The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Bad Sleep Well posterThere’s something rotten in the state of Japan – The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru), Akira Kurosawa’s take on Hamlet, unlike his previous two Shakespearean adaptations, is set firmly in the murky post-war society which, it becomes clear, is so mired in systems of corruption as to be entirely built on top of them. Our hero, like Hamlet himself, is a conflicted revenger. He intends to hold a mirror up to society, reflecting the ugly picture back to the yet unknowing world in the hope that something will really change. Change, however, comes slow – especially when it comes at the disadvantage of those who currently hold all the cards.

We open at a wedding. A small number of attendants lineup around a lift waiting for the arrival of the married couple only for a carriage full of reporters to pour out, apparently in hope of scandal though this is no gossip worthy society function but the wedding of a CEO’s daughter to his secretary. The press is in attendance because the police are – they believe there will be arrests today in connection with the ongoing corruption scandal engulfing the company in which a number of employees are suspected of engaging in kickbacks on government funded projects.

The rather strange wedding proceeds with the top brass sweating buckets while the bride’s brother (Tatsuya Mihashi), already drunk on champagne, takes to the mic with a bizarre speech “refuting” the claims that the groom, Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), has only married the bride, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), for financial gain before avowing that he will kill his new brother-in-law if he makes his little sister sad. Nishi, as we later discover, has indeed married with an ulterior motive which is anticipated by the arrival of a second wedding cake in the shape of a building at the centre of a previous corruption scandal with one black rose sticking out of the seventh floor window from which an employee, Furuya, committed suicide five years previously.

The police are keen to interview their suspects, the press are keen to report on scandal, but somehow or other the system of corruption perpetuates itself. The top guys cover for each other, and when they can’t they “commit suicide” rather than embarrass their “superiors” by submitting themselves to justice. The system of loyalty and reward, of misplaced “honour” mixed with personal greed, ensures its own survival through homosocial bonding with backroom deals done in hostess bars and the lingering threat of scandal and personal ruin for all should one rogue whistleblower dare to threaten the governing principle of an entire economy.

Nishi chooses to threaten it, partly as an act of revolution but mainly as an act of filial piety in avenging the wrongful death of his father who had, in a sense, cast him aside for financial gain and societal success. Wanting to get on, Nishi’s father refused to marry his mother and instead married the woman his “superiors” told him to. Later, his father threw himself out of a seventh floor window because his “superiors” made him understand this was what was expected of him. Furuya wasn’t the last, each time a man’s transgressions progress too far his “superiors” sacrifice him to ensure the survival of the system. Strangely no one seems to rebel, the men go to their deaths willingly, accepting their fate without question rather than submitting themselves to the law and taking their co-conspirators down with them though should someone refuse to do the “decent” thing, there are other ways to ensure their continuing silence.

Reinforcing the post-war message, Nishi chooses a disused munitions factory for his secret base. Both he and his co-conspirator, a war orphan, had been high school conscripts until the factory was destroyed by firebombing and thereafter were forced to live by their wits alone on the streets. Nishi swears that he wants to take revenge on those who manipulate the vulnerable, but finds himself becoming ever more like his prey and worse, hardly caring, wanting only to steel himself for the difficult task ahead.

In any revolution there will be casualties, but these casualties will often be those whom Nishi claims to represent. Chief among them his new wife, Yoshiko, who has been largely cushioned from the harshness of the outside world thanks to her father’s wealth and seeming care. She loves her husband and wants to believe in her father or more particularly that the moral arc of her society points towards goodness. Nishi, tragically falling for his mark, married his wife to destroy her family but ironically finds himself torn between genuine love for Yoshiko, a desire for revenge, and a mission of social justice. Can he, and should he, be prepared to “sacrifice” an innocent in the same way the “superiors” of the world sacrifice their underlings in order to end a system of oppression or should he abandon his plan and save his wife the pain of learning the truth about her husband, her father, and the world in which she lives?

In the end, Nishi will waver. Yoshiko’s father, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), will not. Goodness becomes a weakness – Iwabuchi turns his daughter’s love and faith against her, subverting her innocence for his own evil. He makes a sacrifice of her in service of his own “superiors” who may be about to declare that they “have complete faith” in him at any given moment. The only thing that remains clear is that Iwabuchi will not be forgiven, the wronged children of the post-war era will not be so quick to bow to injustice. Let the great axe fall? One can only hope.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Osaka Elegy (浪華悲歌, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)

osaka elegy posterKenji Mizoguchi felt he was hitting his artistic stride with Osaka Elegy (浪華悲歌, Naniwa Elegy). Released in 1936 amid the tide of rising militarism, Mizoguchi’s tale of sacrifice and betrayal is strikingly modern in its depiction of female agency and the impossibility of escape from the confines of familial power and social oppression. Sexual harassment was not so much a problem as an accepted part of life in 1936, but as always it’s never the men who suffer. In depicting life as he saw it, Mizoguchi’s vision is bleak, leaving his forward striding heroine adrift in a changing, volatile world.

Beginning not with the protagonist, Mizoguchi first introduces the quasi-antagonist, lecherous boss Asai (Benkai Shiganoya), who feels trapped in an unhappy marriage to a bossy, shrewish woman. For Asai, the head of a family pharmaceuticals firm, work is an escape from family life and the same is also true for telephone switchboard operator Ayako (Isuzu Yamada) who lives with her feckless father whose gambling problem has left them all with serious debts. Asai, encouraged by Fujino (Eitaro Shindo), a colleague well known to be a womaniser, has developed a crush on the meek and innocent Ayako and continues to harass her at work, invading her personal space and pleading with her to have dinner with him. She declines and leaves distressed but when her father is discovered to have embezzled a large sum of money from his company which they will let go if he pays it back, Ayako is faced with a terrible dilemma.

In essence, Osaka Elegy is a hahamono which shifts focus to the self-sacrificing daughter of motherless family rather than a betrayed mother who gives all for her children and receives little in return. Ayako flits between resentment of her useless father’s poor parenting which has left her the sole figure of responsibility for a younger sister and older brother who already seem to hate her even before her present predicament. Yet however much she loathes her father for his weaknesses, she still feels a responsibility to help him and to avoid the social stigma should he fail to repay the money he stole and is arrested. Once she makes the difficult decision to become Asai’s mistress, her fate is sealed. She loses her future, her right to be happy, and the possibility of marriage to her equally meek boyfriend Nishimura (Kensaku Hara).

Being Asai’s mistress is perhaps not as bad as it sounds. Ayako is at least provided for – Asai pays her father’s debt and sets her up in an apartment they can use to conduct their affair but her status will always be uncertain. Asai’s wife (Yoko Umemura), ironically enough, is fond of Nishimura who may be something of a gigolo but their situation is unlikely to entail further consequences for either of them. In her relationship with Asai, Ayako begins meekly, playing the part-time wife which is exactly the figure Asai desires – someone to lovingly help with his coat and throw a scarf around his neck. When the affair is discovered by Mrs. Asai, Ayako’s character undergoes a shift. No longer meek and passive, she declares she will not see Asai again. Her physical presence and manner of speaking reverts to the repressed resentment previously seen only when dealing with her father.

If the failed affair allows a certain steel to rise within her, her neat kimono swapped for the latest flapper fashions, Ayako remains ill equipped to operate within the world she has just entered. About to renounce her “delinquent” life, Ayako fixes her hopes on reuniting with Nishimura and the normal, peaceful marriage to a kind and honest man that should have been hers if it were not for her father’s lack of care. Just when it looks as if she may triumph, a second familial crisis sends her right back into the world she was trying to escape but Ayako overplays her hand and suffers gravely for it.

Having sacrificed so much for her family, Ayako is rejected once again. Her feckless father and cruel siblings do not want to be associated with her “immoral” lifestyle which has made her a media sensation and continues to cause them embarrassment. She has lost everything – career, love, family, reputation and all possibility for a successful future. Yet rather than ending on the figure of a broken, desolate woman, Mizoguchi allows his heroine her pride. Ayako, far from collapsing, straightens her hat and walks towards the camera, facing an uncertain fate with resolute determination, defiantly walking away from the patriarchal forces which have done nothing other than conspired to ruin her.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season. Screening again on 21st October, 17.10.

Also available on blu-ray as part of Artificial Eye’s Mizoguchi box set.

Opening scene (English subtitles)

The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mothra (モスラ, Ishiro Honda, 1961)

mothra-poster.jpgJapan’s kaiju movies have an interesting relationship with their monstrous protagonists. Godzilla, while causing mass devastation and terror, can hardly be blamed for its actions. Humans polluted its world with all powerful nuclear weapons, woke it up, and then responded harshly to its attempts to complain. Godzilla is only ever Godzilla, acting naturally without malevolence, merely trying to live alongside destructive forces. No creature in the Toho canon embodies this theme better than Godzilla’s sometime foe, Mothra. Released in 1961, Mothra does not abandon the genre’s anti-nuclear stance, but steps away from it slightly to examine another great 20th century taboo – colonialism and the exploitation both of nature and of native peoples. Weighty themes aside, Mothra is also among the most family friendly of the Toho tokusatsu movies in its broadly comic approach starring well known comedian Frankie Sakai.

When a naval vessel is caught up in a typhoon and wrecked, the crew is thought lost but against the odds a small number of survivors is discovered in a radiation heavy area previously thought to be uninhabited. The rescued men claim they owe their existence to a strange new species of mini-humans living deep in the forest. This is an awkward discovery because the islands had recently been used for testing nuclear weapons and have been ruled permanently uninhabitable. The government of the country which conducted the tests, Rolisica, orders an investigation and teams up with a group of Japanese scientists to verify the claims.

Of course, the original story of the survivors was already a media sensation and so intrepid “snapping turtle” reporter Zen (Frankie Sakai) and his photographer Michi (Kyoko Kagawa) are hot on the trail. Zen is something of an embarrassment to his bosses but manages to bamboozle his way into the scientific expedition by stowing away on their boat and then putting on one of their hazmat suits to blend in before anyone notices him. Linguist Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) gets himself into trouble but is saved by two little people of the island who communicate in an oddly choral language. Unfortunately, the Rolisicans, led by Captain Nelson (Jerry Ito), decide the helpful little creatures are useful “samples” and intend to kidnap them to experiment on. Refusing to give up despite the protestations of the Japanese contingent, Nelson only agrees to release the pair when the male islanders surround them and start banging drums in an intimidating manner.

The colonial narrative is clear as the Rolisicans never stop to consider the islanders as living creatures but only as an exploitable resource. Nelson heads back later and scoops up the two little ladies (committing colonial genocide in the process) but on his return to Japan his intentions are less scientific than financial as he immediately begins putting his new conquests on show. The island ladies (played by the twins from the popular group The Peanuts, Yumi and Emi Ito) are installed in a floating mini carriage and dropped on stage where they are forced to sing and dance for an appreciative audience in attendance to gorp.

Zen and Michi may be members of the problematic press who’ve dubbed the kindnapped islanders the “Tiny Beauties” and helped Nelson achieve his goals but they stand squarely behind the pair and, along with linguist Chujo and his little brother Shinji (Masamitsu Tayama), continue to work on a way to rescue the Tiny Beauties and send them home. The Tiny Beauties, however, aren’t particularly worried because they know “Mothra” is coming to save them, though they feel a bit sad for Japan and especially for the nice people like Zen, Michi,  Chujo, and Shinji because Mothra doesn’t know right from wrong or have much thought process at all. 100% goal orientated, Mothra’s only concern is that two of its charges are in trouble and need rescuing. It will stop at nothing to retreive them and bring them home no matter what obstacles may be standing in the way.

The island people worship Mothra like a god though with oddly Christian imagery of crosses and bells. Like many of Toho’s other “monsters” it is neither good or bad, in a sense, but simply exists as it is. Its purpose is to defend its people, which it does to the best of its ability. It has no desire to attack or destroy, but simply to protect and defend. The villain is humanity, or more precisely Rolisica whose colonial exploits have a dark and tyrannical quality as they try to insist the islands are uninhabited despite the evidence and then set about exploiting the resources with no thought to the islanders’ wellbeing. The Japanese are broadly the good guys who’ve learned their lesson with this sort of thing and very much do not approve of the Rolisicans’ actions but they are also the people buying the tickets to see the Tiny Beauties and putting them on the front pages of the newspapers. Nevertheless, things can conclude happily when people start respecting the rights of other nations on an equal footing and accepting the validity of their rights and beliefs even if they include giant marauding moth gods.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Peony Lantern (牡丹燈籠, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1968)

peony lanternThe Peony Lantern (牡丹燈籠, Kaidan Botan Doro) has gone by many different names in its English version – The Bride from Hades, The Haunted Lantern, Ghost Beauty, and My Bride is a Ghost among various others, but whatever the title of the tale it remains one of the best known ghost stories of Japan. Originally inspired by a Chinese legend, the story was adapted and included in a popular Edo era collection of supernatural tales, Otogi Boko (Hand Puppets), removing much of the original Buddhist morality tale in the process. In the late 19th century, the Peony Lantern also became one of the earliest standard rakugo texts and was then collected and translated by Lafcadio Hearn though he drew his inspiration from a popular kabuki version. As is often the case, it is Hearn’s version which has become the most common.

The central figure in Satsuo Yamamoto’s 1968 prestige picture for Daiei is the third son of a samurai household, Shinzaburo (Kojiro Hongo). This is the first Obon festival since his older brother died leaving a young widow behind him. Kiku, his sister-in-law, is becoming a problem for the clan as her birth family have not called her back and it’s embarrassing for them to have an unattached woman of age wasting away at home. Accordingly, they think the best option is for Shinzaburo to marry his brother’s wife. Shinzaburo is having none of it. A progressive kind of samurai, he spends his time teaching poor children to read and even dreams of opening a school one day but his family most definitely do not approve and see this marriage as an opportunity to put an end to his improper ideas about social justice.

Heading back to the village under a cloud, Shinzaburo helps one of the children push two of the lanterns which had got stuck by the shore out onto the lake. Suddenly two lantern carrying women appear from nowhere and thank him. Later, the same two women arrive at Shinzaburo’s home to thank him again and relate a sad tale – the older woman, Oyone (Michiko Otsuka), is a servant of the younger one, Otsuyu (Miyoko Akaza), and they’ve come from the red light district. Otsuyu apparently hailed from a samurai background but was tricked and forced into the yoshiwara after her father was abandoned by his clan and subsequently fell ill. She is still a virgin but has attracted the attentions of an older wealthy client and is expected to acquiesce to his desires after the Bon festival is over. Shinzaburo seems like such a nice guy that she’d much prefer to stay with him, at least until Bon is over. There is one quite important detail which Oyone and Otsuyu have omitted from their history.

Despite it being Bon – the Japanese summer festival in which the dead return to the land of the living, Shinzaburo never stops to think about where these two women might have come from. Truth be told, he’s in something of a dark place what with the current familial discord which might see him either exiled from his clan (which would entail the loss of his living as well as his status), or an arranged marriage to a woman he doesn’t love who also was previously married to his brother. The villagers are very fond of Shinzaburo and grateful for his efforts with the children. Should they lose him, they would never find a replacement and the children would remain uneducated.

Despite having contributed to the war effort by making a series of propaganda films, director Satsuo Yamamoto was an openly committed communist and though Peony Lantern is in no way overtly political or at least not in the same sense as some of his other work, it nevertheless manages to work in the cruelty and indifference of feudal elites towards the ordinary people below them. This is a theme which is common in kaidan/horror films from this era and particularly from Daiei, but Shinzaburo is something of an exception to the rule as he stems from the samurai order himself. His family find his commitment to educating the peasantry at best eccentric and at worst embarrassing though Shinzaburo is determined to live in a more altruistic way than his rigid, tradition bound relatives.

This does leave him feeling slightly adrift as he’s at odds with both the samurai class of his birth but also with the villagers who see him as a teacher and someone to look up to, but definitely not as one of them. When the pretty Otsuyu and her maid arrive with a tragic story also involving the harshness of the samurai class, it’s primed to catch Shinzaburo’s attention and lonely as he is perhaps he doesn’t quite stop to ask questions when offered the opportunity to play kindly saviour to a sad young woman about to be robbed of her right to choose her own destiny (much as he will be, only worse). His relations with Otsuyu leave him feeling progressively weaker but still he can’t seem to bring himself to the decision to send her away entirely.

Perhaps it’s death Shinzaburo craved all along, an end to his tormented existence and the loneliness that comes of being caught between two social strata in a strictly controlled class hierarchy. The two ghosts are not malicious, they’ve come craving love and kind words from an honest man and hit the jackpot with the softhearted Shinzaburo. Tragic as it all is, perhaps everyone ultimately got what they wanted – an end to the eternal loneliness of having been cast out from one world and unable to fully embrace another.

Despite the emphasis on the indifference of the samurai class, the poor aren’t all saints either as seen in the feckless servant character, Banzo (Ko Nishimura), who begins as comic relief but ends up very much not. He is the first to witness the ghostly nature of the two visitors and to try and save Shinzaburo from their clutches, but when his wife comes home for her Obon holiday everything changes. Banzo’s wife orders him to blackmail the ghosts for money which they eventually get by digging up a neighbouring grave. Little to they know that it’s not supernatural forces which they will need to be worrying about in the future and they will pay a heavy price for their greed.

Yamamoto captures the eeriness of his undead visitors perfectly as they float and glide across the screen. The first scene in which Banzo peeks in on them with Shinzaburo and sees them as they really are is truly shocking as is the raw power with which Oyone later confronts him. Switching effortlessly between nervous, melancholy women seemingly caught in a more Earthly kind of purgatory, and etherial escapees from the underworld, Otsuyu and Oyone continually carry a kind of death-tinged strangeness around with them. A beautifully filmed, supremely creepy adaptation of the classic story, Yamamoto’s Peony Lantern is a suitably macabre, gothic affair which is entirley unafraid to explore the essential darkness of the tale at hand.


 

Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Mikio Naruse, 1959)

vlcsnap-2016-08-03-02h37m50s119The Ainu have not been a frequent feature of Japanese filmmaking though they have made sporadic appearances. Adapted from a novel by Nobuo Ishimori, Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Kotan no Kuchibue, AKA Whistle in My Heart) provides ample material for the generally bleak Naruse who manages to mine its melodramatic set up for all of its heartrending tragedy. Rather than his usual female focus, Naruse tells the story of two resilient Ainu siblings facing not only social discrimination and mistreatment but also a series of personal misfortunes.

Masa and Yutaka are a teenage brother and sister living with their alcoholic father who has been unable to get things together since their mother passed away. They also have their grandmother and cousin, but otherwise they’re pretty much fending for themselves. At school, both children are shunned and picked on by some of their classmates solely for being Ainu. When one girl reports that her purse has gone missing, she immediately points to Masa and though another girl defends her, the obvious racial overtones continue to get to her. Similarly, Yutaka finds himself getting into trouble with one of the other boys after he beats him on a test. Yutaka pays a heavier price (at least physically) but both children are left wondering about their place in the world and what the future might hold for them.

Masa’s bright hope revolves around her art teacher who draws a picture of her at a local watering hole which he intends to enter into a competition. The teacher has his sights firmly set on a career as an artist in Tokyo but like everyone else’s dreams, it proves harder to realise than he might have hoped. Perpetually left behind, Masa’s dreams crumble too as do those of her friend who has her romantic hopes crushed firstly by her well meaning grandmother and then secondly by an unexpectedly racist action by someone who had always been seen as a friend. If all of these difficulties weren’t enough, fate is about to deal Masa and Yutaka a very cruel blow indeed which leaves them at the mercy of an evil uncle worthy of any Dickens novel.

Like much of Naruse’s work, the outlook is extremely bleak. The children face such a hopeless future that the most they can do is affect a kind of false cheerfulness to try and raise their spirits. Masa and Yutaka are both mistreated by the general population, leaving them with a lingering sense of anger and resentment towards those that seem incapable of treating them like regular human beings. Their cousin, Koji, has apparently come to the conclusion that he has to stand up against such mistreatment, however, the ultimate harm that is done to the pair is done by a member of their own family acting with total disregard their feelings and wellbeing. At this point Koji reconsiders and says he understands now that it isn’t about Ainu or Japanese, there are just awful people everywhere. An odd, if depressingly stoic, late in the game plea for empathy and tolerance, this ironically positive statement sits very well with Naruse’s general feelings on human nature.

Whistling in Kotan is not one of Naruse’s more subtle efforts. The tone is relentlessly bleak as the children experience ever more degrading treatment solely because of their ethnic group. Even their supposed ally eventually turns on them exposing the last lingering threads of prejudice among even those who portray themselves as forthright liberals. The message is one of forbearance and patience, that times have changed and will change more but that one has to grin and bear it while they do. Pragmatic as that is, it does let society of the hook when it comes to the refusal to acknowledge and deal with consistent prejudice. Filled with Naruse’s sense of despair, Whistling in Kotan is an uneven yet interesting exploration of this sensitive subject though perhaps undoes much of its good work with its ambiguous and often blunt approach to the material.


 

Kwaidan (怪談, Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

tumblr_ly5zbgdNH61rn3yrmo1_1280Kwaidan (怪談) is something of an anomaly in the career of the humanist director Masaki Kobayashi, best known for his wartime trilogy The Human Condition. Moving away from the naturalistic concerns that had formed the basis of his earlier career, Kwaidan takes a series of ghost stories collected by the foreigner Lafcadio Hearn and gives them a surreal, painterly approach that’s somewhere between theatre and folktale.

The first tale, Black Hair, is the story of an ambitious young samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who abandons his one true love to marry a wealthy woman and advance his career. However, his second marriage is far from happy and he begins to appreciate just what it is he’s cast aside. Eventually returning home he meets his former wife again and harbours the desire to start afresh. However, when the sun comes up all is not as it seems.

Tale two, The Woman of the Snow, begins when two woodsmen are caught in a blizzard and a mysterious woman appears to suck one of them dry of blood. She spares the other, Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), because she’s moved by his youth but she instructs him never to reveal the events of that evening or she will return to finish what she started. Minokichi returns home and meets another mysterious woman who later becomes his wife and bears him three children but will he remember to keep his secret even from the love of his life?

The third tale is perhaps the most famous, Hoichi the Earless, and features the sad tale of a blind biwa player (Katsuo Nakamura) whose storytelling ability is so great that the dead themselves petition him nightly to recount their story. Eventually the head monk finds out and disapproves of Hoichi’s dealings with the supernatural so the monks paint sutras all over his body to protect him from the malevolent spirits. However, like achilles and his vulnerable heel, they forget to paint Hoichi’s ears…

The fourth tale, A Cup of Tea, is a little more whimsical and opens with a framing sequence lamenting the fact that some ancient tales were never finished for one reason or another. The tale within the tale features a samurai who keeps seeing a face appear in his tea. Obviously this is quite disturbing, but eventually he just decides to drink it anyway only for the owner of the face to suddenly appear and complain about soul having been stolen.

Like all good fables the stories each have a moral to offer but also, crucially, paint the protagonists as victims of circumstance more than rash or unwise people. The samurai feared poverty so he abandoned his love in search of riches only to discover he’d been chasing the wrong kind of dreams. Minokichi momentarily forgot himself, perhaps entrapped by the Snow Woman’s final trick, Hoichi just wanted to play his biwa but his desires were frustrated by the powers at be who further mess things up for him by botching the sutra application. The protagonist of A Cup of Tea does choose to drink the tea himself but the resultant madness is not something that could ever have been reasonably expected. These are worlds of spirits where the doorway to the supernatural is always ajar, waiting for some ordinary person to tumble through accidentally.

Though employing slightly different styles for each of the four segments, Kobayashi sets his stage with a deliberately theatrical, almost hyperreal set design. Obviously shot on a soundstage, the tales take on the feeling of stories which have been told and retold, replayed countless times across the great theatre of life. Black Hair steers closest to a traditional kabuki play, an effect aided by Toru Takemitsu’s more traditional score but The Woman of the Snow gives way to intense color play full of cold blue ice vistas mixed with impressionistic, passionate red skies. Hoichi’s tale begins with an overlay of a scroll painting recounting the famous The of the Heike of which Hoichi sings his song. Full of epic battle scenes, ghostly apparitions and a whole load of biwa music, this segment is the lengthiest but also the meatiest when it comes to subtext. The final tale by contrast is much more straightforward and brings a little chanbara exuberance to the otherwise heavy atmosphere though it does leave us with one of the most haunting images in the entire film.

Kwaidan may look like an exercise in style for Kobayashi – it was also his first colour picture and he makes full use of that aspect of the film. However, that isn’t to say he’s abandoned his recurrent concerns. The people in the stories are all ordinary, they’re flawed but they aren’t evil. The samurai comes closest to bringing his fate on himself when he makes the selfish decision to abandon his loving wife for money and status though he pays a heavy price when he finally realises his foolishness. Minokichi’s crime is a loss of faith of perhaps of having doubted the truth of his tale in itself. In the end, he simply forgot his promise rather than making a conscious decision break it like the samurai. Hoichi is something of a passive player here as his blindness renders him unable to understand his plight – he is unable to keep his promise to the fallen samurai firstly because of the physical toll it’s taking on him and secondly as he’s prevented by his superiors. The protagonist of the final tale simply gives in to temptation and then to madness perfectly symbolising human weakness. Kobayashi maybe more artful here than acerbic but his bleak view of human nature still wins out. However, what Kobayashi crafted in Kwaidan is a beautiful, dreamlike canvas of supernatural visions which continue to dazzle in their artistry long after the screen has gone dark.


Kwaidan is available on blu-ray in the US from Citerion and on DVD in the UK from Eureka Masters of Cinema.