The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Kihachi Okamoto, 1959)

By 1959, Japan was well on the way towards economic recovery but this transitionary period brought with it its own dilemmas and particularly for those whose main line of business had in a sense depended on instability and desperation. The first of Kihachi Okamoto’s early crime capers, The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Ankokugai no kaoyaku) finds the yakuza at just this moment of crisis, prescient in a sense in perhaps prematurely implying that post-war gangsterdom was already on its way out. 

The film opens, however, with a piece of yakuza thuggery as a mysterious man guns down an industrialist before barreling down the stairs and into a waiting car occupied by getaway driver Mineo (Akira Takarada) who is inconveniently spotted by a passerby, 16-year-old ramen restaurant waitress Kana (Rumiko Sasa). As we discover, Mineo is the younger brother of veteran gangster Ryuta (Koji Tsuruta), a middle-ranking member of the newly rebranded, rapidly corporatising yakuza outfit Yokomitsu Trading who seem to specialise in legal debt collection and running the entertainment district. Torn between their desire for a degree of legitimacy and their thuggish instincts, Yokomitsu have evidently knocked off a rival using an external hitman but now have a problem on their hands especially as Mineo has apparently embarked on a career as a singer in a teen jazz bar located in the same area as Kana’s restaurant which is at the very least unwise. 

Mineo is in many ways the “innocent” seen in many other similarly themed yakuza dramas, still too young to have been corrupted by the underworld and only an accomplice in the crime for which he is being asked to pay. He wants to get out of the yakuza life and sees singing as his escape route, adopting the persona of “Eddie Mineo” and styling himself as a teen idol in the vein of the rock ’n roll American pop culture which seems to be dominiating the late ‘50s youth scene. Yet Okamoto is also clearly evoking the world of Hollywood crime cinema, the environment open and dusty while everyone seems to drive massive Cadillacs and his gangsters behave much more like those in American movies than traditional yakuza even as the traditional yakuza is also changing. 

“I can’t stand it anymore” Ryuta finally exclaims, “There’s neither righteousness nor rules among mobsters”, tipped over the edge by the gang’s plan to kill the teenage witness. He wants out too, but considers himself already too far gone while pulled in two directions in his desire to save both his brother and his young son who has a lame leg and is being cared for in a hospital. Ryuta wears his wedding ring throughout though there’s no mention of what happened to his wife, while he’s also pulled between two potential love interests in the sympathetic doctor who cares for his son, Sumiko (Yumi Shirakawa), and the brassy cabaret girl, Rie (Mitsuko Kusabue), who does her best to save him, but in the end is never very much interested in either of them. He’s constantly haunted by his crimes, knowing what happens to yakuza who fall from grace in his murder of a man who limped and walked with a crutch just like his son. 

The clan are also planning to off a former foot soldier, Ishiyama, who in fact commits suicide immediately after his release from prison realising the futility of his position. Ishiyama’s suicide note directly references that of notorious post-war gangster Rikio Ishikawa whose life inspired Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor 15 years later “I took too big a gamble. lt’s a big laugh. It’s been a thirty year long spree.“ Ryuta realises there’s no way out of his life of crime, but finds himself conflicted even in his desire to ensure his brother and son remain free of it. His sense of futility is however wider, witnessing the death and decline of the traditional yakuza in itself the film climaxing in a moment of yakuza apocalypse as those apparently sick and tired of violence and intimidation finally fight back making it clear that organised crime is no longer welcome in the increasingly prosperous society. 

Skewing darker in tone than Okamoto’s subsequent entries into the “ankokugai” or “underworld” series, The Big Boss is lighter on his characteristically absurdist sense of humour but does feature a little of the exaggerated, cartoonish violence otherwise his hallmark while adding a note of irony as in his use of a sign outlining the numbers for police and ambulance or the sight of a bunch of children playing with guns while a hitman has a go on the swings. There is perhaps a sense of resistance to the conventionality of the material or that his relative inexperience, this being only his third film (the first two both romantic comedy vehicles for Izumi Yukimura) prevented him from fully embracing his anarchic spirit but The Big Boss nevertheless sows the seeds of his later career in its insistence on the absurdity of violence. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mother (おかあさん, Mikio Naruse, 1952)

The hahamono or mother movie is a mainstay of post-war cinema, obsessed as it is with self-sacrificing maternity. Mikio Naruse, however, is not a name you’d expect to see associating itself with the genre and his 1952 film Mother (おかあさん, Okaasan), adapted from a child’s essay, is indeed subtly subversive, transgressively questioning the institution of motherhood itself while ostensibly remaining faithful to genre norms even as it makes an accidental villain of its teenage heroine who closes the film plaintively praying for her mother’s happiness having not so long ago shut down perhaps her only real hope of achieving it. 

The Fukuhara family ran a successful laundry before the war, but these days father Ryosuke (Masao Mishima) works at a factory and is nicknamed Papa Popeye by his kids because of his finely tuned muscles born of a lifetime training the iron. Matriarch Masako (Kinuyo Tanaka) and 18-year-old daughter Toshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), our narrator, help the family finances by running street food stalls, while oldest son Susumu (Akihiko Katayama) has become ill with a lung complaint caused by poor conditions at the wool factory where he was working. In addition to youngest daughter Chako who is still in school, the family has also taken in little Tetsu (Takashi Ito) the son of Masako’s sister Noriko (Chieko Nakakita) who is now a widow recently repatriated from Manchuria. 

Like many films of the occupation period, the family at the centre of Mother is determined to rebuild, pinning all their hopes on being able to renovate their home in order to be able to reopen the laundry. The war is very much a background presence but its influence is still deeply felt not least in the ruins and devastation glimpsed around the house and the constant references to loss and widowhood which seem to plague Masako, so many women having lost sons and husbands in the conflict. The tragedy is that Masako will eventually in one sense or another lose all her children by the end of the picture, Susumu succumbing to his illness after having discharged himself from hospital out of guilt and loneliness missing his mother, Chako eventually taken in by wealthier relatives who lost their son in the war, Tetsu soon to be retrieved by his mother, and Toshiko herself clearly heading towards marriage with the cheerful and surprisingly progressive baker Shinjiro (Eiji Okada) with whom she has become close. 

Perhaps surprisingly Toshiko seems remarkably immature for her age, her voiceover taken as it is from a child’s essay has a slightly stilted quality that nevertheless makes plain her poor grasp of the adult world and most particularly the reality of her mother’s life. Masako later tells us that she started working at 14 and continued until she married at not so much older than Toshiko is now despite later stating that Toshiko is too young to marry only to find her self shocked when confronted by the sight of her in a wedding dress stifling a brief wave of despair that her daughter may soon be a wife. Originally complaining about not being able to take dressmaking classes like some of the other girls, Toshiko belatedly swears to help support the family firstly to prevent Chako going to stay with relatives and secondly because her boyfriend inadvertently gives her the impression there’s truth in a local rumour that her mother plans to remarry following her husband’s death from overwork and poverty with a friend of their father’s who’s been helping them out in the shop, “Uncle POW” Mr. Kimura (Daisuke Kato). 

Shinjiro is quick to tell her that she’s being unreasonable. In the modern world parents shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice their personal desires for their children, her mother is also a woman and has the right to pursue happiness in marrying again if she chooses. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly concrete between Masako and Mr. Kimura besides a genial domesticity, the rumour is partly local wishful thinking in knowing that remarriage is sensible economic choice and the pair seem well suited. Toshiko objects strongly to the idea out of fear, jealousy, and outdated moralising resenting her mother for betraying her father’s memory but also fearing further changes in her familial relationships in an already uncertain world. 

In this her otherwise saccharine closing monologue in which she looks on as her mother plays with Tetsu and wonders if she’s really “happy” achieves its final irony, transgressively undercutting the primacy of the self-sacrificing mother to question the ideology of motherhood itself when it requires women to sacrifice their lives and desires in service of an ideal of “family”. Nevertheless, Mother is among the most ostensibly cheerful of Narusean dramas in the gentle comedy and naturalistic depiction of a warm and loving family committed to compassion, kindness, and mutual support as pathways towards a better post-war future.  


Mother is currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel

Sun Above, Death Below (狙撃, Hiromichi Horikawa, 1968)

“Fighting is the only way I have to live my life” according to a hitman battling existential ennui in Hiromichi Horikawa’s Toho action B-movie, Sun Above, Death Below (狙撃, Sogeki). A starrier affair than the studio’s other forays into moody crime, Horikawa’s psychedelic exploration of a killer drawn to death nevertheless situates itself very much in the world of 1968 in which the hero’s attempt to escape his sense of emptiness through killing is directly linked to an increasing economic prosperity and its concurrent costs in the nation’s current geopolitical positioning. 

As if to signal this sense of societal anxiety, the first target Matsushita (Yuzo Kayama) knocks off is sitting in the back row of the last carriage on the Shinkansen out of Tokyo. His next job, however, will apparently be more complicated. A criminal gang want him to take out “five or six” targets at a specific location in order to intercept a fortune in gold smuggled by, as later becomes clear, an international Chinese gangster, though the men at the waterside greet each other in Arabic. The hit does not go entirely to plan but Matsushita is later able to bring the situation under control allowing the gang to get their hands on the gold. The smugglers, meanwhile, are obviously unhappy with this turn of events and send in their best hitman (Masayuki Mori), who permanently travels with a blonde companion, to take back what’s theirs. 

Matsushita is a killer for hire so he doesn’t really care very much about the gold and is even annoyed when the gang try to pay him with it, correctly surmising they didn’t really expect him to succeed so haven’t bothered bringing any cash. As he explains to love interest Shoko (Ruriko Asaoka), he doesn’t really care about anything. He simply shoots at the best target, man, with his favourite gun. He kills to feel alive, explaining that the intense concentration in which he becomes one with the gun as if it were an extension of his own body allows him to overcome his sense of existential dread which is why he’s so ice cool all the time. 

A fashion model obsessed with rare butterflies and the paradise to be found New Guinea Shoko dreams of a time in which they can become one under the sun, envisioning a future in which Matsushita has become friends with all the creatures of the forest. Yet as Matsushita tells an old friend, Fukazawa (Shin Kishida), running a secondhand gun shop near a US army base as a front for his revolutionary activities, he has no dream or ideal and knows nothing other than killing. Whereas as his friend is apparently working for some kind of never quite explained but seemingly left-wing/anarchist cause, Matsushita simply lives out his days of emptiness on some level knowing he’ll probably never make it to Shoko’s New Guinean utopia. 

Fukazawa nevertheless hints at the political instability all around them, firstly agreeing to pawn a gun for a pair of Americans after beer money, and then by handing Matsushita an AK47 apparently smuggled back from Vietnam via the American base. Matsushita’s sense of ennui is born of this growing unease with empty capitalistic consumerism and a concurrent sense of powerless in Japan’s ongoing complicity with American foreign policy in Asia. Displaying a sense of Sinophobia familiar from many similar films of this era, the big boss turns out to be Chinese while many that surround him are also from outside of Japan even if Matsushita’s rival is just a slightly older, crueller version of himself. 

One of Toho’s more serious crime dramas, Horikawa often veers into experimental territory with his psychedelic butterfly imagery Matsushita apparently having some kind of vision while experiencing carnal ecstasy that equates climax with literal gunshot, while his usage of stock footage featuring the New Guinean indigenous community along with an out of place blackface tribal dance performed in a hotel room clearly display some outdated attitudes otherwise unacceptable and potentially offensive in the present day. Nevertheless, Sun Above, Death Below largely lives up to its hardboiled title, the Japanese “Sniping” perhaps also hinting at the various ways Matsushita eventually strays into the crosshairs of his own inevitable destiny. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)

The Beast Shall Die (野獣死すべし, Eizo Sugawa, 1959)

“He’s not a beast. No, he’s a robot. A machine created by a modern, twisted society” according to a frustrated policeman acknowledging that a sociopathic killer is going to get away with his crimes because when it comes right down to it he’s just that good. Eizo Sugawa’s The Beast Shall Die (野獣死すべし, Yaju Shisubeshi) is the first of several adaptations of the hardboiled novel by Haruhiko Oyabu, Sugawa would himself direct a “sequel” 15 years later while a better-known version would prove a hit for Toru Murakawa in 1980 with action star Yusaku Matsuda in the leading role, and a two-part V-cinema adaptation would follow in 1997. The 1959 edition however is very much an expression of the anxiety of its times, a slightly reactionary take on the post-Sun Tribe phenomenon hinting at a generational divide between the nihilistic, hyper individualist post-war generation and their confused though morally compromised forbears. 

As the film opens, three policemen meet in a pub one of whom proudly shows off a Robby the Robot toy he’s picked up for his young son and is intending to give him on returning home from work. Sadly, however, Okada (Akira Sera) will never make it home because, for largely unexplained reasons, he is shot dead by nihilistic American literature student Date (Tatsuya Nakadai) who bundles the body into the boot of a car which he then simply abandons. Date never reveals much of a motive for this first murder, but he does later use Okada’s warrant card and service weapon to facilitate later crimes. 

The problem, at least for earnest policemen Kawashima (Eijiro Tono), a veteran cop and father of seven, and idealistic rookie Masugi (Hiroshi Koizumi) who is engaged to barmaid Yoko (Yumi Shirakawa) but drags his feet over the marriage because of his precarious life as a law enforcement officer, is an ideological divide within the contemporary police force. “Investigations are about science. And science is the best” according to their boss, reflecting a new faith in forensics prioritising physical evidence from the crime scene over a policeman’s intuition. From a modern perspective, this seems to be the right call though Kawashima and Masugi appear to find it both restrictive and mildly insulting as if their experience on the job now counts for nothing. They also worry that such rigid thinking prevents thorough investigation, and they might have a point in the boss’ continued insistence that the crimes must be down to “gang activity” even though the evidence clearly points at someone connected to the university or perhaps a disgruntled salaryman with access to the uni gun club. 

Kawashima and Masugi lament that they feel powerless to act because they don’t have the right to arrest someone on the basis of a “hunch”, and the film seems to agree with them as Date continues to commit his crimes unbothered by law enforcement though really who wants to live in such an authoritarian society that the police can haul you in solely because they think there’s something odd about you and “feel” you must be guilty of a crime even in the absence of conclusive evidence? Nevertheless it’s precisely these ideological divides that Date wilfully exploits while planning his hits, his second targets also reflecting the continuing Sinophobia of post-war cinema in impersonating a police officer to rob, but interestingly not kill, a pair of Chinese gangsters running an illegal gambling racket. 

Hearing Date’s back story, we realise that society has in a sense warped him in witnessing an injustice done to his father which later led to his suicide while his mother was apparently engaging in an affair with the man who framed him. He strongly argues that the only response to the “chaos, madness, and contradictions” of the modern society is to “show our beastly nature”, wilfully abandon humanistic morality and conventional civility in favour of an individualistic satisfaction of one’s personal desires above all other concerns. Date is certainly an amoral man who has no problem with sacrificing those he determines to be lesser beings for his own gain, but as even Masugi reveals his thinking may not be out of line with that of his generation. Many people are driven to murderous rage, he argues, but do not act on it because of a social taboo. 

As the film opens, a group of left-wing students is holding a rally in support of the anti-ANPO protests ahead of the treaty’s imminent renewal, though the professors mock them from inside insisting that their politics is not genuine only a reflection of the despair they feel in their society knowing that even if they graduate all that awaits them are low-level salaryman jobs with little promise of advancement. Those who can’t even manage that, they joke, turn to academia. Date’s professor (Nobuo Nakamura) affects sympathy with his poverty but also wilfully exploits him, getting him to do translations of novels which will later be published under his own name while it seems to be an open secret that he owes much of his success to the fact that he married into a prominent family which allowed him to spend five years studying abroad in America. 

Meanwhile, his students philosophise on the psychology of crime insisting that a “robotic, truly ruthless personality” can only come from a “mechanistic society like the US” while Japanese criminals are generally “emotional” in that crimes are committed because of “love affairs, resentment, finances”, “petty humanistic motives” which society can easily understand if not exactly condone. Date, admittedly a student of American literature with his eyes firmly set on going abroad, entirely disproves this theory. His crimes appear to be dispassionate and committed largely for practical reasons, the later ones at least with money as the motive even if he also derives a thrill from his amoral rebellion against the system. His poverty is offered as a justification yet we also see him abuse and manipulate those weaker than himself, humiliating an old lady trying to sell flowers in the bar where Yoko works while later talking a fellow student suffering with TB and unable to pay his tuition into helping him commit a robbery. 

Perhaps in someways uncomfortably in continuing a motif associating homosexuality with sadistic criminality, it’s also heavily implied that Date is bisexual, encountering an effeminate young man on the street with whom it is clear from their conversation he has previously been intimate to later use him as cannon fodder when engaging in a firefight with Chinese gangsters, while there is also an obvious homoerotic charge to his relationship to the student who later becomes a temporary accomplice. His relations with women are somewhat caddish and perfunctory, his sometime girlfriend Tae (Reiko Dan) telling the police that Date is a player who only sleeps with the same woman three times before becoming bored with her. Date’s attitude, though interestingly enough not his crimes, may reflect a societal misogyny, impoverished medical student Tae later refused access to the morgue because it’s not something a woman should see, though Tae herself later claims that it’s Date’s coldness and cruelty that draw her to him. Seemingly unable to feel genuine emotion for others, it nevertheless appears that Date is in a sense moved enough by Tae’s ability to embrace his inner darkness to eventually decide to alleviate her poverty on realising he no longer needs his ill-gotten gains because he’s secured his passage to America through more legitimate means. 

A reaction to the post-Sun Tribe sense of moral panic about disillusioned post-war youth, The Beast Shall Die suggests that for the moment at least those like Date are in an unassailable position thanks to an overly liberal justice system as the two policemen lament their inability to prevent his escape through judicial means while turning their attention to Tae though there’s no real way they can know that Date gave the stolen money to her rather than taking it with him or depositing it in some other location even if she’s walking around with an ugly handbag that might be full of cash. Alternating between an acceptance of Date’s nihilistic, crypto-fascist philosophy in implying that those who obey the rules of civility are doing so solely because they are too weak to break them, and advocating for a more authoritarian society in which policemen are free to act on their “hunches”, Sugawa’s take on Oyabu’s hard boiled tale of societal corruption and warped post-war morality has its reactionary qualities even as it ends on a note of ambiguity that implies order will eventually triumph though not, it seems, today. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Supermarket Woman (スーパーの女, Juzo Itami, 1996)

By 1996 Japan had entered an extended period of economic stagnation which signalled the end of post-war aspiration but for many at least the false promises of the Bubble era proved hard to dispel. In what would be his penultimate film, Supermarket Woman (スーパーの女, Supa no Onna), Juzo Itami turns his attentions to the insular world of the nation’s family-held, independent supermarkets to ask a few questions about integrity in business which cut straight to the heart of what kind of society post-Bubble Japan intended to be given yet another opportunity to make itself anew. 

As the opening text crawl explains, this is a story not about giant supermarket chains but your friendly indie local. “Honest Mart” is a family-owned, mid-range supermarket in a declining industrial area nominally run by absentee CEO Goro (Masahiko Tsugawa) who was bequeathed the place by his father but is a melancholy drunkard delegating responsibility to his manager. The store has a huge problem in that a rival has recently re-opened under the new name “Discount Demon” and seems primed to steal all their business. On a stakeout of the new place, Goro runs into a childhood friend, Hanako (Nobuko Miyamoto), who is now a widow returning to the area. With her lifelong experience as a veteran housewife, Hanako knows a few things about supermarkets and she’s not very impressed with Discount Demon, doing a few quick calculations to realise the supposed discounts aren’t as enticing as they seem while common gimmicks like the all pervasive red glow that makes their meat look fresher than it really is only irritate her. Goro asks her for a “professional” opinion on Honest Mart without telling her who he is, only to discover she’s even less impressed with them, certain that his place is on the way out thanks to its dated decor, uninviting atmosphere, and low quality produce. 

The irony is Honest Mart is not much better than Discount Demon, both stores are subject to the same industry standards in which a certain degree of obfuscation is permissible. “In business honesty doesn’t pay” Hanako is told by the onsite butcher after she questions his tendency to mix meats to pass them off as more expensive cuts, while she later discovers that the store engages in the practice of repackaging unsold meat and fish with new expiration dates and is not very particular about its suppliers when it comes to buying in ready-made products. Brought on board to save the store, Hanako breezes in with a new mission to win the hearts and minds of her customers, and she can’t do that if she can’t have confidence in her stock. In any case, her the customer is always right policy quickly brings her into conflict with the store manager, an older more conservative man who actively resists innovation and resents having his authority undercut by an interloping woman. 

Meanwhile, we can also see that customer attitudes have changed. There’s a problem with availability of trolleys because, perhaps unusually for Japan, customers are just abandoning them willy-nilly in the carpark instead of retuning them to the trolley point like responsible shoppers. One man is even for some reason intent on stealing a large number of shopping baskets, caught by Hanako loading them into his car. Everybody wants cheap, which is understandable especially given the economic situation, and they might even be a little underhanded when it comes to getting it, but they also expect a reasonable level of quality and to be able to trust that the food they’re buying is safe to feed their families. Hanako is most alarmed that the ladies who work in the kitchen area, who are obviously wives and mothers themselves, do not shop at Honest Mart because they know what goes on at the store and they don’t trust it. 

“A housewife knows” Hanako is fond is saying. Her revolution is in essence a vindication of “the housewife”, perhaps the most maligned and dismissed figure of the mid-90s society, putting to good use all of her veteran experience both of running a home and of working a series of part-time jobs including those in supermarkets which she claims to love. Approaching the problem from the point of view of a consumer, she attempts to help Goro achieve his dream of making Honest Mart number one in Japan not through making it the most financially successful but the most loved by listening to women like her in the form of a focus group of local aunties some of whom had previously been serial complainers. 

Then again, some of her decisions are in a sense contradictory as she attempts to streamline the business along classically capitalistic lines in suggesting that the store doesn’t really need its overqualified butcher and fishmonger because the part-timers could be trained to do a “good enough” job. “Good enough” is in a sense her business philosophy, only not in the sense that somewhere like Discount Demon which falsely advertises regular steak as discount Wagyu means it, rather that her customers are after an everyday level of produce and so it’s not surprising that premium meats don’t sell. She wants to get rid of the butcher, who turns out to be on the fiddle, and the melancholy fishmonger disappointed no one wants his top quality seafood, because their “artistic temperament” is disruptive to the flow of the store and their presence is perhaps emblematic of the bloated, pretentious management style which is holding it back. 

Positioning the “housewife’s choice” as the ultimate seal of approval, Supermarket Woman advocates for a return to wholesome, small-town values, prioritising a sense of integrity as Honest Mart projects itself as a corporate force their customers can trust, perhaps anticipating a trend in dedicating itself to providing good quality fresh produce at fair prices in direct opposition to Discount Demon and its underhanded trickery. “Honest Mart keeps its word” Goro assures, pledging to honour a mistaken ad which promised eggs at prices so good it caused minor riot. In the end, it’s all about trust and integrity. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything and the housewives of post-Bubble Japan will it seems vote with their feet. 


Currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Repast (めし, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

“Must every woman grow old and die feeling empty?” asks the unhappy heroine of Naruse’s 1951 melodrama Repast (めし, Meshi) only to conclude that yes, she must, but that this in fact constitutes “happiness” as a woman. The first of Naruse’s Fumiko Hayashi adaptations Repast arrived in the year of the author’s death and is inspired by a short story left unfinished at the time of her passing. Screenwriter Sumie Tanaka was apparently convinced that the film should end with a divorce, as Sound of the Mountain would two years later, and consequently left the project after the studio mandated a more “sympathetic” ending. Superficially happy as it might seem, however, the conclusion is as bleak as one might expect from Naruse in which the heroine simply accepts that she must recalibrate her idea of happiness to that which is available to her and learn to find fulfilment in shared endeavour with her husband. 

As she explains in her opening voiceover, Michiyo (Setsuko Hara) married her husband Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara) five years ago in Tokyo against her family’s wishes and has been living on the outskirts of Osaka for the past three. Marital bliss has quite clearly worn off. As we see from the repeated morning scenes of the local community sending their sons off to school and husbands to the office, every day is the same and all Michiyo ever seems to do is cook and clean. The only words Hatsunosuke says to her are “I’m hungry”, and the only source of solace in her life is her cat, Yuri. Yet even this constant state of unhappy frustration is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Hatsunosuke’s spoilt and immature niece Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki) who has apparently run away from home in rebellion against an arranged marriage. 

There is obviously a blood relation between Hatsunosuke and Satoko, but Michiyo’s jealously is not exactly unreasonable given the young woman’s childish flirtation with her uncle, perhaps an adolescent extension of her propensity to pout and preen to get her own way. Aside from all that, finances weigh heavily on Michiyo’s mind. Other than her drudgery, the constant source of friction in the relationship is Hatsunosuke’s low salary and lack of career success. Satoko’s family are a little wealthier and having been brought up in relative comfort she has little idea of the real world and is often tactless, remarking on Hatsunosuke’s worn out tie much to Michiyo’s chagrin. Hatsunosuke is happy enough to have her, but Michiyo is wondering if there’s enough rice in the jar to see them through and Satoko never stops to consider that they’re feeding her for free even falling asleep when Michiyo enjoys her one and only day off reuniting with old friends rather than preparing dinner as she’d been asked. Perhaps aware of the disruptive effect of her presence, Satoko pours salt on the wound by constantly asking her uncle if Michiyo doesn’t like her or is angry, further placing a wedge between husband and wife. 

For all that, however, Hatsunosuke would not be accounted a “bad” husband for the time save perhaps for his lack of career success. He is not cruel or violent, merely insensitive and distant, taking his wife for granted and unable to see that she is deeply unhappy while otherwise internalising a sense of guilt and failure in his inability to adequately provide for her. She meanwhile sometimes takes her dissatisfaction out on him in barbed comments about his low salary, her barely hidden contempt never far from the surface. Yet as her mother later points out in encouraging her go back to him he is “reliable, discreet, and honest”, qualities borne out by his later refusal to go along with a dodgy scheme organised by the old elite along with his nervous rebuttal of the attentions of the “mistress” from across the way. 

At heart a conservative woman, Michiyo too looks down on Ms Kanazawa (Kumeko Otowa) for her taboo status as the illicit lover of a wealthy man which is only in a sense her way of seizing her future as an independent woman running her own bar. Satoko, a woman of the modern era, sees less of a problem with it and is far less judgemental, though her own attempts are destined to end in failure thanks to her inability to work out that her present lifestyle is far above her current reach. Retreating to her Tokyo home, Michiyo looks for other options, admiring the apparently happier relationship between her younger sister and brother-in-law who now run the family shop. She asks a sympathetic cousin, Kazuo (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) who provides an alternate love interest, to help her find work but encounters the brutalising line outside the local employment office and then an old friend now a war widow desperate for employment because her benefits are about to run out and she has a young son to support. Later she spots the same woman handing out flyers, suddenly realising the fallacy of her fantasy of starting again as an independent woman. She pens a letter to her husband admitting that she’s realised how vulnerable she is without his protection, but remains undecided enough to avoid sending it. 

Hearing that Satoko, still childish but perhaps not quite as naive as she assumed her to be, has been laying her claws into Kazuo the final nail seems to have been struck. Michiyo knows she will return to Osaka, but does so not because she has rekindled her love for her husband but because she has accepted there are no better options. Hatsunosuke is dull, but he is in a sense reliable, and honest to the extent that he may be about to be rewarded for his moral unshakability. He cares enough about her to show up in Tokyo hoping, but not insisting, she will return with him which is perhaps as close to a declaration of love that one could hope for. On reflection she decides that a woman’s happiness is found in sharing the journey with her husband, accepting that she must subsume her own desires into his and cannot hope to expect emotional fulfilment other than that found in his satisfaction. Even for a Naruse film, and one as peppered with moments of slapstick humour as this one is, it’s an extraordinarily bleak conclusion subtly hinting at the iniquities of life in a patriarchal society in which the best a woman can hope for is a life of unrewarded drudgery. 


Snow Country (雪国, Shiro Toyoda, 1957)

Closely associated with literary adaptation, Shiro Toyoda had been wanting to adapt Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (雪国) since its serialisation and apparently spent four years preparing his treatment ahead of the 1957 film starring Ryo Ikebe as the solipsistic aesthete at the novel’s centre. Characteristically, however, he takes several liberties with the source material, notably introducing an entirely different conclusion which perhaps helps in re-centring the tale away from the hero Shimamura to the melancholy geisha who apparently falls for him because of his intense loneliness. 

A brief reference to a failed military insurrection in Manchuria sets us firmly in the mid-1930s as do repeated mentions of the ongoing depression which causes additional anxiety to local business owners in a small holiday resort town. Mimicking the novel’s famous opening, Toyoda opens with a POV shot of a train exiting a tunnel into the snow-covered landscape, the hero Shimamura (Ryo Ikebe) sitting sadly gazing out of a window and eventually captivated by the reflection of a young woman devotedly caring for a young man who appears to be in poor health. Meanwhile, another young woman, Komako (Keiko Kishi), gazes at her own reflection in a train station window, waiting once again as if unable to depart. As we discover, Shimamura has returned with the intention of seeing Komako with whom he’d struck up a relationship during a summer trip but is somewhat disappointed to learn that she has since become a geisha.

In a flashback to their first meeting, Komako asks Shimamura if he has come for “escape”, a question he doesn’t exactly answer while petulantly complaining about his lack of artistic success as someone who paints pictures apparently out of step with his times. When the head of the local commerce association tries to involve him in conversation about the failed insurrection, he bluntly tells him that he’s an artist and as such has no interest in such things, but it does indeed seem that he is looking for some kind of escape from the turbulent times, expressing that here the war seems very far away as does “the depression”. Komako, a more modern and perhaps prophetic figure than it might at first seem, is the only one to bring up the war directly speculating that it may be about to intensify while the frustrated affair between the two seems to be informed by the mounting tensions against which they are attempting to live their lives. 

Rather self-absorbed, Shimamura in a sense may even identify with Komako explaining that he too has a “patron” and implying that his flight is perhaps a response to his sense of powerlessness, that he feels constrained by his financial dependency presumably on his father-in-law though his relative economic superiority which leads Komako to frequently remark on his “extravagance” obviously affords him the freedom to make these random solo trips to ski resorts and indulge his career as a painter regardless of its capacity to support himself and his family. Komako must know on some level that the relationship is a fantasy, yet she believes in it enough to end her connection with an elderly patron on suspecting that she is carrying Shimamura’s child only to have her hopes dashed when he does not turn up for a local festival as promised with the consequence that all of her dependents are turfed out of the home he had provided for her. 

Komako is not “free” in the same way that Shimamura evidently is, her entire life dictated by the fact that she is poor and female. Fostered by a shamisen teacher, she may have been technically engaged to the young man, Yukio (Akira Nakamura), Shimamura saw on the train being cared for by Yoko (Kaoru Yachigusa), Komako’s foster sister in love with him herself, but intensely resents the burdens she is expected to bear quite literally with her body. She later tells Shimamura that she didn’t become a geisha for Yukio in order to pay his medical bills but out of a sense of obligation, while she is also responsible for her birth family, the now bedridden shamisen teacher, and Yoko who intensely resents her for her callous treatment of Yukio and generally “dissolute”, selfish way of living. During the famous fire in a cinema that closes the novel (but not the film), Komako even exclaims that her life would be easier if Yoko burned to death, but on witnessing her either fall or jump from the burning building she can do nothing other than run to her side. 

Indeed, the novel’s climax finds Shimaura standing alone indifferent to the fate of Yoko, a young woman he had come to admire if only for her contrary qualities, admiring instead the beauty of the night sky. In Toyoda’s characterisation, Yoko is in one sense the conventionally good woman whose selfless devotion to the sickly Yukio so captivates Shimamura, but her goodness is nevertheless undercut by the degree of her animosity towards Komako even as the two women remain trapped in a complex web of frustrated affection and intense resentment, each perhaps knowing they neither can have the man they want and are condemned to an eternal unhappiness as the snow mounts all around them in this perpetually cold and depressing moribund resort town. Switching between studio matte paintings ironically mimicking Shimamura’s art and on-location footage of the deepening snows, Toyoda’s sense of near nihilistic melancholy evoking the atmosphere of Japan in the mid-1930s hints at grand tragedy but finds resolution only in stoicism as the heroine picks up her shamisen and trudges onward amid the quickening blizzard.  


Wife (妻, Mikio Naruse, 1953)

The post-war world, to a certain way of thinking at least, promised a greater degree of freedom in which it might no longer be necessary to go on stoically bearing unhappiness in service to a social ideal. Then again, old habits are hard to break and not everyone is quite so equipped to acknowledge that misery can in a sense be a choice. Mikio Naruse’s Wife (妻, Tsuma) finds itself at a moment of transition in which the meaning of everything the word meant was perhaps beginning to change while the idea that a woman might choose to reject the role was no longer a taboo but an increasingly viable possibility. 

To the unhappily married Mineko (Mieko Takamine), however, the idea of independence remains somewhat distasteful. Each morning her husband, Nakagawa (Ken Uehara), leaves the house without a word. In fact, he doesn’t even look at her before silently walking away. She complains that she has no idea what he’s thinking, all he ever tells her is that he’s “tired” but she also resents him for failing to provide for her in the way that she perhaps expected. The couple live in a sizeable home, but Mineko has to rent out the upstairs to a series of lodgers as well as taking in sewing as a side job to make ends meet. What seems perfectly apparent is that the couple are ill suited, both in terms of temperament and of personal desires. Nakagawa is a soft hearted, romantic sort of man who isn’t particularly bothered if their lodgers pay their rent or not, while his wife is emotionally distant and infinitely practical as perhaps life has taught her to be. 

The peculiarities of life in Japan in 1953 place considerable strain on not only on the Nakagawas but on each of the other couples that we see. Those who married in haste during the war may be regretting their choices, while others, like Eiko (Chieko Nakakita) who rents the upstairs room with her husband Matsuyama (Hajime Izu), complain that the men they waited so long for came back changed. That Matsuyama cannot find a job in the difficult economic circumstances of the post-war society may not be his fault, but the necessity of relying on his wife for economic support has nevertheless eroded his sense of masculinity and left him a resentful drunk, destroying his wife’s love for him. Mineko is slightly scandalised when another tenant, art student Tanimura (Rentaro Mikuni), reveals that Eiko works not in a store but in a bar in Ginza, that being in truth the only kind of job that pays enough to support a married couple and a mother-in-law that a woman can get in 1953. Eventually Eiko leaves her husband, something else that scandalises Mineko, and resolves to live an independent life rather than remarry.

The idea of independence is repeatedly mentioned to her, but Mineko continues to reject it. Her sister jokingly suggests going into business together, while another customer, a widow with a young son, floats the idea of leaving the home of her late husband and opening a shop to support herself independently. She believes remarriage is not a viable option because she has a child, a thought echoed by another widow, Fusako (Yatsuko Tanami), who eventually decides to do something similar by returning to her hometown and going into business with a friend. Opening a shop is a popular option, but it of course requires investment and relies on having strong support, in Fusako’s case from female solidarity in teaming up with another woman in a similar situation. 

It might be easy enough to say that becoming financially independent is a choice on offer only to widows with children who have, in some way, already fulfilled their social obligations, while women like Eiko who chose childless self-sufficiency would still struggle to find acceptance even if their career were not dependent on an industry still itself taboo. That Nakagawa and Mineko have no children perhaps places an additional strain on the marriage. Nakagawa tells a colleague complaining about his family that he wonders if children might have made his life easier, while his only moment of contentment seems to be in playing with Fusako’s young son on the morning after spending an illicit night with her in an inn at Osaka. She sadly tries to ask what might be next for them, but he only wants to live in that moment knowing that their future is an impossibility. 

Despite his unhappiness, Nakagawa doesn’t seem motivated towards ending his marriage, perhaps out of guilt or because as friend later suggests it’s not so much Fusako that he loves as the possibility of a different future. On his return from his Osaka trip, he encounters a new tenant, Mineuchi, who has found her own way to be independent in becoming a mistress. Nakagawa seems to find the arrangement mildly distasteful, though it’s perhaps not so far off what he’s planning to do with Fusako. Mineuchi paid premium for the room and has even brought her own refrigerator and an electric gramophone so she is in a sense living the dream, especially as her “patron”, a furniture store owner, only visits twice a month. 

After learning that Nakagawa has fallen in love with Fusako, Mineko wonders if she should pay her a visit, but then receives one herself from the furniture store owner’s tearful wife who reveals that he is not a wealthy man and has ruined himself, and therefore her, after being bewitched by a Ginza bar hostess. Later, Mineko discovers that the furniture store owner’s wife took her own life in humiliation, lamenting that she didn’t have to go so far just because of her husband’s indiscretion, but also threatens to do the same herself to try and guilt Fusako into giving up her husband. 

Yet, pretty much everyone seems to tell Mineko that this is all her own fault and the reason her perfectly good husband has looked elsewhere is because she has failed as a wife. Sharp and emotionally distant, she alienates those around her but is devastated to realise that she’s lost her husband’s love and will most likely never be able to regain it. Her decision to talk not to him but to Fusako hints at the way in which women see each other as rivals and not as friends, actively holding each other back, as her sister Yoshimi (Michiyo Aratama) also does in insisting on the social order over personal feeling, rather than attempting to find understanding or mutual support. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that ending her husband’s dream of romantic escape through emotional manipulation is unlikely to improve the quality of her married life. 

Mineko, however, never contemplates independence. She tells Fusako that she won’t consent to a divorce just to claim alimony, but privately wonders what would become of her if she left her husband. She might be able to put a stop to it this time, but who’s to say he won’t find someone else. What she seems primed to choose is socially mandated misery, rejecting the “freedoms” of the post-war age to end an unhappy marriage because she can’t conceive of herself as anything other than a “wife” and being miserable is apparently better than being nothing at all. 


Woman of Design (その場所に女ありて, Hideo Suzuki, 1962)

“This job poisons you and deprives you of your youth” according to conflicted ad-exec Ritsuko (Yoko Tsukasa) trying her best to make it in the still very male world of adverting. A snapshot of the city in the early ‘60s, Hideo Suzuki’s workplace melodrama Woman of Design (その場所に女ありて, Sono Basho ni Onna Arite) considers the changing position of women through the eyes of four friends working at the same company, each facing challenges mainly at the hands of useless men while trying to claim a space for themselves as individuals but discovering that they are still subject to a binary choice when it comes to deciding their romantic futures. 

A woman of around 30, Ritsuko has worked her way up to a fairly senior position at Nishigin Advertising which at least appears to be a fairly progressive company run by a compassionate boss who treats his employees equally with respect for all. Nevertheless, Nishigin is very interested in its bottom line especially as the company is apparently not doing so well to the extent that they’ve unfortunately had to cut back on their “entertainment” budget which is apparently how they win and keep clients. A new opportunity has presented itself in the chance to win a contract with a pharmaceuticals company to market their brand new drug aimed at “revitalising” the lives of the over 40s. Unfortunately, they have a rival in the form of Daitsu and suave adman Sakai (Akira Takarada) who appears to have pipped Ritsuko to the post in “seducing” their sleazy PR guy.

Though focussed on her career and somewhat resistant to romance, Ritsuko finds herself attracted to Sakai if eventually wondering if he’s only using her for inside info on Nishigin which she doesn’t directly give him but their relationship does perhaps soften her attitude. Sakai’s minor betrayal in poaching the head of their art department will eventually destroy any genuine feelings they may have had for each other while leaving Ritusko painfully aware of her vulnerabilities as a female employee and of the costs of her momentary decision to break with her long-held determination to keep her professional and private lives entirely separate, admitting that her relationship with Sakai may have been a mistake but refusing to resign because of it. Meanwhile, the boss of the pharmaceuticals company with whom she seems to be on good terms tries to blackmail her into attending an omiai meeting implying he’ll be much more likely to give them the contract if she goes. Not that they necessarily mean she should give up her career, but even Ritsuko’s colleagues seem to be keen that she get married, shocked that she might determine to remain single for the rest of her life. 

That’s exactly the decision her friend Yuko (Akemi Kita) has made, dedicating herself to her career but also moody and embittered. In fact though it is no way explicit, Yuko is strongly coded as a lesbian with a possible crush on friend and colleague Mitsuko (Kumi Mizuno), herself in a difficult position apparently pushed into debt because of an attachment to a no good man whose hospitals bill she has been paying. Ritsuko’s deskmate Hisae (Chisako Hara), meanwhile, is a divorcee wondering what she’s going to do when her ex, whom she’s still hung up on, stops paying alimony, and her sister is forever badgering her for money because her brother-in-law is an irresponsible layabout who can’t hold down a steady job and has no real intention of doing so. “Men who live off women are the worst” Yuko exasperatedly exclaims thoroughly fed up with the bunch of two bit louses who seem to have ruined the lives of all her friends. 

It’s not difficult to understand why Ritsuko may be ambivalent about marriage, but even at work she’s not free of selfish, entitled men who routinely take credit for her work. Sleazy college Kura (Tsutomu Yamazaki) from the art department is forever sucking up to her only to attempt rape while discussing work at her apartment, later brushing the affair off while talking to a female colleague by affirming that older women aren’t his thing anyway. He also undercuts her by visiting the client himself to discuss ideas and changes. Kura later wins a big design prize in part thanks to the slogan Ritsuko came up with only to annoy his colleagues by implying he handled the whole campaign single-handedly. Meanwhile, though in some ways progressive her bosses are conservative when it comes to the business, shutting down the art director’s suggestion of running with an out of the box campaign (the sexier ad featuring a muscular man in his briefs which he later sells to Sakai is the one which ends up winning). Tsuboichi (Jun Hamamura) and Kura perhaps too feel constrained by a top down hierarchal structure which frustrates innovation and in their own ways rebel, but as Ritsuko later makes plain in her speech to the boss if she wants to keep her position she has to play by the rules. “Life’s short. Especially for a woman. We have no room for mistakes” as Yuko cheerfully agrees.

Yet even within that, Ritsuko manages to redefine her boundaries, making it clear that she won’t be doing the omiai. She does not, however, reject marriage entirely only state that “I will get married only when I feel the time is right”, for the moment at least entirely focused on her career. Though the future may have looked gloomy, the crisis passes and the mood brightens significantly with the news that another company is about to officially announce the launch of a long-rumoured anti-ageing cream which provides another potentially lucrative campaign opportunity for Nishigin and of course for Ritsuko should she win it. Having opened with a series of still frames followed by hazy footage of a sea of workers wandering towards their offices on an overcast morning, Suzuki closes in the twilight with the three ladies leaving the office, their friendship solidified as they head off to celebrate renewed hope for the future bolstered by a sense of female solidarity.