Her Brother (おとうと, Kon Ichikawa, 1960)

ototoPerhaps oddly for a director of his generation, Kon Ichikawa is not particularly known for family drama yet his 1960 effort, Her Brother (おとうと, Ototo), draws strongly on this genre albeit with Ichikawa’s trademark irony. A Taisho era tale based on an autobiographically inspired novel by Aya Koda, Her Brother is the story of a sister’s unconditional love but also of a woman who is, in some ways, forced to sacrifice herself for her family precisely because of their ongoing emotional neglect.

Oldest daughter Gen (Keiko Kishi) is still in school though she’s more or less running the household seeing as her invalid step-mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) spends most of her time bedridden with rheumatism and the rest of it pontificating about religion and listening to her poisonous friend (Kyoko Kishida) who likes to stir up trouble in this already difficult family environment. Gen’s father (Masayuki Mori) is a well known writer who needs a lot of quiet time for his work. As fathers go he’s very laid back and content to think his kids will be OK because they’re his kids, which isn’t to say he doesn’t care but he’s not exactly present most of the time. It’s no surprise then that care of the family’s youngest, Hekiro (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), has largely fallen to his sister. Where Gen is naturally responsible and practically minded, Hekiro is reckless and always in search of adventure. Eventually this lands him in trouble when he gets involved with a bad crowd but whatever his family might have been feeling towards him, everything changes once they discover that he’s facing a serious illness.

Because of the family’s odd arrangement, Gen has become almost a maternal figure towards Hekiro despite only being a couple of years older than he is. In fact, the pair have an almost comically childish physical fight at one point which is quite undignified considering their ages, especially when it involves staining their tatami mat floor with a puddle of bright red ink. Gen does her best but like her father she more often than not lets Hekiro off the hook by bailing him out, much of the time with her own rather than her father’s money. Not having the kind of authority a parent, uncle, or aunt might have all she can really do is ask him to think about behaving better, but Hekiro constantly pushes the boundaries to get a more concrete form of attention than his sister’s well meaning attempts to help are able to provide.

Hekiro’s stunts  eventually threaten to pull his sister into his darkening world, especially when a man claiming to be a detective starts more or less stalking Gen before pulling her into a shrine on the pretext of talking about her brother’s case before trying to have his wicked way with her. Luckily Gen is saved by a flock of geese cunningly released by some of her brother’s friends which gives her enough time to escape and finally get rid of the odious little man.

Similarly, Hekiro deliberately introduces his sister to the local pool hall. Though Gen seems to enjoy the game and is even good at it, she quickly realises she’s been brought as a sort of guarantor for her brother’s mounting debts. Add in other expensive and dangerous hobbies like his boat habit (he can’t swim) and it’s not surprising everyone’s had enough of Hekiro before he’s even left school. When he has an accident which results in the death of a horse (again, very expensive), it does at least lead him to reflect on the negative effect his actions can have on those around him, even if all he wanted and continues to want is an escape from his boring and miserable family life.

Even Hekiro’s illness fails to arouse very much in the way of concern from his well meaning father and grumpy step-mother who is hellbent on marrying Gen off against her wishes. Gen is, again, the only one to nurse Hekiro in hospital, managing the household as well as looking after her brother on his sickbed. When the illness becomes more serious it provides a last opportunity for the family members to bond and make amends for the various ways they’ve failed each other. The step-mother’s visit is not as altruistic as it seems when it transpires she’s only really come to “convert” Hekiro to her religion, but she begins to feel something more for him on believing that Jesus has already saved him thanks to his outwardly calm and polite manner. The final irony is that the idealised family is only born as it is destroyed, Gen puts her pinny back on and takes the reins from her stepmother who is presumably headed straight back to bed.

Gen’s devotion can’t save her brother either from himself or his fate and it may even be the end of her too. Vowing never to marry and rising from her own sickbed stopping only to instruct her stepmother to rest, she’s very clearly chosen her path even if Ichikawa’s camera and musical cues seem to find the ironic comedy of the situation rather than the sadness of her possibly tragic plight. Ichikawa and his cinematographer invented a whole new technique for this picture – the bleach bypass, which appropriately robs the environment of its vibrancy, dulling even bright colours with a sort of heavy leaded effect perfectly reflecting Hekiro’s increasingly depressed mindset as he reflects on being someone who has no firm anchor or place to feel at home. A strange, comically melancholic piece, Her Brother is a characteristically sideways swipe at the family drama from the master of irony though one which does not altogether escape his taste for the sentimental.


Original trailer (not subtitles)

Capone Cries a Lot (カポネおおいになく, Seijun Suzuki, 1985)

1040003_lNever one to be accused of clarity, Seijun Suzuki’s Capone Cries a Lot (カポネおおいになく, Capone Ooni Naku) is one of his most cheerfully bizarre movies coming fairly late in his career yet and neatly slotting itself in right after Suzuki’s first two Taisho era movies, Zigeunerweisen and Kageroza. Though not part of the so called “Taisho trilogy” (this would be completed with Yumeji in 1991), Capone Cries a Lot begins its tale in the short lived period between the ages of Meiji and Showa when the world seemed open and foreign influence flooded into this once isolated nation. Could that influence also travel upstream? Naniwa-bushi, for example, could could a Naniwa-bushi singer on the run make something of himself in the New World?

Like most of Suzuki’s movies, plot is a secondary concern. However, loosely speaking, our protagonist is Jun – a man who wanted to learn the art of Naniwa-bushi from its accepted master but ultimately ran off with another man’s wife and ended up in 1920s America. Once there he hooks up the Japanese gangster Gun-tetsu who makes use of Jun’s sake making experience to assist in his bootlegging business during prohibition. This brings them in contact with the Capones, firstly with Frank and eventually with Al (who Jun amusingly mistakes for the president of the United States). Meanwhile, Jun’s girl, Kozome, has left him (to an extent) and become a prostitute. However well things seem to be going for Jun, he’s still a foreigner in a strange, and sometimes unkind, land. Is this the sort of place where dreams can survive?

Suzuki films the whole thing in Japan at an abandoned theme park which is 100% Americana – the Old West tricked out with cowboys, saloons and guns. Now it’s strange kind of new city populated by runaway Japanese criminals gambling and whoring their way through life. Jun wants to sing Naniwa-bushi in this odd place even if no one understands him. Originally he’s annoyed by the foreigners laying a hand on his shamisen or making attempts to join in with their jazz inflected modern music, but eventually he’s singing new Naniwa-bushi songs about the plight of the Native Americans and finally joining the jazz band for a full on musical fusion number. Suzuki does not shy away from the racial politics and problems inherent in his critique of American imperialism even up to an including the KKK and the Japanese internment camps.

In contrast to the previous two Taisho set films, Capone is much lighter in tone and obviously more playful even if it includes a similar level of oblique surrealism. Chaplin references and slapstick humour mix with absurdist dialogue and cosmic silliness to create a popcorn candy world that’s still somehow sad and strange. It’s a vision of America filtered through ‘20s gangster pics and B-movie westerns, equal parts bubblegum and tommy guns. It doesn’t make a great deal of literal sense but offers plenty of Suzuki’s psychedelic eye for colour, surprising editing choices and all round idiosyncratic approach to storytelling.

There may be ample reasons why Capone Cries a Lot has never found an overseas audience, it’s a little overlong for one and its comments on race are perhaps a little uncomfortable from several different angles. Nevertheless, it’s another characteristically zany effort from Suzuki and full of colourful pop aesthetics that are much more playful than the rather heavier Zigeunerweisen and Kageroza. Well worth the long strange ride, Capone Cries a Lot is a trip to 1920s candy land that few of the directors devotees will be able to resist.


(Unsubtitled) Scene from midway through the film

 

Eros + Massacre (エロス+虐殺, Kiju Yoshida, 1969)

Snapshot-2015-11-17 at 11_12_15 PM-1889818228One of the foremost avant-garde filmmakers of the New Wave era (though he detested this term which, in fairness, is a retrospective and often arbitrary label), Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida has remained largely unseen in the West. Some of this is his own fault – fiercely independent, Yoshida nevertheless found himself working with ATG after leaving Shochiku but the relationship was an unusual one and often far from easy. All but the latest film in Arrow’s Kiju Yoshida boxset, Coup d’Etat, were completed more or less independently and only distributed though ATG and as such not truly “ATG” films. Though it bears many of the hallmarks of a late ‘60s ATG movie, Eros + Massacre (エロス+虐殺, Erosu Purasu Gyakusatsu) is one such effort and the one which helped to make Yoshida’s name even if it was only seen in an abridged version.

Structurally complex, Eros + Massacre mixes the world of the Taisho anarchists, Osugi Sakae and Ito Noe, with the contemporary Tokyo of the sixties through the prism of two modern students who are running a research project into the events surrounding their ultimate assassination during the panic after the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Eiko is a sexually liberated modern woman who engages in casual prostitution and her boyfriend, Wada, is a sexually impotent young man with a traumatic past and habit of playing with fire. The vision we see of the Taisho era is filtered through the perceptions of Eiko and Wada and, in fact, we start to see them as living with us in a real sense as Ito wanders around modern Tokyo, observing the fruits of her struggle and in one notable episode being interviewed by Eiko.

The film exists in two distinct versions – this is less to do with any kind of censorship, either commercial or political, than a legal or possibly moral issue. The fact is, the other of Osugi’s mistresses, Kamichika Ichiko, was still alive at the time the film was completed and had also become a serving politician. Unhappy with her portrayal in the film and unwilling to have a potentially embarrassing event from her previous life dragged back into the spotlight, she threatened to sue and Yoshida voluntarily decided to recut the film to remove many of her scenes as well as renaming the character to distance her from her real life counterpart. The shorter version of the film is the one which helped make Yoshida’s reputation and though nothing in the shorter version is not in the longer one, this version feels a little less “avant-garde” in tone than the intended full cut of the film.

Yoshida often gives way to surreal incidents such as the clash between the Taisho era followers of Osugi and a group of young rugby players tussling over the white wrapped remains of Osugi, the expressionist scene in which the mistress, Itsuko, clutches at a knife hovering in mid air causing the screen to fill with blood raining down from above or the repeated stabbings of Osugi each re-imagined in differing scenarios. His framing is always beautifully idiosyncratic as he makes use of the edges of the frames, disembodying his actors or dividing them with walls and windows. There is no sense of conventional narrative as timelines blur into each other becoming evermore indistinct and the dialogue is often elliptical or poetic rather than offering naturalistic content. Nevertheless, the shorter version retains fewer of these flourishes than are present in the original cut of the film.

Eiko is interested in Osugi because of his free love philosophy rather than any other political aim. Other than their interest in sexual politics, Eiko and Wada do not appear to be particularly politically active in any other way. Osugi’s ideas of total freedom do not even go down very well with his comrades who don’t approve of the way he treats his various women and his disingenuous denial that there is any discord between his band of concubines seems wilfully naive. Osugi’s treatment of the three women in his life – his wife, Yasuko, mistress Itsuko (who is financially supporting both Osugi and his wife despite Osugi’s advocacy of free love insisting on financial independence of all parties), and now his latest lover Noe, is extremely self-centred and unfair. As the first to live in this unorthodox fashion, it’s unsurprising that the arrangement comes in for criticism from all quarters. Yoshida posits that it was Osugi’s free love lifestyle that eventually lead to his shock execution during the chaos following the Great Kanto earthquake as his modern ideals threatened the very idea of the traditional family and ultimately the state itself.

By contrast, Eiko’s modern sexuality appears merely an attempt to ward of her sense of ennui. Where for Osugi sex was a political action (or so he would have it), for Eiko it’s a means of trying and failing to add some kind of meaning to her life. Eiko and Wada are not committed to any kind of rebellious action – they’re simply bored. They literally play with fire without understanding its consequences. Yoshida’s other central tenet is that youth is not beautiful – it is destructive. By implication, Eiko and Wada’s selfish pursuit of personal freedom and the modern commodification of desire is nothing more than willful self destruction.

Yoshida has stated that his primary idea for the film is how to bring about a revolution and to ask the question of what it is that needs to change. Osugi is shown up as a hypocrite whose ideals are imperfect and self centred, though his eventual murder is dictated by his refusal to conform. The fact that he envisioned a different future, wished to live in a different way, was sufficient enough to necessitate his death. The modern couple misuse their own freedom and are willing to watch the world burn just to feel the heat. They are incapable of effecting real social change because their focus is always inwards rather than a dedication to the betterment of all mankind. Confounding, intriguing and beautifully shot Eros + Massacre is far from easy to digest but is an essential entry in the history of Japanese avant-garde cinema.


Available now in the UK as part of Arrow Films’ Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism box set.

Reviews of the other movies in the set:

Kagero-za 陽炎座 (Heat Haze Theatre – Seijun Suzuki 1981)

SuzukiKageroza1Zigeunerweisen was an unexpected commercial and critical hit in Japan netting both an improbably good box office return and more than a few awards. The next instalment in what would become Suzuki’s Taisho Roman Trilogy (though it would be another ten years before the final part, Yumeji, would arrive) therefore benefitted from a slighter bigger budget, bigger stars and even greater ambition. Like the others in the trilogy and as implied by its title, Kagero-za is once again based on a book set in the Taisho era though this time by Kyoka Izumi. Izumi was a novelist and kabuki playwright most closely associated with supernatural tales influenced by Edo era traditions and Kagero-za even features a playwright as its protagonist. With even less clarity than Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za is not altogether as successful but nevertheless boasts Suzuki’s bizarre imagery and surreal world view.

Like Zigeunerweisen Kagero-za also throws dreams and reality into a giant melting pot with a non-linear narrative that floats and wefts like a strange nightmare. It begins with the central character, Matsuzaki (played by Yusaku Matsuda), meeting a lone woman near a shrine who asks him to accompany her to visit a friend in the hospital. She doesn’t want to go alone because she’s afraid of the old woman who sells charms and medicines there including bladder cherries which are said to contain the souls of women. Originally reluctant Matsuzaki agrees only to have her change her mind shortly after. Matsuzaki is pre-occupied over having dropped a love letter and worrying it’s been found by an ‘evil’ person – something which upsets his new friend as she’s convinced the letter was from a married woman.

This mysterious woman, it turns out, may be (or have been?) the wife of Matsuzaki’s wealthy patron Tamawaki. To make matters even more confusing, Tamawaki may have had two wives – the first a German woman he married while abroad and brought back with him to Japan who died her hair black and wore contact lenses to look more Japanese but regained her original blonde & blue eyed foreignness in the bright moonlight. The second is, apparently, dying in hospital – not that Tamawaki is terribly upset about it. Matsuzaki becomes increasingly obsessed with the mysterious woman, following her across the country only to discover Tamawaki waiting for him – apparently intent on witnessing a double suicide.

The film takes an even more surrealist dive towards the end as Matsuzaki finds himself the only adult audience member at a kabuki show entirely performed and witnessed by children. Not only that, this bizarre kabuki play appears to re-enact the exact same events from the first half of the film. A fitting trap for a playwright, this last, nightmarish section echoes the film’s ghost story origins complete with the creepy bladder cherry seller from the beginning as some kind of villainous demoness and Tamawaki as a tempting devil. Who talks of realism here? Says Tamawaki making an exit through an alleyway with a rifle on his shoulder. Who indeed? Not us, that’s for sure.

Even less coherent than Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za is a veritable fever dream of a film. There’s barely any linear plot, Matsuzaki’s perceptions are recounted in fractured dream narrative where the true nature of events is always unclear. We can’t trust Matsuzaki to guide us here, nor can we trust Suzuki who employs fewer absurdist tricks than with the previous film but injects a heavy dose of kabuki inspired theatrics. Everything feels inevitable, like the action in a play it’s all been scripted and performed many times before. Yet for all that we don’t ever come to feel very much for Matsuzaki and his presumably tragic fate even though we realise fairly early on what sort of story this is. It’s hellish, and gruelling and honestly tries the patience at times but never achieves that sense of over arching dread that characterised Zigeunerweisen.

That said, if Kagero-za’s largest weakness is playing second fiddle to Zigeunerweisen that’s not so much of a problem. Once again filled with bizarre and trippy imagery, Kagero-za has many startling moments but fails to marry its visual virtuosity with the more individualistic focus of its script. Undeniably without the power of Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za ultimately feels a little too clever (and perhaps too cold) for its own good but nevertheless does offer Suzuki’s visual flair and an entertaining (if baffling) narrative.

Zigeunerweisen (Seijun Suzuki, 1980)

ZigeunerweisenSeijun Suzuki maybe most well known for his 1967 weird hitman themed existential crime movie Branded to Kill but the film almost cost him his career and definitely did cost him his job at Nikkatsu after studio bosses lamented that his films made no sense and no money. The next decade saw Suzuki involved in a complex set of legal battles and unable to sit in the director’s chair. The positive result of all this is that he obviously had some time to save up all his crazy so he could put it all into his personal statement of rebirth – Zigeunerweisen. Inspired by Hyakken Uchida’s novel Sarasate no Ban, Zigeunerweisen is a surreal and nightmarish journey through Taisho Era Japan as seen through Seijun Suzuki’s very idiosyncratic gift for storytelling.

As far as the plot goes, it begins with two men listening to a record of Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen on which it sounds as if someone says something before the music starts but neither can quite make it out. It transpires that the two men are Aochi, a Westernised professor of German and his old university friend Nakasago who has become something of a wanderer. The pair are reunited in a small fishing village where Nakasago is implicated in the death of a local woman who had apparently fallen in love with him (something which seems to happen to him a lot). After Aochi manages to make all the charges go away with his “I’m a professor don’t you know!” routine, the pair retire to a local inn where they insist on getting the one geisha in the place who’s just returned from her brother’s funeral to come and cheer them up. Later, Aochi is stunned to discover that Nakasago has got married to a noble woman but even more surprised when he realises the wife looks exactly like the geisha from the sea side town! Dualities build upon dualities with an ever multiplying sequence of bizarre love triangles as dreams and reality continue to become ever more indistinct. That’s not to mention the recurrent presence of a blind singing trio, a sister-in-law in a coma and that the main character may or may not be dead the whole time….

The Taisho Era, 1912 -1926 in our dating system, was a short lived historical time period as the Emperor Taisho was in poor health. A little like Weimar Germany, this brief period has taken on a sheen of tragic romanticism, innocent and decadent at the same time – safe from the chaos of the Meiji Era which saw rapid changes resulting from Japan’s emergence from centuries of isolation, but also a time of youthful exuberance before the darkness of the Showa Era’s militaristic bent took hold. Aochi seems to represent an intellectual, civilised Western looking outlook with his European clothing, house and free spirited wife whereas Nakasago represents a more primal force with his traditional dress, Japanese style house in the middle of nowhere and, when he marries, traditional Japanese wife who dresses in kimono and stays home all day waiting for her husband’s return. However, Nakasago also gives full vent to his passions leaving his wife at home to go wandering and break a few hearts along the way. He uses and abuses women with no thought at all – he simply takes what he wants from them and moves on. He cares nothing for so called traditional morality or the rules of society, he is quite literally a law unto himself. Where Aochi thinks, Nakasago does.

As for feeling? Maybe neither of them are particularly engaged in any kind of emotional activity. Adding to the film’s dreamlike quality is a kind of permanent listlessness. A pervading sense of ennui which seems to say that none of this is really of any consequence. Logical sense has no real place here – we’re suddenly in a cave mid conversation, figures appear and disappear from the frame without reason or warning and characters which were once fully grown adults are suddenly children. Oh, and the murder / suicide victim at the beach? she died because six crabs emerged from her nether regions. There are also constant allusions to death – most obviously through Nakasago’s skeleton fetish which is certainly one of his more outlandish (and disturbing) qualities. That’s not to mention the title track itself Zigeunerweisen and its strange recurrence in the plot where the inability to decipher its mysterious message takes on an unsupportable level of importance. Alive or dead? Awake or dreaming? Are those things even mutually exclusive?

What does it all mean then? Absolutely no idea – but that’s OK. Zigeunerweisen throws up mirrors everywhere, demonstrating the curious symmetry of life. Dualities abound, the real and the unreal intersect in strange and inseparable ways. Perhaps that’s the point, there is nothing absolute – all things consist of other things. All moments truly are one moment, coexisting on a vast plane uncrossable by will but nevertheless traversable (or so the bizarre blind trio children would have you believe with their strangely anachronistic Manchurian war song). Suzuki is obviously uninterested in concrete answers, but as in many things it’s the questions themselves which become the most interesting.