Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Akira Kurosawa, 1948)

A gruff yet well intentioned doctor does his best to cure the ills of post-war Japan in a rundown slum on the edge of a fetid swamp in Akira Kurosawa’s noir tragedy, Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Yoidore Tenshi). The doctor is most obviously the drunken angel of the title though it could equally apply to the unhappy yakuza he tries so hard to redeem whom most agree is not suited to that kind of life and trapped by the feudalistic thinking of the pre-war past.

Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is the big man around town, but jaded physician Sanada (Takashi Shimura) sees straight through him. “He acts tough and swaggers around but I know in his heart he’s incredibly lonely,” Sanada tells his assistant, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), a young woman he took in to help her escape the clutches of the violent yakuza ex who left her with syphilis. Miyo bemoans Sanada’s terrible bedside manner and tendency to bully his patients but praises his dedication and remarks that few doctors go as far for those under their care as he does especially ones like these who don’t often have the money to pay. This is a little ironic given Matsunaga’s original objection that he doesn’t trust doctors because it’s not in their best interests to cure you, something which Sanada jokingly acknowledges while expressing the futility he feels in the face of the mass sickness that confronts him. 

When Matsunaga first comes into his office, Sanada remarks that’s its not just his lungs that are sick, he’s sick to the core. But still he seems to think that Matsunaga can be saved, not just physically but spiritually redeemed if only he can coax him away from the yakuza underworld. Matsunaga is suffering from tuberculosis, a common disease of the post-war era and closely linked to the squalid conditions in which he lives which are themselves symbolised by the swamp in the centre of town onto which Sanada’s clinic backs. Sanada tries to warn the local children not to play in it because of the risk of typhus not to mention the mosquitos it attracts but the kids don’t really listen to him and shout back that he’s “just a drunk”. Yet the swamp represents a world upside-down, the neon sign for the No. 1 cabaret bar constantly reflected in its bubbling waters while as the film opens we see a trio of sex workers preparing to head into the red light district and a pair of petty thugs fighting while a young man plays Spanish guitar on the ruins of a bomb damaged building. 

It’s as if it were this world that is slowly consuming Matsunaga, an old-school yakuza who insists “we still believe in things like honour and loyalty” certain that the big boss will side with him against the returned upstart Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto), Miyo’s yakuza ex, even as Sanada tells him it’s money that matters and Matsunaga no longer makes any. Everyone tells him that he already looks like a ghost, his appearance increasingly gaunt in his parallel decline as the illness takes hold and he begins to lose his status to Okada only to overhear his boss call him an “amateur” that he was only keeping around as a potential sacrifice. In the end, Matsunaga is too good for this world. Naively believing in things like honour and loyalty which no longer mean anything in the dog-eat-dog post-war society he is left with nothing other than a nihilistic bid for vengeance and a desire to repay Sanada’s faith in him if only in the most ironic of ways. 

Like Matsunaga, Sanada sometimes says the opposite of what he means claiming that he doesn’t care what happens to Matsunaga but is determined to wipe out the TB inside him to stop it spreading it to others. He’s on a mission to “sterilise this contaminated town” by eradicating the twin threats of disease and the yakuza, calling Matsunaga a coward for failing to face his fear and loneliness succumbing to the quick fixes of his hedonistic yakuza lifestyle. He’s not perfect either, a doctor who drinks his medical ethanol supplies and berates his patients when he them catches out them out drinking when he told them not to, but is also very at home with who he is and doing his best with it. His disappointment in Matsunaga is mainly in his swagger, the false bravado that masks his human frailty and unwillingness to face his fear of death which manifests itself in a hauntingly expressionistic dream sequence. Using silent cinema composition and canted angles Kurosawa conjures a world of constant uncertainty amid the vagaries of the post-war society in which the only sign of salvation is a drunken doctor and his “rational approach” to the sickness of the age.


Drunken Angel screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 10th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Scandal (醜聞, Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

“Freedom of the press or harassment?” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Akira Kurosawa’s attack on the declining moral standards of the post-war society as reflected in the duplicity of the gutter press has unexpected resonance in the present day in which the media is simultaneously unwilling to challenge authority and in thrall to the populist allure of celebrity gossip with sometimes tragic results. The aptly named Scandal (醜聞) is essentially a morality tale which draws additional power from its seasonal setting and embodies the soul of the contemporary society in a conflicted lawyer consumed by internal struggle against despair and hopelessness. 

The more literal scandal however revolves around a well known singer, Miyako Saijo (Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi), and a motorcycle-riding artist, Ichiro Aoe (Toshiro Mifune), who meet by chance while staying at the same remote mountain inn. Having ironically headed to the mountains to escape the various “annoying things” that plague her in the city, Miyako has been pursued by two muckrakers from the tabloid press who take umbrage at her refusal to see them. They are then fairly delighted when they manage to snap a picture of Ichiro and Miyako standing on her balcony looking out at the mountains like a young couple in love. They deliver the photo to their seedy boss, Hori (Eitaro Ozawa), who is over the moon with excitement at his new business prospects. Suddenly Ichiro and Miyako are on posters all around the city with headlines such as “Love on a Motorcycle” and “Miyako Saijo’s secret love – revealed!”. 

Though Ichiro is a semi-public figure himself having been featured in magazine spreads as an artist on the rise, he is not a worldly man and is shocked by the idea that the press can make something up and print it with no consequences. He feels he must resist not just on a personal level angry to have been misrepresented but for the post-war future to ensure that the press is held to account and that it does not misuse its power to breach the privacy of ordinary citizens. To his mind, they only get away with it because most people just ignore them and wait for the scandal to pass, a sentiment born out by Hori who dismisses a concerned underling with the reminder that they’ve never yet been sued so they need have no fear saying whatever they like whether it’s true or not. “The kind of snobs we target think the law is beneath them” he adds, suggesting that most people prefer to think of the gutter press as something they can safely ignore and that it’s only themselves that they show up in their torrid obsession with the lives of others. 

But Hori also ironically defends his right to press freedom and quickly hits back that he’s being oppressed by those who wish to silence his right to free speech even when what he’s saying isn’t true. Lawyer Hiruta (Takashi Shimura) who offers to represent Ichiro in his lawsuit quickly identifies Hori as a duplicitous conman but also allows himself to be manipulated accidentally accepting a bribe after being led to believe that Hori has a top legal expert on retainer and the case is hopeless unless Miyako, who has so far maintained a dignified silence, can be persuaded to join as co-plaintiff. Ichiro had decided to accept Hiruta’s offer of representation largely on meeting his teenage daughter, Masako (Yoko Katsuragi), who has been bedridden with TB for the last five years. Masako is a pure soul whose isolation from the contemporary society has allowed her to maintain her innocence and humanity but it’s also true that it’s the society that made her ill in the first place.

The morality play reaches a climax on Christmas Day as Ichiro delivers a tree on his motorbike while Miyako sings carols for a radiant Masako who is at least sitting up and looking much healthier than she’s ever been before. But the more Hiruta debases himself, caught between an accidental debt to Hori, his own lack of conviction, and the frustrated desire to do right, the sicker she gets as if poisoned by post-war duplicity. Even so, Ichiro continues to defend him insisting that Hiruta isn’t a bad person just a weak one and that in the end he won’t be able to go through with betraying him but will eventually come clean and tell the truth when it counts. Ichiro’s faith is as much in the institutions of the new democratic Japan as it is in Hiruta as he explains at the trial admitting that he may have been naive in placing too much trust in the legal system thinking that he couldn’t lose because he knows he’s in the right. As the opposition lawyer points out, that’s not a very good legal argument because his client thinks he’s in the right too only he doesn’t know that Hori is both a liar and an idiot who’s staked everything on the assumption that Hiruta won’t expose him for bribery, which would at least strongly imply he can’t back up his story, because it would mean destroying himself. 

In the end it’s Hiruta who puts himself on trial, baring his soul to the court which he acknowledges he has betrayed in his negligence and wilful obstruction of justice. It’s a victory for truth and decency and a turn away from the duplicitous, capitalistic mores of men like Hori who think they can do whatever they want and only laugh at those who value fairness and compassion. “In all my 50 years I’ve never seen a more confused age” Hiruta explains speaking of post-war chaos and the forced comprises of the intervening years of despair and desperation. As he coaxes the denizens of a small bar into an early rendition of Auld Lang Syne on Christmas Day, each vowing that this time next year things really will be better, many of them breakdown in frustrated longing drowning their sorrows as they continue to yearn for better times they do not really believe will come. But then like all the best Christmas films, this is also a redemption story of a man who decided that it wasn’t too late after all and that he might have to destroy himself in order make himself anew and be the man his daughter always knew he could be even if in the end he could not save her from the ravages of the post-war society.


Scandal screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 10th & 24th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Nagisa Oshima, 1972)

The complicated relationship between mainland Japan and the Okinawan islands is played out in the youthful identity crises of two adolescents struggling to understand the world their parents have left to them in an uncharacteristically breezy effort from Nagisa Oshima, Dear Summer Sister (Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Natsu no Imoto). Part Rohmerian travelogue, Oshima takes a tour around the island in the immediate aftermath of its reversion to Japan but rather than the busy tourist spots explores a legacy of colonialism and exploitation in the islands’ war memorials and red light districts. 

The irony is that Sunaoko (Hiromi Kurita) finds the person she’s looking for immediately after disembarking from the boat she’s taken from the mainland only she never realises it. Having received a letter from a boy, Tsuruo (Shoji Ishibashi), claiming that he may be her half-brother but isn’t entirely sure, Sunaoko has accepted his offer to come to Okinawa where he will show her his “brotherly affection”. Unbeknownst to her, however, he mistook the figure of her father’s much younger fiancée Momoko (Lily) for that of the teenage Sunaoko with the older woman half-heartedly trying to head off a potential crisis while understandably curious and seeking to know the truth behind her future husband’s hidden past. 

The figure of Tsuruo’s mother, Tsuru (Akiko Koyama), comes to stand in for that of Okinawa yet the central problem as we discover is that she was raped firstly by Sunaoko’s father Kikuchi (Hosei Komatsu) and subsequently by local Okinawan policeman Kuniyoshi (Kei Sato) who had previously passed her off as his younger sister. Even so the trio seem to interact with each other as if nothing had happened and they were simply old university friends reuniting after years of separation. Despite his present occupation in law enforcement, Kuniyoshi had been in prison at the time having been arrested as a student protestor and on his release raped Tsuru after she told him she had been raped by Kuniyoshi in an attempt to reclaim her body and send his sperm as a kind of advance division to prevent Kikuchi’s successfully colonising her womb with the consequence that Tsuru cannot of course be sure whose child Tsuruo is settling finally for “mine” in an answer which at least earns her Sunaoko’s respect. 

Obviously still somewhat naive and additionally provoked on discovering the attraction between Momoko and Tsuruo, Sunaoko had been unfairly judgmental in preemptively accusing Tsuru implying that she been immoral in maintaining relationships with two men at the same time. What occurs is a gradual sense of disillusionment in her father the judge when confronted, it has to be said with confusing frankness, with his own immorality in his misuse of Tsuru which is also of course a metaphor for Japan’s misuse of Okinawa, a thread picked up more directly by the old soldier Sakurada (Taiji Tonoyama) who has apparently come to Okinawa looking for a local willing to kill him in atonement for atrocities he half-heartedly claims not to have committed himself but feels responsible for simply as a Japanese person. Ironically enough he finds such a person in Rintoku (Rokko Toura), a teacher of traditional Okinawan folk music who is looking for “a Japanese who deserves my killing him”.

Nevertheless the relationship between the old men turns into one of playful animosity which does not seem to hint towards violence, a playful fight breaking out between the pair on a boat in the middle of the sea in the film’s concluding scenes in which Sunaoko offers an ironic commentary to the effect that the “killer” and his “victim” are still “singing and drinking” despite the earlier claim that there were only two kinds of people, Okinawans and Japanese, in counter to the claim that the only two kinds of people were men and women. Meanwhile, Kikuchi attempts to process the implications of his friendship and actions explaining that Kuniyoshi’s Okinawan roots were not an obstacle between them while admitting that he never thought about the position of Okinawa during their youth and wonders what he thought back then as to Okinawa’s future, whether it should revert to Japan or become independent. Kuniyoshi claims not to remember, while Tsuru explains how difficult it was to travel to the mainland under the occupation and implies that it’s better now that “we can go where we please”. 

The implication is, perhaps, that Tsuruo is his mother’s child but also a kind of orphan creating a new identity in a new Okinawa having symbolically rejected both of his potential fathers if seeking a brotherhood with his half-sister though even in this the waters are muddied with the undercurrents of incestuous desire which seem to run both ways. Even so Oshima hints at the secondary colonisation of America in conducting what doesn’t seem to be an entirely appropriate series of conversations with the young Sunaoko concerning the history of sex work on the island and the number of bars geared towards American servicemen returning from Vietnam with the suggestion that the islands remain economically dependent on the US despite the reversion while Sukurada makes similarly crass comments about his relationships with Okinawan sex workers during the war. They cast themselves as Urashima Taro travelling to the magical underwater palace of the Dragon King but wary of opening the box of truth they’ve been given lest their world crumble beneath their feet. Picturesque and strangely cheerful, Oshima’s Okinawan odyssey shot with breezy immediacy offers a characteristically thorny take on relations between the two island nations but reaches an unexpectedly hopeful conclusion in the young people’s rejection of their parents’ legacy and intention to move forward in mutual solidarity. 


Dear Summer Sister screens at Japan Society New York May 14 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Images: © 1971 Oshima Productions

Black Rain (黒い雨, Shohei Imamura, 1989)

Caught in a moment of transition, post-war Japan struggles to free itself from the lingering feudal legacy and the trauma of the immediate past in Shohei Imamura’s contemplative adaptation of the novel by Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain (黒い雨, Kuroi Ame). As many things change others stay the same, the Shizuma family burdened not only by the anxiety of a ghostly illness symptomless until it isn’t and the unfair prejudice of a wounded society, but the pressure of outdated patriarchal social codes along with a sense of filial failure in the inability to protect their ancestral estate. 

Imamura opens on the fateful morning the atomic bomb struck Hiroshima, voiceovers from 20-year-old niece Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) and her uncle Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura), a soldier severing at a factory in the city, detailing what they were doing on that very ordinary day. What unfolds is a scene of hell, the train Shigematsu is riding on blown apart while he crawls free and tries to look for his wife, Shigeko (Kazuo Kitamura), packing up their house preparing for evacuation, eventually reuniting with Yasuko who had come into town to find them. Hoping to get to the factory, they make their way past charred and hideously warped bodies, a woman cradling her carbonised infant, a little boy overjoyed to have found his big brother only to go unrecognised because his face is melted away while skin hangs painfully from his forearms and fingertips. The brother only accepts him after checking his belt which has somehow miraculously survived. The trio eventually make it to comparative safety at the factory with relatively few injuries, only later learning of the implications of having been in such close proximity to the blast. 

Jumping ahead five years, the Shizumas are living quite comfortably in their ancestral home on a mountain estate largely spared the post-war agricultural land reforms because of its location, though Shigematsu attributes his mother’s dementia to an inability to accept the changing times not only their loss of a semi-aristocratic status but the essential failure of having proved unable to protect their ancestral lands. His immediate problem is however the marriage of the now 25-year-old Yasuko. We see him triumphantly leave a doctor’s office with a certificate stating that Yasuko is in good health he hopes will reassure her current suitor’s family in the face of persistent rumours that she too was a direct victim of the “flash”, rather than an indirect victim simply of the rain which Shigematsu mistakenly believes to have been less dangerous. 

At 25 this is Yasuko’s last chance, she’s aged out of the arranged marriage market. She has also had a promising job offer from the local post office but is minded to turn it down in the hopes of being married. Taking the post office job may be the most sensible option, but it also seems like defeat, an acceptance that she is unfit for marriage and a clear sign that Shigematsu and Shigeko have failed in their patriarchal duties to ensure that Yasuko finds a good husband and will be well looked after for the rest of her life. In this age, it is difficult for a woman to support herself alone even leaving aside the social stigma of being an unmarried woman. A marriage is therefore also a job, and the families fear one Yasuko may not be able to perform if as the rumours suggest her exposure to radiation may have left her unable to bear children. The situation is further complicated seeing as Shigematsu and Shigeko were not able to have children of their own, and with Yasuko’s mother Kiyoko having died young Yasuko is the last of the Shizuma line even if she technically may not bear their name. 

Lost in old memories and mistaking Yasuko for her mother, grandma (Hisako Hara) may have it right when she tells her not to marry for marriage only leads to death. Yet in an odd way, Yasuko’s liminal status perhaps grants her the right to turn away from these old-fashioned patriarchal expectations in making her own decision not marry even if she orients herself back towards the filial in requesting to stay with the aunt and uncle who raised her in order to care for them should they suddenly begin to experience symptoms of their exposure to “the flash”. Shigematsu continues to treat the notion of radiation sickness with an almost supernatural mentality, convinced that having seen the light or not is all that matters constantly trying to provide evidence that Yasuko was not there when the bomb went off while ignoring her exposure to the black rain which fell afterwards even while himself filled with the anxiety of not knowing if he may someday become ill even if he and Shigeko are in otherwise good health. 

He watches friends with secondary exposure become ill and die before him, recalling being asked to read sutras for the dead in the aftermath of the bomb though feeling himself unqualified, while some in the village perhaps jokingly accuse them of playing on their status as bomb victims as if they are merely lazy rather than actively sick. Meanwhile, across the way a young man with intense PTSD suffers flashbacks every time he hears an engine running and is compelled to throw himself in front of it as if it were an enemy tank. Yuichi (Keisuke Ishida) is ironically enough “a veteran of the suicide squad”, otherwise alright if fragile spending his days carving Buddhist Jizo statues may of which have grotesque, anguished expressions in contrast to the comforting, almost cute faces such statues usually bear. Just as the wider society distances itself from the survivors of the bomb, so they reject men like Yuichi. When Yuichi’s mother comes to propose an unlikely marriage between the two lonely youngsters who have become close after bonding through their shared anxieties, Shigematsu is offended, resenting the implication that they must believe Yasuko is a poor catch if daring to suggest she marry a man of a lower social class who is also in need of assistance in living with his mental illness. 

Yet her marriage continues to weigh heavily on Shigeko’s mind, feeling as if she has failed the Shizuma family in being unable to provide an heir and subsequently failing to secure a match for Yasuko. It is perhaps this anxiety that finally makes her ill, taking strange medicines provided by a dubious Shinto priestess who tells her it’s all her own fault for not being able to visit Kiyoko’s grave because someone has to stay at home to look after grandma. Only Shigematsu sees the writing on the wall, advising Yasuko that after grandma dies she should sell the estate and take the money as her dowry freeing her from the feudal and familial legacy and giving her permission to move into the modern post-war future even as she begins to doubt that the future has a place for her. 

Shooting in black and white and in a much more classical style than that which is found in his other work, Imamura adopts the aesthetics of Golden Age cinema to comment on the contemporary era now perhaps feeling itself sufficiently distanced from the toxicity of wartime trauma, suggesting that the entire society is in a sense soaked in black rain its inability to confront the recent past a poison slowly eating away at its foundations. “An unjust peace is better than a just war” Shigematsu is fond of saying, quoting Cicero dismayed by the heated geopolitical debates he hears on the radio he uses to set the clock, his friend dying without ever really understanding why the bomb was dropped, why on Hiroshima, why at that particular moment. Imamura denies us closure too, leaving on a note of anxiety if tempered with an all but forlorn hope for signs of a miracle on the horizon that the sickness can be healed and a better world will someday arrive.


Black Rain screens at the BFI on 28th December as part of BFI Japan and is also available on blu-ray as part of Arrow’s Imamura boxset or to stream in the UK via Arrow Player

Muddy River (泥の河, Kohei Oguri, 1981)

The post-war era refuses to die in Kohei Oguri’s heartbreaking exploration of childhood friendship and the costs of experience, Muddy River (泥の河, Doro no Kawa). Adapted from the novel by Teru Miyamoto and situating itself in the Osaka of 1956, Oguri’s realist drama takes place at a moment of transition not only in the life of the young hero but also of the nation which was at long last beginning to leave post-war privation behind thanks to increasing economic prosperity. Yet for men like young Nobuo’s father Shinpei (Takahiro Tamura), the traumas not only of the war itself but its aftermath will not be so easy to escape. 

A shy child who often wets the bed, 9-year-old Nobuo (Nobutaka Asahara) lives with his parents Shinpei and Sadako (Yumiko Fujita) above a small riverside noodle bar mainly frequented by sailors and workmen such as Shioda (Gannosuke Ashiya), a regular who pulls a horse and cart for a living. Nobuo can’t stop staring at Shioda’s ruined ear, presumably a battlefield injury though the avuncular gentleman tries to raise his spirits with false cheerfulness explaining that he’s seen the writing on the wall and the days of cart pullers are coming to an end. He jokes about giving his horse to Nobuo as a pet though obviously he has no need for or ability to keep a horse, explaining that he’s going to buy a second-hand truck so he won’t be left behind in the race for modernity. Unfortunately, however, as Nobuo follows him out Shioda’s cart gets stuck in the mud. Somewhat bluntly he violently beats the horse to make him free it, but the cart ends up blocking the bridge and the horse is spooked by oncoming traffic. Crushed by his falling load, Shioda is pulled under the wheels and killed, his hopes for the future dashed while his wife and child are left without economic support. 

Emulating the visual imagery of silent cinema, Oguri frames this sequence perfectly with an inescapable anxiety that captures the inevitability of the moment. This is Nobuo’s first glimpse of death, running confused back to his father to tell him that the cart man’s dead, Shinpei at first not quite comprehending but later reflecting that he was like him another casualty of the post-war era as if his death were merely delayed remembering that he’d once said the war had already killed him and so he’d never die again. On an awkward train journey Shinpei opens a newspaper and reads that “the post-war period is over”, but of course for him it isn’t and perhaps never will be. Reflecting on the last 10 years of his life, he wonders if it was worth it, there must be many people who think it would have been better to die in the war than suffer as they did afterwards. Young Nobuo, born to him in his 40s, is his only achievement. Sadako meanwhile harbours her own guilt in feeling as if she wronged another woman with whom Shinpei had previously been involved after the war by stealing him away and building this life together in burned out Osaka which, while far from perfect, is comfortable enough and happier than most. 

That Nobuo learns for himself when he befriends another boy staring at the abandoned cart. 9-year-old Kiichi (Minoru Sakurai) and his sister Ginko (Makiko Shibata) live on a houseboat recently moored opposite, something which Nobuo finds unusual and mysterious but not itself bad. Still innocent and too young to have incorporated moral judgement, Nobuo simply befriends the other boy bonding over a strange tale of a monstrous carp in the river though perhaps also feeling sorry for him on noticing his ragged clothes and the holes in his shoes. On visiting their houseboat, he only hears only the voice of Kiichi’s mother Shoko (Mariko Kaga) a mysterious disembodied presence who lives in a separate area of the boat accessible only via a different entrance. When she instructs Kiichi to give him some raw sugar and tell him not to come back too often, he takes it that he’s unwanted later confused when his father tells him that it’s fine for his new friends to visit but he shouldn’t go near the boat after dark. 

Understanding people, neither Shinpei or Sadako, instantly grasping the situation, reject the family because of the stigma of sex work realising that people do what they have to to survive and in any case it isn’t the children’s fault or responsibility. On hearing Kiichi enthusiastically singing an old imperial song about losing friends in Manchuria, Shinpei begins to feel a kinship with his late father as another old soldier claimed by the muddy river of the post-war society. Like the cart man, and an old fisherman Nobuo witnessed “disappear” from his boat never to be seen again, he was simply a casualty of the times one of many unable to enter the new society promised by rising economic prosperity. Shinpei fears he may also be one of these men, left behind unable to break free of wartime survivor’s guilt and the traumas of what came afterwards. He also disappears from his son’s life abruptly and without warning if only temporarily, but accidentally deserts him at the time he needs him most allowing his fragile new friendship to fracture as the two boys fatefully return to the boat after dark and Nobuo encounters a loss of innocence on several levels Kiichi realising that something is now broken between them. 

Something is perhaps broken in the times, the end of Nobuo’s childhood coinciding with the the dawning of a new era free of post-war privation but one that also threatens to leave those who can’t catch up to it behind Kiichi’s boat bound for further down the river while Nobuo remains firmly on land his own foundation perhaps more secure now that his father has exorcised some of guilt over the recent past. Shot with a nostalgic realism in black and white and in academy ratio, Oguri’s quietly devastating drama sets one boy’s loss of innocence against the lingering affects of another as the adults all around him struggle to acclimatise themselves to a changing society but all he sees is the muddy river flowing past him taking his friend away because he saw something he shouldn’t have leaving him with nothing but sorrow and loneliness on the other side of an unbreachable divide. 


Muddy River screens at the BFI on 12/23 December as part of BFI Japan.

Opening sequence

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. 


Temptation (誘惑, Ko Nakahira, 1957)

Ko Nakahira made his name with the seminal Sun Tribe movie Crazed Fruit, a nihilistic tale of bored, affluent post-war youth. Released a year later, Temptation (Yuwaku), adapted from a novel by Sei Ito, is in some ways its inverse pitting a melancholy widower harping on dreams of lost love against his relentlessly practical daughter for whom “Sex is life. Art is money” but finding in the end perhaps more commonality than difference save for the fact the youth of today may have no real dreams to betray. 

Now 55 years old, Sugimoto (Koreya Senda) is the proprietor of the Sugimoto Dried Goods store in upscale Ginza. Father to an only daughter, Hideko, now that his wife has passed away he finds himself carried back towards the past and is planning to turn the upstairs space in the store into a small gallery. For her part Hideko (Sachiko Hidari) and her coterie of artist friends are hoping to convince him to allow them to exhibit in the gallery for cheap, but he, slightly more conservative in his old age, views them all as low class Bohemians and fails to understand why Hideko hangs out with them in the first place. He has, it seems, an internal conflict symbolised by the beret he’s taken to wearing in which he is unable to let go of the broken dreams of his youth when he was a struggling artist forced to give up his first love, Eiko (Izumi Ashikawa), because he had no money or prospects while she eventually consented to an arranged marriage.  

The world of 1931 being very different, Sugimoto and Eiko never did anything beyond holding hands (later a key plot point), though in her parting letter she laments that she regrets not having let him kiss her and mildly berates him for not having been more forceful. A slightly uncomfortable sentiment, but diffidence seems to be the force defining Sugimoto’s life. At the store he finds himself dissatisfied with his senior salesgirl Junko (Misako Watanabe) whose brusque manner with customers and refusal to wear makeup he fears are harming sales, but is unable to say anything until his rather half-hearted attempt to talk to her provokes a mutual misunderstanding, he thinking she may be anxious about being fired and she wondering if he’s about to make a proposal. 

For unclear reasons, Junko seems to have a crush on Sugimoto, something which becomes a minor problem when he also becomes a target for Kotoko (Yukiko Todoroki), a middle-aged woman/insurance agent from Hideko’s floral arrangement class. Privy to their interior monologues, we can hear the two women squaring off against each other, Junko complaining that Kotoko is “meddling, talkative, and fat”, while Kotoko fires back that Junko wears “no makeup at all and is so stuck up” as they glare at each other through the shop window. Yet it’s not Sugimoto who eventually provokes a change in Junko, but another eccentric, struggling artist, Sohei (Shoji Yasui), who bluntly tells her that she is pretty and so should put some makeup on to bring it out. 

Junko later characterises this intervention as an act of salvation that sees her re-embrace her femininity, not only wearing makeup and having her hair styled but beginning to talk warmly with customers, improving the business but ironically giving Sugimoto the mistaken idea her friendly new demeanour may be partly for his benefit. For his part, Sohei, an unkempt artist suffering a seemingly permanent lice infestation, claims not to have cared very much about money or possessions which led him to accidentally abuse the generosity of his artist friends but has now been awakened, it seems, to a kind of consumerist mentality thanks to the interest of Junko and recognition of his art when some of Sugimoto’s old friends (well known artists Taro Okamoto, Seiji Togo, and critic Kimihide Tokudaiji) praise his paintings on seeing them in the gallery leading to them fetching a high price from prominent collectors. 

“The value of a work of art hinges on whether or not it sells” one of Hideko’s friends points out while she adds “We should be proud that art is profitable”, a sentiment that hugely offends Shohei (Ryoji Hayama), the beret-wearing leader of another artist circle the gang enlist to help them pay for the rental of the gallery. Though he concedes to Hideko’s argument that her father’s gallery is a business enterprise, not a charity, Shohei is somewhat horrified by the casual equation of art and commerce, shocked that the girls view their flower arranging as a practical more than an aesthetic skill. Still, in another irony it turns out that his talent is for business rather than art, shrewdly steering Sohei’s success rather than his own when it’s clear his work is the standout in the gallery. Just like Sugimoto had, he eventually resolves to give up his artistic dreams after falling in love with Hideko, planning to marry into her family and take over the Sugimoto store. She meanwhile, had described him as not good marriage material, “no poor painters for me, only rich men” but is apparently in favour of his selling out if only in that it ironically makes him more himself. 

As we discover there are more than a few reasons besides the beret that Sugimoto keeps feeling Shohei reminds him of someone else even as he finds himself wary of him, pointlessly trying to set Hideko up with someone more “suitable” just as she makes a point of inviting a series of alternative widowed, middle-aged ladies to the gallery opening not so much because she particularly objects to Kotoko but she’s worried her dad might get bamboozled into something without properly surveying his options. While Sugimoto remains maudlin and filled with regret though perhaps putting the past aside through a symbolic act of closure, the youngsters are cheerfully cynical, practical in the way the older generation are always telling them to be but are perhaps disappointed in them for not having dreams or aspirations beyond those of claiming or maintaining or their chosen status in life. “Art is money” Hideko is fond of saying, and it’s true enough in so much as money is an art and the one which seems at least to have captivated the post-war generation eagerly awaiting the advent of the consumerist revolution. 


Gate of Hell (地獄門, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Which is the greater challenge to the social order, love or ambition, or are they in the end facets of the same destabilising forces? Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (地獄門, Jigokumon) is, from one angle, the story of a man driven mad by “love”, reduced to the depravity of a crazed stalker betraying his samurai honour in order to affirm his status, but it also paints his need as a response to the chaos of his age along with its many repressions while the heroine is, once again, convinced that the only freedom she possesses lies in death. Yet in the midst of all that, Kinugasa ends with a triumph of nobility as the compassionate samurai restores order by rejecting the heat of raw emotion for an internalised contemplation of the greater good. 

Set in the 12th century, the film opens in revolt as two ambitious lords combine forces to attack the Sanjo Palace in what would become known as the Heiji Rebellion. The lords have attacked knowing that Taira no Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) is not in residence, having departed on a pilgrimage. Fearful for the safety of his sister and father, retainers order decoys to be sent out to distract the rebels. Kesa (Machiko Kyo), a court lady in service to the emperor’s sister, agrees to be her decoy and Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa), a minor retainer, is ordered to protect her. He manages to escort her back to his family compound where he assumes she will be safe, transgressively giving her a kiss of life, pouring water into her mouth with his own, after she has fainted during the journey. Unfortunately, Morito has miscalculated. His brother has sided with the rebels and they are not safe here. During the chaos they go their separate ways, and as soon as Kiyomori returns he puts an end to the rebellion restoring the status quo.  

Shocked at his brother’s betrayal, Morito tells him that only a coward betrays a man to whom he has sworn an oath of loyalty but he explains that he is acting not out of cowardice but self interest. He has made an individualist choice to advance his status in direct opposition to the samurai code. Morito doesn’t yet know it but he is about to do something much the same. He has fallen in love with Kesa and after meeting her again at the Gate of Hell where they are each paying their respects to the fallen, his brother among them, is determined to marry her, so much so that he asks Kiyomori directly during a public ceremony rewarding loyal retainers for their service. The other men giggle at such an inappropriate, unmanly show of emotion but the joke soon fades once another retainer anxiously points out that Kesa is already married to one of the lord’s favoured retainers. Kiyomori apologises and tries to laugh it off, but Morito doubles down, requesting that Kiyomori give him another man’s wife. 

This series of challenges to the accepted order is compounded by a necessity for politeness. Morito is mocked and derided, told that his conduct is inappropriate and embarrassing, but never definitively ordered to stop. Making mischief or hoping to defuse the situation, Kiyomori engineers a meeting between Morito and Kesa, cautioning him that the matter rests with her and should she refuse him he should take it like a man and bow out gracefully. Kesa, for her part, has only ever been polite to Morito and is extremely confused, not to mention distressed, by this unexpected turn of events. She is quite happily married to Wataru (Isao Yamagata) who is the soul of samurai honour, kind, honest, and always acting with the utmost propriety. That might be why he too treats Morito with politeness, never directly telling him to back off but refusing to engage with his inappropriate conduct. That sense of being ignored, however, merely fuels Morito’s resentment. He accuses Kesa of not leaving her husband because Wataru is of a higher rank, as if she rejects him out of snobbishness, rather than accept the fact she does not like him. 

Morito continues in destructive fashion. We see him repeatedly, break, smash, and snap things out of a sense of violent frustration with the oppressions of his age until finally forced to realise that he has “destroyed a beautiful soul” in his attempt to conquer it. “One cannot change a person’s feelings by force” Wataru advises, but is that not the aim of every rebellion, convincing others they must follow one man and not another because he is in someway stronger? The priest whose head was cut off and displayed at the Gate of Hell was killed in part because he reaped what he had sown in beheading the defeated soldiers of a previous failed revolution. Morito kills a traitor and he falls seemingly into rolling waves which transition to an unrolling scroll reminding us that rebellions ebb and flow through time and all of this is of course transient. Only Wataru, perhaps ironically, as the unambiguously good samurai is able to end the cycle, refusing his revenge in the knowledge it would do no real good. Morito is forced to live on in the knowledge of the destruction his misplaced passion has wrought, standing at his own Gate of Hell as a man now exiled from his code and renouncing the world as one unfit to live in it. 


Gate of Hell is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Onibaba (鬼婆, Kaneto Shindo, 1964)

How do you go on living in a world turned upside-down? It may be the central theme of post-war cinema, but few have tackled it in such a direct if allegorical way as Kaneto Shindo, repurposing a Buddhist parable about the perils of duplicity as a lesson in the dangers of the age, defined by a cruel hunger which could not be satisfied by bread alone even if there were bread to satisfy it. Onibaba (鬼婆), as the title implies, makes a villainess of an old woman driven to extremes by her chaotic times, but perhaps suggests that the times make villains of us all.

Deep in the war-torn country of 14th century Japan the imperial capital of Kyoto has been razed, a horse is said to have given birth to a cow, and the sun rose black in the sky leaving day as dark as night. With farmers dragged away from their fields to fight in a war they barely understand on behalf of distant lords, the grain basket of the nation is close to empty. An old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have learned to make ends meet by hunting battle-weary samurai, stripping them of their armour, and throwing their bodies into a gigantic pit sitting right in the middle of the tall grass like a gravitational black hole of human compassion. The old woman has been patiently waiting for the return of her son, Kichi, who was taken away by the samurai, certain that everything is going back to normal when the war is over. Kichi, however, will not be returning. Hachi (Kei Sato), another young man from the village taken along with him, brings the sad news that the old woman’s son was beaten to death by a mob of farmers much like herself resentful of the war’s intrusion onto their land. 

Everything becomes food, Hachi explains, a sentiment extremely familiar to those who lived through the chaos of the immediate post-war era. Pointing at a baseline problem in the feudal economy, the war starves the poor and makes the wealthy hungry. The fields run wild with no men to tend them, as if symbolising the madness of the times. Lost in the tall grass, samurai and peasant alike search for an exit but are drawn only towards that black pit of human cruelty, more beasts than men driven by the need to survive alone. 

Without her son, the old woman is unable to farm, and without her daughter-in-law she is unable to survive through killing. She knows that these are times without feeling and that if Kichi will not return there is no reason for her daughter-in-law to stay. Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama), the broker for the looted samurai armour, makes an indecent proposal of extra millet for sexual favours but the old woman defiantly turns him down, perhaps not quite realising the offer was likely not intended for her. Which is to say that Hachi is not the only man in town, but is perhaps the only “desirable” one. Such desires that there are apparently cannot be satisfied by a crusty old man like Ushi, but are there all the same. Hachi presents a triple threat. The old woman knows her survival depends on the younger one, but also that she has no means to keep her now that her son is dead. She offers Hachi her body instead but he, as she did Ushi, baulks at the idea of slaking his lust on such an old woman. 

When a strange samurai wanders into her hut and orders her at the point of his sword to lead him out of the tall grass a solution presents itself. The old woman lures him to the black pit and prises away the ornate oni mask which he claimed he wore to protect his beautiful face from the ravages of war. Despite the fact that the samurai appears to have suffered from some kind of aggressive skin disease, the old woman unwisely decides to put the mask on her own face, convincing her daughter-in-law that her relationship with Hachi is sinful and appearing out of nowhere dressed as a demon to remind her that she’s going to hell. The mask’s crazed expression becomes fused with her own face, cementing her transformation into a “demoness” which it seems had already begun with stretch of white disrupting the uniformity of her hair and the kabuki-esque exaggeration of her eyebrows. Running desperately through the tall grass she cries out that she’s human, but this world has made demons of them all. The black pit of hunger knows no fill, and there can be no satisfaction in a world so devoid of human feeling.


Onibaba is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Our Town (わが町, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

“They tricked me and you and everyone! It’s so stupid” a stammering man tries to explain to his deluded friend, but some people just don’t want to hear the truth. Spanning 30 years of tumultuous 20th century history, Yuzo Kawashima’s Our Town (わが町, Waga Machi) charts a course of authoritarian fallacy as its puffed up hero refuses to give up on the imperialism of his youth and condemns all around him to lives of misery out of misguided faith in an outdated code of patriarchal and national pride. Too late he will perhaps begin to realise that his unforgiving rigidity has done nothing more than alienate the people that he loves, but his story is both a lament for past folly and a warning for the freer post-war future. 

Back in the 1900s, the tail end of the Meiji era, Taa (Ryutaro Tatsumi) was one of 1200 Japanese construction workers who travelled to the Philippines to help build a road intended to boost the economy of the recently independent nation. Now, around this time, Japan was also embarking on the the first of its 20th century wars fought against the Russians. While Taa was breaking his back on the Benguet road, other young men were busy painting themselves in glory as imperial soldiers contributing to the expansion of the burgeoning Japanese Empire. In his own way, and quite literally, Taa was also building the Japanese Empire and intensely resents that no one recognises his contribution as the self-styled “Taa of Benguet” who apparently kept his fellow Japanese going even when it became clear that they were just exploited workers, hung out to dry once the job was done and left to die of poverty or tropical disease. 

Taa’s life philosophy is that humans are born to work and that suffering in youth builds character. He wanted to show the world what Japanese people are made of and feels he made Japan proud building the Benguet roadway, but there are no flag waving parades for his return as there were for Hanai who went away to war, nor is there any real work. Embarrassed about his illiteracy, he didn’t even write any letters home which is one reason why he didn’t know that a casual girlfriend, Tsuru (Yoko Minamida), whom he’d perhaps long forgotten, had given birth to his child, Hatsue, who is now four. Despite his initial surprise, Taa submits himself to the role of husband and father, earning money as a rickshaw driver, but never forgets that he is “Taa of Benguet” or that the meaning of life is suffering through hard work. 

Old fashioned and patriarchal even for the times in which he lives, Taa’s attitudes continue to destroy the lives of those around him. He wasn’t there to support Tsuru and so she worked herself to death in his absence. Hatsue (Tomoko Ko) grows into a beautiful young woman and falls in love with Shintaro (Shiro Osaka) the son of a bucket maker who, though athletic, is not perhaps built for hard work in the same way as Taa had been. He tries to force his philosophies on the younger generation, pressuring Shintaro to go to the Philippines to make a man of himself, not quite understanding that much has changed in the previous 15 years, nor that Shintaro may not be able to endure the kind of hardship he regards as indicative of a productive life. 

Taa learns nothing from his mistakes, eventually pressuring his granddaughter Kimie (Yoko Minamida) in the same way he’d done his daughter, objecting to her desire to marry a man of her own choosing even though he embodies many of his oft spoken ideals including dedication to hard work. Jiro (Tatsuya Mihashi) is the son of his old rival Hanai and was himself in the war. Like Taa and the men of his generation, he too was “tricked” into working overseas for a mistaken ideal of Japanese imperialism but he’s also a man of the post-war generation and has no more illusions about things like glory or suffering.

Kimie too, as she later tells Taa, is a post-war woman. She feels no obligation towards her grandfather simply because he raised her, nor will she allow her life to be ruined in the same way her mother’s and grandmother’s were by Taa’s patriarchal authoritarianism. “You’ve got to start listening to the younger generation” Jiro tries to explain, but Taa is not someone used to listening. “Every single thing you’ve ever done has been pointless” Kimie tells him, “trapped in your own happy bubble, getting in the way of everyone else”. All Taa’s philosophy has ever caused is pain and suffering, trying to make the lives of all the men who died building a road in a foreign land mean something while ironically propping up the same ideology that robs men like him of their freedom and possibility. You could say something broke in 1905, but it also broke 40 years later, people are wiser now and they know there’s no glory in suffering. Taa sees the error of his ways, but also that there’s no place for him in the kinder post-war era where there’s no sin in working hard, but no life without freedom. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)