The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (虎の尾を踏む男達, Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Like many directors of his age, Akira Kurosawa began his career during the war sometimes working on what were effectively propaganda films yet perhaps attempting to skirt around the least palatable implications of the task at hand. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (虎の尾を踏む男達, Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi) is an example of just that, repurposing a well known historical incident from its noh and kabuki roots and subtly undercutting it with a dose of irreverent humour unwelcome to those who liked historical tales because of their nationalistic connotations. This was not, however, the reason the film found itself out of favour so much as an ironically personal issue in which Kurosawa had apparently irritated one of the censors by pointing out his ignorance of cultural tradition leading him to conveniently leave Tiger’s Tail off the list of titles in production resulting in the American Censors rejecting it for being an unknown, illegal film which is why it languished on the shelf for seven years after filming was completed in 1945. The Americans may not have liked it much either given their aversion to period drama which they feared encouraged the kind of thinking incompatible with the democratic era, but like many of Kurosawa’s samurai dramas it has a rather ambivalent attitude to feudal loyalty both admiring of nobility and despairing of its austerity. 

Set in the late 12th century, the action takes place during a period of warfare in which warrior Yoshitsune (Iwai Hanshiro X) has returned a victory for his brother, the ruler. His brother Yoritomo, however, feels as if his victory has perhaps been too good and he is therefore a threat to him. Yoritomo accuses his brother of sedition and puts a purge in motion, leaving Yoshitsune with no option other than to flee. With six of his best retainers, he escapes dressed as an itinerant Buddhist monk and tries to make his way to neutral territory in the North. To get there, however, they need to pass through a series of checkpoints which is why they’re currently accompanied by a cheerful fool in the form of a lowly porter (Kenichi Enomoto) supposedly guiding them along a secret path through mountain forests. 

The porter is a new addition to the story added by Kurosawa for reasons of expediency and comic relief, yet his intrusion is also one which deeply angered the more nationalistic of the censors who resented the director’s irreverence towards a key historical event. Like many other of Kurosawa’s bumbling peasants, he’s both contemptuous and in awe of the world of the samurai, offering down to earth common sense takes on the politics of the day. He has already heard all about the Yoritomo/Yoshitsune drama and recounts it in the manner of a soap opera, quite reasonably asking if a quarrel between brothers could not have been sorted out with a good old-fashioned private fist fight rather than a state mandated manhunt which is also quite inconvenient for ordinary people in addition to being somewhat heartless. 

The samurai, not wanting to break cover, can only look sad and lament the cruelty of their codes, yet it’s precisely in the subversion of their ideology that they are able to escape. They have already transgressed, some with shaved heads and all already in the clothes of a monk. The porter looks at Yoshitsune, apparently a successful warrior, and remarks on his delicate physique and seeming femininity. Eventually he says too much, realises that the men are the fugitives everyone’s looking for and is suddenly afraid, forgetting for the moment that they need him to get out of the woods and knowing that samurai think nothing of killing “insignificant nobodies” like him. Nevertheless they do not kill him, but on hearing that there are lookouts on the horizon aware of Yoshitsune’s presence, they ask their lord to change places with a peasant, wearing his worn out clothes and carrying his heavy pack though the weight of it perhaps betrays him. As the porter points out, he does not have the look of a man used to trekking through the mountains and his delicate legs are already shaking under the unfamiliar strain. 

When the band is intercepted by loyal retainer Togashi (Susumu Fujita) who has been instructed to stop all priests in case Yoshitsune comes his way, Benkei (Denjiro Okochi), a real monk if also a warrior with a talent for bluff, manages to talk his way out of Togashi’s questioning, improvising an entire prospectus on the spot to convince him that they really are collecting money to repair a temple, quickly explaining that his robes are ornate because even ascetics have fashion sense. It’s not entirely clear if Togashi simply believes him, or if he too is wilfully subverting the code having recognised Yoshitsune and decided to help him escape. Might that not, in a certain sense, be the better way of serving a lord, preventing him from making a huge and painful mistake in killing his own brother out of a misplaced sense of paranoia? 

In any case, Benkei talks his way out of trouble only for a minor retainer to intervene, insisting that the porter is too pretty and bears a striking resemblance to Yoshitsune. Reacting quickly again, Benkei does the unthinkable. He strikes his lord and loudly berates him as if he really were a lazy porter failing in the duties for which he has been paid. The real porter becomes upset, placing himself in between Benkei’s staff and Yoshitsune’s body, either out of empathetic identification or horror in the betrayal of feudal loyalty. Benkei knows he must now be believed, no one would ever do what he has done because it is a complete and total negation of the samurai code. Yet in breaking it he saves his lord, which is all that really matters. Yoshitsune later forgives him, because he is a good lord after all and how could he not. But as Benkei was keen to keep pointing out, this isn’t the only checkpoint they must pass and their journey is without end, all they can do is “continue without rest”, taking this brief moment of unexpected levity provided by apology wine from Togashi and the hilarious antics from the porter before setting off once again. As for the porter, he is soon abandoned, left on one side of the samurai divide as the curtain closes on this brief strange tale. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Snake Princess (新蛇姫様 お島千太郎, Tadashi Sawashima, 1965)

Hibari Misora fights Edo-era corruption once again in another jidaigeki musical adventure from Tadashi Sawashima. Snake Princess (新蛇姫様 お島千太郎, Shin Hebihimesama Oshima Sentaro) sees her doing double duty as a sake-loving stage performer in love with a reluctant revenger, and an austere princess mourning the murder of her confidant and only friend but, as in some of her other films, the resemblance is never remarked upon nor is it any kind of plot point. There isn’t even really a “snake princess”, though snakes and the supernatural do play their part and there is perhaps less space for the derring-do and swashbuckling musical numbers which typically characterise a Hibari picture. 

The film opens with stage performer Oshima (Hibari Misora) waking up from a drunken snooze on a riverbank and realising she’s been left behind by her acting troupe. Running into the mysterious Ittosai (Minoru Oki) on her way, she hurries on to the next town to catch them up while he heads in the opposite direction towards Karasuyama and the Princess Koto (also played by Hibari Misora). Meanwhile, in the town, a rowdy samurai starts a drunken fight in an inn, demanding to drink with the innkeeper’s pretty daughter Suga (Tomoko Ogawa). The innkeeper refuses, offering the excuse that his daughter is at the palace with the princess, but the samurai doesn’t take no for an answer and starts thrashing about with his sword eventually killing the innkeeper for the offence he feels has been caused to him. The innkeeper’s son Sentaro (Yoichi Hayashi), a former pupil of Ittosai, then kills the samurai in revenge and is forced on the run, taken in by the leader of Oshima’s acting troupe, Juzo (Takashi Shimura), who apparently knew his father well. 

What ensues is of course a tale of intrigue and revenge mixed with mild romantic melodrama. Oshima begins to fall for Sentaro, but is warned that he is from a prominent non-samurai family and as such is unlikely to marry a travelling actress, itinerant players then belonging to a kind of underclass which is in part one reason why it is so easy for Sentaro to hide among them. Even so he is also subjugated by the samurai who frequently object to being ordered around by “commoners”, insistent on their privilege the refusal of which is the reason Sentaro’s father had to die. 

Meanwhile,  the Princess Koto is herself oppressed within the feudal system as a female ruling a clan in the absence of her father who has placed her in charge while he remains in the city. While Oshima falls for Sentaro, the relationship between Koto and Suga is perhaps transgressively equally close, Koto describing Suga as the only one she can trust within her own court and plaintively asking her to stay by her side forever. Unfortunately however Suga is murdered by the male court conspirators attempting to wrest power from the princess on her way back with evidence of their smuggling plot after meeting Ittosai on Koto’s behalf. Misled into thinking that Koto had his sister killed, Sentaro plots revenge but on learning the truth asks her why she hasn’t dealt with the wrongdoing among her own retainers, only later realising that even as the leader of the clan she lacks the power to do so and remains in a precarious position. 

Arguably, Oshima has more freedom, fearlessly walking the roads alone, drinking and gambling with the men refusing to abide by traditional social codes though perhaps in some ways permitted to do so precisely because of her position within the entertainer underclass. A further gender reversal sees the fallen Sentaro temporarily resorting to sex work as a host at an inn drinking with a melancholy noblewoman who fully expects to bed him for her five Ryo only for Sentaro to become indignant and throw the money back in her face, much to Oshima’s approval though she later becomes jealous and irritated questioning him if he’s ever done this sort of work before as if it would actually change her feelings for him. While Sentaro is forced into but then rejects the subjugated female role, Oshima chooses the male solution of trying her luck at the gaming tables, occasionally charging into a fight wielding a nearby object such as a handy water bucket. 

The snake theme of the title links back to the supernatural appearances of Suga’s silent ghost, protecting the princess with a wall of serpents when Sentaro plans to attack under the false assumption that she was responsible for his sister’s death. Musical numbers are largely restricted to a lengthy stage performance featuring Oshima and Sentaro’s evolving act utilising several sets and elaborate design while Sawashima ups the game a little from the lower tier Toei norm with varying locations shifting from a set-bound snowscape as Oshima is carted off by local goons, to a shot-on-location set piece as the conspirators take down a spy in the rocky desert. Revenge is eventually taken not only for the murders of Sentaro’s father and sister, but for the samurai transgressions of the Edo era, restoring order by wiping out the bad apples but also allowing Sentaro to free himself from his class-bound destiny and pursue a life, and love, of his choosing regardless of contemporary social codes.


Musical sequences (no subtitles)

Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (男はつらいよ, Yoji Yamada, 1969)

“It’s tough being a man” according to the Japanese title of the long running series affectionately known as “Tora-san” to its many fans. Tora-san began as a TV drama broadcast in 1968-9 in which the hero died of a snakebite in the very last episode much to viewers’ disappointment. Director Yoji Yamada then resurrected the loveable travelling salesman and made him the star of a reboot movie which proved so popular that it spawned a 48-film series which lasted until the death of star Kiyoshi Atsumi at the age of 68 in 1996. 

Yamada directed all but two instalments in the series each of which broadly follow a similar pattern to that introduced in the first film following the eponymous Tora as he gets himself mixed up in some kind of trouble, returns home to visit his family in Shibamata, and falls in love with a beautiful but unobtainable woman known as the “Madonna” in the series’ “mythology”, if you can call it that. At the beginning of Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (男はつらいよ, Otoko wa Tsurai yo), Torajiro Kuruma (Kiyoshi Atsumi) or “Tora-san”, explains that he’s been in a wistful mood thinking about his hometown while viewing the cherry blossoms and has decided to go back to Shibamata for the first time in 20 years having left swearing never to return after arguing with his father who has since passed away as has his brother. Tora-san’s only remaining family members are his younger sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho), a small child when he left but now a grown woman in her mid-20s, and an uncle (Shin Morikawa) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) who’ve been looking after her and run a small dango shop. 

Being away for 20 years necessarily means that Tora has been on the road since he was a young teenager back in 1949 when Japan was still very much in the throws of post-war chaos, in contrast to the increasingly prosperous nation it has since become. On his return to town he is relieved to discover that the local priest (Chishu Ryu), as well as his aunt, still remember and recognise him but shocks them all with an incongruous, and frankly over the top, show of politeness as he expresses gratitude and filial piety towards his uncle and aunt for having raised his sister but then immediately afterwards tries to sell them some of his tacky sales goods including some kind of electronic bracelet with supposed health benefits. Nevertheless, the family, including his sister Sakura who works as a typist at an electrical goods company, are very glad to seem him after all these years. 

Hardly in the house five minutes before peeing in the garden instead of using the bathroom like a regular person, Tora is already undercutting the image he first presented and causing trouble with the neighbours. The major drama occurs when he ends up accompanying Sakura to an omiai arranged marriage meeting set up by her boss in a fancy hotel. Sakura hadn’t been keen to go to the omiai, her uncle and aunt assume because arranged marriages are already outdated, but as we later discover she’s developed a fondness for factory worker Hiroshi (Gin Maeda) who lives in the house directly behind theirs. The uncle and aunt encourage the match because it’s an opportunity to marry up, viewing it as better than Sakura could otherwise hope for as an orphan with no dowry. Tora agrees with them, encouraging his sister not to write off tradition, but he has little understanding of the etiquette for these kinds of situations and quickly scandalises the refined, upper-class family by drinking far too much, making bawdy jokes about the composition of Chinese characters, and using vulgar language. As expected the suitors decide not to take things further, though luckily Sakura’s boss does not seem to mind or hold Tora’s behaviour against her.

On the road since he was little more than a child, perhaps it’s no wonder that Tora struggles when trying (or not) to adapt to the rules of civilised society though as he later tells us, he also had a traumatic childhood beaten by his father who resented him for being illegitimate, conceived during a drunken indiscretion with a geisha (Sakura is a half-sister born to his father’s legal wife). At one point he loses his temper completely and finds himself slapping Sakura, accidentally starting a mass brawl in their courtyard, though it’s obvious afterwards that he deeply regrets his behaviour and despite being forgiven by his ever patient sister feels as if it might be better to leave again before he makes even more trouble for his family. 

Tora is, however, perhaps good trouble in that his heart is (broadly) in the right place even if he makes a lot of mistakes. He meddles in Sakura’s love life and almost destroys her chance of romantic happiness, but it all works out in the end and he might have a point in implying that without his mistaken intervention she and Hiroshi would have just gone on in silent longing. Nevertheless, he remains a romantically naive figure, falling for the elegant daughter of the local priest (Sachiko Mitsumoto) who surprises him by expressing a fondness for low entertainment but in real terms is never going to marry a man like Tora. “Mine’s a hard world” he explains to a boatman, sadly making his way back towards the road filled with a deep sense of despair but pressing on all the same, trying his luck wherever he goes just another plucky, though no longer so young, guy, left behind by the rapid pace of the post-war economic miracle.  


Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Snow Trail (銀嶺の果て, Senkichi Taniguchi, 1947)

The cinema of the immediate post-war era might in a sense be aspirational, but it rarely shies away from hardship or from the sometimes difficult choices which had to be made both in terms of individual survival and the future direction of a society. Remembered chiefly for featuring the debut of screen legend Toshiro Mifune, Senkichi Taniguchi’s Snow Trail (銀嶺の果て, Ginrei no Hate) is less a crime doesn’t pay story than it is an affirmation that it’s never too late to turn back and that people who do “bad” things aren’t always “bad”, only troubled and desperate, but can be guided back towards the right path by the power of simple human goodness. 

As the film opens, a trio of thieves commits a daring bank robbery and then heads off on the run intending to hideout in the mountains posing as tourists on a skiing trip. To facilitate their ruse, they’ve cut off communication by fiddling with radios and disabling telephones but two young men with too much time on their hands have already heard about the robbery and figured out the three suspicious gentlemen might be the fugitive criminals. In another picture, the two young guys would be the bumbling heroes, mistaken in their assumption that their world has been invaded by crime and probably finding romantic disappointment before heading home. This time however their guess is correct and their investigation has placed them in danger. The leader, Nojiri (Takashi Shimura), whips out a gun on a collection of drunken labourers and forces them out of their clothes and into the hot spring so the gang can make their escape further up the mountain, eventually taking refuge in a tiny lodge run by a philosophical grandpa (Kokuten Kōdo) and his cheerful teenage granddaughter (Setsuko Wakayama).

The police are in hot pursuit, but it is by nature which we will be judged. After leaving the hotel, the trio stop briefly in a ranger’s hut where hotheaded youngster Eijima (Toshiro Mifune) suggests splitting up. Nojiri divides the loot, giving each their promised share, but the other guy, Takasugi (Yoshio Kosugi), objects. He doesn’t want to go it alone and resents being forced to make his own way, even wondering out loud how long they’d get if they gave themselves up now. After a fight knocks Takasugi out, Eijima is keen to leave him behind, but he ends up spelling his own doom when he fires his gun at the police and provokes an avalanche.  

Later the patient grandfather tells us that the “mighty mountain punishes the bad”, and Takasugi is presumably its first victim, paying the price for panic and cowardice. Meanwhile, Nojiri and Eijima find themselves playing tourists once again in the mountain lodge where Nojiri is touched by the simple innocence of the young girl and her grandfather and Eijima paces around impatiently like a caged animal, cruelly killing the little girl’s prized carrier pigeon in case it takes it upon itself to signal the authorities. Threatening the girl’s life, Eijima convinces another guest, Honda (Akitake Kono), to guide them safely over the mountains to escape, but becomes increasingly paranoid that he will be betrayed, knowing he does not have the skills to survive alone in this environment. 

Nojiri meanwhile is drawn back towards humanity. Already softened by Harue, the cheerful young woman at the lodge who innocently offers him honey tea and reminds him of his own daughter who passed away at a similar age, he remains conflicted in their coercion of Honda and even more chastened after Honda saves both of their lives when Nojiri slips breaking own his arm in the process. Later, Nojiri asks him why he helped them rather than just cutting the rope and escaping. He replies that all he did was respect the code of the mountains. “The rope that ties one life to another must never be touched” he tells him. 

In an unexpected twist, Nojiri’s humanity is reawakened by a song filled with nostalgia but it isn’t Furusato or Akatombo, it’s “My Old Kentucky Home” played in an instrumental version on Harue’s portable record player, previously used by Honda who performed a silly dance to tune of Oh Suzannah. The choice of music perhaps echoes the movie’s Hollywood inspiration, but otherwise follows the pattern of other similarly themed contemporary crime movies in which the hero is eventually redeemed by connecting with his own childhood innocence through the “furusato” spirit. Still able to find this essential goodness within himself, the mountain has judged Nojiri favourably, proving that as grandpa says he isn’t a “bad” person even if he’s made “bad” choices. Filled with a new respect for the ropes that bind one human to another, he is allowed to return to the world presumably to live a more connected existence cheerfully helping others rather than remaining selfishly alone.


Street of Violence: The Pen Never Lies (ペン偽らず 暴力の街, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1950)

vlcsnap-2020-01-16-00h05m26s354The immediate post-war era was one marked by fear and anxiety. The world had turned upside down, food was scarce, and desperation had provoked a widespread moral decline which rendered compassion a luxury many thought they could ill afford. Yet, in hitting rock bottom there was also the opportunity to rebuild the world better than it had been before. Street of Violence: The Pen Never Lies (ペン偽らず 暴力の街, Pen Itsuwarazu Boryoku no Machi), is one of many pro-democracy films arriving in the wake of Japan’s new constitution and makes an unlikely hero of the local newspaperman as the sole means of speaking truth to power in the fierce belief that the people have a right to know.

Tojo, a small town Northwest of Tokyo, was once the centre of the silk trade but as the industry declined, it gradually became home to gangs and a hub for wartime black market shenanigans. The sad truth is that the growing nouveau riche middle-classes profiting from post-war shadiness have more or less got the town sewn up. The corrupt police force is in cahoots with the gangsters who call themselves a “police support organisation” and make a point of wining and dining the local police chief, while also making sure the local paper is firmly in their pocket. The trouble starts when rookie reporter Kita (Yasumi Hara) is invited to a policeman’s ball and figures out the whole thing is sponsored by the silk traders’ union, which he thinks is not quite right. He takes what he’s learned back to his editor and is warned off the story but publishes something anyway, quickly becoming a target for prominent “politician” Onishi (Masao Mishima).

Street of Violence opens with onscreen text taken from the press code which emphasises that mass media has a duty to preserve the truth. Kita’s paper had been in league with the police and the gangsters enabling the atmosphere of casual violence which is gradually consuming the town. Kita, a new recruit, is not yet inured to the way things are and immediately thinks his duty is to blow a whistle, most obviously on the corrupt police force and judiciary. He is only allowed to do so because the previous editor stepped down and a similarly idealistic older gentleman (Takashi Shimura) from out of town has taken over. He decides to fight back, standing up to the crypto-fascist goons by continuing to publish the truth about the links between the police, black market silk traders, gangsters, and the rest of the local press who eventually gain the courage to join him.

Onishi continues to masquerade as a “legitimate businessman” and “respectable politician” claiming that he’s “striving for democracy” to help the “downtrodden”, but is also responsible for directly targeting Kita’s mother and sister in an attempt to intimidate him. The editor assigns another reporter, Kawasaki (Ryo Ikebe), to keep Kita safe and starts trying to find locals who will consent to be interviewed about gang intimidation while Kita’s friends from the Youth Association generate a kind of resistance movement holding protests and handing out flyers condemning the atmosphere of violence which has ordinary citizens turning off their lights and avoiding going out after dark to protect themselves from thuggery.

The silent cause of all this strife is of course post-war privation which has made the blackmarket the only means of survival for those otherwise starving but has also given free rein to selfish immorality. The Onishis of the world, the spineless police chief, and the cynical local press, have all abnegated their human responsibilities in wilfully taking advantage of a bad situation to further their own cause. When the press chooses not to turn a blind eye to entrenched corruption, it raises a flag that ordinary people can follow. Too intimidated to speak out, the townspeople had been living in fear but post-war youth has the courage to say no and demand a better future. A mass rally crying out “democracy” and insisting on an end to the cronyism and the corrupt systems of pre-war feudalism produces a people power revolution that can’t be ignored, forcing Onishi into submission, and a clean out of corrupt law enforcement. But, the earnest voice over reminds us, the victory is only partial – violence still exists and will rise again when it thinks no one’s looking. The press, most of all, cannot afford to look away if “democracy” is to be maintained.


Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Singing Lovebirds (鴛鴦歌合戦, Masahiro Makino, 1939)

singing lovebirds still 5With things the way they were in the Japan of 1939, you might have expected cinema to have taken a universal turn to the dark side but surprisingly enough there was still room on the silver screen for silliness as the improbable marvel of Singing Lovebirds (鴛鴦歌合戦, Oshidori Utagassen) makes plain. Legend has it that musical master of the jidaigeki Masahiro Makino threw Lovebirds together in record time in order to fill a production gap after big time star Chiezo Kataoka was struck down by appendicitis in the middle of filming On the Road with Yaji and Kita. Kataoka is also Lovebird’s nominal male star though his appearance is understandably limited (his scenes were shot later and apparently in a matter of hours) leaving veteran actor Takashi Shimura to pick up the slack as an antiques obsessed disenfranchised former samurai who finds himself at the centre of a dastardly plot orchestrated by the higher ups to solve an ongoing romantic crisis among the youngsters.

The crisis revolves around the handsome Reizo (Chiezo Kataoka) – a young ronin betrothed to a young lady from a well to do family, Fujio (Fujiko Fukamizu), whose father is keen to make the marriage official as quickly as possible. Reizo, however, has fallen for Oharu (Haruyo Ichikawa) – the daughter of ronin umbrella maker Shimura (Takashi Shimura). Meanwhile, Reizo has also become an object of affection for the daughter of a wealthy local merchant, Otomi (Tomiko Hattori), who is spoilt and entitled to the extent that Reizo’s resistance only enflames her ardour. If all that weren’t enough to be going on with, a randy local lord (Dick Mine) is also actively chasing most of the women in the area and after getting turned down by Otomi has his sights set on Oharu.

Peaceful times allow for small bursts of chaos and ongoing romantic silliness which is where we find our conflicted heroes, yet there is a persistent strain of anxiety in the precarious lives of the disenfranchised ronin who find themselves trapped in a cycle of wilful degradation which prevents them from taking on work unbefitting of a gentlemen and, consequently, permanently on the brink of starvation. Umbrella making, a frequent ronin-friendly occupation in the world of the jidaigeki, is one such way of making ends meet, but Shimura can only afford to feed his daughter barley much to her consternation. Rather than use his meagre resources for short term satisfaction he’s decided to “invest” them in various “antiques” which he believes both bolster his status and can be sold to provide a dowry for Oharu when she decides to marry.

Unfortunately, Shimura is mistaken – he’s not got as good an eye for antiques as he thought and is a well known mark for the local hawker. Everything he has is a fake and he’s wasted a small fortune on useless trinkets. Shimura’s antiques mania also leaves him open to other kinds of scams and manipulation when he gets himself into a small amount of debt to the randy lord and Fujio’s dad (Mitsuru Toyama) who have tricked him in order to try and get Oharu out of the Reizo picture and into the lord’s bedchamber. Unlike many Jidaigeki dads, however, Shimura is a nice guy and tells the higher ups where to get off because what kind of father sells his daughter for the price of a pretty tea bowl?

Shimura’s logic might not make much sense to the lords, or to many other residents of the jidiaigeki world, but is perfectly in keeping with the film’s surprisingly humanist morality in which all are made to realise that greed is bad, money is silly, and at the end of the day all that really matters is true love (even if you have to live in a hovel and survive on barley gruel for the rest of your life). Even the spoilt Otomi is finally forced to realise that you can’t force love and the best you can do is try to support other people’s happiness while you wait for yours to come along (which it is more likely to do once you start being nicer to everyone including your long suffering manservant).

Bright, cheerful, and filled with zany humour Singing Lovebirds is a refreshingly warmhearted piece of eminently hummable escapist fluff providing a much needed distraction from the austere world of 1939 in which its particular brand of anti-capitalist humanism would seem to be extremely out of place. Nevertheless, the corrupt and oppressive samurai order gets a much needed comeuppance, the little guy realises he doesn’t need to play their game anymore, and a young woman realises the only person she needed to feel good enough for was herself. A happy ending for all and an umbrella wielding dance routine to boot – who could ask for anything more?


Brief clip (extremely poor quality, no subtitles)

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)