The Hot Little Girl (しびれくらげ, Yasuzo Masumura, 1970)

“Using women to make money is the same as a yakuza” a repentant gangster insists on confronting the real big bad of exploitative corporate power in Yasuzo Masumura’s ironic exploration of corruptions of a consumerist society. Ironically given the rather salacious title The Hot Little Girl (しびれくらげ, Shibure Kurage), the Japanese a more suggestive Numbing Jellyfish, Masumura’s spicy drama finds an exploited woman fighting back to reclaim her own image and agency by seizing the tools used against her in the company of a sensitive yakuza himself tiring of the amoral world of contemporary gangsterdom. 

Once an ordinary coffeeshop waitress, Midori (Mari Atsumi) is now a successful model thanks to the efforts of her salaryman boyfriend Hiroshi (Yusuke Kawazu). Completely in love with him, Midori is convinced they will one day be married while Hiroshi is obsessed with corporate success and ultimately intends to buy his own advancement with her body by acquiescing to an indecent proposal from an American department store owner to strike a massive trade deal none of his colleagues had been able to broker. Shocked and disgusted Midori refuses but is later won over by Hiroshi’s rather dubious arguments that she must sleep with the American for the good of Japan along with their personal happiness, insisting that nothing will change between them while her sacrifice will buy a more secure footing for their mutual future. 

After the deed is done she seeks additional reassurance, heading straight to Hiroshi’s apartment where they again make love he insisting she is “clean” as the day she was born. In this instance he sells her body directly, though as others point out he was already doing something similar in selling her image for his own gain. Yet he is not the only person to do so, Midori’s feckless father who ruined himself embezzling money to spend on a bar hostess and thereafter going to jail, goes out on the town claiming to be a movie star and showing off Midori’s magazine spread to a woman at a bar who turns out to be there with a petty yakuza. They decide to run a scam on him, demanding compensation for messing with a yakuza’s girl while setting the amount so high they know he’ll never pay intending to press the pretty daughter, should he have one, into sex work in a fairly common gangster manoeuvre. 

The flaw in their plan is that the feisty Midori is less than attached to her dad who continues to ruin her life with his fecklessness, a drunken fool who steals her money and gets himself into trouble. It’s clear that he sees Hiroshi as something of a meal ticket, while Midori sees a marriage to him as a path towards a more stable, conventional life. Nevertheless, she finds herself unable to abandon her father, bravely standing up to the yakuza who threaten her and eventually saved by sensitive gangster Kenji (Ryo Tamura) who instantly sympathises with her situation having grown up with an abusive father he once tried but failed to kill. The gang he’s with are old school yakuza not yet part of the newly corporatising breed, still running petty scams pressing women into sex work through blackmail or parental debt. 

Yet those two worlds are, the film suggests, beginning to merge. The corporation is founded on an image of female exploitation, Hiroshi pimping out his girlfriend while his bosses giggle about it jokingly referring to her as a secret weapon for the company. On being confronted with her father’s problematic past, Hiroshi makes Midori an ultimatum to sever ties with her dad or break up with him because associating with the yakuza will ruin his career despite the fact that he is really no different himself in his desire to exploit her. Kenji’s boss Yamano (Daigo Kusano) instructs him to make Midori his woman and then put her work, but he refuses while Midori eventually opts for an ironic revenge that will quite literally buy her freedom not only from the corporate world but from yakuza threat in allowing Kenji to free himself. Together they determine to “become ordinary people again”, attempting to shake off both parental failure and the corruptions of a rabidly consumerist society to resist the commodification of body and image in world in which everything has a price and nothing any value. 


Two Wives (妻二人, Yasuzo Masumura, 1967)

Everything is facade in Yasuzo Masumura’s ironic exploration of the corruptions of the post-war society, Two Wives (妻二人, Tsuma Futari). Based on the novel by Patrick Quentin and scripted by Kaneto Shindo, Masumura’s dark mystery drama is a characteristically circular affair revolving around the hero’s moral confusion but positioning its two women as mirrors of each other, one a conservative upperclass daughter of a magazine editor whose intense properness has alienated all around her, and the other a perpetual mistress hung up on no-good starving artists.

Kenzo (Koji Takahashi), the hero, is married to the upperclass Michiko (Ayako Wakao) but is accidentally reunited with former uni girlfriend Junko (Mariko Okada) through an act of extreme coincidence. Junko is sporting a bandage around her neck to hide bruises caused by her violent drunk of a boyfriend Kobayashi (Takao Ito), a failed writer. This is in a sense ironic, as Kenzo had himself been an aspiring author during their uni days and it was Junko’s introduction to an old family friend, Nagai (Masao Mishima), which resulted in him getting a regular salaryman job before dumping her to marry the boss’ daughter. Despite himself, Kenzo ends up doing the same thing for Kobayashi but the young man’s motives are less than pure and he’s not so much tempted by consumerist comforts as coldly avaricious quickly setting his sights on Michiko’s wayward younger sister Rie (Kyoko Enami) who is just young and reckless enough to rebel against her sister’s puritanism through an affair with an unsuitable man. 

The magazine, Housewife’s World, seems to have been Michiko’s brainchild and runs under the slogan “clean, bright, beautiful”. Its target demographic is conservative wives and mothers with a particular interest in wholesome family values. These are all things Michiko practices in her personal life though as it becomes clear her excessive properness often annoys those around her who claim her moral authoritarianism pushes them towards transgressive rebellion. As the film opens, Nagai holds a meeting in which he announces that he’s fired two employees for being cautioned by the police when caught in an after-hours nightclub fearing that if such an event were to make to the papers it would tarnish their brand. However, pretty much no one other than Michiko is very dedicated to wholesomeness, her father having married off his mistress to a penniless aristocrat for the prestige of his name while employing the couple to manage a fund Michiko had set up for disabled children only for them to siphon all the money off for themselves. 

Having chosen consumerist fulfilment over the romantic, Kenzo has dedicated himself to his new role but is perhaps still conflicted in his decision especially after reuniting with Junko. His mirror Kobayashi, however, has no conflict at all and is willing to do anything and everything to achieve consumerist success. “You’ve no idea what a man without standing or money will do” he snarls, laying bare the effects of post-war inequality, pledging to use the Nagais like a springboard to jump as high as he can while threatening blackmail over having discovered all the sordid goings on at Housewife’s World. 

The soul of properness, Michiko is presented as the ultimate image of respectability while Junko is perceived as its inverse, a sexually active unmarried woman living in squalid backrooms and hanging out in bars. Yet Michiko’s austere exterior hides an inner ruthlessness in addition to an internal conflict over her own role in society. She publishes a magazine aimed at housewives though she is not a housewife herself but technically her husband’s boss. Eventually Nagai attempts to promote Kenzo above his wife claiming that the present situation does not fit with the traditional patriarchal outlook of magazine but he refuses, uncomfortable with this little piece of political manoeuvring in thinking that Michiko is better suited to the job and mildly insulted by the attempt at manipulation knowing that the reason for his promotion has nothing to do with his own ability. “I’m not interested in being a dog” he eventually barks back having come to the conclusion that this life of consumerist comfort is not worth the sacrifice of his autonomy or dignity. 

As for Junko, her love is indeed selfless continuing to support each of her starving artists even after they abandon her in favour of conventional success. Faced with Kobayashi’s rage, she cannot fire he effortlessly taking the gun from her which will eventually be retrieved by Michiko who does indeed use it to defend herself after Kobayashi attempts to rape her. “I want to be a woman who is loved like you” she exclaims on meeting Junko who has been accused of the murder she herself committed, jealous of her warmth and openness while Junko envies her for her refinement. Michiko claims that she hates lies, but discovers that everyone in her life has been lying to her while eventually forced to lie herself in covering up her crime. Yet it’s the weight of all the lies which eventually jolts Kenzo out of his complicity, resenting being made to lie to the police to cover up Rie’s potentially scandalous behaviour while unwilling to allow Junko to be convicted of a crime she did not commit. Nagai even convinces the family maid to lie for them in order to guarantee medical treatment for her sickly daughter. 

At his cruelest moment, Nagai goes so far as to undercut Michiko’s conflicted sense of self in telling her coldly that he only considered her a “token figure” he used for business who should have known her place and sat quietly in a corner ironically relegating her to the patriarchal space to which she on some level feels she ought to have confined herself while simultaneously wanting to take control as she had when she informed her father she would be marrying Kenzo rather than allowing him to find her a match. She too had worried about the direction of the current society and their magazine, wanting to move away from pure consumerism towards socially conscious content while her father clearly just wanted to make as much money as possible with no particular concern for morality only for optics. When she asks Kenzo if he loves her, he does not lie but replies only that he respects her which might in a way be an expression of love, later claiming that the properness which has alienated everyone else has in fact made him a better person who is determined to stand by her after she eventually commits to doing the right thing. 

In a final touch of irony, we see the “clean, bright” slogan echoed on a billboard outside the police station which is probably not an entirely transparent agency either though it appears as if in this case justice legal, moral, and emotional will be served striking back against amoral post-war consumerism and societal hypocrisy as the circle is brought to a close, both women landing on an equal footing and making their respective choices while Kenzo recommits himself to decency by pledging to start over together with Michiko. All in all, a more optimistic ending that might be assumed in a Masumura picture but then again no one can ever really escape the insidious hypocrisies of the contemporary society. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Seisaku’s Wife (清作の妻, Yasuzo Masumura, 1965)

Seisaku's wife posterFor Yasuzo Masumura, sexuality is both freedom and constraint but also the ultimate act of social rebellion. Seisaku’s Wife (清作の妻, Seisaku no Tsuma), set in late Meiji as Japan prepares for the possibility of war with Russia, finds its melancholy heroine a defiant outcast as she first abandons her cruel, conformist society for empty independence and then reclaims her sense of self only through a love deemed inappropriate by those around her. The seeds of militarism are already being sown and breaking the programming is hard but transgressive acts of love can, it seems, overcome persistent societal oppression.

Okane (Ayako Wakao), our heroine, was sold as a bride to a much older man (Taiji Tonoyama) at 17 to provide for her parents. Three years later she views her husband, a wealthy kimono merchant, with contempt – as does much of the local area where he is derided as a sex crazed pervert. Luckily for her, Okane’s husband eventually dies leaving her a small sum of money while his extended family would rather she absent herself as quickly as possible to minimise embarrassment. Her father now too passed away, she and her mother (Tamae Kiyokawa) return to their home village which they were chased out of some years previously for their massive debts, but are now resented by their former neighbours for their seeming wealth and aloofness. Okane, traumatised by her experiences and having lost the will to live, barely interacts with the villagers who regard her as arrogant and haughty, and has been ostracised as a result.

The situation begins to change with the return of Seisaku (Takahiro Tamura) – the village’s bright hope. Seisaku had been away doing his military service and has come back with order and discipline on his mind. Now believing that the villagers are lazy and frivolous he has brought back with him a bell he had forged himself which he hooks to a nearby tree and bangs early in the morning to “awaken” them lest they sleep in rather than hasten to their fields. As might be anticipated, the villagers find this quite irritating but respect Seisaku too much to stop him and so find themselves going along with his new brand of militarist austerity. Meanwhile Okane is the only one to refuse the call, wasting no time in telling Seisaku that she has no intention of following his “orders” and his assumption that she should is in itself offensive.

Seisaku is intrigued rather than offended and finds himself attracted to Okane despite the villagers’ obvious animosity towards her. Convincing her that his feelings are real, the pair drift into an intense sexual relationship which eventually sees the model soldier Seisaku make a transgressive choice of his own in rejecting his longstanding betrothal to a village girl in favour of marrying Okane without the approval of his conservative mother and sister. Holed up together in Okane’s remote farmland shack, they remove themselves as much as possible from village life in an insular, obsessive world of their own.

Okane, rejected because of her past as the kept woman of a wealthy man (something over which she herself was powerless and means never to be powerless again), in turn rejects the village after having lost all faith in human relationships except perhaps that with her mother whose cruel treatment at the hands of her father she both identified with and resented. Intensely lonely, she subsumes herself entirely into her love for Seisaku, eventually trying to rebuild bridges in the village in order to strengthen their relationship but finding herself rejected once again by Seisaku’s austere mother even if his sister begins to come around. Meanwhile, the spectre of the war hovers on the horizon. Seisaku, as hopelessly in love with Okane as he is, is still the model soldier in his heart and unwilling to abandon his proto-militarist ideology which tells him that dying in service of the nation is man’s highest calling.

Having abandoned such obvious brainwashing to claim her independence, Okane struggles to convince Seisaku he should do the same. She clings to him and pleads, begging him not to leave her behind alone while he resolves to go off to battle and a glorious death. The village men too regard failure to die on the battlefield as a disgrace but send their sons away with cheers and celebration. Facing the possibility her dream of love may die, Okane takes drastic action to ensure its survival but does so at an ironic cost which sees her separated from her love possibly forever. Seisaku, meanwhile, angry and resentful, begins to understand something of Okane’s life when branded a coward and traitor by his former friends, no longer the model soldier but an outcast himself. Having suffered her fate, he begins to let go of his rage in favour compassionate understanding, allowing his love to triumph over his hate as he strives to forgive the woman who has both trapped and helped him to free himself from the oppressive ideology which turned him into an unthinking “model soldier” who wilfully abandoned his freedom in favour of internalised conventionality.

Freed from didactic social brainwashing, the pair are then in a sense imprisoned by their individualistic freedom, forced to isolate themselves within a bubble of love and mutual dependence but with a new hope for the future for which they now plan even while acknowledging that they cannot know what will come of it save that they will face it together. They can no longer live within the conservative society, but must form their own new world within it in which they can be fully free and express their freedom through their love. Melancholy but tranquil, Masumura ends on an uncharacteristically hopeful note which implies that love, though violent and transgressive, can be an effective weapon against destructive militarist ideology and the folly of war through a warmer path towards compassionate freedom.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Nakano Spy School (陸軍中野学校, Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

Nakano Spy School posterFor Yasuzo Masumura, freedom and individuality were often elusive concepts in a society as rigidly conformist as Japan’s even in the increasingly liberal post-war era. Casting an eye back almost 30 years, 1966’s Nakano Spy School (陸軍中野学校, Rikugun Nakano Gakko) stopped to ask what it took to make young men and women abandon their sense of self in order to become faceless warriors for cause in which it was extremely difficult to believe. Masumura described his spy story not as a critique of militarism but of the naivety of youth, carried away by misguided passions and essentially seduced by a corrupted sense of romantic heroism.

In October 1938, reservist Jiro Miyoshi (Raizo Ichikawa) has been putting off marriage to his fiancée Yukiko (Mayumi Ogawa) until he’s completed his obligatory two years of military service overseas. At the mercy of his times, he’s suddenly given a new and mysterious assignment as one of the first recruits to the Nakano Spy School – the first military intelligence training school in Japan. He tells his family that he’ll be away for an unspecified period of time but unbeknownst to him, entering the spy school will require a complete erasure of his original identity. Miyoshi will cease to exist, and Shiina will take his place.

Masumura paints the spy school with a hint of absurdist camp clearly inspired by James Bond as the recruits take lessons in ridiculous gadgetry, safecracking, and the erotic arts while learning to act like gentlemen even if not exactly born to the manor. What he’s most interested in, however, is how these fiercely intelligent and brave young men were convinced to abandon their identities in order to serve an abstract cause like country. The answer he finds, surprisingly, is “passion”. Jiro is among the first to question the rationale of their would-be-spymaster who tells them that their role will be indispensable in Japan’s ongoing activities in Asia in order to “liberate” to continent from European imperialists. An exasperated recruit points out that Japan’s main aim is colonisation which doesn’t quite square with Lieutenant Kusanagi’s (Daisuke Kato) depiction of them as revolutionary insurrectionists. Kusanagi agrees but offers only the justification that he set the school up against the army’s wishes because he knew things had to change. He doesn’t quite claim to be anti-militarist despite his insistence that a spy’s greatest weapon is empathy, but appeals to a sense of righteousness rather than loyalty in winning hearts and minds.

A strange, avuncular man, Lieutenant Kusanagi is an odd fit for the militarist crowd. A former spy himself, his entire conception of spyhood seems to be informed by European romance which is why he trains his guys to become suave gentlemen who know how to be charming at dances and manipulate feminine affection in order to facilitate their missions. Nevertheless, despite his affiliation he appears to be a basically good, noble hearted man who cares deeply for the men under his command even in the knowledge that he is training them for a precarious existence in which many of them will die young. He asks them to abandon not only their presents but their futures and they do it, not for Japan but for this very good, very earnest man who has earned their respect and whose dream they wish to realise even at the costs of their lives.

Jiro is only too quick to forget about Yukiko after throwing his lot in with Kusanagi. Yukiko, however, is frantic and leaves her job working for a British trading company to become a typist with the army in the hope of hearing news of him. Her position in the office obviously makes her a top asset for British intelligence by whom she eventually recruited. Her former boss, who turns out to be a high ranking spy, tells her that Jiro is dead – executed for speaking out against the war, and that her real enemy is none other than the Japanese army whose iron militarist grip is slowly destroying her nation.

Like Jiro, Yukiko is recruited through “passion” only this time out of anger and revenge, hastening the fall of those she believes responsible for the death of the man she loves. The irony is cruel. Jiro is presented with a choice – on discovering that Yukiko is a mole, he could choose to save the woman he loves but risk losing the chance to take down the operative that is running her. His original choice is to do nothing, allow events to take their course and absolve himself of responsibility even in the knowledge that if caught Yukiko will face extreme cruelty at the hands of the military police. He never considers rescue. Only a conversation with the kindly, remorseful Kusanagi leads him towards a “kinder” solution which is in itself a kind of spiritual suicide.

It is this question that Masumura wants to ask, what force is so strong that it could make a young man wilfully destroy his humanity in its service? The answer isn’t patriotism, it’s a kind of misplaced love and the passionate earnestness of a good man who himself is working for a misguided cause in which he believes totally. Jiro does not sacrifice himself for Japan, he sacrifices himself for Kusanagi because Kusanagi is good and he is young and naive enough to be swayed by goodness and passion alone. It is not militarism which seduces Jiro, but the misuse of his youthful idealism and absolute faith in the righteousness of one man who convinced him that he too was good and could act only in goodness.


Original trailer (no subtitles)