Bronze Magician (妖僧, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1963)

Even when you’re the empress, a woman has little freedom. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Bronze Magician (妖僧, Yoso) is loosely based on a historical scandal concerning Nara-era empress Koken/Shotoku and a Rasputin-like monk, Dokyo, who unlike his counterpart in the film, eventually tried to seize the throne for himself alone only to have his ambitions frustrated by the empress’ death and the fierce resistance of her courtiers. As the title implies, Kinugasa is more interested in Dokyo than he is in the perilous position of Nara-era women even in power, painting his fall from grace as a Buddhist parable about a man who pays a heavy price for succumbing to worldly passions. 

As the film opens, Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa) emerges from a shallow cave amid many other caves after meditating for 10 years during which he reached a higher level of enlightenment and obtained mystic powers. Now he thinks it’s time to continue the teachings of departed mentor Doen and use his abilities to “actively do good and save the masses”. Before that, however, he does some not quite Buddhist things like turning a rat into a living skeleton, and twisting a snake into a tangle. In any case, he begins roaming the land, miraculously healing the sick. While reviving a thief who had been killed by samurai after trying to make off with a bird they shot, Dokyo is spotted by a retainer of the empress who brings news of his miracles back to her closest advisors. 

Empress Koken (Yukiko Fuji), in the film at least, was a sickly child and even after ascending the throne has often been ill. She is currently bedridden with a painful respiratory complaint that is giving her servants cause for concern. None of the priests they’ve brought in to pray for her (apparently how you treat serious illness in the Nara era) has been of much use. The empress’ steward Mabito (Tatsuya Ishiguro) orders that Dokyo be found and brought to the palace to see if he can cure Koken, which he does while stressing that he’s helping her not because she’s the empress but in the same way as he would anyone else. 

As might be expected, the empress’ prolonged illness has made her a weak leader and left the door open for unscrupulous retainers intent on manipulating her position for themselves. There is intrigue in the court. The prime minister (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is colluding with a young prince to depose Koken and sieze power. Left with little oversight, he’s been embezzling state funds to bolster his position while secretly paying priests to engineer Koken’s illness continue. Dokyo’s arrival is then a huge threat to his plans, not only in Koken’s recovery and a subsequent reactivation of government but because Dokyo, like Koken, is of a compassionate, egalitarian mindset. She genuinely cares that the peasants are suffering under a bad and self-interested government and sees it as her job to do something about it, which is obviously bad news if you’re a venal elite intent on abusing your power to fill your pockets while the nation starves. 

As the prime minister puts it, however, the empress and most of her courtiers are mere puppets, “naive children”. At this point in history, power lies in the oligarchical executive who are only advised by the empress and don’t actually have to do what she says. As she is also a woman, they don’t necessarily feel they have to listen to her which is one reason why the prime minister assumes it will be easy to manoeuvre the young prince toward the throne. Koken’s short reign during which she overcame two coups is often used to support the argument against female succession because it can be claimed as a temporary aberration before power passed to the nearest male heir. Nevertheless, Koken tries to rule, even while she falls in love with the conflicted Dokyo. Her right to a romantic future, however, is also something not within her control. Many find the gossip scandalous and use it as an excuse to circumvent her authority, especially after she gives Dokyo an official title which allows them to argue she has been bewitched by him and he is merely manipulating her to gain access to power. 

Dokyo, meanwhile, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. After 10 years of study he as reached a certain level of enlightenment and attained great powers which he intended to use for the good of mankind. He is happy to discover that Koken is also trying to do good in the world but she is, ironically, powerless while the elitist lords “indulge in debauchery”, abusing their power to enrich themselves while the people starve. He begins to fall in love with her but the palace corrupts him. He accepts a gift of a beautiful robe despite his vows of asceticism, and then later gives in to his physical desire for Koken only to plunge himself into suffering in the knowledge that he has broken his commandments. He loses his magic, but chooses to love all the same while rendered powerless to hold back Koken’s illness or to protect her from treachery. 

The pair mutually decide they cannot “abandon this happiness”, and Dokyo’s fate is sealed in the acceptance of the extremely ironic gift of golden prayer beads which once belonged to Koken’s father. He is reborn with a new name in the same way as the historical Koken was reborn as Shotoku after surviving insurrection, embracing bodily happiness while attempting to do good but battling an increasing emotional volatility. The lords continue to overrule the empress’ commands, insisting that they are really commands from Dokyo, while Dokyo’s “New Deal” involving a 2 year tax break for impoverished peasants finds support among the young radicals of the court who universally decide that they must stand behind him, protecting the ideal even if they are unable to save the man.

This troubles the elders greatly. Declaring that Dokyo has used “black magic” to bewitch the empress, they determine to eliminate him, but Dokyo never wanted power. “Power is not the final truth” he tells them, “those blindly pursuing status and power only destroy themselves”. Yet Dokyo has also destroyed himself in stepping off the path of righteousness. He damns himself by falling in love, failing to overcome emotion and embracing physical happiness in this life rather than maintaining his Buddhist teachings and doing small acts of good among the poor. Nevertheless, he is perhaps happy, and his shared happiness seems to have started a compassionate revolution among the young who resolve to work together to see that his ideal becomes a reality even in the face of entrenched societal corruption.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1960)

Wandering Princess posterAs in her third film, The Eternal Breasts, Kinuyo Tanaka’s fourth directorial feature, The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Ruten no Ouhi), finds her working with extremely recent material – in this case the memoirs of Japanese noblewoman Hiro Saga which had become a bestseller immediately after publication in 1959. Tanaka’s filmic adaptation arrived mere months later in January 1960 which was, in an ironic twist, a year before the real life tale would meet something like the conventional romantic ending familiar from classic melodrama. Nevertheless, working with Daiei’s top talent including Kon Ichikawa’s regular screenwriter (and wife) Natto Wada, Tanaka attempts to reframe the darkness of the preceding 20 years as the defeat of compassionate idealism at the hands of rigid austerity and unstoppable oppression.

Tanaka opens with a scene taking place in 1957 which in fact depicts a somewhat notorious incident already known to the contemporary audience and otherwise unexplained on-screen in which the older Ryuko (Machiko Kyo) tenderly bends over the body of lifeless schoolgirl. The camera then pulls back to find another girl in school uniform, Ryuko, twenty years earlier. A young woman with innocent dreams, Ryuko’s life encounters the usual kind of unwelcome disruption in the unexpected arrival of a marriage proposal but this is no ordinary wedding. Ryuko, as the oldest daughter of a prominent noble family, has been selected as a possible bride for the younger brother of the former Qing emperor now installed as the symbolic leader of the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria. Against the odds, Ryuko and her new husband Futetsu (Eiji Funakoshi) are well matched and endeavour to build a happy home together just as they intend to commit themselves to the creation of a new nation born from the twin legacies of the fallen Chinese empire and the resurgent Japan.

Foregrounding Ryuko’s experience, the film does its best to set “politics” aside but the inescapable truth is that each of our protagonists is a prisoner of the times in which they live. The second scene finds Ryuko in 1937 as an innocent schoolgirl gazing at the young men in uniform as they march past her. She remains out of step with them, walking idly and at her own uneven rhythm while they keep rigorous and seemingly unstoppable time. The family are understandably wary of the implications of the marriage proposal, especially as it comes with a military escort, with Ryuko’s beloved grandmother the only one brave enough to ask to see whoever’s in charge of this outrage only to be told that their fates are in the hands of the nebulous concept known as “army” which knows no individual will.

Assured by her family that the decision rests with her, Ryuko consents – not only to becoming a stranger’s wife (which would have been her fate in any case) but to being a kind of ambassador, the presentable face of imperial ambition. On her marriage she’s presented with a deep red cheongsam and continues to dress in Chinese fashion for remainder of her life in Manchuria where she learns to speak Mandarin and devotes herself to becoming as Chinese as it’s possible to be. Meanwhile, her husband Futetsu busies himself with a complementary desire to become Japanese, intensely worried that the sometimes degrading treatment he and his family receive is exclusively caused by his problematic nationality. When their daughter, Eisei, is born, the couple determine to raise her as the child of a new world, the embodiment of idealised cultural integration.

The world, however, is not so kind and the blunt force of militarism continues to present a barrier to familial harmony. Futetsu is prevented from seeing his brother by the officious forces of the military police while the lonely, paranoid “emperor” suspects that Ryuko is nothing more than a Japanese spy sent to undermine his rule. Ryuko was sent to Manchuria to be the bridge between two cultures. Her, in a sense, feminine energy which attempts to build connection through compassion and understanding is consistently contrasted with the prevailing male energy of the age which prizes only destruction and dominance. Filled with the naivety of idealism, she truly believes in the goodness of the Manchurian project and is entirely blind to the less altruistic actions of her countrymen engaged in the same endeavour.

Confronted by some children in a park while pushing the infant Eisei in a pram, Ryuko is identified as a Japanese woman by her accent while conversing in Mandarin. She assures the children that Eisei is Manchurian like them, and that seeing as she married a Manchurian she is now too despite her Japanese birth. The kids are satisfied, so much so that they warn her that some Manchurians were killed recently in this park by Japanese soldiers, adding a mild complaint that it upsets their parents when Japanese people come to their restaurant and leave without paying. Mortified, Ryuko decides to use some of her (meagre) resources to buy all of the kids and everyone else in the park some sweets from a nearby stand, fulfilling her role as a Japanese ambassador even while insisting that she is a proud citizen of the newly born state of Manchuria.

Nevertheless the Manchurian project is doomed to fail, the kind of idealism fought for by Ryuko and Futetsu crushed under the boot of militarism. Despite everything, Ryuko still wants to be the bridge if only to prevent a catastrophe of this kind happening again (while perhaps refusing to engage with some of the reasons it happened in the first place) but in Eisei’s eventual death, foreshadowed in the melancholy opening, a deeply uncomfortable implication is made that the kind of cross-cultural harmony that Ryuko dreams of may not be viable. In contrast to the salaciously reported real life events (somewhat alluded to by presence of a schoolboy’s cap next to the body) which hinted at a suicide pact or murder, Ryuko attributes Eisei’s decision to end her life to an inability to reconcile her twin heritage coupled with the heavy burden of being the last descendent of the Qing Dynasty. Despite this minor misstep of tying the fate of Eisei to the failure of the Manchurian dream and the loss of its misplaced idealism, Ryuko ends her account on a hopeful note in admiring the flowers she planted finally in bloom and looking forward to a more hopeful age governed by warmth and compassion rather than violence and austerity.


The Wandering Princess was presented by Japan Foundation London as part of a series of events marking the publication of Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity.

Odd Obsession (鍵, Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

odd-obsessionJunichiro Tanizaki is widely regarded as one of the major Japanese literary figures of the twentieth century with his work frequently adapted for the cinema screen. Those most familiar with Kon Ichikawa’s art house leaning pictures such as war films The Burmese Harp or Fires on the Plain might find it quite an odd proposition but in many ways, there could be no finer match for Tanizaki’s subversive, darkly comic critiques of the baser elements of human nature than the otherwise wry director. Odd Obsession (鍵, Kagi) may be a strange title for this adaptation of Tanizaki’s well known later work The Key, but then again “odd obsessions” is good way of describing the majority of Tanizaki’s career. A tale of destructive sexuality, the odd obsession here is not so much pleasure or even dominance but a misplaced hope of sexuality as salvation, that the sheer force of stimulation arising from desire can in some way be harnessed to stave off the inevitable even if it entails a kind of personal abstinence.

Our narrator for this sardonic tale is an ambitious young doctor, Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai), who opens the film in an unusually meta fashion with a direct to camera address taking the form of a brief lecture on the decline of the human body (which begins at age ten and then gets progressively worse). Kimura reminds us that we too will grow old, but his warning is intended less to engender sympathy for the elderly patriarch who will become our secondary protagonist than it is to raise a grim spectre of the inescapability of death.

The story Kimura wants to tell us of a man who fought against senility centres on antiques expert and respected cultural critic Kenmochi (Ganjiro Nakamura). Advanced in years, Kenmochi is beginning to feel the darkness encroaching along with the desire to resist it through restored virility. For this reason, he’s been making regular appointments at Kimura’s clinic which he keeps secret from his wife who would be unhappy to know he’s been getting mysterious injections to help with his sex drive but which also come with a number of side effects including dangerously raising his blood pressure.

Eventually Ikuko (Machiko Kyo), Kenmochi’s slightly younger wife and mother of his grown up daughter Toshiko (Junko Kano), does indeed find out though what she does not appear to know is that Kenmochi has also been drugging her so that he can take photos of her naked body and enjoy his rights as her husband without her needing to be 100% present at the time. Kenmochi’s plan is to lure Kimura into having an affair with his wife so that the resultant jealousy will stimulate his system, staving off senility and other unwelcome effects of ageing. This would be strange enough on its own were it not that Kenmochi has also been trying to set up a marriage between Toshiko and Kimura who are already engaged in a discreet affair.

In contrast with the source material which takes the form of a number of diary entries providing differing perspectives on events, the film takes the point of view of the cynical and morally bankrupt doctor Kimura who feels himself above this “pathetic” old man with his sexual preoccupations and diminished prospects. As the narrator, Kimura evidently believes himself in control but Ichikawa is keen to play with our sense of the rules of storytelling to show him just how wrong he could be. Intrigue is everywhere. Kenmochi may think he’s using all around him in a clever game to prolong his own life but he’s entirely blind to a series of counter games which may be taking place behind his back.

Sex is quite literally a weapon – aimed at the heart of death. Kimura recounts a dream he sometimes has in which he is shot through the heart in an arid desert, only for this same scene to invade the mind of a paralysed Kenmochi on gazing at the naked body of his wife. The marriage of Kenmochi and Ikuko has apparently been a cold (and perhaps unhappy) one with Kenmochi berating his wife for remaining “priest’s daughter” all these years later, prudish and conventional. Nevertheless, Ikuko – the kimonoed figure of the traditional Japanese wife, subservient yet mysterious and melancholy, becomes the central pivot around which all the men turn, eclipsing her own daughter – a Westernised, sexually liberated young woman rendered undesirable in her very availability. Kimura is not quite the destructive interloper of Pasolini’s Theorem so much as he is a “key” used by Kenmochi to “unlock” a hidden capacity within himself but one which, as it turns out, opens many doors not all of them leading to intended, or expected, destinations.

Ichikawa continues with a more experimental approach than was his norm following the bold opening scene in which Kimura directly addresses the audience with a straight to camera monologue. A pointed symbolic sequence of a train coupling, freeze frames, dissolves and montages add to his alienated perspective as he adopts Kimura’s arch commentary on the ongoing disaster which is the extremely dysfunctional Kenmochi family home. Middle class and well to do, the Kenmochis’ lives are nevertheless empty – the house is mortgaged and the beautiful statues which taunt Kenmochi with their physical perfection have all already been sold though Kenmochi refuses to let the buyer take them home. Old age should burn and rave at close of day, but as the beautifully ironic ending makes plain it will be of little use, death is in the house wearing an all too familiar face which you will always fail to recognise.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Opening scene (no subtitles)

The Snow Woman (怪談雪女郎, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1968)

snow womanThe Snow Woman is one of the most popular figures of Japanese folklore. Though the legend begins as a terrifying tale of an evil spirit casting dominion over the snow lands and freezing to death any men she happens to find intruding on her territory, the tale suddenly changes track and far from celebrating human victory over supernatural malevolence, ultimately forces us to reconsider everything we know and see the Snow Woman as the final victim in her own story. Previously brought the screen by Masaki Kobayashi as part of his Kwaidan omnibus movie, Tokuzo Tanaka’s expanded look at the classic tale (怪談雪女郎, Kaidan Yukijoro) is one of extreme beauty contrasting human cruelty with supernatural inevitability and the endless quest for compassion.

As in the original folktale, the film begins with two sculptors venturing into snow filled forests looking for the perfect tree to carve a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kanon, for the local temple. Having finally located the longed for tree, the pair spend the night in a cabin only to receive a visit from the Snow Woman herself who freezes the older man but is taken by the younger one’s beauty and spares his life, instructing him never to speak of these events.

Yosaku is taken back to the village followed not long after by the tree trunk. In tribute to his master, the head of the temple asks him to complete the statue himself despite his relative lack of experience. Later, a beautiful yet mysterious woman takes shelter from the intense rain under Yosaku’s roof and is taken in by his adoptive mother and wife of his former master. Eventually, Yosaku and “Yuki” fall in love and marry but the two quickly come to the notice of the higher samurai orders who seem determined to ruin their happy union.

Inspired by Lafcadio Hearn’s version of the story, this retelling adds a layer of social commentary with the constant interference of the higher echelons who exist solely to plague those below them with their petty games of subjugation. We first meet the local bailiff Jito when he rides into town trailing a massive entourage and immediately stars beating some of the local children who were playing with piles of wood. When Yosaku’s adoptive mother pleads with them to stop, he beats her too for having the temerity to speak to a samurai. Unfortunately, he has it in for Yosaku because he has another master sculptor he wants to use for the statue, and now he’s also taken a liking to the beautiful Yuki and will stop at nothing to have his wicked way with her. He is in for quite a nasty shock but even so, the higher orders remain the higher orders and those below them are left with no recourse but simply to follow suit.

The real villain of the film is this enforced class system which allows or even encourages those at its summit to run rampant over those below. The samurai will have their way and the people have nothing to oppose them with save their sense of personal integrity. The Snow Woman then becomes the film’s unlikely heroine. By the time we reach the film’s emotionally devastating finale, Yuki claims that she learned human compassion in her life with Yosaku and their child and ultimately sacrifices her own happiness to preserve that of her husband and son. Yosaku finds himself in competition with the other sculptor who manages to complete a beautiful statue but the temple priest finds it wanting, its expression is soulless and devoid of the sense of compassion he was looking for in the face of a goddess of mercy. Yosaku finds the very look he needs in his wife’s face, exhausted from lending her supernatural strength to save the life of a small child and her husband’s freedom, and in her eyes as she prepares to bid goodbye to him.

The Snow Woman is only obeying her own nature and cannot be blamed for merely being what she is, but the human cruelty and selfishness inherent in the feudal world is a matter of choice. Jito is an evil man, doubtless his world has also made him cruel and selfish but the choice always remains for him not to be – a choice which he is incapable of making. Men like Yosaku toil away endlessly and honestly but their rewards are fragile, personal things rarely recognised by the world at large. Only the Snow Woman, a cold creature, possesses the necessary warmth to breath life into a monument to mercy built solely by a pair of sincere hands.

Tanaka creates a stunning visual world using mostly simple effects and optical trickery to bring the Snow Woman’s icy domain into the ordinary feudal environment. The Snow Woman glides eerily through impressively layered snow scenes, dissolving from one world only to reappear in another. Beautifully filmed and filled with warmth and compassion despite its frozen aesthetic, The Snow Woman is deeply moving plea for empathy in a cruel world which successfully makes a tragic heroine out of its supernatural protagonist.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

Giants & Toys (巨人と玩具, Yasuzo Masumura, 1958)

91C6JzGDYTL._SL1500_Less acerbic than Masumura’s later Black Test Car, Giants & Toys (巨人と玩具, Kyojin to gangu) is an altogether more humorous, if no less piercing look at post-war consumerism. This time the battle ground is confectionary as the Japanese sweets industry laments the all powerful American candies taking over the Japanese landscape. Three sweet companies are duking it out for the hearts of Japanese consumers and the hard working salarymen in the PR & marketing departments are becoming ever more desperate to find the key to becoming Japan’s top selling sweet maker.

The three companies are Giant, Apollo and World, each of which is currently trying to come up with an advertising campaign which has a competition element that will really hook in the populace. Our main focus is with World whose top PR man, Goda, is currently stumped when he spots quirky hillbilly Kyoko in a bar and hatches on an idea to make her the central poster girl of his ad campaign. Kyoko is 18 with gap teeth and a childlike innocence that makes her a great fit for selling their confectionary products to the adult market. At the same time, Goda’s assistant Nishi meets an older female executive from Apollo who’s trying to shift a set of spacesuits. This fits in neatly with another of Goda’s space themed ideas and a suitably bizarre campaign is launched with the gangly Kyoko dressed up in a kitsch spacesuit and pointing a ray gun which is somehow supposed to encourage people to buy sweets. Kyoko is a hit! However, the more popular Kyoko becomes the more her innocent charms begin to dissipate. What will become of her, and of the campaign, as the competition mounts?

For an area that’s supposed to be so totally frivolous and cheerful, confectionary sales are serious business. Goda is working himself into an early grave just to sell sweets to grownups and old people. It’s advertising and marketing but like everything else in life it’s just so much spin. What they’re really trying to sell is frivolous fun and a return to childhood’s freedom all packed into a momentary suck on a salted caramel. In the Japan where “everyone works all the time” this may be quite an attractive idea, especially to the put upon members of the confectionary marketing board.

However, trivial as sweets are, they represent the fleeting unimportance of pop culture memes. During one of Kyoko’s recording sessions we meet one of the solitary female producers (labelled a “machine” by two of the other women waiting to be seen) who laments that a has been star keeps hassling her for work though her time has passed and no one’s interested. This is most likely how things will wind up for Kyoko, five minutes of being everywhere followed by a lifetime of being nowhere at all. After signing with World for their TV and radio advertising she becomes a break out personality attending events as a celebrity in her own right and later even becoming a pop star complete with a totally strange, South Pacific themed musical number referencing some kind of cannibalistic genocide where they’ll sell back the remains of the men they’ve killed to the native wives. Pointed satire in more ways than one.

Goda wants to build a kind of mass media dictatorship, cleverly controlling the public mood through all pervasive advertising (a prescient thought, if ever there was one). Having taken things too far, he’s taken to task by his underling, Nishi, who’s had a bit of a rethink following a series of heartbreaks involving friends and lovers. “I won’t sacrifice my dignity” he says, only to be shown doing just that a couple of minutes later as he himself dons the ridiculously camp space suit, takes the ray gun in hand and wanders out into the streets to be met by a series of bemused stares from the passersby. Eventually, the woman from Apollo with whom he’d been having an affair spots him and with an equally amused expression instructs him to “smile warmly”, at which point he grimaces before managing to turn it into a robotic grin.

Still oddly current, Giants & Toys is an absurdist’s guide to corporate politics where personal integrity is sacrificed on the altar of commerce. Everyone runs round in circles working hard to sell things no one really wants or needs to other hardworking people just to keep the wheel spinning. “Kanban Musume” come and go, one ridiculous meme follows another and we all just fall over ourselves to chase whichever unattainable ideal they pitch us. It would be nice to think the world has moved on since 1958, however…


Giants & Toys is available on R1 DVD with English subtitles courtesy of Fantoma.

No trailer but here’s the beautifully bizarre cannibalistic genocide themed music video