Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain, Yoji Yamada, 1988)

Downtown Heroes posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Yoji Yamada was an infrequent visitor to the youth movie. Best remembered for his long running Tora-san series, Yamada’s later output is marked by an alternation of laughter and tears, running between raucous family comedies and poignant examinations of wartime loss. Set in the immediate postwar period, 1988’s Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain) adapts the autobiographical novel by Akira Hayasaka for a twin tale of endings and beginnings as a group of boys prepare to leave the Japan of their childhood behind and set out into the brand-new post-war future.

Our narrator for the tale is Hayasaka’s stand-in, Kosuke (Hashinosuke Nakamura), a sensitive young man from the mountains studying at the prestigious boys’ boarding school in town. The Matsuyama high school is one of the last to still be operating in Japan’s pre-war educational model. In fact, when the boys graduate the school will shut down in favour of the American 6-3-3 standard model of organising the educational system. Nevertheless, Kosuke and his friends enjoy what seems like a fantastically broad curriculum to modern eyes, much of which consists of classic German literature. Rather than their family names, the boys refer to each other with a series of nicknames inspired by their studies and have been heavily influenced by European left-wing political ideology. Accordingly, they are less than happy about the imposed American “reforms” and, paradoxically, the restrictions placed on their individual “freedom” by the “imperialist” occupation.

The central drama revolves around two episodes occurring one after another during the final year of high school. The first involves Kosuke’s friend Arles (Toshinori Omi) and a prostitute he helps to rescue from the red light district – Sakiko (Eri Ishida) was supposed to elope with a student from the school, but he didn’t show up and if the people from the brothel she was sold to find her she’ll be in big trouble. Her suitor turns out to be a fraud, but the boys are committed to saving her and hide Sakiko in their dorm, sharing their meagre rations with her before helping her escape to her home town. Meanwhile, the boys are also preparing for the very last culture festival the school will ever see at which they will present their adaptation of a classic German play. The snag is, the play needs a girl. Eventually the gang enlist the help of Fusako (Hiroko Yakushimaru) – a student at the girls’ school recently repatriated from Manchuria who also happens to be the young lady Kosuke had a meet cute with on the road and has been in love with ever since. Trouble brews when Gan (Tetta Sugimoto), the play’s director, falls in love with her too.

Told from the POV both of the old and the young Kosuke, the atmosphere is one of intense melancholy and inescapable nostalgia. Though these were times of hardship – rationing is fierce and intense, so much so that the school no longer serves meals at all on Sundays and the boys largely subsist on rice gruel, they were also times of joy and possibility. These are however youngsters in the best tradition of the sensitive young men of Japanese literature. They feel everything deeply, fully aware that they are living on the cusp of something new, which necessarily also means to be standing atop a grave. Their world is collapsing and the values they’ve been given (progressive though they seem to be) are about to be thrown out of the window. They have been taught that nothing is more important than their personal autonomy and that personal freedom is attained only through overcoming hardship, but their lives will increasingly be dictated by occupying forces and they feel themselves robbed of something without the right to reply.

Nevertheless their problems are also ordinary teenage ones of romantic crises and friendship dilemmas. Kosuke struggles with his love at first sight crush on Fusako but remains too diffident to say anything until it’s almost too late, while he also struggles to figure out what the most proper thing to do is when Gan reveals he is also in love with her. Gan, a sensitive writer, apparently burns with longing – so much so that he’s written a book long confession of love in apology for being unable to declare himself in person. Kosuke, a good friend, agrees to deliver the letter but both of them have neglected to consider Fusakao’s feelings so bound up are they in their own solipsistic dramas. Fusako was also struck by the love bug on her first meeting with Kosuke and has been patiently waiting for him to say something (as is the custom of the time). She is therefore doubly hurt and offended when he delivers a mini-tome on the theme of love from someone else before attempting to leave abruptly in a huff. Truth be told, there are few women who would enjoy being handed a thesis as a confession, but Fusako is really not in the mood to read one now.

Ending on a melancholy epilogue in which the old Kosuke looks on at field of young men playing American football before some others in running shorts brush past him and a young couple enjoy an evening walk, Yamada embraces the mild sense of deflation that has been building since the beginning. Young love faded and the dreams of youth were destined to come to nothing – not quite a tragedy, or perhaps only one of the ordinary kind, but food for the regrets of age all the same. The times were hard, and then they got better but somehow they were never so happy again. A youth drama indeed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Theme song “Jidai” performed by Hiroko Yakushimaru

Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Yoji Yamada, 1965)

flag in the mist poster 2In theory, we’re all equal under the law, but the business of justice is anything but egalitarian. Yoji Yamada is generally known for his tearjerking melodramas or genial comedies but Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Kiri no Hata) is a rare step away from his most representative genres, drawing inspiration from America film noir and adding a touch of typically Japanese cynical humour. Based on a novel by Japanese mystery master Seicho Matsumoto, Flag in the Mist is a tale of hopeless, mutually destructive revenge which sees a murderer walk free while the honest but selfish pay dearly for daring to ignore the poor in need of help. A powerful message in the increasing economic prosperity of 1965, but one that leaves no clear path for the successful revenger.

Kiriko (Chieko Baisho), a twenty year old typist from Kyushu, has taken an arduous train journey into Tokyo to get a meeting with a top lawyer she hopes will defend her older brother and only living relative from a trumped up murder charge. The clerk attempts to dissuade her – Mr. Otsuka (Osamu Takizawa) charges a hefty sum for his services and, in any case, his docket is too full to be travelling back and forth to Kyushu never mind the additional travel and accommodation costs. Kiriko is disappointed but undeterred – she thinks she can manage the expenses, but asks for a discount on the fee. The clerk finds this amusing and does at least ask Otsuka who finally agrees to see Kiriko seeing as she’s come all this way. She makes an impression on him but ultimately he tells her he’s just too busy and she’s better off looking for a lawyer closer to home.

Kiriko leaves disappointed but refuses to give up, missing her original train to try again by telephone but Otsuka has already gone out “to see clients” and so she finally has to accept her mission to save her brother may have stalled. While Kiriko was using the public phone, she was overheard by a reporter, Abe (Yosuke Kondo), who wants to write something on the case but his Tokyo based bosses aren’t so keen on a local interest story from halfway across the country.

A year later, Kiriko’s brother Masao (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) has been convicted and sentenced to death. After his second appeal fails, Masao dies of illness in prison before the sentence could be carried out. Kiriko writes a bitter letter to Otsuka blaming him for her brother’s death which forces Otsuka to reconsider his decision not to take the case. He comes to the conclusion that the case was unwinable and therefore his decision not to take it made no difference but then, he spots something that no one else seems to have noticed.

A tenacious and strong willed young woman – you’d have to be to jump on a long distance train from a tiny village all the way to the big city on your own in 1965, Kiriko is determined to save her brother but finds herself facing an uphill battle against a society deliberately structured to ignore her voice and those of everyone like her. Kiriko is an orphan and so her older bother is also a kind of father figure as well as the only living relative she has left. Masao had been a primary school teacher, which is to say a respected member of society, but found himself involved with a loanshark who was later murdered after he lost some cash collected from students to pay for a school trip and borrowed money he couldn’t pay back from a ruthless old woman. Masao has made a mistake he’s going to pay for dearly – disgraced and humiliated, it was easy work to frame him for a violent crime and force him into a confession through the usual police methods. Kiriko won’t stand for it, but she’s powerless to help him.

Otsuka is, in a sense, entitled to charge what he wants for his services. He’s clearly a talented lawyer, very much in demand, and so why “should” he trek all the way out to Kyushu for a case that doesn’t interest him when he has enough clients already. He does, at least, bother to listen to Kiriko’s pitch before letting her down gently, but just when it seems he might be about to change his mind he tells his clerk to cancel all his appointments and winds up on the golf course with his girlfriend. So much for being too busy to save an innocent man’s life.

Kiriko’s “whole life has been desecrated by one incident” as she cuttingly writes later in a letter which forms a crucial part of her plot of revenge against the man who refused to save her brother’s life (half talking about something else). Forced out of her hometown where she’s the murderer’s sister, she finds work as hostess going by the club name of Rie in a Tokyo bar which has a Kyushu theme. This brings her back into contact with the reporter, Abe, and that isn’t the last of the coincidences as Kiriko finds herself swept up by circumstances which allow her to turn an unfortunate series of events into a cunning plan to ruin Otsuka by neatly echoing the precise circumstances of her brother’s case. Now it’s Otsuka forced to plead with her night after night, begging on his knees that she agree to testify and turn over key evidence that proves his client is innocent all while Kiriko adamantly sticks to her story.

Yamada conjures a tense and gloomy film noir world, following Kiriko down foggy passageways as she tries to navigate the city from the shadows, chasing the spectre of the unjust but losing herself in the process. Masao dies because he was too poor to hire a good lawyer to save him from the police who were supposed to be protecting him, but decided it was easier to stitch up someone without influence than find the real killer. His sister destroys herself to get revenge not just on lawyers more interested in fame and success than in serving justice but on an entire society which believes her existence is insufficiently important to merit full consideration. Otsuka is not a bad man, he is not corrupt or incompetent, he is merely selfish in all the ways his society encourages him to be. Originally letting himself off the hook with the excuse that his decision made no difference, he’s genuinely horrified when he realises he’s noticed a crucial clue which could have exonerated Masao even if it’s an equally selfish guilt he feels more than a recognition that he’s failed his duty to justice by letting an innocent man die while a guilty one lives to kill again. No one wins in this case, everyone emerges ruined and broken by the increasing inequalities and selfish individualism of the post-war world. Justice is blind, so they say, but perhaps she needs to open her eyes.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him (男の顔は履歴書, Tai Kato, 1966)

by a man's faceJapanese cinema has not been as shy as might be supposed in examining uncomfortable topics concerning the nation’s mid 20th century history but perhaps prefers to tackle them from a subtle, sideways viewpoint. By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him (男の顔は履歴書, Otokonokao wa Rirekisho) is, in essence, a fairly straightforward gangster pic – save that the rampaging gangsters are a mob of “zainichi” Koreans rather than post-war yakuza or petty hoodlums. Less about what it is to be an outsider or the quest for identity in second generation immigrants, Kato’s film is about what it says it is about – a man’s face.

The film begins in the contemporary era when morose doctor Amamiya is contemplating a transfer to an island posting which proves unappealing to him. Shortly after, a badly injured man is brought in following a car accident and, though Amamiya originally suggests the man be taken to a hospital as his chances of survival are slim, he changes his mind after lifting the sheet and recognising the man on the stretcher. The two men go back a long way – firstly to the battlefield where “Shibata” was a private in the army serving alongside Amamiya and secondly to an incident which dictated the rest of Amamiya’s life when he ran the local GP’s office and also happened to own the deeds to some land a bunch of Korean gangsters wanted to get their hands on. Thanks to their earlier association, “Shibata” now returning to his Korean name “Choi” was able to assist Amamiya in mitigating the gangster onslaught as he himself was a member of the gang.

Perhaps more to do with the production styles of the time, all of the “Korean” gangsters are played by Japanese actors and only ever speak Japanese even to each other. Nevertheless, they all want “revenge” for Japan’s treatment of Korea and Koreans during the years of occupation and warfare. In 1949 Japan is still in ruins and the gangsters see this as a prime opportunity to finally take Japan apart and presumably also profit in the process. The leader of this particular gang has set his sights on taking over the “New Life Marketplace” (a pregnant title if ever there was one) with the intention of turning it into an “entertainment district”. His guys, including one totally crazy foot soldier played by a particularly manic Bunta Sugawara, run roughshod over the town until finally raping and murdering Japanese women which they dismiss as par for the course given Japan’s treatment of Korean women over the past thirty years.

This is not a subtle examination of Korean Japanese relations in the post-war environment, these are gangsters and movie gangsters are generally all the same. They say they want to destroy Japan but ultimately they want what all gangs want – to control the area and extort maximum profit. Choi, and the young female Korean Gye, were born in Japan, have never even been to Korea and can’t really claim to have a great deal of Korean cultural knowledge. All they have are their names, now reclaimed after Japan’s wartime defeat. Throughout the war years, Choi used the Japanese version of his name “Shibata” and tried to pass himself off as Japanese (apparently successfully) but is now committed to embracing his Korean heritage even if it once again sees him placed in a subjugated position.

Amamiya returned from the war and took over his father’s medical clinic in his home town. He’s cynical and apathetic. He treats the people who come in to his clinic without discrimination but he doesn’t care very much about the area either. The only thing he really cares about is his nurse, Maki, with whom he’s been having a passionate affair and seems to be deeply in love. Amamiya makes an enemy of the Koreans early on when he fights off some guys who are hassling his nurse proving that he’s no pushover. The title deeds for the land the market is built on also belong to Amamiya who is unlikely to surrender them. The townspeople first turn to the regular Japanese yakuza who are unable to help with their currently depleted manpower leaving Amamiya as their only form of salvation.

When Amamiya’s hotheaded brother turns up and starts causing all sorts of trouble with the Koreans as a way of avenging Japan’s wartime defeat, Amamiya is dragged into a battle he had no desire to fight. Shunji was too young to fight in the war but is a representative of the younger generation who can’t accept the new post-war society and what they see as their older siblings failure to support the nation. Though a strong attraction develops between Shunji and Gye, their love story becomes another casualty of the harsh post-war world. Reluctantly, Amamiya becomes the last defender of these put upon people leading to a High Noon style solo stand against the Koreans whilst the terrified populace look on in fear and hope.

Kato creates a colourful world rich in symbolism such as the early scene in which Choi’s red blood drips down the white sheet accidentally recreating the Japanese flag. Amamiya’s prominent scar becomes both a plot point and a symbolic motif as it echoes the film’s title in bearing out his “history”. A man’s life is indeed written on his face, and Choi’s wife’s urging to her daughter that they watch Choi’s face as he fights for his life is another indication that one’s true nature is seen most clearly in times of duress. The film closes on an ambiguous note, in one sense, but closes its thematic line neatly. Amamiya faces a choice and no choice at the same time but through his face we know him and so we understand.