Yasha (夜叉, Yasuo Furuhata, 1985)

In melancholy gangster movies, the hero often dreams of leaving the city for an idealised rural paradise to start again as a righteous man redeeming himself through hard work with a good woman by his side. Usually, they don’t make it, their goodness is nothing but a weakness in the harsh post-war environment, but even if they did could they really lay their violent souls to rest and live as the rest of us do? Once again played by a manfully stoic Ken Takakura, the hero of Yasuo Furuhata’s Yasha (夜叉, AKA Demon) tries to find out, but discovers that sooner or later the past will always catch up with you. 

15 years ago, fisherman Shuji (Ken Takakura) was the notorious Osaka yakuza known as “Yasha”. A war orphan given refuge by a gangster brotherhood, two things happened to change his way of life, the first being innocent country girl Fuyuko (Ayumi Ishida) whom he met by chance and rescued on the dangerous streets of the city. The second is the death of his younger sister who had become addicted to heroin. Fiercely resistant to the traffic of drugs, Shuji quit the clan, married Fuyuko, and retreated to her fishing village home to take over her late father’s fishing business. Well respected in the community as a steady hand, he now has three children and a settled happy life though one tinged with anxiety in the need to keep his back covered lest anyone find out about his violent past. 

The violent past is brought home to him when a young woman, Keiko (Yuko Tanaka), arrives in kimono with her young son in tow to take over the local bar. Keiko is a bar hostess from Osaka hoping to make a new start far away from the city, not so much for herself it seems as her no-good boyfriend Yajima (Takeshi Kitano) who is a drug-addled thug and openly hostile to her little boy. It’s Yajima who threatens to disrupt the gentle rhythms of the town, firstly getting the fishermen hooked on all night games of mahjong which damage their daytime productivity, and then selling them heroin to keep them propped up. Unused to such urban vices as hard drugs and serious gambling, the fishermen are lambs to the slaughter, handing over their hard earned savings to the thuggish Yajima to keep their heads above the water. 

Shuji wants to keep the town clean, but he can’t exactly admit just how familiar he is with things like drink and drugs which are, as his friend Keita (Kunie Tanaka) points out, not things “normal” people should know about. After realising an old friend is the middle-man, Shuji has a quiet word with Yajima as one thug to another but it only makes the situation worse. He tries talking to Keiko instead, but her decision to get rid of the drugs has disastrous consequences for all when Yajima goes on a crazed, knife-wielding rampage through the town which only Shuji can end. During the fight Yajima slashes Shuji’s fisherman’s jumper right through to the expose the demon beneath, leaving his colourful tattoos on show for all to see. 

You’d think that Yajima’s rampage would have taught the town a lesson, shown them that they were in over their heads and Yajima was not the sort of person it was good to be associated with, but their animosity overwhelmingly turns to the demon Shuji whom they unfairly begin to blame for their many misfortunes. The fishwives begin to avoid Fuyuko, telling their kids not to hang out with her kids and suggesting that it must have been Shuji who got the guys playing mahjong. Shuji meanwhile doubts himself, drawn to Keiko as to Osaka and the sleeping demon within. Yasha reawakens and he wonders if he has the right to live here after all. 

Fuyuko’s mother tells her that it’s a good wife’s job to quell the demon, but she struggles to maintain hold on Shuji while Yasha is pulled towards the city. He makes a manly choice, attempting to redeem Yajima in redeeming himself by returning to his point of origin. The widow of his old boss warns him off, reminds him that he’s a fisherman now, and that should he move against her she will have to act in accordance with the rules of the underworld, but privately mutters to herself that he hasn’t changed at all, “stupid man”. In the end, Yasha’s manly gesture ends in futility. He cannot escape himself but neither can he solve his problems through violence as he might have before, not least because the code is no longer secure motivating those he thought he could trust towards betrayal. He still has a choice, leave with Keiko to be Yasha once again accepting the futilities of a violent life (and its inevitable end), or stay to be a peaceful fisherman with the “good wife” Fuyuko. One man cannot possess two souls, but the given the chance the demon can be subdued if there is the will to subdue it and the belief that the man himself is good enough for the world in which he wants to live.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Song of the Cart (荷車の歌, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1959)

“When all human beings acknowledge each other as human let the precious joy that results be universal. When this joy lives forever in the hearts of women and is handed down to daughters who become mothers then tomorrow will not just repeat today but be a new beginning” reads the opening title card/mission statement of Satsuo Yamamoto’s chronicle of early 20th century Japan. Told though the eyes of one very good woman wrestling against her baser instincts, Song of the Cart (荷車の歌, Niguruma no Uta) is a gentle plea for a little more empathy and understanding in which the heroine suffers greatly but is finally rewarded in managing to keep the darkness at bay. 

In late Meiji, Seki (Yuko Mochizuki) develops a fondness for the most eligible young man in town – the postman, Moichi (Rentaro Mikuni), who can read and write and isn’t bad looking either. To her surprise, Moichi admires her too and eventually proposes marriage, intending to give up his job as a postman which doesn’t pay as much as it used to now costs are rising because of the recently concluded Sino-Japanese war to buy a handcart with the longterm goal of building a small handcart empire with a warehouse of his own that will allow him to build a fancy house to live in. Seki hesitates, she’s an illiterate maid perhaps she isn’t good enough for the great Moichi but he replies that he couldn’t care less about that and only wants to know if she wants him. She does, but has to check with her parents first. They object to the marriage on the grounds that Moichi is penniless and disown her when she tells them she’s marrying him anyway. Disowned by her parents, she also loses her job as a maid and is forced to head to Moichi’s ahead of schedule where his extremely cold mother (Teruko Kishi) makes no secret of her resentment of her new daughter-in-law but is eventually forced to relent. 

Unlike Moichi and his mother, the other residents of the village and particularly its women are bright and cheerful despite the harshness of their lives. Swept off her feet by Moichi’s seeming sophistication, Seki is in for a rude awakening in realising that his work ethic is extreme and in many ways he’s just as cruel as his heartless mother. On her arrival, Seki’s mother-in-law complains that she brings “only a small bundle” while simultaneously suggesting that she somehow looks down on them because they are only poor people, insisting that she work alongside Moichi pulling carts to make their dreams of riches come true. Seki jumps at the chance to prove her love, but finds her mother-in-law unchanged. 

Pulling the cart through the village, Moichi and Seki pass another woman who seems put out by Seki’s presence, complaining that Moichi never bothered to reply to her own proposal. Moichi dismisses her complaints, avowing that he didn’t marry her because she wasn’t a worker, implying that he was only interested in someone who would work alongside him in pursuit of his goal of becoming a homeowner. Seki is indeed a worker, and a strong woman who bears her hardships with grace, but finds it increasingly difficult to put up with her mother-in-law’s heartlessness and adherence to old-fashioned feudal customs by which she claims her authority over the household while Moichi, as the dutiful son, always defers to his mother. When the first child arrives, Moichi declares that a daughter brings him no joy, while the mother-in-law who is supposed to be watching her, just lets her cry all day long and doesn’t even change her nappies. Out on the road, Seki comes across another couple in a similar situation who’ve brought their little one with them, riding in a bucket on the back of the cart. Seki wonders why they can’t do the same, then she’d at least know her daughter was alright and not crying her heart out in a dirty nappy, but Moichi won’t hear of it lest his mother be offended that Seki is suggesting she’s not looking after her granddaughter properly. 

Moichi works every hour god sends, but not so much to provide for his family as to improve his own status in the hope of owning a sizeable home, perhaps to “regain” the kind of position his mother thinks is theirs as descendents of the Heike. He exists on a kind of political fault line in his rigid austerity, believing that you really can make it just by working hard while also becoming the de facto spokesman for the other cartmen because he is the only one able to read and write. Yet faced with constant and obvious oppression of the eerily feudal kind in persistent rice profiteering he does nothing much to resist it and gives only grudging approval to his son’s intention of forming a train driver’s union. 

While Moichi has pinned all his hopes on handcarts, the future is fast approaching. A funeral procession of cartmen is greeted by the horse-drawn variety coming the other way as if to signal their imminent obsolescence. But the horsemen aren’t much better off. If Moichi couldn’t afford a horse, he’ll never afford a motor car and the mechanised age is on the horizon. The only work he manages to find ironically involves transporting lumber for the new railway line, but it’s a gamble that pays off and makes Moichi a wealthy man once again. 

Material comforts aren’t everything, however, and Seki struggles to reconcile herself to life with her increasing cruel mother-in-law and emotionally distant husband. She worries that she’s becoming what she hates, finding it difficult to find sympathy for Moichi’s mother now she’s ill in feeling that perhaps she’s getting what she deserves. Her friend advises her that that’s just “bugs” eating away at her heart and what she really needs to do is fly in the opposite direction, finally make a friend of her mother-in-law in trying to understand her. She has, after all, had a very hard life, starved of affection all these years as a young widow raising a son alone on little more than charcoal money. 

Seki meanwhile suffers numerous humiliations and heartbreaks, notably Moichi’s extremely unreasonable decision to bring his 50-year-old sex worker mistress to live with them in their home, but does her best to be generous and forgiving. As she points out, this house is half hers, she built it alongside Moichi and she won’t just vacate it so Moichi can do what he always does which is as he pleases (once his mother’s not around to tell him not to). Moichi perhaps pays for his feudalist follies and selfish authoritarianism in a fairly direct way which aligns him with his chastened nation waking up to the emotional costs of his mistakes, while Seki is finally rewarded. Unlike her mother-in-law she becomes a beloved neighbourhood granny giving rides to all the local kids while pulling her cart onwards towards the future like a reverse Mother Courage embracing her long absent son finally returned to her in recognition of her goodness. 


The Scent of Incense (香華, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1964)

Scent of Incense still 1Sometimes regarded as overly sentimental, Keisuke Kinoshita’s later career grew progressively harder around the edges, as if he began to lose faith in the efficacy of human goodness but never it seems in its capacity for endurance. Spanning more than 50 years in the turbulent history of mid-20th century Japan, The Scent of Incense (香華, Koge) reverses the path of the hahamono in dramatising the complicated relationship of two women – a “selfish” mother and her “self-sacrificing” daughter who finds herself unable to give up on maternal approval despite the many disappointments of her life.

We open in late Meiji with a funeral interrupted by news from the Russo-Japanese war. Shortly after, young widow Ikuyo (Nobuko Otowa) argues with her mother, Tsuna (Kinuyo Tanaka), over custody of her five-year-old daughter Tomoko. Ikuyo is planning to remarry and her new husband has three children of his own. Fearing Tomoko would be an inconvenience, Ikuyo proposes to make her heir to her mother’s family, leaving her behind in her grandmother’s care. Though Tsuna loves Tomoko dearly, she resents her daughter’s intention to abandon them just because she’s got a better offer, and perhaps privately wonders how long she’ll actually stick it out for seeing as, as we later see, she has a strong tendency to give up when the going gets tough.

The prediction proves accurate. Ikuyo persuades her new husband to abandon his existing children and family home for the bright lights of Tokyo, while Tomoko and her grandmother live on alone in the country. Ikuyo has another daughter, Yasuko, but the couple quickly become impoverished without access to her husband’s family money. When Tsuna dies, Ikuyo decides to fetch Tomoko from the family residence, but then sells her to a geisha house. A few years later, she too falls into the sex trade but as a less exulted “oiran”, embarrassingly re-encountering her daughter from the other side of a brothel. Despite her abandonment and shame over her mother’s profession, Tomoko (Mariko Okada) continues to try to help her, maintaining an awkward familial relationship with a woman who only pays attention to her when she needs something.

Perhaps ironically, in one sense, Tomoko ends up becoming a successful, independent woman in pre-war Japan but is forever denied the kind of familial life she craves as a conventionally respectable wife and mother of the kind her own was not. In the course of her work, she meets dashing military cadet Ezaki (Go Kato) and, despite the warnings of her madam (Haruko Sugimura) who cautions her that she’s the type to fall in love too deeply, embarks on a longterm affair with him. Though he is obviously aware that she is a geisha, he is confident that his family would accept a marriage, but Tomoko’s hopes are later dashed when his pre-marital investigations turn up the fact that Ikuyo has worked as a “common prostitute”. Heartbroken, she resents once again paying the price for her mother’s transgressions, but does not break with her completely.

Tomoko’s liminal status is further brought home to her when her elderly patron, who has set her up with a geisha house of her own, suddenly dies and not only is she informed some days later by the madam at another house, but she’s not even permitted to attend the funeral. Another man, Nozawa (Eiji Okada), who’d had his eye on her but honestly admits that men of his class do not engage in “serious” relationships with geisha, asks her to become his mistress but she has had enough of the shadow life, vowing both that she doesn’t want to be “owned” anymore, and that her next man (if there is one) will have to marry her.

Loneliness renders that particular vow void as she finds herself embarking on a casual affair with Nozawa while Ikuyo considers getting married for the third time – this time, rather transgressively, with the family’s recently widowed former servant, Hachiran (Norihei Miki), who married into a wealthy family and apparently made something of himself. Hachiran, however, finds it difficult to shake off the old class attitudes, treating Ikuyo like a goddess while she bosses him around and makes a pretence of leaving every time she gets fed up.

Later we might wonder if Ikuyo’s sudden exit from Hachiran’s distant home is more that she missed her daughter than it was boredom with her husband. “I don’t think of her as a mother” each woman says, Ikuyo on learning that Tsuna is dangerously ill, and Tomoko when Nozawa suggests making a detour to visit Ikuyo and Hachiran. Ikuyo, it is true, is a cold woman who abandoned her daughter only to reclaim her in order to sell, later giving up two more children one of whom apparently disappears without trace. The proof of her love is found only in its end, while Tomoko suffers on all the long years otherwise alone, until in an immense act of circularity she at last becomes a kind of mother to another woman’s son.

Forever haunted by the spectre of soldiers, Tomoko loses everything in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but perseveres and rebuilds. She loses everything again in the firebombing of Tokyo, only later remembering her foresight in burying a large collection of crockery in the cellar which might allow her to open a restaurant. She resents her mother but keeps her close, while Ikuyo’s affections seem to ebb and flow as she disappears off to greener pastures only to resurface again when they’ve been thoroughly grazed. A flighty, perhaps selfish woman, Ikuyo too proves unable to sever connection from her daughter. Tomoko disapproves of her mother’s gaudiness, her unbridled lust for life and disregard of social conventions, but the two women are more alike than they first seem – each in their own way fiercely independent and unwilling to allow their desires to be defined or defeated by the world around them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Everything Goes Wrong (すべてが狂ってる, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

Everything goes wrong posterThe Tokyo of 1960 was one defined by unrest as the biggest protests in history filled the streets urging the government to rethink the renewal of the security treaty Japan had signed with America after the war in order to provide military support in the absence of a standing army. Yet the protests themselves are perhaps an indication of the extent to which the nation was already recovering. With the Olympics just four years away, post-war privation had been replaced by a rapidly expanding economy, dynamic global outlook, and increased possibilities for the young who enjoyed both greater personal freedom than their parents’ generation and a kind of optimism unthinkable merely ten years previously. Nevertheless, this sense of the new, of unchecked potential was itself disorientating and had, as some saw it, led to a moral decline in which youth aimlessly idled its time away on self indulgent pleasures – namely drink, drugs, promiscuous sex and American jazz.

This dark side of youth had become a talking point thanks to a series of notorious “Sun Tribe” movies produced by the youth-orientated Nikkatsu studios. The films were so controversial the studio was eventually forced to stop making them, but all they really did was tone down the shock factor to one of mild outrage. Seijun Suzuki, picking up the Sun Tribe mantle, goes further than most in Everything Goes Wrong (すべてが狂ってる, Subete ga Kurutteru), painting post-war malaise as a tragedy of generational disconnection as the chastened wartime generation, accepting their role in history, watch their children hurtle headlong down another alleyway of self destruction but are ultimately unable to save them.

Our “hero”, Jiro (Tamio Kawaji), is as someone later poignantly puts it, “a nice boy”. A student, he spends his spare time on the fringes of gang of petty delinquents who get their kicks freaking squares, engaging in acts of casual prostitution, and enacting non-violent muggings. Jiro’s main problem in life is his fierce attachment to his single-mother, Masayo (Tomoko Naraoka). After Jiro’s father was killed in the war (apparently run over by a Japanese tank), Masayo became involved with a married man who has been supporting herself and Jiro for the last ten years. Young enough to have an almost completely black and white approach to moral justice, Jiro cannot stomach this fact and accuses his mother of being a virtual prostitute, accepting money for sex without love.

Jiro repeatedly accuses the older generation of hypocrisy, that they lie about their true feelings and motivations whilst denying their responsibility for the war which took his father’s life. Yet, Nambara (Shinsuke Ashida), his mother’s lover, is a kind and honest man who answers every question put to him honestly and with fierce moral integrity. He admits his responsibility for the folly of war – something he feels keenly seeing as he is a weapons engineer by trade, but rejects Jiro’s characterisation of his relationship with Masayo as something essentially immoral. His justifications are perhaps, as Jiro puts it, “philanderer’s clichés”, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true. Nambara, as a young man, entered into an arranged marriage with the daughter of a now deceased general. The marriage is loveless and emotionally dead, but Nambara is an earnest person and will honour the commitment he made to his first wife even if it brings him personal pain. Masayo has always known this and even if he cannot legally marry her, Nambara has given her his heart and will also honour that commitment in continuing to try and make her son see that he is not the enemy, just another man who loves his mother.

There is something quite ironic in Jiro’s strangely conservative moral universe which rejects the “impure” nature of his mother’s romance, while the older generation are better positioned to understand that things are never as simple as they seem. Jiro is rigid and unforgiving where his parents are flexible and empathetic. He rejects his mother for being a “whore” but throws money at a girl who is in love with him because he thinks that’s what women “want”. Unable to accept her emotional needs, he thinks of her as a prostitute and thereby abnegates his responsibility – the exact opposite of the “goodness” Nambara displays in offering financial support for a woman he loves which (in his eyes) has no particular strings and is given only with the intention of making her life easier.

Jiro, infected both by mother and madonna/whore complexes, is profoundly disturbed when another young woman tries to point out that aside from being his mother Masayo is also a woman with normal human needs both emotional and physical. Following his botched attempt to blacken Nambara in her eyes, he drags his mother to a breezy youth fuelled beach party where he throws her into a tent full of lithe young male bodies and tells her to have her fill. Nambara, still determined to talk Jiro around, laments to Masayo that they never had the opportunity to experience the kind of freedom that these youngsters feel themselves entitled to. If only they were not so trapped by the social codes of their era, they might have been happy. Yet these youngsters, with everything in front of them, are anything but – determined to destroy themselves in nihilistic confusion, caught in a moment of flux when nothing is certain and everything is possible.

At the film’s conclusion, a cynical journalist remarks to a sympathetic mama-san that “today, goodwill between people can’t exist anywhere, everything has gone wrong”. Jiro’s tragic fate is that he, like many “nice” kids like him, cannot reconcile himself to the moral greyness of the post-war world in which the “heroic sacrifice” of their parents’ is hypocritically held up as wholesome entertainment. Unable to accept the love and kindness of Nambara who only wants to act as a father to him and continues to believe that “one day he will understand” even after Jiro has hurt him deeply both emotionally and physically, Jiro has only one direction in which to turn.

Suzuki weaves Jiro’s tale around that of his friends – the unhappy delinquents and the struggling workers, women used by men who promise them love but reject their responsibilities, women who think they have to trade something to win love which ought to be freely given, and the older generation who can do nothing more than look on with sadness as youth destroys itself. Suzuki’s sympathies lie with everyone, but more than most with the Nambaras of the world who are desperately trying to fix what was broken but find that in a world that’s already gone crazy kindness is met with suspicion while money, corrupting true emotional connection, has become the only arbiter of bitter truths.


Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Kon Ichikawa, 1991)

noh mask murders posterFor one reason or another, Japanese mystery novels have yet to achieve the impact recently afforded to their Scandinavian brethren. Japan does however have a long and distinguished history of detective fiction and a number of distinctive, eccentric sleuths echoing the European classics. Mitsuhiko Asami is just one among many of Japan’s not quite normal investigators, and though Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Tenkawa Densetsu Satsujin Jiken) is technically the 23rd in the Asami series, Kon Ichikawa’s adaptation sets itself up as the very first Asami case file and as something close to an origin story.

Ichikawa, though he may be best remembered for his ‘60s arthouse masterpieces, was able to go on filmmaking where others perhaps were not precisely because of his forays into the populist with a series of mystery thrillers including several featuring top Japanese detective Kindaichi (who receives brief name check in Noh Mask Murders). Published by Kadokawa, Noh Mask Murders is produced by Haruki Kadokawa towards the end of his populist heyday and features many of the hallmarks of a “Kadokawa” film but Ichikawa also takes the opportunity for a little formal experimentation to supplement what is perhaps a weaker locked room mystery.

Asami (Takaaki Enoki) begins with a voice over as four plot strands occur at the same temporal moment at different spaces across the city. In Shinjuku, a salaryman drops dead on the street, while a young couple enjoy a secret tryst in a secluded forest, a troupe of actors rehearse a noh play, and Asami himself is arrested by an officious policeman who notices him walking around with a dead bird in his hand and accuses him of poaching. As he will later prove, all of these moments are connected either by fate or coincidence but setting in motion a series of events which will eventually claim a few more lives before its sorry conclusion.

To begin with Asami, he is a slightly strange and ethereal man from an elite background who has been content to drift aimlessly through life to the consternation of his conservative family which includes a police chief brother. He harbours no particular desire to become a detective and is originally irritated by a family friend’s attempts to foist a job on him but gives in when he learns he will have the opportunity to visit Tenkawa which is where, he’s been told, the mysterious woman who helped him out with the policeman in the opening sequence keeps an inn. Hoping to learn more about her, he agrees to write a book about the history of Noh and then becomes embroiled in a second murder which links back to the Mizugami Noh Family which is currently facing a succession crisis as the grandfather finds himself torn over choosing his heir – he wants to choose his granddaughter Hidemi (Naomi Zaizen) who is the better performer but the troupe has never had a female leader and there are other reasons which push him towards picking his grandson, Kazutaka (Shota Yamaguchi).

As with almost all Japanese mysteries, the solution depends on a secret and the possibilities of blackmail and/or potential scandal. The mechanics of murders themselves (save perhaps the first one) are not particularly difficult to figure out and the identity of the killer almost certainly obvious to those who count themselves mystery fans though there are a few red herrings thrown in including a very “obvious” suspect presented early on who turns out to be entirely incidental.

Ichikawa attempts to reinforce the everything is connected moral of the story through an innovative and deliberately disorientating cross cutting technique which begins in the prologue as Ichikawa allows the conversations between the grandchildren to bleed into those of Asami and his friend as if they were in direct dialogue with each other. He foregrounds a sad story of persistent female subjugation and undue reliance on superstition and tradition which is indirectly to blame for the events which come to pass. Everyone regrets the past, and after a little murder begins to see things more clearly in acknowledging the wickedness of their own actions as well as their own sense of guilt and complicity. Noh is, apparently, like a marriage, a matter of mutual responsibility, fostering understanding between people and so, apparently is murder, and one way or another Asami seems to have found his calling.


Eternal Cause (海軍特別年少兵, Tadashi Imai, 1972)

Marines cadets posterOften regarded as a “left-wing” filmmaker, even later pledging allegiance to the Communist Party of Japan, Tadashi Imai began his career making propaganda films under the militarist regime. Describing this unfortunate period as the biggest mistake of his life, Imai’s later career was dedicated to socially conscious filmmaking often focusing on those oppressed by Japan’s conservative social structure including the disenfranchised poor and the continued unfairness that often marks the life of women. 1972’s Eternal Cause (海軍特別年少兵, Kaigun Tokubetsu Nensho-hei, AKA Marines Cadets/ Special Boy Soldiers of the Navy) sends him back to those early propaganda days but with the opposite spin. Painting Japan’s tendency towards authoritarianism and its headlong descent into the folly of warfare as a direct result of social inequalities and the hierarchical society, Imai tells the dark story of the “special cadets”, children from military academies who eventually found themselves on the battlefield as members of the last, desperate defence of an already lost empire.

Imai opens at the grim conclusion – February 1945, Iwo Jima. A squad of young men catch sight of their “Instructor” just as he falls and are shortly all killed themselves by approaching American forces. The Americans, sympathetically portrayed, wander the corpse laden battlefield and lift the arm of one particular body lamenting that the fallen soldier is “just a boy”, and that Japan must be in a very bad state indeed if it has come to this. One of the soldiers, not quite dead as it turns out, manages to get to his feet. The Americans are wary but give him time in case he wants to surrender but the boy tries to charge them, crying out that he is a “Marine Cadet”. They have no choice but to shoot him dead.

Moving back around 18 months to June 1943, the “Marine Cadets” are new students at a military academy. On arrival they are instructed that everything they brought with them, including the clothes they are wearing, must be sent home. They are now at war and must forget civilian life. This dividing line neatly marks out the central contradiction in the Marine Cadets’ existence – they are children, but also marines.

Enrolment in the school is voluntary rather than conscription based and the young men have many reasons for having decided to enter the military, most of them having little to do with dying bravely for the Emperor. There is, however, a persistent strain of patriotism which brought them to this point as they find the sacrifice they offer to make all too readily accepted by their nation. The education on offer is wide-ranging and of high quality – the boys will learn English as well as geography, history, science and maths, all of which will hopefully turn them into well educated, efficient military officers, but there is profound disagreement between the teaching staff and “instructors” as to how that education should be delivered.

Sympathethetic teacher Yoshinaga (Katsuhiko Sasaki) believes in education and wants to contribute to raising these children in love seeing as he is in loco parentis. Kudo (Takeo Chii) the military instructor, however, disagrees. He believes in harsh discipline in which progress is encouraged through physical punishment and a strong shame culture. Yoshinaga reminds Kudo that the boys are just children and that such punishment based motivational techniques place the boys at each other’s throats and will undermine the spirit of comradeship and togetherness which is essential for the well functioning of any military unit. Kudo counters that the boys became men when they enlisted, that he was raised this way himself, and that a culture of violence binds the men together into a kind of hive mind which moves and thinks as one. Kudo does not waver in this belief even after his tactics have tragic consequences, but does come to love the children in his care, entrusting them to Yoshinaga as he prepares to face the battlefield himself.

As Kudo leaves, he stops to admit that the boys are children but also wants Yoshinaga to understand something he thinks may not have occurred to him. The boys are mostly poor children, who, he says, have only themselves to rely on unlike the officers who are by and large from middle-class families with extended safety nets of privilege. Kudo’s doctrine of progress through strength is born of being born at the bottom of the heap and needing to struggle to survive. They have made themselves strong in order to resist the consistent oppression of their economic circumstances which often prize nothing other than their physical capabilities.

Poverty is indeed a major motivator. The most sympathetic of the boys, Hayashi (Michiko Araki), has enlisted alongside another boy from his village, Enami (Taketoshi Naito), whose teacher father has fallen headlong for the militarist folly and is even allowing military representatives into his classroom to offer recruitment talks to the boys. He recommends Hayashi join the Marine Cadets as a matter of practically – Hayashi’s family is dirt poor and his father is a drunkard. Joining the academy means reducing the burden on the family who have many other children and also that he will eventually be able to send money home as well as being well provided for himself. Despite a lack of aptitude for soldiering, Hayashi is eventually grateful – in the academy he gets a taste of comfort he never knew at home as well as a sense of comradeship and brotherhood away from the hostile home environment dominated by the violence of a drunken father. Another boy makes a similar decision to escape his indifferent foster family after being orphaned. Despite the fact that his sister has embarked on a life of prostitution to support him, his relatives offer him only scant comfort and keep most of her money for themselves.

Yoshinaga’s complaints about the nature of the education the boys receive is quite naturally countered with a question as to why he is at the school at all given that these boys are destined only to become cannon fodder in a war which clearly all but over. His pleas for kindness and compassion largely fall on deaf ears. The boys are still children – our narrator is 14 when he enlists at the academy, but they have been encouraged to think of themselves as men. Their halfling status embarrasses them and they’re keen to prove themselves as brave soldiers of Japan. Yoshinaga, true to his word, tries to save the boys – ordering them to hide during final attack sure that the Americans will take pity on these child soldiers and prevent their lives from becoming meaningless sacrifices laid on the altar of an uncaring nation. He is unsuccessful because the boys’ heads are already filled with the idea of glorious sacrifice. Ashamed to be thought of anything other than Marine Cadets, they launch their own attack and sacrifice their lives willingly.

Imai is at great pains to remind us that this society cares nothing for the boys, 5,020 of whom fall on the battlefield, or for the poor in general who bear the brunt of a war that is waged against their interests. The approach is distinctly old fashioned for 1972 and the message at times unsubtle, but given that the film appears less than thirty years later than the events it depicts when those who survived would themselves still be young, perhaps fathers of teenage sons themselves, it serves as a timely reminder of past madness and a pointed warning for the consumerist future.


Take Me Away! (ふりむけば愛, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1978)

Take Me Away PosterDuring his long and extremely varied career, Nobuhiko Obayashi was a not infrequent visitor to the world of the idol movie though his most notable entries into the genre would come in the 1980s Kadokawa heyday with the much loved The Little Girl who Conquered Time (starring Tomoyo Harada) and School in the Crosshairs (starring Hiroko Yakushimaru) among many others made for that studio alone. Obayashi’s ‘80s idol movies play very much into his key themes in their preoccupation with youthful melancholy and teenage ennui but 1978’s Take Me Away (ふりむけば愛, Furimukeba Ai) takes a slight step away from the genre norms in its slightly more grownup tale of complicated love and early life disappointments.

Beginning in typically strange Obayashi style, the film opens with some footage of abandoned machinery before the caption “Kyoko is on a journey” flashes up on the screen and we meet the woman herself (Momoe Yamaguchi) as she stares at San Fransisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.  Soon enough her view is obscured by a runaway kite bearing the name of Tetsu (Tomokazu Miura) – a young Japanese man currently living in the city. The pair hit it off while Tetsu tries to fix his both kite and Kyoko’s shoe which she broke trying to catch it. Tetsu promises to show her around San Fransisco and asks her to meet him at Union Square the next day at noon. Kyoko waits but Tetsu does not arrive – eventually a friend of his turns up in his place and Kyoko reluctantly spends a few hours with him during which she reveals that she’s on a suicide holiday and is about to go back to her hotel room to write the note. Finally Tetsu arrives, takes her to a hippy beatnik club where he sings her the title song of the movie, and the pair fall deeply in love.

Tetsu promises to meet Kyoko back in Tokyo to start a life together, but once again he does not turn up. Heartbroken and worried, Kyoko searches for him but the name of a bar he gave her as a point of rendezvous seems to be fake and her letters all come back undeliverable. When she gets hit by a car driven by a wealthy businessman, another, more stable, romantic possibility presents itself but will Kyoko let her true love dream go?

Take Me Away was the eighth in a series of films which starred popular Horipro idol Momoe Yamaguchi and her regular leading man Tomokazu Miura but the couple already had a long history of working with Obayashi in his career as a director of TV commercials. In fact the pairing which would eventually become a real life marriage was born thanks to Obayashi who was casting around for some stars while he made commercials with Miss Lonely apparently already on his mind. Obayashi was offered the chance to direct Yamaguchi’s cinematic debut but the dates didn’t line up and she made her first film, an adaptation of Yasunari Kawabata’s The Dancing Girl of Izu, with Katsumi Nishikawa instead.

This being the eighth Yamaguchi/Miura romantic drama the stakes needed to be raised – hence the decision to shoot for real on location in San Fransisco. Like many idol movies, the temporary shift away from the regular world the leading lady inhabits provides her an occasion to reinvent herself and the jet-setting, glamorous American holiday is certainly in keeping with the new, globally minded youth of Japan interested in transgressing borders of all kinds. When Tetsu meets Kyoko, she spins him a tale about diplomat parents that sounds like it could come out of any idol movie but in a departure from the norm it’s a part of her new holiday persona. In truth, beatnik dropout Tetsu is the posh one, a runaway son of a wealthy doctor, while Kyoko’s origins are humbler – she’s saved the money for this extremely extravagant holiday while working not as a concert pianist as she claimed, but as a piano tuner (making her choice of a Holiday Inn less strange in retrospect).

Though many idol movies centre around their teenage target audience, Kyoko and Tetsu are very noticeably grown up, already leading “adult” lives, no longer students but young people living semi-independently. This is brought home by the incongruous inclusion of a sex scene – the first in the series of films starring Yamaguchi and Miura, something which would not usually feature (at least explicitly) in the generally innocent idol movie world. Obayashi chooses to shoot this in an artistic, surreal, and impressionistic rather than naturalistic manner which shows the pair lying together naked (Yamaguchi covers herself with an arm) with a superimposition of the couple about to kiss over the top while the entire scene is bathed in golden white light. The sequence is one of the few typically Obayashi flourishes seen in the film (others include the title sequence, obvious Pan Am model shots, illustrated starry skies, and a slapstick brawl conducted to ‘20s jazz), but it perfectly captures the glory of young love so central to the early part of the film.

Of course, it doesn’t last. Holiday romances are one thing, but Tetsu proves to be a flaky sort of guy on every conceivable occasion until he’s finally dragged back into Kyoko’s orbit and vows to give up on his half-hearted ways once and for all to finally be true to his one true love. Kyoko’s second chance – a marriage proposal from the CEO who ran her over looks like the better option, that is until he shows his true colours at the film’s climax. Just as Tetsu leant meaning to Kyoko’s life in San Fransisco, so she too reawakens his fighting spirit. Tetsu describes himself as like the kite which bears his name – a free floating thing whose strings have long been severed. He needs the steady hand of Kyoko to right himself again. Unlike many of Obayashi’s wistful dramas, Take Me Away has a classically happy ending though its oddly silly, slapstick quality is very much in keeping with his sensibilities. A strange brew to be sure, but one which retains the essential innocence of the idol movie even whilst moving it beyond its traditionally adolescent remit.


Tomokazu Miura’s Furimukeba Ai

Kokoro (こころ, Kon Ichikawa, 1955)

kokoro coverAmong the most well-regarded of his works, Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro (こころ) is a deeply felt mediation on guilt, repression, atonement, and despair as well as an examination of life on a temporal threshold. Kon Ichikawa’s long career would be marked by literary adaptations both of classics and genre fiction but even among these Kokoro is something of an exception, marshalling all of his skills bar his trademark irony in a melancholy tale of loneliness, self loathing, and the destructive effects self-destruction on those caught in the cross fire.

Ichikawa opens in media res as Nobuchi (Masayuki Mori) and his wife, Shizu (Michiyo Aratama), appear to have had an argument. She darns angrily while he paces and eventually seems to relent on his decision not to let her accompany him to the grave of a mutual friend, Kaji (Tatsuya Mihashi), who died when Nobuchi was still a student. Eventually Nobuchi goes alone but is disturbed in the graveyard by the approach of an enthusiastic young university student, Hioki (Shoji Yasui), who has been redirected by Shizu after turning up to ask to borrow some books. Nobuchi is not really in the mood to talk but the two men chat, eventually sharing a drink together in the local bar before Nobuchi abruptly returns home, pausing only to invite Hioki to visit another time for the books he wanted to borrow.

Though the marriage of Nobuchi and Shizu may seem to be a model one, their lives together are mostly performance. Nobuchi is a melancholy, gloomy man who does not work and lives the life of a scholar, living off family money. The household is not wealthy but they are able to afford one maid and live in reasonable comfort. They have no children and, it seems, the marriage may be one of companionship rather than passion.

On their first meeting Nobuchi refuses to tell Hioki the reason why he is the way he is, but decides he must explain and that Hioki is the only person he can unburden himself to. Badly let down by those who should have had his best interests at heart at a young age, Nobuchi has learned not to trust, believes that love is a “sin”, and that he is unworthy of any kind of personal happiness or fulfilment. As a young man, Nobuchi did something completely unforgivable for the most selfish (and fiendishly complicated) of reasons and his best friend, Kaji, later died as a direct result.

Where Nobuchi is cynical, Kaji is ascetic and closed off but sincere in his Buddhist practice. Nobuchi’s actions are not only hurtful in their deliberate betrayal, but amount to a slow implosion of Kaji’s entire spiritual universe. Having been tempted away from his religious beliefs by irrepressible desire, Kaji’s path to spiritual fulfilment has been severed and his path to other kinds of happiness blocked by Nobuchi’s own panicked act of personal betrayal. Unable to reconcile his cowardly, cruel actions which have, in a sense, broken Kaji’s “heart”, Nobuchi resolves to deny himself the life he stole from his friend, committing himself to a living death defined by the absence of physical love, desire, or success.

Hioki first meets Nobuchi when he sees him attempt to walk into the sea and saves him from drowning. Immediately drawn to him, Hioki believes he and the man he calls “sensei” share the same kind of existential loneliness. His eagerness to forge a friendship with the older, aloof scholar may seem strange but Ichikawa is keen to build on a much disputed subtext of the original novel in Nobuchi’s possible repressed homosexuality. Hioki steps into the space vacated by Kaji which has been empty the last 15 years as the sort of man who might understand Nobuchi’s “heart”.

Shizu attempts to ask the question directly, both about Nobuchi’s relationship with Kaji whose name she is forbidden to mention and to new friend Hioki whom she fears maybe taking Kaji’s place in her husband’s affections. Pleading that she just wants to understand his “heart”, Shizu tries to get some clarification on the empty hell that is her married life, but Nobuchi’s heart is firmly closed to her and she’s shut out once again.

On hearing of the death of the Emperor Meiji, Nobuchi’s gloom descends still further as he feels himself to be a man who’s outlived his age. At one point, long before, he pushes Kaji on his spiritual weaknesses prompting him to admit he doesn’t know whether to go forward or back. Nobuchi, cynical and perceptive, points out that there likely is no back even if you wanted to go there. Taking the teacher/student relationship to its natural conclusion, Nobuchi’s final testament in which he confesses the circumstances which have led to his spiritual death is intended only for Hioki in the hope that the younger man can learn from his mistakes and prepare himself to step forward into the bright new age where Nobuchi fears to tread. Once again his actions are selfish in the extreme, but there is something universally understood in Nobuchi’s particular pain and the steps he takes to ease it.


Previously available on DVD from Eureka, now sadly OOP.

Scene from midway through the film

Night Drum (夜の鼓, Tadashi Imai, 1958)

night-drumThe works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon continue to have a large influence over Japanese drama even if not as frequently and directly adapted as they were in the immediate post-war period. Famous for tales of tragic love suicides and romantic heroes who risk all in the service of deep emotion, Chikamatsu’s works perhaps found even greater resonance in the turbulent years in which individual freedom and adherence to tradition found themselves in even greater conflict than ever before. Tadashi Imai makes the most of Chikamatsu’s melancholy fatalism to take a sword to the samurai order itself with all of its arcane rules and the essential hypocrisy which underlines its cruelty.

Hikokuro Ogura (Rentaro Mikuni) has been in Edo for a year with the shogun and is now on his way home. Stopping at an inn, he has a low level argument with his brother-in-law who warns him the men are getting restless and need to blow off some steam – preferably with some sake. Hikokuro is in charge of the purse strings and knows all of this pageantry costs money the clan do not quite have – hence, he’s reluctant to fritter it away on alcohol no matter how much the men might resent him for it.

That’s not to say Hikokuro is a particularly officious person, he’s kind and cheerful by nature but also tired and eager to get home after such a long time away. His wife, Otane (Ineko Arima), is very happy to see him but something seems different about her and there’s a tension in the air among some of the other women. It seems, there are rumours about Otane and a travelling musician (Masayuki Mori) who frequented the house during the summer while Hikokuro was away. Rumours are often just that, especially in these petty circles of nobility, but female adultery is punishable by death and so is not something to be gossiped about idly.

Night Drum (夜の鼓, Yoru no Tsuzumi) begins with the ominous sound of the drum itself, beating out the inevitably tragic fate of all concerned with a melancholy fatality. The tale proceeds in a procedural fashion as the authorities become involved, hearing witness testimonies and trying to discover if there could be any truth at all in these unpleasant rumours. Matters are further complicated by the pecuniary difficulties the clan currently finds itself in – the elders are half hoping it is true because it would be a good excuse to expel the Ogura household and thereby save the money which goes on its upkeep. They are aware, however, that they’re talking about the life of a previously unblemished woman as well as the ruin of her extended family.

The life of a retainer is not as easy as it sounds and we’re constantly reminded of just how much money is necessary to keep up appearances. The clan authorities are dismayed when they hear of Otane earning money on the side through needlework though other retainers are quick to confess their wives also help out – they just can’t survive on such meagre stipends. Each lord is required to hire servants as befits their status but they aren’t given the money to do so. Hikokuro is also required to serve the shogun in Edo every other year for at least twelve months meaning Otane is left alone at home with almost nothing other than her needlework to do except wait patiently for her husband’s return.

Given these circumstances, it’s easy to understand how such pernicious rumours might begin. The sole basis of the evidence seems to rest on a tip off that Otane is thought to have been alone in a room with a man who is not her husband. That she may be put to death solely for the crime of sharing the same space as someone of the opposite sex seems extreme, but this is the feudal world where rules and propriety are all. The men can cavort with geishas to their heart’s content, but Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

The action unfolds piecemeal as each of the various witnesses offers their testimony of events. Given the gravity of the situation, few are eager to recount their suspicions – especially the other women who fear the rumour may be true but are also unwilling to believe it. Hikokuro does not want to believe it either but faced with such convincing, if circumstantial, evidence doubt creeps into his mind and finds an anchor in Otane’s guilt ridden behaviour. Ironically, this entire situation developed only because of Otane’s attempts to avoid it – remaining at an inn rather than travelling with a man on the road only for one of her husband’s friends to attempt to rape and blackmail her. Having had far too much to drink in an attempt to steel her nerves and cover up the embarrassing assault, Otane finds herself at the mercy of man who should have known better than to take advantage of another man’s wife in such a moment of weakness.

One stupid mistake born of alcohol, loneliness, and a series of male betrayals is enough to bring down the social order all on its own. Rentaro Mikuni plays the part of the previously affable wounded spouse with an exceptional level of nuance as he accepts his part in his wife’s downfall thanks to the the circumstances of their lives which have kept them apart and left her at the mercy of untrustworthy lords. There is anger here, and shame, but there is still love too which only makes the inevitable outcome all the more painful for everyone concerned. Hikokuro plays the part he’s expected to play, but it pains him and you can’t wipe a slate clean with blood. Imai has his eyes firmly on the civilised society with all of its rigid yet often cruel and unfair rules for living. Shot with a kind of hypnotic dreaminess in which each of our unfortunate players is swept along by events they are powerless to influence, Night Drum beats out the death knell of those who allow their individual desires to overwhelm their “civilised” conformity but it does so with a rhythm that is filled with anger rather than sorrow, for those who are forced to leave half their lives unlived in maintenance of the very system which oppresses them.


 

Poppoya (鉄道員, Yasuo Furuhata, 1999)

img_0The late Ken Takakura is best remembered as cinema’s original hard man but when the occasion arose he could provoke the odd tear or two just the same. 1999’s Poppoya (鉄道員) directed by frequent collaborator Yasuo Furuhata sees him once again playing the tough guy with a battered heart only this time he’s an ageing station master of a small town in deepest snow country which was once a prosperous mining village but is now a rural backwater.

Otomatsu Sato has spent his life in service to the railway. Like his father before him who believed the key to the modernisation of Japan after its defeat in the second world war was in its transportation network, Sato started as an engineer before being promoted to station master. Morning and evening in the freezing cold he bid in and sent out each passenger and freight train travelling through his one track station. However, though he clearly loves his job Sato has experienced a great deal of personal tragedy in pursuit of his career. He wasn’t there when his baby daughter died, nor was he there when his wife lay dying in hospital. He was where he always is, on the platform until the last train goes out. Now, however, the mine has closed, the town is full of old people and there are no passengers on the train so the line will be closing. Having given his life to something which will be so unceremoniously erased, what is a man like Sato to do now?

In true Takakura fashion, Sato appears tough and fairly unapproachable on the outside but actually he’s quite well respected in the town and even if some of the other residents bemoan his rigid ways, they grudgingly respect him for being the way he is. He takes his duties seriously and would never countenance breaching them for something as trivial as personal concerns, even when those concerns are something as understandable as the death of a family member. The way he sees things, this is his duty and must be fulfilled, properly each day no matter what. This may seem a little obsequious in Western eyes, though many of the other (particularly female) characters also agree Sato takes things much further than he needs to, but dedication to one’s duty is, after all, an admirable trait.

However, now it’s all been for nowt. The railway line is to be closed, the land will engulf it once again erasing the years of Sato’s work just as if he were never there. He’s sacrificed final moments with his wife and child – not even that, just sacrificed moments. He’s given all to the railway and now there’s no place left there for him. His best friend, the father of a son also in the railway business, is to take another job at a hotel complex but Sato is a railwayman through and through – he’ll work on the tracks or not at all.

Around this time Sato also starts seeing some strange new children around. He assumes they’ve come to stay with grandparents in the village, this being the time of the New Year holiday. The little one has a strangely old fashioned looking doll that reminds Sato of one he bought for his infant daughter only she never really had the chance to enjoy it. Then he meets an older sister who’s kind of a live wire before meeting the oldest – a high school student dressed in an old fashioned looking uniform who really reminds him of someone he used to know. All these strange encounters force Sato to further re-examine his past, reliving old regrets and assessing a life lived in service to an ideal at the expense of the joy he might have felt as a happy family man.

Beautifully photographed with picturesque shots of trains against the deep snows of Northern Japan, Poppoya was Japan’s submission for the 1999 Oscars and does have all the trappings of a prestige melodrama. It unabashedly pulls at the hearts strings and even if the rather sentimental score takes things too far, Poppoya does nevertheless manage to draw the odd tear for Sato’s lonely, regretful old age. Sentimental yet genuinely affecting, Poppoya is an effectively crafted weepy which serves as a timely reminder to embrace the things which are most important to you while there’s still time.


The Hong Kong blu-ray release of Poppoya includes English subtitles (though they are a little “imperfect”).

Only trailer I can find has Korean subs: