Scandal (醜聞, Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

“Freedom of the press or harassment?” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Akira Kurosawa’s attack on the declining moral standards of the post-war society as reflected in the duplicity of the gutter press has unexpected resonance in the present day in which the media is simultaneously unwilling to challenge authority and in thrall to the populist allure of celebrity gossip with sometimes tragic results. The aptly named Scandal (醜聞) is essentially a morality tale which draws additional power from its seasonal setting and embodies the soul of the contemporary society in a conflicted lawyer consumed by internal struggle against despair and hopelessness. 

The more literal scandal however revolves around a well known singer, Miyako Saijo (Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi), and a motorcycle-riding artist, Ichiro Aoe (Toshiro Mifune), who meet by chance while staying at the same remote mountain inn. Having ironically headed to the mountains to escape the various “annoying things” that plague her in the city, Miyako has been pursued by two muckrakers from the tabloid press who take umbrage at her refusal to see them. They are then fairly delighted when they manage to snap a picture of Ichiro and Miyako standing on her balcony looking out at the mountains like a young couple in love. They deliver the photo to their seedy boss, Hori (Eitaro Ozawa), who is over the moon with excitement at his new business prospects. Suddenly Ichiro and Miyako are on posters all around the city with headlines such as “Love on a Motorcycle” and “Miyako Saijo’s secret love – revealed!”. 

Though Ichiro is a semi-public figure himself having been featured in magazine spreads as an artist on the rise, he is not a worldly man and is shocked by the idea that the press can make something up and print it with no consequences. He feels he must resist not just on a personal level angry to have been misrepresented but for the post-war future to ensure that the press is held to account and that it does not misuse its power to breach the privacy of ordinary citizens. To his mind, they only get away with it because most people just ignore them and wait for the scandal to pass, a sentiment born out by Hori who dismisses a concerned underling with the reminder that they’ve never yet been sued so they need have no fear saying whatever they like whether it’s true or not. “The kind of snobs we target think the law is beneath them” he adds, suggesting that most people prefer to think of the gutter press as something they can safely ignore and that it’s only themselves that they show up in their torrid obsession with the lives of others. 

But Hori also ironically defends his right to press freedom and quickly hits back that he’s being oppressed by those who wish to silence his right to free speech even when what he’s saying isn’t true. Lawyer Hiruta (Takashi Shimura) who offers to represent Ichiro in his lawsuit quickly identifies Hori as a duplicitous conman but also allows himself to be manipulated accidentally accepting a bribe after being led to believe that Hori has a top legal expert on retainer and the case is hopeless unless Miyako, who has so far maintained a dignified silence, can be persuaded to join as co-plaintiff. Ichiro had decided to accept Hiruta’s offer of representation largely on meeting his teenage daughter, Masako (Yoko Katsuragi), who has been bedridden with TB for the last five years. Masako is a pure soul whose isolation from the contemporary society has allowed her to maintain her innocence and humanity but it’s also true that it’s the society that made her ill in the first place.

The morality play reaches a climax on Christmas Day as Ichiro delivers a tree on his motorbike while Miyako sings carols for a radiant Masako who is at least sitting up and looking much healthier than she’s ever been before. But the more Hiruta debases himself, caught between an accidental debt to Hori, his own lack of conviction, and the frustrated desire to do right, the sicker she gets as if poisoned by post-war duplicity. Even so, Ichiro continues to defend him insisting that Hiruta isn’t a bad person just a weak one and that in the end he won’t be able to go through with betraying him but will eventually come clean and tell the truth when it counts. Ichiro’s faith is as much in the institutions of the new democratic Japan as it is in Hiruta as he explains at the trial admitting that he may have been naive in placing too much trust in the legal system thinking that he couldn’t lose because he knows he’s in the right. As the opposition lawyer points out, that’s not a very good legal argument because his client thinks he’s in the right too only he doesn’t know that Hori is both a liar and an idiot who’s staked everything on the assumption that Hiruta won’t expose him for bribery, which would at least strongly imply he can’t back up his story, because it would mean destroying himself. 

In the end it’s Hiruta who puts himself on trial, baring his soul to the court which he acknowledges he has betrayed in his negligence and wilful obstruction of justice. It’s a victory for truth and decency and a turn away from the duplicitous, capitalistic mores of men like Hori who think they can do whatever they want and only laugh at those who value fairness and compassion. “In all my 50 years I’ve never seen a more confused age” Hiruta explains speaking of post-war chaos and the forced comprises of the intervening years of despair and desperation. As he coaxes the denizens of a small bar into an early rendition of Auld Lang Syne on Christmas Day, each vowing that this time next year things really will be better, many of them breakdown in frustrated longing drowning their sorrows as they continue to yearn for better times they do not really believe will come. But then like all the best Christmas films, this is also a redemption story of a man who decided that it wasn’t too late after all and that he might have to destroy himself in order make himself anew and be the man his daughter always knew he could be even if in the end he could not save her from the ravages of the post-war society.


Scandal screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 10th & 24th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ, Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

© 1988 Studio Ghibli

“Trees and people used to be good friends” explains a father to his little girls newly arrived in the idyllic countryside of post-war Japan seeking respite from the destructive modernity that has made their mother ill. Released alongside the harrowing wartime drama Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ, Tonari no Totoro) is a charming tale of childhood adventure if not quite without its shades of darkness in which two sisters embrace the wonder of the natural world while trying to come to terms with mortality and the uncertainties of adulthood. 

Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and her younger sister Mei (Chika Sakamoto) have moved into a large, ramshackle house in a rural village on the outskirts of Tokyo for the benefit of their mother’s health while she remains in hospital a few miles away. Living with their cheerful father (Shigesato Itoi), a professor in the city, the girls rejoice in exploring their new environment learning of the dust bunnies that inhabited their home before they moved in. An old lady from the village (Tanie Kitabayashi) who’s come to help keep house until the girls’ mother returns home explains that she could see the “soot spreaders” too when she was a child but presumably not anymore. The idea that the soot speakers will soon move on appears to make the sisters sad, and everyone including the parents is quite excited about the idea of living in a “haunted house” even if it’s one that rattles a little in the wind. It’s younger sister Mei who later follows the trail of acorns that mysteriously appear in their home and encounters a series of strange forest creatures she names “Totoro” that eventually introduce the girls to a parallel world of magic and fantasy. 

Their father probably doesn’t believe them, but indulges the girls’ stories and adventures while encouraging them to embrace a sense of wonder in their environment along with something deeper and older than contemporary modernity. “You probably met the king of this forest” he explains to Mei, pausing to offer a word of thanks to the ancient tree he says first drew him to the house that will be their new family home. Whether Totoro is “real” or simply a childish fantasy he helps the sisters escape their anxiety over their mother’s absence, not least by introducing them to new life in the seeds the girls plant in their garden and patiently wait to grow. The oldest, Satsuki, is perhaps a little more aware, worried that her father might not have told her everything about her mother’s condition and processing the idea that there is a possibility she won’t come home to them. She wants to protect her sister from the same fears but perhaps can’t, eventually losing her patience with her and instantly regretful when Mei goes off in a huff and gets lost.

There is darkness in the village too, a floating sandal in a nearby lake giving rise to fears that a child may have fallen in and drowned, but there’s also the gentle strength of the community in the kindly old lady and her shy grandson Kanta (Toshiyuki Amagasa) along with all the other villagers who come out in force to look for Mei fearing she may have tried to visit her mother at the hospital on her own. The old lady prays furiously while muttering Buddhist sutras and it’s probably not a coincidence that Mei sits by a row of Jizo statues after realising that she’s lost not knowing what to do. The girls are always careful to offer thanks at the Jizo shrine just as their father thanked the tree though it’s Totoro and the Catbus that eventually bring them back together echoing a sense that in a just world kindness will always be repaid. 

The countryside is in many ways closer to that just world, largely free of the evils of modernity such as the pollution of industry that has corrupted the cities. Technology is often unreliable, dad’s train is late, telegrams bring bad news, and telephone calls result in anxious waits, but life in the village is peaceful and happy and the people help each other when times are hard. It may be an idealised vision of rural living, but there’s no denying its appeal. Evoking a sense of nostalgia in its beautifully painted backgrounds, Miyazaki’s gentle drama is like much of his work an advocation for the importance of nature as a source of healing but equally for wonder in the fantastical adventures of two little girls finding strength and possibility in the heart of the forest.


My Neighbor Totoro screens on 35mm at Japan Society New York on Nov.4 as part of the Monthly Anime series. Japan Society will also be hosting a talk with puppet artist Basil Twist on Nov. 10 delving behind the scenes of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s currently running stage adaptation.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 1988 Studio Ghibli

Apart from Life (地の群れ, Kei Kumai, 1970)

By 1970, Japan had more or less cemented its economic miracle and in terms of cinema at least memories of the war were beginning to recede with the young keen to address other concerns such as dissatisfaction with increasing consumerism or resistance towards American foreign policy in Asia. Unjustly neglected by international scholars, Kei Kumai by contrast refused to turn away from issues others might have found taboo or at least unpleasant enough to avoid mentioning. Like A Chain of Islands, Apart of From Life (地の群れ, Chi no Mure) has an overt anti-American sentiment but in essence criticises a society in which people are dying of guilt and shame though essentially blameless while those marginalised continue to oppress each other and fight amongst themselves rather than unite to resist their marginalisation. 

Based on a novel by Mitsuharu Inoue, the film opens with a brief prologue set in 1941 before jumping forward to the mid-1960s in the naval port town of Sasebo, the naval facilities now operated by American forces. An ensemble drama, the tale revolves around a drunken doctor, Unan (Mizuho Suzuki), though this one is far from an angel merely another wounded and compromised soul of the post-war era wracked by guilt over his various moral failures which began with the incident in the prologue in which he attempted to weasel out of his responsibility after getting an ethnically Korean girl pregnant as a young teenager working in a coal mine. He is the first of many to insist “I know nothing” that he’s “responsible for nothing” firstly denying the child is his then trying to smooth it over with money before coldly telling the woman’s sister to take her to a hospital in nearby Sasebo where no one will know them in order to get an abortion and avoid the social stigma of unwed pregnancy. The sister can only look at him with contempt. Later he discovers that the young woman lost her life while trying to provoke a miscarriage. 

Hako died, in a sense, out of shame. Many of Unan’s patients face the possibility of something similar. One woman comes to him about her teenage daughter, Yoshiko, who is bleeding continuously as if constantly menstruating. Unan asks the mother if she was in Nagasaki at the time of the atomic bombing as the symptoms are similar to the effects of the radiation poisoning he observed while working as a doctor in the city. She continues to deny it, but flashbacks to conversations with her now absent husband and daughter suggest she may not be telling the truth at least in its entirety even though her daughter’s life is at stake. She doesn’t want to be associated with “those Kaito Shinden people”, referring to the industrial slumland where many refugees from Nagasaki have settled which is treated as a kind of plague town by the rest of the local area. If her daughter survives but is unmasked as a second generation A-bomb victim her mother fears she will never be able to marry and that she will have “no future”. 

Yet they are not the only ones facing marginalisation. A young woman, Tokuko, comes to Unan’s office wanting a certificate that proves she has been raped, but Unan doesn’t help her firstly for the understandable reason that she is, understandably, unable to explain the exact circumstances to him, and secondly because he just isn’t very invested in her wellbeing bizarrely suggesting she come back with a relative or the person responsible. As she later explains, the rapist threatened to expose the fact that her family are burakumin in order to keep her quiet while she clearly remembers that he wore a glove on his left hand which she believes probably hides a distinctive keloid skin lesion marking him as an A-bomb victim and probable resident of Kaito Shinden. Tokuko’s father had also been a victim of workplace discrimination presumably because of his burakumin heritage, his wife told that he had stabbed himself while confronting the workers who were harassing him advised to keep quiet rather than attract the attention of the authorities. Tokuko is originally shamed into silence not by her violation but by her marginalisation, later deciding to track down her assailant by herself after someone else reports the crime to the police who arrest a local Kaito Shinden troublemaker and attempt to frame him for the crime. 

The confrontation however leads to a small war between the Kaito Shinden A-bomb survivors and the burakumin community which results in the death of a burakimin woman after they tactlessly insist that Kaito Shinden is a buraku below the buraku and that their blood is “rotten” and will be for generations. Discussing the case, some had even suggested that the rape was itself a result of prejudice towards the A-bomb survivors seeing as they are unable to find wives. Yet Tokuko’s mother had asked if being burakumin means it’s OK to rape her daughter, in much the same way Hako’s sister might have asked if being ethnically Korean made it OK for Unan to so casually discard her. Explaining that the locals regard Kaito Shinden as a “sick village” Yoshiko’s mother says she doesn’t think the people there are any different from anyone else despite her determination not to be associated with the A-bomb “disease”. “If Kaito Shinden is sick, the whole of Japan is sick!” Unan fires back revealing that he himself was also in Nagasaki shortly after the bomb dropped, apparently objecting to these baseless prejudices but seemingly unwilling to cure them even while his patients quite literally die of shame. 

In his own case, however, it’s not prejudice or wartime trauma that have led to Unan’s alcoholism but his many moral failures and their resulting guilt. His wife (Noriko Matsumoto) wants to divorce him, partly because of the drinking, but also because of his longstanding guilt over the death of a friend who retreated to the mountains with the communists during the Red Purge of the early 1950s of whom he is also jealous in that he was previously his wife’s lover and he can’t get over wondering if he’d lived his wife would have chosen him. Guilt over Hako, perhaps mixed with the fears of his radiation exposure, have also led him to emotionally blackmail his wife into several abortions as if he thinks it improper to father a child. 

Meanwhile, we seem to see pregnant women everywhere. Nobuo (Mugihito), orphaned by the A-bomb, sees a pair of them walking ahead of a gaggle of nuns which he later decides to freak out by creepily staring at them before lunging wildly like a dog among geese. The film’s conclusion finds him on the run from a gang of burakumin boys looking for revenge, running far out of the slums into the suburbs and through one of those nice new danchi housing complexes where a row of pregnant housewives sits silently knitting, something almost creepy in the vacant way they smile at him as he runs past before tripping over a child’s toy car. Boys like Nobuo are it seems cast out from the newly consumerist society of the economic miracle while just about everyone is in some way marginalised and in some cases several times over: rape victim, burakumin, A-bomb survivor, troublemaker, orphan, divorcee, communist, Christian. Nobuo wonders why God chose Nagasaki for an A-bomb when it’s where all the Christians live while the head of a Virgin Mary statue is repeatedly smashed as if to imply there’s no more mercy to be found here. 

Kumai regularly cuts back to a disturbing visual motif of a cage filled with rats who kill a live chicken and fight over the scraps of rotting meat until ignited by a gust of fire, the survivors scrabbling over each other blindly looking for an exit. Meanwhile, US jet planes fly constantly overhead and all Unan can think to do is throw a rock at a flag flying on the base. “She was killed by everybody” Tokuko exclaims of the burakumin woman, suddenly seeing the webs of prejudice, oppression, and selfishness which created the circumstances which led to her death by stoning. Shot in a crisp black and white and academy ratio, Kumai’s steely drama lets no one off the hook implying that all of Japan is indeed “sick” wilfully leaving these marginalised people to fight amongst themselves for the scraps of a newly prosperous society. 


DVD release trailer (no subtitles)

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 New Morning of Billy the Kid (ビリィ★ザ★キッドの新しい夜明け, Naoto Yamakawa, 1986)

“Isn’t this style called surrealism?” a little girl asks, watching a WWII GI giving John Ford’s Monument Valley a post-modern makeover depicting John Lennon and a Martian in preparation for a live concert by hip girlband ZELDA. Arriving at the beginning of the Bubble era, Naoto Yamakawa’s 35mm commercial feature debut The New Morning of Billy the Kid (ビリィ★ザ★キッドの新しい夜明け, Billy the Kid no Atarashii Yoake) was the first film to be produced by the entertainment arm of department store chain Parco (along with record label Vap) which also distributed and draws inspiration from several stories by genre pioneer Genichiro Takahashi who at one point appears on screen proclaiming singer-songwriter Miyuki Nakajima, a version of whom appears as a character, as one of the three greatest Japanese poets of the age. What transpires is largely surreal, but also a kind of post-modern allegory in which the world is beset by the “anxiety and destruction” of salaryman society. 

Yamakawa opens in black and white and in Monument Valley in which only the figure of a young man in a cowboy outfit is in vivid colour while a voiceover from the American President warns that a savage band of gangsters is currently holding the world to ransom. Yet “Monument Valley” turns out to be only an image filling the wall of Bar Slaughterhouse, the cowboy, Billy the Kid (Hiroshi Mikami) stepping out of the painting having lost his horse and apparently in search of a job. The barman (Renji Ishibashi) is reluctant to give him one, after all he has six bodyguards already ranging from the legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi to an anthropomorphism of Directory Enquiries, 104 (LaSalle Ishii). Nevertheless, after threatening to leave (through the front door) Billy asks for a job as a waiter instead in return for food and board while collecting the bounty for any gangsters he kills in the course of his duties. 

The bar is in some senses an imaginary place, or at least a space of the imagination, the sanctuary of “construction and creation” where half-remembered pop culture references mingle freely. In that sense it stands in direct opposition to the salaryman reality of Bubble-era Japan where everyone works all the time and the only interests which matter are corporate. Billy takes a liking to a young office lady, “Charlotte Rampling” (Kimie Shingyoji), who complains that she’s overcome with a sense of anxiety in the crushing sameness of her life, often woken by the sound of herself grinding her teeth that is when she’s not too tired to fall asleep. The “gangsters” which eventually crash in (literally) are businessmen and authority figures, one revealing as he raids the till that he’s a dissatisfied civil servant who determined that in order to become the best of the salarymen you need an “interesting” hobby so his is being in a gang. Another later gives a speech remarking again on this sense of inner anxiety that in their soulless desk jobs they’re moving further and further away from this world of “creation and construction”, and that the sacrifice of their individuality has provoked the kind of violent madness which enables this nihilistic “terrorist” enforcement of the corporatist society against which Miyuki (Shigeru Muroi), another of the bodyguards dressed as a retro 50s-style roller diner waitress, rebels through her poetry. 

Envisioned as a single set drama (save the bookending Monument Valley scenes apparently filmed on location in Arizona) Yamanaka’s drama is infinitely meta, in part a minor parody of Seven Samurai featuring a Miyamoto Musashi inspired by Kurosawa’s Kyuzo who was himself inspired by Miyamoto Musashi as the seven pop culture bodyguards stand guard over a saloon-style cafe bar beset by the forces of “order” turned modern-day bandits intent on crushing the artistic spirit in order to facilitate the rise of a boring salaryman corporate drone society. Yet for all of its absurdist humour, Harry Callahan (Yoshio Harada) telling a strange story about being a race horse, there is something quietly moving in Yamakawa’s ethereal transitions, the camera gently pulling back as a little girl who wanted to travel is suddenly surrounded by snow or the face of anxious young office lady fading into that of a prairie woman telling a bizarre tale of her life with a venomous snake. Equally a vehicle for girlband ZELDA whose music recurs throughout, the first stage number a hippyish affair set in a summer garden and the second an emo goth aesthetic more suited to what’s about to happen, Yamakawa’s zeitgeisty, post-modern drama is an advocation for the importance of the creative spirit if in another meta touch itself a rebellion against the corporate and consumerist emptiness of Bubble-era Japan. 


The New Morning of Billy the Kid streams worldwide 3rd to 5th December with newly prepared English subtitles alongside two of Yamakawa’s earlier shorts courtesy of Matchbox Cine.

Original trailer (English subtitles available via CC button)

Miyuki Nakajima’s debut single, Azami-jo no Lullaby (1975)

ZELDA’s Ogon no Jikan

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.

Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1965)

“Even the cops wouldn’t keep innocent people in prison” a prisoner ironically exclaims in Satsuo Yamamoto’s farcical crime drama Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Nippon Dorobo Monogatari), displaying a strange sense of faith in the system for one who’s already been caught out by it. It is in many ways the system at which Yamamoto takes aim, refusing to blame even the guilty for their crimes while condemning the society that forever tars not only them but their entire families with the criminal brush, similarly defaming the innocent while the mechanisms of the State actively abuse their power to ensure they continue to maintain it. 

Set in 1948, the action takes place as the opening voiceover explains in an exaggerated accent which at times lends itself to lowkey comedy, at a moment of societal collapse in which cash has become almost worthless and the only items of value are clothing and rice. Yet Gisuke (Rentaro Mikuni) it seems was living a life of crime even before the war, the youngest of five brothers left to look after his mother and sister after his father’s death. While operating as an amateur unlicensed dentist having picked up the basics from his dad, Gisuke makes his living peddling black market kimonos stolen from local warehouses. After bungling one particular job he finds himself spotting a strange site on the railway tracks, overwhelmed by shadowy figures of nine men he first fears have come to tackle him but in the end simply pass by even calmly returning his call of good evening as they discuss among themselves the best way to the local hot spring. Taking refuge in a haystack, it’s not until the next morning that Gisuke learns of a train derailment that took the lives of the engineer and two crew members. He realises that the men he saw must have been the ones who sabotaged the track but he’s not a snitch and it’s none of his business so he decides to keep quiet. 

That is until he gets arrested for the botched burglary and ends up incarcerated alongside a member of the accused, Kimura (Mizuho Suzuki), who quickly befriends him and in fact becomes something of a labour activist even inside the prison negotiating better conditions for prisoners. Indebted, Gisuke maintains his silence strangely certain that Kimura and the others will soon be released because they are innocent despite already knowing that the judicial system is infinitely corrupt. The case at hand takes inspiration from the Matsukawa Derailment, a real life incident which Yamamoto had already dramatised in 1961’s Matsukawa Incident, in which suspicion had fallen on the Railway Union who, in the film, are seen leading a protest agitating for better working conditions. Kimura, a prominent unioniser, is picked up along with other members of the rail workers union and left-wing activists on largely spurious grounds solely to discredit their movement at the behest of an overly authoritarian police force. 

The irony is that Gisuke ends up in prison for a crime that he technically is not quite guilty of in that he’s arrested after his wife, a geisha he redeemed with his ill-gotten gains, unwittingly sells some stolen kimonos which he was storing for a friend on the run. Kimura by contrast is in prison for something of which he is entirely innocent, in effect a political prisoner. Yet the force that imprisons both of them is not so much the law as social censure in the stigmatisation of crime. Gisuke feels acutely guilty knowing that his family members continue to suffer because of his criminality, his sister unable to marry as each of her engagements is eventually broken off when they find out her brother’s been in jail. After getting out and vowing to go straight, Gisuke marries again and has a child but is perpetually worried that someone will find out about his past and that his son will forever be stigmatised as a “burglar’s kid”. It’s for this reason that he finds himself torn, refusing to help Kimura by testifying as to what he saw that night even after hearing that he’s been sentenced to death, unwilling to risk his newfound happiness even at the expense of another man’s life. 

Strangely, it’s the injustice of the situation which later changes his mind though in an unexpected way when he realises that his own son has escaped being tainted with his father’s criminal legacy while Kimura’s is bullied at school because his dad’s in jail even though he’s innocent. Pursued by authoritarian police officer Ando (Yunosuke Ito) who attempts to blackmail him into changing his story to incriminate Kimura he eventually decides to free himself by telling the truth despite realising that another witness was most likely murdered for signalling an intention to do the same. “But how is it that the police who are charged to catch us are even bigger liars than the thieves?” Gisuke asks the judge during his improbably humorous testimony, earning rapturous applause from the court in a touch of the absurd with even his wife, hitherto stoney faced despite the laughter all around her, cracking a smile seemingly warming up to his decision to play the hero even if it has taken him rather a long time to decide to do the right thing. 

Yamamoto doesn’t hang around to hear the verdict, perhaps because it’s Gisuke who’s really on trial and the judge appears to be his wife whose forgiveness is the only acquittal necessary. His crimes are in a sense not really his fault, Yamamoto seems to argue, but the fault of an indifferent society which left him with no other choice in order to support himself, the same society which then frustrates his attempts to live an “honest” life by forever tainting him as a “burglar” and tarring his entire extended family with the same brush. Only by owning his stigmatisation can he free himself of it, rejecting the illusionary power corrupt authority has over him while refusing to be complicit in their constant battle to hang on to it by levelling his marginalisation against him. Extremely ironic in terms of tone, often employing archaic screen wipes for comic effect, Yamamoto’s strangely hopeful tale implies that justice can in fact prevail but only when imperfect men commit to it even at the expense of their personal happiness. 


Call from Darkness (真夜中の招待状, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1981)

“In today’s society, everyone is warped in some way” according to the investigative psychologist at the centre of Yoshitaro Nomura’s Call From Darkness (真夜中の招待状, Mayonaka no Shotaijo, AKA Midnight Invitation). Adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo, Nomura’s late career psychological mystery places the dark past at the centre of familial implosion as increasingly estranged brothers find themselves falling victim to the same “curse”, called to destruction by the extreme resentment of one who feels himself wronged both personally and on a familial level. 

The film opens, however, with the heroine, Keiko (Asami Kobayashi), visiting a psychiatrist and visibly perturbed by the strange, twitching figures which surround her in the waiting room. The patient immediately before her is irritated by the psychiatrist’s “childish games”, eventually leaving the room in exasperation with the medical staff who refuse to take his symptoms seriously, convincing him that his pain is all in his mind and his lame leg is merely a manifestation of repressed trauma. Nevertheless, Keiko has not come for herself but for her fiancé, Tamura (Kaoru Kobayashi), who has suffered a nervous breakdown after all three of his brothers mysteriously disappeared leaving him feeling as if he must be next. As Dr. Aizawa (Etsushi Takahashi) points out, disappearances are a matter for the police but he does agree to help treat Tamura’s paranoia in the belief that his family circumstances are a series of unfortunate and improbable coincidences rather than a concerted effort to wipe out his bloodline. 

As it turns out, that is not quite true and Tamura perhaps has reason to worry but then there is no one targeting him, in fact no one very interested in him at all, but still he will be sucked into a vortex of guilt and pain despite having, as it turns out, a different name and minimal connection to those who are his brothers by blood. The youngest of the four boys, Tamura was adopted into another family who had no children of their own at eight years old. His mother had already passed away and after his father too died not long after his adoption he never returned to his ancestral home in Kumamoto and had little contact with either of his brothers besides Kazuo (Tsunehiko Watase) with whom he had remained close and who would often visit him when he came to Tokyo on business. The fact of his brothers’ disappearances does not perhaps concern him emotionally, at least until Kazuo too goes missing, as much as its strangeness threatens his ordinary, conventional life not to mention his engagement to Keiko whose parents do, as expected, urge her to reconsider in light of the dark shadows around Tamura’s family history. 

That’s perhaps one reason Keiko is so keen to delve to the bottom of the mystery, not only to cure Tamura’s depression but to defend her choice of husband and therefore the future direction of her life. Aizawa, meanwhile, proves a strange and slightly dubious guide despite his presentation as a figure of infinite authority. He persuades the pair that the answer lies in dreams, intrigued by a recurring nightmare Kazuo had apparently been having about travelling through tunnels and valleys towards a mysterious castle, a dream that Tamura eventually begins dreaming too. Aizawa and Keiko find themselves making a bizarre visit to a spirit medium, while Aizawa later recommends experimental hypnotherapy treatments, diagnoses based on glanced body language, and describes the oldest brother, Junkichi (Makoto Fujita), as a probable misanthropic sadist based on a series of drawings he made of a man with serious deformities. He later walks back some of these statements as strategy in his quest to help Tamura, but you have to admit that his practice is esoteric to say the least. 

Central to events, the deformed man turns out not to be an invention of Junkichi but a very real “victim” and perhaps symbol of the “warped” society Aizawa alludes to at the film’s conclusion. We learn that the young man suffered from rheumatism and was recommended experimental treatment which led to his deformity and apparently left him brain damaged, unable to look after himself. The mysterious calls the brothers receive late in the night are reminders of the harm they have caused, beckoning them towards a spiritual retribution though there is of course no real way to atone, the young man can never be restored. It’s this sense of dread that leads Aizawa and others to describe what’s happened to the brothers as a “curse” though it’s one largely self-imposed if perhaps precipitated by the intense resentment of the wounded parties which sends itself through the air, and the telephone lines, to convince the brothers they must pay though, in real terms, the young man’s fate is not really their fault only that of the doctors who developed the drug and administered it if, as Aizawa implies, they were aware of what could happen if they went too far. 

Nevertheless, it seems that responsibility must be taken though the extents of that responsibility, rather than the secrecy or the events themselves, eventually corrupt the previously pure and strong relationship between Keiko and Tamura. He wants to end it with money, she is disappointed in his cynical conservatism and lack of compassion. Aizawa meanwhile, believes that the brothers were drawn to death, tired of the business of living and perhaps looking for an exit and an excuse to give in to despair. Nomura slips into painful negative for his explanatory flashbacks, while undercutting a sense of reality through the dissolves and superimpositions of his ethereal dream sequences, but finally returns us to the “warped” society of the present day as the survivors look for new ways of living with a newfound darkness. 


Bad Girl (非行少女, Kirio Urayama, 1963)

“It’s all because of poverty” according to the not-quite hero of Kirio Urayama’s Bad Girl (非行少女, Hiko shojo), and he’s right to an extent but then again not. Following his factory tale Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow, Urayama shifts further into social realism, exploring small-town life at a midpoint in the post-war era in which the economic prosperity which was beginning to take root in a Tokyo about to host the Olympic Games had not yet been evenly distributed. The titular “bad girl” of the title is no Nikkatsu delinquent, merely a lonely young woman undermined by parental neglect and societal disdain who scandalously smokes, drinks, and steals the things she could never hope to afford. 

Wakae (Masako Izumi) claims she does these things in part because she hates her step-mother (Sumie Sasaki) whom she blames for her own mother’s death after returning from the hospital to tell her father that her mother had died only to find him with another woman. Emotionally neglected, she spends her time in bars enjoying the attentions of men without perhaps understanding the dangers. It’s in trying to escape two young toughs who think they haven’t got what they paid for when they took her to the cinema that Wakae runs into childhood friend Saburo (Mitsuo Hamada), recently returned from Tokyo after the factory he was working at went bust. Now 21, Saburo has a little education and was hoping for an office job but discovers that positions are generally open only to new graduates and is advised that his best option is to work for his brother (Asao Koike) with whom he does not get on. 

Where his brother is currently running for political office on a conservative ticket, Saburo is of a more liberal, progressive outlook, thinking back on the divisions in the town caused by protests against an American artillery test site which once occupied the local beach. He is extremely concerned that Wakae has been skipping school and is keen to help her study, even giving her money to help pay the fees as well as buying her a fashionable skirt to replace the worn through trousers which left her too ashamed to go. Unfortunately, Wakae loses the money after she’s accosted by a delinquent boy who tries to press her into sex work, leaving her both unable to attend school and embarrassed to see Saburo who is the only one encouraging her to think that she is worth something and can have a bright future. 

Poverty is in itself only one problem, the wider one being that everyone has already decided that Wakae is “bad girl” and that bad girls aren’t worth anything. Her disinterested father (Jun Hamamura) and stepmother are content to send her to her aunt who wants to make her a geisha, reinforcing an image of herself as somehow unfit for regular society and suited only to sex work. After losing Saburo’s money, she tries to rob the school but is caught by a caretaker who feigns sympathy but later offers her money for sex and then tells everyone that she tried it on with him so he wouldn’t turn her in. This coupled with a misunderstanding that she frittered away the money he gave her for the fees makes even Saburo lose faith in her, convincing him that they must have some time apart after he agrees to take a job on the chicken farm of a family friend to get away from his brother’s conservative authoritarianism. 

After accidentally setting fire to a chicken coop, Wakae is sent to a home for troubled children which turns out to be perhaps the best thing for her. Although she does not immediately bond with some of the other residents, she finds there what she never had at home – a supportive family, while the couple who run the facility do their best to instil confidence by teaching her skills that will allow her to reintegrate into regular society. Even there, however, members of the board are primed to write her off as a lost cause, just another “bad girl” not worth the effort. Only the head of the facility argues the problem is that no one’s ever given her a chance and if no one ever does then she’ll never have the opportunity to prove them wrong. 

Meanwhile, many of the other girls find themselves in the same position. Wakae’s friend Tomiko (Shizuka Yoshida) who ran away when she discovered that her parents were going to sell her, believes her future is hopeless because she’ll never be able to escape the “bad girl” label, but given courage by her time at the centre Wakae is able to tell her to stay strong, because you’ll never know if you don’t try. Wakae becomes an uncomfortable standard-bearer for the others, her eventual graduation another sign of hope but also perhaps a burden in knowing that if she fails to capitalise on her success she will only deepen their sense of despair. 

Yet her path forward begins to take her away from Saburo who makes a late night, romantic visit to the centre to apologise and tell her he’ll be waiting for her when she gets out. After a crisis of his own in which he too commits a crime in an attempt to buy a better future only to return beaten both literally and spiritually, Saburo has perhaps given in, agreed to work for his ultraconservative brother and bought his line of earnest hard work as the only path towards salvation. Wakae decides to take a promising job offer in Osaka and to leave without saying goodbye in case Saburo tries to convince her to stay local. That’s something he eventually tries to do in a last minute station dash, leaving Wakae torn and confused, enduring a public breakdown in a train station cafe literally stuck between one place and another. 

Saburo had complained that his problem was that he didn’t know what to do, confused by the volatile post-war society. Rather than a source of salvation he becomes a feckless suitor who can offer only a vague ideal of “love”, unable to protect Wakae and perhaps selfishly holding her back. As she tells him, she has made her decision, but ironically lacks agency. Her destiny is still to an extent in Saburo’s hands in his desire either to trap or free her. Meanwhile, there is also something insidiously uncomfortable in the fact that the only way to escape her “bad girl” image is by becoming economically productive, redeeming herself through honest hard work, while the desire to reject the label so totally also tacitly reinforces the idea of there being such a thing as a “bad girl” and that “bad girls” are worthless. Perhaps Saburo’s brother wins after all in his aspirational conservatism and its insistence on properness and industry. Nevertheless, Urayama leaves Wakae in a better place than we found her, given the confidence to pursue an individual destiny in the knowledge that she is not worthless, is deserving of love and happiness, and has a place to which to return as she makes her way into a promising post-war future.


Station (駅, Yasuo Furuhata, 1981)

The thing about trains is, you can get off and wander round for a bit, but sooner or later you’ll have to go where the rails take you. You never have as much control as you think you have. The hero of Yasuo Furuhata’s Station (駅, Eki) is beginning to come to that conclusion himself, addressing the various stations of his life, the choices he made and didn’t make that have led him into a dejected middle-age, defeated, and finding finally that any illusion he may have entertained of living differently will not come to pass. 

In 1968, police detective Eiji Mikami (Ken Takakura) sends his wife (Ayumi Ishida) and son away for reasons which aren’t entirely clear. At this point in his life, he’s an aspiring marksman on Japan’s shooting team intensively training for the Mexico Olympics, which is perhaps why he felt he could no longer be a husband and a father, or at least not while also being a policeman. All that changes, however, when his friend and mentor is gunned down during a routine job, shot in the chest at point blank range by a man in a white Corolla while operating a check point to catch a killer on the run. In 1976, he goes to see his sister (Yuko Kotegawa) marry a man she might not love to escape a violent boyfriend and investigates a serial killer of women who rapes and murders girls in red skirts. In 1979, he’s haunted by the serial killing case coupled with his cool execution of hostage takers during a siege. Holing up in a small fishing village waiting for a boat home for New Year, he strikes up a relationship with a barmaid who is just as sad, lonely, and defeated as he is. 

When Mikami’s friend is shot, his wife tells the reporters that she thinks shooting at targets, which her husband had been training others to do, is a different thing than shooting at living beings. “One shouldn’t shoot at people” she tearfully insists, accidentally forcing Mikami into a double dilemma, knowing that his marksmanship skills were on one level useless in that they couldn’t save his friend while paradoxically told that they shouldn’t be used for that purpose anyway. But what really is the point in shooting holes in paper targets just to test your skill? Wandering into the hostage situation while posing as a ramen deliveryman, he cooly shoots the two bad guys without even really thinking about it, as if they were nothing more than paper. 

The Olympics overshadow his life. He gave up his wife and son for them, but no matter how hard you train, the Olympics eventually pass. Mikami is told he’s supposed to bring honour to Japan, representing not only the nation but the police force. He’s not allowed to investigate his friend’s death because they want him to concentrate on his shooting, but he is and was a policeman who wants to serve justice. While he’s waiting for the funeral, he sees a report on the news about a former Olympic marathon runner who’s taken his own life because he got injured and fell into a depression feeling as if he’d let down an entire nation. Mikami perhaps feels something the same, drained by responsibility, by the feeling of inadequacy, and by the potential for disappointment. After the Olympics he feels deflated and useless, wondering what the point of police work is while quietly rueful in suspecting the committee is about to replace him on the team after all. 

When he wanders into the only bar open on a snowy December evening, that is perhaps why he bonds so immediately with its melancholy proprietress, Kiriko (Chieko Baisho). The conversation turns dark. Kiriko tells him that a friend of hers who worked in a bar in the red light district killed herself last New Year, that it’s the most dangerous time for those who do this sort of work, not for any poetical reason but simply because it’s when their men come home. She tells him that she’s a lone woman, no virginal spinster but weighed down by the failure of old love. Swept up in the New Year spirit, Mikami starts to fall for her, but is also called back to the past by an old colleague who passes him his wife’s phone number and tells him she’s now a bar hostess in Ikebukuro. He starts to think about leaving the police and getting a local job, but fate will not allow it. Kiriko too sees her dream of love destroyed precisely by her desire to escape the pull of toxic romance. Back in 1976, Mikami had been party to a similar dilemma as the sister of his suspect kept her brother’s secret but secretly longed to escape its burden. Suzuko (Setsuko Karasuma) too lost love in trying to claim it and now works as a waitress in a small cafe in this tiny town, only latterly making an impulsive decision to try to leave and make a new future somewhere else. 

Mikami tears up the letter of resignation that declared him too tired of life to be a good policeman, once again boarding a train back to his rightful destination, knowing that a policeman’s what he is and will always be. He watched his wife wave goodbye from a station platform, saw a man betrayed on the tracks, and finally boarded the train himself, letting go of any idea he might have had about going somewhere else. Stations are after all transitory places, you can’t stay there forever. 


Original trailers (no subtitles)

Aki Yashiro’s Funauta which plays frequently throughout the film