Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow (キューポラのある街, Kirio Urayama, 1962)

(C) Nikkatsu 1962

cupola-poster-e1539038053246.jpgThe “shomin-geki” is generally associated with naturalistic depictions of the lives of “ordinary people”, but in reality most often focuses on the polite lower middle classes – white collar workers, shop keepers, small business holders etc, in short the sort of people who aren’t wealthy but aren’t starving either and generally live in moderate family homes rather than tenements or cramped apartment blocks. Blue collar lives are a less frequent sight on screen – something director Kirio Urayama seems to highlight in his mildly exoticised opening which introduces us to Kawaguchi, Saitama, a small town across long bridge not so far from Tokyo.

Unlike the bustling city still fighting its way back from post-war privation, Kawaguchi is a “town of fire and sweat” where the landscape is dominated by the “cupolas” of the title (Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow , キューポラのある街, Cupola no aru Machi, AKA Foundry Town). Rather than the beautiful architectural domes the name might imply, these cupolas are the industrial kind – chimneys from the 500 foundries which are the area’s dominant economic force. There is, however, trouble in that the steel industry has been decline since the immediate post-war heyday and increasing automation is changing the face of working life.

Our heroine, Jun (Sayuri Yoshinaga), is a young woman with post-war ambitions trapped in the depressing blue collar world of Kawaguchi. She’s currently in her last year of middle school and is determined to carry on to high school and perhaps even beyond, but the family is poor and her father, Tatsugoro (Eijiro Tono), has just lost his job at the local steel works. The family’s neighbour, Katsumi (Mitsuo Hamada), is big into the labour movement and has been protesting the changes at the works which has been bought by a bigger concern who are intent on compulsory layoffs. Tatsugoro, however, likes to think of himself as a “craftsman” rather than a “worker” and refuses to join the union partly out of snobbery and partly out of an entrenched fear of “communism”. He refuses to fight his compulsory redundancy because he is still wedded to the old ideas about loyalty to one’s superiors whilst simultaneously viewing himself as “better” than the other workers because of his long experience and skilled craftsmanship.

Nevertheless, Tatsugoro continues to selfishly abnegate his responsibilities to his family, refusing to insist on his severance pay and drinking the little money he still has left. Tatsugoro has four children ranging from teenager Jun to an infant born just as he lost his job. Some way into the film, Jun and and her younger brother Takayuki (Yoshio Ichikawa) take their father to task for his continued selfishness but the confrontation ends only in defeat. Tatsugoro simply doesn’t care. Loudly exclaiming that he has no daughter and will send Takayuki to the boys’ home, Tatsugoro destroys their hopes by reminding them that their fate is the same his – leave school early, work in a factory, marriage, children, drink yourself into an early grave. The argument proves so disheartening that Jun gives up on a school trip she’d been given a special subsidy to attend to roam around the streets, sadly visiting the prefectural high school that she has now given up on attending and accidentally witnessing another reason to give up on life that she, naively, misunderstands.

Meanwhile, Jun and Takayuki have also made friends with a family from North Korea who will be returning (without their mother) under a preferential “repatriation” programme organised by North Korean officials in Japan with the backing of the US and the Japanese government which, uncomfortably enough, saw only advantage in reducing the ethnic minority population. Though the film adopts a mildly positive view of repatriation – after all, no one really knew what North Korea was like in 1961 and many saying goodbye to their friends fully expect to stay in touch and perhaps meet again one day, it does highlight the persistent layer of xenophobic prejudice that the children face. Sankichi (Hideki Morisaka), one of Takayuki’s best friends, is taunted from the audience whilst on stage in a children’s play by cries of “Korean Carrot” (he is wearing a funny wig at the time) while Jun’s mother makes no secret of her dislike of the children’s friendships, believing that the Koreans are “dangerous”. Others associate the North Korean (in particular) population with communism and possible insurrection, fearing that Japan might be pulled into another nuclear war in Asia by political troubles across the sea.

The repatriation program is attractive not only as a means of escaping a world of constant oppression, but because of the entrenched poverty of the Kawaguchi area and the relative impossibility of escaping it. In a poignant, resentful school essay Jun wonders why her future is dictated by a lack of money, why she alone will be prevented from going on to high school and pulling herself out of the lower orders solely because of her responsibility to her family and father’s fecklessness. Tatsugoro is eventually offered another job thanks to the kindness of the father of one of Jun’s wealthier school friends, but continues to view himself as a “craftsman” and resents being ordered around by youngsters. What’s more, the factory is much more advanced – doubtless, the father of Jun’s friend (so different from her own) thought it might be better for Tatsugoro whose health is poor because the work would be less physically strenuous, but Tatsugoro finds it impossible to adapt to automated working methods and soon quits, leaving the family cash strapped once again.

An inability to adapt is Tatsugoro’s tragedy though he later makes amends when he consents to join Katsumi’s union and takes a job in a new factory, confident that he can’t be summarily dismissed ever again. Jun, meanwhile, has discovered a third way. Longing to escape the burden of her family she resolves to step forward alone but also instep with her society. Having discovered the existence of a progressive factory which is run with friendliness and consideration and even provides education for employees, Jun realises she can have the best of both worlds. Though Jun’s decision is perhaps one of individualism and a bold assertion of her own agency, it’s also in keeping with the broadly socialist message of the film which insists that a problem shared is a problem halved and places its faith in ordinary people to look after each other. Optimistic, perhaps, but a perfect encapsulation of post-war humanism and growing hopes for the future for those who are prepared to work hard on behalf not only of themselves but also for the social good.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow was scripted by Shohei Imamura whose work often focusses on the working classes and rural poor. As such it shares some similarity with his early film My Second Brother which also touches on the lives of ethnic Koreans living in Japan though this time in a mining village where the labour movement is engaged in actively opposing the exploitative practices of the corporate mine owners.

The Sleeping Beast Within (けものの眠り, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

Sleeping Beast Within posterTo those of a “traditional” mindset, a woman’s career is her home and she never gets to retire. Men, by this same logic, are killed off at 60 and reborn into a second childhood where they get to indulge their love of fly fishing or suddenly discover an untapped talent for haiku. Seeing as a man often lives at the office, being excommunicated from his corporate family can seem like a heavy penalty for those who’ve devoted their entire existence to the salaryman ideal. So it is for the old timer at the centre of Seijun Suzuki’s 1960 mystery thriller, The Sleeping Beast Within (けものの眠り, Kemono no Nemuri) in which the sudden disappearance of a model employee sparks his daughter and her dogged reporter boyfriend to investigate, unwittingly discovering a vast drug smuggling conspiracy headed by a dodgy cult leader.

Veteran salaryman Junpei Ueki (Shinsuke Ashida) has been working in Hong Kong for two years and is finally coming home, to retire. His family have come to meet him but, as his daughter’s reporter boyfriend Kasai (Hiroyuki Nagato) points out, no one much else has turned up – so it is for those who don’t play office politics, claims one of the few colleagues who has arrived to greet the recently returned businessman. Ueki isn’t very happy about his retirement and believes he’ll be getting a part-time job at the same company only to be informed position has been “withdrawn”. When he doesn’t come home after his retirement party, something surely out of character for such a straight shooting family man, his wife and daughter become worried. Keiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) enlists Kasai to help figure out what’s happened to her dad only for him to suddenly turn up with a bad excuse and an almost total personality transplant. Kasai keeps digging, and the reporter in him loves what he finds even if the nice boyfriend wishes he didn’t.

Suzuki sets up what a good guy Ueki is when he brings back a modest ring for Keiko only for her to mockingly ask if her dad couldn’t have brought something a bit flashier. Ueki points out that the customs people might not have liked that so she jokes that he should have just smuggled it in like everyone else. Kasai reminds her that her dad’s not that kind of man, but two years in Hong Kong have apparently changed him. Having spent two years away from his family and 30 years slaving away at a boring desk job, Ueki feels he’s owed something more than an unceremonious kiss off and a little more time for gardening. The reason he ended up entering the world of crime wasn’t the money, or that he was blackmailed – it started because of his sense of integrity. He felt he owed someone and he did them a favour. It went wrong and he ended up here. His decision to join the gang came after he tried to “pay back” the money for some missing drugs only to realise that his entire retirement plan was worth only a tiny fraction of his new debt. Ueki felt small and stupid, like a man who’d wasted his life playing the mugs game. He wanted some payback, but his life as criminal mastermind turned out not to be much of a success either.

Trying to explain her father’s actions to the wounded Keiko, Kasai explains that everyone has a sleeping beast in their heart which is capable doing terrible things when it awakens. Ueki’s sleeping beast was woken by his resentment and sense of betrayal in being so cruelly cast aside by the system to which he’d devoted his life while the guys who broke all the rules – drug dealers, gangsters, and corrupt businessmen, lived the high life. One could almost argue that a sleeping beast is stirring in Kasai’s heart as he pushes his investigation to the limit, occasionally forgetting about the harm it will do to Keiko even whilst acknowledging the greater good of breaking the smuggling ring once and for all. Keiko too finds herself torn, confused and heartbroken by the change in her father’s personality though her mother feels quite differently.  Claiming that “a woman has no say in her husband’s work”, Keiko’s mum tells her daughter that a wife’s duty is to do as her husband says and avoid asking questions. Keiko has asked a lot of questions already and shows no signs of stopping now, even once she realises she won’t like the answers.

Despite the grimness of the underlying tenet that it doesn’t take much for honest men to abandon their sense of morality, Suzuki maintains his trademark wryness as Kasai and Keiko go about their investigation like a pair of pesky kids chasing a cartoon villain. Though the tale is straightforward enough, he does throw in a decent amount of experimentation with two innovative flashback sequences in which the flashback itself is presented as a superimposition with the person narrating it hovering at edges as if referring to a slide. The beast is quelled with a shot to the heart, but not before it wreaks havoc on the lives of ordinary people – not least Ueki himself who is forced to confront what it is he’s become and who he was prepared to sacrifice to feed the hungry demon inside him.


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.

Kokoro (こころ, Kon Ichikawa, 1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previously available on DVD from Eureka, now sadly OOP.

Scene from midway through the film

Akitsu Springs (秋津温泉, Kiju Yoshida, 1962)

akitsu springsKiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida is best remembered for his extraordinary run of avant-garde masterpieces in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but even he had to cut his teeth on Shochiku’s speciality genre – the romantic melodrama. Adapted from a best selling novel, Akitsu Springs (秋津温泉, Akitsu Onsen) is hardly an original tale in its doom laden reflection of the hopelessness and inertia of the post-war world as depicted in the frustrated love story of a self sacrificing woman and self destructive man, but Yoshida elevates the material through his characteristically beautiful compositions and full use of the particularly lush colour palate.

At the very end of the war, consumptive student Shusaku (Hiroyuki Nagato) finds his aunt’s house destroyed by aerial bombing. Attempting to find her but proving too ill to go on, Shusaku is taken to a nearby inn by a good samaritan where he first encounters the innkeeper’s daughter, Shinko (Mariko Okada). Despite her mother’s protestations, Shinko takes a shine to Shusaku and is determined to nurse him back to health. Shusaku, however, is a gloomy sort of boy and, ironically, longs only for death. Though the pair fall in love their youthful romance is forever tinged with darkness as Shusaku declares his love not with a ring but with a rope – he asks Shinko for that most classically theatrical of unions in proposing a double suicide.

Shinko agrees, but is not quite ready to die. In another dose of irony, Shinko’s tears of fear and despair on hearing the Emperor’s final wartime broadcast confirming his surrender inspire Shusaku to want to live but the pair are eventually separated. Reuniting and parting over and over again, their complicated love story repeats itself over a period of seventeen years but the painful spectre of the past refuses to allow either of them the freedom to move beyond Akitsu Springs.

Mariko Okada was only 29 in 1962, but she’d already worked with some of the best directors of the age including Ozu whose An Autumn Afternoon was released the same year, and Naruse in Floating Clouds which has something of a narrative similarity to Akitsu Springs. This prestige picture was her 100th screen appearance for which she also took a producer credit. Despite the obvious importance attached to both of these elements, the studio took a chance on a rookie director with only three films under his belt. Two years later Okada would become Yoshida’s wife and go on to star in some of his most important pictures including Eros + Massacre and Heroic Purgatory. At first glance her role here is a conventional one – a love lorn, melancholy woman unable to let the ghost of a failed romance die, but Okada’s work is extraordinary as Shinko travels from flighty teen to rueful middle aged woman, hollowed out and robbed of any sense of hope.

At Akitsu Springs time passes and it doesn’t all at once. Yoshida refuses to give us concrete demarcations, preferring to simply show a child being born and growing older or someone remarking on having been away. The inn becomes a kind of bubble with Shinko trapped inside, but Shusaku comes to regard the place as a temporary haven rather than a permanent home or place to make a life. For her everything real is at the spring, but for him everything at the spring is unreal – an unattainable paradise. She cannot leave, he cannot stay. Only for short periods are they able to indulge their romance, but the time always comes at which they must part again often swearing it will be for the last time, never knowing if it will.

Yoshida neatly bookends the relationship with announcements over loudspeakers as Shinko originally fails to understand the Emperor’s speech in which he remarks on enduring the unendurable, only to be prompted into later action by the banal drone of a train station tannoy. It’s almost as if their lives are being entirely dictated by outside forces, powerless drifters in the post-war world, condemned to a perpetual waiting sustained only by hopelessness.

Shinko may have convinced Shusaku to live but his growing successes only seem to deplete her. Wasting away at an inn she always claimed to hate, Shinko grows old while Shusaku grows bitter yet successful in the city. They move past and through each other, unable to connect or disconnect, yearning for the completion of something which consistently eludes them. Yoshida films the standard melodrama with appropriate theatricality but also with his beautifully composed framing as the lovers are divided by screen doors or captured in mirrors. Okada glows in the light of falling cherry blossoms, acknowledging the tragic and transitory character of love, but her final action is one which echoes the beginning of her suffering and finally declares an ending to an unendurable romance.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Thick-Walled Room (壁あつき部屋, Masaki Kobayashi, 1956)

4473285465_b5cf3a248fThere’s a persistent myth that Japanese cinema avoids talking about the war directly and only addresses the war part of post-war malaise obliquely but if you look at the cinema of the early ‘50s immediately after the end of the occupation this is not the case at all. Though the strict censorship measures in place during the occupation often made referring to the war itself, the rise of militarism in the ‘30s or the American presence after the war’s end impossible, once these measures were relaxed a number of film directors who had direct experience with the conflict began to address what they felt about modern Japan. One of these directors was Masaki Kobayashi whose trilogy, The Human Condition, would come to be the best example of these films. This early effort, The Thick-Walled Room (壁あつき部屋, Kabe Atsuki Heya), scripted by Kobo Abe is one of the first attempts to tell the story of the men who’d returned from overseas bringing a troubled legacy with them.

The Thick-Walled Room is set inside an American detention centre for soldiers who have been declared B or C class war criminals. In essence, these are the rank and file men who were “just following orders” or committed random acts of desperation because they believed it was necessary to survive. The men are kept fairly well in the prison, they aren’t treated cruelly though they are sent for forced labour in a stone quarry. The main protagonist of the story, Yamashita, insists on maintaining a beard as a form of mini rebellion (quipping that he’s trying to grow a rope to hang himself). He feels betrayed by a superior officer,  who ordered him to commit an atrocity and then cut some kind of deal to deny it afterwards and get off scot free – he returned to Yamashita’s home town, has married and is lording it over Yamashita’s own family as some kind of devious landlord.

The others in the cell include a young romantic dreaming of a girl he met in the war who, it turns out, has long forgotten him and is now living in the pleasure quarters. The film also doesn’t shy away from the other implications of the war with a Korean soldier also among the detained who laments what’s happening both to the country of his birth which is now once again at war and his adopted country tearing itself apart in guilt and defeat. When asked whether he’s from North or South Korea the soldier hesitates, perhaps offended by the question, and simply replies “I am Korean” before walking off. Others dream of home and wives and families and this whole thing being over. However, they’re all at the mercy of two governments – the Americans and the Japanese and though they believe they may finally be released when the treaty is signed, it’s never that simple.

Masaki Kobayashi begins the themes he would return to over and over again – the depths of human cruelty, repression, indifference, vengeance. These are man who risked their lives for a god only to find he was a man and nothing more. They’ve come back alive, but different. Not only must they deal with the shame of defeat and now being prisoners of their enemies but also with entire war guilt of a nation. These are just the little guys, they did as they were told even if they didn’t want to or they killed and stole to survive. They have done terrible things to those who had no role in the conflict, this is not in dispute, and they pay a heavy spiritual toll for those actions. The people who ordered and orchestrated these deliberate reigns of terror, however, have largely escaped or lied and cheated their way out of the hangman’s noose.

Kobayashi uses a lot of expressionist techniques more reminiscent of silent cinema than of the more recent films of the era. Whilst the men are inside the cell there is nothing outside it, the war still exists in here and in their minds. We start off leaning on the walls of the cell only to find ourselves thrown back into the heat of the jungle and finally thrown out again after encountering our dramatic event. The faces of the dead pass in montages across the screen crying “murderer” and “war criminal” in a constant vision of recrimination. Even if they are eventually released, these men will be in prison for the rest of their lives.

In fact, the film was so controversial that the release was held back until 1956 even though the American occupation was technically over before it was completed. Though it isn’t the most accomplished of Kobayashi’s films, The Thick-Walled Room includes many of the ideas and motifs that he would return to throughout his career. Kobayashi wants us to see things as they are and were from all angles. He sympathises with these men but doesn’t excuse what they or the nation as a whole has done, as he would continue to do he seeks a way forward that acknowledges the past but will bring us to a more compassionate future.


The Thick-Walled Room is the first of four early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.