The Water Magician (瀧の白糸, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1933)

“As long as I breathe, I’ll remember my debt to you” avows a young man to his unexpected benefactor becoming one of many claiming they will never forget her kindness though in his case he actually means it. Kenji Mizoguchi would later become known for tragic tales of female suffering, but his central themes were established early on and very much in evidence in 1933 silent The Water Magician (瀧の白糸, Taki no Shiraito) in which a truly good woman tries to use her independent success to improve the lives of those around her but finds herself cruelly betrayed by a greedy and self-interested patriarchal society. 

Tomo Mizushima (Takako Irie) goes by the stage name Taki no Shiraito, which means something like white threads of the waterfall, particularly apt seeing as she is a “water magician” with a troupe of itinerant players. A beautiful woman who can make the water dance, she has her share of followers and is financially independent if subject to the vagaries of the show business existence. Her life changes one day when she is travelling in a horse-drawn coach that is embarrassingly overtaken by a fast running rickshaw man. The passengers are irate, wondering what they’re paying for, while the driver ignores their pleas not to spare the horses. Tomo decides to use her feminine appeal and then her financial power to convince him to speed up, but he ignores her too until he eventually decides to gallop forward recklessly while the passengers shake inside until the coach’s axle finally snaps and leaves them stranded. A gallant young man, the driver grabs Tomo and throws her on his horse to get her to the next town. She faints on the journey and only comes round after the coachman has left but discovers herself in possession of a complicated law book she assumes is his.  

Tomo cannot stop thinking about the dashing young man, only identified as “Kin” (Tokihiko Okada). She is surprised to reencounter him asleep on a bridge though he seems not to remember her. After finding out that he is an unluckily orphaned former samurai who was fired from the coach for breaking the axle and endangering the passengers, she resolves to use her financial power to help him achieve his dreams of studying law in Tokyo. Tomo does this because she is in love and asks for nothing in return except a future promise of romantic union to which the young man does not exactly agree but does take her money and vows to live up to the faith she has shown in him. 

Alone once again Tomo tries to contend with the world around her while dreaming of Kinya, sending him her savings for his upkeep while the troupe continues to suffer especially during the traditional dry spells of the heavy winter. The troupe’s leader makes the decision to get involved with dangerous loanshark Iwabushi (Ichiro Sugai), a huge hulking man with a mean look and lecherous temperament. While Tomo dreams of Kinya, two romances mirror each other in the failed relationship of the cruel knife thrower Minami (Koju Murata) and his terrorised wife Gin (Kumeko Urabe), and the innocent young love of the beautiful Nadeshiko (Suzuko Taki) and the barker Shinzo (Bontaro Miake). Gin also borrows money from Tomo which she was reluctant to surrender because she saved it for Kinya, claiming she needs it to visit her sick mother in Tokyo and vowing once again never to forget Tomo’s kindness but later skipping out with a stagehand to escape Minami’s control. Nadeshiko and Shinzo, however, are forced to flee on learning that Minami plans to sell her to Iwabushi to settle his private debts. The couple regret leaving Tomo who has always supported them in the lurch, but she helps them escape, ushering them out the back towards a waiting boat and handing them still more money asking only that they be happy and stay together always. 

That’s not perhaps a power that’s in their keep, but the youngsters keep it as best they can and eventually attempt to protect her in the way she has protected them. The world, however, is cruel. With work thin on the ground Tomo finds herself unable to go on funding Kinya as she’d promised, and is only shamed by his well-meaning letter explaining that he’ll try to find a way of supporting himself until his studies are finished so she needn’t worry. She cuts a deal with Iwabushi and sells her body on Kinya’s behalf, but he is in league with Minami who sets his goons on her to retrieve the money seconds after she’s obtained it. 

Her hopes are at least repaid on discovering that her love is true to his word, has never forgotten her, and is well on the way to achieving his dreams as person of note. “Chance and fate, that’s all there is” Kinya had lamented on their second meeting, but he couldn’t know how right he’d be. Tomo’s dreams are fulfilled only their negation. Kinya must do his duty even if it does her harm, yet he too feels responsible and wants to share her burden though that, ironically, would only destroy everything for which she has sacrificed so much. “The river flows on as it always has and always will” the Benshi adds in solemn contemplation of this romantic tragedy, somehow inevitable in its cruelty. Tomo finds herself at the mercy of her times in which money is all, goodness is a weakness, and love too fragile to survive. The woman who made the water dance floats away on a river of tears, a victim of a cruel and unforgiving society.


A Woman’s Sorrows (女人哀愁, Mikio Naruse, 1937)

Arriving perhaps in a moment preceding a major change, Mikio Naruse’s A Woman’s Sorrows (女人哀愁, Nyonin Aishu) finds itself on one side of a divide in which it is, paradoxically, a woman’s conservatism that is thought a barrier to her marriage. As usual slightly ahead of his times, Naruse doesn’t so much attack the idea of marriage either arranged or love, but subtly arcs out the patriarchal cage the bars of which only become visible to his conflicted heroine after she has wilfully allowed herself to be locked inside. 

Opening on location, a thriving Tokyo street scene, Naruse introduces us to the “conservative and indecisive” heroine Hiroko (Takako Irie) at her part-time job at a record store. We learn that Hiroko has recently been to an omiai marriage meeting, and that at least according to her friend she has been harbouring a longterm crush on her sensitive, progressive cousin Ryosuke. Hiroko denies having feelings for her cousin claiming that she thinks of him as a brother and that he dislikes her for being too “conservative”. One might think that a truly conservative woman wouldn’t be working in something as modern as selling records, but Hiroko is indeed a kimono-wearing holdout who has almost fully internalised the properness of the patriarchal order. Her indecisiveness, however, perhaps tells us that she isn’t quite as comfortable with it as she seems and is in a sense forcing herself to accept something she thinks she has no power to resist. 

It is also true that Hiroko’s family is poor. Despite confiding to Ryosuke that her husband gave her trouble, failing in one sense at least by dying and leaving his family with debts, Hiroko’s mother is keen that she marry and marry well. Her prospective match Shinichi is from a well to do family and has also offered to pay for the education of Hiroko’s younger brother Masao, so the marriage is undoubtedly financially advantageous if not immediately essential. “Since I cannot marry someone I love, anyone will do” Hiroko silently sighs, resigning herself to a conservative vision of a woman’s life. For his part, Ryosuke rejects Hiroko because he believes her conservatism runs so deep as to lead her to reject love as improper, that love would in fact be a barrier to her marriage which she would feel duty-bound to refuse. 

Hiroko feels that the match is in a sense too good for her, much better than she had a right to expect. Nevertheless, it’s her seeming conservatism that presents a potential problem in that it is assumed that despite working in a record shop she wouldn’t know how to dance in the modern fashion. Far from censorious, Hiroko’s mother is worried that the young girls these days all go to “dance halls” while Hiroko is quiet and demure. As it happens, Hiroko knows how to dance, though perhaps they should have been thinking about the problem from the other side in that men who like going to dance halls don’t necessarily like to go with their wives, and those looking for “conservative” women often do so because they want to lead “modern” lives outside the home. Having agreed to the marriage, Hiroko finds herself an outsider, treated as unwaged maid by her new in-laws who all exclaim how glad they are to have someone so reliable as their new daughter-in-law especially as they’ve recently disowned oldest daughter Yoko (Ranko Sawa) for running off with her lower class fiancé. 

As so often in Naruse’s cinema, modern girl Yoko acts as a mirror for the outwardly conservative Hiroko. Yoko determines to marry for love, but is actually far more conservative than she seems in that she is entirely unwilling to surrender her comfortable middle class life and continues to resent the man she married, Masuda, because he cannot keep her in the manner to which she had become accustomed. Shinichi had warned Yoko about “frivolous” men, an ironic comment seeing as we’d just heard him dismiss a woman he’d been seeing as “just a girlfriend” laying bare his rather misogynistic view of women as a means of passing time, but Masuda is the very opposite of frivolous, serious in his intentions even while Yoko rejects him solely because of his lack of socioeconomic status. Yet like Hiroko Yoko is perhaps herself also conflicted, forcing herself to reject Masuda whom she loves out of a mistaken pride that tells her it would be wrong to suffer for love when she could have done as Hiroko did and married well for a comfortable but emotionally unfulfilling life. 

Unhappy in her marriage, Hiroko claims that she could have put up with being treated as a maid but can’t stand being treated as a doll, believing herself mere decoration in Shinichi’s life. Nevertheless she continues to believe it’s her duty to “manage” as good wife, bearing her sorrow and loneliness gracefully until pushed into a moment of crisis by Yoko’s rather melodramatic love life. Overhearing the family declining to invite her to join their game of mahjong on the grounds she’s too conservative and is perfectly happy with her life of drudgery, Hiroko is stirred by Yoko’s assertion that she’d never be so “submissive” despite the fact that’s exactly what she’s been in leaving Masuda to return to her upper middle class life with the Hories who are not perhaps as grand as they seem with only the one maid and Mrs. Horie’s constant penny pinching. 

Yet the subversive conclusion isn’t so much that Hiroko begins to realise she has choices and agency after all along with the right to leave a marriage that isn’t working, but that she, temporarily at least, rejects marriage itself in favour of independence while Yoko chooses love in defying her family to return to Masuda who, by then, has done something quite foolish in a mistaken attempt to prove himself worthy of her. Rather than leaving Shinichi for Ryosuke, she tells him that she needs time to figure herself out, to “reconstruct my life by myself”, vowing to find out what is the most beautiful thing in the world so that she can see something more important in herself. It’s a startlingly progressive statement for the Japan of 1937 which is edging closer towards a kind of darkness despite the otherwise cheerfully internationalist atmosphere with its Western jazz music and record shops, dance halls, department stores, trains, and telephones, the contradictions of the age symbolised in the Horie’s awkward home with its mix of Western and Japanese furnishings. It turns out, Hiroko is the most “modern” woman of all, who ever would have thought?  


The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (時をかける少女, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1983)

Little Girl Who Conquered TImeThe Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a perennial favourite in its native Japan. Yasutaka Tsutsui’s original novel was first published back in 1967 giving rise to a host of multimedia incarnations right up to the present day with Mamoru Hosoda’s 2006 animated film of the same name which is actually a kind of sequel to Tsutsui’s story. Arguably among the best known, or at least the best loved to a generation of fans, is Hausu director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1983 movie The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (時をかける少女, Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo) which is, once again, a Kadokawa teen idol flick complete with a music video end credits sequence.

As in the novel, the story centres around regular high school girl Kazuko Yoshiyama (Tomoyo Harada). She has two extremely close male friends (generally a recipe for disaster, or at least for melodrama but this is not that kind of story) – Horikawa and Fukamachi, and one Saturday while all three are charged with cleaning up the schoolroom, Kazuko ventures into the science lab where she sees a beaker on the floor emitting thick white smoke which smells strongly of lavender causing her to pass out. Everyone seems to think it’s either hunger, anaemia, or that old favourite “woman’s troubles” but from this day on Kazuko’s life begins to change. The same day repeats itself over and over again with minor differences and Kazuko also begins to experience multilayered dreams in which her friends are in some kind of peril.

Tsutsui’s original novel was a Kadokawa Shoten property (though first published 15 years previously) which made it a natural fit for the Kadokawa effect so when legendary idol master Haruki Kadokawa found an idol he was particularly taken with in Tomoyo Harada the stars aligned. Obayashi set the story in his own hometown, the pleasantly old fashioned port village of Onomichi, which adds a nicely personal feel to his take on the original story. Although The Little Girl Who Conquered Time is an adaptation of a classic novel, many of Obayashi’s regular concerns are present from the wistful tone to the transience of emotion and the importance of memory.

Kazuko is another of Obayashi’s young women at a crossroads as she finds herself wondering what to do with the rest of her life. The original timeline seems to point to a romance and possibly a life of pleasant, if dull, domesticity with one of her best friends but with this time travelling intrusion everything diverges. Though assured that she will not remember most of the strange events that have been happening to her, something of her adventures seems to have stuck in Kazuko’s mind even if she couldn’t quite say why. Much to the consternation of her mother, Kazuko’s purpose in life begins to lean to towards the scientific rather than the romantic, almost as if she’s waiting for the return of someone whom she has no recollection of having met.

Obayashi once again uses conflicting colour schemes to anchor his story. Beginning with black and white as Kazuko has her first encounter with someone she’s known all her life under the brightly shining stars, he gradually re-introduces us to the “real” world through sporadically adding colour during her bus ride home to her small town which does have a noticeably more old fashioned aesthetic when compared to Tokyo set features of the era. The effects are highly stylised and very much of their time including the celebrated time travel sequence which has Kazuko framed by a neon blue halo. The most touching sequence occurs near the end of the film in which Kazuko crosses paths with a familiar face that she doesn’t quite recognise, the camera perspective actively changes physically pulling us away from the encounter until Kazuko turns around and walks away in the opposite direction and into yet another empty corridor.

Tomoyo Harada developed into a fine actress with a long standing and successful career in both television and feature films as well as releasing a number of full length albums. As is usual with this kind of film she also sings the theme tune which has the same title as the movie though in an unusual movie Obayashi includes a music video retelling of the events of the film over the end credits featuring all of the cast helping Harada to perform the song with silly grins on their faces all the way through. Harada proves herself much more adept at convincingly carrying a feature length movie than some of her fellow idols but the same cannot be said for many of her co-stars though she is well backed up by established adult cast members including Ittoku Kishibe as Kazuko’s romantically distressed teacher.

The Little Girl Who Conquered Time is first and foremost a Kadokawa idol movie and has all the hallmarks of this short lived though extremely successful genre. Necessarily very much of its time, the film has taken on an additional layer of nostalgic charm on top of that which has been deliberated injected into it. Nevertheless, in keeping with Obayashi’s other work The Little Girl Who Conquered Time has a melancholic, wistful tone which is sentimental at times but, crucially, always sincere.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s the famous music video for the title song (which is of course sung by Tomoyo Harada herself). English Subtitles!

The Deserted City (廃市, Haishi, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1984)

haishiNobuhiko Obayashi might be most closely associated with his debut, Hausu, which takes the form of a surreal, totally psychedelic haunted house movie, but in many ways his first feature is not particularly indicative of the rest of Obayashi’s output. 1984’s The Deserted City (AKA Haishi, 廃市), is a much better reflection of the director’s most prominent preoccupations as it once again sees the protagonist taking a journey of memory back to a distant youth which is both forgotten in name yet ever present like an anonymous ghost haunting the narrator with long held regrets and recriminations.

Based on a novel by Takehiko Fukunaga, The Deserted City is a European influenced, nostalgic, coming of age tale in which university student Eguchi travels to a small Japanese backwater famous for its canals. Though not as sophisticated as Venice itself, the town shares something of the atmosphere of that city as it has often been evoked in literature in its slightly claustrophobic, decaying grandeur. Eguchi has come to the town on an invitation from his uncle and with the intention of spending the summer there to finish his undergraduate dissertation which concerns the work of Edgar Allen Poe.

However, Tokyoite Eguchi immediately finds the town strange, if mostly charming, with its old fashioned rhythms and almost silent soundscape in which only the lapping of the village’s many rivers is audible. Staying in a guest house run by 19 year old Yasuko and her grandmother, Eguchi begins to hear gentle sobbing at night and jumps to the conclusion it must belong to Yasuko’s married older sister, Ikuyo, whom he has yet to meet. Younger brother Saburo also lurks silently in the background with the brother-in-law, Naoyuki, making infrequent appearances. Eguchi had apparently almost forgotten about this single summer in his youth, but was reminded of it after reading a newspaper report that the town had been destroyed in a fire. His memories are coloured by the tragedy which occurred towards the end of his stay and which his youthful soul was not fully able to understand.

The Deserted City revisits many of the themes which came to define Obayashi’s career from the nostalgia for youth and the power of memory to a vaguely supernatural tone which prefigures the final traumatic event that will continue to haunt the protagonist, even if unconsciously, for the rest of his life. Fukunaga was himself very much influenced by European literature and The Deserted City has a distinctly Western feeling with its death ridden canal town and once grand family in decline. Eguchi’s thesis is on the work of Edgar Allen Poe and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he is reading his studies into the story of his own life with the mysterious crying and hidden sister not to mention family secrets and the frequent allusions to the sorry state of the moribund city.

Eguchi describes Yasuko as “cheerful” yet she herself offers the most melancholic commentary of her life. She says she hates the town and can’t stand the constant sound of the waters which she likens the death wail of her city – a slothful sound without energy or purpose. She can see all the other young people leaving with only the elderly remaining behind to decay along with the town, but when Eguchi asks why she doesn’t leave too she replies that she can’t, she’s bound to this place in life and death. Similarly when making a visit to her mother’s grave at a nearby temple she remarks that in this place of stillness, she can no longer discern a difference between the living and the dead. Finally, after all the tragedies that have befallen her, Yasuko declares herself to be “nothing at all” and in bidding Eguchi goodbye as he leaves, corrects him when he promises to visit – she knows she’ll never see him again, he will return to the world of the living. He’ll forget all of this, as if it happened in a dream.

Like many of these stories, The Deserted City is filled with the detached melancholy of the older man looking back at the young one. Eguchi says this incident taught him to expect tragedy from the very beginning of things though he also claimed to have forgotten all about the town and its sad stories of longing and misunderstandings, romantic and otherwise. Working with ATG here Obayashi opts for a nostalgic 4:3 frame and a moderately warm colour palate which echoes both the slightly idealised atmosphere of the idyllic waterside village and its nature as a place which exists solely in memory, shaded in tones of nostalgia but also of regret. Much more conventional than some of Obayashi’s other work, The Deserted City is a perfect blend of European romanticism, melodrama and slight gothic undertones which, though a little low on impact, is a perfect synthesis of his themes up to this point.


Unsubbed trailer: