Untamagiru (ウンタマギルー, Go Takamine, 1989)

“My country is not part of America or Japan! I am a child of Ryukyu!” the hero of Go Takamine’s musical fable Untamagiru ( ウンタマギルー) finds himself shouting after having unexpectedly acquired godlike powers and used them to aid the Independence Movement. Apparently inspired by a legendary local figure, Takamine’s quasi-musical like his earlier Paradise View finds the Okinawan islands at a turning point considering three possible futures: to maintain the status quo under American rule, to return to Japanese sovereignty, or finally to acquire their independence though the last of these seems to be nothing more than an idealistic pipe dream. 

Takamine begins and ends with the same scene changing only the location and the identity of a key player while the hero, Giru (Kaoru Kobayashi), drives a tiny truck in a small circle to turn the grinder that presses the sugarcane. Giru is however mainly casting looks at Mare (Chikako Aoyama), the voluptuous daughter of his taskmaster boss Nishibaru, as she languishes under a small shelter smoking pigweed from a shisha pipe. Giru later finds the courage to ask her to accompany him to a beach party, which she does, the pair sneaking off to a secluded cove near the forest where they make love. The problem is that, as Giru discovers, Mare is actually an anthropomorphised pig that Nishibaru was raising as a wife for the Forest God so now Nishibaru has it in for him. Framed for starting a fire at the plantation he’s encouraged to flee to the forest by his sister, Chiru (Jun Togawa), who has a knack for animal dream divination, and is aided by a tree spirit whose child he once saved who grants him special demi-god powers that enable him to survive the curse which otherwise falls on all who sleep with Mare. 

It’s these new powers which give Giru a new sense of possibility allowing him to become a kind of Robin Hood playing both sides off against each other from the middle of the forest, pinching meat from Japanese companies and redistributing it to the local community, and pilfering weaponry from the American bases to give to the independence movement. The two sides are represented in the two respective bosses, the blind and castrated Nishibaru, and the American commissioner Kamajisar who as Chiru puts it cares for animals more than people but is also seen injecting himself with the blood of dogs and pigs. “I am absolute” Kamajisar insists, claiming that Okinawa is a possession of the American military pointing out that 90% of the population feels themselves to be different from the Japanese while simultaneously describing the possibility of independence as nothing more than a fairytale. 

Yet Untamagiru comes to represent the face of rebellion, resisting not just political oppression but social and economic in targeting Japanese businesses and redistributing their goods to the local poor becoming a folk hero in the process. Not everyone is as immediately happy about this, the owner of the brothel where his sister works asking him to stop giving money to the poor because their business can’t cope with the sudden demand while she personally looks down on their new clientele and fears they’re damaging her upscale brand. Even so even Untamagiru eventually falls victim to his own hubris, struck down while ironically enough agreeing to play himself in a traditional stage performance inspired by his life and deeds leaving only the idea of himself behind as a kind of talisman for those who had in him found a sense of hope and possibility. 

Then again could all of this have been a dream? “Poor people are terrible, aren’t they? They’ll even try to steal the end of people’s dreams” turncoat Utou chides Giru on catching him napping assuming that he dreams of Mare though her words have a degree of sense to them in the elliptical passage of time in which we move from one “dream” to another just as Okinawa itself shifts between two states, two different rulers, and finds itself in the middle once again driving round in circles looking at something it wants but can’t have and in the end it seems may be destroyed out of spite. A magical realist fable filled with its own strangeness in its dream divinations, ethereal forest deities, shapeshifting pigs, and the constant refrains of the barbershop band who narrate the whole show with caustic wit through traditional Okinawan musical performance Takamine’s oneiric tale ends in symbolic apocalypse, “From now on Okinawa is Japan”. 


Untamagiru screens at Japan Society New York May 21 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Paradise View (パラダイスビュー, Go Takamine, 1985)

“We’ll all be Japanese soon, so why don’t you marry one?” suggests the mother of a young woman on the eve of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan after three decades under American administration, having taken advice from a shamaness overly worried about her children’s “mixed blood” but assured that a union between her daughter and a Japanese man “would be fine”. Her daughter, however, is not so sure yet equally afraid to voice her concerns while lacking confidence in the local man she loves who has “lost his spirit”, become obsessed with black thorn ants, and begun eating soil. 

As Reishu (Kaoru Kobayashi) tells us, he’s been feeling listless lately and has come to the beach to gather sea salt in the hope that it will perk him up as it has before, Takamine’s camera catching him a lonely figure on the shore. Meanwhile, a funeral procession creeps into the frame and is eventually disrupted when one of the coffin bearers is bitten by a snake which had been hiding in the open casket that in any case contains only bones presumably about to undergo the bone washing ritual common on the islands. “The funeral’s ruined! Our ancestors will never forgive us!” the bitten man laments as the others try to get back on track. Casting the spectre of death over the proceedings, the funeral procession along with Reishu’s desire to find salt to cure his depression is also an early statement of intent from Takamine capturing the unique cultural character of a typical island village as distinct from that of the Japanese mainland to which it is to be “returned”. 

Reishu’s listlessness is itself perhaps also a reflection of the island’s liminal status caught between Japan and the US in a moment of transition. As he tells his grandmother, he’s quit his job at the American army base fearing that as the Vietnam War is drawing to a close and Okinawa is to be returned to Japan there won’t be much work on offer highlighting the extent to which the local area has been economically dependent on the Americans and their foreign policy in Asia. Later we see some of the village men handling weapons smuggled off the American base which they intend for the Okinawan independence movement but which later end up causing self-destructive tragedy. As for Reishu his new business plan involves buying an amphibious vehicle which is in one sense an attempt to hedge his bets, somewhere between being unable to make a choice and avoiding having to make one. 

Paradoxically, Mr. Ito (Haruomi Hosono) the Japanese language teacher to whom Nabee, who is love with Reishu and in fact pregnant with his child, is to be married is described as “more Okinawan than we are” by one of her brothers and both scandalises and confuses a local bar owner over his desire to perform an outdated wedding ritual she fears is unduly sexist and possibly for that reason no longer regularly performed by the local community. Ito speaks somewhat wistfully of the spiritual effect the Okinawan jungle has on him and says he fears being rejected by the vegetation if he does not make sure the ritual is done properly. Bearing all this in mind, there’s something a little uncomfortable in his desire to marry a simple Okinawan village girl which remains in its own way a small act of colonialism even as Nabee’s mother and brothers pressure her to accept the proposal as if a union with the new ruling power would help “purify” their family as the shamaness had suggested. 

What seems clear is that Nabee does not even really know Ito and is not in favour of marrying him, the proposal must have come by arrangement which does not otherwise seem to be the prevailing culture in the village. On discovering Nabee’s pregnancy, her mother encourages her to marry Ito anyway and discretely have an abortion after the ceremony but on the other hand the pregnancy itself is not a major issue as it might have been on the mainland though they worry what Ito might have thought about it. Both friends with Reishu, neither of the brothers quite has the courage to challenge him on his relationship with their sister the calmer of the pair later explaining that he can’t blame him because he was only messing around. As another villager tries to explain to a migrant from the mainland, the islands have a much looser idea of sexual propriety in which young people are free to be friendly with each other with no particular seriousness attached, while the mainlander is concerned and anxious on hearing one of the brothers repeatedly state he could kill Reishu for what he’s done only to be told he didn’t mean it literally and is probably just very annoyed with him to the point of mild physical violence. 

Meanwhile, Chiru (Jun Togawa), a rural girl working as a maid, has also taken a liking to Reishu and is deeply worried for his safety having had a dream in which she saw a dog eat his soul which in their culture suggests he may soon be “spirited away”. Later he finds himself literally on the run after having been arrested when the independence movement storm the police van on which he’s being transported to rescue their comrades, another prisoner who waited patiently rather make his escape shot for his pains. Having lost his spirit he becomes increasingly listless, eating soil while wandering the forest without direction and vulnerable to the rainbow pigs who are it seems the real masters of this space. At the last point we see him, he’s staggering towards a fork in the road, heading towards what Nabee’s mother had described as a historical turning point, but seemingly choosing neither direction. With a dream-like, magical realist quality aided by Hosono’s etherial score and frequent use of traditional Okinawan folksong while spoken largely in the disappearing Okinawan language, Takamine’s laidback epic is a defiant evocation of local culture at a point of transition caught between two states while attempting to take hold of itself. 


Paradise View screens at Japan Society New York May 13 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections. It is also available to stream in the US May 14 to June 3.

Images: © Osamu Muranaka

Tears for You (涙そうそう, Nobuhiro Doi, 2006)

tears-for-youComing in at the end of the “pure love” boom, Nobuhiro Doi’s second feature, Tears for You (涙そうそう, Nada So So) is presumably named to tie in with his smash hit debut Be With You, and continues in the same general vein but with a much less satisfying melodrama at its core. A complicated love story centring on a pair of orphaned step-siblings, Tears for You edges into some difficult, perhaps unpalatable, territory but neatly skirts around it with a childish innocence intended to enhance its romantic credentials. Starring the jun-ai icon Masami Nasagawa, the tragic heroine at the centre of Crying Out Love in the Center of the World, alongside the then up and coming leading man Satoshi Tsumabuki, Tears for You is never quite as heartrending as it would like to be but does its best to wring its sorrowful narrative for all of its inherent tragedy.

21yr old Yota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a young man with big dreams but he’s put lots of them on hold in order to take care of his younger step-sister, Kaoru (Masami Nagasawa), who has only him to depend on. Yota’s mother married Kaoru’s father when both the children were small but her new husband soon ran off leaving his daughter behind. The three of them continued as a tightly knit family until Yota’s mother became ill and passed away, making Yota promise to take care of Kaoru no matter what even whilst on her deathbed. The two then moved back to an Okinawan island to live with Yota’s grandmother until Yota came back to Naha for high school. Kaoru is now about to make that same journey but the siblings’ happy reunion also provokes a number of questions about the nature of their relationship and the course each of their lives will take in the future.

This being a “pure love” movie, tragedy is coming though Tears for You does its best to disguise where it’s coming from even if the eventual outcome is quite obviously signposted. The original barrier between Kaoru and Yota is raised by their nature as accidental siblings, not related by blood but raised alongside each other with a familial bond stronger than that of just childhood friends. This, of course, becomes a problem as they grow older and begin to find it difficult to draw the line between their familial love and a possibly romantic one which would allow their family of two to continue forever.

Yota, the self sacrificing older brother has indeed become everything to Kaoru – a brother, father, and friend all in one. Dropping out of high school early, Yota has been sending a pay check home since the age of sixteen, putting his own future to one side in order to provide for Kaoru. Determined that Kaoru should prosper and escape their lowly, poverty stricken island existence through getting to university and into a middle class profession, Yota has been working three different jobs. When it looks as if he’s about to be able to realise his own dream of opening a restaurant, it all comes crashing down around his ears as he realises he’s been duped by a con artist and is now on the hook to a gang of loansharks.

In addition to adding to his financial burdens, causing him embarrassment, and further deepening his worry about providing for Kaoru, the situation also creates instability in his romantic life when the father of his longterm medical student girlfriend finds out about his predicament and offers to help – but only at a price. Keiko (Isao Hashizume), he reminds him, is a middle class girl on track to take over her father’s clinic. Yota is a poor boy with limited expectations. The implications are clear and already known to Yota who has internalised a degree of shame over his lowly origins and lack of education which he overcomes through hard work and enthusiasm. Keiko is not the sort to worry about a petty class difference even if her father is, but his words get to Yota who has always felt Keiko is too good for him. She does, however, care slightly about Yota’s ongoing and complicated relationship with his younger sister whom, she fears, will always eclipse any other woman in his life.

As in all pure love stories, love is an impossibility, surrounded by unassailable walls of culture and fate. Though there is no blood relation between Yota and Kaoru, their familial circumstances make romantic love a taboo which leads the film into a rather odd corner in which the familial side of their relationship is the one which gains the upper hand as the love of a brother and sister eclipses that of a tragic missed opportunity. As such the nature of the heartrending conclusion does not reach the melodramatic heights of other genre hits, even if it adheres to the form in maintaining the “purity” of the love through the final impossibility of its realisation. Doi employs many of the same techniques he used so well in Be With You, artfully shifting between past and present and making the most of repeated motifs to bring home the circularity of the relationship between the pair of tragic lovers but never achieves the same kind of emotional depth. Nevertheless, Tears for You is a suitably melancholy weepy anchored by strong performances from its two leads which does ultimately prove moving even if not quite reaching the degree of melodrama implied by the title.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s the original song, Nada Sou Sou, in its cover version by Rimi Natsukawa which spawned a mini industry of its own encompassing two TV dramas and this standalone film (English translation):