The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

“Your kindness will harm you” a well-meaning retainer advises his charge, but in the end it is her kindness which saves her along with numerous others in Akira Kurosawa’s Sengoku-era epic, The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Kakushi Toride no San Akunin). Largely told from the point of view of two bumbling peasants trying to get rich quick by exploiting the hierarchal fluidity of a time of war, the film nevertheless cuts against the grain of the democratic era in advocating not so much the destruction of the class-bound feudal order as benevolent authority. 

This can quite clearly be seen in the dynamic figure of displaced princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the successor of her routed clan protected by a hidden fortress in the mountains which she must eventually leave. Her female servant laments that her father raised her as a boy which has given her a haughty and dominant manner at odds with the polite submissiveness usually expected of upperclass women. While often exerting her authority, she is otherwise uncomfortable with the uncritical servitude of her retainers, chief among them the talented general Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) who sacrificed the life of his own sister, allowing her to be executed in Yuki’s place buying them some time. “Kofuyu was 16. I am 16. What difference is there in our souls?” she asks, yet even if she believes their souls are equal she is not quite so egalitarian as to forget her position or the power and privilege that comes with it. 

Nevertheless, hers is an authority that is tempered by compassion and in the end chosen. Her salvation comes in speaking her mind to an enemy retainer, Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who has been savagely beaten by his own lord for losing a duel with Makabe who, to the mind of some, humiliated him with kindness in refusing to take his life leaving him to live in defeat. Yuki says she doesn’t know who is stupider, Tadokoro or his lord, for never would she punish a man in such a way simply for losing to an enemy. She tells him that there is another way, and that he need not serve a lord who does not serve him leading Tadokoro to defect and choose to follow her instead. 

She also inspires confidence in a young woman she insists on redeeming after discovering that she is a former member of the Akizuka clan sold into sexual slavery after being taken prisoner by the Yamane. Kurosawa presents the girl with a dilemma on realising that the mysterious woman who saved her is the fugitive princess, knowing that she could betray her and pocket the gold, but finds her resolving to serve Yuki all the more. In a moment of irony, we learn that the girl was bought for five silver coins, the same amount of money a wealthy traveller offers for Makabe’s horse, but displeases her master in refusing to speak or serve customers. For Yuki he offers gold, though withdraws on being told that she is mute. Knowing that she would be unable to disguise her speech or accent which would instantly give her away as a haughty princess, Makabe convinces her to stay silent though as she tells him he cannot make her heart mute too. 

Even the peasants, oblivious to her true identity, view Yuki as part of the spoils insisting that they should be entitled to a third of her too and at one point preparing to rape her only to be fought off by the rescued girl. “We can rely on their greed” Makabe had said, knowing that their material desires make them easy to manipulate and that their loyalties are otherwise fickle. Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and his friend Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) sold their houses in their village to buy armour in the hope of achieving social mobility through distinguishing themselves in war, but have largely been humiliated, robbed of their armour, mistaken for captured members of the enemy, and forced to dig the graves of others. They pledge eternal friendship but their bond is continually disrupted by the promise of monetary gain. They fall out over a moral quandary, one willing to plunder the body of a fallen soldier and the other not, while even on reuniting squabbling about how to divide the money first deciding it should be equal and immediately disagreeing as soon as they get their hands on it. At the film’s conclusion it rests on Yuki to play mother, telling them that they must be good and share the boon she’s given them equally without complaint each then too only quick to be generous insisting that the other can keep it. 

The implication is still, however, that Matashichi and Tahei should return to their village to live as peasants while Yuki assumes her place in a castle no longer hidden as its ruler. Order has returned and the old system remains in place, all that changes is that this is now a compassionate autocracy ruled by a benevolent lord who views her subjects lives as equal to her own yet not perhaps their status. Where it might prompt Tadokoro to conclude that he need serve no lord at all for there should be no leaders only equals, the film concludes that a leader should be just and if they are not they should not be followed. Then again, the disagreement between firm friends Matashichi and Tahei is ended when they each have enough and no longer find themselves fighting for a bigger slice of the pie content in the validation of their equality. As Makabe puts it, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Yuki’s suffering is in the responsibility of rebuilding her clan though she does so with compassion and empathy ruling with respect rather than fear or austerity. Kurosawa utilises the novel scope format to hint at the wide open vistas that extend ahead of the peasants as they make their way towards the castle in search of gold only to leave with something that while more valuable may also shine so brightly as to blind them to the inherent inequalities of the feudal order. 


The Hidden Fortress screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 20th & 27th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Dodes’ka-den (どですかでん, Akira Kurosawa, 1970)

By the late 1960s, Akira Kurosawa was in the midst of a creative crisis having spent two years working on the Japanese segments of the Hollywood war film Tora! Tora! Tora before he was eventually let go by the parsimonious US producers who feared he was spending too much money and making too little progress. Meanwhile, the studio system which had supported his career was collapsing and could no longer offer the kinds of budgets necessary for his personal brand of epic cinema. Teaming up with Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, and Keisuke Kinoshita, he formed the Club of the Four Knights production company but the first and only film they produced, Dodes’kaden (どですかでん), was not perhaps the kind of film many were expecting.

Inspired by a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, the film like The Lower Depths focuses on a small community living in a slum only in this case on the edge of the modern city. Shot in classical 4:3, it was also Kurosawa’s first foray into colour and makes the most of his painterly eye with its surrealist backdrops and exaggerated sunsets. Once again there is the feeling that these people are already dead or trapped in a kind of purgatory unable to escape their desperate suffering, the slum as much of a mindset as a physical place. “Life is nothing but pain to me” one man claims, stating his hope that he die as quickly as possible while relating the sad story of his life: falling into depression when his sons were killed in the war and losing his wife, business, and finally home to the Tokyo air raids. Yet he is reminded that his family live on in him as long as he does and to kill himself is to kill them too, rediscovering a desire to survive even in his suffering. 

Another man, Hei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), dresses in a soldier’s uniform and wanders around like a zombie with, as one person puts it, the eyes of a dead man. Later a woman comes to find him, but he is seemingly unable to reawaken himself and move on from his trauma, now numbed to life, an already spent force. A young woman, Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki), is little different. Never speaking she has been raised by her uncle who begins sexually abusing her while her aunt is in hospital. She says that she wants to die, stabbing the only boy who showed her kindness because she feared he’d forget her. 

These people have largely been forgotten, living almost in another era and entirely cut off from mainstream society in a kind of etherial purgatory. Like the residents of The Lower Depths, a degree of fantasy is necessary for their survival a case in point being that of a beggar and his son who live an abandoned car and fantasise about the kind of house they’d build, a vast modernist building in white with a swimming pool. Like Katsuko, the boy is let down by his father who remains the car and sends him out to beg for food, telling him off when he lights a fire to boil fish as the man at the sushi shop had told him to do insisting, with disastrous results, that as it’s pickled it doesn’t need to be cooked. The furthest out of the residents, the pair have an almost grotesque appearance, their faces tinged with a morbid green. 

But then the couples living at the centre seemed to have found an antidote to despair in a surreal process of wife swapping now unable to remember whose husband is whose despite being neatly colour coded in matching outfits. A man with a nervous tic defends his grumpy yet fiercely loyal wife, and another man raises several children who may not be biologically his but are loved all the same. The old man who acts as a kind of confidant giving out advice and settling disputes through benevolent trickery has evidently learned how to live in this world and gets by as best he can while the son of the melancholy woman who runs the tempura stall drives an imaginary train through the slum the rhythm of which gives the film its name in its slow and certain progress towards nowhere at all. Heartbreakingly there are moments where the young man can hear the train in the distance, but it remains forever out of reach. Dodes’kaden didn’t do very well at the box office or with critics, its lack of success of cited as a factor in Kurosawa’s attempt to take his own life the following year, yet had perhaps set him on a new artistic course of colour and light which would define the further direction of his later career.


Dodes’ka-den screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 15th & 16th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Rashomon (羅生門, Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

Is there such a thing as objective truth, or only an agreed upon “reality”? Like many of his early films, Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of a pair of short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa is concerned with the idea of authenticity, or the difference between the truth and a lie, but is also acutely aware that the lines between the two aren’t as clear as we’d like them to be largely because we lie to ourselves and come to believe our own perceptions as “truth” assuming that it is others who are mistaken or duplicitous. 

After all, the film opens with the words “I don’t understand”, as the woodsman (Takashi Shimura), who later tells us unprompted that he does not lie, tries to reconcile the conflicting testimonies of a series of witnesses at the trial of the bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) who is accused of raping a noble woman (Machiko Kyo) in the forest and killing her husband (Masayuki Mori). At the end of the film it becomes clear that most of his confusion is born of the fact that he witnessed more than he claimed, later presenting a more objective version of the events while justifying his decision not reveal it earlier by saying he didn’t want to get involved. Not wanting to get involved might be understandable, he has six children and presumably won’t be paid for his time nor will he want to risk being accused of something himself. Then again as the cynical peasant (Kichijiro Ueda) sheltering with him at the already ruined Rashomon Gate seems to have figured out, it might equally be that he took the precious dagger repeatedly mentioned in the trial before running off to find the police. He has six children to feed after all. 

The woodsman is simply confused if also guilty, but the Buddhist monk (Minoru Chiaki) who saw the couple on the road some days previously has been thrown into existential despair and is on the brink of losing his faith in humanity. He can’t bear to live in a world in which everyone is selfish and dishonest. Yet “dishonest” is not quite the right word to describe the testimony, for there’s reason to believe that the witnesses may believe what they say when saying it or have at least deluded themselves into believing a subjective version of the truth that shows them in a better light than the “objective” might have. At least, none of the suspects are lying in order to escape justice as each confesses to the crime though for varying reasons. 

The bandit flatters himself by assuming dominance over the situation, baldly stating that he killed the samurai to rape the wife only she took a liking to him and he killed the husband in a fair fight even remarking on his skill as a swordsman. As we later see Kurosawa frames these fights in a more naturalistic fashion than your average chambara. They are often clumsy and desperate, won more by chance than by skill. Tajomaru also describes the wife as “fierce” in an unwomanly fashion though she is meek and cheerful on the stand and later states that she fainted after her husband rejected her for her “faithlessness” and woke up to find her dagger in his chest, while his beyond the grave testimony delivered via spirit medium claims that he killed himself unable to bear the humiliation of his wife’s betrayal in agreeing to leave with Tajomaru. 

As the peasant points out, Tajomaru lies because he is insecure and so tells a story that makes him seem more “heroic” than he actually is, while the wife lies to overcome her shame, and the samurai to reclaim agency over his death and escape the twin humiliations of having been unable to protect his wife and being murdered by a petty bandit. As the three men sheltering under the Rashomon Gate concede, we don’t know our own souls and often resort to narrative to tell ourselves who we are. As usual, the truth is a little of everything, all the tales are partly true and less “lies” than wilful self-delusion to help the witness accept an unpalatable “reality”. Kurosawa perhaps hints at this in his use of extreme closeup while otherwise forcing the viewer into the roles alternately of witness and judge as if we were like the woodman watching from the bushes or hearing testimony from the dais while the action proceeds to the maddening rhythms of a bolero. Despite the hopeless of the situation, the reality that everyone lies and the world is a duplicitous place, the monk’s faith is eventually restored in the acknowledgment that there are truths other than the literal as he witnesses the woodsman’s compassion and humanity, the skies ahead of them beginning to clear as they leave the shelter of the ruined gate for a world which seems no less uncertain but perhaps not so cynical as it had before.


Rashomon is re-released in UK cinemas on 6th January courtesy of BFI.

Re-release trailer (English subtitles)

Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)

Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末, Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

samurai rebellion posterIf Masaki Kobayashi had one overriding concern throughout his relatively short career, it was the place of the individual with an oppressive society. Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末, Joi-uchi: Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu), not quite the crashing chanbara action the title promises, returns to many of the same themes presented in Kobayashi’s earlier Harakiri in its tale of corrupt lords and a vassal who can no longer submit himself to their hypocritical demands. On the film’s original release, distributor Toho added a subtitle to the otherwise stark “Rebellion”, “Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu”, which means something like “sad story of a bestowed wife” and was intended to help boost attendance among female filmgoers who might be put off by the overly male samurai overtones. The central conflict is that of the ageing samurai Isaburo (Toshiro Mifune), but Kobayashi saves his sympathy for a powerless woman, twice betrayed, and given no means by which to defend herself in a world which values female life cheaply and a woman’s feelings not at all.

Having the misfortune to live in a time of peace, expert swordsman Isaburo has only the one duty of testing out the lord’s new sword (which he will never draw) on a straw dummy. He and his friend Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai) are of a piece – two men whose skills are wasted daily and who find themselves at odds with the often cruel and arbitrary samurai world, refusing to fight each other because the outcome would only cause pain to one or both of their families. Isaburo has two grownup sons and dreams of becoming a grandpa but needs to find a wife for his eldest, Yogoro (Go Kato). He wants to find a woman who is loyal, loving, and kind. As a young man Isaburo was “forced” into marriage and adopted into his wife’s family but has been miserable ever since as his wife, Suga (Michiko Otsuka), is a sharp tongued, unpleasant woman whose only redeeming features are her stoicism and dedication to propriety.

It is then not particularly good news when the local steward turns up one day and informs Isaburo that the lord is getting rid of his mistress and has decided to marry her off to Yogoro. News travels fast and though others may appear jealous of such an “honour”, Isaburo is quietly angry – not only is he being expected to take on “damaged goods” in a woman who’s already born a son to another man, but they won’t even tell him why she’s being sent away, and the one thing he wanted for his son was not to end up in the same miserable position as he did. Nevertheless when Isaburo repeatedly tries to decline the “kind offer”, he is prevented. A suggestion quickly becomes an order, and Yogoro consents to prevent further conflict.

Against the odds, Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) is everything Isaburo had wanted in a daughter-in-law and even puts up with Suga’s constant unkindness with patience and humility. Eventually she and Yogoro fall deeply in love and have a baby daughter, Tomi, but when the lord’s oldest heir dies and Ichi’s son becomes the next in line, it’s thought inappropriate for her to remain the wife of a mere vassal. Summoned to the castle, Ichi is once again robbed of her child but also of her happiness.

Ichi’s tale truly is a sad one and emblematic of the fates and positions of upperclass women in the feudal world. Having had the misfortune to catch the lord’s eye, Ichi tries to decline when the steward shows up to take her to the castle, reminding him that she is already betrothed. Sure that her fiancé will protect her, Ichi says she’ll go if he agrees never thinking that he would. Betrayed in love, Ichi is sold to the castle to be raped by the elderly Daimyo who views her as little more than a baby making machine and faceless body to do with as he wishes. When she returns from a post-natal trip to the spa and discovers the lord has already taken a new mistress, her anger is not born of jealously but resentment and disgust. This other woman is proud of her “position” at the lord’s side when she should be raging as Ichi is now, at her powerlessness, at the male society which reduces her to an object traded between men, and at the rapacious assault upon her body by a man older than her father.

Isaburo is also raging, but at the cruel and heartless obsession with order and protocol which has defined his short, unhappy life. Having been a model vassal, Isaburo has lived a life hemmed in by these rules but can bear them no longer in their disregard for human feeling or simple integrity. Isaburo says no, and then refuses to budge. Having retired and surrendered control of the household to Yogoro, Isaburo leaves the decision to his son who refuses to surrender his wife and swears to protect her from being subjected to the same cruel treatment as before. The samurai order is not set up for hearing the word “no”, and the actions of Isaburo, Yogoro, and Ichi threaten to bring the entire system crashing down. Love is the dangerous, destabilising, manifestation of personal desire which the system is in place to crush.

Isaburo’s rebellion, as he later says, is not for himself, or for his son and daughter-in-law whose deep love for each other has reawakened the young man in him, but for all whose personal freedom has been constrained by those who misuse their power to foster fear and oppression. Having picked up his sword, Isaburo will not stand down until his voice is heard, fairly, under these same rules that the authority is so keen on enforcing. He does not want revenge, or even to destroy the system, he just wants it to respect him and his right to refuse requests he feels are unjust or improper. Like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, Isaburo’s fate will be an unhappy one but even so he is alive again at last as the fire of rebellion rekindles his youthful heart. Those caught within the system from the venal stewards and greedy vassals to the selfish lords suddenly terrified the Shogun will discover their mass misconduct are dead men walking, sublimating their better natures in favour of creating the facade of obedience and conformity whilst manipulating those same rules for their own ends, yet the central trio, meeting their ends with defiance, are finally free.


Available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from Criterion Collection.

Original trailer (English subtitles – poor quality)

Farewell Rabaul (さらばラバウル, Ishiro Honda, 1954)

Farewell Rabaul dvd coverReleased in 1954, Farewell Rabaul (さらばラバウル, Saraba Rabaul) was the last in a string of war films directed by Ishiro Honda for Toho immediately before the mega hit Godzilla redefined his career and turned him into a director of science fiction and special effects movies. Like the later tokusatsu classics, Honda worked alongside Eiji Tsuburaya to craft the film’s effects which are largely used to recreate the epic dogfights taking place over the island as the airmen and ground crew come to terms with the imminent arrival of American forces. Though he takes care to show the bravery and determination of the Japanese pilots, Honda’s attitudes to the war and the government who waged it are not so kind.

Late into the conflict, at an outpost in the Papa New Guinean city of Rabaul, ace pilot Captain Wakabayashi (Ryo Ikebe) leads a rapidly depleting squad of airmen trying to defend Japanese forces from American air attacks. Known as “Devil” Wakabayashi, he rules with an iron fist – taking issue with men who spend their time in local bars and pointedly refusing to send rescue craft for crashed pilots. Ruthless and cold as he seems, the war is starting to get to Wakabayashi and his resolve crumbles when faced with a gracious American POW and the attentions of a kindly nurse, Komatsu (Mariko Okada).

Honda keeps the action to a minimum, preferring to focus on the life within the military base. Though the effects on the local population are not much addressed, the opening scenes take place in a bar in which Papa New Guinean women dance to tribal drums while Japanese military personnel drink and watch. The waitresses are largely Japanese women dressed in kimono, though it seems the exoticism of local girl Kim (Akemi Negishi), dancing barefoot with flowers in her hair, is the main draw. Eventually Kim falls in love with a Japanese soldier and the two plan to flee but fate always gets in the way.

Wakabayashi, rechristened the “Devil” by Kim – a nickname which seems to stick, objects to his men blowing off steam in the bar for purely practical reasons – he needs them at top form for an upcoming mission and a hungover pilot could be a risk to the entire squad. Walking around looking sullen and refusing to explain himself, it’s no wonder Wakabayashi is unpopular with some of the men even if his skills are widely recognised. Asked to send a rescue squad for a lost pilot, Wakabayashi’s reply is a flat no with no further details offered. Only when a junior officer interjects during a briefing does he offer his reasoning – the crash site is in enemy territory and it’s too risky to send more men in to fetch one pilot who is probably already dead. His reasoning is sound and probably the correct command decision but the cutting coldness with which he delivers his judgement does little to assuage his reputation as a heartless misanthrope.

This is, however, not quite the case. When an extremely young member of his squad is shot down Wakabayashi shouts out to him, trying to advise the rookie on ways to control the aircraft but all to no avail. The pilot cannot bail out as Japanese pilots, particularly those flying the featherweight 0 fighters, are not equipped with parachutes. This is brought up again when a downed American pilot is brought in as a POW. The journalist attached to the unit is able to speak fluent English and interprets for Wakabayashi and the others as the American gives them an improbably frank analysis of Japanese airborne warfare. He tells them that the Americans were once afraid of the 0s and their high speed manoeuvring but have figured out their weaknesses. In the hands of a skilled pilot, the 0 is a powerful weapon but in unskilled hands it’s a liability – its lightweight form makes it easy pickings when the pilot does not know how to fly defensively. If it weren’t for this fighter they call “Devil” they’d be picking them off with ease. The lack of parachutes came as a surprise to the Americans. The 0s need to be as light as possible, but no one could believe that the Japanese government valued life so cheaply that they’d send a man up there with no way down. That’s why, the American says, they will win – no government so unwilling to look after its own could ever expect to.

The senselessness of it all eventually gets to Wakabayshi, even leading him to reverse his original stance and proceed into enemy territory to rescue a fallen comrade himself. He is, however, wounded, his plane damaged, and his friend doesn’t make it. Rabaul falls, and its hero falls with it in a turn which is both melancholy and defiant. Honda refuses to glorify the destruction but ends on a note of sadness, reprising the titular song sung by the women aboard a boat they hope will take them home but that, like everything else, remains so hopelessly uncertain.


Night Drum (夜の鼓, Tadashi Imai, 1958)

night-drum

The works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon continue to have a large influence over Japanese drama even if not as frequently and directly adapted as they were in the immediate post-war period. Famous for tales of tragic love suicides and romantic heroes who risk all in the service of deep emotion, Chikamatsu’s works perhaps found even greater resonance in the turbulent years in which individual freedom and adherence to tradition found themselves in even greater conflict than ever before. Tadashi Imai makes the most of Chikamatsu’s melancholy fatalism to take a sword to the samurai order itself with all of its arcane rules and the essential hypocrisy which underlines its cruelty.

Hikokuro Ogura (Rentaro Mikuni) has been in Edo for a year with the shogun and is now on his way home. Stopping at an inn, he has a low level argument with his brother-in-law who warns him the men are getting restless and need to blow off some steam preferably with some sake. Hikokuro is in charge of the purse strings and knows all of this pageantry costs money the clan do not quite have hence he’s reluctant to fritter it away on alcohol no matter how much the men might resent him for it.

That’s not to say Hikokuro is a particularly officious person, he’s kind and cheerful by nature but also tired and eager to get home after such a long time away. His wife, Otane (Ineko Arima), is very happy to see him but something seems different about her and there’s a tension in the air among some of the other women. It seems, there are rumours about Otane and a travelling musician (Masayuki Mori) who frequented the house during the summer while Hikokuro was away. Rumours are often just that, especially in these petty circles of nobility, but female adultery is punishable by death and so is not something to be gossiped about idly.

Night Drum (夜の鼓, Yoru no Tsuzumi) begins with the ominous sound of the drum itself, beating out the inevitably tragic fate of all concerned with a melancholy fatality. The tale proceeds in a procedural fashion as the authorities become involved, hearing witness testimonies and trying to discover if there could be any truth at all in these unpleasant rumours. Matters are further complicated by the pecuniary difficulties the clan currently finds itself in – the elders are half hoping it is true because it would be a good excuse to expel the Ogura household and thereby save the money which goes on its upkeep. They are aware, however, that they’re talking about the life of a previously unblemished woman as well as the ruin of her extended family.

The life of a retainer is not as easy as it sounds and we’re constantly reminded of just how much money is necessary to keep up appearances. The clan authorities are dismayed when they hear of Otane earning money on the side through needlework though other retainers are quick to confess their wives also help out, they just can’t survive on such meagre stipends. Each lord is required to hire servants as befits their status but they aren’t given the money to do so. Hikokuro is also required to serve the shogun in Edo every other year for at least twelve months meaning Otane is left alone at home with almost nothing other than her needlework to do except wait patiently for her husband’s return.

Given these circumstances, it’s easy to understand how such pernicious rumours might begin. The sole basis of the evidence seems to rest on a tip off that Otane is thought to have been alone in a room with a man who is not her husband. That she may be put to death solely for the crime of sharing the same space as someone of the opposite sex seems extreme, but this is the feudal world where rules and propriety are all. The men can cavort with geishas to their heart’s content, but Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

The action unfolds piecemeal as each of the various witnesses offers their testimony of events. Given the gravity of the situation, few are eager to recount their suspicions – especially the other women who fear the rumour may be true but are also unwilling to believe it. Hikokuro does not want to believe it either but faced with such convincing, if circumstantial, evidence doubt creeps into his mind and finds an anchor in Otane’s guilt ridden behaviour. Ironically, this entire situation developed only because of Otane’s attempts to avoid it – remaining at an inn rather than travelling with a man on the road only for one of her husband’s friends to attempt to rape and blackmail her. Having had far too much to drink in an attempt to steel her nerves and cover up the embarrassing assault, Otane finds herself at the mercy of man who should have known better than to take advantage of another man’s wife in such a moment of weakness.

One stupid mistake born of alcohol, loneliness, and a series of male betrayals is enough to bring down the social order all on its own. Rentaro Mikuni plays the part of the previously affable wounded spouse with an exceptional level of nuance as he accepts his part in his wife’s downfall thanks to the the circumstances of their lives which have kept them apart and left her at the mercy of untrustworthy lords. There is anger here, and shame, but there is still love too which only makes the inevitable outcome all the more painful for everyone concerned. Hikokuro plays the part he’s expected to play, but it pains him and you can’t wipe a slate clean with blood. Imai has his eyes firmly on the civilised society with all of its rigid yet often cruel and unfair rules for living. Shot with a kind of hypnotic dreaminess in which each of our unfortunate players is swept along by events they are powerless to influence, Night Drum beats out the death knell of those who allow their individual desires to overwhelm their “civilised” conformity but it does so with a rhythm that is filled with anger rather than sorrow, for those who are forced to leave half their lives unlived in maintenance of the very system which oppresses them.


Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Mikio Naruse, 1959)

vlcsnap-2016-08-03-02h37m50s119The Ainu have not been a frequent feature of Japanese filmmaking though they have made sporadic appearances. Adapted from a novel by Nobuo Ishimori, Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Kotan no Kuchibue, AKA Whistle in My Heart) provides ample material for the generally bleak Naruse who manages to mine its melodramatic set up for all of its heartrending tragedy. Rather than his usual female focus, Naruse tells the story of two resilient Ainu siblings facing not only social discrimination and mistreatment but also a series of personal misfortunes.

Masa and Yutaka are a teenage brother and sister living with their alcoholic father who has been unable to get things together since their mother passed away. They also have their grandmother and cousin, but otherwise they’re pretty much fending for themselves. At school, both children are shunned and picked on by some of their classmates solely for being Ainu. When one girl reports that her purse has gone missing, she immediately points to Masa and though another girl defends her, the obvious racial overtones continue to get to her. Similarly, Yutaka finds himself getting into trouble with one of the other boys after he beats him on a test. Yutaka pays a heavier price (at least physically) but both children are left wondering about their place in the world and what the future might hold for them.

Masa’s bright hope revolves around her art teacher who draws a picture of her at a local watering hole which he intends to enter into a competition. The teacher has his sights firmly set on a career as an artist in Tokyo but like everyone else’s dreams, it proves harder to realise than he might have hoped. Perpetually left behind, Masa’s dreams crumble too as do those of her friend who has her romantic hopes crushed firstly by her well meaning grandmother and then secondly by an unexpectedly racist action by someone who had always been seen as a friend. If all of these difficulties weren’t enough, fate is about to deal Masa and Yutaka a very cruel blow indeed which leaves them at the mercy of an evil uncle worthy of any Dickens novel.

Like much of Naruse’s work, the outlook is extremely bleak. The children face such a hopeless future that the most they can do is affect a kind of false cheerfulness to try and raise their spirits. Masa and Yutaka are both mistreated by the general population, leaving them with a lingering sense of anger and resentment towards those that seem incapable of treating them like regular human beings. Their cousin, Koji, has apparently come to the conclusion that he has to stand up against such mistreatment, however, the ultimate harm that is done to the pair is done by a member of their own family acting with total disregard their feelings and wellbeing. At this point Koji reconsiders and says he understands now that it isn’t about Ainu or Japanese, there are just awful people everywhere. An odd, if depressingly stoic, late in the game plea for empathy and tolerance, this ironically positive statement sits very well with Naruse’s general feelings on human nature.

Whistling in Kotan is not one of Naruse’s more subtle efforts. The tone is relentlessly bleak as the children experience ever more degrading treatment solely because of their ethnic group. Even their supposed ally eventually turns on them exposing the last lingering threads of prejudice among even those who portray themselves as forthright liberals. The message is one of forbearance and patience, that times have changed and will change more but that one has to grin and bear it while they do. Pragmatic as that is, it does let society of the hook when it comes to the refusal to acknowledge and deal with consistent prejudice. Filled with Naruse’s sense of despair, Whistling in Kotan is an uneven yet interesting exploration of this sensitive subject though perhaps undoes much of its good work with its ambiguous and often blunt approach to the material.