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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Man Who Stole the Sun (太陽を盗んだ男, Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

(C) Toho 1979

man who stole the sun posterIn the post-Asama-Sanso world, Japanese society had shifted into period of intense calm in which improving economic prosperity was in the process of delivering comfort rather than the creeping acquisitive anxiousness that began to overshadow the bubble era. Nevertheless, in cinematic terms at least anxiety was everywhere and not least among the young who, swept along by this irresistible economic current, were quietly doubtful about their place in a changing society. Co-scripted by an American screenwriter, Leonard Schrader (brother of Taxi Driver’s Paul), The Man Who Stole the Sun (太陽を盗んだ男, Taiyo wo Nusunda Otoko) provides a satirical snapshot of this confusing moment as an oppressed, belittled high school science teacher builds an atomic bomb in his apartment just to show he can but then realises he has absolutely no idea what to do with it.

Technically speaking, the science teacher’s name is Makoto Kido (Kenji Sawada) but no one really calls him that. The kids at school refer to him as “Bubble-gum” because he always seems to be chewing on the rather childish confectionary. Not the most conscientious of teachers, he tailors the curriculum to his own interests, teaching the kids all about atomic energy and the bomb, but the kids aren’t interested. They only want to know what’s going to be on the test. To them Kido’s information is irrelevant and so they ignore him, talking amongst themselves while he carries on, preaching to a seemingly empty room.

Meanwhile, Kido is building the bomb at home, for real. As he tells the kids, anyone can build an atomic bomb – you only need the plutonium which is, admittedly, tightly controlled for just this reason. He acquires his through a daring heist on a nuclear plant. Kido never elaborates on what prompted him to begin his bizarre masterplan, but there is certainly a degree of pent up rage inside him born of resentment with his reduced circumstances. “Just” a high school science teacher, who would really think he’d have the capability to build an atomic bomb, alone, using only household equipment (plus the plutonium and a custom furnace purchased after nearly exploding his oven)?

Kido’s problems are the same as many middle-aged men in ‘70s Japan in that he feels intensely oppressed from above and below. What he’s trying to tell the kids is that they have access to this power already – anyone can build a bomb, if you bother to learn how. The only thing that’s being kept from him is the plutonium (and for good reason), which he manages to acquire anyway. A chance encounter with the madness of the age seems to kickstart his plan into gear when he meets his opposing number in police inspector Yamashita (Bunta Sugawara).

Kido, having halfheartedly escorted a group of students on a school trip, finds himself rendered powerless once again when the bus is hijacked by a distressed older gentleman (Yunosuke Ito) armed with a rifle and grenade and wearing a World War II soldier’s uniform. He demands to be driven to see the emperor from whom he intends to demand the return of his son, presumably killed in the war 30 years earlier. Yamashita, clean cut and authoritative, is the gung-ho cop who masterfully brings the hostage crisis to a close by lying to the man that the emperor has consented to see him. During the evacuation the old man is killed by police snipers (despite Yamashita’s too late cries of “don’t shoot” after having dispatched the grenade and disarmed the suspect).

Like Kido, the old man likely didn’t really know what he intended to do, only that he was lonely and desperate. The emperor couldn’t give him back his son (whose uniform he seems to be wearing) and his gesture is one of futile defiance coupled with a suicide bid that has no real goal save making an elaborate protest against the world in which he lives. Kido makes the bomb, lets the authorities know he has it, but then realises he has no demands. He asks them to fix something minor that annoys him, to stop the TV networks pulling the plug on late running baseball games to make way for the news, and finds himself rewarded. He has taken back the power, they believe he has the bomb and they fear him, but he has no further goals or notion of how his society should change. There is no idealised future he is fighting for, all there is is futility and indifference.

Meanwhile, ironically enough, Kido’s desperation provokes a mini revolution in others. A talkshow radio host (Kimiko Ikegami) named “Zero” (in contrast to Kido’s adoption of the codename “No. 9” as the 9th owner of a nuclear device and the only individual), broadcasts his on-air request for ideas, believing it to be a kind of thought experiment. The ideas she gets from the public are of the usual kind – lonely men who want to bathe with naked women, nationalists who want to start a war with America, dreamers who think it might be better not to want anything and just embrace the dream, while she muses that she wants the Rolling Stones concert that was cancelled a few years ago after a band member’s narcotics conviction to be reinstated. That being as good as anything is what Kido goes for in an overture that passes as an odd kind of romance and a suitably ironic kick back against strait-laced authority.

Kido’s war is, in a sense, a war with the fathers of the world as symbolised by men like Yamashita with their suits and neatly trimmed haircuts. Their button-down existence has never offered anything to men like Kido who feel trapped and angry within it. Yet Yamashita is also reacting against his own generation of fathers as symbolised by the old man on the bus, the last remnant of wartime resistance offering a defeated cry against a world which got away from them. Yamashita let the old man die when he prioritised his own sense of heroism, and that annoyed Kido. He can’t help sympathising with his plight which is in a way also his own in being relentlessly silenced and ignored by austere authority figures.

Turning down Yamashita’s clumsy attempt at a pickup, Zero affirms that Kido has given her a dream, which no small thing and she feels bound to him because of it. It’s an ironic statement because Kido has no dreams and not only that, he has no future either – he is slowly dying of radiation poisoning despite his precautions during the building of the bomb. In their final confrontation, Yamashita, adopting a paternal authority, neatly summarises Kido’s dilemma. The only life he has the right to take is his own, and his own death is the only thing he really wants, but he’s embarked on this elaborate plan to make his presence felt all the while aware that he will remain totally anonymous. No one will ever see him. He will die, like thousands of others, faceless. A lowly high school science teacher, no terrorist mastermind or bomb building genius. His revenge is as absurd as it is futile. Male inferiority complexes threaten to drown us all in a sea of violent resentment, and as the Earth dies screaming all we will have to reflect on is that we ourselves brought this world into being through our own incurable apathy.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Distant Thunder (遠雷, Kichitaro Negishi, 1981)

distant thunder dvd coverBy 1981 Japan’s economic recovery was more or less complete and the consumerist future had all but arrived. Based on the novel by Wahei Tatematsu, Distant Thunder (遠雷, Enrai) is the story of impending doom staved off by those clinging fast to the their ancestral traditions even whilst the modern world threatens to engulf them. Kichitaro Negishi already had a long career directing Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno, but made his mainstream debut with this quietly affecting social drama for Art Theatre Guild which relies on the strong performances of its cast to convey the subtitles of youth caught between past and future.

In the contemporary world of 1981, 23-year-old Mitsuo (Toshiyuki Nagashima) is a tomato farmer stubbornly hanging on to his family’s ancestral land which happens to be inconveniently placed in the middle of a modern housing complex. Women from the estate sometimes pop round to ogle Mitsuo under the pretext of buying super fresh tomatoes. Mitsuo is happy for them to enjoy the fruits of his labour, but refuses to accept them as “neighbours” lamenting the death of the village in which he grew up.

It transpires that Mitsuo’s father (Casey Takamine) sold off most of the farmland without consulting the rest of the family and used the proceeds to open a bar with the hostess he ran off with. Mitsuo hasn’t forgiven him for this and continues to work the tomatoes alone while his older brother is married and living a modern salaryman life in the city. At 23 it’s high time Mituso got himself a wife, but a flirtation with a barmaid, Kaede (Rie Yokoyama), who claims to be a divorced single parent proves diverting enough for the time being. Mitsuo knows being a farmer’s wife is no prize, so when his mother comes up with a possible match Mitsuo thinks it’s worth a try even if she’s probably none too pretty.

An old soul in many ways, Mitsuo wants to hang on to his family’s farm despite the constant offers he gets from salesmen at the door who want him to sell. Where once there was a village, now there are high rise apartment blocks. Mitsuo misses the world he grew up in where farmers helped each other out in difficult times and wandered in and out of each other’s houses like one big happy family. Not content with ruining his own, it’s also this wider concept of community as family that Mitsuo’s father has ruined for him in rejecting his traditional responsibilities for the irresponsible pleasures of taking up with a fancy woman and starting again as a bar owner.

Sadly, the bar hostess really does seem to love Mitsuo’s feckless father, perhaps seeing him as her last chance for happiness. Kaede, by contrast, is looking for something far less permanent. She claims to be divorced but is married to a mild-mannered man (Keizo Kanie) with a tattoo poking out of his collar who accepts her need for new conquests but would rather they not become regular arrangements. Kaede whips up more potential destruction when she comes between Mitsuo and his childhood best friend, Koji (Johnny Okura), who also likes her and has been led to believe Kaede’s relationship with Mitsuo was not altogether consensual. Meanwhile, Mitsuo’s blind date went far better than expected and it looks like he’s on course to find a wife in petrol station assistant Ayako (Eri Ishida).

Ayako, like Mitsuo, is a more old fashioned sort though she’s no prude and is of an earthier yet somehow “purer” nature than the comparatively urban Kaede. Mitsuo finds himself pulled in different directions – Ayako and the tomato farm, or the freely given pleasures of Kaede who threatens to burn everything to the ground with her mysterious, self destructive lifestyle. Mitsuo doesn’t want to be like his dad – a philanderer who runs out on his responsibilities and makes a fool of himself in the process, cosying up to local politicians and playing fast and loose with the law, but he’s late to see the danger a woman like Kaede might cause him. His friend, Koji, is not quite so perceptive and naively falls for her charms. Mitsuo knows deep down that his friend has in a sense saved him from making a ruinous life decision and helped him rediscover the happiness of his traditional, simple way of life.

Filming in 4:3, Negishi’s camera is soft and unobtrusive yet pointed, capturing the minor details of the everyday with a poetic beauty. Filled with realistic detail and anchored by strong performances, Distant Thunder is both a picture of innocents battling the inevitable death of their way of life with determination and purity, and a document of changing times in which the confusions of the modern world threaten to destroy those who cannot reconcile themselves to their fated paths.


Short clip from the ending (English subtitles)

Capone Cries a Lot (カポネおおいになく, Seijun Suzuki, 1985)

1040003_lNever one to be accused of clarity, Seijun Suzuki’s Capone Cries a Lot (カポネおおいになく, Capone Ooni Naku) is one of his most cheerfully bizarre movies coming fairly late in his career yet and neatly slotting itself in right after Suzuki’s first two Taisho era movies, Zigeunerweisen and Kageroza. Though not part of the so called “Taisho trilogy” (this would be completed with Yumeji in 1991), Capone Cries a Lot begins its tale in the short lived period between the ages of Meiji and Showa when the world seemed open and foreign influence flooded into this once isolated nation. Could that influence also travel upstream? Naniwa-bushi, for example, could could a Naniwa-bushi singer on the run make something of himself in the New World?

Like most of Suzuki’s movies, plot is a secondary concern. However, loosely speaking, our protagonist is Jun – a man who wanted to learn the art of Naniwa-bushi from its accepted master but ultimately ran off with another man’s wife and ended up in 1920s America. Once there he hooks up the Japanese gangster Gun-tetsu who makes use of Jun’s sake making experience to assist in his bootlegging business during prohibition. This brings them in contact with the Capones, firstly with Frank and eventually with Al (who Jun amusingly mistakes for the president of the United States). Meanwhile, Jun’s girl, Kozome, has left him (to an extent) and become a prostitute. However well things seem to be going for Jun, he’s still a foreigner in a strange, and sometimes unkind, land. Is this the sort of place where dreams can survive?

Suzuki films the whole thing in Japan at an abandoned theme park which is 100% Americana – the Old West tricked out with cowboys, saloons and guns. Now it’s strange kind of new city populated by runaway Japanese criminals gambling and whoring their way through life. Jun wants to sing Naniwa-bushi in this odd place even if no one understands him. Originally he’s annoyed by the foreigners laying a hand on his shamisen or making attempts to join in with their jazz inflected modern music, but eventually he’s singing new Naniwa-bushi songs about the plight of the Native Americans and finally joining the jazz band for a full on musical fusion number. Suzuki does not shy away from the racial politics and problems inherent in his critique of American imperialism even up to an including the KKK and the Japanese internment camps.

In contrast to the previous two Taisho set films, Capone is much lighter in tone and obviously more playful even if it includes a similar level of oblique surrealism. Chaplin references and slapstick humour mix with absurdist dialogue and cosmic silliness to create a popcorn candy world that’s still somehow sad and strange. It’s a vision of America filtered through ‘20s gangster pics and B-movie westerns, equal parts bubblegum and tommy guns. It doesn’t make a great deal of literal sense but offers plenty of Suzuki’s psychedelic eye for colour, surprising editing choices and all round idiosyncratic approach to storytelling.

There may be ample reasons why Capone Cries a Lot has never found an overseas audience, it’s a little overlong for one and its comments on race are perhaps a little uncomfortable from several different angles. Nevertheless, it’s another characteristically zany effort from Suzuki and full of colourful pop aesthetics that are much more playful than the rather heavier Zigeunerweisen and Kageroza. Well worth the long strange ride, Capone Cries a Lot is a trip to 1920s candy land that few of the directors devotees will be able to resist.


(Unsubtitled) Scene from midway through the film