Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末, Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

samurai rebellion posterIf Masaki Kobayashi had one overriding concern throughout his relatively short career, it was the place of the individual with an oppressive society. Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末, Joi-uchi: Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu), not quite the crashing chanbara action the title promises, returns to many of the same themes presented in Kobayashi’s earlier Harakiri in its tale of corrupt lords and a vassal who can no longer submit himself to their hypocritical demands. On the film’s original release, distributor Toho added a subtitle to the otherwise stark “Rebellion”, “Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu”, which means something like “sad story of a bestowed wife” and was intended to help boost attendance among female filmgoers who might be put off by the overly male samurai overtones. The central conflict is that of the ageing samurai Isaburo (Toshiro Mifune), but Kobayashi saves his sympathy for a powerless woman, twice betrayed, and given no means by which to defend herself in a world which values female life cheaply and a woman’s feelings not at all.

Having the misfortune to live in a time of peace, expert swordsman Isaburo has only the one duty of testing out the lord’s new sword (which he will never draw) on a straw dummy. He and his friend Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai) are of a piece – two men whose skills are wasted daily and who find themselves at odds with the often cruel and arbitrary samurai world, refusing to fight each other because the outcome would only cause pain to one or both of their families. Isaburo has two grownup sons and dreams of becoming a grandpa but needs to find a wife for his eldest, Yogoro (Go Kato). He wants to find a woman who is loyal, loving, and kind. As a young man Isaburo was “forced” into marriage and adopted into his wife’s family but has been miserable ever since as his wife, Suga (Michiko Otsuka), is a sharp tongued, unpleasant woman whose only redeeming features are her stoicism and dedication to propriety.

It is then not particularly good news when the local steward turns up one day and informs Isaburo that the lord is getting rid of his mistress and has decided to marry her off to Yogoro. News travels fast and though others may appear jealous of such an “honour”, Isaburo is quietly angry – not only is he being expected to take on “damaged goods” in a woman who’s already born a son to another man, but they won’t even tell him why she’s being sent away, and the one thing he wanted for his son was not to end up in the same miserable position as he did. Nevertheless when Isaburo repeatedly tries to decline the “kind offer”, he is prevented. A suggestion quickly becomes an order, and Yogoro consents to prevent further conflict.

Against the odds, Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) is everything Isaburo had wanted in a daughter-in-law and even puts up with Suga’s constant unkindness with patience and humility. Eventually she and Yogoro fall deeply in love and have a baby daughter, Tomi, but when the lord’s oldest heir dies and Ichi’s son becomes the next in line, it’s thought inappropriate for her to remain the wife of a mere vassal. Summoned to the castle, Ichi is once again robbed of her child but also of her happiness.

Ichi’s tale truly is a sad one and emblematic of the fates and positions of upperclass women in the feudal world. Having had the misfortune to catch the lord’s eye, Ichi tries to decline when the steward shows up to take her to the castle, reminding him that she is already betrothed. Sure that her fiancé will protect her, Ichi says she’ll go if he agrees never thinking that he would. Betrayed in love, Ichi is sold to the castle to be raped by the elderly Daimyo who views her as little more than a baby making machine and faceless body to do with as he wishes. When she returns from a post-natal trip to the spa and discovers the lord has already taken a new mistress, her anger is not born of jealously but resentment and disgust. This other woman is proud of her “position” at the lord’s side when she should be raging as Ichi is now, at her powerlessness, at the male society which reduces her to an object traded between men, and at the rapacious assault upon her body by a man older than her father.

Isaburo is also raging, but at the cruel and heartless obsession with order and protocol which has defined his short, unhappy life. Having been a model vassal, Isaburo has lived a life hemmed in by these rules but can bear them no longer in their disregard for human feeling or simple integrity. Isaburo says no, and then refuses to budge. Having retired and surrendered control of the household to Yogoro, Isaburo leaves the decision to his son who refuses to surrender his wife and swears to protect her from being subjected to the same cruel treatment as before. The samurai order is not set up for hearing the word “no”, and the actions of Isaburo, Yogoro, and Ichi threaten to bring the entire system crashing down. Love is the dangerous, destabilising, manifestation of personal desire which the system is in place to crush.

Isaburo’s rebellion, as he later says, is not for himself, or for his son and daughter-in-law whose deep love for each other has reawakened the young man in him, but for all whose personal freedom has been constrained by those who misuse their power to foster fear and oppression. Having picked up his sword, Isaburo will not stand down until his voice is heard, fairly, under these same rules that the authority is so keen on enforcing. He does not want revenge, or even to destroy the system, he just wants it to respect him and his right to refuse requests he feels are unjust or improper. Like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, Isaburo’s fate will be an unhappy one but even so he is alive again at last as the fire of rebellion rekindles his youthful heart. Those caught within the system from the venal stewards and greedy vassals to the selfish lords suddenly terrified the Shogun will discover their mass misconduct are dead men walking, sublimating their better natures in favour of creating the facade of obedience and conformity whilst manipulating those same rules for their own ends, yet the central trio, meeting their ends with defiance, are finally free.


Available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from Criterion Collection.

Original trailer (English subtitles – poor quality)

Romantic Daughters (ロマンス娘, Toshio Sugie, 1956)

vlcsnap-2016-05-30-23h55m41s358Romantic Daughters (ロマンス娘, Romance Musume) is the second big screen outing for the singing star combo known as “sannin musume”. A year on from So Young, So Bright, Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura reunite on screen once again playing three ordinary teenagers with a love of singing and being cheerful through adversity. This time the main thrust of the narrative is the girls’ friendship with a wealthy boy and his grumpy grandpa who takes a liking to them.

Michiru, Rumiko, and Eriko are three ordinary teenage girls in contemporary ‘50s Japan. Very close friends, they even have part time jobs working together at a local department store. One day Michiru decides to return some change a customer forgot to take with him directly to his home and the three girls are rewarded for their extremely high commitment to customer service by getting their pictures in the paper! This brings them to the attention of their friend Kubota’s grandfather who is very impressed with their honesty. He invites them round to his mansion where they enjoy a mini Western style feast and play a few songs on the piano. Shortly after, a man in a bow tie turns up and says he’s managed to find grandpa’s long lost daughter only she has unfortunately passed away leaving a little girl, Yukiko, with no one to look after her. Grandpa isn’t quite convinced by this story, but begins spending time with the sad little girl to try and see if she really could be his granddaughter.

Just like So Young, So Bright, Romantic Daughters is not an integrated musical but an ironic comedy with frequent musical interludes. There are plenty of excuses found for the girls to suddenly start singing, whether it’s that they’re involved in a local festival, entertaining an old man, or trying to cheer up a sullen little girl. Also like the first film, the girls (and Kubota) attend a theatrical performance but this time they do actually see “themselves” – that is Michiru, Rumiko, and Eriko head off to see Izumi, Hibari, and Chiemi. They even sit underneath a large poster of their real life counterparts in the lobby completely confusing one of their admirers who can’t believe his luck! Once again they each get a production number with Izumi getting the “sexy” routine this time which is a little bit On the Town. Chiemi gets an elegant set piece with a ball gown and a fairytale palace behind her, but Hibari’s number is just kind of nuts as she cross dresses to play a male samurai who ends up “saving” Michiru from the attentions of Chiemi who is also playing a guy complete with bald cap and top knot.

Kubota seems most interested in Rumiko and the other two girls have some kind of relationship with two other guys who work at an amusement park but are completely forgotten about for most of the film until they’re needed to fill the other two rear seats for the finale which is a trio number featuring the three girls riding bicycles with the guys on the back. At one point the girls and Kubota decide to take the little girl to the amusement park to try and cheer her up, which they eventually do by venturing into a haunted house (actually quite scary) where Chiemi decides to break protocol by using some of the judo moves she was seen practicing earlier on a couple of the ghosts and ghouls to be found in the psychedelic horror show.

Once again what’s on offer is cute and fluffy fun with some silly comedy and impressively choreographed production numbers thrown in. Like the first film there are also a number of recurring subplots of single mothers, long lost fathers, and this time also the problem of the little girl who may or may not be the granddaughter but by the time they start to reach a conclusion it may be too late to undo all the bonding that’s begin to occur in any case. Cinematic soul food, Romantic Daughters makes full use of its vibrant Eastman colours for a Hollywood inspired elegant musical feast that is undoubtedly a lot of empty calories but nevertheless extremely satisfying.


Can’t find any clips from the film but here is the English language US pop track sung by Izumi Yukimura in the movie in its release version:

So Young, So Bright (AKA Janken Musume, ジャンケン娘, Toshio Sugie, 1955)

Janken MusumePop stars invading the cinematic realm either for reasons of commerce, vanity, or just simple ambition is hardly a new phenomenon and even continues today with the biggest singers of the era getting to play their own track over the closing credits of the latest tentpole feature. This is even more popular in Japan where idol culture dominates the entertainment world and boy bands boys are often top of the list for any going blockbuster (wisely or otherwise). Cycling back to 1955 when the phenomenon was at its heyday all over the world, So Young, So Bright (ジャンケン娘, Janken Musume) is the first of four so called “three girl” (Sannin Musume) musicals which united the three biggest female singers of the post-war era: Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura for a music infused comedy caper.

As far as plot goes, it’s actually very simple and yet quite complicated at the same time as highschoolers Yumi (Chiemi Eri) and Ruri (Hibari Misora) end up on a school trip to Kyoto where they fall in a river because they’re laughing so much at their classmates’ excitement at spotting someone filming a jidaigeki on the riverbank (neat cameo from director Toshio Sugie). Breaking off from their group, they take their uniforms off to dry only to be disturbed by a young man who tries to take photographs of them at which point they pretend to be washing some clothes in the river. Later they head to an inn which is owned by a friend of Ruri’s mother (who is also an inn owner and former geisha) where they befriend an apprentice geisha, Piyo (Izumi Yukimura).

Piyo then turns up in Tokyo in a bit of a state as it turns out she will shortly be sold into prostitution! She’s fallen in love with someone from the city who she thinks could save her if only she can find him so the girls set out to help her, except the guy’s name is Saito which is the Smith of Japan. During all of this, Ruri also has a subplot about her long lost father who will shortly be moving abroad and apparently wants to actually meet her, opening lots of old wounds.

So Young, So Bright is not a musical in the classical sense, it’s not integrated, but allows ample space for its singing stars to do their thing. Yumi just loves to sing so she randomly starts singing songs she’s heard everywhere, Piyo sings as a geisha and Ruri is rehearsing for some kind of kabuki style performance she gives alone on stage at the climax of the film.

That aside, the main musical sequence comes towards the end where the three girls go to the theatre together and strangely end up seeing “themselves” performing on stage. It’s a neat kind of fantasy sequence in which each of the girls indulges in a little bit of daydreaming as they imagine themselves as stage stars with Piyo being given the cutest, most MGM style number which is then followed by a number from Yumi entitled “Africa” which is very much of its time…and then you get the elegant number from Ruri which is mostly the English version of La Vie en Rose. They also get a trio number to close the film which takes place entirely on a rollercoaster but celebrates each of their slightly different singing styles.

So Young, So Bright is not intended to be anything other than irrepressibly cheerful fluff (despite containing a subplot about possible forced prostitution), but succeeds in being exactly that. An early colour film from Japan it certainly makes fantastic use of its technicolour swirl to give Hollywood a run for its money in the sophistication of happiness stakes. Hollywood musicals are quite clearly the biggest influence though perhaps more those from the pre-war era even down to the only large scale dance sequence which has a distinct Busby Berkley vibe (even it only lasts twenty seconds or so). The rest of the film is actually quite light on dance but makes sure to showcase the singing talents of each of its leading ladies equally. Strangely innocent, even if darkness lurks around the edges with the betrayed geisha and possible prostitution subplots, So Young, So Bright lives up to its name as a completely charming musical comedy that is perfectly primed to banish even the bluest of blues far into the distance.


These movies are so much fun! No subtitles but here are some clips of the various musical numbers:

Izumi Yukimura’s Cha Cha number:

Chiemi Eri’s Africa number (not very PC by modern standards, just a warning)

Hibari Misora’s take on the English language version of La Vie en Rose

And the finale: