Writhing Tongue (震える舌, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1980)

Yoshitaro Nomura is best known for his crime films often adapted from the novels of Seicho Matsumoto though his filmography was in fact much wider than many give him credit for. Even so, 1980’s Writhing Tongue (震える舌, Furueru Shita) may seem an odd entry adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Taku Miki exploring the psychological torment of the parents of a little girl who contracts tetanus while innocently playing near a pond. Like the following year’s Call From Darkness, Nomura’s intense drama eventually shifts into the realms of psychedelia in the father’s strange fever dreams while lending this harrowing tale of medical desperation the tones of supernatural horror. 

When five-year-old Masako (Mayuko Wakamori) seems to be under the weather, her mother Kunie (Yukiyo Toake) takes her to the hospital but is told by the disinterested doctor that she simply has a cold. This is a little surprising seeing as Masako’s main complaint is she that cannot open her jaw, probably the best-known indication of tetanus infection which is after all not so rare as to be easily missed by a medical professional. Still worried, Kunie keeps taking her daughter back especially once her leg becomes twisted leaving her struggling to walk, but the doctors that she sees don’t really listen to her, even implying that Masako is having some kind of early life breakdown because her father, Akira (Tsunehiko Watase), is overly strict with her. This may be in part because Masako, perhaps in fear, keeps saying that she could walk or open her mouth if she wanted but is choosing not to. In any case the true diagnosis is only discovered after the couple manage to get a referral from a friend to a larger hospital where the veteran professor (Jukichi Uno) quickly overrules his junior’s lack of concern to have Masako admitted right away later explaining that tetanus is a difficult disease to treat and unfortunately has a high mortality rate. 

The treatment dictates that Masako receive as little stimulation as possible, lying in an entirely dark room with minimal noise so as to avoid the violent convulsions that accompany overstimulation and cause her to bite her tongue. As Akira later puts it, all they can do is wait trapped alone in the dark and tiny room with Masako entirely powerless to help her and with little knowledge of what exactly is going on. Meanwhile, despite having been repeatedly reassured that the disease is not transmitted in that way, Akira is convinced he may have contracted tetanus after being bitten by Masako while trying to prise open her jaw. Kunie too later worries that she also has tetanus, the pair of them sucked into a claustrophobic world of isolation and medical paranoia in which they are unable to sleep or find relief while watching over their daughter. 

Some time later, Akira begins having bizarre psychedelic dreams recalling the time when he too was hospitalised as a child having contracted blood poisoning, remembering his own fear and confusion on being forced to endure “red injections” which he feared would “turn the whole world red” while the hieroglyphics he and his wife have been using to record Masako’s seizures dance before his eyes. He dreams of crows and blood rain while Kunie goes quietly out of her mind at one point threatening the sympathetic Doctor Nose (Ryoko Nakano) thinking it might be kinder to stop the treatment and let her daughter escape this excruciating pain. The utter powerless with which the couple are faced is filled with almost supernatural dread as if Masako had been possessed by some terrible evil, Akira attempting to speak directly to the bacteria asking them why it is they’re trying to colonise his daughter’s body and if they realise that in killing her they kill themselves too.

“It’s odd, our life. It’s so fragile” Akira sighs. All of this happened because of a tiny cut on a little girl’s finger the kind not even quite worth putting a plaster on and yet she might die from it. Convinced they all may die, Akira tells his wife to go home and put their affairs in order while she is so traumatised that she becomes unable to re-enter the room paralysed not out of physical disability but mental anguish. When Masako’s condition finally improves, Akira can hear his daughter crying that she’s frightened reminding him that he can never really understand the way she suffered through this terrible disease while all he could do was watch. A truly harrowing depiction of the hellish psychological torment of serious illness, Nomura’s occasionally psychedelic drama lays bare the fragility of life in a world of constant and unexpected dangers. 


Trailer (no subtitles)

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

The Demon (鬼畜, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1978)

By the late 1970s Japan had achieved its economic miracle, but it had yet perhaps to deal with the traumas of the immediate post-war era. Once again adapted from a story by Seicho Matsumoto, Yoshitaro Nomura’s shocking social drama The Demon (鬼畜, Kichiku) explores the radiating effects of orphanhood and economic privation on the family unit producing as a rather judgemental policeman eventually puts it a generation of parents who don’t know how to raise children and may even lack the inclination to do so even if thankfully not to the extent of the couple at the film’s centre.

Nomura opens with one of his trademark lengthy train sequences following a harried mother and her three children travelling in the sweltering heat from the countryside to the city as she makes a last, desperate attempt to remind the father, Sokichi Takeshita (Ken Ogata), of his responsibilities. Once a successful businessman, Sokichi has become financially ruined after a fire destroyed his print shop and no longer has the means to maintain a second household for his mistress and children at a discrete distance from the home he shares with his wife, Oume (Shima Iwashita). As Kikuyo (Mayumi Ogawa) points out to him, she is unable to support herself economically while caring for the children but he has little answer for her especially once the previously oblivious Oume overhears their conversation. After a series of heated arguments, Kikuyo makes the radical decision to simply abandon the children with their father and thereafter disappears having vacated her previous home and left no forwarding address. 

A part of the problem in the Takeshitas’ marriage had been that they have no children of their own, Sokichi remarking to Kikuyo, whom he met while she was working in a traditional teahouse where he used to take clients, that he had always wanted a child. Conventional gender roles have in a sense been reversed, Oume angrily insisting that her husband would never have made any money had not been for her while it appears that she is more or less in charge of their business affairs and he is the one largely looking after the children to the extent that they are “looked after”. To Oume, the siblings are partly a reminder that her husband betrayed her with another woman but also an attack on her femininity in reminding her that she was unable to become a mother while someone else has given birth to Sokichi’s children. For all of these reasons they are to her children which cannot continue to exist. She undermines Sokichi’s attachment to them by frequently questioning their paternity pointing out that they share little physical resemblance while reminding him that he met Kikuyo through her occupation on the fringes of the sex trade. 

Her mistreatment begins as neglect, refusing to feed or bathe “a stranger’s” child and then graduates to physical violence stuffing food into the mouth of Sokichi’s infant son Shoji after catching him playing with the dinner bowls. Yet when Sokichi finds her endangering the baby while moving heavy papers from a shelf he does nothing, suspecting his wife has become a threat to the children’s safety but also as she later implies wanting to be rid of them himself. The couple could, of course, have simply surrendered the children to an orphanage (it remains unclear how exactly their existence has been registered), but ultimately choose not to as if they wanted to obliterate the idea of them as if they had never been born. 

It may be tempting to view Sokichi as a helpless victim casting Oume as terrifying Lady Macbeth intimidating him into destroying the evidence of his indiscretion, but even if it was Sokichi “looking after” the children, it is finally he who must also “take care” of them. During his abandonment of his second child, 3-year-old daughter Yoshiko (Miyuki Yoshizawa), he takes her into a toy store where a group of boys are playing with remote control cars demonstrating that this is no longer an age of economic privation and that in the end the reason for the children’s second abandonment is not primarily financial even if Sokichi has been in a sense humbled, deluded into a false sense of security in his business success only to be robbed of the era’s increasing prosperity through a freak accident. “Everybody’s struggling” he eventually reflects as his assistant (Keizo Kanie) informs him that he is leaving, ironically to take better care of his ageing parents and small children presumably in a less toxic environment.

Yet as we discover the reasons for Sokichi’s sense of displacement stem back to his own post-war childhood, apparently born out of wedlock never knowing his father and then abandoned by his mother, bounced around between relatives all of them poor who viewed him as nothing more than a burden until effectively indentured to a print shop at ten years old by an uncle who stole his advance pay and once again abandoned him. These kinds of familial disruptions whether caused by a literal orphanhood or the economic constraints of the immediate post-war period have produced according to the moralising policeman at the film’s conclusion a generation of people who do not know how to parent because they were not effectively parented themselves many of whom go on to have children perhaps accidentally but have no idea how to relate to them, frightened of the responsibility or resentful of the “burden” as Sokichi eventually seems to have become. 

Nevertheless, Nomura ends on a note of ambiguity, the goodness in eldest son Riichi (Hiroki Iwase) emphasised as he refuses to name his father or reveal his abuse, an action interpreted by the police as an attempt to protect Sokichi but could equally be a trauma response owing to have been returned to him by the police once before. In any case the film asks if in being rescued from his toxic family circumstances, effectively orphaned, Riichi will simply end up continuing the cycle of displacement, another man unable to become a “father”. But then again, what of Kikuyo who branded Sokichi “inhuman” yet left her children with him and disappeared, perhaps as a neighbour implies with another man? A sympathetic policewoman (Shinobu Otake) reassures Riichi they’ll look for his mother, but as she too abandoned him would that actually help? The jury seems to be out on whether this sense of displacement, in essence the integrity of the traditional family, can ever effectively be repaired even as an increasingly consumerist society continues to erode its foundations. 


The Demon screens at the BFI on 12/19 December as part of BFI Japan. It is also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1964)

Little known outside of Japan, Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with post-war noir and particularly with adaptations of Seicho Matsumoto’s detective novels, yet he had a wide and varied filmography directing in several genres including musicals and period dramas. The son of silent movie director Hotei Nomura, he spent the bulk of his career at Shochiku which had and to some degree still has a strong studio brand which leans towards the wholesome even if his own work was often in someway controversial such as in the shocking child abuse drama The Demon or foregrounding of leprosy in Castle of Sand. Part of the studio’s series of double-length epics, 1964’s Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Goben no Tsubaki) is nevertheless an unusual entry in Nomura’s filmography, adapting a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto essentially setting a policier in feudal Japan and perhaps consequently shot largely on stage sets rather than on location. 

Nomura opens with artifice as Shino (Shima Iwashita) stares daggers at an actor on the stage but later returns to his rooms every inch the giggling fan before finally offing him with her ornate silver hairpin leaving behind only the blood red camellia of the title. The first in a series of killings later branded the Camellia Murders, we later realise that the actor had to die because of his illicit relationship with Shino’s mother whom he brands a “nympho” and as we later discover had several extra-marital lovers. Extremely close to her father who, as we’re told, perished in a fire while resting in the country due to his terminal tuberculosis, Shino is apparently on a quest for revenge against the faithless men who humiliated him though her feelings towards her mother seem far more complex. 

Indeed, Shino regards her mother’s carrying on as “dirty” and seems particularly prudish even as she wields her sex appeal as a weapon in her quest for vengeance. Yet it’s not so much the free expression of sexuality which seems to be at fault but excess and irresponsibility. Shino resents her mother primarily for the ways in which she made her father suffer, off having fun with random men while he shouldered the burden of her family business which, Shino might assume, has contributed to his illness. Aoki (Go Kato), the Edo-era policeman to whose narrative perspective the second half turns, advances a similar philosophy in that there’s nothing wrong with having fun, he has fun at times too, but people have or at least should have responsibilities towards each other which the caddish targets of the Camellia Killer have resolutely ignored. He can’t say that he condones the killer’s actions, but neither can he condemn them because her motivations are in a sense morally justifiable. 

Realising the end is near, Shino indulges in a very modern serial killer trope in leaving a note for Aoki alongside one of her camellias in which she claims that she is exacting vengeance for “crimes not punishable by law”. There was nothing legally wrong in the way these men treated her mother or any other woman, but it is in a sense a moral crime. “You’re a woman and I’m a woman too” she later tells another scorned lover, a mistress thrown over by her patron with two small children after he tired of her, as she hands over a large sum of money and encourages her to return to her family in the country. Shino’s quest is essentially feminist, directed against a cruel and patriarchal society in which the use and abuse of women is entirely normalised, yet it is also slightly problematic in her characterisation of her mother as monstrous in her corrupted femininity for daring to embrace her sexuality in exactly the same way as her male counterparts though they, ironically, mainly seem to have been after her money rather than her body. 

Shino’s mother’s death is indeed regarded as “punishment from heaven” presumably for her sexual transgressions and neglect of her family, rejecting both the roles of wife and mother in a ceaseless quest for pleasure. Yet even in her resentment, Shino’s ire is directed firmly at the men taking the last of her targets to task when he justifies himself that women enjoy sex too and are therefore equally complicit by reminding him that he gets his moment of pleasure for free but the woman may pay for it for the rest of her life. Just as Shino’s mother neglected her family, the men harm not only their wives in their illicit affairs but cause concurrent damage to the mistresses they may later disown and the illegitimate children they leave behind. Abandoning the naturalism of his contemporary crime dramas for something much more akin to a ghost film with his eerie lighting transitions and grim tableaux of the skewered victims, Nomura crafts a melancholy morality tale in which the wronged heroine turns the symbol of constrained femininity back on the forces of oppression but is eventually undone by the unintended consequences of her quest for vengeance even as she condemns the architect of her misfortune to madness and ruin. 


Call from Darkness (真夜中の招待状, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1981)

“In today’s society, everyone is warped in some way” according to the investigative psychologist at the centre of Yoshitaro Nomura’s Call From Darkness (真夜中の招待状, Mayonaka no Shotaijo, AKA Midnight Invitation). Adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo, Nomura’s late career psychological mystery places the dark past at the centre of familial implosion as increasingly estranged brothers find themselves falling victim to the same “curse”, called to destruction by the extreme resentment of one who feels himself wronged both personally and on a familial level. 

The film opens, however, with the heroine, Keiko (Asami Kobayashi), visiting a psychiatrist and visibly perturbed by the strange, twitching figures which surround her in the waiting room. The patient immediately before her is irritated by the psychiatrist’s “childish games”, eventually leaving the room in exasperation with the medical staff who refuse to take his symptoms seriously, convincing him that his pain is all in his mind and his lame leg is merely a manifestation of repressed trauma. Nevertheless, Keiko has not come for herself but for her fiancé, Tamura (Kaoru Kobayashi), who has suffered a nervous breakdown after all three of his brothers mysteriously disappeared leaving him feeling as if he must be next. As Dr. Aizawa (Etsushi Takahashi) points out, disappearances are a matter for the police but he does agree to help treat Tamura’s paranoia in the belief that his family circumstances are a series of unfortunate and improbable coincidences rather than a concerted effort to wipe out his bloodline. 

As it turns out, that is not quite true and Tamura perhaps has reason to worry but then there is no one targeting him, in fact no one very interested in him at all, but still he will be sucked into a vortex of guilt and pain despite having, as it turns out, a different name and minimal connection to those who are his brothers by blood. The youngest of the four boys, Tamura was adopted into another family who had no children of their own at eight years old. His mother had already passed away and after his father too died not long after his adoption he never returned to his ancestral home in Kumamoto and had little contact with either of his brothers besides Kazuo (Tsunehiko Watase) with whom he had remained close and who would often visit him when he came to Tokyo on business. The fact of his brothers’ disappearances does not perhaps concern him emotionally, at least until Kazuo too goes missing, as much as its strangeness threatens his ordinary, conventional life not to mention his engagement to Keiko whose parents do, as expected, urge her to reconsider in light of the dark shadows around Tamura’s family history. 

That’s perhaps one reason Keiko is so keen to delve to the bottom of the mystery, not only to cure Tamura’s depression but to defend her choice of husband and therefore the future direction of her life. Aizawa, meanwhile, proves a strange and slightly dubious guide despite his presentation as a figure of infinite authority. He persuades the pair that the answer lies in dreams, intrigued by a recurring nightmare Kazuo had apparently been having about travelling through tunnels and valleys towards a mysterious castle, a dream that Tamura eventually begins dreaming too. Aizawa and Keiko find themselves making a bizarre visit to a spirit medium, while Aizawa later recommends experimental hypnotherapy treatments, diagnoses based on glanced body language, and describes the oldest brother, Junkichi (Makoto Fujita), as a probable misanthropic sadist based on a series of drawings he made of a man with serious deformities. He later walks back some of these statements as strategy in his quest to help Tamura, but you have to admit that his practice is esoteric to say the least. 

Central to events, the deformed man turns out not to be an invention of Junkichi but a very real “victim” and perhaps symbol of the “warped” society Aizawa alludes to at the film’s conclusion. We learn that the young man suffered from rheumatism and was recommended experimental treatment which led to his deformity and apparently left him brain damaged, unable to look after himself. The mysterious calls the brothers receive late in the night are reminders of the harm they have caused, beckoning them towards a spiritual retribution though there is of course no real way to atone, the young man can never be restored. It’s this sense of dread that leads Aizawa and others to describe what’s happened to the brothers as a “curse” though it’s one largely self-imposed if perhaps precipitated by the intense resentment of the wounded parties which sends itself through the air, and the telephone lines, to convince the brothers they must pay though, in real terms, the young man’s fate is not really their fault only that of the doctors who developed the drug and administered it if, as Aizawa implies, they were aware of what could happen if they went too far. 

Nevertheless, it seems that responsibility must be taken though the extents of that responsibility, rather than the secrecy or the events themselves, eventually corrupt the previously pure and strong relationship between Keiko and Tamura. He wants to end it with money, she is disappointed in his cynical conservatism and lack of compassion. Aizawa meanwhile, believes that the brothers were drawn to death, tired of the business of living and perhaps looking for an exit and an excuse to give in to despair. Nomura slips into painful negative for his explanatory flashbacks, while undercutting a sense of reality through the dissolves and superimpositions of his ethereal dream sequences, but finally returns us to the “warped” society of the present day as the survivors look for new ways of living with a newfound darkness. 


The Three Undelivered Letters (配達されない三通の手紙, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1979)

The ensemble crime drama was at its zenith in the 1970s which saw a series of starry mysteries dominate the box office for most of the decade. Director Yoshitaro Nomura had long associated himself with the noirish thriller, frequently adapting the work of Seicho Matsumoto and perhaps skewing a little darker than your average drawing room mystery would usually dare. Scripted by Kaneto Shindo, 1979’s Three Undelivered Letters (配達されない三通の手紙, Haitatsu Sarenai Santsu no Tegami), meanwhile, is adapted not from Matsumoto but from a novel by American crime powerhouse Ellery Queen, Calamity Town, and as such avoids the central topic of wartime corruption which is at the centre of many similarly themed crime dramas. Nevertheless, it paints a complex picture of Japan in the increasingly prosperous late ‘70s in which class distinctions, it seems, prove hard to kill. 

Nomura begins, as he so often does, with a lengthy train journey this time undertaken by the quasi-protagonist, Japanese-American student Bob (Ryo Hikime) who has come to Japan on a research trip for his East Asian studies degree and is travelling from Tokyo where he stayed with a friend to provincial Hagi where he’s to stay with distant relatives, the Karasawas. As we begin to realise, the Karasawas are fabulously wealthy, members of an entrenched upperclass living out in the country. Grumpy patriarch Mitsumasa (Shin Saburi) is the CEO of a bank, and actually not all that welcoming of his visitor though they agree to put him up in an entirely separate house they had built for the impending marriage of daughter Noriko (Komaki Kurihara). Unfortunately, three years previously once the house had been built and the marriage agreed, Noriko’s fiancé Toshiyuki (Takao Kataoka) simply vanished without trace. Heartbroken, Noriko suffered a breakdown and has been living in a depressive state ever since. 

The trouble begins when already disowned oldest daughter Reiko (Mayumi Ogawa) rings her sister to let her know that Toshiyuki has resurfaced, apparently having been living quietly as a fisherman in Hokkaido. Perhaps surprisingly, their reconciliation is speedy. Noriko brings Toshiyuki home, explains the reason for the breakup was that Toshiyuki was uncomfortable with the constraints of her upperclass life, and states that the wedding is back on. Mitsumasa is understandably irate, but agrees to the marriage on the same terms as before. Toshiyuki must join his bank and they have to live in the house he built for them. Despite his earlier aversion, Toshiyuki agrees and the pair are married but on moving his belongings into the house Noriko discovers three disturbing letters hidden in a book each bearing a future date and addressed to Toshiyuki’s younger sister, the first explaining that his wife has been taken ill, the second that her condition continues to deteriorate, and the third that she has passed away. 

All things considered, it is odd that the marriage was agreed so quickly, the family perhaps feeling that Toshiyuki has had a humbling and is willing to submit himself to the feudalistic, patriarchal world of the upper classes in order to escape hardship while knowing that refusing may be the most dangerous thing for Noriko’s precarious mental health. Entirely absent are the usual background checks such families usually run on a prospective son-in-law, and no one seems keen to ask for much detail as to Toshiyuki’s life over the past three years. The class conflicts are however brought to the fore when a brassy young woman turns up and claims to be Toshiyuki’s previously unseen younger sister who for mysterious reasons did not attend the wedding ceremony and has never been introduced to the family. The contrast between the two women could not be more plain, Noriko often appearing in kimono or elegantly attired in the latest fashions, while Tomoko (Keiko Matsuzaka) is a full on modern girl who finds the house stuffy and the company dull but shows no signs of leaving. 

As so often in Japanese mysteries the focus is very much on the how, or in this case the “if”, rather than the who or the why which are in themselves fairly predictable at least to those familiar with the genre. Bob and middle sister Keiko (Ai Kanzaki) who is being pressured into an arranged marriage with a public prosecutor she doesn’t seem to even like but also has not rejected, are perturbed enough by the letters to start investigating but their biggest obstacle it seems is Noriko herself who is at great pains to exonerate her husband from suspicion believing the letters are some kind of dark joke rather than genuine evidence of an imminent attempt on her life even as Toshiyuki’s behaviour becomes ever more erratic and suspicious. 

“Everyone should live the way they like” Bob avows in laughing off a request for life advice, apparently wisdom handed down from his Japanese grandma. That sense of restricted freedoms does indeed seem to be at the heart of the issue, hinting at the changing nature of Japanese society even as it struggles to free itself from the feudal past. Keiko resents being pushed towards the prosector but only ever comes up with excuses, never actively resisting her parents’ attempt to marry her off. Oldest daughter Reiko, meanwhile, was kicked out of the family after eloping with an actor who eventually left her flat and now runs a bar. Keiko may feel she has only these two choices, a marriage such as Noriko’s on her father’s terms only, or a dubious independence which might not suit her in the same way as her infinitely competent sister. Toshiyuki resented placing himself under the patriarchal authority of his father-in-law, a job in his bank, living in a house he built on the property he owns, with no real control over his life. Reiko may well have a point when she eventually tells Mitsumasa that this is all his own fault, a consequence his rigid authoritarianism that insisted on maintaining an outdated ideal of patriarchal control. 

For his part, Mitsumasa is forever keen to emphasise that there are no crimes in his house, resolutely refusing to admit that there are problems within the Karasawa family even while perhaps knowing where the fault may lie. The one mystery which is never solved is why exactly so many women are so in love with Toshiyuki who all things considered is no great catch, a coward who makes a point of disappearing on people rather than deal with unpleasantness only to resent it when his moral cowardice returns to haunt him. He resents the emasculation of being a wealthy man’s son-in-law with its concurrent loss of personal autonomy, but simultaneously refuses to take responsibility for his actions or reject a life of comfort as someone assured both of continued financial security and of a certain place in society. Love destabilises the social order, but seemingly cannot change it leaving only the lovers bruised by their attempts to free themselves from the latent feudalism of the post-war world which continues to promise more than it has to offer. 


Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

More interested in politics than cinema and never quite at home in the studio system, Nagisa Oshima began his career at Shochiku as one of a small group of directors promoted as part of the studio’s effort to reach a youth audience they feared their particular brand of inoffensive melodrama was failing to capture. Like The Sun’s Burial, Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語, Seishun Zankoku Monogatari) is a nihilistic tale of a fracturing society, but it also looks forward to Night and Fog in Japan in its insistence that youth itself is a failed revolution and this generation is no more likely to escape existential disappointment than the last. 

The film opens with teenager Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) and her friend Yoko (Aki Morishima) trying to get free rides from skeevy middle-aged men rather than having to pay for a cab. As you might expect, that’s a fairly dangerous game and while it might be alright while there’s two of you, as soon as Yoko has been dropped off, the driver changes course and suggests going for dinner only to park in front of a love hotel and try to drag Makoto inside. Luckily, or perhaps not as we will see, she is “rescued” by young tough Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu), a student and angry if politically apathetic young man. Struck by his manly white knight act, Makoto takes a liking to Kiyoshi but he too later rapes her under the guise of satisfying her curiosity about sex to which he attributes her ride hailing activities. After this violent genesis, they fall in “love” but continue to struggle against an oppressive society.

We assume that the “cruel story of youth”, and it is indeed cruel, that we are witnessing is that of Makoto and Kiyoshi, but it’s also that of her slightly older sister Yuki (Yoshiko Kuga) and her former lover Akimoto (Fumio Watanabe) who has become a conflicted doctor to the poor betraying himself by financing the clinic through charging for backstreet abortions. Yuki complains to her apathetic father that they were strict with her in her youth, that she’d get a hiding just for coming home after dark, whereas Makoto can stay out all night and not get much more than a stern look. Her father explains that times were different then, “We thought we had new horizons. We started again as a democratic nation, and it was a responsibility that went hand in hand with freedom. What can I say to this girl today?” admitting both the failures of the past and the mistaken future of a society that actively resists change. 

Yuki and Akimoto were part of the post-war resistance, left-wing students like the older generation of Night and Fog in Japan, who’d actively fought for real social change but had seen that change elude them. Yuki, we hear, left Akimoto for an older man but perhaps now regrets it along with her half-finished revolution. She may not approve of her sister’s choices, but she also on some level admires her for them or at least for the strength of her rebellion even if it will ultimately be as fruitless as her own. “This is a cruel world and it destroyed our love” Akimoto laments, mildly censuring the youngsters in suggesting that his love was pure and chaste because they vented their youthful frustrations through political action whereas this generation is already lost to the mindless hedonism of unbridled sexuality. 

He forgives them, because he feels that their plight is a direct result of his failure to bring about the better world, but there is also a suggestion that it is a lack of political awareness which is somehow trapping the young. Oshima cuts from footage of the April Revolution in Korea which is described as a “student riot” in the news to a protest against the Anpo treaty at which Kiyoshi and Makoto look on passively from the sidelines. “I think taking part in the demonstrations is stupid”, Makoto’s friend Yoko tells a prospective boyfriend, “why don’t we think about getting married instead?”, drawing a direct line between social conservatism and political inaction. 

Makoto and Kiyoshi rebel by using, or to a point not using, their bodies as a direct attack on the society. Following their rather odd and troubling meeting, the pair earn their keep through repeating the experience. Makoto picks up men who will inevitably have an ulterior motive, and Kiyoshi rescues her, extorting money from their targets. Yet it is Kiyoshi who is forced to prostitute himself, gaining financial support as a gigalo kept by a wealthy middle-aged housewife who is just as sad and defeated as Yuki and Akimoto, dissatisfied with the path her life has taken and in her case attempting to escape it through passion and control exerted over the body of a young man. Though the consequences of a becoming a kept man may be different than those Makoto would face should the less “nice” delinquents get their hands on her, they do perhaps fuel his sense of violent emasculation which he channels into a pointless act of revenge against the society in the form of its most powerful, wealthy middle-aged men whose misogyny he claims to abhor while simultaneously mirroring and directly exploiting.

“Someone needs to be responsible” a strangely sympathetic policeman insists, chiding Kiyoshi that at heart he’s just a petty criminal who liked having money no matter how he might have tried to dress it up. “You’re just like them, you’re a victim of money too”, he adds correctly diagnosing the flaws of an increasingly consumerist society. Only, no one takes responsibility. Kiyoshi’s lady friend pulls stings. It turns out her husband does business with Horio, one of Makoto’s pick ups who despite being nice and kind still had his way with her and then reported Kiyoshi for extortion. Akimoto explained that their failures would drive them apart, but Kiyoshi swore they’d always be together only to wonder if in his love for her the only thing to do is save Makoto from his corrupting influence though she does not want to leave him. We won’t be like you, Kiyoshi countered, because we have no dreams with which to become disillusioned. But youth itself is a failed revolution, and the force which destroys them is perhaps love as they meet their shared destinies at the hands of an increasingly cruel society.


Cruel Story of Youth is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Suspicion (疑惑, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1982)

Suspicion posterBy the early ‘80s, Japan had successfully shaken off post-war desperation for burgeoning consumerism, but even as the nation rocketed into a more comfortable future, social equality proved slow to arrive. Once again adapting a novel by Seicho Matsumoto, Yoshitaro Nomura’s Suspicion (疑惑, Giwaku) makes allies of two very different women who are each in one way or another rejected by the conservative, infinitely rigid society in which they live.

Former bar hostess Kumako (Kaori Momoi) falls under suspicion when she alone survives the car accident that takes her husband’s life. A brassy, aloof woman, Kumako does not behave in the way the police might expect a recently bereaved spouse to behave which instantly turns them against her. This becomes a real problem once they discover that her husband, Shirakawa (Noboru Nakaya), was an extraordinarily wealthy man on whom she had recently taken out a number of life insurance polices. Shirakawa’s public profile ensures that the potentially salacious case is taken up by the newspapers who waste no time proclaiming Kumako a gold digging murderess while openly baying for her blood. Intimidated by the public outcry, the police are determined to charge Kumako with her husband’s murder despite the only existing evidence being extremely circumstantial.

After a prominent lawyer declines to take her case, her legal council stands down citing his poor health leaving Kumako entirely undefended. The court eventually appoints her a new lawyer, a woman – Ritsuko Sahara (Shima Iwashita), more practiced in civil than criminal law and just as much of an outcast as Kumako though in very different ways. Ritsuko has divorced her husband and he has custody of their young daughter whom Ritsuko makes a point of seeing once a month. Though the arrangement seems to suit her well enough, her status as a career woman who has “rejected” the roles of wife and mother also makes her one viewed with “suspicion” by those around her.

The central issue is indeed Kumako’s character. A former bar hostess with a traumatic childhood, Kamako has four previous convictions including assault and blackmail as well as an abrasive personality and a tendency to rub people up the wrong way. She doesn’t do herself any favours, but no kind of justice would be served if she were sentenced to death not for her husband’s murder but for the crime of being an “unpleasant” woman in a society which expects women to be docile and polite.

The papers, however, are very invested in the story of the coldblooded, gold digging murderess. Akitani (Akira Emoto), a local reporter, cosies up to the police for insider information, and does his best to root out Kumako’s sordid past including a sometime boyfriend who might have been her “pimp”. Ritsuko makes “trial by media” a key part of her defence strategy, arguing that her client’s case has been unfairly prejudiced by the image the press has sought to construct of her, but is unaware of the extent to which the police investigation has been distorted by the desire to appease the media or the various ways in which a venal press has gently perverted the course of justice in search of a better story.

Cool and efficient, Ritsuko isn’t really sure whether Kumako did it or not but is determined to ensure she is tried by the codes of law and not of conventional morality. A disgraced Akitani later barks at her that he sees no need to defend “a woman like that” in the papers, but Ritsuko’s having none of it – the purpose of the law is precisely to ensure guilt or innocence is assessed rationally on the basis of the evidence presented, as free of personal prejudice as it’s possible to be. An idealistic claim, given Japan’s famously implacable legal system, but one that sits well with a functioning democracy.

Ritsuko’s defence of Kumako is not particularly a feminist exercise, though a grudging kind of mutual respect eventually arises between the two women who have each in one sense or another rejected socially defined gender roles. While Ritsuko proclaims herself happy enough to be a mother once a month on Sundays, her husband’s new wife is a more territorial sort, eventually asking her to stop seeing her own daughter because she would rather raise her believing that she is hers alone. Kumako, however, is entirely unrepentant, even emboldened, vowing that she will continue using men until the day she dies. The two women remain mirror images of each other, both rejected, viewed with “suspicion” for the choices they have made, and forever at odds with a society which has already found them each “guilty” in the court of public opinion.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Night and Fog in Japan (日本の夜と霧, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

night and fog in japan posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Nagisa Oshima entered the world of filmmaking almost by chance. While studying law at Kyoto University, he’d become deeply involved in the leftist student movement and reportedly joined Shochiku’s assistant director program in 1954 solely because no other company would hire him. His path there too was hardly typical and saw him become a leading light of the studio’s extremely temporary bid to play Nikkatsu at their own game with a series of gritty youth dramas which included the melancholy Cruel Story of Youth and infinitely bleak The Sun’s Burial. It was his fourth film, however, which proved the most controversial perhaps unexpectedly given its otherwise dry subject matter. Named for Alain Resnais’ incendiary documentary, Night and Fog in Japan (日本の夜と霧, Nihon no Yoru to Kiri) was pulled from cinema screens following the assassination of the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party by a right-wing nationalist just three days after the film’s release.

Oshima’s film is in itself an attack on the left, though one from an entirely different angle. The failure of the student movement would become a preoccupation for the left-leaning avant-garde movement of the early ‘70s, but one could argue that though the movement had been dealt a huge blow by the failure to stop the renewal of the ANPO treaty despite the mass protests of 1960 it had not yet “failed”. Indeed, protests continued and intensified throughout the 1960s until weakened by a government crackdown in the run up to the treaty’s renewal in 1970 and were only really ended by the horror exposed by the Asama-Sanso Incident in 1972.

In a strange way, Oshima’s impassioned attack on the misguided rigidity of radical student politics almost presages the dark place into which the movement would eventually fall through the already emergent generation gap between the earnest contemporary students keeping up the fight, and the jaded post-war generation who have long since given up the struggle for bourgeois comforts. He opens, of all places, at a wedding notable for its solemnity as a young student radical, Reiko (Miyuki Kuwano), weds a newspaper reporter, Nozawa (Fumio Watanabe), she met at the climatic June 15 protest. The wedding is later interrupted by two melancholy outsiders – one the leader of the students currently on the run from the police, and the other an older man coming in from the cold, though both with the intention of confrontation.

As we might have assumed, the younger man, Ota (Masahiko Tsugawa), is not the jilted lover of the bride. It’s the revolution he’s come to accuse her of betraying through her rejection of their comrade, Kitami – missing since the failed raid on the Diet building, whom Ota assumes to have been her lover now thrown over for the “cage” of family. Reiko’s “betrayal” is mirrored in the drama between the older generation as we gradually discover the complicated history between the groom and Misako (Akiko Koyama), the dejected wife of the current head of the Socialist Party, Nakayama (Takao Yoshizawa).

The demands of ideological purity are mirrored in the strangely moralistic attempts to police female desire in suggesting that both women have made “practical” choices at the expense of their personal integrity. The major drama, however, revolves around the older students’ overreaction to having caught a “spy” in their dorm, keeping him imprisoned while they try to bully him into betraying his true masters. One student however, Takao (Masahiro Sakon) – nursing an unrequited crush on Misako, refuses to believe the man is guilty and is thereafter accused of betraying the movement by allowing him to escape. Takumi (Ichiro Hayami), the second ghost at the feast, has come to ask if it was the movement which betrayed Takao by ignoring his emotional fragility, causing him to abandon faith not only in it but in himself.

Throughout it all, Nakayama remains the stoical voice of authority, blaming anything negative on the nebulous figure of the “imperialists” while insisting on superficial “unity” which really means do as I say and don’t rock the boat. The students want more and they look to the older generation for guidance, but the old guard have lost the faith. Even among the youngsters, few think the cause can be won. The struggle is between those who give up, and those who keep fighting anyway for the right to “march towards a brighter tomorrow”. As a student, Nakayama had dismissed the “spy” as unworthy of their revolution because he was an uneducated worker, but now dismisses the students because they exist outside of the economic structure and therefore cannot occupy a space within a workers’ movement. This wedding, which might have been the unification bringing together the old and the new, has become a funeral that marks the death of post-war idealism, betrayed by the bourgeois need for respectability. The students know their movement will fail, but they move anyway. Nakayama, meanwhile, makes speeches about unity to his dejected contemporaries, berating the students for their lack of “realism” as if insisting that the route to social change lies in concession to populist conservatism.

“I feel empty and sad” the post-war students lament, watching their movement withering on the vine. Betrayed by the older generation, the contemporary students have no role models to follow and no real hope for the future, but still they fight on earnestly. A fierce condemnation of political hypocrisy, dogmatic rigidity, and bourgeois paternalism, Night and Fog in Japan sees no way out of its existential malaise as its would-be-revolutionaries remain lost in a fog confusion with no exit in sight.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Sun’s Burial (太陽の墓場, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

sun's burial poster“Love and hope for the youth!” reads a prominent sign in the middle of a hopeless slum in Oshima’s bitterly nihilistic youth drama The Sun’s Burial (太陽の墓場, Taiyo no Hakaba). Then at Shochiku, home of polite melodrama, Oshima was one of a handful of youngsters (that also included Kiju Yoshida and Masahiro Shinoda) bumped up to director ahead of schedule in an attempt to find voices who could speak to youth in much the same way Nikkatsu was doing with its incendiary tales of the new bright young things. The Sun’s Burial would be Oshima’s penultimate film for the studio before he stormed out after they pulled his next film Night and Fog in Japan from cinemas fearing its fierce critique of a divided left torn apart by dogmatic rigidity and generational conflict was too on the nose in wake of the assassination of the Socialist Party leader by a right-wing nationalist.

Set in the slums of Kamagasaki, Osaka, The Sun’s Burial follows a collection of desperate adolescents trying to survive in an intensely hostile environment. Our “hero” the conflicted Takeshi (Isao Sasaki), is inducted into a street gang after getting beaten up by young tough Yasu (Yusuke Kawazu). Along with his friend Tatsu, he is originally quite taken with the idea of becoming a gang member, but blanches when he passes a room full of captive women, one of whom is being beaten for having conceived a child.

Meanwhile, across town, his polar opposite, the cynical survivor Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) is running a blood racket, literally bleeding the proletariat to sell their bodily fluids on to the cosmetics trade. Technically operating under the aegis of her petty thug father Yosematsu (Junzaburo Ban), Hanako is in business with a doctor and a couple of minions but later has her authority undercut by a mad old imperialist known as “The Agitator” (Eitaro Ozawa) who keeps insisting that the Russians are coming and they have to be ready.

Not permitted to maintain power in her own right, Hanako is forced to shuttle between male protectors, occasionally pitting one against the other in a bid to come out on top. In addition to her blood business, she also engages in casual sex work and seemingly has no qualms about wielding her sex appeal as a weapon in order to manipulate male power. Pushed out by The Agitator, she turns to gang leader Shin (Masahiko Tsugawa) for a temporary alliance. When he too cuts her out, she thinks about tipping off the area’s big Yakuza boss, Ohama (Gen Shimizu), to Shin’s whereabouts, always looking a few moves ahead while the callous Shin remains wary and ever vigilant.

In a move which surprises and disturbs the naive Takeshi who is nevertheless captivated by her cynical self assurance, Hanako is entirely indifferent to the suffering of other women, willingly co-operating with Shin while knowing that he runs an abusive prostitution ring. Takeshi’s loss of innocence comes early when he is sent to go out and find some victims with his friend Tatsu who convinces him to club a high school boy canoodling with his girlfriend over the head so they can rob him. Takeshi looks on in mild confusion and horror as Tetsu proceeds to rape the young woman, turning to Hanako for guidance but all she does is shrug. The high school boy later commits suicide, presumably unable to bear the shame of having failed to protect his girlfriend, leaving Takeshi feeling as if he has blood on his hands. To Hanako, however, the boy’s death is no one’s fault but his own, a product of his own weakness. A strong person, she posits, would have sought revenge. What sort of person ups and dies without a fight?

Meanwhile, back in the slum, a man hangs himself after falling victim to The Agitator’s latest scam – getting involved with a dodgy gangster’s exploitative scheme to buy up legitimate IDs from desperate people and sell them to even more desperate undocumented migrant workers. Full of tales of Empire, The Agitator declares that he’s going to march them all up to Tokyo and teach those noisy students a lesson, proving somehow that populist militarism is not yet dead in quiet corners of Japan. The Agitator has several followers among the middle-aged and older denizens of Kamagasaki, taken in by his bluster and lacking any other sources of hope. They follow him because he demands to be followed and because he made them a series of promises. Only when they realise his plans rest on exploiting people even more unfortunate than they are, and suddenly realising he never got round to paying them either, do they finally rebel, burning down the slum in protest of their hopeless circumstances.

Berated for her cynicism by the now compromised Takeshi, Hanako offers only the defence that she has survived and will continue to survive where others may not if they allow their consciences to take precedence over self-preservation. Bleak as it gets, Oshima ends on with a note of anxious industry as his determined heroine dusts herself off and gets “back to work”, escaping from the ruins of the burned out slum in the bright morning sun. “No hope for Japan now” an embittered member of the older generation laments, and Oshima, it seems, is apt to agree.


Original trailer (no subtitles)