Bronze Magician (妖僧, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1963)

Even when you’re the empress, a woman has little freedom. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Bronze Magician (妖僧, Yoso) is loosely based on a historical scandal concerning Nara-era empress Koken/Shotoku and a Rasputin-like monk, Dokyo, who unlike his counterpart in the film, eventually tried to seize the throne for himself alone only to have his ambitions frustrated by the empress’ death and the fierce resistance of her courtiers. As the title implies, Kinugasa is more interested in Dokyo than he is in the perilous position of Nara-era women even in power, painting his fall from grace as a Buddhist parable about a man who pays a heavy price for succumbing to worldly passions. 

As the film opens, Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa) emerges from a shallow cave amid many other caves after meditating for 10 years during which he reached a higher level of enlightenment and obtained mystic powers. Now he thinks it’s time to continue the teachings of departed mentor Doen and use his abilities to “actively do good and save the masses”. Before that, however, he does some not quite Buddhist things like turning a rat into a living skeleton, and twisting a snake into a tangle. In any case, he begins roaming the land, miraculously healing the sick. While reviving a thief who had been killed by samurai after trying to make off with a bird they shot, Dokyo is spotted by a retainer of the empress who brings news of his miracles back to her closest advisors. 

Empress Koken (Yukiko Fuji), in the film at least, was a sickly child and even after ascending the throne has often been ill. She is currently bedridden with a painful respiratory complaint that is giving her servants cause for concern. None of the priests they’ve brought in to pray for her (apparently how you treat serious illness in the Nara era) has been of much use. The empress’ steward Mabito (Tatsuya Ishiguro) orders that Dokyo be found and brought to the palace to see if he can cure Koken, which he does while stressing that he’s helping her not because she’s the empress but in the same way as he would anyone else. 

As might be expected, the empress’ prolonged illness has made her a weak leader and left the door open for unscrupulous retainers intent on manipulating her position for themselves. There is intrigue in the court. The prime minister (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is colluding with a young prince to depose Koken and sieze power. Left with little oversight, he’s been embezzling state funds to bolster his position while secretly paying priests to engineer Koken’s illness continue. Dokyo’s arrival is then a huge threat to his plans, not only in Koken’s recovery and a subsequent reactivation of government but because Dokyo, like Koken, is of a compassionate, egalitarian mindset. She genuinely cares that the peasants are suffering under a bad and self-interested government and sees it as her job to do something about it, which is obviously bad news if you’re a venal elite intent on abusing your power to fill your pockets while the nation starves. 

As the prime minister puts it, however, the empress and most of her courtiers are mere puppets, “naive children”. At this point in history, power lies in the oligarchical executive who are only advised by the empress and don’t actually have to do what she says. As she is also a woman, they don’t necessarily feel they have to listen to her which is one reason why the prime minister assumes it will be easy to manoeuvre the young prince toward the throne. Koken’s short reign during which she overcame two coups is often used to support the argument against female succession because it can be claimed as a temporary aberration before power passed to the nearest male heir. Nevertheless, Koken tries to rule, even while she falls in love with the conflicted Dokyo. Her right to a romantic future, however, is also something not within her control. Many find the gossip scandalous and use it as an excuse to circumvent her authority, especially after she gives Dokyo an official title which allows them to argue she has been bewitched by him and he is merely manipulating her to gain access to power. 

Dokyo, meanwhile, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. After 10 years of study he as reached a certain level of enlightenment and attained great powers which he intended to use for the good of mankind. He is happy to discover that Koken is also trying to do good in the world but she is, ironically, powerless while the elitist lords “indulge in debauchery”, abusing their power to enrich themselves while the people starve. He begins to fall in love with her but the palace corrupts him. He accepts a gift of a beautiful robe despite his vows of asceticism, and then later gives in to his physical desire for Koken only to plunge himself into suffering in the knowledge that he has broken his commandments. He loses his magic, but chooses to love all the same while rendered powerless to hold back Koken’s illness or to protect her from treachery. 

The pair mutually decide they cannot “abandon this happiness”, and Dokyo’s fate is sealed in the acceptance of the extremely ironic gift of golden prayer beads which once belonged to Koken’s father. He is reborn with a new name in the same way as the historical Koken was reborn as Shotoku after surviving insurrection, embracing bodily happiness while attempting to do good but battling an increasing emotional volatility. The lords continue to overrule the empress’ commands, insisting that they are really commands from Dokyo, while Dokyo’s “New Deal” involving a 2 year tax break for impoverished peasants finds support among the young radicals of the court who universally decide that they must stand behind him, protecting the ideal even if they are unable to save the man.

This troubles the elders greatly. Declaring that Dokyo has used “black magic” to bewitch the empress, they determine to eliminate him, but Dokyo never wanted power. “Power is not the final truth” he tells them, “those blindly pursuing status and power only destroy themselves”. Yet Dokyo has also destroyed himself in stepping off the path of righteousness. He damns himself by falling in love, failing to overcome emotion and embracing physical happiness in this life rather than maintaining his Buddhist teachings and doing small acts of good among the poor. Nevertheless, he is perhaps happy, and his shared happiness seems to have started a compassionate revolution among the young who resolve to work together to see that his ideal becomes a reality even in the face of entrenched societal corruption.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gate of Hell (地獄門, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Which is the greater challenge to the social order, love or ambition, or are they in the end facets of the same destabilising forces? Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (地獄門, Jigokumon) is, from one angle, the story of a man driven mad by “love”, reduced to the depravity of a crazed stalker betraying his samurai honour in order to affirm his status, but it also paints his need as a response to the chaos of his age along with its many repressions while the heroine is, once again, convinced that the only freedom she possesses lies in death. Yet in the midst of all that, Kinugasa ends with a triumph of nobility as the compassionate samurai restores order by rejecting the heat of raw emotion for an internalised contemplation of the greater good. 

Set in the 12th century, the film opens in revolt as two ambitious lords combine forces to attack the Sanjo Palace in what would become known as the Heiji Rebellion. The lords have attacked knowing that Taira no Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) is not in residence, having departed on a pilgrimage. Fearful for the safety of his sister and father, retainers order decoys to be sent out to distract the rebels. Kesa (Machiko Kyo), a court lady in service to the emperor’s sister, agrees to be her decoy and Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa), a minor retainer, is ordered to protect her. He manages to escort her back to his family compound where he assumes she will be safe, transgressively giving her a kiss of life, pouring water into her mouth with his own, after she has fainted during the journey. Unfortunately, Morito has miscalculated. His brother has sided with the rebels and they are not safe here. During the chaos they go their separate ways, and as soon as Kiyomori returns he puts an end to the rebellion restoring the status quo.  

Shocked at his brother’s betrayal, Morito tells him that only a coward betrays a man to whom he has sworn an oath of loyalty but he explains that he is acting not out of cowardice but self interest. He has made an individualist choice to advance his status in direct opposition to the samurai code. Morito doesn’t yet know it but he is about to do something much the same. He has fallen in love with Kesa and after meeting her again at the Gate of Hell where they are each paying their respects to the fallen, his brother among them, is determined to marry her, so much so that he asks Kiyomori directly during a public ceremony rewarding loyal retainers for their service. The other men giggle at such an inappropriate, unmanly show of emotion but the joke soon fades once another retainer anxiously points out that Kesa is already married to one of the lord’s favoured retainers. Kiyomori apologises and tries to laugh it off, but Morito doubles down, requesting that Kiyomori give him another man’s wife. 

This series of challenges to the accepted order is compounded by a necessity for politeness. Morito is mocked and derided, told that his conduct is inappropriate and embarrassing, but never definitively ordered to stop. Making mischief or hoping to defuse the situation, Kiyomori engineers a meeting between Morito and Kesa, cautioning him that the matter rests with her and should she refuse him he should take it like a man and bow out gracefully. Kesa, for her part, has only ever been polite to Morito and is extremely confused, not to mention distressed, by this unexpected turn of events. She is quite happily married to Wataru (Isao Yamagata) who is the soul of samurai honour, kind, honest, and always acting with the utmost propriety. That might be why he too treats Morito with politeness, never directly telling him to back off but refusing to engage with his inappropriate conduct. That sense of being ignored, however, merely fuels Morito’s resentment. He accuses Kesa of not leaving her husband because Wataru is of a higher rank, as if she rejects him out of snobbishness, rather than accept the fact she does not like him. 

Morito continues in destructive fashion. We see him repeatedly, break, smash, and snap things out of a sense of violent frustration with the oppressions of his age until finally forced to realise that he has “destroyed a beautiful soul” in his attempt to conquer it. “One cannot change a person’s feelings by force” Wataru advises, but is that not the aim of every rebellion, convincing others they must follow one man and not another because he is in someway stronger? The priest whose head was cut off and displayed at the Gate of Hell was killed in part because he reaped what he had sown in beheading the defeated soldiers of a previous failed revolution. Morito kills a traitor and he falls seemingly into rolling waves which transition to an unrolling scroll reminding us that rebellions ebb and flow through time and all of this is of course transient. Only Wataru, perhaps ironically, as the unambiguously good samurai is able to end the cycle, refusing his revenge in the knowledge it would do no real good. Morito is forced to live on in the knowledge of the destruction his misplaced passion has wrought, standing at his own Gate of Hell as a man now exiled from his code and renouncing the world as one unfit to live in it. 


Gate of Hell is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

My Love Has Been Burning (わが恋は燃えぬ, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1949)

My love has been burning posterAmong the many parallels that could be drawn between the Meiji Restoration and the immediate post-war period, the most obvious is that each provided a clear opportunity for social change along with a moment of frozen introspection and internal debate about what the new promised future ought to look like. Following Victory of Women and The Love of the Actress Sumako, Kenji Mizoguchi completed a loose trilogy of films dealing with the theme of female emancipation with My Love Has Been Burning (わが恋は燃えぬ, Waga Koi wa Moenu), returning once again to the broken promises of Meiji as its heroine discovers that old ideas don’t change so quickly and even those who claim to be better will often disappoint.

The film opens in the early 1880s as a teenage Eiko Hirayama (Kinuyo Tanaka) attends a rally to celebrate the arrival of noted feminist Toshiko Kishida (Kuniko Miyake). Eiko, a committed social liberal from a conservative middle-class family, went to see her idol in the company of a childhood friend, Hayase (Eitaro Ozawa), who is shortly going to Tokyo to study and join the democratic revolution. He halfheartedly asks Eiko to come with him, but knows that she won’t because her parents will refuse permission and she will not disobey them. Soon after, Eiko’s loyalty to her family is weakened when the family’s maid, Chiyo (Mitsuko Mito), is sold to a brothel by her father. Devastated, Eiko asks her parents for the money to buy her back but they refuse, regarding Chiyo’s sacrifice as noble and in line with filial traditional. If Chiyo had refused (not that she had the right or power to refuse), her parents would starve. Eiko rushes back to the docks, but she is too late, Chiyo and Hayase have both departed for the capital and extremely different fates.

After her family situation declines still further and Eiko decides it is impossible for her to remain under her father’s roof, she makes her own way to the city but finds it not quite so welcoming as she’d assumed it to be. Hayase is not overjoyed to see her. He merely asks if she has finally decided to marry him and becomes petulant when she reaffirms her intention to study even if she implies that she intends to marry him at a later date. During his time apart from her, Hayase has been working for the fledgling Liberal Party agitating for wider democratic rights and the expansion of the franchise, though he is irritated still further when his mentor, Omoi (Ichiro Sugai) – the leader of the socialists, is supportive of Eiko’s ambitions and agrees to find a job for her working on the party paper.

Eiko’s early disappointment in Hayase is frequently mirrored in all of her subsequent dealings with men. Hayase put on a performance of believing in her cause of women’s liberation and more widely the equality of all peoples ending centuries of feudal oppression, but really just wanted to possess her body and is unwilling to accept her decision to reject him or to choose someone else. Later visiting her after she has been imprisoned on a somewhat trumped up charge, Hayase tells her that a woman is only a woman when loved by a man, and that a woman’s fulfilment is achieved through home, family, and motherhood. He tells her that he admires her for her education and talent, but that she has “forgotten” that she is a woman. He will help her remember by getting her out of prison if only she consent to marry him even though he has previously attempted to rape her and is now working for the rightwing government having betrayed the socialist cause.

Meanwhile, Omoi looks an awful lot better. He is, ostensibly, entirely committed to socialist aims, energetically engaged in promoting the Liberal Party, and trying to ensure true democracy takes root in the new Japan, lifting the common man above his subjugated position in the still prevalent feudal hierarchy. Nevertheless, he too eventually falls in love with Eiko and like Hayase is ultimately more interested in her body than their shared cause for liberal freedom. He appears to support her desire for women’s rights as an integral part of his desire to end feudal oppressions but his belief in female equality is later exposed as superficial. Eiko, reuniting with Chiyo in prison, takes her into the household she now shares with Omoi (though they are obviously not legally married) as her maid which is perhaps not entirely egalitarian but still a well intentioned attempt to free her from the life her father condemned her to.

Omoi disappoints, bedding Chiyo while Eiko is working hard at the campaign office. Confronted, he rolls his eyes and offers a boys will be boys justification before affirming that it was just a matter of sexual satisfaction and that his feelings for her haven’t changed, mildly reproving Eiko for allowing her emotional jealously to cloud her judgement in restricting his sexual freedom. If it were indeed a matter of free love, perhaps Eiko could have understood, but Omoi damns himself when looks askance at Chiyo and remarks that it doesn’t really matter because she is nothing but a servant and a concubine. All at once, Eiko sees – despite his fine talk, Omoi may have abandoned feudal ways of thinking when it comes to working men but still sees women in terms of things. If he thinks female “servants” are not worthy of respect or agency, then what is it that he has been fighting for in his supposed mission to end oppression in Japan?

Attempting to comfort a distraught Chiyo who has been so thoroughly brainwashed that she never quite expected anything “better” than being a concubine and has truly fallen for all Omoi’s pretty words about wanting to make her happy, Eiko reminds her that as long as men continue to think as Omoi does women will never be free. Freedom and equality are what will enable female happiness, and long as men refuse to recognise women not as domestic tools but as fellow human beings there can be no freedom in Japan. Mizoguchi reinforces the idea that while one is oppressed none of us is free, neatly celebrating the success of the disappointing Omoi while lamenting that his intentions for reform will not go far enough. Eiko cannot free the women of Japan on her own, but her solution is warm and committed – she will teach them to free themselves by starting a school, educating the next generation to be better than the last. Chiyo, notably, whom she never blames or rejects, will become her first pupil neatly subverting Hayase’s cruel words when she asks Eiko to teach her how to be a woman.

Unusually brutal, My Love Has Been Burning does not shy away from the violence, often sexual violence, which both women suffer both at the hands of men and of the state as they attempt to do nothing more than live freely as full human beings. It also makes plain that even those with supposedly high ideals can disappoint as they nevertheless motion towards real social good without fully committing to its entireties. A committed pro-democratic, intensely feminist statement, Mizoguchi’s lasting message lies in an affirmation of female solidarity as, unlike the self-serving Omoi, Eiko lifts her pupil up onto her own level and draws her shawl around them both committed to proceeding forward together into a fairer future.


Love Under the Crucifix (お吟さま, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1962)

Love Under the Crucifix cap 1A legendary screen actress, Kinuyo Tanaka completed only six films in her career as a director. The last film that she would ever make, Love Under the Crucifix (お吟さま, Ogin-sama), is the only one to be set in the historical past taking place against the backdrop of turbulent late 16th century politics just forty years or so before the nation would embark on 200 years of self imposed isolation undertaken in the name of preserving the national character while solidifying a political regime. As in her other films, however, Tanaka employs a standard melodrama narrative in order to subvert it. Her heroine defies all “for love”, but not so much in itself as for the right to it and to the legitimisation of her feelings as a human woman with all the rights and freedoms that ought to entail.

The film begins in the 15th year of Tensho (or 1587). Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Osamu Takizawa) is attempting to solidify his command over a Japan which is in a state of constant warfare. Meanwhile, foreign trade and influences, including Christianity, are flooding into the nation. There is growing suspicion among Hideyoshi’s advisors that Christian converts are nothing more than foreign spies working to undermine the social order and cannot be trusted. Therefore, Christianity is a spanner thrown in the works of Hideyoshi’s plans for peace and unification, only no one is quite sure as yet what to do about it except disapprove.

Meanwhile, our heroine, Ogin (Ineko Arima), is the step-daughter of prominent tea master Rikyu (Ganjiro Nakamura). She has long been in love with Ukon (Tatsuya Nakadai) – a young lord who has converted to Christianity and is in fact already married. Despite the impossibility of her love, Ogin holds fast to its purity and has refused all entreaties to marry. However, she is placed in a difficult position when it is made clear that a prominent suitor affiliated with the local lord desires her. Rikyu affirms that he will follow Ogin’s will, but Mozuya (Hisaya Ito) is too important a man to be refused out of hand and the consequences of turning him down may be severe. Ogin searches for a sign from Ukon, but he coldly tells her to marry, refusing any confirmation of the feelings which she believes to exist between them.

The film’s English title, Love Under the Crucifix, reminds us that this is not so much a story of religious freedom as social oppression. Divorced form its Christianising context, the crucifix was in this era the primary punishment for sexual transgression, most often for both men and women committing adultery or daring to love in places where society would not approve. Thus Ogin lives her life under it in being reminded of the potential costs of her inappropriate emotions. Even so, observing a young woman tied to the cross (Keiko Kishi) and apparently electing to go to her death rather than become the concubine of the local lord against her will, Ogin sees in it not censure but defiance and path towards personal empowerment if only in ultimate negation.

The literal crucifix becomes a noose around Ogin’s neck in the form of the necklace given to her by Ukon. Ogin remains unconvinced by Ukon’s religiosity even if she respects it but later resents the austerity it provokes in him while wondering if his friendship with her was only ever a pathway to conversion. Ukon’s troubles are multiple, not only is he oppressed by the social strictures of his time but also by an additional burden of Christianising morality which instructs him that his feelings are sinful and must be rejected.

Later, Ogin berates Ukon insisting that all of this suffering and the predicament they now find themselves in might have been avoided if only he had not kept his feelings hidden. Ukon’s religiosity obliges him to behave in ways which are cruel and selfish, and which ultimately bring him little other than additional suffering and unhappiness. This emotional tension has also played into the hands of the ruling regime who are content to use their feelings, and the prevailing tendency towards properness, against them as a plot against Rikyu and to prevent Ukon’s return as a military rival.

Despite Rikyu’s best efforts, Ogin has indeed become a pawn in the hands of men. Rikyu, as we’re reminded at the film’s conclusion, fell from favour and committed ritual suicide at the age of 70. Like Ogin, he remained true to himself even when politically unwise, advancing his philosophies of simplicity and respect for the natural world in the face of what he saw as Hideyoshi’s increasingly gaudy superficiality. Thus he councils Ogin that there is nothing wrong in her feelings and her only duty to him or to anyone else is to try to live happily even if that means she must live in hiding with the less courageous Ukon who refuses to abandon his faith but struggles to find the courage to fight for love, or more specifically for the right to love, as Ogin has done all her life.

Ogin is, in a sense, already on the cross as she continues to suffer not for faith but for faith in love and in her own right to her individual feelings and agency. Faced with being forced to surrender her body to a man she does not love because of a cruel game played by men for men, Ogin prefers death and finds in it the ultimate expression of her personal freedom and emotional authenticity.


Invisible Man Appears (透明人間現る, Nobuo Adachi, 1949)

Invisible man appearsReleased in 1949, The Invisible Man Appears (透明人間現る, Toumei Ningen Arawaru) is the oldest extant Japanese science fiction film. Loosely based on the classic HG Wells story The Invisible Man but taking its cues from the various Hollywood adaptations most prominently the Claude Rains version from 1933, The Invisible Man Appears also adds a hearty dose of moral guidance when it comes to scientific research.

Once again the action centres around an esteemed chemist, Professor Nakazato, who has been working on a serum to render living things invisible. So far he has a sample which works on animals but is reluctant to move on to human testing as A) he hasn’t found a way to reverse the procedure, and B) there are some unpleasant side effects in which the subject becomes increasingly violent and irrational. The professor currently has two top students who are helping him towards his goal and, inconveniently, both have taken a shine to his daughter, Machiko. Half joking, the professor remarks that whoever can solve the problem first will win his daughter’s hand.

A business associate of the professor, Kawabe, is also interested in Machiko and also in the rights to the professor’s important new discovery. The professor, however, is a responsible man and refuses to sell it in case it falls into the wrong hands. Shortly after the professor is kidnapped by a gang of armed thugs who plan to use the serum to steal a set of diamonds known as The Tears of Amour.

There’s plenty of intrigue with various twists and turns to the original story which keep the viewer on their toes as they try to figure out who exactly is the invisible man and what he’s really after. Actually, the solution is sort of obvious and heavily signposted but that doesn’t make it any less fun. Kawabe is a moustache twirling villain from the get go and it’s obvious he has various things going on in the background but there’s more to the story than a greedy business man trying to manipulate everyone around him for his own gains. There’s also an interesting subplot in which the younger sister of one of the scientists is a top actress at the Takarazuka Review and turns out to have a connection to the Tears of Amour.

All of the classic B-movie hallmarks are here from the slightly ridiculous sci-fi jargon to the classic women in peril shenanigans as the serum starts to take hold and the Invisible Man becomes increasingly paranoid. There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so – so it would be for science as far as the film is concerned. According to the message at the film’s beginning and end, there is no scientific discovery which is innately “evil” but each is apt to be misused. It’s not difficult to see why this would be a popular, even essential, message in the Japan of 1949 and indeed it recurs in many films of this type including, of course, the original Godzilla. The professor takes responsibility for having invented something which, although not created with evil intent, has wrought such destruction on society but finds himself with nothing left to do other than apologise.

Director Nobuo Adachi uses a lot of classic silent cinema techniques such as dissolves and montages with a fair amount of handheld camera and some location shooting (though the majority of the film is studio bound). The special effects were supervised by Eiji Tsuburaya who would later become the founding father of tokusatsu and co-creator of the Godzilla franchise and are top notch for the time period. An enjoyably silly B-movie, The Invisible Man appears is a well crafted addition to the Invisible Man corpus and a fantastic example of Daiei’s post-war genre output.


This is an unsubtitled trailer but I wish all trailers were this much fun!