Writhing Tongue (震える舌, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1980)

Yoshitaro Nomura is best known for his crime films often adapted from the novels of Seicho Matsumoto though his filmography was in fact much wider than many give him credit for. Even so, 1980’s Writhing Tongue (震える舌, Furueru Shita) may seem an odd entry adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Taku Miki exploring the psychological torment of the parents of a little girl who contracts tetanus while innocently playing near a pond. Like the following year’s Call From Darkness, Nomura’s intense drama eventually shifts into the realms of psychedelia in the father’s strange fever dreams while lending this harrowing tale of medical desperation the tones of supernatural horror. 

When five-year-old Masako (Mayuko Wakamori) seems to be under the weather, her mother Kunie (Yukiyo Toake) takes her to the hospital but is told by the disinterested doctor that she simply has a cold. This is a little surprising seeing as Masako’s main complaint is she that cannot open her jaw, probably the best-known indication of tetanus infection which is after all not so rare as to be easily missed by a medical professional. Still worried, Kunie keeps taking her daughter back especially once her leg becomes twisted leaving her struggling to walk, but the doctors that she sees don’t really listen to her, even implying that Masako is having some kind of early life breakdown because her father, Akira (Tsunehiko Watase), is overly strict with her. This may be in part because Masako, perhaps in fear, keeps saying that she could walk or open her mouth if she wanted but is choosing not to. In any case the true diagnosis is only discovered after the couple manage to get a referral from a friend to a larger hospital where the veteran professor (Jukichi Uno) quickly overrules his junior’s lack of concern to have Masako admitted right away later explaining that tetanus is a difficult disease to treat and unfortunately has a high mortality rate. 

The treatment dictates that Masako receive as little stimulation as possible, lying in an entirely dark room with minimal noise so as to avoid the violent convulsions that accompany overstimulation and cause her to bite her tongue. As Akira later puts it, all they can do is wait trapped alone in the dark and tiny room with Masako entirely powerless to help her and with little knowledge of what exactly is going on. Meanwhile, despite having been repeatedly reassured that the disease is not transmitted in that way, Akira is convinced he may have contracted tetanus after being bitten by Masako while trying to prise open her jaw. Kunie too later worries that she also has tetanus, the pair of them sucked into a claustrophobic world of isolation and medical paranoia in which they are unable to sleep or find relief while watching over their daughter. 

Some time later, Akira begins having bizarre psychedelic dreams recalling the time when he too was hospitalised as a child having contracted blood poisoning, remembering his own fear and confusion on being forced to endure “red injections” which he feared would “turn the whole world red” while the hieroglyphics he and his wife have been using to record Masako’s seizures dance before his eyes. He dreams of crows and blood rain while Kunie goes quietly out of her mind at one point threatening the sympathetic Doctor Nose (Ryoko Nakano) thinking it might be kinder to stop the treatment and let her daughter escape this excruciating pain. The utter powerless with which the couple are faced is filled with almost supernatural dread as if Masako had been possessed by some terrible evil, Akira attempting to speak directly to the bacteria asking them why it is they’re trying to colonise his daughter’s body and if they realise that in killing her they kill themselves too.

“It’s odd, our life. It’s so fragile” Akira sighs. All of this happened because of a tiny cut on a little girl’s finger the kind not even quite worth putting a plaster on and yet she might die from it. Convinced they all may die, Akira tells his wife to go home and put their affairs in order while she is so traumatised that she becomes unable to re-enter the room paralysed not out of physical disability but mental anguish. When Masako’s condition finally improves, Akira can hear his daughter crying that she’s frightened reminding him that he can never really understand the way she suffered through this terrible disease while all he could do was watch. A truly harrowing depiction of the hellish psychological torment of serious illness, Nomura’s occasionally psychedelic drama lays bare the fragility of life in a world of constant and unexpected dangers. 


Trailer (no subtitles)

The Demon (鬼畜, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1978)

By the late 1970s Japan had achieved its economic miracle, but it had yet perhaps to deal with the traumas of the immediate post-war era. Once again adapted from a story by Seicho Matsumoto, Yoshitaro Nomura’s shocking social drama The Demon (鬼畜, Kichiku) explores the radiating effects of orphanhood and economic privation on the family unit producing as a rather judgemental policeman eventually puts it a generation of parents who don’t know how to raise children and may even lack the inclination to do so even if thankfully not to the extent of the couple at the film’s centre.

Nomura opens with one of his trademark lengthy train sequences following a harried mother and her three children travelling in the sweltering heat from the countryside to the city as she makes a last, desperate attempt to remind the father, Sokichi Takeshita (Ken Ogata), of his responsibilities. Once a successful businessman, Sokichi has become financially ruined after a fire destroyed his print shop and no longer has the means to maintain a second household for his mistress and children at a discrete distance from the home he shares with his wife, Oume (Shima Iwashita). As Kikuyo (Mayumi Ogawa) points out to him, she is unable to support herself economically while caring for the children but he has little answer for her especially once the previously oblivious Oume overhears their conversation. After a series of heated arguments, Kikuyo makes the radical decision to simply abandon the children with their father and thereafter disappears having vacated her previous home and left no forwarding address. 

A part of the problem in the Takeshitas’ marriage had been that they have no children of their own, Sokichi remarking to Kikuyo, whom he met while she was working in a traditional teahouse where he used to take clients, that he had always wanted a child. Conventional gender roles have in a sense been reversed, Oume angrily insisting that her husband would never have made any money had not been for her while it appears that she is more or less in charge of their business affairs and he is the one largely looking after the children to the extent that they are “looked after”. To Oume, the siblings are partly a reminder that her husband betrayed her with another woman but also an attack on her femininity in reminding her that she was unable to become a mother while someone else has given birth to Sokichi’s children. For all of these reasons they are to her children which cannot continue to exist. She undermines Sokichi’s attachment to them by frequently questioning their paternity pointing out that they share little physical resemblance while reminding him that he met Kikuyo through her occupation on the fringes of the sex trade. 

Her mistreatment begins as neglect, refusing to feed or bathe “a stranger’s” child and then graduates to physical violence stuffing food into the mouth of Sokichi’s infant son Shoji after catching him playing with the dinner bowls. Yet when Sokichi finds her endangering the baby while moving heavy papers from a shelf he does nothing, suspecting his wife has become a threat to the children’s safety but also as she later implies wanting to be rid of them himself. The couple could, of course, have simply surrendered the children to an orphanage (it remains unclear how exactly their existence has been registered), but ultimately choose not to as if they wanted to obliterate the idea of them as if they had never been born. 

It may be tempting to view Sokichi as a helpless victim casting Oume as terrifying Lady Macbeth intimidating him into destroying the evidence of his indiscretion, but even if it was Sokichi “looking after” the children, it is finally he who must also “take care” of them. During his abandonment of his second child, 3-year-old daughter Yoshiko (Miyuki Yoshizawa), he takes her into a toy store where a group of boys are playing with remote control cars demonstrating that this is no longer an age of economic privation and that in the end the reason for the children’s second abandonment is not primarily financial even if Sokichi has been in a sense humbled, deluded into a false sense of security in his business success only to be robbed of the era’s increasing prosperity through a freak accident. “Everybody’s struggling” he eventually reflects as his assistant (Keizo Kanie) informs him that he is leaving, ironically to take better care of his ageing parents and small children presumably in a less toxic environment.

Yet as we discover the reasons for Sokichi’s sense of displacement stem back to his own post-war childhood, apparently born out of wedlock never knowing his father and then abandoned by his mother, bounced around between relatives all of them poor who viewed him as nothing more than a burden until effectively indentured to a print shop at ten years old by an uncle who stole his advance pay and once again abandoned him. These kinds of familial disruptions whether caused by a literal orphanhood or the economic constraints of the immediate post-war period have produced according to the moralising policeman at the film’s conclusion a generation of people who do not know how to parent because they were not effectively parented themselves many of whom go on to have children perhaps accidentally but have no idea how to relate to them, frightened of the responsibility or resentful of the “burden” as Sokichi eventually seems to have become. 

Nevertheless, Nomura ends on a note of ambiguity, the goodness in eldest son Riichi (Hiroki Iwase) emphasised as he refuses to name his father or reveal his abuse, an action interpreted by the police as an attempt to protect Sokichi but could equally be a trauma response owing to have been returned to him by the police once before. In any case the film asks if in being rescued from his toxic family circumstances, effectively orphaned, Riichi will simply end up continuing the cycle of displacement, another man unable to become a “father”. But then again, what of Kikuyo who branded Sokichi “inhuman” yet left her children with him and disappeared, perhaps as a neighbour implies with another man? A sympathetic policewoman (Shinobu Otake) reassures Riichi they’ll look for his mother, but as she too abandoned him would that actually help? The jury seems to be out on whether this sense of displacement, in essence the integrity of the traditional family, can ever effectively be repaired even as an increasingly consumerist society continues to erode its foundations. 


The Demon screens at the BFI on 12/19 December as part of BFI Japan. It is also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Amagi Pass (天城越え, Haruhiko Mimura, 1983)

There’s no statute of limitations on guilt an ageing policeman laments in Haruhiko Mimura’s adaptation of the Seicho Matsumoto mystery, Amagi Pass (天城越え, Amagi-Goe). Co-produced by Yoshitaro Nomura and co-scripted by Tai Kato, Amagi Pass arrives at the tail end of the box office dominance of the prestige whodunnit and like many of its kind hinges on events which took place during the war though in this case the effects are more psychological than literal, hinging on the implications of an age of violence and hyper masculinity coupled with sexual repression and a conservative culture. 

In a voiceover which doesn’t quite open the film, the hero, Kenzo (Mikijiro Hira / Yoichi Ito), as we will later realise him to be, likens himself to that of Kawabata’s Izu Dancer though as he explains he was not a student but the 14-year-old son of a blacksmith with worn out zori on his feet as he attempted to run away from home in the summer of 1940 only to turn back half-way through. In the present day, meanwhile, an elderly detective, Tajima (Tsunehiko Watase), now with a prominent limp, slowly makes his way through the modern world towards a print shop where he orders 300 copies of the case report on the murder of an itinerant labourer in Amagi Pass in June, 1940. A wandering geisha was later charged with the crime but as Tajima explains he does not believe that she was guilty and harbours regrets over his original investigation recognising his own inexperience in overseeing his first big case. 

As so often, the detective’s arrival is a call from the past, forcing Kenzo, now a middle-aged man, to reckon with the traumatic events of his youth. Earlier we had seen him in a doctor’s office where it is implied that something is poisoning him and needs to come out, his illness just as much of a reflection of his trauma as the policeman’s limp. Flashing back to 1940 we find him a young man confused, fatherless but perhaps looking for fatherly guidance from older men such as a strange pedlar he meets on the road who cheekily shows him illustrated pornography, or the wise uncle who eventually tricks him into buying dinner and then leaves. His problems are perhaps confounded by the fact that he lives in an age of hyper masculinity, the zenith of militarism in which other young men are feted with parades as they prepare to fight and die for their country in faraway lands. Yet Kenzo is only 14 in 1940 which means he will most likely be spared but also in a sense emasculated as a lonely boy remaining behind at home. 

He tells the wise man who later tricks him that he’s run away to find his brother who owns a print shop in the city because he hates his provincial life as a blacksmith, but later we realise that the cause is more his difficult relationship with his widowed mother (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) whom, he has recently discovered, is carrying on an affair with his uncle (Ichiro Ogura). Returning home after his roadside betrayal he watches them together from behind a screen, a scene echoed in his voyeuristic observation of the geisha, Hana (Yuko Tanaka), with the labourer plying her trade in order to survive. Described as odd and seemingly mute, the labourer is a figure of conflicted masculinity resented by the other men on the road but also now a symbolic father and object of sexual jealously for the increasingly Oedipal Kenzo whose youthful attraction to the beautiful geisha continues to mirror his complicated relationship with his mother as she tenderly tears up her headscarf to bandage his foot, sore from his ill-fitting zori, while alternately flirting with him. 

Yet his guilt towards her isn’t only in his attraction but in its role in what happened to her next even as she, we can see, protects him, their final parting glance a mix of frustrated maternity and longing that has apparently informed the rest of Kenzo’s life in ways we can never quite grasp. Amagi Pass for him is a barrier between youth and age, one which he has long since crossed while also in a sense forever trapped in the tunnel looking back over his shoulder towards Hana and the labourer now on another side of an unbreachable divide. The policeman comes like messenger from another time, incongruously wandering through a very different Japan just as the bikers in the film’s post-credit sequence speed through the pass, looking to provide closure and perhaps a healing while assuaging his own guilt but finding only accommodation with rather than a cure for the traumatic past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Neither Seicho Matsumoto’s original novel or the film adaptation are directly related to the well-known Sayuri Ishikawa song of the same name released three years later though the lyrics are strangely apt.