A Chaos of Flowers (華の乱, Kinji Fukasaku, 1988)

Kinji Fukasaku is best remembered for his work in the yakuza genre and most particularly the Battles Without Honour cycles which chronicled the darkness beneath Japan’s progress towards the economic miracle of the post-war era. He was, however, much more varied in output than it might at first seem. Set before the war, A Chaos of Flowers (華の乱, Hana no Ran) positions the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 as the day innocence died, Taisho-era liberalism crushed in a fundamental collapse of the old world which led only to the intensification of militaristic ideology and the subsequent corruption of Japanese imperialism. 

Our guide is legendary poet Akiko Yosano (Sayuri Yoshinaga) who tells the story of pre-war 20th century Japan by recounting her own which begins in 1901 when she fell in love with fellow poet and later husband, Tekkan (Hiroshi) Yosano (Ken Ogata). The situation is complicated firstly because Hiroshi is already married with an infant daughter, and secondly because Akiko’s friend Tomiko (Yoshiko Nakada), another poet who had worked with her on a feminist journal, was also in love with Hiroshi and perhaps her rival. Akiko tricks Hiroshi into seeing him alone on the pretext that Tomiko is coming too, confessing her feelings and discovering that he plans to divorce his wife because she is unsupportive of his work. Full in the knowledge that he is choosing poetry over his daughter, Hiroshi decides to enter a relationship with Akiko because she, as a fellow poet, is more appreciative though it proves harder than expected to separate from his first wife. In any case, Akiko is left with a sense of guilt which continues throughout her married life that she cheated Tomiko to claim Hiroshi. 

During this time, Akiko Yosano becomes one of the most celebrated yet controversial young poets in Japan well known for her explicit, erotic love poetry much of which was inspired by her husband. She has eclipsed him as an artist and is supporting the family while he has fallen into a deep depression. A mother of 13 children, Akiko has begun to feel lonely in her marriage and wonders if someone who has only known one man has the authority to continue writing tracts about love and sex. Meanwhile, thanks to the admiration her poetry has received among the young radicals, she has become an accidental figurehead for the Taisho radicals and finds herself swept up by the movement through her associations with such avant-garde figures as Sakae Osugi (Morio Kazama) and his wife Noe Ito (Eri Ishida), the actress Sumako Matsui (Keiko Matsuzaka) held responsible for a revolution in Japanese theatre, and finally tragic author Takeo Arishima (Yusaku Matsuda) who was also the father of golden age actor Masayuki Mori. 

Arishima is first struck by Akiko when knocks her out of a rickshaw during an anarchist publicity stunt driving a motorcycle and sidecar around outside the theatre where Sumako Matsui is performing one of her most famous roles in a play inspired by Tolstoy’s Resurrection. It turns out that Akiko bears a striking resemblance to his late wife, which is one reason he sends her an extravagant gift of a beautiful Western-style outfit which she first tries to return partly because she only wears kimono and partly because it’s an inappropriately expensive gesture. Arishima is from a wealthy, landed family and like many of his generation uncomfortable with his privilege but struggling to convince himself to abandon it. Drawn to him in the same way she was drawn to Hiroshi, Akiko accepts the dress and later wears it on a picnic she organises where her children and Arisihma’s two sons can play together. The Western clothing becomes a kind of signifier of Akiko’s drive towards the future and away from her husband as she too despite her feminist perspective struggles to free herself of the image of the good wife while inwardly burning with a desire for love and passion which her husband can no longer satisfy. 

That same dilemma is one which plagues her rival, journalist Akiko Hatano (Kimiko Ikegami) who is already involved with Arishima but married to a patriarchal man who sees her as nothing more than a “doll”, something which is supposed to look pretty and live in its box until he chooses to take it out. Akiko Hatano warns Akiko Yosano that Arishima is a man drawn to death and is merely looking for someone to die with in a lovers’ suicide, something of a fad at the time. In meeting Akiko Yosano, however, his desire for life seems to have been reinvigorated. He makes peace with himself by dissolving his estate in Hokkaido and surrendering control of it to a peasants’ committee, but is thrown again into suicidal despair when the secret police turn up to harass the peasants for undermining the social order. 

As Akiko Hatano puts it, Arishima is a man vacillating between life and death, claiming to be in love with Akiko Yosano soon after meeting her and actively rejecting Akiko Hatano as symbolic of his newfound desire to live. Arishima committed a love suicide with Akiko Hatano on 9th June, 1923 which is only a few months before the Great Kanto Earthquake which devastated the city of Tokyo and enabled a roundup of subversive forces such as socialists and anarchists along with Koreans many of whom were massacred by state sanctioned forces after a false rumour circulated that they had been poisoning the wells and preparing an insurrection for Korean independence (Sakae Osugi and Noe Ito along with their 6-year-old nephew were also victims of this pogrom). 

In her voice over, Akiko describes the earthquake as the death of Taisho which in real terms lasted a few more years until 1926, but was perhaps over as far as its liberalising ideals are concerned, the crisis giving the militarists further excuses to increase their powers. Yet like Arishima the Taisho intellectuals had also been obsessed with death and futility of which the love suicides were a part. Arishima, shortly before witnessing Sumako’s very public breakdown over the death of her lover Hogetsu Shimamura (Keizo Kanie) from Spanish Flu, describes her nothing more than a ham actress but also believes that the theatrical revolution of the Taisho era would not have been possible without her. Sumako also committed suicide for love a few months after Hogetsu’s death, unable to go on without him. Tomiko, Akiko’s old friend, contracted TB and painfully faded away with Hiroshi unexpectedly by her side. Catching sight of a couple of Osugi’s comrades being dragged away after the earthquake Akiko chases after them with rice balls, telling them they must survive. She’s watched many of her friends and the finest minds of her generation die, mostly through choice, and is making an active choice to live. 

In essence this choice may not be as positive as it first sounds. One of Japan’s first avowed pacifists, Akiko Yosano turned increasingly towards the right in the years following the earthquake, eventually becoming an enthusiastic supporter of the war in China and actively subverting the words of her previous poems in insisting it was glorious to die for the emperor after all. Her friends died out of a sense of futility, that the social changes they envisaged were not possible or that they were unable to continue living with themselves in such a society. Society changed, and Akiko changed with it, such was the path she found to continue living. Nevertheless, something did die with the earthquake and it was perhaps those youthful dreams of overwhelming romance crushed like Akiko’s hat in the rubble of a world which was already collapsing. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Enchantment (誘惑者, Shunichi Nagasaki, 1989)

“A broken romance affects everybody” a sympathetic psychiatrist tries to reassure a patient suffering a dangerous romantic obsession with a possibly imaginary woman. Like so much of his work, they’re soft words offered casually as a path towards something deeper but in this case it’s not the patient we need to worry about but the doctor. The aptly named The Enchantment (誘惑者, Yuwakusha), somewhat less subtly titled “Temptress” in Japanese, takes its “hero” on a dark journey into fascination, the male need for domination, and the self delusions of irresolvable disappointment.   

The film opens with genial psychiatrist talking to a patient, Hirayama (Tsutomu Isobe), who proclaims himself more or less cured from a nervous breakdown born of a broken heart. Hirayama’s love affair may be largely imaginary, and he seems far from “cured”, but Doctor Sotomura’s (Masao Kusakari) failure to challenge him on his new affirmation that he’s over her because he’s realised she was “just a bitch” who treated him “like trash” might be a worrying oversight. Hirayama was supposed to be his last patient of the day, but a last minute walk-in, Miyako (Kumiko Akiyoshi), piques his interest enough to keep him in the office rather than on a planned date with his receptionist fiancée and surgeon best friend.

Miyako, nervous and reticent, tells him the appointment is “about a friend” and takes some coaxing before beginning to explain that she has been physically assaulted by her female roommate apparently jealous over the unwanted attentions of a man who developed an attraction for her at her job as a tour guide. Miyako does not spell it out, but somewhat implies that her relationship with her roommate Kimie is romantic while Sotomura has the good sense not to push the issue, only to urge her that perhaps she should think about staying with a friend a while if she doesn’t feel safe at home. Miyako, however, doesn’t want to do that and is only worried about what might have provoked this sudden and unexpected change, fearing most of all that she herself will fall out of love with Kimie if her moodiness continues to intensify.

Overstepping the mark, Sotomura is fascinated with his mysterious new patient, particularly after he becomes a kind of white night rescuing Miyako from a dangerous encounter with Hirayama who is under the delusion that she is the embodiment of his romantic obsession “Junko”. The fascination only intensifies after he makes a surprising discovery – Kimie is not “real” but a secondary personality inside Miyako. Infuriated by Sotomura’s romantic overtures, Kimie takes control and stabs him in the leg while Miyako continues to visit him in the hospital, unable to remember what exactly happened between them.

Sotomura’s obsession is both sexual and professional, after all how many sufferers of MPD is he going to meet in the course of his career? He is indeed ambitious, casually dating his receptionist Harumi (Kiwako Harada) mostly because she’s the daughter of his former professor. Though the couple live together, Harumi is constantly frustrated by his indifference to their relationship and foot dragging over making it official. Sotomura’s best friend, Shinbori (Takashi Naito), is facing much the same dilemma but has resigned himself to an arranged marriage to further his career and keep his family happy. Sotomura instinctively thinks he ought to do the same and tells Harumi that he’ll sort things out with her father, but remains fixated on the mysterious Miyako and her unconventional love life. 

A more cynical friend warns him that sex is the only thing that matters and it’s essential to avoid emotional entanglements. Nevertheless, Sotomura finds himself desperate to unlock the mystery of Miyako, but it remains open to debate which part of her he wants to “fix” – her MPD, or her sexual orientation. As we find out, Sotomura might assume that Miyako’s love for another woman has driven her “mad”, but in reality it’s more that a sense of impossibility led her to believe that there was no solution to her suffering other than death. Faced with unreconcilable loss, she internalised the figure of her fixation, literally becoming one with her lost lover in order to avoid facing that she was alone once again. Uninterested in Sotomura, Miyako/Kimie becomes fascinated with Harumi who eventually becomes so intensely obsessed with Miyako that she is willing to erase her own identity and become “Kimie” for her in order to support her sense of reality and protect the integrity of the Miyako personality.

Again, Sotomura has a few issues. The first is multi-layered sexual jealousy. Now that Harumi has moved on, found someone who “needs” her, and seems to be happier he is instantly irritated that she left him (for a woman) and desperate to win her back (along with the career boost he romanced her for in the first place). He resents Harumi’s differing vision of medical care, that she is willing to embrace Miyako’s delusion in order to keep her stable while wilfully abnegating her sense of self in a profound act of love. Sotomura the clinician wants to “cure” Miyako of her delusion, but his intervention is brutal, intruding on the mental space of her traumatic memory with physical violence designed to rip her from her safety of her artificial reality. He tries to insert himself between the two women, asserting his masculine “right” to dominate, but is eventually ejected by another knife blow to the thigh as the women assert their right to their own reality in the absence of men.

A strange psychosexual odyssey, The Enchantment spins a dark tale of obsession, delusion, and jealousy but ends on a broadly positive, if perhaps uncomfortable, note, in which the dominant psychiatrist is forced to recognise his irrelevance and the legitimacy of realities outside of his own. Broken romance affects everyone, as Sotomura said, but perhaps he doesn’t have the right to intrude on the broken hearts of others or judge the various ways in which they attempt to patch them back together again. A chronicle of bubble era Tokyo bathed in garish neon and a sense of infinite possibility, Shunichi Nagasaki’s heady feature is a surprisingly subversive affair in which trauma cannot be overcome but can perhaps become integrated in a mutually beneficial whole.


After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 1998)

Afterlife posterAt the end of your life, if someone asks you what it all meant, what will you say? It’s a question that can’t be answered until after you’ve turned the final page, but there is an idea at least that death brings clarity, rendering all things simple from a strange perspective of subjective objectivity. This is the central idea behind Hirokazu Koreeda’s meta existential fantasy After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Wonderful Life) in which the recently deceased are given seven days grace in order to decide on their most precious memory so that a small collection of clerks working in an old-fashioned government building can “recreate” it through the medium of cinema, allowing a departing soul to take refuge in a single memory preserved in eternity.

Heaven’s waiting room, as it turns out, is apparently located inside the ghost of the Japanese studio system. The recently deceased give their names at the door and patiently wait for their turn with their allotted case manager whose job it is to offer after life counselling designed to bring them to the point of boiling their existence down to the single moment which defines it within the arbitrary three day time limit which gives the crew the time to put their memories into pre-production complete with old-fashioned stage sets and studio-era special effects.

The purpose of all of this is not is exactly clear, though a clue is perhaps offered when we discover that the clerks are able to order VHS tapes of the entirety of their subjects’ lives in the event that they are struggling to think of relevant moments in an existence which seems to have disappointed them. The point is not so much the literal truth of the memory, be it accurate or not, but its sensation and the transience of feeling which is then re-experienced through the medium of cinema, captured in celluloid as momentary permanence.

Consequently, the chosen moments are necessarily often ones of stillness which promise the kind of peace and serenity one is supposed to find in death. The moments are ones of silent togetherness, of natural beauty, of childish innocence, or unbridled joy but is each is perhaps the key to unlocking the enigma of a life and as such is a solution which points towards a question. One older gentleman, Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), finds himself unable to choose. He views his life as the epitome of mediocrity and can find nothing in it that seems worthy of “eternity”. Watching the videotapes of his life, he sees himself as a young man vowing to make a mark and is desperate to find some evidence that he lived but like many does not find it. His life was happy by virtue of being not unhappy for all that it was perhaps unfulfilled but only through communing with himself after death is he able to reclaim the memory of his late wife (Kyoko Kagawa) with whom he never quite bonded in mild jealousy of her lingering attachment to her first love who fell in war.

This being a film from 1998 and mostly featuring those in their ‘70s and above, the war looms large from painful battlefield memories of fear and starvation to unexpected reunions and the joy of simple pleasures found even in the midst of hardship. The clerks who died young may look on in envy of Watanabe’s “ordinary” life in the knowledge of all they were denied, while others mourn for a future they will never see. Yet there are shorter sad stories here too from a high school girl (Sayaka Yoshino) whose original choice of a day out at Disneyland is deemed too prosaic, to a middle-aged bar hostess (Kazuko Shirakawa) reminiscing about an old lover who let her down, and a rebellious young punk (Yusuke Iseya) who flat out refuses to choose because he feels that is the best way to accept responsibility. Forced into a reconsideration of his own life, even a clerk is eventually moved by the realisation that even if he had previously believed his existence devoid of meaningful moments he has achieved something by featuring in those of others and is therefore also a meaningful part of a considered whole.

Making the most of his documentary background, interspersing “genuine” memories among the imagined, Koreeda’s heavenly fantasy is one firmly tied to the ground where seasons still pass, time still flows, and the relentlessly efficient march of bureaucracy continues on apace undaunted by the presence of death. Death may give life meaning, but it’s living that’s the prize in all of its glorious complexity filled with both beauty and sadness but always with light even in the darkest corners.


After Life screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)