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)

Black Rose Mansion (黒薔薇の館, Kinji Fukasaku, 1969)

3187_largeThose who only know Kinji Fukasaku for his gangster epics are in for quite a shock when they sit down to watch Black Rose Mansion (黒薔薇の館, Kuro Bara no Yakata). A European inflected, camp noir gothic melodrama, Black Rose Mansion couldn’t be further from the director’s later worlds of lowlife crime and post-war inequality. This time the basis for the story is provided by Yukio Mishima, a conflicted Japanese novelist, artist and activist who may now be remembered more for the way he died than the work he created, which goes someway to explaining the film’s Art Nouveau decadence. Strange, camp and oddly fascinating Black Rose Mansion proves an enjoyably unpredictable effort from its versatile director.

The sense of foreboding sets in right from the beginning as Kyohei, club owner and family patriarch, narrates a scene draped in a harsh red filter in which the lynchpin of the entire film, Ryuko, disembarks from a boat onto a jetty to meet him. He warns us that the sight of her was the “calm before the storm”, already anticipating the tumultuous events which are to follow. Having spotted her in a club in Yokohama, Kyohei poached Ryuko to work at his private members bar as a cabaret artist where she duly fascinates the customers seemingly knowing how to appeal to each of their own particular tastes in turn. A short time later, other suitors from the other bars begin to turn up but Ryuko refuses to recognise any of them. She is waiting for true love and believes the black rose she carries will turn red once she meets her prince charming. After a while she decides to move on but Kyohei convinces her to stay and maintain her “illusion” of perfect love rather than continually bursting its bubble, and so the two become a couple. However, when Kyohei’s wayward son Wataru returns and also becomes infatuated with Ryuko, a new chain of tragic events ensues…

Just to add fuel to the fire, the role of Ryuko is played by female impersonator Akihiro Miwa (formerly Akihiro Maruyama) who had also worked with Fukasaku on the notorious Black Lizard. Ryuko is mysterious, exotic maybe, etherial – certainly. She seems to shed identities only to pick up new ones perfectly tailored to whichever man she’s courting hoping each is the one who will turn her black rose red. Each of the previous suitors has failed to make her flower bloom and has so been discounted – erased from her memory whether willingly or unconsciously. When one of them is killed in front of her and her rose splashed with blood turning temporarily red, only then does she look on him lovingly. She loves them as they die but not before or after. Has each of these lonely, “different” men fallen for a siren call from the angel of death, or is Ryuko just another unlucky femme fatale who always ends up with the crazies?

Camp to the max and full of that rich gothic melodrama that you usually only find in a late Victorian novel, Black Rose Mansion is undoubtedly too much of a stretch for viewers who prefer their thrills on the more conventional side. However, there is something genuine underlying all the artifice in the story of obsessive, all encompassing love which develops into a dangerous sickness akin to madness. Ryuko is an unsolvable mystery which drives men out of their minds though they never seem to probe very far into her soul preferring to conquer her body. Only Kyohei who, at the end, is cured of his obsession with her, recognises that Ryuko is a woman who only exists in men’s minds and what you think of as love is really only lust like an unquenchable thirst.

Fukasaku attempts to invert classic gothic tropes by shooting the whole thing in lurid, brightly coloured decadence. Every time Kyohei thinks back on Ryuko he sees her bathed in red, like a beautiful sunset before a morning storm. Like Kyohei and pretty much everyone else in the picture, we too become enthralled by Ryuko and her uncanny mystery, seduced by her strangeness and etherial quality. Yes, it’s camp to the max and drenched in gothic melodrama but Black Rose Mansion also succeeds in being both fascinatingly intriguing and a whole lot of strange fun at the same time.


Black Rose Mansion is available with English subtitles on R1 US DVD from Chimera and was previously released as part of the Fukasaku Trilogy (alongside Blackmail is My Life and If You Were Young: Rage) by Tartan in the UK.

 

The Inheritance (からみ合い, Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

the inheritance Japanese posterKobayashi’s first film after completing his magnum opus, The Human Condition trilogy, The Inheritance (からみ合い, Karami-ai) returns him to contemporary Japan where, once again, he finds only greed and betrayal. With all the trappings of a noir thriller mixed with a middle class melodrama of unhappy marriages and wasted lives, The Inheritance is yet another exposé of the futility of lusting after material wealth.

The film begins in a framing sequence in which Yasuko, an elegant woman dressed in a fashionable outfit, sunglasses and large black hat, is aimlessly window shopping when she encounters a familiar face she’d no desire to see ever again. The pair head for coffee with Yasuko lamenting that her pleasant afternoon has been ruined by the necessity of spending time with this “unpleasant” man. We then flashback to some time previously when Yasuko was just a poor secretary working for a top executive and lamenting over her sad life in her “concrete coffin” of a tiny apartment. When her boss discovers he has a terminal illness he makes a surprising declaration – he isn’t going to leave all of his money to his wife. The law says she has to get a third so she will, but the couple had no legitimate children and Kawara wants an heir. Apparently, he has three illegitimate children with whom he did not keep in contact so he intends to find these young people of differing ages and divide the money between them. As you can imagine, this news pleases no one and it’s not long before everyone is scheming how they can manipulate the situation to grab some of the money for themselves.

Shot this time in 2.40:1, The Inheritance has a slightly more whimsical air than some of Kobayashi’s other efforts. Aided by Toru Takemitsu’s jazz infused score, there’s a feeling of a chaotic, black farce lurking below the surface as the complicated schemes and counter schemes play off against each other all while an old man lies dying and largely, it seems, alone. In fact, the dying man himself is relegated to little more than a plot element, a physical countdown to the zero hour of his death and the release of his funds. Though charged with the task of tracking down these, until now forgotten, offspring, Kawara’s underlings immediately start thinking about the best way to spin their assignments. Maybe it’s better if they just can’t find the kids, or maybe if they find them and manipulate them into a more beneficial course of events. The only thing that matters is sticking to the course of action which is most likely to bring them into contact with the money.

The children themselves? Well, they’ve not turned out quite the way Kawara might have hoped. He stated that they’d only get the money if he finds out that they’re honest, decent, right living people. However, the oldest, a son, is a delinquent college student who likely wouldn’t be able to cope with receiving a sudden large lump sum of money so he’s out. The middle daughter is a nude model living a lifestyle Kawara would most likely regard as “immoral” so she will require some “fixing” if her side is to prevail. The youngest child, a seven year old daughter, has sadly passed away after being adopted in another town. However, the enterprising wife and her paramour have an ace up their sleeve in the form of another child they can substitute in her place. This child is quiet, well behaved and in all an ideal candidate for Kawara’s money (if only she actually were his daughter).

Our story is being recounted by Yasuko, so how does she fit into all of this? Commentator, heroine, perpetrator? We can guess a little of what must have happened from her appearance in the later framing sequence with which the film began. Though apparently wealthy, this Yasuko doesn’t seem particularly happy (even bar her unwanted reunion with Kawara’s lawyer). After being entrusted with the task of tracking down the oldest son who then develops a crush on her, Yasuko finds herself ensconced in Kawara’s household and eventually becoming his mistress. The affair begins with a quasi-rape after which Yasuko receives a large amount of money in a white envelope – an offering which repeats itself after each encounter with Kawara. At first she tries to pretend there was something more to it but eventually admits she got used to taking the money. Though she later tries to refuse Kawara’s offering, the corruption has already set in.

Recounted in a world weary tone by Yasuko, The Inheritance is another, though less abrasive, look at greed and lack of moral authority. Kawara is dying and perhaps regrets his devotion to his career rather than something with a greater legacy. However, he evidently showed no interest in his children before and has no real desire to meet and have a relationship with them before it’s too late – he simply wants an heir. His marriage turns out to be mostly physical convenience and even his wife is not so broken up about his illness so much as irritated to have sacrificed the last seven years and only receive a third of what she assumed would all be hers. The underlings scheme amongst themselves and unwittingly open a door for a challenger nobody expected. In some ways, from our point of view, the “right” person won but this was a game that had no right to be played. A sordid farce of squabbling over a dying man’s estate and for what, in the end? A fancy hat? Kobayashi doesn’t push as hard here as he has before, this time he casts veniality as black comedy rather than a social evil but still the lesson is clear, in most cases avarice will get you nowhere and even if you play the slow game and win you may not like where it takes you.


The Inheritance is the fourth and final of the early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.