Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Juzo Itami, 1997)

woman in witness protection posterJuzo Itami’s fearless taste for sending up the contradictions and hypocrisies of his home nation knew no bounds, eventually bringing him into conflict with the very forces he assumed so secure it was safe to mock – his 1992 film Minbo led to brutal attack by a gang of yakuza unhappy with how his film portrayed the world of organised crime. Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Marutai no Onna), continuing the “Woman” theme from previous hits A Taxing Woman and the more recent Supermarket Woman, would be Itami’s final feature as he died in mysterious circumstances not long after its completion and like Minbo it touched an open nerve. In 1997, crazy cult violence was perhaps no laughing matter nor as ridiculous as it might have seemed a few years earlier, yet Itami makes the actions of brainwashed conspirators the primary motivator of a self-centred actress’ gradual progress towards accepting the very thing his previous films might have satirised – her civic duty as a Japanese woman.

Itami breaks the film into a series of vignettes bookended by title cards beginning with the first which introduces us to our leading lady – Biwako Isono (Nobuko Miyamoto). Biwako is currently in rehearsals for an avant-garde play about giving birth (“a woman’s moment of glory”) during which she reduces her assistant to tears prompting her resignation, decrying Biwako’s self-centred bitchiness as she goes. Chastened, Biwako spends the evening doing vocal exercises outside her apartment which is how she comes to witness the botched murder of a lawyer by a crazed cultist (Kazuya Takahashi) during which she is almost murdered herself and only survives because the killer’s gun jams. As the only witness Biwako suddenly becomes important to the police which works well with her general need for attention but less so with her loathing for hassle. Seeing as Biwako is a famous actress, her involvement also precipitates increased press interest for the murder and accidentally threatens the ongoing police investigation not least because Biwako likes to play up for the camera and isn’t quite sure how best to deal with her divided responsibilities. With the killer still at large, the police decide to give Biwako protection in the form of two detectives – Chikamatsu (Yuji Murata), a cultured man who’s a big fan of Biwako’s stage career, and Tachibana (Masahiko Nishimura), a rather stiff gentleman who never watches films and rarely indulges in entertainment.

Bringing up cult violence in 1997 just two years after Japan’s only real terrorist incident perpetrated by a crazed cult, might be thought taboo but taboo was not something that Itami had ever run away from. Crazed cults had also popped up during A Taxing Woman’s Return though back then they mostly represented the hypocrisy of the new yakuza as a front for organised crime that thought nothing of bleeding vulnerable people dry while feeding them a lot of semi-religious claptrap to make them feel a part of something bigger while the bubble economy continued its puffed up attempts to make them feel inadequate. This time around our cultists are less well drawn but clearly a collection of unlucky people duped into believing the strange philosophies of the “Sheep of Truth” which teach that the world can only be saved by its followers dividing the world into white sheep and black sheep. Like the policeman and later Biwako, the killer believes he is only doing “that which must be done” in the best interests of the world. He is unaware of the cult’s shadiness and shocked when their lawyer threatens his family in an effort to convince him not to talk once the police have managed to break his programming, ironically through exactly the same methods – manipulating his feelings towards his wife and son.

The cult is however merely background to Biwako’s ongoing character drama. Despite experiencing emotional trauma from witnessing a murder and then being threatened herself, Biwako enjoys being the centre of the attention with the police as well as the warm glow she feels in being able to help them with their enquiries, but balks at the additional hassle of having to be involved in the trial (even if she would be given quite a sizeable platform as a witness in a high profile court case). She resents having the two policemen follow her around – especially as she has quite a busy schedule which includes an affair with her married manager. Nevertheless she gradually allows them into her life with Tachibana even making his stage debut as spear carrier in a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. Tachibana’s steadfast defence of her person even at the risk of his own life begins to teach Biwako a few things about civic responsibility and the importance of duty, even if her final moment of realisation is another of her staged set pieces in which she conjures a poignant monologue from the accidentally profound mutterings of Tachibana, a little of Cleopatra, and the earlier line from the maternity play repurposed as she affirms that testifying against the cultists will be her “moment of glory”.

Rather than end on Biwako’s sudden moment of enlightenment, Itami cuts to an ironic epilogue in which a police detective watching the movie we have just seen complains about its authenticity while emphasising that no one in protective custody has ever been attacked. A little tongue in cheek humour from Itami that is followed by the more usual disclaimer before the credits resume, but perhaps anticipating another dose of controversy from both law enforcement and cult devotees. Lighter in tone and noticeably less surreal than some of Itami’s earlier work, Woman in Witness Protection is the story of a vacuous actress learning the purpose of her stage as her particular brand of artifice meets that of the less innocently self-centred cultists head on and eventually becomes the best weapon against it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rain of Light (光の雨, Banmei Takahashi, 2001)

In the closing voice over of Banmei Takahashi’s Rain of Light (光の雨, Hikari no Ame), the elderly narrator thanks us, the younger generation, for listening to this long, sad story. The death of the leftist movement in Japan has never been a subject far from Japanese screens whether from contemporary laments for a perceived failure as the still young protestors swapped revolution for the rat race or a more recent and rigorous desire to examine why it all ended in such a dark place. Rain of Light is an attempt to look at the Asama-Sanso Incident through the eyes of the youth of today and by implication ask a few hard questions about the nature of revolution and social change and if either of those two things have any place in the Japan these young people now live in. Takahashi reframes the tale as docudrama in which his young actors and actresses, along with their increasingly conflicted director, attempt to solve these problems through recreation and role play, bridging the gap between the generations with a warning from those who dreamed of a better world that was never to be.

After beginning with a voice-over and archive footage of the original protests beginning in the ‘60s, Takahashi introduces us to the main thrust of the conceit as veteran TV commercial director Tarumi (Ren Osugi) announces his intention to make a film about the Asama-Sanso Incident and hires indie film director Anan (Masato Hagiwara) as an AD who will also film behind the scenes footage. From here on in we swap between the various levels of the film as we meet the young men and women who will inhabit the roles of the student radicals of 40 years before and then witness the tragic events which befell them eventually culminating in the famous siege which became Japan’s first live broadcast news event gathering a record number of viewers across its ten hour duration.

This is a sad story and a difficult one to watch. As the student movement dwindled in the early 1970s, factionalism was rife and the scene chaotic. Two different factions merged to become known as the United Red Army and retreated to a secret mountain camp where they would train for the coming revolution, believing that only armed insurrection could destroy the old order and allow them to build the bright new socialist future for which they were fighting. However, in the extreme paranoia surrounding the underground movement, there had already been two murders of suspected traitors and suspicion was everywhere. Led by Kurashige (Taro Yamamoto) and Uesugi (Nae Yuki) the mountain lodge quickly becomes a place of fear and rigidity as dogmatic maoist slogans take on near religious significance. Pushing the “soldiers” through the process of continuous “self criticism”, the group places personal revolution as a paramount necessity for social change. Using the system to ease personal grudges or clear the political air, Kurashige and Uesugi bring about the deaths of several cadre members through beatings, exposure, or starvation before resorting to bare faced murder all in the name of “reform”.

Less interested in simply reviewing events, Takahashi’s treatment attempts to speak directly to the young people of today who, at least according to the video interviews conducted by Anan, know little of this traumatic era which presumably formed the backdrop to their parents’ lives. As time moves on it transpires that Tarumi has a much more personal connection to the material than he’d previously been able to admit and one which eventually sees him attempt to absent himself from the film’s completion. In the absence of their director, the cast take on the attributes of their characters in trying to understand his actions. Beginning to self criticise themselves, the actors attempt to find the fault that has driven their leader away despite the fact that his reasoning is entirely personal.

The young discuss the various merits of change and revolution but find their forebears hard to grasp. It is, indeed, impossible and all too possible to understand how this happened. Young men and women who wanted to change the world found their ideals misused, driven half mad by a kind of quasi-religious cultism which demanded nothing less than total commitment the rules of which were entirely decided by a deluded madman terrified of losing his own grip on power. Though some of the performers come to sympathise with their roles, this era of heavily politicised thought and activism is so entirely alien to them as to seem arcane.

Takahashi delineates each of the various media through differing camera effects and aspect ratios from the mid-range digital of the film within the film to the low grade video of the direct to camera “behind the scenes” footage. The film is itself the bridge which the director claims he wants to make yet eventually backs away from as his own painful past becomes the subject he does not want to address. Anan, the AD, pleads with the director to deliver his message to the young. The old, he says, talk about the past like it’s yesterday but refuse offer anything of real substance to those who have come after them. Tarumi does indeed tell his story in all of its pain and sadness, stopping to remind us, as the troupe of actors gleefully start throwing snowballs around, that this was a children’s revolution begun by young men and women who wanted nothing other than to build a better world. So what of the youth of today? Is such idealism still present, and if it is could it ever be as frustrated and misused as the unhappy revolutionaries of the post ’68 generation? The answer seems to be no, but then nothing came of the grand gestures and political posturing of 40 years ago, perhaps the genial, everyday goodness of the youth of today will have more luck.