Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)

Japanese golden age cinema is famed for its centring of female stories, but while it’s true that many of Yasujiro Ozu’s family dramas revolve around a young woman’s feelings towards marriage, the perspective is often surprisingly male. Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Higanbana), his first film in colour, marks something of a change in direction in its spirited defence of the young, but at heart is still a story as much about impending old age, the responsibilities of fatherhood, and changing times as it is about contemporary family dynamics or female agency. 

The father in question, Hirayama (Shin Saburi), is a high ranking executive with two daughters. The older, Setsuko (Ineko Arima), is working at another company, and the younger, Hisako (Miyuki Kuwano), is still in school. Marriage is on his mind because he’s just attended the wedding of an old school friend’s daughter at which he gave a speech, with his wife Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) sitting awkwardly next to him, describing the arranged marriage he had with her as “pragmatic, routine” while he envies the young couple’s “fortunate opportunity” to indulge in romance. He and Kiyoko idly discuss the idea of Setsuko’s marriage, it seems as if there is a promising match on the horizon, with Hirayama conflicted while Kiyoko is very much in favour of doing things the traditional way. She’s already mentioned it to her daughter, but all she does is smile demurely which seems to provoke different interpretations from each of the parents. 

While thinking about all of that, Hirayama receives a visit from an old friend who was a notable absence at the wedding asking him to check up on his daughter Fumiko (Yoshiko Kuga) who ran away from home two months ago to live with a musician after he tried to veto her intention to marry without consulting him. Hirayama is sympathetic, perhaps thinking his friend has acted foolishly and pushed his daughter away. After visiting the bar where she works, he comes to the conclusion that as long as she’s happy with her choice then everyone else should be too. That all goes out the window, however, when a young man, Taniguchi (Keiji Sada), visits him unexpectedly at work and asks for permission to marry Setsuko. Hirayama quite rudely asks him to leave and then irritatedly talks the matter over with Setsuko before petulantly refusing his consent, not because he objects to Taniguchi, but because he is hurt on emotional level that she hadn’t talked to him about this first (not least so that they stop worrying about arranging a marriage) while resentful that she’s gone behind his back and undercut his patriarchal authority. 

In addition to the changing nature of family dynamics, Hirayama is perhaps conscious of his advancing age, feeling himself increasingly obsolescent and therefore additionally wounded by this assault on his authority as a father. The generation gap, however, is all too present. Both Setsuko and Fumiko feel as if they simply cannot talk to their parents because they wouldn’t listen and will never understand. Yukiko (Fujiko Yamamoto), the daughter of another friend, feels something similar in her exasperation with her well-meaning single mother who keeps hatching plans to set her up with various men she isn’t interested in. Intellectually, Hirayama sides with the young, envying them their freedoms and advising Yukiko firstly not to marry at all, and then encouraging her desire to resist arranged marriages despite trying to foist them on his own daughters. 

Even Kiyoko eventually describes her husband’s continuing petulance as “inconsistent”. It seems obvious that Kiyoko is siding with her daughter, immediately taking a liking to Taniguchi who politely brought her home after she stormed out following an argument with her father, but she continues to behave as a “good wife” should, politely minding her husband while gently hoping that he will eventually come round. Only once pushed does she try to explain to him, again politely, that he’s being selfish and unreasonable, but he continues on in resentment while causing his daughter emotional pain simply for trying to find her own happiness rather letting him decide for her. Kiyoko is afraid that if it carries on like this, then Setsuko will, like Fumiko, eventually leave and they’ll lose her completely, something which Hirayama either hasn’t fully considered or is actively encouraging through his petulance. 

In the end the conclusion he comes to is that the parents will eventually have to give way or risk losing their children entirely. He tells both Fumiko and Yukiko that all parents want is for their children to be happy and so nothing else matters, but struggles to put his advice into practice when it comes to his own daughter. Like pretty much everyone in an Ozu film, Hirayama is a good, kind person, even if one struggling against himself as he contemplates a loss of authority, a change in standing, and the difficulty of dealing with complex emotions as a man in a patriarchal society. Predictably, it’s women who essentially bully him into making better decisions, Yukiko “interfering” in the nicest of ways, while his wife makes it clear that though she thinks he’s wrong she will continue to stand by him if only in the hope he will eventually see the light. “Life is absurd, we’re not all perfect” he admits, only later realising how his stubborn foolishness may have caused unnecessary suffering to those he loves the most.


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Amagi Pass (天城越え, Haruhiko Mimura, 1983)

There’s no statute of limitations on guilt an ageing policeman laments in Haruhiko Mimura’s adaptation of the Seicho Matsumoto mystery, Amagi Pass (天城越え, Amagi-Goe). Co-produced by Yoshitaro Nomura and co-scripted by Tai Kato, Amagi Pass arrives at the tail end of the box office dominance of the prestige whodunnit and like many of its kind hinges on events which took place during the war though in this case the effects are more psychological than literal, hinging on the implications of an age of violence and hyper masculinity coupled with sexual repression and a conservative culture. 

In a voiceover which doesn’t quite open the film, the hero, Kenzo (Mikijiro Hira / Yoichi Ito), as we will later realise him to be, likens himself to that of Kawabata’s Izu Dancer though as he explains he was not a student but the 14-year-old son of a blacksmith with worn out zori on his feet as he attempted to run away from home in the summer of 1940 only to turn back half-way through. In the present day, meanwhile, an elderly detective, Tajima (Tsunehiko Watase), now with a prominent limp, slowly makes his way through the modern world towards a print shop where he orders 300 copies of the case report on the murder of an itinerant labourer in Amagi Pass in June, 1940. A wandering geisha was later charged with the crime but as Tajima explains he does not believe that she was guilty and harbours regrets over his original investigation recognising his own inexperience in overseeing his first big case. 

As so often, the detective’s arrival is a call from the past, forcing Kenzo, now a middle-aged man, to reckon with the traumatic events of his youth. Earlier we had seen him in a doctor’s office where it is implied that something is poisoning him and needs to come out, his illness just as much of a reflection of his trauma as the policeman’s limp. Flashing back to 1940 we find him a young man confused, fatherless but perhaps looking for fatherly guidance from older men such as a strange pedlar he meets on the road who cheekily shows him illustrated pornography, or the wise uncle who eventually tricks him into buying dinner and then leaves. His problems are perhaps confounded by the fact that he lives in an age of hyper masculinity, the zenith of militarism in which other young men are feted with parades as they prepare to fight and die for their country in faraway lands. Yet Kenzo is only 14 in 1940 which means he will most likely be spared but also in a sense emasculated as a lonely boy remaining behind at home. 

He tells the wise man who later tricks him that he’s run away to find his brother who owns a print shop in the city because he hates his provincial life as a blacksmith, but later we realise that the cause is more his difficult relationship with his widowed mother (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) whom, he has recently discovered, is carrying on an affair with his uncle (Ichiro Ogura). Returning home after his roadside betrayal he watches them together from behind a screen, a scene echoed in his voyeuristic observation of the geisha, Hana (Yuko Tanaka), with the labourer plying her trade in order to survive. Described as odd and seemingly mute, the labourer is a figure of conflicted masculinity resented by the other men on the road but also now a symbolic father and object of sexual jealously for the increasingly Oedipal Kenzo whose youthful attraction to the beautiful geisha continues to mirror his complicated relationship with his mother as she tenderly tears up her headscarf to bandage his foot, sore from his ill-fitting zori, while alternately flirting with him. 

Yet his guilt towards her isn’t only in his attraction but in its role in what happened to her next even as she, we can see, protects him, their final parting glance a mix of frustrated maternity and longing that has apparently informed the rest of Kenzo’s life in ways we can never quite grasp. Amagi Pass for him is a barrier between youth and age, one which he has long since crossed while also in a sense forever trapped in the tunnel looking back over his shoulder towards Hana and the labourer now on another side of an unbreachable divide. The policeman comes like messenger from another time, incongruously wandering through a very different Japan just as the bikers in the film’s post-credit sequence speed through the pass, looking to provide closure and perhaps a healing while assuaging his own guilt but finding only accommodation with rather than a cure for the traumatic past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Neither Seicho Matsumoto’s original novel or the film adaptation are directly related to the well-known Sayuri Ishikawa song of the same name released three years later though the lyrics are strangely apt.

Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (靑春の夢いまいづこ, Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

It’s lonely at the top. Perhaps surprisingly, Japan’s depression-era cinema had considerable space for lamenting the complicated position of the young master and, as Hiroshi Shimizu’s The Boss’ Son at College would do the following year, Ozu’s Where Now are the Dreams of Youth (靑春の夢いまいづこ, Seishun no Yume Ima Izuko) follows a young man of privilege realising that inequality is bad for friendship and no matter how much you try to manipulate an inherently unfair system for the good of those you love it is the system itself which will always stand between you. 

Ozu begins, however, in familiar territory continuing in the vein of student comedy which was proving such a big hit for home studio Shochiku and in fact reusing a few gags from his previous films in the genre such as the guys’ persistent attempts to cheat on their exams. The opening sequence in which three of the four friends goof off rehearsing a cheerleading routine neatly sets up the already existing divisions between them as Saiki (Tatsuo Saito), the gang’s outlier, hovers on the sidelines attempting to study explaining to a young woman the guys know from the bakery, Shige (Kinuyo Tanaka), that he has only his mother and cannot afford to spend his time messing around. Despite that, however, we’re also told that Saiki is a hopeless case forever falling his exams and regarded as essentially feckless. 

The hero, Tetsuo (Ureo Egawa), is the son of a company president and even if he doesn’t notice it the guys are already deferring to him as a kind of leader though they are all, in one sense, still “equals” as students at the same university taking the same classes. They all wear the same universal student uniform and drink in the same cafe, though they perhaps have different fears and anxieties for their futures at this difficult economic moment. The friendship is suddenly disrupted by the unexpected death of Tetsuo’s father which necessitates his leaving university to take over the family firm, though it’s also clear that he is not quite in charge and his conservative uncle is in fact running the show. 

Tetsuo’s new status as a company president, now dressed in an expensive tailored business suit, forever sets him apart from his friends who eventually come to him for help on being unable to find jobs in the midst of an economic depression. He decides to use his privilege to help them but in an underhanded way, insisting they sit the company exam but giving them the answer sheet beforehand just like in their school days helping each other to cheat. Nevertheless, he fails to realise that you can’t be both friend and boss and it hurts him that they are now polite and deferent in his presence. Gone is their old camaraderie and foolishness, fear and dependency gradually erode their friendship. 

Meanwhile, Tetsuo has continued to carry a torch for Shige but again has failed to realise that they now live in different worlds. His uncle keeps trying to arrange suitable marriages for him which he delights in frustrating with childish pranks. Now settled in his professional life he tries to abide by a college era bro code in asking for the guys’ permission to ask for Shige’s hand, knowing that they had all taken a liking to her. He places himself on their level but only superficially, acting with a degree of self-confident entitlement which assumes firstly that the others will defer to him and back off, and that Shige is his for the asking. What hurts him most is that none of the guys, who must all know, were brave enough to tell him that Saiki and Shige are already engaged. Fearful for his job, Saiki would have sacrificed the woman he loves, essentially traded her for economic stability. Finding out from Saiki’s mother (Choko Iida), Tetsuo confronts Shige who tells him that she agreed to marry Saiki out of pity and despair after growing weary of waiting for him believing that a company president would never marry a woman like her. 

Tetsuo surrenders his love on the altar of friendship. Despite confirming their love for each other, he and Shige are separated by the great wall of social class in a hierarchal society along with the economic pressures of an ongoing depression. What Tetsuo chooses to save is his male friendship, striking Saiki, who does not fight back, for his moral cowardice in debasing himself by allowing those with power and privilege to rob him of his rights and freedoms. The guys sort things out with a fist fight, restoring an artificial “equality” that provokes a “happy” ending despite the fact that nothing has really changed. Tetsuo has to say goodbye to the dreams of youth in acceptance of the disappointments of adulthood but tries to salvage something as he moves forward in preserving what he can of cross-class friendship as bulwark against the inequalities of his age.


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Woman of Tokyo (東京の女, Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)

Most closely associated with his family dramas, the films of Yasujiro Ozu while often deeply moving are generally safe spaces filled with warmth and love. He was never, however, afraid to explore the darkness of his society as the uncharacteristically bleak silent Woman of Tokyo (東京の女, Tokyo no Onna) makes plain. A tale of disintegrating families, Ozu substitutes a loyal sister for a self sacrificing mother but once again places her at the mercy of a conservative society which refuses to accept the nature of the sacrifice she has chosen to make on its behalf. 

The heroine, Chikako (Yoshiko Okada), is better off than most during these years of depression in that she has a steady full-time job as a typist with which she is able to support her younger brother, Ryoichi (Ureo Egawa), who is a student. Somewhat unusually, Ozu shows us a fairly progressive working environment in which Chikako is one of many women working alongside men in an open plan office which is arranged in a far less stressful manner than the one we later observe in the American film which Ryoichi and his girlfriend Harue (Kinuyo Tanaka) see at the cinema (If I Had a Million, 1932, the segment directed by Ernst Lubitsch, “The Clerk”) in which the desks are laid out in regimented style and staffed entirely by identically dressed men.  

In any case, the job apparently does not quite pay enough to cover Ryoichi’s fees and so Chikako has taken on a part-time gig assisting a professor with translation at his home in the evenings, or so she said. Unbeknownst to her, a policeman turns up at her office and asks to see her attendance records. Again surprisingly, Chikako’s boss is calm and supportive, telling the policeman she’s a model employee of four years’ standing and obviously confused as to how she could be the subject of any criminal investigation. The policeman does not explain, shutting the interview down as soon as the boss motions to ask Chikako about the mysterious professor presumably not wanting her to know she is under investigation. 

Rumours, however, will start and it is those rumours more than the truth of them which will prove the most fatal. Harue’s brother (Shinyo Nara) is a policeman and he’s heard that Chikako has been moonlighting as a bar girl and engaging in sex work. Harue decides to put the matter to her boyfriend, but he is immediately offended, brought to tears by anger, and throws Harue out for slandering his sister. The issue is that, as a woman and most particularly as a sister in place of a mother, Chikako is expected to sacrifice herself on her brother’s behalf. Her career, and implicitly the reason she is not yet married, is not for her personal fulfilment or financial security but only for her brother’s future. She has given up everything for him, and now apparently has also surrendered her body yet he rejects and shames her for it. He does not thank her, nor does he feel guilt for being the cause of her supposed degradation but again foregrounds his own suffering as the brother of a fallen woman. 

Harue, by contrast, is presented as a the soul of properness, not unkind but disapproving. In a difficult conversation with Chikako, she admits it’s not the right thing to say but immediately pities Ryoichi rather than sympathising with another woman who has found herself making difficult choices solely on his behalf. Ryoichi rejects her suffering and sees only the shame. Yet Chikako is not ashamed. She does not seem unhappy with her choices and is defiant in the face of censure. She hoped that Ryoichi would one day understand, but the decision he makes is cruel and selfish, ruining all her hope and rendering her long years of suffering void. She resents his cowardice in being unable to face and accept the truth in the depth of her love for him. 

In this instance, the family fails but only because of an oppressive social structure that is inherently unequal and refuses to accept either female agency or sacrifice. Chikako lives in a world of film noir despair, haunted by ominous shadows – policemen’s swords, gloves against the shoji, nooses in shadows on the walls, a boiling kettle giving way to a pillow shot of smoke pouring from a chimney in funereal foreshadowing that forever traps her in impossibility. Frustrated, Ryoichi tries to reassert his manhood through physical violence but remains impotent, dependent on his sister but resenting her for shaming him in transgressing against an oppressive society. Meanwhile, Chikako is one of many women of Tokyo enduring the same old tragedies, her suffering barely registers. Reporters leave her door giggling after concluding there’s nothing to see here before taking to the streets in search of greater scandal in a readily devolving city filled with only emptiness and despair. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Street of Love and Hope (愛と希望の街, Nagisa Oshima, 1959)

“You must sell your pigeons or you can’t survive in this world” a less progressive figure than he first seemed eventually admits in Nagisa Oshima’s ironically titled debut feature Street of Love and Hope (愛と希望の街, Ai to Kibo no Machi). As might be expected given the director’s later trajectory, there is precious little love or hope on offer and it seems his particular brand of grumpy pessimism ruffled studio feathers from the very beginning earning him a sixth month directing ban with a top executive complaining “this film is saying the rich and poor can never join hands”. The executive may have had a point in the increasing inequalities of the post-war society in which humanist hypocrisy offers only entrenched division and inevitable class conflict. 

As the film opens, the hero, Masao (Hiroshi Fujikawa), is selling his sister’s beloved pet pigeons because, as his social worker later explains, welfare payments are not enough to live on and his mother Kuniko (Yuko Mochizuki), who usually shines shoes for a living, has TB which leaves her unable to work. Kuniko is keen for Masao to stay in education and attend high school, but he acutely feels the burden on his mother and intends to work while attending evening classes. The trouble begins when Masao sells his pigeons to a wealthy young lady, Kyoko (Yuki Tominaga), who is the teenage daughter of an electronics factory boss. 

Well-meaning as she is, Kyoko tries to give Masao the change from her purchase after he explains he’s selling the birds because he needs money. Ironically she gives one of them to her sickly younger brother, but the problem is that Masao is effectively running a scam. The birds are homing pigeons. Assuming the new owners don’t cage them in properly, the birds will fly right back home and he can sell them again. He’s already done this a couple of times and is at least conflicted about it, especially as it upsets his sister Yasue (Michio Ito) so much, though what else really is he supposed to do?

This central question is the one that eventually comes between Masao’s progressive schoolteacher Miss Akiyama (Kakuko Chino) and Kyoko’s sympathetic older brother Yuji (Fumio Watanabe) who works in HR at his father’s factory. Another of Oshima’s mismatched, ideologically opposed frustrated couples, Miss Akiyama and Yuji find themselves on either side of a divide. It seems that the factory does not ordinarily employ city boys, preferring to recruit from the countryside and house employees in dorms because the boss is convinced rural youth is less corrupted by amoral urbanity. Hoping to help Masao, Kyoko and Miss Akiyama team up to convince him to change his mind and give Masao a chance, but they eventually fail him during the exam because it accidentally uncovers his pigeon scam and therefore proves the boss’ point. 

That isn’t all it exposes, however, as even the seemingly progressive Yuji expresses some extremely outdated, quite offensive prejudices even as he insists they didn’t fail Masao because he comes from a single-parent family. According to the boss, children of “broken families” become “twisted human beings” which is unfortunate because “corporations value stability”. Even while not disagreeing with his father’s logic, Yuji explains that he can’t employ Masao not because of his fatherless status but because he’s fundamentally dishonest as proved by his pigeon scam. Miss Akiyama who’d previously described him as the kind of boy who never lies, is shocked but later reflects on his circumstances and her own. In its own ways, her life is also hard and she can see how it might happen that she too may have to “sell her pigeons” (a handy piece of wordplay hingeing on the fact the Japanese for pigeon, “hato”, sounds similar to the English word “heart”) in order to survive. She can forgive Masao for doing the same in the knowledge he had no other choice, but believes Yuji wouldn’t nor would he forgive her if he discovered that she too had sold herself. She cannot be in a relationship with a man who is so “heartless” and unforgiving and it is this which creates the unbreachable gulf between them itself informed by their differing socioeconomic circumstances. 

These differences in standing are also brought out in the youthful idealism of Kyoko who wholeheartedly believes she can help Masao by giving him money and then trying to improve his circumstances by getting him a job in her father’s factory. Both her father and her brother dismiss her altruistic desire to help as childish, Yuji pointing out that there are millions of poor people not just one and you can’t help them all, while their cynicism is eventually validated in the exposure of Masao’s “fraud” which accidentally brands those living in difficult economic circumstances as duplicitous criminals even as it directly implies that it is an unfair society which turns honest boys like Masao who never lie and just want to take care of their mothers into “heartless” bird traffickers. You can see why Shochiku didn’t like it, the hope of the post-war era shot down by the gun of a conflicted industrialist. 


Record of a Tenement Gentleman (長屋紳士録, Yasujiro Ozu, 1947)

There are no real villains in the world of Ozu, though the immediate post-war world does its best to create them despite the best efforts of those quietly trying to live amidst the devastation. The misleadingly titled Record of a Tenement Gentleman (長屋紳士録, Nagaya Shinshiroku), the Japanese title a more ironic “a tenement who’s who”, is, like Hen in the Wind, a kind of manifesto statement for the postwar era only a much warmer one which looks forward to Ozu’s celebrated family dramas as its decidedly frosty heroine finds her emotional floodgates breached by the unexpected arrival of a problematic little boy. 

The little boy, Kohei (Hohi Aoki), is brought home by tenement gentleman Tashiro (Chishu Ryu) who found him wandering around in the town after becoming separated from his father. Tashiro’s roommate Tamekichi (Reikichi Kawamura) is unwilling to shelter the boy and so they decide to foist him on the grumpy old woman opposite, Tane (Choko Iida), who doesn’t want him either but is left with little choice. Tane is quickly angry with the boy because he wets the bed, ruining her spare futon, and tries to convince another neighbour who already has three children to take him in instead but is tricked into taking him back to the place he was previously living after Tamekichi rigs a game of straws. Travelling with him in the hope of finding his father, Tane wanders bombed out Tokyo and comes to the conclusion that Kohei’s dad has most likely abandoned him. 

A widow with no other family, or so it would seem, Tane is a cold and wily woman supporting herself with a small tenement shop. A sharp contrast is drawn when a childhood friend of hers, Kiku (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), arrives to ask about the best way to acquire a hose and shares some dorayaki sweets which have become a rare luxury in an age of rationing and privation. Kiku has married well and become a fine lady, not quite boasting but obviously very pleased with the walnut dressing table she had made with the mirror Tane helped her get on a previous occasion. Still, Tane is not embittered or especially unhappy just cynical and used to practicality. She didn’t see herself as the maternal type and had been intent mainly on ensuring her own survival.

Even so, she is touched and saddened to think a man might abandon his child even if she herself did not want to be burdened with him. She often scolds Kohei, frightening him with her stern expression, but later apologises when Tameshiro takes the blame for supposedly eating some of the persimmons Tane was drying at the window, even handing him the remaining fruit from the line. Talking with Kiku she recalls her own childhood as happy and carefree, tugging on her parents’ sleeves asking for pocket money while Kohei’s pockets are filled with cigarette butts and nails for the carpenter father Tane is sure has abandoned his son. This last fact is the one that finally touches her heart. Despite his fear and his hurt, Kohei has continued to think of his father and has been selflessly collecting little presents on his behalf to give to him when they are reunited. 

The innocence and selflessness of children is further emphasised by the son of a neighbour winning a prize in the lottery leading some of the other residents to insist that children are more likely to win precisely because they enter with a pure heart not with the intention of winning or monetary gain. Tane tries the theory out by making Kohei buy a lottery ticket with money Kiku had given him as a treat but of course he doesn’t win and Tane is upset, blaming him for not being as goodhearted as she’d assumed, but later giving him the money back when he bursts into tears (which is something he does often, perhaps understandably but out of keeping with the mentality of the times). Nevertheless, despite herself Tane becomes fond of the boy and even begins to think about adopting him as her own son. 

Eventually Kohei’s father returns, but Tane’s conversion is so complete and absolute that the tears she cries are not in lament for herself but in happiness to know that the boy’s father was not the awful man she thought he was but a doting parent distraught at the thought of his missing son. She is moved by the happiness they must feel in their reunion and realises that her time with Kohei has taught her many things, not least among them that she has allowed the times to cool her heart. The post-war world, the ruins and devastation we can glimpse beyond the tenement, has forced people to become self-interested, little caring if others starve so long as they aren’t hungry. She regrets that she wasn’t warmer to the boy when he arrived, and wishes we could all be more like children kind to others without thinking of ourselves. Cementing what would come to be his iconic signature style, Ozu ends, somewhat uncharacteristically, on a melancholy scene of street children, a crowd of war orphans abandoned by the society which created them through militarist folly. As much a chronicle of everyday life in the ruins of a major city, Record of a Tenement Gentleman is also an unsubtle argument for post-war humanism in a society it sees as in danger of failing to learn from past mistakes. 


Tokyo Bay (東京湾, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1962)

Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with the thriller and particularly with its lower end as a purveyor of B-movie noir, yet look a little closer and his films are perhaps not really about crime at all but about the complicated relationships between people in the ever changing post-war society. Just as Stakeout is really about a policeman’s marriage, Tokyo Bay (東京湾, Tokyowan) is less concerned with the radiating corruption of the smuggling ring at its centre than with frustrated male friendship and the wartime legacy.

Opening with an aerial pan over post-war Tokyo, a title card informs us that this is just one frame in the “intense struggle for existence” in a city of 10 million before we arrive at the titular bay and a boat which is presumably carrying drugs later passed from one hand to another. The fixer, Takeyama (Kei Sato), talks to a man in a car and instructs him to be in front of the Taiyo building before 10am to pick up a golf bag from his contact. Gazing up at a post-war construction site, however, the man, Saeki (Jun Hamamura), is shot in the head and killed by a bullet piercing the roof of his car, Nomura suddenly switching to a disorientating POV shot as he twists in a sudden death spiral. 

As it turns out, Saeki was a plant, an undercover cop with the drugs squad sent to expose the smuggling ring the shadowy owners of which will predictably turn out to have Chinese connections in another echo of post-war cinema’s continuing Sinophobia. Two officers are assigned to the case, the young and earnest Akine (Jiro Ishizaki), and the veteran Sumikawa (Ko Nishimura) who acts largely on a series of inexplicable policeman’s hunches. Their major lead, however, comes as a stroke either of dumb luck or dark fate as Sumikawa, dodging into a dodgy mahjong parlour while tailing Takeyama, runs into an old army buddy, Inoue (Isao Tamagawa), who just happens to be a left-handed sniper perfectly matching the profile of the man they’ve been looking for. 

While Sumikawa keeps tabs on his old friend, somehow feeling he has something to do with all this but ambivalent in his torn responsibilities, Akine travels to Inoue’s hometown of Onomichi and sympathetically concludes that he was merely “rather unfortunate”. His life derailed by the war, Inoue returned to discover the girl he hoped to marry had married someone else. Giving evidence at Inoue’s trial for pulling a knife on her husband, the young woman remarks that she never promised him anything and did not consider their relationship to be serious, merely treating him with the politeness due to someone about to leave for war. In any case, she asks, even if she had been in love and intended to wait for him, as an orphaned woman there were only two choices open to her to survive, marriage or sex work, what else could she have done?

Back in Tokyo, Sumikawa begins to catch up with his old friend, realising that his romantic disappointment set him on a dark course of bad relationships and a drift towards crime but that he seems to have turned himself around. He is now happily married to a woman he describes as “simple” who seems devoted to him and if he did this, he did it to start again. His one last job intended to take him back to Onomichi, a pleasant coastal town the bay of which he describes as far more beautiful than that of the grimy, industrial Tokyo and largely untouched by urban corruption. Sumikawa feels himself torn, not least on account of the debt that exists between the two men because Inoue once saved his life, but also knowing that he may have to arrest this man and destroy his attempt to return to a more innocent world leaving his wife alone. Disapproving of the nascent relationship between his younger sister Yukiko (Hiromi Sakaki) and his partner, Sumikawa worries Akine may be becoming the kind of man who cares more for making an arrest than friendship, a conflict presumably weighing on his mind, even as he agrees he’s a good man and a good police officer. Yukiko meanwhile fires back that Sumikawa’s wife left him not because he is a policeman but because he is selfish and arrogant, and more to the point incapable of understanding a woman’s feelings. 

Nevertheless, he’s acutely aware of the effect his actions or inactions may have on Inoue’s wife Yoshiko (Kyoko Aoi), especially as it’s suggested she may need a degree of looking after. Inoue, careful to admit nothing, reveals that the man who carried out the hit may not have known he was killing a police officer but may have assumed the target was fair game being, like themselves, a denizen of the underworld. Largely a MacGuffin, the smuggling ring is not as important as one might assume, the two men locked into a cycle of guilt and retribution each marked by wartime trauma and in a sense unable to claim their place in the post-war society. Twin betrayals lead to a fateful, train-bound showdown shot with fraught claustrophobia as each man engages in an intense struggle for his survival but also perhaps already defeated in a shared sense of fatalistic nihilism. Trekking through the half-constructed streets of the post-war city with shaky handheld Nomura hints at the radiating corruption exemplified by the growth of the trade in drugs, but perhaps one corruption is merely the result of another which may in turn be far less easy to cure. 


That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, Yasujiro Ozu, 1930)

Most closely associated with his late career family dramas, Yasujiro Ozu has acquired a reputation for geniality which may in a sense be slightly unfair. He was always an astute chronicler of his times, often choosing to view them through the frame of family, and was never as blind to the issues of the day as some would have it. Ozu’s ‘30s work, that which survives at least, is in a sense fiercely political in its critique of the inequalities of the depression-era society. One of his early crime movies, the silent That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, Sono yo no Tsuma) insists that justice must be done but does so with compassion in its full and total empathy for a man driven to extremes by the depth of his paternal love. 

Indeed, the early part of the film is tense noir chase as the hero, desperate father Shuji (Tokihiko Okada), attempts to evade a police dragnet to make his way home after robbing a bank to get money to pay for his sick daughter Michiko’s (Mitsuko Ichimura) medical care. Meanwhile, loyal wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo) has been patiently waiting at home tending to the child who refuses to sleep because she only wants her father and constantly asks where he is. Shuji eventually makes it back and tells his horrified wife what he has done, agreeing that he will turn himself in to the police once Michiko is well, but he’s already out of luck. The taxi he darted into was being driven by an undercover cop (Chishu Ryu) who installs himself in the apartment but agrees to wait until the doctor comes in the morning before taking Shuji in. 

Out of keeping with the rest of Ozu’s career but very much in the vein of his depression-era silents, That Night’s Wife concerns a poor but happy family mustering what little resources they have in the face of despair. Filled with tension as the policeman waits impatiently, the camera pans around the one room apartment where the family live and finds it to be a homely, bohemian space, apparently an artist’s studio with foreign film posters and travel souvenirs hanging from the walls. By all indications a starving painter, Shuji is a poor man brought to ruin by accidental tragedy. His daughter is deathly ill and doctors cost money. We can see that, by the standards of the time, he is a very hands on father beloved by his little girl and is obviously willing to sacrifice himself and his future to ensure her survival

It’s Mayumi, however, to whom the film’s title refers and in her role as wife rather than mother. The doctor (Tatsuo Saito) worries that she has not slept in the last few days, how could she when her child is so ill, but it’s she who eventually picks up the gun to protect the family by disarming the policeman and, essentially, keeping him hostage until the morning when, she claims, Shuji will willingly go with him after confirming Michiko’s survival. The world is turned upside down, no one quite plays the role they’ve been assigned. The loving father, an effete artist, turns unconvincing master criminal, the loyal wife gangster’s moll, and the policeman a calm and compassionate guardian deeply moved by the family’s predicament but also knowing that the law must be served. 

In a typically Ozu touch, the policeman pretends to be asleep with the intention of letting Shuji escape, but he once again makes an atypical choice. He refuses to run, swearing off “crazy ideas” but unrepentant in his crime. Shuji determines to pay his debt to society so that he can return home as a redeemed father and hold his daughter as a man unburned by his transgression. The message isn’t so much that crime doesn’t pay as that crime must be paid for. Shuji is acquitted in the moral courts of the audience’s hearts and not even the policeman blames him for what he has done which is all he could do as a father in an oppressive and indifferent society. A strange complicity develops between the two men who are restored to their original roles, both acknowledging that of the other and sorry for what they each know must happen next but already resigned. The father saves his family only through accepting his exile from it, but unlike Ozu’s wandering fathers of the 1930s, seems destined to return after redeeming himself in the eyes of a society which had long since abandoned him. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

The Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1964)

Little known outside of Japan, Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with post-war noir and particularly with adaptations of Seicho Matsumoto’s detective novels, yet he had a wide and varied filmography directing in several genres including musicals and period dramas. The son of silent movie director Hotei Nomura, he spent the bulk of his career at Shochiku which had and to some degree still has a strong studio brand which leans towards the wholesome even if his own work was often in someway controversial such as in the shocking child abuse drama The Demon or foregrounding of leprosy in Castle of Sand. Part of the studio’s series of double-length epics, 1964’s Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Goben no Tsubaki) is nevertheless an unusual entry in Nomura’s filmography, adapting a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto essentially setting a policier in feudal Japan and perhaps consequently shot largely on stage sets rather than on location. 

Nomura opens with artifice as Shino (Shima Iwashita) stares daggers at an actor on the stage but later returns to his rooms every inch the giggling fan before finally offing him with her ornate silver hairpin leaving behind only the blood red camellia of the title. The first in a series of killings later branded the Camellia Murders, we later realise that the actor had to die because of his illicit relationship with Shino’s mother whom he brands a “nympho” and as we later discover had several extra-marital lovers. Extremely close to her father who, as we’re told, perished in a fire while resting in the country due to his terminal tuberculosis, Shino is apparently on a quest for revenge against the faithless men who humiliated him though her feelings towards her mother seem far more complex. 

Indeed, Shino regards her mother’s carrying on as “dirty” and seems particularly prudish even as she wields her sex appeal as a weapon in her quest for vengeance. Yet it’s not so much the free expression of sexuality which seems to be at fault but excess and irresponsibility. Shino resents her mother primarily for the ways in which she made her father suffer, off having fun with random men while he shouldered the burden of her family business which, Shino might assume, has contributed to his illness. Aoki (Go Kato), the Edo-era policeman to whose narrative perspective the second half turns, advances a similar philosophy in that there’s nothing wrong with having fun, he has fun at times too, but people have or at least should have responsibilities towards each other which the caddish targets of the Camellia Killer have resolutely ignored. He can’t say that he condones the killer’s actions, but neither can he condemn them because her motivations are in a sense morally justifiable. 

Realising the end is near, Shino indulges in a very modern serial killer trope in leaving a note for Aoki alongside one of her camellias in which she claims that she is exacting vengeance for “crimes not punishable by law”. There was nothing legally wrong in the way these men treated her mother or any other woman, but it is in a sense a moral crime. “You’re a woman and I’m a woman too” she later tells another scorned lover, a mistress thrown over by her patron with two small children after he tired of her, as she hands over a large sum of money and encourages her to return to her family in the country. Shino’s quest is essentially feminist, directed against a cruel and patriarchal society in which the use and abuse of women is entirely normalised, yet it is also slightly problematic in her characterisation of her mother as monstrous in her corrupted femininity for daring to embrace her sexuality in exactly the same way as her male counterparts though they, ironically, mainly seem to have been after her money rather than her body. 

Shino’s mother’s death is indeed regarded as “punishment from heaven” presumably for her sexual transgressions and neglect of her family, rejecting both the roles of wife and mother in a ceaseless quest for pleasure. Yet even in her resentment, Shino’s ire is directed firmly at the men taking the last of her targets to task when he justifies himself that women enjoy sex too and are therefore equally complicit by reminding him that he gets his moment of pleasure for free but the woman may pay for it for the rest of her life. Just as Shino’s mother neglected her family, the men harm not only their wives in their illicit affairs but cause concurrent damage to the mistresses they may later disown and the illegitimate children they leave behind. Abandoning the naturalism of his contemporary crime dramas for something much more akin to a ghost film with his eerie lighting transitions and grim tableaux of the skewered victims, Nomura crafts a melancholy morality tale in which the wronged heroine turns the symbol of constrained femininity back on the forces of oppression but is eventually undone by the unintended consequences of her quest for vengeance even as she condemns the architect of her misfortune to madness and ruin. 


I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Tai Kato, 1968)

Nephew of Sadao Yamanaka, Tai Kato joined Toho as an apprentice in 1937, returning after the war training under Daisuke Ito and Akira Kurosawa, but later moved to Toei where he became closely associated with ninkyo eiga yakuza movies and jidaigeki. From the mid-1960s, however, he made several movies at Shochiku which had, it has to be said, a house style that was almost the polar opposite with a clear focus on polite, family-friendly melodrama. 1968’s I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Minagoroshi no Reika) meanwhile is a surprisingly dark affair even among the grittier examples of Shochiku’s similarly themed B-movie thrillers, an avant-garde noir and proto-giallo in which the fugitive, serial killer antihero sees himself as an agent of divine justice in a hellish and immoral post-war landscape. 

Kato opens with a shocking scene of sexualised violence in which a woman is knocked unconscious, stripped, bound with telephone cord, and finally revived, forced to write down the names of four other women before being brutally raped and murdered by a killer whose voice we have not yet heard nor face seen. The police are mystified, attributing the woman’s death to the fact that she had worked as a bar hostess and maybe things like this are an occupational hazard for women who are surrounded by too many men. Her landlord, however, laments that hers is the second death to occur recently after a laundry boy threw himself off the roof. All things considered, he wishes the boy had picked somewhere else. 

The police have no reason to connect the two unfortunate events and so remain largely clueless, but we gradually become aware that the killer, Kawashima (Makoto Sato), is targeting the women because he holds them directly responsible for the boy’s death. He is the inspector that calls, avenging the death of this young man who, he has learned, like him hailed from Hokkaido and had come to the city at only 16 years old to earn money to support his family, saving almost all of his wages in the hope of opening a shop. Kato shows us scenes of a city under construction, a land of girders casting shadows on the ground like prison bars trapping men like these who are building the new Japan but will be discarded as soon the job is done and their labour no longer so much in demand. Kawashima has another reason for living like this, but he perhaps admires something pure and innocent in the desire of a young man leaving home to seek his fortune so that he might take care of those he loves and that this world betrayed that desire is something he finds impossible to forgive.

The five women have apparently done quite well for themselves, despite the fact that more than one of them has worked on the fringes of the sex trade. Their treatment of the boy is attributed to their boredom in the relative ease of their lives as monied women with little to occupy their time other than getting their kicks abusing the less powerful. It’s an uncomfortable role reversal that places women in a position of power and then sees them abuse it in the exact same way that men do, slinging back the same pithy justifications that men offer for sexual violence while the police meditate on the relative connotations of rape when the word is applied to a man at the hands of women rather than the other way around. If it were their sister, they could understand the desire to kill the men who had done it but a part of them struggles to see that a teenage boy may still find unwanted sexual contact a traumatic enough experience to push him towards suicide. 

Yet Kawshima appears to have no real connection to the boy, and his “revenge” is also a product of his misogyny in that as we later learn he also has reason to feel betrayed by womanhood and is already on the run from previous crime. Nevertheless, he is drawn to the innocent Haruko (Chieko Baisho), a girl-next-door type who works in his favourite ramen restaurant, only to discover that she too has a dark and violent past which may be why she seems to be drawn to him. He struggles with himself, but believes that he is taking revenge on a brutalising society defined by violence and abuse while sublimating his sense of emasculation in the face of women’s growing social and sexual freedoms in the post-war era. It is perhaps the post-war era which is cast as the major villain, one of the women later escaping her protective custody to dance furiously a hip nightclub only to return to the scene of her crime while refusing to see that she has done anything so “wrong” as to merit this kind of persecution. 

“The cycle of divine punishment must be fulfilled” Kawashima finally laments, acknowledging his grim place within this series of post-war tragedies. Surprisingly avant-garde, Kato experiments with blown out negatives, extreme close up, and deep focus mixed with his characteristic low angle composition to add to the sense of noirish dread which paints the modern city as an inescapable hellscape while even the romantic place of refuge shared by Kawashima and Haruko is a gothic moorland lit by moonlight and filled with eerie mist. Lurid and sweaty, the film has a grim sense of humour even in its oppressive atmosphere with a running gag devoted to the lead investigator’s painful case of piles, but its overriding fatalism nevertheless offers the hero a sense of redemption if only in acceptance of his narrative destiny.