The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Masaki Kobayashi, 1985)

The Empty TableJapanese cinema of the 1980s is marked by an increasing desire to interrogate the idea of “the family” in an atmosphere of individualist consumerism. Yoshimitsu’s Morita’s The Family Game had blown the traditional ideas of filial piety and the primacy of the patriarch wide open in exposing his ordinary middle-class family as little more than a simulacrum as its various members sleepwalked through life playing the roles expected of them free of the true feeling one would expect to define familial bonds. A year later, Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family took a different, perhaps more positive approach, in depicting a family descending into madness through the various social pressures of maintaining a conventional middle-class life in the cramped environment of frenetic Tokyo. Masaki Kobayashi, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not so much interested in families as in individuals whose struggles to assert themselves in a conformist society became his major focus. The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Shokutaku no nai Ie) is not perhaps “a family drama” but it is, if indirectly, a drama about family and the ways in which the wider familial context of society at large often seeks to misuse it.

Set in 1973, The Empty Table is also among the earliest films to tackle the aftermath of the 1972 Asama-Sanso Incident. For ten days in February, the nation watched live as the police found themselves in a stand off with five United Red Army former student radicals who had taken the wife of an innkeeper hostage and holed up in a mountain lodge, refusing to give themselves up to the police. The discoveries surrounding the conduct of the United Red Army which had descended into a cult-like madness involving several murders of its members (including one of a heavily pregnant woman) shocked the nation and finally ended the student movement in Japan.

Kidoji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the father of one of the student radicals, Otohiko (Kiichi Nakai), who took part in the siege. In Japanese culture, it’s usual for the parents of a person involved in a scandal to come forward and offer an official apology to the nation on behalf of the their children. During the siege itself the family had also been weaponised as mothers, particularly, were enlisted to shout from outside the inn, offering poignant messages intended to get their sons to give themselves up and come home. Kidoji, unlike the other fathers (one of whom hanged himself in shame), refuses his social obligation on the grounds that the actions of his grownup son are no longer his responsibility. 

As a scientist, Kidoji is used to thinking things through in rational terms and outside of Japan his logic may seem unassailable – after all, it is unreasonable to hold the conduct of a family member against an otherwise upright and obedient citizen. In Japan however his actions make him seem cold and unfeeling, as if he has disowned both his son and his position as the father of a family with whom rests ultimate responsibility for those listed on his family register. This way of thinking may be very feudal, but it is the way things work not just in the late 20th century, but even in the early 21st.

Kidoji’s refusal to do what is expected of him eventually leads to the crumbling of the family unit. Far from the cheerful scene we see of Kidoji, his wife, and their three children seated around a dinner table in celebration, the family now eat separately and Kidoji returns home to cold meals and an empty table. Kidoji’s wife, Yumiko (Mayumi Ogawa), has had a breakdown and had to be hospitalised, while his daughter Tamae (Kie Nakai) is forced to break off her engagement only to resort to underhanded methods to be allowed to marry the man she loves. While Otohiko languishes in prison, only his younger brother Osamu (Takayuki Takemoto) remains at home.

Kobayashi’s central concern is the conflict in Kidoji’s heart as he faces a choice between maintaining his principles and saving his family pain. It’s not that Kidoji feels nothing – on the contrary, he is profoundly wounded by all that has happened to him, but ironically enough, puts on the face society expects but does not want in maintaining his composure in a situation of extreme difficulty. Kidoji’s deepest anxieties rest in the need to “take responsibility”, something he must do in acknowledging that it’s not his son’s disgrace which has destroyed his family but his own rigidity in refusing to bend his principles and obey social convention. What Kidoji wants is for his son to take responsibility for his own choices as an individual rather than expecting his family to carry his load for him. He must, however, also take responsibility for the effect his choices have had on others, including on his family, and accept his role both as an individual and as a member of a society with rights and obligations.

Kidoji’s refusal to apologise on behalf of his son looks to the rest of society like an abnegation of his paternal authority, and without paternal authority the family unit crumbles like a feudal household whose lord has been murdered. Yet Kidoji, like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, refuses to compromise his principals no matter how much personal pain they eventually cause him. Where the rules of society make no sense to him, he will ignore (if not quite oppose) them, remaining true to his own notions of moral righteousness.

In many ways, Kidoji is the archetypal Kobayashi hero – standing up to social oppression and refusing to simply give in even when he knows how beneficial that may be to all concerned. He is also, however, just as problematic in allowing his family to continue suffering in preservation of his personal beliefs. Kobayashi’s final feature film, The Empty Table is extremely dated in terms of shooting style with its overly theatrical dialogue and frequent use of voice over and monologue which were long out of fashion by the mid-1980s. Kobayashi does, however, return to the more expressionist style of his earlier career, moving towards an etherial sense of poetry as his hero contemplates his place in a society which often asks him to behave in ways which compromise his essential value system. The family, broken as it is, is also (partly) mended once again as Kidoji begins to reconcile his various “responsibilities” into a more comprehensive whole as he prepares to welcome a new generation seemingly as determined to live in as principled and unorthodox a way as he himself has.


Mary and the Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2017)

Mary and the witch's flower posterWhen Studio Ghibli announced that it would be ceasing production, it couldn’t help but feel like the end of an era. The studio which had made Japanese animation an internationally beloved art form was no more. Into the void stepped a brand new animation studio which vowed to pick up the Ghibli gauntlet – Studio Ponoc was formed by former Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura who enlisted a host of other ex-Ghibli talent including Arrietty director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. 

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花, Mary to Majo no Hana), Ponoc’s first feature is, like Yonebayashi’s When Marnie was There, an adaptation of a classic British children’s novel. Part of the ‘70s children’s literature boom, Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick was more or less forgotten until the film, paradoxically, brought it back into print. Like many post-war children’s novels, The Little Broomstick is the story of a clever and kind little girl who thinks she doesn’t quite fit in. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is no different in this regard, even in updating the tale (seemingly) to the present day as its spiky heroine finds herself taking on mad scientists and crazed witches in a strange fantasy realm all while trying to get used to the comparatively gentle rhythms of country life.

Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki) is bored. She hates her frizzy red hair which a horrible local boy, Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki), uses as justification to describe her as a “red haired monkey”, and fears that the rest of her life will merely be a dull exercise in killing time until its inevitable conclusion. Mary has just moved in with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake) in the country while her parents are apparently working away and, as she still has a week left of summer holidays until school starts, she’s desperate for something to do. Unwisely following two cats into a misty forest, she chances upon a mysterious flower – the “Fly By Night” which blooms only once every seven years. With no respect for nature, Mary picks herself some of the pretty bulbs to take back to the gardener but unwittingly opens up a portal to another world. Taking hold of an abandoned broomstick, she finds herself swooped off to Endor College – an elite institution of witchcraft and wizardry where she dazzles all with her magical skills. Thinking she’s finally found her place, Mary is content to go along with everyone’s assumption that she is the new student they’ve been waiting for but on closer inspection, Endor College is not quite all it seems.

Mary’s initial dissatisfaction with herself is somewhat sidelined by the narrative but there’s something particularly poignant about her loathing of her red hair. In British culture at least, those with red hair often face a strange kind of “acceptable” prejudice, bullied and ostracised even into adulthood. Thus when Peter calls Mary a “red haired monkey” it isn’t cute or funny it’s just mean and she’s probably heard something similar every day of her life. When she rocks up at Endor and they tell her that her red hair makes her special and is the sign of high magic potential, it’s music to her ears but it’s also, perhaps, reinforcing the idea that simply having red hair makes her different from everyone else.

Feeling different from everyone else perhaps allows her to look a little deeper into the world of Endor than she might otherwise have done. Despite her conviction that she doesn’t fit in and is of no use to anyone, Mary is never seriously tempted by the promises of Endor which include untold power as well as a clear offer of acceptance and even respect. When she realises that the couple who run the school – a witch and a scientist, have been abusing their powers by committing heinous acts of experimentation on innocent “test subjects”, Mary learns to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves even if she couldn’t have done it for herself.

Messages about the seductive power of authoritarian regimes exploiting feelings of disconnection, the scant difference between magic and science, and the need for respect of scientific ethics in the pursuit of knowledge, all get somewhat lost amid Mary’s meandering adventures, as does Mary herself as her gradual progress towards realising that she possessed her own “magic” all along ticks away quietly in the background. Yet the biggest problem Mary and the Witch’s Flower faces is also its greatest strength – its ties to Studio Ghibli. With echoes of Yonebayashi’s previous adaptations of classic British literature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower also indulges in a number of obvious Ghibli homages from the Ponyo-esque flying fish and Laputa influenced design of Endor to the overt shot of Mary riding a deer on a rocky path, and the unavoidable girl+broomstick echoes of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Even if Mary and the Witch’s Flower cannot free itself from the burden of its legacy, it does perhaps fill the void it was intended to, if in unspectacular fashion.


Mary and the Witch’s Flower will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Altitude Films in May 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Pieta in the Toilet (トイレのピエタ, Daishi Matsunaga, 2015)

pieta-in-the-toiletSomewhere near the beginning of Daishi Matsunaga’s debut feature, Pieta in the Toilet (トイレのピエタ, Toire no Pieta), the high rise window washing hero is attempting to school a nervous newbie by “reassuring” him that the worst thing that could happen up here is that you could die. This early attempt at black humour signals Hiroshi’s already aloof and standoffish nature but his fateful remark comes back to haunt him after he is diagnosed with an aggressive and debilitating condition of his own. Noticeably restrained in contrast with the often melodramatic approach of similarly themed mainstream pictures, Pieta in the Toilet is less a contemplation of death than of life, its purpose and its possibilities.

Having left his country home for Tokyo to become a painter, Hiroshi (Yojiro Noda) has become a bitter man, wilfully drowning in his own broken dreams. A chance encounter with an old flame, Satstuki (Saya Ichikawa), further deepens Hiroshi’s sense of inadequacy – she is about to open a solo exhibition in the very building which Hiroshi is currently engaged in washing the windows of. After having so sarcastically made fun of his new colleague’s fear of the rig, it’s Hiroshi who finds himself collapsing on the job and requiring medical treatment.

Seeing as the hospital have requested he bring a family member along with him for the results of the examination, it’s probably not good news. Not wanting to involve his parents, Hiroshi persuades Satsuki to masquerade as his younger sister only to restart an old argument in the waiting room prompting his former love to remember why they aren’t together anymore and hightail it out of there. Spotting a high school girl arguing with a salaryman she says has torn her uniform, Hiroshi decides to offer the job to her. Mai (Hana Sugisaki) plays her part to perfection but the news is even worse than he’d feared – aggressive stomach cancer requiring immediate hospitalisation and sustained chemotherapy if he is to have any chance at all of surviving more than a couple of months at most.

Prior to his illness, Hiroshi is a difficult man, permanently grumpy and irritated as if carrying a great sense of injustice. Despite several different voices reminding him that he had talent, Hiroshi has given up drawing in the belief that his artistic career was always doomed to failure. Intent on punishing himself for just not being good enough to succeed, Hiroshi’s decision to make window washing his career signals his lack of personal ambition, content to simply keep existing while a silent rage bubbles under the surface.

After the original failed reconnection with Satsuki who, we later discover, has moved in another direction using her society connections to advance her career in a way of which Hiroshi does not approve, Hiroshi’s illness brings him into contact with a number of people who each do their bit to reopen his heart. The most important of these is the feisty high school girl, Mai, who refuses to simply disappear from Hiroshi’s life after the awkward bonding experience of being present at the cancer diagnosis of a total stranger. As angry and defeated as Hiroshi, Mai’s difficult homelife has brought her untold suffering but unlike the brooding painter, hers in an externalised rage which sends her reeling into the world, looking for reaction and recognition rather than the introspective craving for disappointment and indifference which marks Hiroshi’s approach to his internalised sense of inadequacy.

Hiroshi’s hospital stay produces twin motivators from both ends of the spectrum in the form of an older man in the next bed, Yokota (Lily Franky), who enjoys taking photographs (especially of pretty girls), and a terminally ill little boy who remains cheerful, polite and friendly despite Hiroshi’s rather rude attempt to shake him off. It’s on a visit to the hospital chapel with the boy, Takuto (Riku Sawada), and his mother (Rie Miyazawa) that Hiroshi first comes across the statue of the pieta which inspires his ultimate, life affirming act which sees him turn the smallest room of the house into a new Sistine Chapel with a large scale installation recasting Mai as Mary, arms outstretched ready to receive her sorrowful burden.

Hiroshi’s life had been mere existence but reaching an acceptance of its end forces him into a process of more positive self reflection and a desire to leave something more permanent behind. Inspired by a few words found on the final page of the diary kept by the godfather of manga, Osamu Tezuka, himself battling stomach cancer at the time, Pieta in the Toilet puts art at the core of life as Hiroshi picks up his paint brush, Yokota his camera (albeit with slightly less than artful intentions), and Takuto his painstakingly collected colour-in heroes. Necessarily melancholy yet somehow life affirming Pieta in the Toilet offers a nuanced though no less powerful contemplation of life, death and art in which each gives meaning to the other, ensuring the richness of a life fully lived.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)