Sekigahara (関ヶ原, Masato Harada, 2017)

Sekigahara posterWhen considering a before and an after, you’d be hard pressed to find a moment as perfectly situated as the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原). Taking place on 21st October 1600 (by the Western calendar), Sekigahara came at the end of a long and drawn out process of consolidation and finally ended the Sengoku (or “warring states”) era, paving the way for the modern concept of “Japan” as a distinct and unified nation. In actuality there were three unifiers of Japan – the first being Oda Nobunaga who brought much of Japan under his control before being betrayed by one of his own retainers. The second, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, continued Oda’s work and died a peaceful death leaving a son too young behind him which created a power vacuum and paved the way for our third and final creator of the modern Japanese state – Tokugawa Ieyasu whose dynasty would last 260 years encompassing the lengthy period of isolation that was finally ended by the tall black ships and some gunboat diplomacy.

Loosely, we begin our tale towards the end of the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Kenichi Takito) though, in a nod to the novel, director Masato Harada includes a temporal framing sequence in which our author depicts himself as a boy during another war sitting in these same halls and hearing stories of heroes past. As well he might given where he was sitting, the narrator reframes his tale – our hero is not the eventual victor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, but a noble hearted retainer of the Toyotomi, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada).

Riding into battle, Mitsunari reminds his men that this is a war of “justice and injustice” – they cannot lose. Yet lose they do. The narrator recounts Mitsunari’s improbable rise as an orphan taken in by Hideyoshi on a whim who nevertheless became one of the most powerful men in late 16th century Japan. Despite his loyalty to his master, Mitsunari cannot abide the cruelty of the samurai world or its various modes of oppression both in terms of social class and even in terms of gender. He resents the subversion of samurai ethics to facilitate “politics” and longs to restore honour, justice, and fairness to a world ruled by chaos. Rather than the bloody uncertainty and self-centred politicking that define his era, Mitsunari hopes to enshrine these values as the guiding principles of his nation.

On the other hand, his opponent, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho) is famed for his intelligence and particularly for his political skill. Hoping to swoop into the spot vacated by Hideyoshi which his young son Hideyori is too weak to occupy, Ieyasu has been playing a long game of winning alliances and disrupting those other candidates had assumed they had secured. Unlike Mitsunari, Ieyasu is ruthless and prepared to sacrifice all to win his hand, caring little for honour or justice or true human feeling.

The framing sequence now seems a little more pointed. Sekigahara becomes a turning point not just of political but ideological consolidation in which Mitsunari’s ideas of just rule and compassionate fair mindedness creating order from chaos are relegated to the romantic past while self interest triumphs in the rule of soulless politickers which, it seems, travels on through the ages to find its zenith in the age of militarism. Mitsunari is the last good man, prepared to die for his ideals but equally prepared to live for them. His tragedy is romantic in the grander sense but also in the more obvious one in that his innate honour code will not let him act on the love he feels for a poor girl displaced from Iga whose ninja service becomes invaluable to his plan. With a wife and children to consider, he would not commit the “injustice” of creating a concubine but dreams of one day, after all this is over, resigning his name and position and travelling to foreign lands with the woman he loves at his side.

Working on a scale unseen since the age of Kurosawa, Harada patiently lays the groundwork before condensing the six hours of battle to forty minutes of fury. The contrast between the purity of the past and the muddied future is once again thrown into stark relief in the vastly different strategies of Ieyasu and Mitsunari with Ieyasu’s troops armed to the teeth with modernity – they fire muskets and shout cannon commands in Portuguese while Mitsunari’s veteran warriors attempt to face them with only their pikes and wooden shields. Unable to adapt to “modern” warfare and trusting too deeply in the loyalty of his comrades, Mitsunari’s final blow comes not by will but by chance as a young and inexperienced vassal vacillates until his men make his decision for him, betraying an alliance he may have wished (in his heart) to maintain. Goodness dies a bloody death, but there is peace at last even if it comes at a price. That price, for some at least, may have been too great.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Wet Woman in the Wind (風に濡れた女, Akihiko Shiota, 2016)

wet woman in the wind poster largeBack in the early ‘70s, Nikkatsu reacted to the gradual box office decline of Japanese cinema by taking things one step further than their already edgy youth output in rebranding themselves as a purveyor of softcore pornography known as Roman Porno. Unlike the familiar “pink film”, Roman Porno was made with the assets of a major studio behind it including better actors, production values, and distribution power but it still obeyed strict genre rules calling for speedy turnarounds, minimal running times and the requisite amount of nudity (to the permitted parameters) at set intervals. 45 years later Roman Porno is back in a series of films directed by some of today’s most interesting directors who attempt to recreate the genre anew for modern audiences whilst paying homage to the originals.

Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind (風に濡れた女, Kaze ni Nureta Onna) starts as it means to go on with hapless protagonist Kosuke (Tasuku Nagaoka) sitting by a river looking sad just as a strange young woman suddenly rides her bicycle directly into the nearby lake before climbing out and stripping off her T-shirt (which, amusingly enough reads “you need tissues for your issues”), revealing her bare breasts to a complete stranger. Kosuke is baffled and confused. He tries to leave but the woman follows him, asking if she can stay with him tonight because she has nowhere else to go. Kosuke is resolved, he’s given up girls and wants nothing whatsoever to do with weird women from ponds but Shiori (Yuki Mamiya) is not one to take no for an answer.

It’s never made clear but something unpleasant has obviously happened to Kosuke that has made him retreat from the city with his tail between his legs (so to speak). A respected playwright, Kosuke seems to have had something of an existential crisis and has decided to condemn himself to a life of self-imposed isolation because “you have to be alone if you really want to think deeply about things”. His isolation is, however, only up to a point. Kosuke’s semi-primitive lifestyle sees him living in a shack in the woods but he has electric lighting provided by generator batteries and grinds his own coffee beans by hand after buying them from a local cafe owned by a man Kosuke went to university with but claims not to have known at the time. The cafe owner’s wife has recently left and he blames Kosuke for reawakening a desire in her that had apparently lain dormant with her husband.

In a shocking coincidence, Shiori has also taken a job at the cafe and has set about seducing the recently lonely owner who has now become fixated and jealous, once again afraid Kosuke in particular is going to steal away his new plaything just like he stole his wife. This is a fallacy on several levels, not least that Shiori is not a woman to be constrained by any man but a true free spirit who gives her love freely to whomever that she chooses.

Spirit might be the best way to describe Shiori who arrives and departs with the wind, a force of nature with the sole intent of freeing her targets of the burden of repressed desires. A radio broadcast later reveals that a tiger has been on the run from the nearby zoo and if this were a fable, you could almost believe the tiger to be Shiori, sinking her teeth into soft centre of human weakness and leaving right after she tears its throat out.

Free spirit as she is, Shiori does find herself in moments of danger as the the threat of sexual violence rears its ugly head. Kosuke likes to think of himself as an enlightened kind of man, an intellectual, but he’s also a self-involved womaniser not above attempting to force himself on a woman he feels to be his for the taking or, half in jest, threatening to rape a former lover. Yet for Shiori much of this is sport – she sees through Kosuke and neatly undercuts all of his self delusions and neuroses, but she’s also merely toying with him.

Finding himself literally kicked out of bed and rendered redundant when Shiori finds more pleasure in getting together with his former lover Kyoko, Kosuke wanders outside in confusion and seduces, with a degree of tenderness, Kyoko’s shy, bespectacled assistant, Yuko. When the morning comes, however, he feels he made a mistake. Yuko has become attached to him, sharing a traumatic childhood story only for Kosuke to brush it aside and encourage her to go out into the world to explore the rich pleasures on offer now that he has “awakened” her. Kosuke remains as self-centred as ever, but Yuko at least does perhaps find something in his words of “wisdom”.

As in all good sex comedy, the men are pathetic slaves to desires they find themselves unable to express, whether out of fear or cultural ideals of masculinity, while the women remain in control and must guide the men either towards a healthier outlook or their own destruction. Both Kosuke and the cafe owner conspire in their own downfall in misguided battles for possession or conquest. Having already suffered defeat, Kosuke has retreated from the field dejected and humiliated, but in his all out impassioned attempt to re-enter the world of carnality he literally brings his entire universe crashing down around his ears. Forced to realise his own ridiculousness, Kosuke is left alone with little else to do than survey the scale of the destruction his various delusions have wrought. A fun loving pastiche, Wet Woman in the Wind is an oddly whimsical tale, witty yet insightful even its seeming lightness.


Currently available to stream via Mubi.

Original trailer (English subtitles) NSFW!