Untamed (あらくれ, Mikio Naruse, 1957)

“Don’t let guys control you. You have to make them men” the heroine of Mikio Naruse’s Taisho-era drama Untamed (あらくれ, Arakure, AKA Untamed Woman) advises a former rival, yet largely fails to do so herself in the fiercely patriarchal post-Meiji society. Based on a serialised novel by Shusei Tokuda published in 1915 but set in late Meiji rather than early Taisho, Naruse’s adaptation essentially drops a contemporary post-war woman into a by then almost unrecognisable Japan but finds her hamstrung firstly by feckless and entitled men and then by complicit women who themselves cannot accept her transgressive femininity. 

As the film opens, a teenage Shima (Hideko Takamine) has just married wealthy grocery store owner Tsuru (Ken Uehara) but the marriage is already a failure. Though Shima is compared favourably with Tsuru’s previous wife who was apparently in poor health, presumably suffering with TB which required a sojourn by the sea, it soon becomes clear that Tsuru is as trapped by the archaic patriarchal social system as she is. He was apparently in love with a woman from a higher social class he was too afraid to pursue and despite still seeing her also has a mistress near their factory in Hokkaido whom he often visits under the guise of a business trip. Yet when Shima tells him she thinks she may be pregnant, he is unimpressed immediately questioning the paternity of the child while harping on about her having been married before which it seems is not quite true. Perhaps the reason that she has ended up a second wife despite her youth and beauty, Shima ran out on a marriage to a childhood friend arranged for her by her adoptive parents the night before the wedding not realising they had already registered the union without her knowledge or consent. 

This transgressive act at once signals Shima’s total disregard for conventionality and insistence on her own autonomy, yet it is also indicative of the fact she married Tsuru in search of a better life, knowing that to marry her adoptive parents’ choice meant only a life of servitude on the family farm. She is not always a terribly likeable figure, coldly explaining that she didn’t mind being fostered out because the adoptive family were wealthier and could give her a better life than she had with her birth parents yet it’s this sense of familial dislocation and the liminal status it gives her that allow her to take agency over her life in the way other women might not unwilling to lose the familial security Shima may not feel she ever had. Tsuru is also an adopted son, but the price for disobedience for him may be even higher and indeed as we later hear his inability to sort out his love life eventually sees him out on his ear. His pettiness in refusing to accept the child is his leads to an argument which causes Shima to slip on the stairs and miscarry the implication being that she may not be able to bear more children leaving her unlikely to remarry and thereby spurring her desire for a tempered independence. 

The fall is the last straw, Tsuru divorces her citing her inability to play the role of the proper wife while her birth family, from whom she is emotionally estranged, refuse to take her back as do the adoptive parents because of the embarrassment she caused them with the marriage stunt. She is often described as “like a man”, unable to win as Tsuru at once insists she wear the frumpy kimonos left behind by his previous wife who was a decade older, complains she wears too much makeup, and tells her to loosen her kimono belt to de-emphasises her figure, while criticising her for being unfeminine in her refusal to simply put up with his bad behaviour as is expected for a wife in this era. Shima fulfils all her wifely duties and as we see is in fact running his business as the women of the family are often seen to do while their husbands spend the money they earn for them on other women whether drinking with geishas or supporting mistresses in second homes. When her husband hits her, she fights back rather than shrinking away chastened as intended. 

Yet she cannot overcome the sense that a man is necessary for her success which cannot be accomplished alone. Cast out from her family, her brother installs her in the mountains to work in a geisha house if only as kitchen staff but soon does a flit to reunite with his married lover who has left her husband for him. While there she falls for the quiet and sensitive inn owner Hamaya (Masayuki Mori), also an adopted heir, whose wife is again ill with TB. Hamaya may be treating his wife a little better than Tsuru did his, but quite clearly assumes she’ll die in starting an affair with Shima who is then sent away to an even more remote inn to avoid a potential scandal. As Tsuru did with the woman he apparently loved, Shima continues to see Hamaya until he too succumbs to TB as an ideal of an impossible love while simultaneously accepting that he failed her in being too weak and cowardly to fight for their romance outright refusing to become his mistress. 

This may be one reason she is determined never again to be an employee but to own her own store which is why she ends up marrying tailor Onoda (Daisuke Kato) who introduces her to textiles and seamstressing at which she quickly proves adept having mastered the modern sewing machine. She marries Onoda in believing him “reliable”, but soon comes to regard him as lazy and feckless. The first shop fails because he can’t keep up with her. The male employees are always taking breaks to drink tea and play shogi, Onoda complaining that he’s tired while she does all his work for him and the housework too. Yet he also criticises her for a lack of femininity, snapping back that it must be her time of the month when she berates him in front of their employees while later after they’ve become successful complaining it’s “embarrassing” that his workhorse wife doesn’t know the things a sophisticated society woman would such as ikebana while flirting with the teacher he’s hired ostensibility to teach her. He even forces her to wear a frumpy and already somewhat dated classically Edwardian dress with a fancy bonnet which more resembles something a country girl might wear to church than the latest in Western fashions in an attempt to advertise their tailoring which seems primed to backfire. 

That she learns to ride a bicycle in this rather ridiculous outfit is again a symbol of her desire to seize and manipulate modernity even giving rise to a piece of innuendo from her much younger assistant Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai) as to the pounding she’s been getting from the saddle. Kimura seems to think the problem with the business is that Onoda’s patterns are outdated, offering her a new modernity while she prepares to cut Onoda out on catching him with his mistress taking their best employee with her to ruin his business and start another of her own. Though once again she cannot leave alone only with a man the ending is perhaps more hopeful than might be expected from a Naruse film allowing Shima to commit herself fully to the sense of industry she embodies always ready to start again, work harder, and achieve her desires unwilling to be bound by conventional ideas of femininity or to simply put up with useless men who refuse to accept her for all she is. Yet she largely fails to make men of them, each of her various suitors failing to live up to her, ruined by an oppressive social system that encourages them to exploit female labour while taking it for granted in their intense sense of patriarchal entitlement. 


Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)

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)