Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

“So you say you’re under a curse? So what? So’s the whole damn world.” The world is indeed cursed in Hayao Miyazaki’s landmark 1997 animation Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, Mononoke-hime). As the greedy monk insists, “there are angry ghosts all around us. Dead from wars, sickness, starvation. And no one cares”. Yet as an impassioned parable as it is about the destructive forces of industrialisation, Miyazaki’s mystical drama is really about balance and duality along with the necessity of harmony and co-existence with nature red in tooth and claw. 

Young prince Ashitaka (Yoji Matsuda) already lives in what seems to be perfect harmony with the natural world, but his idyllic existence in an ancient clan long exiled by the emperor is disturbed one day by a marauding giant boar chased out of the forest having been turned into a demon consumed with hate and resentment. Ashitaka first tries reasoning with the beast, but is finally forced to put it out of its misery to protect the village and is infected himself in the process. Now unable to stay lest he endanger his community, Ashitaka ventures West in search of the corruption which sent the boar hurtling towards his home. 

What he eventually comes to is an industrial settlement, Irontown, ruled by Lady Eboshi (Yuko Tanaka) who ought by all rights to be a villain in her casual disregard of or active hostility towards unruly nature which her industrialisation pollutes. But then as we can see Lady Eboshi is a good and compassionate leader who has erected a community of the marginalised buying out the contracts of indentured sex workers and freeing them to labour in her ironworks while taking in lepers to manufacture her futuristic firearms. Uncharitably, one could also say that she’s chosen these people because they have little power and will be more likely to put up with hardship and exploitation without complaint because it’s better than the lives they lived before, but it does it does seem that she has her heart in the right place as far as her people are concerned determined to build a community of mutual solidarity between workers. 

Conversely, the titular Princess Mononoke, San (Yuriko Ishida), ought by rights to be the heroine but she and the wolf deities she lives with are also violent and unforgiving in their hatred of humans as determined to wipe out the threat presented by Lady Eboshi as she is them. Ashitaka was dispatched to be a peacemaker, to see with eyes unclouded by hate, in an attempt to find common ground and a way that the forest and humanity can live together because in reality one cannot survive without the other. He is by turns disappointed with each of them but holds compassion for both while a tertiary political threat lingers on the horizon in the machinations of shady priest Jigo (Kaoru Kobayashi) and the emperor who wants the head the of the Forest Spirit because he believes it will confer immortality. Lady Eboshi, who otherwise appears to reject the feudal order, intends to give the emperor the head in order to gain protection from overreaching lord Asano who hopes to capture the capitalistic potential of Irontown for himself. 

Jigo is an embodiment of humanity’s greed and its destructive potential, not caring that severing the Forest Spirit’s head will cause untold destruction in which any financial gain he might make would be all but irrelevant. His role is even more ironic given that he is a priest who has supposedly rejected material desire describing himself as a monk just trying to get by while seemingly willing to manipulate and betray almost anyone in his quest for gold. Lady Eboshi wants to improve conditions for her community while San essentially wants the same but Jigo just wants to improve things for Jigo and no one else. 

What Ashitaka wants is to cure his curse by restoring the balance between the human world and the natural in the creation of a society in which neither need be a threat to the other. Thus he pledges to help rebuild Irontown along less destructive lines while entrusting the forest to San to protect though she finds herself unable to forgive humanity for the destruction it has already wrought and may do again. Even so, as Ashitaka says, “it’s time for us both to live” hinting at a kind of rebirth and a new beginning free from the old authority be it the Forest Spirit or the emperor and the feudal order in a new world of freedom and equality. 


Princess Mononoke screens on 35mm at Japan Society New York on July 22.

Trailer (english subtitles)

Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Yoji Yamada, 1975)

Spanning 48 films and almost 30 years from the middle of the economic miracle to the post-Bubble depression, the Tora-san series provided a certain kind of comforting stability with its well established formula that saw the titular travelling salesman alternately hit the road and return home to his wholesome family waiting and worrying in Shibamata, always glad to see him but also anxious as to what kind of trouble he’ll be causing this time around. Among the most melancholy of the series, Tora-san #15, Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Torajiro Aiaigasa, AKA Tora-san’s Rise and Fall) sees him flirt with the idea of settling down while others wrestle with the costs of the salaryman dream and the contradictions of the post-war era. 

Yamada opens, however, with an exciting dream sequence in which Tora (Kiyoshi Atsumi) re-imagines himself as a heroic pirate saving his family members, and all the residents of Shibamata, from enslavement by some kind of evil capitalist villain. He wakes up and leaves the cinema, but Shibamata is perhaps on his thoughts once again acting as it does as a kind of “port” in his life of perpetual wandering. For the moment he’s travelling with a depressed salaryman, Hyodo (Eiji Funakoshi), whom he rescued at a train station fearing he may have been about to take his own life. Meanwhile, back in Shibamata, Tora’s old friend Lily (Ruriko Asaoka) has come looking for him at the dango shop apparently now divorced, tearfully explaining to Tora’s sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) that she wasn’t well suited to being a housewife after all and is planning to head back out on the road as an itinerant singer. 

Perhaps ironically, Tora is angry with Hyodo for causing worry to his family by disappearing without notice, eventually ringing Sakura to tell her to ring Hyodo’s wife and let her know he’s alright (why he doesn’t just ring himself is a mystery, and in any case he only has the one coin for the payphone so runs out of time to explain). What we can infer is that Hyodo has in a sense achieved the “salaryman dream” but it’s left him feeling empty and unfulfilled. Mrs. Hyodo appears to be very prim and proper, their home spacious and tastefully decorated. When Sakura calls two men from her husband’s company are with her trying to figure out where Hyodo could have gone. She explains that her husband is a timid man and earnest, it’s unlikely he’s gone off with another woman and it’s out of character for him go AWOL from work so she’s at least very relieved to learn he’s alive even if Tora ran out of time to say where they were. Hyodo isn’t really sure anyone’s missing him, and as we later discover his flight is part mid-life crisis in that he’s heading to the hometown of his first love. He assumes she also will have married and has no illusions of a romantic reunion but simply wants to make sure she’s happy (as he, presumably, is not). Discovering she’s a widow gives him pause for thought, but on seeing her he realises the futility of his situation and resolves to return home to his dull and conventional salaryman life. 

It’s a huge source of irony to Tora that anyone might envy him. Indeed, Mrs. Hyodo quite snobbishly insists on asking Sakura about Tora’s company joking that “he can’t just be a pedlar” much to Sakura’s embarrassment. But that sense of freedom and the open road appears to be something Hyodo is looking for, childishly romanticising hardship, finding sleeping on park benches and helping Tora pull salesman’s scams in the street exciting rather than worrying (he could after all always just go home). Yet he also envies Tora for having such a loving and forgiving family, explaining that his now look down on him because he’s been demoted at work, as if they only value him for what he represents an embodiment of the salaryman dream. Lily too is as much in love with Tora’s family as anything else, though the complex relationship between the pair begins to scandalise the conservative local community. Sakura frames it as a joke but puts it to Lily that it would be nice if she and Tora could marry so she’d be a part of their family. Lily unexpectedly agrees, overcome with emotion, but Tora is his old insensitive, if perhaps perceptive self, declaring that they’re too alike. Like him she’s a bird meant to wander. She’d only stay until she felt ready to fly. 

Tora-san and Lily are wandering souls cast adrift in the post-war era, unable to find firm footing while Hyodo’s existential angst suggests the salaryman dream is not the answer either. Only Sakura and the Kurumas seem to be doing well enough, living their ordinary, wholesome lives in Shibamata. “She probably has problems we don’t know about” Tora’s aunt remarks watching Queen Elizabeth II waving gracefully on the television, lamenting that it must be tiring to have to stand around so long. Everyone has problems but they carry on. In Shibamata they try to be kind and especially to big-hearted men like Tora no matter what kind of trouble they may cause.


Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Devil’s Island (獄門島, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Island posterKon Ichikawa revisits the world of Kosuke Kindaichi for the third time in Devil’s Island (獄門島, Gokumon-to). Confusingly enough, Devil’s Island is adapted from the second novel in the Kidaichi series and set a few years before Ichikawa’s previous adaptation The Devil’s Ballad (the twin devils are just a coincidence). As with his other Kindaichi adaptations, Ichikawa retains the immediate post-war setting of the novel though this time the war is both fore and background as our tale is set on profane soil, a pirate island once home to Japan’s most heinous exiled criminals, which is to say it is the literal fount of every social failing which has informed the last 20 years of turbulent militarist history.

In 1946, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) travels to Kasaoka to catch the ferry to the island. On the way he runs into a demobbed soldier hobbling along on crutches only to catch sight of the man quickly picking his up crutches and running across the railway tracks when he thought no one was looking. Kindaichi is in luck – before he even reaches the boat he runs into the very man he’s come to see, Reverend Ryonen (Shin Saburi), for whom he has a message. Posing as a fellow soldier, Kindaichi reveals he has a “last letter” from a man named Chimata who sadly passed away right after the cessation of hostilities having contracted malaria. Chimata, as we later find out, was the legitimate heir of the island’s most prominent family. Kindaichi chooses not to reveal his true purpose, but the truth is that Chimata suspected his death would put his three younger sisters in danger from various unscrupulous family members attempting to subvert the succession.

Your average Japanese mystery is not, as it turns out, so far from Agatha Christie as one might assume and this is very much a tale of petty class concerns, island mores, and changing social conventions. The extremely confusing island hierarchy starts with the head of household who doubles as the head of the local fishing union and then shuffles out to the branch line and brassy sister-in-law Tomoe (Kiwako Taichi) who is keen claim all the authority she is entitled to. The old patriarch, Yosamatsu (Taketoshi Naito), went quite mad at the beginning of the war and is kept in a bamboo cage in the family compound where he screams and rails, only calmed by the gentle voice of Sanae (Reiko Ohara), a poor relation raised in the main house alongside her brother Hitoshi who hasn’t yet returned from the war. Aside from Yosamatsu, the absence of the two young men means the main house is now entirely inhabited by women, looked after by veteran maid Katsuno (Yoko Tsukasa).

Then again, Japanese mysteries hinge on riddles more than they depend on motives and there are certainly plenty of those on this weird little island where they don’t like “outsiders”. Ichikawa hints at the central conceit by flashing up haiku directly on the screen along with a few original chapter headings for Kindaichi whose eccentricities might seem less noticeable in such an obviously crazy place but strangely seem all the more overt, his trademark dandruff falling like rain from his tousled hair. It has to be said that Kindaichi fails in his otherwise pure hearted aims – he doesn’t make a great deal of effort to “save” the sisters and only attempts to solve the crimes as they occur, each one informing the next. This time around he gets trouble from both irritatingly bumbling detective Todoroki (Takeshi Kato) and his assistant Bando (Kazunaga Tsuji) , and the local bobby who immediately locks Kindaichi up and declares the crimes solved on the grounds that they only started happening after Kindaichi arrived.

Meanwhile, there are rumours of an escaped “pirate” running loose, demobbed soldiers, and a host of dark local customs contrasting strongly with the idyllic scenery and the strange “pureness” of this remote island otherwise untouched by the war’s folly save for the immediate events entirely precipitated by the absence of two young men taken away to die on foreign shores. Though the various motives for the crimes are older – shame, greed, classism, a bizarre dispute between Buddhists and Shamans, none of this would have been happening if the war hadn’t stuck its nose into island business and unbalanced the complex local hierarchy. Tragically, the crimes themselves all come to nought as a late arriving piece of news renders them null and void. Just when you think you’ve won, the rug is pulled from under you and the war wins again. Ichikawa opts for a for a defiantly straightforward style but adopts a few interesting editing techniques including fast cutting to insert tiny flashbacks as our various suspects suddenly remember a few “relevant” details. This strange island, imbued with ancient evils carried from the mainland, finds itself not quite as immune from national struggles as it once thought though perhaps manages to right itself through finally admitting the truth and acknowledging the sheer lunacy that led to the sorry events in which it has recently become embroiled.


Original trailer (no subtitles)