Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Nagisa Oshima, 1972)

The complicated relationship between mainland Japan and the Okinawan islands is played out in the youthful identity crises of two adolescents struggling to understand the world their parents have left to them in an uncharacteristically breezy effort from Nagisa Oshima, Dear Summer Sister (Dear Summer Sister (夏の妹, Natsu no Imoto). Part Rohmerian travelogue, Oshima takes a tour around the island in the immediate aftermath of its reversion to Japan but rather than the busy tourist spots explores a legacy of colonialism and exploitation in the islands’ war memorials and red light districts. 

The irony is that Sunaoko (Hiromi Kurita) finds the person she’s looking for immediately after disembarking from the boat she’s taken from the mainland only she never realises it. Having received a letter from a boy, Tsuruo (Shoji Ishibashi), claiming that he may be her half-brother but isn’t entirely sure, Sunaoko has accepted his offer to come to Okinawa where he will show her his “brotherly affection”. Unbeknownst to her, however, he mistook the figure of her father’s much younger fiancée Momoko (Lily) for that of the teenage Sunaoko with the older woman half-heartedly trying to head off a potential crisis while understandably curious and seeking to know the truth behind her future husband’s hidden past. 

The figure of Tsuruo’s mother, Tsuru (Akiko Koyama), comes to stand in for that of Okinawa yet the central problem as we discover is that she was raped firstly by Sunaoko’s father Kikuchi (Hosei Komatsu) and subsequently by local Okinawan policeman Kuniyoshi (Kei Sato) who had previously passed her off as his younger sister. Even so the trio seem to interact with each other as if nothing had happened and they were simply old university friends reuniting after years of separation. Despite his present occupation in law enforcement, Kuniyoshi had been in prison at the time having been arrested as a student protestor and on his release raped Tsuru after she told him she had been raped by Kuniyoshi in an attempt to reclaim her body and send his sperm as a kind of advance division to prevent Kikuchi’s successfully colonising her womb with the consequence that Tsuru cannot of course be sure whose child Tsuruo is settling finally for “mine” in an answer which at least earns her Sunaoko’s respect. 

Obviously still somewhat naive and additionally provoked on discovering the attraction between Momoko and Tsuruo, Sunaoko had been unfairly judgmental in preemptively accusing Tsuru implying that she been immoral in maintaining relationships with two men at the same time. What occurs is a gradual sense of disillusionment in her father the judge when confronted, it has to be said with confusing frankness, with his own immorality in his misuse of Tsuru which is also of course a metaphor for Japan’s misuse of Okinawa, a thread picked up more directly by the old soldier Sakurada (Taiji Tonoyama) who has apparently come to Okinawa looking for a local willing to kill him in atonement for atrocities he half-heartedly claims not to have committed himself but feels responsible for simply as a Japanese person. Ironically enough he finds such a person in Rintoku (Rokko Toura), a teacher of traditional Okinawan folk music who is looking for “a Japanese who deserves my killing him”.

Nevertheless the relationship between the old men turns into one of playful animosity which does not seem to hint towards violence, a playful fight breaking out between the pair on a boat in the middle of the sea in the film’s concluding scenes in which Sunaoko offers an ironic commentary to the effect that the “killer” and his “victim” are still “singing and drinking” despite the earlier claim that there were only two kinds of people, Okinawans and Japanese, in counter to the claim that the only two kinds of people were men and women. Meanwhile, Kikuchi attempts to process the implications of his friendship and actions explaining that Kuniyoshi’s Okinawan roots were not an obstacle between them while admitting that he never thought about the position of Okinawa during their youth and wonders what he thought back then as to Okinawa’s future, whether it should revert to Japan or become independent. Kuniyoshi claims not to remember, while Tsuru explains how difficult it was to travel to the mainland under the occupation and implies that it’s better now that “we can go where we please”. 

The implication is, perhaps, that Tsuruo is his mother’s child but also a kind of orphan creating a new identity in a new Okinawa having symbolically rejected both of his potential fathers if seeking a brotherhood with his half-sister though even in this the waters are muddied with the undercurrents of incestuous desire which seem to run both ways. Even so Oshima hints at the secondary colonisation of America in conducting what doesn’t seem to be an entirely appropriate series of conversations with the young Sunaoko concerning the history of sex work on the island and the number of bars geared towards American servicemen returning from Vietnam with the suggestion that the islands remain economically dependent on the US despite the reversion while Sukurada makes similarly crass comments about his relationships with Okinawan sex workers during the war. They cast themselves as Urashima Taro travelling to the magical underwater palace of the Dragon King but wary of opening the box of truth they’ve been given lest their world crumble beneath their feet. Picturesque and strangely cheerful, Oshima’s Okinawan odyssey shot with breezy immediacy offers a characteristically thorny take on relations between the two island nations but reaches an unexpectedly hopeful conclusion in the young people’s rejection of their parents’ legacy and intention to move forward in mutual solidarity. 


Dear Summer Sister screens at Japan Society New York May 14 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Images: © 1971 Oshima Productions

Black Rain (黒い雨, Shohei Imamura, 1989)

Caught in a moment of transition, post-war Japan struggles to free itself from the lingering feudal legacy and the trauma of the immediate past in Shohei Imamura’s contemplative adaptation of the novel by Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain (黒い雨, Kuroi Ame). As many things change others stay the same, the Shizuma family burdened not only by the anxiety of a ghostly illness symptomless until it isn’t and the unfair prejudice of a wounded society, but the pressure of outdated patriarchal social codes along with a sense of filial failure in the inability to protect their ancestral estate. 

Imamura opens on the fateful morning the atomic bomb struck Hiroshima, voiceovers from 20-year-old niece Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) and her uncle Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura), a soldier severing at a factory in the city, detailing what they were doing on that very ordinary day. What unfolds is a scene of hell, the train Shigematsu is riding on blown apart while he crawls free and tries to look for his wife, Shigeko (Kazuo Kitamura), packing up their house preparing for evacuation, eventually reuniting with Yasuko who had come into town to find them. Hoping to get to the factory, they make their way past charred and hideously warped bodies, a woman cradling her carbonised infant, a little boy overjoyed to have found his big brother only to go unrecognised because his face is melted away while skin hangs painfully from his forearms and fingertips. The brother only accepts him after checking his belt which has somehow miraculously survived. The trio eventually make it to comparative safety at the factory with relatively few injuries, only later learning of the implications of having been in such close proximity to the blast. 

Jumping ahead five years, the Shizumas are living quite comfortably in their ancestral home on a mountain estate largely spared the post-war agricultural land reforms because of its location, though Shigematsu attributes his mother’s dementia to an inability to accept the changing times not only their loss of a semi-aristocratic status but the essential failure of having proved unable to protect their ancestral lands. His immediate problem is however the marriage of the now 25-year-old Yasuko. We see him triumphantly leave a doctor’s office with a certificate stating that Yasuko is in good health he hopes will reassure her current suitor’s family in the face of persistent rumours that she too was a direct victim of the “flash”, rather than an indirect victim simply of the rain which Shigematsu mistakenly believes to have been less dangerous. 

At 25 this is Yasuko’s last chance, she’s aged out of the arranged marriage market. She has also had a promising job offer from the local post office but is minded to turn it down in the hopes of being married. Taking the post office job may be the most sensible option, but it also seems like defeat, an acceptance that she is unfit for marriage and a clear sign that Shigematsu and Shigeko have failed in their patriarchal duties to ensure that Yasuko finds a good husband and will be well looked after for the rest of her life. In this age, it is difficult for a woman to support herself alone even leaving aside the social stigma of being an unmarried woman. A marriage is therefore also a job, and the families fear one Yasuko may not be able to perform if as the rumours suggest her exposure to radiation may have left her unable to bear children. The situation is further complicated seeing as Shigematsu and Shigeko were not able to have children of their own, and with Yasuko’s mother Kiyoko having died young Yasuko is the last of the Shizuma line even if she technically may not bear their name. 

Lost in old memories and mistaking Yasuko for her mother, grandma (Hisako Hara) may have it right when she tells her not to marry for marriage only leads to death. Yet in an odd way, Yasuko’s liminal status perhaps grants her the right to turn away from these old-fashioned patriarchal expectations in making her own decision not marry even if she orients herself back towards the filial in requesting to stay with the aunt and uncle who raised her in order to care for them should they suddenly begin to experience symptoms of their exposure to “the flash”. Shigematsu continues to treat the notion of radiation sickness with an almost supernatural mentality, convinced that having seen the light or not is all that matters constantly trying to provide evidence that Yasuko was not there when the bomb went off while ignoring her exposure to the black rain which fell afterwards even while himself filled with the anxiety of not knowing if he may someday become ill even if he and Shigeko are in otherwise good health. 

He watches friends with secondary exposure become ill and die before him, recalling being asked to read sutras for the dead in the aftermath of the bomb though feeling himself unqualified, while some in the village perhaps jokingly accuse them of playing on their status as bomb victims as if they are merely lazy rather than actively sick. Meanwhile, across the way a young man with intense PTSD suffers flashbacks every time he hears an engine running and is compelled to throw himself in front of it as if it were an enemy tank. Yuichi (Keisuke Ishida) is ironically enough “a veteran of the suicide squad”, otherwise alright if fragile spending his days carving Buddhist Jizo statues may of which have grotesque, anguished expressions in contrast to the comforting, almost cute faces such statues usually bear. Just as the wider society distances itself from the survivors of the bomb, so they reject men like Yuichi. When Yuichi’s mother comes to propose an unlikely marriage between the two lonely youngsters who have become close after bonding through their shared anxieties, Shigematsu is offended, resenting the implication that they must believe Yasuko is a poor catch if daring to suggest she marry a man of a lower social class who is also in need of assistance in living with his mental illness. 

Yet her marriage continues to weigh heavily on Shigeko’s mind, feeling as if she has failed the Shizuma family in being unable to provide an heir and subsequently failing to secure a match for Yasuko. It is perhaps this anxiety that finally makes her ill, taking strange medicines provided by a dubious Shinto priestess who tells her it’s all her own fault for not being able to visit Kiyoko’s grave because someone has to stay at home to look after grandma. Only Shigematsu sees the writing on the wall, advising Yasuko that after grandma dies she should sell the estate and take the money as her dowry freeing her from the feudal and familial legacy and giving her permission to move into the modern post-war future even as she begins to doubt that the future has a place for her. 

Shooting in black and white and in a much more classical style than that which is found in his other work, Imamura adopts the aesthetics of Golden Age cinema to comment on the contemporary era now perhaps feeling itself sufficiently distanced from the toxicity of wartime trauma, suggesting that the entire society is in a sense soaked in black rain its inability to confront the recent past a poison slowly eating away at its foundations. “An unjust peace is better than a just war” Shigematsu is fond of saying, quoting Cicero dismayed by the heated geopolitical debates he hears on the radio he uses to set the clock, his friend dying without ever really understanding why the bomb was dropped, why on Hiroshima, why at that particular moment. Imamura denies us closure too, leaving on a note of anxiety if tempered with an all but forlorn hope for signs of a miracle on the horizon that the sickness can be healed and a better world will someday arrive.


Black Rain screens at the BFI on 28th December as part of BFI Japan and is also available on blu-ray as part of Arrow’s Imamura boxset or to stream in the UK via Arrow Player

Fire Festival (火まつり, Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985)

By 1985 the Japanese economy was approaching its zenith yet along with increasing economic prosperity had come social change of which small-town Japan was either casualty or sacrificial victim. “Nigishima will stay as it is” declares the last holdout of an increasingly obsolete way of life in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s intense modernity drama, Fire Festival (火まつり, Himatsuri), a manly mountain man and animalistic force of nature by several metrics unsuited to life in the contemporary society into which he is ultimately unable to progress. 

There are many things which it seems have not changed in Nigishima for generations, one being the animosity between the cohorts of its bifurcated community, those who live by land and those who live by sea. Rural depopulation may have forced them to come closer but it has also increased their sense of mistrust while both industries continue to suffer in an economy which no longer prizes their humble rural output. Despite being catapulted into a promised modernity by the advent of the railway to great fanfare in 1959, it now seems that Nigishima cannot survive without a new road which could be paid for by the development of a marine park only mountain man Tatsuo (Kinya Kitaoji) owns the property right in the middle of the earmarked area and has hitherto refused to sell further increasing the tension between the two communities. 

Tatsuo is thought of, and thinks of himself, as a big man in the area quite literally it seems as part of the reason he enjoys this status is down to his being unusually well-endowed. He believes himself to have a special relationship with the mountain goddess, often joking to the other men about having a sexual relationship with her while sometimes describing her as his girlfriend. Several times he is mistaken for an animal, firstly by the boatman bringing his childhood sweetheart and sometime mistress Kimiko (Kiwako Taichi) back to the island who assumed he was a monkey crawling along the cliff edge thoughtlessly throwing rocks at them, while he often gambols through the forest whooping like some kind of Tarzan. Entirely unreconstructed, his worldview is patriarchal and misogynistic. All of his banter with the other men is sexual, constantly referring to his penis while greeting his friends with lewd hand gestures thrusting his fist into his pocket as if waving with an erection. The cure for offending the goddess he tells his young protege Ryota (Ryota Nakamoto) is to drop his trousers and display his manhood, Tatsuo strangely believing this would appease her for taking wood from a sacred tree or killing without permission. 

Smearing the blood of a sacrificial animal over his chest and forearms he dedicates the death to the goddess, a gesture he will repeat in the film’s violent and tragic conclusion yet there is also arrogance in his conduct as if he believes himself above natural law, protected as the goddess’ favourite even as he describes himself as “suffocated” by the women in his life from his mother and five older sisters all of whom indulge him to his wife, kids, and mistresses. He has trained his dogs to hunt wild boar without the use of guns in a method he admits even other hunters describe as “cruel” while breaking a local taboo shooting monkeys in the forest well aware of nature red in tooth and claw. As such, there is little nobility to be seen in his determination to preserve this already obsolete way of life. His virility maybe contrasted with that of the ageing land broker Yamakawa (Norihei Miki) and his failed attempts to bed sex worker Kimiko who tricks him into paying off her debts, but he at least knows the way the wind is blowing explaining to her that towns such as Nigishima survive only through things like marine parks or hotels or even nuclear power plants. Without the road, the town will die. 

Yet in 1959 they were told the railway would save them and it seems it did not. Tatsuo’s love making with Kimiko in a boat borrowed from a treacherous fisherman who later agrees to sail it transgressively into sacred waters is intercut with memories of the rail line’s opening ceremony, two teenagers who might have been them or at least of around the same age ride an elephant on the jetty while the townspeople arrange themselves into the formation of the character for “celebration” captured by the aerial photographer above. For Tatsuo as a boy, was this a rebirth of Nigishima or the beginning of its demise as the coming modernity began to eat away at its foundations? 

The fire festival is “for men”, according to Tatsuo, “to drive out evil spirits”, his manliness getting the better of him as he disrupts the proceedings to attack a man he accuses of having brought “false fire”. These are the lessons he teaches to surrogate son Ryota whose devotion to him borders on the homoerotic, Tatsuo cradling him during the climactic rain storm and he seeming to develop a fascination for Kimiko as a kind of indirect fixation. Ryota has learned Tatsuo’s chauvinism mimicking his lewd hand gestures and swaggering walk, his cruelty in sacrificing 1000 yen to trick Yamakawa into injuring his hand in a bear trap, and his arrogance ensuring that his problematic masculinity will survive into another generation presumably no more capable of halting the march of modernity than he has been. Tatsuo poisons the waters with fuel oil which as one of the greek chorus of fish wives points out does not catch fire, Tatsuo himself smouldering until an inevitable explosion. Receiving some kind of epiphany during a mystical congress with the goddess in the middle of a storm, he knows what he must do and accepts that he cannot progress into the modern society. Smoulderingly intense in its small-town animosity and primeval sensibilities, Yanagimachi’s poetic tragedy of futility and the broken promises of a badly distributed modernity may accept the the sacrifice but mourns it all the same. 


Fire Festival screens at the BFI on 20/27 December as part of BFI Japan.

Clip (English subtitles)

Escape from Japan (日本脱出, Kiju Yoshida, 1964)

Like many directors of his generation, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida began his career at Shochiku working on the studio’s characteristically inoffensive fare before being promoted as one of their youth voices through which they hoped to capture a similar audience to that attracted by Nikkatsu’s Sun Tribe movies. Yoshida’s films may have spoken to youth but they were perhaps not quite what the studio was looking for nor the kinds of projects that he really wanted to work on, which is one reason why 1964’s Escape from Japan (日本脱出, Nihon Dasshutsu), an anarchic B-movie crime thriller of intense paranoia all maddening angles and claustrophobic composition, was his last for Shochiku, the final straw being their decision to change the ending without telling him and release the film while he was away on honeymoon. 

Set very much in the present, the film opens with a young man miming to American jazz which turns out to be part of the floor show being performed by the band on the stage below for whom he is a reluctant roadie. Tatsuo (Yasushi Suzuki) dreams of going to America to rediscover “real jazz” and subsequently bring it back to Japan. He has the strange idea that America is a true meritocracy where his talent will be recognised, unlike Japan where it is impossible for him to succeed because he is not particularly good looking or possessed of “star quality”. Feeling himself indebted to the band’s drug-addled drummer Takashi (Kyosuke Machida) for helping him get the roadie gig with the false promise of becoming a singer, Tatsuo agrees to help him commit an elaborate robbery of the “turkish bath” (low level sex services and precursor to the modern “soaplands”) where his girlfriend Yasue (Miyuki Kuwano) works. Only it all goes wrong. The guys kill a policeman during the escape, and the other hotheaded member of the gang becomes convinced that Yasue may talk now that they’ve got involved with murder so they should finish her off too by forcing her to take an overdose of sleeping pills. 

Absolutely everyone is desperate to escape Japan for various different reasons. Tatsuo because of his obsession with American jazz and the freedom it represents to him coupled with the sense of impotence he feels in an oppressive society which refuses to recognise his talent because he doesn’t look the part. He jokes with his next-door neighbour, a sex worker who has redecorated her apartment in anticipation of impressing the tourists arriving for the Olympics, that he envies women and wishes he could find a “sponsor” to take him to the States, but later can offer only the explanation that Japan doesn’t interest him when probed over why he was so desperate to leave. 

“Korea or anywhere else, it’s better than Japan” Yasue later adds, consoling Tatsuo as she informs him that their escape plan won’t work because all of the US military planes are being diverted to Korea to bring in extra help for the Olympics. Bundled into a van filled with chicken carcases as a potential stowaway, he discovers another escapee – a Korean trying to go “home”, or rather to the North (presumably having missed out on the post-war “repatriation” programs) where he claims there are lots of opportunities for young people only to lose his temper when Tatsuo explains that he wants to become a jazz singer. He doesn’t want decadent wastrels in his communist paradise and would rather Tatsuo not mess up his country. Yet they are each already dependent on the Americans even for their escape, making use of military corruption networks and getting Yasue’s friend’s GI squeeze into trouble through exposing his black-marketeering. 

Tatsuo and Yasue find they have more in common than they first thought, both “deceived” by those like Takashi who turned out to be a feckless married man and father-to-be risking not only his own future but that of his unborn child solely to fuel his escapist drug habit (which was perhaps the reason for the lengthy hospital stay from which he had just returned). Yasue was just trying to save up enough money to open a hairdresser’s in her hometown, but Takashi told her he was a “famous jazz drummer” and presumably sold her the same kind of empty dreams as he did Tatsuo. Giving up on her own future, realising that even in America the sex trade is all that’s waiting for her, Yasue tries to engineer Tatsuo’s escape but he, traumatised by his crimes, descends further into crazed paranoia, eventually finding himself right in the middle of the Olympics opening ceremony. This is event is supposed to put Japan back on the map as a rehabilitated modern nation, but perhaps all it’s doing is creating an elaborate smokescreen to disguise all the reasons a man like Tatsuo and a woman like Yasue might want to be just about anywhere else. Yoshida seems unimpressed with the modern nation and its awkward relationship with the Americans, perhaps a controversial point in the immediate run up to the games. Shochiku neutered his attempt to depict a man driven to madness by the impossibilities of his times, but a sense of that madness remains as Tatsuo finds himself on the run and eventually suspended neither here nor there, trapped in a perpetual limbo of frustration and futility.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Wuthering Heights (嵐が丘, Kiju Yoshida, 1988)

Wuthering Heights poster“In this decadent age, who believes in the gods’ anger?” asks a cynical priest, willingly inviting evil into his home in the hope of brokering a change in his constraining circumstances. A key figure of the avant garde, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida, like many of his contemporaries, struggled in the heavily commercialised cinema industry of the 1970s and beyond, finding the international arena more receptive to his arthouse concerns. 1988’s Wuthering Heights (嵐が丘, Arashi ga Oka), a distinctly Japanese take on Emily Brontë’s classic novel, found funding in France where it perhaps neatly sits alongside superficially similar efforts from his similarly constrained contemporaries, but as always Yoshida’s vision is darker, more disturbing than that of the big budget epics which aimed to recapture golden age glories.

Yoshida swaps the desolate Yorkshire moors for a smokey hellscape settled in ash on the side of an unpredictable volcano. The Yamabes are a priestly family in charge of conducting various rituals to keep the serpent god happy, preventing an eruption and ensuring good rains. The house is spilt in two with a feud underway between the East mansion and the West. The East mansion is where we lay our scene as old Yamabe returns from an extended sojourn in the city, bringing back with him a feral child he found starving under a bridge and later names “Onimaru” (Yûsaku Matsuda) in honour of his “demonic” appearance.

“Demonic” maybe an unkind word to use about any child and primed to become a self-fulling prophecy, but as someone later puts it Onimaru “does not belong to this world”. He is “an evil man” whose “cruelty knows no limits”, yet two women are drawn into his orbit and find themselves unable to break free of his passionate intensity. His step-sister, Kinu (Yuko Tanaka), our Cathy stand-in, bonds with him in childhood feeling a kind of elemental connection perhaps forbidden to her as a woman of feudal Japan subject to the whims of male society. Yet she alone sees through him to humanity buried below, “your curse is the proof you will never stop loving me” she offers darkly while seducing him the night before her marriage to another man (Tatsuo Nadaka). Later that man’s sister (Eri Ishida), positioning herself as potential bride, cites the fact that he is “consumed by jealousy” as further proof that he is more man than demon, but Onimaru himself seems uncertain so deep is he in rage and resentment.

That resentment is perhaps as much about class as about anything else. A feral child, living like an animal on the streets of an unforgiving city, he’s an ill fit for the rarefied mansion of a local lord with a spiritual mission, albeit one which imprisons him in his home and forbids him from associating with the world below. Yamabe took him in for his “boldness”, actively seeking his demonic dynamism while his own son, Hidemaru (Nagare Hagiwara), remains disappointingly conservative and wedded to his old-fashioned elite entitlement. Hidemaru’s resentment of Onimaru is not so much born of parental rejection in his father’s abrupt decision to go out and find a more satisfactory son than the one dutifully waiting at home, but irritation in Onimaru’s irregular status. He resents that a mere “peasant”, a man who should be among the servants, is permitted to share his space, and it seems, has usurped his position in his father’s eyes to be groomed as an heir to the illustrious Yamabe name.

Hidemaru eventually leaves in disgust, setting off to make a conventionally successful life for himself in the city, latterly returning with a wife and son to claim his birthright only after his father’s death. Yet Hidemaru suffers too. His wife is raped and murdered by bandits, agents of chaos and yet a product of the system he was so keen to uphold, leaving him a drunken, dissolute figure unable to fulfil his obligations to the god of fire while Onimaru prospers in a violent world and is eventually gifted that which he most wanted – stewardship of the Yamabe clan.

Even so, he cannot fully possess Kinu who remains lost to him, ruined by her own internal conflict between individualism and obedience. After coming of age, her father tells her women of the Yamabe clan must leave the mountain to serve as priestesses in the shrine, but Kinu wants to “live as a true woman”. She cannot have Onimaru, but does not want to leave him so she engineers a marriage with the rival West mansion and the kindly Mitsuhiko who brands his house as one of light as opposed to the gloomy shadows of the East. Kinu has attempted to seize her own future, at least in part, but finds herself conflicted, torn between her affection for Mitsuhiko who is gentleness personified and her need for Onimaru’s brooding intensity.

Yet Yoshida’s Wuthering Heights is less a story of forbidden, transgressive loves than it is of elemental destruction, the anger of the gods manifested as imploded repression and its fiery aftermath. Yamabe, the father figure, brings “evil” into his home, infecting it with dark desire and deep resentments seemingly in the knowledge it will burn it to the ground. The third generation, orphaned and finally independent, are left to make what restitution they can and so the tale begins to reset and repeat with cousins, Hidemaru’s grown and now subjugated son Yoshimaru (Masato Furuoya), and Kinu’s fiesty daughter (Tomoko Takabe), returning their ire to the force of their oppression – Onimaru, still fearsome and implacable though ageing and maddened by his unanswerable love for a dead woman whose corpse he has begun to covet.

Kinu, on her deathbed, promised to drag Onimaru to hell (assuming they weren’t already there) if only to protect her new family and finally does just that as he finds himself expelled by the next generation, dragging a coffin off into the fiery distance. “In every way, our world is accursed” insists an exasperated retainer. Everything here is corrupt, rotten, suppurating under the weight of oppressive traditions which restrict freedom and insist on order at the price of humanity. Yoshida’s noh-inspired aesthetics add to the atmosphere of fable as his embattled protagonists attempt to reconcile their natures with their civility but find there is no answer for repressed desire other than destruction and eventual rebirth.


The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Masaki Kobayashi, 1985)

The Empty TableJapanese cinema of the 1980s is marked by an increasing desire to interrogate the idea of “the family” in an atmosphere of individualist consumerism. Yoshimitsu’s Morita’s The Family Game had blown the traditional ideas of filial piety and the primacy of the patriarch wide open in exposing his ordinary middle-class family as little more than a simulacrum as its various members sleepwalked through life playing the roles expected of them free of the true feeling one would expect to define familial bonds. A year later, Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family took a different, perhaps more positive approach, in depicting a family descending into madness through the various social pressures of maintaining a conventional middle-class life in the cramped environment of frenetic Tokyo. Masaki Kobayashi, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not so much interested in families as in individuals whose struggles to assert themselves in a conformist society became his major focus. The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Shokutaku no nai Ie) is not perhaps “a family drama” but it is, if indirectly, a drama about family and the ways in which the wider familial context of society at large often seeks to misuse it.

Set in 1973, The Empty Table is also among the earliest films to tackle the aftermath of the 1972 Asama-Sanso Incident. For ten days in February, the nation watched live as the police found themselves in a stand off with five United Red Army former student radicals who had taken the wife of an innkeeper hostage and holed up in a mountain lodge, refusing to give themselves up to the police. The discoveries surrounding the conduct of the United Red Army which had descended into a cult-like madness involving several murders of its members (including one of a heavily pregnant woman) shocked the nation and finally ended the student movement in Japan.

Kidoji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the father of one of the student radicals, Otohiko (Kiichi Nakai), who took part in the siege. In Japanese culture, it’s usual for the parents of a person involved in a scandal to come forward and offer an official apology to the nation on behalf of the their children. During the siege itself the family had also been weaponised as mothers, particularly, were enlisted to shout from outside the inn, offering poignant messages intended to get their sons to give themselves up and come home. Kidoji, unlike the other fathers (one of whom hanged himself in shame), refuses his social obligation on the grounds that the actions of his grownup son are no longer his responsibility. 

As a scientist, Kidoji is used to thinking things through in rational terms and outside of Japan his logic may seem unassailable – after all, it is unreasonable to hold the conduct of a family member against an otherwise upright and obedient citizen. In Japan however his actions make him seem cold and unfeeling, as if he has disowned both his son and his position as the father of a family with whom rests ultimate responsibility for those listed on his family register. This way of thinking may be very feudal, but it is the way things work not just in the late 20th century, but even in the early 21st.

Kidoji’s refusal to do what is expected of him eventually leads to the crumbling of the family unit. Far from the cheerful scene we see of Kidoji, his wife, and their three children seated around a dinner table in celebration, the family now eat separately and Kidoji returns home to cold meals and an empty table. Kidoji’s wife, Yumiko (Mayumi Ogawa), has had a breakdown and had to be hospitalised, while his daughter Tamae (Kie Nakai) is forced to break off her engagement only to resort to underhanded methods to be allowed to marry the man she loves. While Otohiko languishes in prison, only his younger brother Osamu (Takayuki Takemoto) remains at home.

Kobayashi’s central concern is the conflict in Kidoji’s heart as he faces a choice between maintaining his principles and saving his family pain. It’s not that Kidoji feels nothing – on the contrary, he is profoundly wounded by all that has happened to him, but ironically enough, puts on the face society expects but does not want in maintaining his composure in a situation of extreme difficulty. Kidoji’s deepest anxieties rest in the need to “take responsibility”, something he must do in acknowledging that it’s not his son’s disgrace which has destroyed his family but his own rigidity in refusing to bend his principles and obey social convention. What Kidoji wants is for his son to take responsibility for his own choices as an individual rather than expecting his family to carry his load for him. He must, however, also take responsibility for the effect his choices have had on others, including on his family, and accept his role both as an individual and as a member of a society with rights and obligations.

Kidoji’s refusal to apologise on behalf of his son looks to the rest of society like an abnegation of his paternal authority, and without paternal authority the family unit crumbles like a feudal household whose lord has been murdered. Yet Kidoji, like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, refuses to compromise his principals no matter how much personal pain they eventually cause him. Where the rules of society make no sense to him, he will ignore (if not quite oppose) them, remaining true to his own notions of moral righteousness.

In many ways, Kidoji is the archetypal Kobayashi hero – standing up to social oppression and refusing to simply give in even when he knows how beneficial that may be to all concerned. He is also, however, just as problematic in allowing his family to continue suffering in preservation of his personal beliefs. Kobayashi’s final feature film, The Empty Table is extremely dated in terms of shooting style with its overly theatrical dialogue and frequent use of voice over and monologue which were long out of fashion by the mid-1980s. Kobayashi does, however, return to the more expressionist style of his earlier career, moving towards an etherial sense of poetry as his hero contemplates his place in a society which often asks him to behave in ways which compromise his essential value system. The family, broken as it is, is also (partly) mended once again as Kidoji begins to reconcile his various “responsibilities” into a more comprehensive whole as he prepares to welcome a new generation seemingly as determined to live in as principled and unorthodox a way as he himself has.


Bad Boys (不良少年, Susumu Hani, 1961)

Bad Boys posterIn the mid-1950s, the “Sun Tribe” movies had evoked a series of conflicting reactions in their depictions of the new bright young things of the post-war era who, caught in a period of intense confusion, rejected the future their parents’ had been trying to build while revelling in nihilistic hedonism enabled by the new freedoms. Though the films proved popular with their target audience, they also produced a moral panic in the older generation which saw youth as dangerously out of control and desperately in need of correction. Meanwhile, reform school drama also became something of a recurring motif in the more progressive youth movies put out by Nikkatsu (including one starring Hani’s soon-to-be wife, Sachiko Hidari) which sought to humanise the figure of the “bad boy” by pointing out all the various circumstances which led to his fall from grace.

Susumu Hani’s Bad Boys (不良少年, Furyo Shonen) is often regarded as an important precursor to what might later be termed the “new wave” in its radical departure from the cinematic norm of the times. Loosely inspired by a book titled “Wings that Cannot Fly” which collected the stories of boys who’d been through the same reform school, Hani repurposes the tools of neorealism in his use of non-actors, improvised dialogue, natural light and location shooting, for a hybridised avant-garde “documentary style” which is, in a sense, realer than “real”.

We follow a disaffected young man, Asai (Yukio Yamada), who has been arrested for the aggravated robbery of an upscale Ginza jewellers. Asai, who sadly laments that he has only seen the famously posh neighbourhood from the back of a police van, did indeed commit the crime and could be thought of as the “ringleader” of the group of boys arrested which also includes young men from “good” families who’ve fallen in with a “bad” crowd. Some of the other boys are released when their parents plead for them, but Asai, as we discover, has no parents – his father died in the war when Asai was three and for reasons unexplained he is estranged from his mother. Undergoing a series of psychological tests which prove inconclusive, it’s decided that Asai might benefit from some time in reform school to reflect on his life and hopefully emerge with a better sense of civic responsibility.

Hani’s depiction of the reform school system paints it as an obvious remnant of the militarist or perhaps even feudal past in which discipline and physical strength are the primary virtues. The boys salute, march in file, and are taught to respect authority. Inside the school, natural factions arise with a strictly observed series of hierarchies enforced by violence and intimidation. Asai, a determinedly independent sort, refuses to obey and stands up to the bullies only to suffer defeat. Eventually he becomes the leader of his own faction of similarly oppressed youngsters, but when the time comes he discovers he is all alone once again and unable to break the chain which constrains them in a cycle of fear and violence.

Nevertheless, the failed battle against oppression has an unexpected positive outcome when Asai is moved to another cell. Up to this point, there’s been relatively little sign of positive “reform” on offer – no education, no counselling, no practical advice which might help these young men escape the circumstances which brought them here, but on being moved to the carpentry workshop Asai does at least begin to learn a useful skill as well as mixing with more “serious” boys who can have a laugh together while getting on with work. His attitude seems to relax, he “grows up”, and begins to see a different future only to be abruptly released back onto the same streets no better off than before with only the kind hearted platitudes of the softly spoken social worker to guide him into a “better” tomorrow.

The question remains what sort of men the reform school system was designed to engineer and to what end – a collection of deindividualised authoritarians who stand to attention and salute on demand may not be much of an asset to post-war humanism. Meanwhile, the emphasis on strength and discipline unwittingly reinforces the law of the street where violence rules all and morality is an unaffordable luxury, encouraging the perpetuation of a system of mutual oppressions while ignoring the many and various social issues which make it impossible to escape. Hani wanted to capture the lingering spirit of “totalitarianism” in which even those superficially rebelling against the system obey ancient social codes which restrict their own freedom and exist solely to keep them in their place. In doing so he lays bare the wider hypocrisies of the post-war democratic era which promises freedom but delivers only the same old compromises.


Bad Boys was screened as part of the Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival 2018.

DVD release trailer (no subtitles)

Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末, Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

samurai rebellion posterIf Masaki Kobayashi had one overriding concern throughout his relatively short career, it was the place of the individual with an oppressive society. Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末, Joi-uchi: Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu), not quite the crashing chanbara action the title promises, returns to many of the same themes presented in Kobayashi’s earlier Harakiri in its tale of corrupt lords and a vassal who can no longer submit himself to their hypocritical demands. On the film’s original release, distributor Toho added a subtitle to the otherwise stark “Rebellion”, “Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu”, which means something like “sad story of a bestowed wife” and was intended to help boost attendance among female filmgoers who might be put off by the overly male samurai overtones. The central conflict is that of the ageing samurai Isaburo (Toshiro Mifune), but Kobayashi saves his sympathy for a powerless woman, twice betrayed, and given no means by which to defend herself in a world which values female life cheaply and a woman’s feelings not at all.

Having the misfortune to live in a time of peace, expert swordsman Isaburo has only the one duty of testing out the lord’s new sword (which he will never draw) on a straw dummy. He and his friend Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai) are of a piece – two men whose skills are wasted daily and who find themselves at odds with the often cruel and arbitrary samurai world, refusing to fight each other because the outcome would only cause pain to one or both of their families. Isaburo has two grownup sons and dreams of becoming a grandpa but needs to find a wife for his eldest, Yogoro (Go Kato). He wants to find a woman who is loyal, loving, and kind. As a young man Isaburo was “forced” into marriage and adopted into his wife’s family but has been miserable ever since as his wife, Suga (Michiko Otsuka), is a sharp tongued, unpleasant woman whose only redeeming features are her stoicism and dedication to propriety.

It is then not particularly good news when the local steward turns up one day and informs Isaburo that the lord is getting rid of his mistress and has decided to marry her off to Yogoro. News travels fast and though others may appear jealous of such an “honour”, Isaburo is quietly angry – not only is he being expected to take on “damaged goods” in a woman who’s already born a son to another man, but they won’t even tell him why she’s being sent away, and the one thing he wanted for his son was not to end up in the same miserable position as he did. Nevertheless when Isaburo repeatedly tries to decline the “kind offer”, he is prevented. A suggestion quickly becomes an order, and Yogoro consents to prevent further conflict.

Against the odds, Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) is everything Isaburo had wanted in a daughter-in-law and even puts up with Suga’s constant unkindness with patience and humility. Eventually she and Yogoro fall deeply in love and have a baby daughter, Tomi, but when the lord’s oldest heir dies and Ichi’s son becomes the next in line, it’s thought inappropriate for her to remain the wife of a mere vassal. Summoned to the castle, Ichi is once again robbed of her child but also of her happiness.

Ichi’s tale truly is a sad one and emblematic of the fates and positions of upperclass women in the feudal world. Having had the misfortune to catch the lord’s eye, Ichi tries to decline when the steward shows up to take her to the castle, reminding him that she is already betrothed. Sure that her fiancé will protect her, Ichi says she’ll go if he agrees never thinking that he would. Betrayed in love, Ichi is sold to the castle to be raped by the elderly Daimyo who views her as little more than a baby making machine and faceless body to do with as he wishes. When she returns from a post-natal trip to the spa and discovers the lord has already taken a new mistress, her anger is not born of jealously but resentment and disgust. This other woman is proud of her “position” at the lord’s side when she should be raging as Ichi is now, at her powerlessness, at the male society which reduces her to an object traded between men, and at the rapacious assault upon her body by a man older than her father.

Isaburo is also raging, but at the cruel and heartless obsession with order and protocol which has defined his short, unhappy life. Having been a model vassal, Isaburo has lived a life hemmed in by these rules but can bear them no longer in their disregard for human feeling or simple integrity. Isaburo says no, and then refuses to budge. Having retired and surrendered control of the household to Yogoro, Isaburo leaves the decision to his son who refuses to surrender his wife and swears to protect her from being subjected to the same cruel treatment as before. The samurai order is not set up for hearing the word “no”, and the actions of Isaburo, Yogoro, and Ichi threaten to bring the entire system crashing down. Love is the dangerous, destabilising, manifestation of personal desire which the system is in place to crush.

Isaburo’s rebellion, as he later says, is not for himself, or for his son and daughter-in-law whose deep love for each other has reawakened the young man in him, but for all whose personal freedom has been constrained by those who misuse their power to foster fear and oppression. Having picked up his sword, Isaburo will not stand down until his voice is heard, fairly, under these same rules that the authority is so keen on enforcing. He does not want revenge, or even to destroy the system, he just wants it to respect him and his right to refuse requests he feels are unjust or improper. Like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, Isaburo’s fate will be an unhappy one but even so he is alive again at last as the fire of rebellion rekindles his youthful heart. Those caught within the system from the venal stewards and greedy vassals to the selfish lords suddenly terrified the Shogun will discover their mass misconduct are dead men walking, sublimating their better natures in favour of creating the facade of obedience and conformity whilst manipulating those same rules for their own ends, yet the central trio, meeting their ends with defiance, are finally free.


Available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from Criterion Collection.

Original trailer (English subtitles – poor quality)

Alone Across the Pacific (太平洋ひとりぼっち, Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

Alone Across the PacficKon Ichikawa made two sorts of movies – the funny ones and the not so funny ones. Despite the seriousness of the title, Alone Across the Pacific (太平洋ひとりぼっち, Taiheiyo hitori-botchi) is one of the funny ones. Like many of Ichikawa’s heroes, Horie is a man who defies convention and longs for escape from the constraining forces of his society yet is unable to fully detach himself from its cultural norms. Based on the real life travelogue of solo sailor Kenichi Horie, Alone Across the Pacific is less the story of a man battling the elements, than a cheerful tale of a man battling himself in a floating isolation tank bound for the “land of the free”.

Kenichi (Yujiro Ishihara) is a strange man. He has few friends (aside from the family dog, Pearl) and is obsessed with the idea of running away to sea. Inspired by the tales of other intrepid sailors, his dream is to sail all alone across the Pacific Ocean from Osaka to San Fransisco. Despite the fact that it is illegal for small boats to leave Japanese waters (and that he is too impatient to wait for his passport to come through), Kenichi has custom made his own yacht, one without an engine, and has set off on his longed for voyage under the cover of darkness.

Rather than filming Kenichi’s journey naturalistically, Ichikawa opts for an adventurer’s tale as Kenichi provides an ironic voice over detailing some of his naive failings as a rookie sailor undertaking such a daunting mission. Each of Kenichi’s crises links back to a memory from his shore life, reminding us why he’s on this journey in the first place. Kenichi’s struggles are the same as many a young man in post-war Japan and, in fact, many of those previously played by the poster boy for youthful rebellion, Yujiro Ishihara.  Unwilling to live a life hemmed in by the predetermined path of a job for life, wife, children and total social conformity, Kenichi longs to be free of his cultural baggage by abandoning his civility during a long process of isolation therapy free of overbearing fathers, fretting mothers, indifferent sisters and a generally noisy world.

Kenichi’s father (Masayuki Mori) is the very personification of authority, berating his son for his fecklessness and pointless obsession with sailing – a sport a working class boy like Kenichi can barely afford. Kenichi’s determination to achieve his goal sees him leave school early, take a job in his father’s workshop only to quit suddenly for a more lucrative one delivering luggage for a travel agents, and quitting that too to work full time on his boat. While his father huffs and puffs his mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) worries, hoping her mad son won’t really go through with it but knowing that he will.

When Kenichi finally reaches San Fransisco, he’s assaulted by congratulatory voices from all directions. Towed into harbour by a motor boat, Kenichi first has to deal with mundane problems like the customs patrol wanting to know if he’s got any fruit left on the boat before a crowd gathers to shake his hand asking where he’s come from and why, what he wants to do now, and praising him for his daring feat of solo sailing glory. In Japan however, things are different. Dragged out for an interview by the press, Kenichi’s worried mother avows that she’s just happy to know her son is safe while his father bows deeply and reassures everyone that he will absolutely put a stop to any such random acts of individualism his wayward son may attempt in the future. 

Kenichi evades the twin pulls of his mother’s apron strings and his father’s handcuffs by taking off alone but even at sea he’s never free of his cultural programming, checking the wide empty ocean before removing his clothes and then stepping back down into the cabin to finish the job. Kenichi’s failure to acquire a passport is an ironic one seeing as part of what he’s running from is being Japanese but even as his quest is one for self determination it is also intensely selfish and self involved. In this Kenichi commits the ultimate act of individualism, caring nothing for the thoughts and feelings of others in the all encompassing need to achieve his goal. Kenichi may have found a home at sea, but on land he’s caged once again, a prisoner both of social conformity and his own need to defy it.


Available on R2 DVD from Eureka Masters of Cinema.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Illusion of Blood (四谷怪談, AKA Yotsuya Kaidan, Shiro Toyoda, 1965)

vlcsnap-2017-07-01-00h50m36s347Shiro Toyoda, despite being among the most successful directors of Japan’s golden age, is also among the most neglected when it comes to overseas exposure. Best known for literary adaptations, Toyoda’s laid back lensing and elegant restraint have perhaps attracted less attention than some of his flashier contemporaries but he was often at his best in allowing his material to take centre stage. Though his trademark style might not necessarily lend itself well to horror, Toyoda had made other successful forays into the genre before being tasked with directing yet another take on the classic ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談) but, hampered by poor production values and an overly simplistic script, Toyoda never succeeds in capturing the deep-seated dread which defines the tale of maddening ambition followed by ruinous guilt.

As usual, Iemon (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a disenfranchised samurai contemplating selling his sword due to his extreme poverty. Iemon had been married to a woman he loved, Oiwa (Mariko Okada), whose father called her home when Iemon lost his lord and therefore his income. Oiwa’s father is also in financial difficulty and Iemon has now discovered that he has been prostituting Oiwa’s sister, Osode (Junko Ikeuchi), and plans a similar fate for Oiwa.

Still in love with his wife, Iemon decides that his precious sword is not just for show and determines to take what he wants by force. Murdering Oiwa’s father, Iemon teams up with another reprobate, Naosuke (Kanzaburo Nakamura), who is in love with Osode and means to kill her estranged fiancee. Framing Osode’s lover Yoshimichi (Mikijiro Hira) as the killer, Iemon resumes his life with Oiwa who subsequently bears their child but as his poverty and lowly status continue Iemon remains frustrated. When a better offer arrives to marry into a wealthier family, Iemon makes a drastic decision in the name of living well.

The themes are those familiar to the classic tale as Iemon’s all consuming need to restore himself to his rightful position ruins everything positive in his life. Tatsuya Nakadai’s Iemon is among the less kind interpretations as even his original claims of romantic distress over the loss of his wife ring more of wounded pride and a desire for possession rather than a broken heart. Selling one’s sword is the final step for a samurai – it is literally selling one’s soul. Iemon’s ultimate decision not to is both an indicator of his inability to let go of his samurai past and his violent intentions as the fury of rebellion is already burning within him.

Iemon defines his quest as a desire to find “place worth living in”, but he is incapable of attuning himself to the world around him, constantly working against himself as he tries to forge a way forward. Oiwa’s desires are left largely unexplored despite the valiant efforts of Mariko Okada saddled with an underwritten part, but hers is an existence largely defined by love and duty, pulled between a husband and a father. Unaware that Iemon was responsible for her father’s death, Oiwa is happy to be reunited with him and expects that he will honour her father by enacting vengeance. Only too late does she begin to wonder what her changeable husband’s intentions really are.

An amoral man in an amoral world, Iemon’s machinations buy him nothing. Haunted by the vengeful spirit of the wife he betrayed, Iemon cannot enjoy the life he’d always wanted after purchasing it with blood, fear, and treachery. Despite the odd presence of disturbing imagery from hands in water butts to ghostly presences, Toyoda never quite achieves the level of claustrophobic inevitability on which the tale is founded. Hampered by poor production values, shooting on obvious stage sets with dull costuming and a run of the mill script, Illusion of Blood has a depressingly unambitious atmosphere content to simply retell the classic tale with the minimum of fuss. Only the final scenes offer any of Toyoda’s formal beauty as Okada appears under the cherry blossoms to offer the gloomy message that there is no true happiness and her husband’s quest has been a vain one. Achieving her vengeance even whilst Iemon affirms his intention to keep fighting right until the end, Oiwa leaves like the melancholy ghost of eternal regret but it’s all too little too late to make Illusion of Blood anything more than a middling adaptation of the classic ghost story.