Souls on the Road (路上の霊魂, Minoru Murata, 1921)

vlcsnap-2017-12-09-00h26m35s417Minoru Murata was one of the most important figures in early Japanese cinema but as the majority of his 36 films are lost and he sadly died at the young age of 43 in 1937, his work has largely been over looked outside of scholarly circles. Starting his career as an actor in the “shingeki” movement which aimed to bring modern, naturalist theatre to Japanese stages, Murata first performed in Norimasa Kaeriyama’s “Pure Films” in 1918 before joining Shochiku’s acting school on the recommendation of playwright Kaoru Osanai. The “Pure Film” movement, like the Shingeki movement in theatre, sought to create a new more modern Japanese cinema as opposed to the overly theatrical, kubuki influenced productions of the time. Souls on the Road (路上の霊魂, Rojo no Reikon), an early directorial effort for Murata in which he also stars, was made for Shochiku and is very much influenced by the Pure Film Movement as well as foreign cinema from Europe and America.

The narrative of Souls on the Road is adapted from two foreign literature sources – Gorky’s play The Lower Depths and the German novel Mutter Landstrasse, das Ende einer Jugend by Wilhelm August Schmidtbonn. Influenced by the work of D.W. Griffith, Murata cuts between the stories of four interconnected groups of people – a failed violinist who returns home to his family with a wife and daughter in tow, two escaped convicts hiding out in the woods, the local master and his servants including a young woodcutter played by the director, and a wealthy young girl.

The central drama revolves around the musician who left home under a cloud to become a concert violinist in Tokyo but failed to make a success of himself. Despite having a fiancée at home, Koichiro (Denmei Suzuki) has married a Tokyo woman (Haruko Sawamura) and has a young daughter. Desperate and starving, the trio have made the snowbound journey back to Koichiro’s Hokkaido village largely on foot but Koichiro’s father (Kaoru Osanai) who is the master of a large estate refuses to help him. The former fiancée, Mitsuko (Ryuko Date), who is also Koichiro’s cousin, still lives with the master and is distressed by Koichiro’s return. Battling her own emotional pain, she wants to help Koichiro’s wife and daughter who are obviously in a bad way, but is also conditioned by the need to obey the master’s instructions even when they seem cruel and immoral.

Murata bookends the film with direct quotes – firstly from Gorky’s play and then from the Bible emphasising the need for human compassion. The master’s refusal to help his son is directly contrasted with the fate of the two convicts who cross Koichiro’s path in the forest. The two men originally try to rob Koichiro, but seeing that they too have nothing and the little girl is close to starving, the convicts give up their own food to help them. When they chance upon house they remain conflicted about trying to rob it – they don’t want to end up back in prison and they don’t want to steal but they are also starving and have no other options. The custodian of the house catches them in the act and enacts a sadistic punishment but later changes his mind and decides to help them.

Meanwhile, one of the master’s servants, a boy named Taro (played by director Minoru Murata), runs into the rebellious young mistress of a local estate (Yuriko Hanabusa) who dresses in a sailor suit and gleefully shoots her minder with an air gun to avoid having to go home. The young mistress strikes up a cross class friendship with Taro and invites him to the Christmas party she is organising at her mansion to which pretty much everyone is invited regardless of class origins or backgrounds. The young mistress’ “Christmas Party” might seem incongruous for a rural town in the Japan of 1921 and does indeed take on the trappings of Russian literature with the mummers and balalaika players replaced with traditional Yagibashi dancers, but the party itself seems to have no particular religious dimension as the young mistress dreams of being visited by Santa and a small shot of Mitsuko seeming to pray as Koichiro’s wife and daughter lie freezing in a barn is the only hint of a real presence of Christian thought outside of the overt references in the framing sequences and overall Christianising morality of the film as a whole.

Murata’s signature approach mixes an entrenched naturalism of location shooting and realistic performances with expressionistic techniques. Literally “souls” on the road, Murata introduces as series of ghosts using dissolves and superimpositions as the protagonists are haunted by alternate pasts and futures or even by themselves as Koichiro finds himself interrogated by the hopeful violinist who left with big dreams but has brought his wife and child to the brink of starvation and death from cold in a barn steps away from his childhood home. Somewhat heavy handed in its closing moments as Taro wonders what might have been if the master had been more forgiving and welcomed his son home instead of punishing him for leaving, and the young mistress wonders what might have happened to the convicts if the custodian had not taken pity on them, Souls on the Road is an early visionary masterpiece far ahead of its time which looks forward to a new kind of Japanese cinema.


Elegy of the North (挽歌, Heinosuke Gosho, 1957)

elegy of the north posterHeinosuke Gosho is perhaps among the most neglected Japanese directors of the “golden age”. A pioneer of the “shomingeki”, Gosho’s work is marked by a profound humanism but also a refusal to reduce the complexity of human emotions to the superficially immediate. Elegy of the North (挽歌, Banka) takes him much further in the direction of standard melodrama than he would usually venture, echoing contemporary American or European romantic dramas filled with soaring scores and moments of intense emotion bridged by long periods of restraint and repression. Yet it is also among the most psychologically complex of Gosho’s narratives, telling stories of death and rebirth in place of the usual coming of age and first heartbreak for which the genre is so well loved. In Reiko (Yoshiko Kuga) he presents us with a heroine we can’t be sure we like and certainly are not intended to approve of even as we sympathise with her pain and long for an end to her (often self inflicted) suffering.

Walking along the smoking volcanic soil of frozen Hokkaido, Reiko offers us the first of many voiceovers in which she tells us about her left arm – withered and almost numb due to childhood arthritis. When her withered arm is bitten by a dog, Nellie, owned by a melancholy architect, Katsuragi (Masayuki Mori), she barely feels it but Katsuragi is mortified. “She’s never bitten anyone before”, he tells Reiko by way of explanation, “I’ve never been bitten before”, Reiko fires back but bitten she certainly has been. Captivated by the idea of Katsuragi, she doesn’t immediately take him up on the offer of coming to his house and possibly adopting a puppy but catches sight of him around town and then decides to pay him a visit. He isn’t in, but Akiko (Mieko Takamine), his wife, is. Reiko didn’t want to see Katsuragi’s wife so she makes a speedy escape.

Having caught sight of Akiko, Reiko is equally intrigued. Akiko, as Reiko discovers, is having an (unhappy) affair with a much younger medical student, Tatsumi (Fumio Watanabe). Failing to read the emotional landscape of this sorry scene, Reiko regards this information as a juicy piece of gossip in her ongoing campaign to win over Katsuragi. She spies on the lovers, childishly eavesdropping on them in a local cafe, even suddenly delivering their coffee for them so she can get a proper look at Akiko – not that she really sees her or the distraught look on her face, she merely observes her rival – the wicked woman who has betrayed her beloved Katsuragi.

Reiko is constantly berated by her father and grandmother for her unwomanliness. Compared with the typical Japanese woman of the time and particularly with the stoic yet miserable Akiko, Reiko can certainly be thought unusual. Dressing in androgynous loose trousers, polo neck jumper and overcoat, without makeup and with unkempt hair, her aesthetic is one of rambunctious child or rebellious teenager. Her habit of throwing out awkward, inappropriate questions at first seems like childish ineptness but later seems calculated to unbalance. She is often cruel, perhaps deliberately so, but then remorseful (if only for selfish reasons). Though Reiko seems to feel that it’s her disability that marks her out as an outcast, unfit for marriage or a “normal” life, her family appear much more concerned with her unconventional rejection of femininity in her boldness, masculine dress, and refusal to learn the traditionally feminine crafts of housework and cookery so necessary to becoming the ideal wife.

What Reiko sees in Akiko is an image of her idealised self – beautiful, poised, elegant, and the wife of Katsuragi. As part of her nefarious plan, Reiko decides to “befriend” Akiko while Katsuragi is away on a business trip. What she never expected is that she would come to genuinely care for both Akiko and the couple’s small daughter Kumiko (Etsuko Nakazato), making her position as a potential home wrecker impossible. Reiko’s father blames himself for her unwomanliness, having raised her alone after his wife died, denying her of a maternal influence from whom she would have learned all the essentials of femininity which she now seems to lack. Akiko, a few years older, becomes both friend and surrogate mother – Reiko even begins calling her “Mamma” just as Kumiko does. Akiko’s distant poise begins to thaw when Reiko crawls in through her door one night after contracting pneumonia. Nursing Reiko as a mother would brings the two women closer together but it also unwittingly drives them apart in deepening Reiko’s sense of guilt in being torn between two loves in the knowledge that she must destroy one of them or herself.

Akiko, the tragic heroine of the piece, remains a cypher precisely because of her adherence to the rules of traditional femininity. Reiko is first drawn to her because of her sad smile – something she later brings up again in their fiercely undramatic yet heartrending parting scene as Reiko tries to undo the harm she has just done only for Akiko to mildly reject her by instructing her that she needs to take better care of herself. Her relationship with Katsuragi appears to have floundered and, trapped in a lonely marriage, Akiko has found herself in an emotionally draining entanglement with a younger man whose life she fears she is ruining. Tatsumi, needled, is irritated by Reiko’s buzzing around Akiko, asking her an awkward question of his own in accusing her of being a lesbian, to which Reiko gives one of her infuriately barbed replies with “call it what you want”. Reiko’s intentions probably do not run that way (at least consciously), so much as she longs for the love and affection she missed out on after losing her mother at such a young age. Akiko, however, may see things differently. Her life appears lonely, and her friendship with Reiko, whom she brands “reckless yet somehow cheerful” (again, like an infuriating child), is one of its few bright spots. The betrayal is not so much that Reiko has slept with her husband, but that Reiko has deliberately ruined their friendship by exposing it as a cruel ruse in the most wounding of ways. The last time we see Akiko, she is wearing the necklace that Reiko gave to her – a sure sign that her final decision is, in someway, taken on Reiko’s behalf.

Reiko’s tragedy is that her intense self loathing which she attributes to her withered arm, leads her to suspect each act of kindness is only one of pity and that no one can truly love her, they’re just overcompensating because of her “deformity”. At the beginning of the film she asks herself if her mind is as warped as her body. Her actions are often “warped”, as in she works against herself and ultimately destroys the very thing she wanted most yet there is a kind of settling that occurs through her interactions with Akiko. In the final sequence, Reiko has shed her dowdy, dark coloured, worn trousers and jumpers for an elegant skirt and blouse, and has learned to accommodate a certain level of domesticity. Even if she is merely echoing Akiko, Reiko has at least attempted to move forward in exploring the areas of femininity she had hitherto rejected outright. That it is not to say her “unusual” nature is tamed in favour of conforming to social norms, merely that a side of herself which she had decided to keep locked has been opened up for examination (and may then be rejected with greater self knowledge). Elegy of the North lives up to its name in singing a long and painful song of mourning, but Gosho ends on a note of hopeful, in pained, optimism for his contrary heroine, literally forced to move past the scene of her crime towards a possibly happier future.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Tadashi Imai, 1953)

inlet of muddy water dvd coverTadashi Imai was among the greatest directors of the golden age though his name remains far less known than contemporaries Ozu or Mizoguchi. Despite beginning in outright propaganda films during the war, Imai is best remembered as a staunchly left wing director whose films are known for their gritty realism and opposition to oppressive social codes. An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Nigorie) very much fits this bill in adapting three stories from Japanese author Ichiyo Higuchi. Higuchi is herself a giant figure of Japanese literature though little of her work has been translated into English. Like Imai’s films, Higuchi’s stories are known for their focus on female suffering and the prevailing social oppression of the late Meiji era which had seen many changes but not all for the better. Higuchi was not a political writer and her work does not attack an uncaring society so much as describe it accurately though her own early death from tuberculosis at only 24 certainly lends weight to the tragedy of her times.

In the first part of the film which is inspired by one of Higuchi’s best known stories, The Thirteenth Night, a young woman returns home to her parents, no longer able to bear living with an emotionally abusive husband. Oseki (Yatsuko Tanami) had been raised an ordinary, lower middle-class girl but, like many a heroine of feudal era literature, caught the eye of a prominent nobleman who determined to marry her despite their class difference. Life is not a fairytale, and so the nobleman quickly tired of his beautiful peasant wife, belittling her lowly status, lack of education, and failure to slot into the elite world he inhabits.

Oseki’s plight elicits ambivalent reactions in each of her parents though they both sympathise with her immensely, if in different ways. Her mother (Akiko Tamura) is heartbroken – having long believed her daughter to be living a blissful life of luxury, she feels terribly guilty not to have known she had been suffering all this time and believes Oseki has done the right thing in leaving. Her father (Ken Mitsuda), however, also feels sad but reacts in practicality, pointing out that to leave her husband now would mean losing her son forever and probably a long, lonely life of penury. He, somewhat coldly, tells her to go back, grin and bear it. Oseki can see his point and considers resigning herself to return if only to look after her son.

On her way home she runs into a childhood friend whom she might have married if things had not turned out the way they did. “Life gets in the way of the things we want to do”, she tells him by of explanation for not staying in touch. Rokunosuke (Hiroshi Akutagawa), once a fine merchant, is now a ragged rickshaw driver, bereaved father, and divorcee. Like Oseki his life is a tragedy of frustration with the added irritant that he and Oseki might have been happy together, rather than independently miserable, if an elite had not suddenly decided to interfere by crossing class lines just because he can rather than out of any genuine feeling.

The callousness of elites is also a theme in the second story, The Last Day of the Year, in which a young maid, Omine (Yoshiko Kuga), works for a wealthy household dominated by a moody, penny pinching mistress whose mistreatment of her staff is more indifference than deliberate scorn. Omine’s uncle, who raised her, has fallen ill. At the beginning of his illness he took out a loan but he’s got no better and still needs to pay it back so he asks Omine to ask the mistress for an advance of the paltry sum of two yen in the hope that his son will be able to enjoy a new year mochi like the other kids. The mistress says yes and then changes her mind, leaving Omine to consider a transgressive act of social justice.

Where The Thirteenth Night and The Last Day of the Year pointed the finger at uncaring elites, Troubled Waters broadens its disdain to the entire world of men in focussing on two women caught on either side of the red light district – Oriki (Chikage Awashima), a geisha stalked by a ruined client, and the client’s wife, Ohatsu (Haruko Sugimura), who endures a life of penury thanks to her husband’s geisha obsession. Oriki’s sad story is recounted to a wealthy patron (So Yamamura) who is more fascinated in learning the secrets of her soul than her kimono, but like many of her age it begins with parental strife, orphanhood and perpetual imprisonment as a geisha wondering what will become of her when her looks fade and she’s no longer number one. She has no control over the men who spend time with her but is worried by Gen (Seiji Miyaguchi) who ruined himself buying her time and now stalks her in and around the inn. Infatuated and obsessed with Oriki, Gen has turned against his noble wife Ohatsu who is working herself to the bone to support the family while Gen has resorted to a life of casual labour but rarely does much of anything at all.

Recalling Higuchi’s famous diary, Imai opens each of the segments with a brief voiceover detailing the inconsequential details of the weather with a world weary, often melancholy tone as the writer laments too much time spent on fiction and resolves to tell the story of the world as it really is. There is no real connection or overarching theme which unites the three stories, save for the continued suffering of women at the hands of men and the society they have devised. Oseki must return to her abusive husband, Omine will continue to work for her heartless mistress, and Ohatsu will have to make do on her own after being so thoroughly let down by her husband. There is no recourse or escape, no path forward that will allow the women to break free of their oppression or even to learn to be free within it. Each of the stories is bleak, ending on a note of resignation and acceptance of one’s fate as terrible as that may be but Imai’s ending is most terrible of all, reminding us that today is simply another day and the heavy atmosphere of dread and oppression is certain to endure as long as we all remain resigned.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Noboru Nakamura, 1964)

(C) Shochiku 1964Despite having two films nominated for a best foreign language Oscar and a handful of foreign festival hits under his belt, Noboru Nakamura has been largely forgotten by Western film criticism though a centennial retrospective of three of his most well regarded films at Tokyo Filmex in 2013 has helped to revive interest. The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Yoru no Henrin), Nakamura’s 1964 Shochiku melodrama focussing on the suffocating life of a young woman pulled into the Tokyo red light district, was one of the three newly restored films featured and was also screened in Berlin and Venice to great acclaim. Making full use of its vibrant colour palate, The Shape of Night paints its city as a constant tormentor filled with artificial light and false promises.

As we meet her, melancholy street walker Yoshie (Miyuki Kuwano) has been trapped in her dead end existence for six years and has lost all hope of living a “normal” life filled with love and happiness. A chance encounter with a supercilious client, Fujii (Keisuke Sonoi), prompts her into a series of recollections in an effort to explain exactly how it was she ended up in such a sorry state. As the eldest daughter of a poor family Yoshie left school early to work in a factory (making those neon tubes you see everywhere) while supplementing her income by working as a barmaid (not a hostess, just a girl behind the bar). Just shy of her 20th birthday, she meets a handsome “salaryman”, Eiji (Mikijiro Hira), who starts coming to the bar regularly to see her. The pair became a couple, and then lovers, and then cohabiters, but Eiji isn’t a “salaryman” so much as a low level gangster with a gambling problem whose street name is “princess”. Continual losses put Eiji in a tight spot with his crew and he begins borrowing money from Yoshie before asking her to prostitute herself to get him out of a hole. Thinking it will just be a one time thing, Yoshie resolves to make a sacrifice for her man but, of course, it wasn’t a one time thing.

Yoshie’s story is a sadly familiar one – an innocent woman duped by a duplicitous man whose empty promises aim to mask his continued fecklessness. Eiji, despite his smart suits and coolly confident attitude, is unlikely to make much of himself in the yakuza world yet is as tied into its hellish system of loyalty and reciprocity as Yoshie is in her non-marriage to the man she thinks she loves. Seeking constant approval, Eiji thinks nothing of living off a woman and his childishly excited smile on re-entering the apartment after Yoshie has sacrificed herself to save his face is a grim reminder of his priorities. When pleading doesn’t work Eiji turns violent, prompting Yoshie to finally consider leaving him but she’s too late – the yakuza world has already got its hooks into her and any attempt to escape will be met with terrifying resistance.

Fujii may seem as if he presents another option for Yoshie, a chance for a better, kinder existence but he too is merely another man trying to tell her how she should live her life. Hypocritical at best (as he freely admits), Fujii pays Yoshie to “ease his sexual urges” but expresses disgust and disapproval of her lifestyle and seeks to “save” her from her life of humiliating immorality, “purifying” her just like the dam he is building is supposed to do to the Sumida river. Fujii’s obvious saviour complex is worrying enough in itself though there is also the additional worry of what his “salvation” may entail if Yoshie decides to make a break from her yakuza chains and run off to the comparative safety of provincial Hokkaido. Fujii may claim to have fallen in love with her, but so did Eiji and who’s to say Fujii’s idea of wedded bliss will be any better than Eiji’s brutal reign as a common law spouse.

The situation is further complicated by Eiji’s gradual shift from a violent, overbearing, abusive boyfriend to a genial figure of gentle domesticity and what that shift later provokes in Yoshie. Rendered physically impotent by an incident during a gang fight, Eiji is literally and figuratively emasculated. Though his sudden inability to satisfy Yoshie originally provokes his jealously, it soon robs him of his violent impulses and turns Eiji into a willing housewife who dutifully does the couple’s washing and prepares the meals much to Yoshie’s consternation. This transformation is what finally kills her love for him, but still Yoshie cannot find it in herself to sever her connection with the man who has been the cause of all her suffering. Not quite hate or loathing, Yoshie’s burned out love has become a burden of care as she finds herself duty bound to look after a man she now believes incapable of looking after himself.

While Yoshie and Eiji sit in a bar one night after “work”, the television plays a report featuring the sad news of the death of a female student at the ANPO demonstrations. Prompting Yoshie to exclaim “what is ANPO anyway?”, the news report lays bare just how isolated her life as become – as all of Tokyo is aflame with with righteous indignation and the streets are filled with the largest protest in living memory, Yoshie is trapped in her tiny neon world which promises so much and delivers so little.

Nakamura makes fantastic use of sound design to capture Yoshie’s interior world – the background music rising over the droning voice of a boring client who hasn’t quite made up his mind, the radio cutting out at intense moments of violence, the terrible clanging of Eiji’s geta on the iron staircase which leads to his flat. Fading into blue dissolves of memory, Nakamura makes a hellish wonderland of nighttime Tokyo whose flashing neon lights, crowded bars and oddly darkened streets turn it into a prison of dubious delights. Finally making a drastic decision, Yoshie attempts to free herself from her burdens and sever the chains which bind her to her misery but in cutting the cord she finds the knots tightening, realising she will never be released from the source of all her suffering.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Wedding Ring (婚約指環 (エンゲージリング), Keisuke Kinoshita, 1950)

(c) Shochiku Co., Ltd

wedding ring still 2Many things have changed in the post-war world, but not everything and even with the new freedoms there are some lines which cannot be crossed. Keisuke Kinoshita made his career considering where these lines are and examining the lives of those who find themselves standing in front of them. Starring the veteran actress Kinuyo Tanaka who also produces the film, and the very young and fresh faced Toshiro Mifune, Wedding Ring (婚約指環 (エンゲージリング), Konyaku Yubiwa (Engagement Ring)) is a classic melodrama filled with forbidden love, repressed passion, and societal constraints but Kinoshita brings to it his characteristic humanity expressing sympathy and understanding for all.

Noriko (Kinuyo Tanaka) has been married seven years but her husband, Michio (Jukichi Uno), was drafted shortly after the wedding and was not repatriated until two years after the war ended. A year after he returned, Michio fell ill and has been on extreme bed rest ever since. After her father-in-law’s retirement and her husband’s illness, running of the family jewellery store fell to Noriko and so she spends the week in Tokyo taking care of business and comes back to the seaside fishing village of Ajiro where Michiro lives for the benefit of his health at the weekends. Consequently, though the couple care for each other, the marriage has never really been given the chance to take hold and they remain more companions or good friends than husband and wife.

Things change when Michio gets a new physician, Dr. Ema (Toshiro Mifune), who literally falls into Noriko’s lap during a packed bus ride from the station. Where Michio is sickly and weak, Ema is physically imposing and in robust health. Ema lives in the peaceful resort town of Atami which is on the train route from Ajiro to Tokyo meaning that Noriko and Ema sometimes wind up on the same train, developing an obvious attraction to each other which they both know to be impossible but cannot bring themselves to abandon.

In many ways Noriko is the archetypal post-war woman – strong and independent she runs the family business singlehandedly and lives alone in the city while her husband remains in the country busying himself with writing poetry. Despite the difficult circumstances, Noriko is not particularly unhappy save being unfulfilled and perhaps craving the physical intimacy her husband can no longer offer her. Her first meeting with Ema brings something in Noriko back to life as she swaps her dowdy, dark coloured suits for looser, more colourful clothing and walks with a new found spring in her step.

This change in his wife has not escaped the attention of Michio who astutely notices that she seems to be “glowing” – a development he silently attributes to the presence of Dr. Ema. Michio does his best not to resent the doctor but internalises a deep seated feeling of guilt and inadequacy as he realises that he can no longer provide what his wife needs and has become an obstacle to her happiness. A sensitive man apparently marked by his wartime experiences, Michio is angry and jealous but also resents himself for feeling that way, deepening his depression and conviction that he is nothing but a burden to his wife who deserves a full marriage with a man who can satisfy all of her needs and desires.

Desire is certainly something Noriko feels as she gazes at Ema’s powerful hands, broad shoulders, and athletic physique. Clasping his sweaty jacket to her breast in desperation eventually gives way to accidentally bold physical contact as hands catch hands and Noriko finds herself caressing Ema’s shoulder as he prepares to dive back into the sea dressed only in his woollen trunks. Ema feels the same attraction but also understands that it cannot be, not least because he is Michio’s physician and has begun to have idle fantasies of being unable to save him, freeing Noriko from her unfulfilling marriage so they can finally be together. Both sensible people, Noriko and Ema are eventually able to discuss their feelings and social responsibilities in a mature fashion, agreeing that they cannot act on their desires even if they find them hard to relinquish.

Rather than wedding ring, the Japanese title of the film more accurately refers to an engagement ring. Noriko’s wedding ring never comes off, but the engagement ring with its large stone comes to represent her shifting allegiances. Discovering the ring abandoned on the dresser, Michio begins to understand he is losing his wife to the strapping young doctor whose healthy, powerful body he cannot help but envy. The camera seeks out Noriko’s hand, with or without the shiny diamond of the engagement ring, quickly signalling the current direction of her desires.

Michio, who cannot give full voice to his emotions, expresses himself through tanka poetry, something which the equally sensitive doctor can also understand and later makes use of himself in communicating the inexpressible delicacy of his feelings to the married woman with whom he has fallen in love. Torn between love and duty, Noriko and Ema battle their mutual passion while Michio battles his sense of self and feelings of ongoing inadequacy but Kinoshita refuses to condemn any of them, rejecting an angry showdown for a nuanced consideration of personal desire versus social responsibility. The conclusion may be conservative, but the journey is not as the trio eventually part friends even if with lingering sadness in accepting the choice that has been made and resolving to move forward in friendship rather than rancour.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Opening scene (no subtitles)

Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2017)

©2017 BEFORE WE VANISH FILM PARTNERS

before we vanish posterKiyoshi Kurosawa is getting sentimental in his old age. In Journey to the Shore and Real, brokenhearted, left behind spouses went on long and difficult journeys of grief and salvation. In Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha) we receive a visitation that presages our doom but wishes to know us before we go. An alien invasion movie which takes its cues from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and They Live, Kurosawa’s quirky drama is less about the enemy within than the hidden existential threat of a failure to understand oneself. As the Japanese title suggests, these invaders are merely out for a stroll, making time to smell the flowers before the big lawnmower arrives to cut them all down.

Strange events are afoot in Tokyo. A high school girl wanders home with a pair of goldfish in a plastic bag before brutally murdering her entire family, gazing at the scene of carnage with a beatific smile. Meanwhile, the estranged wife of Shinji Kase (Ryuhei Matsuda), Narumi (Masami Nagasawa), has been sent for to claim her presumably amnesiac husband from a medical facility. Shinji was brought in after wandering the streets cluelessly and seems to have lost certain sections of his memory. The doctor’s diagnosis is uncertain but leans towards some kind of temporary psychotic break or early onset Alzheimer’s. In any case, he is now Narumi’s responsibility, much to her consternation. Across town a down on his luck journalist (Hiroki Hasegawa) covering the brutal family murder finds himself the designated “guide” to another strange young man, Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), who seems to have done something very untoward to his parents.

These three “strangers” are really invaders from outer space – something which they freely confess to anyone who will listen, only everyone assumes they are joking. Exactly why they want to destroy the Earth is never revealed, nor is the the reason for the strange mission undertaken by the three researchers acting as the vanguard for the upcoming invasion. These three have been tasked with a thorough investigation of “humanity” in which they must learn and acquire certain “concepts”. They do this by requiring the subject to visualise their thinking behind a word or phrase and then tapping the head to pinch it causing that concept to be removed from the person’s interior cosmology.

The aliens learn as much from the effect of removing the concept as they do from its explanation. This being Japan, it’s not surprising that the first concept Shinji removes is that of “family” which he takes from Narumi’s younger sister, Asumi (Atsuko Maeda). Asumi had decamped to Narumi’s after an argument with her parents over their railroading her into a mainstream life she doesn’t really want. The removal of the concept of family means Asumi no longer needs to be bound by hollow obligation but her sudden coldness towards her sister immediately invites a series of other questions as to the true nature of their relationship. Similarly, Shinji removes a concept of “possession” from a young man. The young man does not immediately lose understanding of the word, but the concept ceases to be important to him. He is, in a sense, freed from the burden of materialism. Paying an unexpected visit to Narumi’s workplace and meeting her boss who, it seems, has just belittled her work on an important project after she rebuffed his attempt at sexual harassment, Shinji removes his concept of “work” leading him to play aeroplanes all around the office like an overexcited child.

There are positive effects of losing some of these centrally held ideas even if their loss seems tragic or painful on the surface. They are, however, what make us human whether that be attachment to family or an irrational desire to devote all to work and ceaseless acquisition. The final, most elusive concept is that of love – something alien and fascinating to the visitors which they find impossible to harvest due its essentially nebulous nature. Despite being part of a uniform hive mind, the invaders have each developed unique personality traits as a consequence of their “human” lives – the schoolgirl craves violence and destruction, Amano fatherly friendship, and Shinji something close to love with his own “guide” in the form of Narumi whose love for her husband apparently endured despite his betrayal.

Far from the gloomy nihilism of Pulse in which death is eternal loneliness, Before We Vanish suggests that what will survive of us is love. Salvation does, however, require a sacrifice which provokes the film’s romantic conclusion in which the absence of love becomes the “eternal loneliness” promised by Pulse but is tempered by patience and devotion. A gleefully absurdist exploration of the human soul, Before We Vanish finds Kurosawa at his most optimistic affirming the power of the human spirit at its most indestructible.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2011)

scabbard samuraiA samurai’s soul in his sword, so they say. What is a samurai once he’s been reduced to selling the symbol of his status? According to Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Sayazamurai) not much of anything at all, yet perhaps there’s another way of defining yourself in keeping with the established code even when robbed of your equipment. Hitoshi Matsumoto, one of Japan’s best known comedians, made a name for himself with the surreal comedies Big Man Japan and Symbol but takes a low-key turn in Scabbard Samurai, stepping back in time but also in comedic tastes as the hero tests his mettle as a showman in a high stakes game of life and death.

Nomi Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi) is a samurai on the run. Wandering with an empty scabbard hanging at his side, he pushes on into the wilderness with his nine year old daughter Tae (Sea Kumada) grumpily traipsing behind him. Eventually, Nomi is attacked by a series of assassins but rather than heroically fighting back as any other jidaigeki hero might, he runs off into the bushes screaming hysterically. Nomi and Tae are then captured by a local lord but rather than the usual punishment for escapee retainers, Nomi is given an opportunity to earn his freedom if only he can make the lord’s sad little boy smile again before the time is up.

Nomi is not exactly a natural comedian. He’s as sullen and passive as the little lord he’s supposed to entertain yet he does try to come up with the kind of ideas which might amuse bored children. Given one opportunity to impress every day for a period of thirty days, Nomi starts off with the regular dad stuff like sticking oranges on his eyes or dancing around with a face drawn on his chest but the melancholy child remains impassive. By turns, Nomi’s ideas become more complex as the guards (Itsuji Itao and Tokio Emoto) begin to take an interest and help him plan his next attempts. Before long Nomi is jumping naked through flaming barrels, being shot out of cannons, and performing as a human firework but all to no avail.

Meanwhile, Tae looks on with contempt as her useless father continues to embarrass them both on an increasingly large stage. Tae’s harsh words express her disappointment with in Nomi, berating him for running away, abandoning his sword and with it his samurai honour, and exposing him as a failure by the code in which she has been raised. She watches her father’s attempts at humour with exasperation, unsurprised that he’s failed once again. Later striking up a friendship with the guards Tae begins to get more involved, finally becoming an ally and ringmaster for her father’s newfound career as an artist.

Tae and the orphaned little boy share the same sorrow in having lost their mothers to illness and it’s her contribution that perhaps begins to reawaken his talent for joy. Nomi’s attempts at comedy largely fall flat but the nature of his battle turns out to be a different one than anyone expected. Tae eventually comes around to her father’s fecklessness thanks to his determination, realising that he’s been fighting on without a sword for all this time and if that’s not samurai spirit, what is? Nomi makes a decision to save his honour, sending a heartfelt letter to his little girl instructing her to live her life to the fullest, delivering a message he was unable to express in words but only in his deeds.

Matsumoto’s approach is less surreal here and his comedy more of a vaudeville than an absurd kind, cannons and mechanical horses notwithstanding. The story of a scabbard samurai is the story of an empty man whose soul followed his wife, leaving his vacant body to wander aimlessly looking for an exit. Intentionally flat comedy gives way to an oddly moving finale in which a man finds his redemption and his release in the most unexpected of ways but makes sure to pass that same liberation on to his daughter who has come to realise that her father embodies the true samurai spirit in his righteous perseverance. Laughter and tears, Scabbard Samurai states the case for the interdependence of joy and sorrow, yet even if it makes plain that kindness and understanding are worth more than superficial attempts at humour it also allows that comedy can be the bridge that spans a chasm of despair, even if accidentally.


Currently streaming on Mubi

Original trailer (no subtitles)