The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Noboru Nakamura, 1964)

(C) Shochiku 1964Despite having two films nominated for a best foreign language Oscar and a handful of foreign festival hits under his belt, Noboru Nakamura has been largely forgotten by Western film criticism though a centennial retrospective of three of his most well regarded films at Tokyo Filmex in 2013 has helped to revive interest. The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Yoru no Henrin), Nakamura’s 1964 Shochiku melodrama focussing on the suffocating life of a young woman pulled into the Tokyo red light district, was one of the three newly restored films featured and was also screened in Berlin and Venice to great acclaim. Making full use of its vibrant colour palate, The Shape of Night paints its city as a constant tormentor filled with artificial light and false promises.

As we meet her, melancholy street walker Yoshie (Miyuki Kuwano) has been trapped in her dead end existence for six years and has lost all hope of living a “normal” life filled with love and happiness. A chance encounter with a supercilious client, Fujii (Keisuke Sonoi), prompts her into a series of recollections in an effort to explain exactly how it was she ended up in such a sorry state. As the eldest daughter of a poor family Yoshie left school early to work in a factory (making those neon tubes you see everywhere) while supplementing her income by working as a barmaid (not a hostess, just a girl behind the bar). Just shy of her 20th birthday, she meets a handsome “salaryman”, Eiji (Mikijiro Hira), who starts coming to the bar regularly to see her. The pair became a couple, and then lovers, and then cohabiters, but Eiji isn’t a “salaryman” so much as a low level gangster with a gambling problem whose street name is “princess”. Continual losses put Eiji in a tight spot with his crew and he begins borrowing money from Yoshie before asking her to prostitute herself to get him out of a hole. Thinking it will just be a one time thing, Yoshie resolves to make a sacrifice for her man but, of course, it wasn’t a one time thing.

Yoshie’s story is a sadly familiar one – an innocent woman duped by a duplicitous man whose empty promises aim to mask his continued fecklessness. Eiji, despite his smart suits and coolly confident attitude, is unlikely to make much of himself in the yakuza world yet is as tied into its hellish system of loyalty and reciprocity as Yoshie is in her non-marriage to the man she thinks she loves. Seeking constant approval, Eiji thinks nothing of living off a woman and his childishly excited smile on re-entering the apartment after Yoshie has sacrificed herself to save his face is a grim reminder of his priorities. When pleading doesn’t work Eiji turns violent, prompting Yoshie to finally consider leaving him but she’s too late – the yakuza world has already got its hooks into her and any attempt to escape will be met with terrifying resistance.

Fujii may seem as if he presents another option for Yoshie, a chance for a better, kinder existence but he too is merely another man trying to tell her how she should live her life. Hypocritical at best (as he freely admits), Fujii pays Yoshie to “ease his sexual urges” but expresses disgust and disapproval of her lifestyle and seeks to “save” her from her life of humiliating immorality, “purifying” her just like the dam he is building is supposed to do to the Sumida river. Fujii’s obvious saviour complex is worrying enough in itself though there is also the additional worry of what his “salvation” may entail if Yoshie decides to make a break from her yakuza chains and run off to the comparative safety of provincial Hokkaido. Fujii may claim to have fallen in love with her, but so did Eiji and who’s to say Fujii’s idea of wedded bliss will be any better than Eiji’s brutal reign as a common law spouse.

The situation is further complicated by Eiji’s gradual shift from a violent, overbearing, abusive boyfriend to a genial figure of gentle domesticity and what that shift later provokes in Yoshie. Rendered physically impotent by an incident during a gang fight, Eiji is literally and figuratively emasculated. Though his sudden inability to satisfy Yoshie originally provokes his jealously, it soon robs him of his violent impulses and turns Eiji into a willing housewife who dutifully does the couple’s washing and prepares the meals much to Yoshie’s consternation. This transformation is what finally kills her love for him, but still Yoshie cannot find it in herself to sever her connection with the man who has been the cause of all her suffering. Not quite hate or loathing, Yoshie’s burned out love has become a burden of care as she finds herself duty bound to look after a man she now believes incapable of looking after himself.

While Yoshie and Eiji sit in a bar one night after “work”, the television plays a report featuring the sad news of the death of a female student at the ANPO demonstrations. Prompting Yoshie to exclaim “what is ANPO anyway?”, the news report lays bare just how isolated her life as become – as all of Tokyo is aflame with with righteous indignation and the streets are filled with the largest protest in living memory, Yoshie is trapped in her tiny neon world which promises so much and delivers so little.

Nakamura makes fantastic use of sound design to capture Yoshie’s interior world – the background music rising over the droning voice of a boring client who hasn’t quite made up his mind, the radio cutting out at intense moments of violence, the terrible clanging of Eiji’s geta on the iron staircase which leads to his flat. Fading into blue dissolves of memory, Nakamura makes a hellish wonderland of nighttime Tokyo whose flashing neon lights, crowded bars and oddly darkened streets turn it into a prison of dubious delights. Finally making a drastic decision, Yoshie attempts to free herself from her burdens and sever the chains which bind her to her misery but in cutting the cord she finds the knots tightening, realising she will never be released from the source of all her suffering.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Akitsu Springs (秋津温泉, Kiju Yoshida, 1962)

akitsu springsKiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida is best remembered for his extraordinary run of avant-garde masterpieces in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but even he had to cut his teeth on Shochiku’s speciality genre – the romantic melodrama. Adapted from a best selling novel, Akitsu Springs (秋津温泉, Akitsu Onsen) is hardly an original tale in its doom laden reflection of the hopelessness and inertia of the post-war world as depicted in the frustrated love story of a self sacrificing woman and self destructive man, but Yoshida elevates the material through his characteristically beautiful compositions and full use of the particularly lush colour palate.

At the very end of the war, consumptive student Shusaku (Hiroyuki Nagato) finds his aunt’s house destroyed by aerial bombing. Attempting to find her but proving too ill to go on, Shusaku is taken to a nearby inn by a good samaritan where he first encounters the innkeeper’s daughter, Shinko (Mariko Okada). Despite her mother’s protestations, Shinko takes a shine to Shusaku and is determined to nurse him back to health. Shusaku, however, is a gloomy sort of boy and, ironically, longs only for death. Though the pair fall in love their youthful romance is forever tinged with darkness as Shusaku declares his love not with a ring but with a rope – he asks Shinko for that most classically theatrical of unions in proposing a double suicide.

Shinko agrees, but is not quite ready to die. In another dose of irony, Shinko’s tears of fear and despair on hearing the Emperor’s final wartime broadcast confirming his surrender inspire Shusaku to want to live but the pair are eventually separated. Reuniting and parting over and over again, their complicated love story repeats itself over a period of seventeen years but the painful spectre of the past refuses to allow either of them the freedom to move beyond Akitsu Springs.

Mariko Okada was only 29 in 1962, but she’d already worked with some of the best directors of the age including Ozu whose An Autumn Afternoon was released the same year, and Naruse in Floating Clouds which has something of a narrative similarity to Akitsu Springs. This prestige picture was her 100th screen appearance for which she also took a producer credit. Despite the obvious importance attached to both of these elements, the studio took a chance on a rookie director with only three films under his belt. Two years later Okada would become Yoshida’s wife and go on to star in some of his most important pictures including Eros + Massacre and Heroic Purgatory. At first glance her role here is a conventional one – a love lorn, melancholy woman unable to let the ghost of a failed romance die, but Okada’s work is extraordinary as Shinko travels from flighty teen to rueful middle aged woman, hollowed out and robbed of any sense of hope.

At Akitsu Springs time passes and it doesn’t all at once. Yoshida refuses to give us concrete demarcations, preferring to simply show a child being born and growing older or someone remarking on having been away. The inn becomes a kind of bubble with Shinko trapped inside, but Shusaku comes to regard the place as a temporary haven rather than a permanent home or place to make a life. For her everything real is at the spring, but for him everything at the spring is unreal – an unattainable paradise. She cannot leave, he cannot stay. Only for short periods are they able to indulge their romance, but the time always comes at which they must part again often swearing it will be for the last time, never knowing if it will.

Yoshida neatly bookends the relationship with announcements over loudspeakers as Shinko originally fails to understand the Emperor’s speech in which he remarks on enduring the unendurable, only to be prompted into later action by the banal drone of a train station tannoy. It’s almost as if their lives are being entirely dictated by outside forces, powerless drifters in the post-war world, condemned to a perpetual waiting sustained only by hopelessness.

Shinko may have convinced Shusaku to live but his growing successes only seem to deplete her. Wasting away at an inn she always claimed to hate, Shinko grows old while Shusaku grows bitter yet successful in the city. They move past and through each other, unable to connect or disconnect, yearning for the completion of something which consistently eludes them. Yoshida films the standard melodrama with appropriate theatricality but also with his beautifully composed framing as the lovers are divided by screen doors or captured in mirrors. Okada glows in the light of falling cherry blossoms, acknowledging the tragic and transitory character of love, but her final action is one which echoes the beginning of her suffering and finally declares an ending to an unendurable romance.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス, Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

Merry-Christmas-Mr-Lawrence-images-832f3814-1564-403a-a98a-313c5bb99deOf all the post-war Japanese filmmakers, the one who liked to twist the knife the most was surely Oshima. No subject too taboo, no pain too raw – he liked to find the sore spot and poke at it a little, if only in the hope of encouraging an accelerated healing, albeit one which would leave a scar to remind you that once you suffered. With Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス, Senjou no Merry Christmas) he takes an unflinching look at the treatment of Japan’s prisoners of war and contrasts the Japanese forces with the different attitudes of the (mostly) British soldiers held within the walls of the camp.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Laurens Van der Post, The Seed and the Sower, much of the action takes place in a prisoner of war camp run by the Japanese in Java in 1942. The titular Lawrence (Tom Conti) is one of the British prisoners here but unusually speaks fluent Japanese as he lived in Japan for a time before the war. The camp is run by Captain Yonoi (played by Ryuichi Sakamoto who also composes the music for the film) but largely ministered over by the more sadistic Sergeant Hara (played by Takeshi Kitano in an early straight acting role and billed here solely as “Takeshi”). Things kick off once Yonoi is called away to help preside over a military trial for a “difficult” prisoner who refuses to talk. However, Yonoi is somewhat taken aback by the upright soldier he discovers there. Celliers (played by David Bowie) is sentenced to death only to have the firing squad deliberately miss before he’s transferred to Yonoi’s camp.

As expected the conditions at the camp are not particularly pleasant. The first scene we’re treated to is Lawrence being called to witness an altercation where a Korean/Japanese soldier is accused of raping a Dutch internee. Hara taunts both of them with homosexual slurs and berates the Dutchman for not having resisted strongly enough. Kanemoto, the accused man, has obviously been badly beaten and is eventually ordered to commit seppuku which he eventually tries to do at that very moment by impaling himself on a bayonet. Seppuku is not something to be taken so lightly though so he’ll be patched up now for a ritual suicide later to be witnessed by the wronged parties (whether they wish to watch or not). Homosexuality, or more precisely, homosexual acts, are not to be tolerated among prisoners even if Hara later protests that samurai are not afraid of “queers” whilst insinuating that the majority of Englishman are gay anyway.

Latent homosexuality continues to be an ongoing theme throughout the film. The attraction between Yonoi and Celliers passes beyond simple admiration or even fascination. There don’t seem to be any other particular reasons for Yonoi to continue trying to protect Celliers as he does when he saves him from the firing squad and later allowing him a greater degree of freedom than other prisoners. Both men feel themselves prisoners of their respective social systems – Yonoi as the cold hearted samurai, efficient and unfeeling, yet with an intellectual core and a conflicted heart, and Celliers as a man desperately trying to atone for having once betrayed someone he deeply cared for in a misguided attempt to fit in. That said, both men are on opposite sides of a war and in any case that kind attraction stands against both of their countries’ current social customs. Again, a man is betrayed by a kiss and another man pays an extraordinarily high price leaving the other powerless to save him.

As Lawrence says there are no winners here, wars are just men doing what they thought was right at the time even if they really know that every one of them is wrong. The Japanese are rigid, repressed and anxious whereas the British are obsessed with honour in other ways and lean more towards the side of pragmatism when the going gets tough. A Japanese soldier may prefer to die, even going so far as to commit suicide, rather than subject themselves to the humiliation of having been captured alive. A British soldier will accept becoming a prisoner but largely because he believes he has a duty to live on and serve to the best of his capacity. Once captured, his duty is to try and escape to return to fight and die for King and country until the bitter end.

What both sides have in common is the dehumanisation of its troops. When it comes down to it one man is as good as another. If a radio has been smuggled into the camp someone must be punished for that action, the exact identity of the perpetrator becomes almost an irrelevance. Likewise, if a war has been lost, someone must pay for wrongful acts committed by the losing side even if his actions are no worse than those of any other soldier.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence proves a beautifully sad condemnation both of the rigidity of war, of men who think they’re acting in righteousness when the very idea is the one which causes them to act unjustly, and of repressive social systems in general. Lawrence acts as the voice of reason whilst all the while admitting that he himself is also “wrong” and forced into certain actions and modes of behaviour with which he does not necessarily agree. Both of these empires are on the verge of crumbling, all this death and cruelty will prove to have been for nothing. War is a fruitless tragedy in which there are no winners, only losers on every side. “There are times when victory is very hard to take”, victors too need to abide by their own sense of decency without being swayed by vengeance masquerading as righteousness.


Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is available with English subtitles on blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection in the US (and was previously released on blu-ray in the UK from Optimum/Studiocanal but appears to be currently out of print).

(That final voice over is needlessy creepy, isn’t it?)