The Devil’s Island (獄門島, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Island posterKon Ichikawa revisits the world of Kosuke Kindaichi for the third time in Devil’s Island (獄門島, Gokumon-to). Confusingly enough, Devil’s Island is adapted from the second novel in the Kidaichi series and set a few years before Ichikawa’s previous adaptation The Devil’s Ballad (the twin devils are just a coincidence). As with his other Kindaichi adaptations, Ichikawa retains the immediate post-war setting of the novel though this time the war is both fore and background as our tale is set on profane soil, a pirate island once home to Japan’s most heinous exiled criminals, which is to say it is the literal fount of every social failing which has informed the last 20 years of turbulent militarist history.

In 1946, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) travels to Kasaoka to catch the ferry to the island. On the way he runs into a demobbed soldier hobbling along on crutches only to catch sight of the man quickly picking his up crutches and running across the railway tracks when he thought no one was looking. Kindaichi is in luck – before he even reaches the boat he runs into the very man he’s come to see, Reverend Ryonen (Shin Saburi), for whom he has a message. Posing as a fellow soldier, Kindaichi reveals he has a “last letter” from a man named Chimata who sadly passed away right after the cessation of hostilities having contracted malaria. Chimata, as we later find out, was the legitimate heir of the island’s most prominent family. Kindaichi chooses not to reveal his true purpose, but the truth is that Chimata suspected his death would put his three younger sisters in danger from various unscrupulous family members attempting to subvert the succession.

Your average Japanese mystery is not, as it turns out, so far from Agatha Christie as one might assume and this is very much a tale of petty class concerns, island mores, and changing social conventions. The extremely confusing island hierarchy starts with the head of household who doubles as the head of the local fishing union and then shuffles out to the branch line and brassy sister-in-law Tomoe (Kiwako Taichi) who is keen claim all the authority she is entitled to. The old patriarch, Yosamatsu (Taketoshi Naito), went quite mad at the beginning of the war and is kept in a bamboo cage in the family compound where he screams and rails, only calmed by the gentle voice of Sanae (Reiko Ohara), a poor relation raised in the main house alongside her brother Hitoshi who hasn’t yet returned from the war. Aside from Yosamatsu, the absence of the two young men means the main house is now entirely inhabited by women, looked after by veteran maid Katsuno (Yoko Tsukasa).

Then again, Japanese mysteries hinge on riddles more than they depend on motives and there are certainly plenty of those on this weird little island where they don’t like “outsiders”. Ichikawa hints at the central conceit by flashing up haiku directly on the screen along with a few original chapter headings for Kindaichi whose eccentricities might seem less noticeable in such an obviously crazy place but strangely seem all the more overt, his trademark dandruff falling like rain from his tousled hair. It has to be said that Kindaichi fails in his otherwise pure hearted aims – he doesn’t make a great deal of effort to “save” the sisters and only attempts to solve the crimes as they occur, each one informing the next. This time around he gets trouble from both irritatingly bumbling detective Todoroki (Takeshi Kato) and his assistant Bando (Kazunaga Tsuji) , and the local bobby who immediately locks Kindaichi up and declares the crimes solved on the grounds that they only started happening after Kindaichi arrived.

Meanwhile, there are rumours of an escaped “pirate” running loose, demobbed soldiers, and a host of dark local customs contrasting strongly with the idyllic scenery and the strange “pureness” of this remote island otherwise untouched by the war’s folly save for the immediate events entirely precipitated by the absence of two young men taken away to die on foreign shores. Though the various motives for the crimes are older – shame, greed, classism, a bizarre dispute between Buddhists and Shamans, none of this would have been happening if the war hadn’t stuck its nose into island business and unbalanced the complex local hierarchy. Tragically, the crimes themselves all come to nought as a late arriving piece of news renders them null and void. Just when you think you’ve won, the rug is pulled from under you and the war wins again. Ichikawa opts for a for a defiantly straightforward style but adopts a few interesting editing techniques including fast cutting to insert tiny flashbacks as our various suspects suddenly remember a few “relevant” details. This strange island, imbued with ancient evils carried from the mainland, finds itself not quite as immune from national struggles as it once thought though perhaps manages to right itself through finally admitting the truth and acknowledging the sheer lunacy that led to the sorry events in which it has recently become embroiled.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Ballad posterA year after his box office smash The Inugami Family, Kon Ichikawa returns to the world of eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi with The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Akuma no Temari Uta). Like many a Kindaichi mystery, Devil’s Ballad finds him called upon to delve back into the past to satisfy an ageing detective’s anxiety about an old case, only to be faced with a series of new ones as a consequence. This time, however, the mystery leans less on buried secrets than deeply held grudges, betrayals, and lingering feudal feuds as the post-war society tries and fails to free itself from ancient oppressions.

The film opens with a tryst between two adolescent lovers in the ominously named “Devil’s Skull Village” in 1950. Yasu (Yoko Takahashi), the girl, is at pains to let her boyfriend, Kanao (Koji Kita), know that she is keen to take the relationship to the next level but he is old fashioned and wants to wait until their union is formalised. The pair are interrupted by some of their friends who are in the middle of planning a celebration for a visit from a girl who moved to the city, Chie (Akiko Nishina). Meanwhile, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) has arrived at the inn owned by Kanao’s mother Rika (Keiko Kishi) on invitation from a retired policeman, Isokawa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who wants Kindaichi to look into the murder of Rika’s husband twenty years ago. Isokawa, then a young rookie, is convinced that Rika’s husband was not the victim but the murderer and the corpse actually belonged to another man entirely – Onda, a drifter who defrauded half the village with a wreath making scam.

Rika and her children – 20-year-old Kanao and his younger sister Satoko (Eiko Nagashima) who has prominent facial birthmarks and rarely leaves the house, came to the village with her husband and are therefore slightly divorced from the longstanding social rivalries. The village has two noble families – the Yuras and the Nires. Feeling the need to modernise, the Nires bet everything on vineyards and it paid off. The Yuras, by contrast, were defrauded by Onda’s wreath scam and lost their fortune and social standing. Yasu, Kanao’s girlfriend, is a daughter of the Yuras, but the Nire’s have been petitioning Rika for quite some time to have her son marry their daughter, Fumiko (Yukiko Nagano), who also has a crush on him (though this is largely irrelevant to her father’s dynastic ambitions). When the younger generation start getting bumped off in ways eerily similar to a local folk song, Kindaichi and Isokawa are on the case, wondering if these new murders have anything to do with their old one.

Despite its 1950 setting, Devil’s Ballad is unusual in resolutely making an irrelevance of the war which only receives a brief mention as an explanation for why some of the case files have been destroyed and for why marriage is such a hot button issue given the lack of men and abundance of women. Nevertheless, the crimes span a turbulent 20 years of Japanese history with the original murder taking place in the early ‘30s during a period of economic instability following the Manchurian Incident. In the socially conservative pre-war era, it seems Onda also got around and may have fathered several illegitimate children with women in the village, some of them noble, some not. These buried secrets seem primed to bubble to the surface now that the children are coming of age and marriage again becomes an issue as worried parents try to think of acceptable ways to block potentially “inappropriate” matches without sending their children off into ruinous elopements or tipping off the wrong people that their kids may not be their kids.

The crimes themselves, old fashioned as they are, are partly reactions to a changing society. We discover that the reason Rika and her husband were forced to come back to the village was that their showbiz careers were stalling – she was a vaudeville performer specialising in shamisen, and he a “benshi” (narrator of silent films) who became convinced his job was obsolete after witnessing a subtitled print of Morocco. Likewise, the two rival families cannot let go of their petty provincial privileges, and as Kanao angrily snaps back at his mother, Japan is now a democratic country and he is free to choose his own wife at a time of his own choosing with or without parental blessing. This remote village is perhaps isolated from the privations of the post-war world but it’s also stuck in the past, hung up on past transgressions and unable to move forward into the new era. However, the primary motivations for murder are as old as time – guilt, humiliation, and self preservation.

Ichikawa keeps things simple but splices in a few strange, avant-garde sequences of kokeshi dolls menacingly bouncing balls coupled with shifts to black and white, fast-paced reaction shots, and stuttering still frame sequences all while Kindaichi showers innocent passersby with his famous dandruff, the idiot police officer continues to offer ridiculous theories while his sergeant dutifully follows him around, and the local bobby perfects a line in hilarious pratfalls. Overlong at two and a half hours and falling prey to the curse of the prestige crime drama in spoiling its mystery through casting, the Devil’s Ballad may not be the best of the Kindaichi mysteries but offers enough of a satisfying twist to prove worthy of the Kindaichi name.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Invisible Man (透明人間, Motoyoshi Oda, 1954)

invisible man 1954 posterThe Invisible Man is a frightening presence precisely because he isn’t there. The living manifestation of the fear of the unknown, he stalks and spies, lurking in our imaginations instilling terror of evil deeds we are powerless to stop. Daiei made Japan’s first Invisible Man movie back in 1949 – a fun crime romp with the underlying message that scientific research is important but not as important as ensuring knowledge is placed in the right hands. Toho brought Eiji Tsuburaya back for another go at the same material in 1954 as part of their burgeoning tokusaku industry fathered by Godzilla. The 1954 Invisible Man (透明人間, Toumei Ningen), directed by Motoyoshi Oda, is once again a criticism of Japan’s wartime past but also perhaps of its future. This Invisible Man is an invisible hero but one whose heroism is only recognised once the mask is removed.

Opening in grand style, the film gets off to a mysterious start when a speeding car hits “something” in the road. The “something” turns out to be a previously invisible man whose appearance is returned to him as blood leaks out from under the now stopped car. In his pocket, the man has a suicide note explaining that living life invisible is just too depressing and he can’t go on. Seeing as the note is addressed to a “friend” who is also apparently an Invisible Man that means there are more out there. Despite there being no real threat involved in any of this, the newscasters are alarmed and the public frightened.

This is quite useful for some – a shady gang quickly starts putting on Invisible Man suits including wrapping their heads in bandages just like in the movies, and robbing banks. Admittedly this makes no practical sense but adds to the ongoing fear of an “invisible” threat. An intrepid reporter, Komatsu (Yoshio Tsuchiya), links the crimes to a nightclub where the head of the gang is also trying to pressure the headline star, Michiyo (Miki Sanjo), into a career as a drug mule. Besides violence, their leverage is the little girl who lives across from Michiyo and is blind – the money they would be paying her could also be used to pay for the girl’s eye surgery. Mariko is waiting patiently for her grandfather to make the money, unaware that he has also fallen under the spell of the criminal gang.

The real “Invisible Man” is doing a good job of hiding in plain sight by proudly standing out in a traditional clown outfit complete with makeup and a fluffy nose. Nanjo (Seizaburo Kawazu) works as a promoter for the club and is also good friends with little Mariko who is unable to see him either with or without his clown suit. Unlike other Invisible Men, Nanjo is good and kind – the curse of his condition has not ruined soul.

He is, however, afraid of being exposed. Aside from social ostracism (perhaps someone who wears a clown suit 24/7 isn’t particularly bothered about that), Nanjo fears what his government would do to him if they discovered he was still alive. Like his friend who later committed suicide, Nanjo was a member of an experimental army squad recruited towards the end of the war as Japan sought to create the ultimate warriors to turn the tide in the battle against the Americans. The Invisible Men were born but the war lost, and it was assumed that they had all fallen. Nanjo, surviving, has been abandoned by the land that he fought for. His existence is a secret, an embarrassing relic of Japan’s attempt at scientific warfare, and something which no one wants to deal with. Nando’s friend could no longer cope with his non-existence. Unable to return home, unable to work, unable to marry, there was no “visible” future which presented itself to him.

In this sense, Nanjo represents a point of view many might have identified with in 1954. These men fought and risked their lives for a god they now say is only a man, to come home to a land ruled by the “enemy” in which they can neither criticise the occupation or the former authorities. These men may well feel “invisible” in the new post-war order in which the younger generation are beginning to break free while they suffer the continuing effects of their wartime service even if not quite as literally as Nanjo.

Yet there’s a kind of internalised resentment within Nanjo who describes himself as a “monster created by militarism”. Disguising himself as a clown he attempts to live a “normal” life though one segregated from mainstream society. A half-hearted romance with club girl Michiyo and a well meaning paternalism for the orphaned little blind girl point to Nanjo’s altruistic heroism but also to a reluctance to fully engage with either of them due to a lingering sense of guilt and shame.

The Invisible Man is the hero here while the bad guys subvert and misuse his name to do their evil deeds, terrorising women and threatening to burn the city down rather than surrender to authority. Even more than others in Toho’s expanding universe of tokusatsu heroes, Invisible Man is a defence of the other as not only valid but morally good even in the face of extreme prejudice and violence. It is, however, also one of their less well considered efforts and Tsuburaya’s effects remain few and far between, rarely moving beyond his work on Daiei’s Invisible Man five years previously. Bulked out with musical numbers and dance sequences, Toho’s Invisible Man is a less satisfying affair than Daei’s puply sci-fi adventure but is nevertheless interesting in its defence of the sad clown who all alone has decided to shoulder the burdens of his world.


 

Dreams (夢, Akira Kurosawa, 1990)

dreamsDespite a long and hugely successful career which saw him feted as the man who’d put Japanese cinema on the international map, Akira Kurosawa’s fortunes took a tumble in the late ‘60s with an ill fated attempt to break into Hollywood. Tora! Tora! Tora! was to be a landmark film collaboration detailing the attack on Pearl Harbour from both the American and Japanese sides with Kurosawa directing the Japanese half, and an American director handling the English language content. However, the American director was not someone the prestigious caliber of David Lean as Kurosawa had hoped and his script was constantly picked apart and reduced.

When filming finally began, Kurosawa was fired and replaced with the younger and (then) less internationally regarded Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda. The film was an unmitigated failure which proved hugely embarrassing to Kurosawa, not least because it exposed improprieties within his own company. Other than the low budget Dodesukaden, Kurosawa continued to find it difficult to secure funding for the sort of films he wanted to make and in 1971 attempted suicide, thankfully unsuccessfully, but subsequently retreated into domestic life leaving a large question mark over his future career in cinema.

American directors who’d been inspired by his golden age work including George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were keen to coax Kurosawa back into the director’s chair, helping to fund and promote his two biggest ‘80s efforts – Ran, and Kagemusha, both large scale, epic jidaigeki more along the line of Seven Samurai than the arthouse leaning smaller scale of his contemporary pictures. The success of these two films and the assistance of Steven Spielberg, allowed him to move in a radically different direction for his next film. Dreams (夢, Yume) is an aberration in Kurosawa’s back catalogue, a collection of thematically linked vignettes featuring surreal, ethereal, noh theatre inspired imagery, it was unlike anything the director had attempted before and a far cry away from the often straightforward naturalism which marked his career up to this point.

Inspired by Kurosawa’s own dreams from childhood to the present day, Dreams is divided into eight different chapters beginning with a solemn wedding and ending in a joyous funeral. Each of the segments takes on a different tone and aesthetic, but lays bare many of the themes which had recurred throughout Kurosawa’s career – namely, man’s relationship with the natural world, and its constant need to tear itself apart all in the name of progress.

Casting his central protagonist simply as “I”, Kurosawa begins with an exact recreation of his childhood home and a little boy who disobeys his mother in leaving the house during a spell of sun streaked rain. Weather like this is perfect for a “kitsune” wedding, only fox spirits do not like their rituals to be witnessed by humans and punishment is extreme if caught, still, the boy has to know. His fate is echoed in the second story in which the still young I is lured to the spot where his family’s orchard once stood to be berated by the spirits of the now departed peach blossoms in the guise of the traditional dolls given to little girls at the Hina Matsuri festival. The spirits are upset with the boy, who starts crying, but not, as the spirits originally think because he’s mourning all of the peaches he’ll never eat but because he truly loved the this place and knows he’ll never see the glory of the full orchard in bloom ever again.

The spirits recognise his grief and contritely agree to put on a display of magic for him so that he may experience the beauty of peach trees in full blossom one last time. However, the illusion is soon over and the boy is left among the stumps where his beloved trees once stood. Later, the adult I finds himself in a monstrous nuclear apocalypse which has now become much harder to watch as the Ishiro Honda inspired horror of the situation has turned mount Fuji and the surrounding sky entirely red with no escape from the invisible radioactive poison. Quickly followed by I traipsing through a dark and arid land in which giant mutant dandelion provide the only sign of life aside from the remnants of post-apocalyptic humanity reduced to devouring itself in scenes worthy of Bruegel, these sequences paint the price of untapped progress as humans burn their world all the while claiming to improve it.

Humans are, in a sense, at war with nature as with themselves. The Tunnel sees an older I return from the war to encounter first an aggressive dog and then the ghosts of men he knew who didn’t make it home. Apologising that he survived and they didn’t, I contrives to send the blue faced ghosts back into the darkness of the tunnel while he himself is plagued by the barking, grenade bearing dog outside. The mountaineers of the blizzard sequence are engaged in a similar battle, albeit a more straightforwardly naturalistic one of human endurance pitted against the sheer force of the natural world. That is, until the natural becomes supernatural in the sudden appearance of the Snow Woman which the mountaineer manages to best in his resilience to the wind and cold.

The better qualities of humanity are to be found in the idyllic closing tale which takes place in a village lost to time. Here there is no electric, no violence, no crime. People live simply, and they die when they’re supposed to, leaving the world in celebration of a life well lived rather than in regret. People, says the old man, are too obsessed with convenience. All those scientists wasting their lives inventing things which only make people miserable as they tinker around trying to “improve” the unimprovable. As the young I says, he could buy himself as many peaches as he wanted, but where can you buy a full orchard in bloom?

Of course, Kurosawa doesn’t let himself off the hook either as the middle aged I finds himself sucked into a van Gogh painting, wandering through the great master’s works until meeting the man himself (played by Martin Scorsese making a rare cameo in another director’s film) who transforms his world through his unique perception but finds himself erased by it as his art consumes him to the point of madness. I wanders back through van Gogh’s landscapes, now broken down to their component parts before eventually extricating himself and arriving back in the gallery as a mere spectator. Even if the work destroyed its creator through its maddening imperfection it lives on, speaking for him and about him as well about a hundred other things for an eternity.

For all of the fear and despair, there is hope – in humanity’s capacity for endurance as in the Blizzard, in its compassion as in The Tunnel, and in its appreciation for the natural world as in The Peach Orchard alongside its need to re-envision its environment through the glorious imperfection of art. There is the hope that mankind may choose to live in The Village of the Water Mills rather than the hellish post apocalyptic world of fear and greed, however small and slim that hope maybe. Creating a living painting filled with hyperreal colour and a misty dreaminess, Kurosawa’s Dreams, like all dreams, speak not only of the past but of the future, not only of what has been but what may come. Equal parts despair and love, Kurosawa’s vision is bleak yet filled with hope and the intense belief in art as a redemptive, creative force countering humanity’s innate capacity for self destruction.


Original international trailer (irritating English language voiceover only)

A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.