap, only Matsue with her patience backed up by a newfound steel inspired by her cool mother, Uta, is left behind but is now free to pursue life on her own terms and, presumably, make more of a success of it.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)

Sharaku (写楽, Masahiro Shinoda, 1995)

SharakuEvery once in a while an artist emerges whose work is so far ahead of its time that the audience of the day is unwilling to accept but generations to come will finally recognise for the achievement it represents. So it is for Sharaku – a young man whose abilities and ambitions are ruthlessly manipulated by those around him for their own gain. Brought to the screen by veteran new wave director Masahiro Shinoda, Sharaku (写楽) is an attempt to throw some light on the life of this mysterious historical figure who comes to symbolise, in many ways, the turbulence of his era.

The Edo of 1791 is a world of extreme austerity. All art is suspect and all “pornography” outlawed. Any sign of extravagance is frowned on, including the “frivolous” arts leading to a decline in the world of classic entertainment as kabuki artists struggle to survive. Tombo (Hiroyuki Sanada) was one such kabuki performer but after an onstage accident leaves him with a damaged foot he joins a rag tag group of street performers. Whilst there he begins drawing bringing him to the attention of an art seller, Tsutaya (Frankie Sakai), who has an idea to create prints of famous actors as a way of promoting local theatre shows.

Rechristened with the artist’s name of Sharaku, Tombo’s artwork creates a sensation with its never seen before style which places a new emphasis on realism rather than flattery. Popularity brings its own problems as Sharaku finds himself a virtual prisoner of Tsutaya whose demands are ever expanding, as well as facing the intense opposition of Tsutaya’s former cash cow – renowned artist Utamaro, who is prepared to go to great lengths to ensure his traditional painting style is the one that wins out.

This is a time of extreme conservatism and Sharaku’s work is a risky proposition as it rejects accepted stylisation in favour of undoctored reality. Dynamically posed, his portraits of kabuki actors display no pandering but reflect all of the subject’s less flattering qualities. Striking and unusual, Sharaku’s insistence on capturing internal truth is entirely at odds with the need for compliance with the “truths” handed down by the government. The public aren’t ready for such radically honest art and even champions of a more naturalistic style such as the universally lauded Utamaro also reject it (though largely out of fear and self interest).

Sharaku is, of course, an artist’s name and not a man’s and therefore is easily manipulated. Held a virtual prisoner by Tsutaya, Tombo begins to resent his new life of exploitation by his master who wants him to work in a more commercial fashion yet took him on precisely because of the novel, aggressive nature of his untrained drawing. Sharaku’s commitment to artistry over conformity is at odds with the era which is entirely founded on everyone obeying the accepted order of things. The times are changing, but not fast enough for Sharaku.

Shinoda paints an exciting vision of Edo era Tokyo filled with colour and energy despite the supposed austerity of the times. He brings kabuki out into the streets with beautifully balletic street brawls and strange acrobatic feats that appear extremely incongruous in the off stage world. However, Sharaku attempts to juggle a number of themes and subplots which never manage to coalesce into something whole. The side story of a depressed geisha and her star crossed love for Tombo even whilst she finds herself the favourite misteress of Utamaro is the most interesting but is never satisfactorily resolved.

After beginning with some oddly old fashioned on screen graphics, Shinoda opts for a stately directing style though makes frequent use of freeze frames and dissolves. The film takes on an appropriately etherial quality with sudden interruptions of theatre and the rhythms of classical drama yet even the free floating dream-like atmosphere can’t quite makeup for its central lack of coherence. Tombo himself, as played by Hiroyuki Sanada, is too much of a cypher to lead the picture yet the attempt to branch out into an ensemble drama doesn’t take hold either. A late, flawed effort from an old master, Sharaku has a lot to say about the nature of art, about artists, about reception and legacy, and also about its era but much of the message is lost in the faded paper on which it is painted.


Unsubbed trailer: