Thirst for Love (愛の渇き, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967)

(C) Nikkatsu 1967

Thrill for love posterIf The Warped Ones showed us a hellish, uncivilised world in which people acted on their base desires with little thought for others, Thirst for Love (愛の渇き, Ai no Kawaki) shows us the opposite as desire repressed eats away at those unable to find fulfilment in their assigned social roles. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s swirling artistry may have proved too much for studio bosses at Nikkatsu (Thirst for Love would be the last film he’d make as a regular director for the studio), but it finds a perfect match in the florid world of Yukio Mishima.  A tale of inequalities and misunderstandings, the rarefied atmosphere of Thirst for Love is just as “warped” as that of Nikkatsu’s gritty youth dramas in which desire and gratification become tools of currency in a grand game of wounds given and received.

Our heroine, Etsuko (Ruriko Asaoka), is a young widow living with her late husband’s family. Following the death of her husband, Etsuko has become the mistress of the family’s tyrannical patriarch, Yakichi (Nobuo Nakamura) – a successful businessman apparently forced out of the company he founded and into an early retirement. Yakichi resents the rest of his family whom he regards as feckless freeloaders. Oldest son Kensuke (Akira Yamanouchi) is a part-time classics professor and full-time neurotic intellectual. He and his wife Chieko (Yuko Kusunokiare unable to have children of their own (something else that annoys Yakichi), while daughter Asako (Yoko Ozono) has come back to her family home following a divorce with two children in tow. The family are all “aware” of the strange dynamic between Yakichi and his daughter-in-law but are too polite to bring it up. Nevertheless, Kensuke also has a thing for Etsuko which Chieko is aware of but not particularly worried about because she really does respect and trust her husband.

Etsuko is not particularly interested in Kensuke. There’s nothing he could really offer her. Though she keeps up a pretence of happiness with her current living standards, even going so far as to write a fake diary expressly intended for Yakichi to read, Etsuko feels nothing but contempt for and boredom with the emotionally cold and controlling family patriarch. Her faith in human emotions is low, but still she feels desire. When the teenage gardener Saburo (Tetsuo Ishidate) catches her admiring a beautiful statue and remarks on Etsuko’s own beauty, he puts untoward ideas in her head.

Even in the post-war world, women like Estuko have little agency. After her husband died, she could have stuck it out alone – found a job, supported herself. She could have remarried or perhaps have received financial support from the family while living alone, but she’s chosen to remain with them even given her somewhat degrading role as her father-in-law’s mistress-cum-plaything. When Saburo tells her she is beautiful he oversteps the established laws of class separation and Etsuko is too clever not to know how clichéd her new found lust for a peasant boy really is but she can’t unsee his broad shoulders and muscular frame or the sweat that crowds his brow as he labours on her behalf.

She begins making coy overtures which Saburo, unwittingly or otherwise, deflects. The situation is complicated by another woman, Miyo (Chitose Kurenai), who may or may not be something like Saburo’s girlfriend though as we will later find out, Saburo is a typically immature young man who regards his relationships with women as essentially inconsequential. Deferent towards his mistress, he demands to be released from her cruel games. Yet Etsuko had hardly realised that’s what they were. She cannot simply voice her desire or make her interest plain. Hers is not the first move to make. Several times Etsuko comes close to crossing a line but she always pulls back – inflicting necessary suffering on herself through her inability realise her desires.

Suffering, in a sense, becomes the point and almost a bizarre source of pleasure. In a climactic moment of drunken dinner party truthfulness, Kensuke attempts to apologise for a potentially destructive speech by revealing that he meant to smash everything to bits but has only succeeded in destroying himself. Etsuko too means to hurt others, partly as a kind of revenge, but in truth only to increase her own suffering. Her plan stumbles when she realises that Saburo is and always has been entirely indifferent towards her. He saw her as the mistress of the manor, an elegant and attractive woman, but felt no more desire for her than for any other. As he puts it, they live in different worlds – she is nothing to him, and nothing she does can change that. Etsuko has only destroyed herself, a self-immolation of repressed desire which threatens to burn the world with its ferocious intensity.

If Etsuko is to free herself from the burden of her need, she will pay a heavy price to do so. Kurahara shifts into an avant-garde register more in keeping with the more or less contemporary work of Kiju Yoshida in his anti-melodrama phase, but Kurahara’s approach is, in keeping with the source material, altogether less serious, fully embracing the melodramatic but taking pains to underpin it with deeply felt emotion. Asaoka excels as the neurotic housewife driven slowly mad in a stultifying, moribund household where she is forced to submit to the sexual whims of her bossy father-in-law and has little more to occupy her time than walking the dog and dreaming of a roll in the hay with the not yet 20 gardener.

Kurahara paints her world as one of sensations – the blood that becomes both symbol of life and death, the symbolic pleasures of a pomelo, and the fearsome flapping of chickens even as their throats are slit. Shifting to still frames for moments of high emotion – much as Shinoda had done in the finale of With Beauty and Sorrow two years before, Kurahara mixes ironic voiceover with intertitles and unexpected editing choices to capture the flightiness of Etsuko’s mind but he allows himself one luxury in letting her leave to a bright red sky, a woman on fire thirsting for love.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tampopo (タンポポ, Juzo Itami, 1985)

tampopo posterSome people love ramen so much that the idea of a “bad” bowl hardly occurs to them – all ramen is, at least, ramen. Then again, some love ramen so much that it’s almost a religious experience, bound up with ritual and the need to do things properly. A brief vignette at the beginning of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (タンポポ) introduces us to one such ramen expert who runs through the proper way of enjoying a bowl of noodle soup which involves a lot of talking to your food whilst caressing it gently before finally consuming it with the utmost respect. Ramen is serious business, but for widowed mother Tampopo it’s a case of the watched pot never boiling. Thanks to a cowboy loner and a few other waifs and strays who eventually become friends and allies, Tampopo is about to get some schooling in the quest for the perfect noodle whilst the world goes on around her. Food becomes something used and misused but remains, ultimately, the source of all life and the thing which unites all living things.

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a middle-aged man with a fancy hat, and his truck mate Gun (Ken Watanabe), younger, tight white jeans and colourful neckerchief, have become ramen experts thanks to their road bound life. Taking a break during a heavy rain storm, the pair run into a little boy being beaten up by three others and, after scaring the assailants off, escort him into the ramen restaurant where he lives with his widowed mother, Tampopo. Goro and Gun get the stranger in town treatment, but decide to sit down and order a bowl each anyway before a getting into a fight with another diner. Despite her skills as a home cook, Tampopo’s ramen is distinctly second-rate which explains why her business isn’t taking off. Goro and Gun spend some time helping her figure out where she’s going wrong leading Tampopo to beg them to stay, or at least come back when they have time, and teach her what it takes to make the perfect bowl.

Essentially a hybrid between a western and a sports movie, Tampopo has its fair share of training montages as the titular heroine tries to improve her stamina by taking intensive runs, carrying heavy pots of water from one place to another, and constantly trying get her cooking time down to three minutes. The lone woman on the “ranch” that is her restaurant, Tampopo may not be contending with boisterous cattle, threatening neighbours, or disapproving townsfolk but she is being mentored to become her own master as much as anything else. Goro is her strong and silent teacher, but, like Shane, he’s a man not meant to be tied down and is essentially teaching her how to survive alone however painful it may be for him to leave.

This is a fairly radical idea in and of itself. Tampopo’s goal is not another marriage and a man to mind the ranch, but the creation of a successful business which will support both herself and her son built on genuine skills and a lot of hard work. Goro, a ramen aficionado, takes charge but ropes in a few other “experts” to help him including a ramen loving former doctor now living on the streets, the private chef of a wealthy man the gang saved when he almost choked on mochi, and the guy Goro fought with in the beginning who also happens to be a childhood friend of Tampopo nursing a lifelong crush on her.  From each of these men, as well as friendly (or not) rivalry with local competitors, Tampopo learns everything she needs to succeed including the confidence in herself to carry it through.

Whilst Tampopo and co. are busy figuring out the zen of ramen, Itami wanders off for a series of strange vignettes examining more general attitudes to food beginning with Koji Yakusho’s white suited, cinephile gangster who vows bloody murder on anyone daring to eat noisy snacks during the movie. The gangster and his moll eventually retreat to a hotel room where they find new and actually quite strange ways of using food to enhance their pleasure but their story leads us to others in the hotel from a young man stuck in a business meeting who shows up his less cultured colleagues with his culinary knowledge and either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you’re supposed to order the same as your boss lest you be implying his choice of dish is “wrong”, to a group of young women taking a class in the proper way to eat spaghetti. The instructor (played by veteran actress Mariko Okada), goes to great lengths to explain that it’s considered very uncouth to make any kind of noise whilst eating pasta, only for a westerner of undisclosed nationality to loudly slurp his noodles half way across the room.

While these two episodes showcase the ridiculousness of food etiquette, others take a more surreal direction such as in the strange episode of an old lady who likes to sneak into the local supermarket and torment the clerk by squeezing the fruits, cheeses, and pastries while he chases her round the shop. Here appetites are to be indulged, even if they’re strange, rather than suppressed in favour of someone else’s idea of the proper way to behave. Yet that doesn’t mean that food is something throwaway, to be consumed without thought – in fact, it’s the opposite as Goro’s tutelage of Tampopo shows. Skills alone are not enough, achieving the zen of cookery is a matter of touch and sensitivity, of shared efforts and interconnected strife. Like a dandelion blowing in the wind, Tampopo’s ramen shop gives as it receives, generously and without pretension.


Available now in the UK/US courtesy of Criterion Collection!

Original 1985 trailer (English subtitles)

Zigeunerweisen (Seijun Suzuki, 1980)

ZigeunerweisenSeijun Suzuki maybe most well known for his 1967 weird hitman themed existential crime movie Branded to Kill but the film almost cost him his career and definitely did cost him his job at Nikkatsu after studio bosses lamented that his films made no sense and no money. The next decade saw Suzuki involved in a complex set of legal battles and unable to sit in the director’s chair. The positive result of all this is that he obviously had some time to save up all his crazy so he could put it all into his personal statement of rebirth – Zigeunerweisen. Inspired by Hyakken Uchida’s novel Sarasate no Ban, Zigeunerweisen is a surreal and nightmarish journey through Taisho Era Japan as seen through Seijun Suzuki’s very idiosyncratic gift for storytelling.

As far as the plot goes, it begins with two men listening to a record of Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen on which it sounds as if someone says something before the music starts but neither can quite make it out. It transpires that the two men are Aochi, a Westernised professor of German and his old university friend Nakasago who has become something of a wanderer. The pair are reunited in a small fishing village where Nakasago is implicated in the death of a local woman who had apparently fallen in love with him (something which seems to happen to him a lot). After Aochi manages to make all the charges go away with his “I’m a professor don’t you know!” routine, the pair retire to a local inn where they insist on getting the one geisha in the place who’s just returned from her brother’s funeral to come and cheer them up. Later, Aochi is stunned to discover that Nakasago has got married to a noble woman but even more surprised when he realises the wife looks exactly like the geisha from the sea side town! Dualities build upon dualities with an ever multiplying sequence of bizarre love triangles as dreams and reality continue to become ever more indistinct. That’s not to mention the recurrent presence of a blind singing trio, a sister-in-law in a coma and that the main character may or may not be dead the whole time….

The Taisho Era, 1912 -1926 in our dating system, was a short lived historical time period as the Emperor Taisho was in poor health. A little like Weimar Germany, this brief period has taken on a sheen of tragic romanticism, innocent and decadent at the same time – safe from the chaos of the Meiji Era which saw rapid changes resulting from Japan’s emergence from centuries of isolation, but also a time of youthful exuberance before the darkness of the Showa Era’s militaristic bent took hold. Aochi seems to represent an intellectual, civilised Western looking outlook with his European clothing, house and free spirited wife whereas Nakasago represents a more primal force with his traditional dress, Japanese style house in the middle of nowhere and, when he marries, traditional Japanese wife who dresses in kimono and stays home all day waiting for her husband’s return. However, Nakasago also gives full vent to his passions leaving his wife at home to go wandering and break a few hearts along the way. He uses and abuses women with no thought at all – he simply takes what he wants from them and moves on. He cares nothing for so called traditional morality or the rules of society, he is quite literally a law unto himself. Where Aochi thinks, Nakasago does.

As for feeling? Maybe neither of them are particularly engaged in any kind of emotional activity. Adding to the film’s dreamlike quality is a kind of permanent listlessness. A pervading sense of ennui which seems to say that none of this is really of any consequence. Logical sense has no real place here – we’re suddenly in a cave mid conversation, figures appear and disappear from the frame without reason or warning and characters which were once fully grown adults are suddenly children. Oh, and the murder / suicide victim at the beach? she died because six crabs emerged from her nether regions. There are also constant allusions to death – most obviously through Nakasago’s skeleton fetish which is certainly one of his more outlandish (and disturbing) qualities. That’s not to mention the title track itself Zigeunerweisen and its strange recurrence in the plot where the inability to decipher its mysterious message takes on an unsupportable level of importance. Alive or dead? Awake or dreaming? Are those things even mutually exclusive?

What does it all mean then? Absolutely no idea – but that’s OK. Zigeunerweisen throws up mirrors everywhere, demonstrating the curious symmetry of life. Dualities abound, the real and the unreal intersect in strange and inseparable ways. Perhaps that’s the point, there is nothing absolute – all things consist of other things. All moments truly are one moment, coexisting on a vast plane uncrossable by will but nevertheless traversable (or so the bizarre blind trio children would have you believe with their strangely anachronistic Manchurian war song). Suzuki is obviously uninterested in concrete answers, but as in many things it’s the questions themselves which become the most interesting.

Stray Cat Rock Collection (Uk-anime.net Review)

Stray Cat Rock Wild Measures '71 castReview of the new high definition Stray Cat Rock box set up at uk-anime.net


The late ‘60s/early ‘70s was a fascinating time in terms of Japanese popular culture and cinema was certainly no exception. With studios becoming desperately worried by the rising popularity of television and a troubled political situation, they knew they’d have to find someway to bring back that all important youth audience. Ultimately, they resorted to the time old solutions of sex and violence to try and lure the increasingly disinterested viewers back to the cinemas. In the end, Nikkatsu would end up becoming a purveyor of soft core pornography as its Roman Porno line all but dominated its production. The films from this era represent a kind of bridge between the youth orientated “Sun Tribe” films of the ‘50s and the full on exploitation films of the ‘70s. There’s no denying that in many ways they are very much of their time, which is generally a good thing, but the Stray Cat Rock films are an essential snap shot of a moment of counter culture shift.

This new blu-ray box set from Arrow films includes all five films in the Stray Cat Rock Series: Delinquent Girl Boss, Wild Jumbo, Sex Hunter, Machine Animal and Beat ’71. Perhaps “series” is a misleading way to describe the films as they’re really more of a “cycle”. There is no plot through line, each film stands independently with its own distinct story which appears to have no obvious connection with any of the other films in the series save sharing a certain sensibility (though even this shifts slightly as the films go on). The same actors reappear in several of the films, notably Meiko Kaji who is most closely associated with the franchise and Tatsuya Fuji who appears in every film, but even the actors who appear frequently are playing different (though often oddly similar) characters. What links the films together is their focus on what some might see as ‘low’ youth culture – bars, clubs, motorcycle gangs, drugs, drink and sex! What’s being sold, essentially, is a subversion of femininity – strong women who do not require the assistance of men but even take on male roles themselves such as forming or running violent street gangs.

The first film the series, Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss was intended as a vehicle for leading lady Akiko Wada and as a rival to Toei’s Delinquent Boss series. However, it was Meiko Kaji who became the breakout star of the film and a number of sequels featuring her were quickly put into production. The first film tells a fairly typical story of gangland warfare, albeit that it’s girl gangs, but the second, Wild Jumbo, takes a detour by telling a somewhat tragic tale of a group of students who plan to rob a mysterious cult – with tragic consequences! The third in the cycle, Sex Hunter, is the best known, perhaps because of its more complicated plot and engagement with racial politics. Apeing a western, a mixed race young man comes to town looking for his long lost sister and wanders straight into the gang war between Kaji’s female gang the “Alleycats” and the male “Eagles” lead by Fuji who has a prejudice against people of mixed race as his younger sister was gang raped by a mixed race gang. After this instalment the heavy sex and violence themes begin to fizzle out slightly and the fourth film, Machine Animal, is the most political of the Stray Cat Rock films as it follows a group of guys trying to dodge the draft for the Vietnam war planning to fund their onward journey to Sweden by selling LSD. The fifth and final film, Beat ’71 takes this even further and replaces the ‘gang’ motif entirely with a story set around a hippy commune.

Always fairly liberal in tone (even if the characters meet a ‘bad’ end, the series feels more aspirational than morally critical), the Stray Cat Rock films present a world of hedonistic, counter cultural youth. They’re full of the popular music of the time with long ‘live’ music sessions set inside the clubs, sometimes even prominently featuring popular bands and the theme song for Machine Animal “Gamble on Tomorrow” is even sung by Kaji herself. The earlier films are also filled with psychedelic imagery and interesting directorial touches like unusual split screens, blue screen cut outs, brightly coloured title cards, dissolves and freeze frames. However, Machine Animal marks quite a big change from the three previous films as the gang themes start to take more of a back seat to the politics and by Beat ’71, the tone of which is much more whimsical, they are pretty much absent. Films one, three, and four were directed by Yasuharu Hasebe while two and five where direct by Toshiya Fujita (Lady Snowblood) and there are some pretty clear directorial differences with Hasebe’s films being slightly more avant-garde and adventurous in terms of shooting style while Fujita’s are a little more classical. However, there might be something in the statement made by Hasebe in the interview included on this disc that by the end the pop culture tone had shifted from violence to beauty – the more salacious content, and in particular the sexualised violence, reaches its peak in Sex Hunter and decreases as the films go on.

All five films were made extremely quickly and released between 1970 and 1971 – that’s five films made and released in under two years! Though the creative team may have envisioned them as low budget, fairly disposable cash grabs designed to give a much needed boost to a declining industry, the Stray Cat Rock films have gone on to have cult appeal which still has its devotees all these years later. Hugely enjoyable in their own right, the films are an interesting window into a relatively small period time which nevertheless saw fairly massive changes taking place. Though they anticipate the trend of salacious exploitation that was to come, they stop short of some its excesses but were also to prove hugely influential in the history of ‘70s Japanese cinema.