Untamed (あらくれ, Mikio Naruse, 1957)

“Don’t let guys control you. You have to make them men” the heroine of Mikio Naruse’s Taisho-era drama Untamed (あらくれ, Arakure, AKA Untamed Woman) advises a former rival, yet largely fails to do so herself in the fiercely patriarchal post-Meiji society. Based on a serialised novel by Shusei Tokuda published in 1915 but set in late Meiji rather than early Taisho, Naruse’s adaptation essentially drops a contemporary post-war woman into a by then almost unrecognisable Japan but finds her hamstrung firstly by feckless and entitled men and then by complicit women who themselves cannot accept her transgressive femininity. 

As the film opens, a teenage Shima (Hideko Takamine) has just married wealthy grocery store owner Tsuru (Ken Uehara) but the marriage is already a failure. Though Shima is compared favourably with Tsuru’s previous wife who was apparently in poor health, presumably suffering with TB which required a sojourn by the sea, it soon becomes clear that Tsuru is as trapped by the archaic patriarchal social system as she is. He was apparently in love with a woman from a higher social class he was too afraid to pursue and despite still seeing her also has a mistress near their factory in Hokkaido whom he often visits under the guise of a business trip. Yet when Shima tells him she thinks she may be pregnant, he is unimpressed immediately questioning the paternity of the child while harping on about her having been married before which it seems is not quite true. Perhaps the reason that she has ended up a second wife despite her youth and beauty, Shima ran out on a marriage to a childhood friend arranged for her by her adoptive parents the night before the wedding not realising they had already registered the union without her knowledge or consent. 

This transgressive act at once signals Shima’s total disregard for conventionality and insistence on her own autonomy, yet it is also indicative of the fact she married Tsuru in search of a better life, knowing that to marry her adoptive parents’ choice meant only a life of servitude on the family farm. She is not always a terribly likeable figure, coldly explaining that she didn’t mind being fostered out because the adoptive family were wealthier and could give her a better life than she had with her birth parents yet it’s this sense of familial dislocation and the liminal status it gives her that allow her to take agency over her life in the way other women might not unwilling to lose the familial security Shima may not feel she ever had. Tsuru is also an adopted son, but the price for disobedience for him may be even higher and indeed as we later hear his inability to sort out his love life eventually sees him out on his ear. His pettiness in refusing to accept the child is his leads to an argument which causes Shima to slip on the stairs and miscarry the implication being that she may not be able to bear more children leaving her unlikely to remarry and thereby spurring her desire for a tempered independence. 

The fall is the last straw, Tsuru divorces her citing her inability to play the role of the proper wife while her birth family, from whom she is emotionally estranged, refuse to take her back as do the adoptive parents because of the embarrassment she caused them with the marriage stunt. She is often described as “like a man”, unable to win as Tsuru at once insists she wear the frumpy kimonos left behind by his previous wife who was a decade older, complains she wears too much makeup, and tells her to loosen her kimono belt to de-emphasises her figure, while criticising her for being unfeminine in her refusal to simply put up with his bad behaviour as is expected for a wife in this era. Shima fulfils all her wifely duties and as we see is in fact running his business as the women of the family are often seen to do while their husbands spend the money they earn for them on other women whether drinking with geishas or supporting mistresses in second homes. When her husband hits her, she fights back rather than shrinking away chastened as intended. 

Yet she cannot overcome the sense that a man is necessary for her success which cannot be accomplished alone. Cast out from her family, her brother installs her in the mountains to work in a geisha house if only as kitchen staff but soon does a flit to reunite with his married lover who has left her husband for him. While there she falls for the quiet and sensitive inn owner Hamaya (Masayuki Mori), also an adopted heir, whose wife is again ill with TB. Hamaya may be treating his wife a little better than Tsuru did his, but quite clearly assumes she’ll die in starting an affair with Shima who is then sent away to an even more remote inn to avoid a potential scandal. As Tsuru did with the woman he apparently loved, Shima continues to see Hamaya until he too succumbs to TB as an ideal of an impossible love while simultaneously accepting that he failed her in being too weak and cowardly to fight for their romance outright refusing to become his mistress. 

This may be one reason she is determined never again to be an employee but to own her own store which is why she ends up marrying tailor Onoda (Daisuke Kato) who introduces her to textiles and seamstressing at which she quickly proves adept having mastered the modern sewing machine. She marries Onoda in believing him “reliable”, but soon comes to regard him as lazy and feckless. The first shop fails because he can’t keep up with her. The male employees are always taking breaks to drink tea and play shogi, Onoda complaining that he’s tired while she does all his work for him and the housework too. Yet he also criticises her for a lack of femininity, snapping back that it must be her time of the month when she berates him in front of their employees while later after they’ve become successful complaining it’s “embarrassing” that his workhorse wife doesn’t know the things a sophisticated society woman would such as ikebana while flirting with the teacher he’s hired ostensibility to teach her. He even forces her to wear a frumpy and already somewhat dated classically Edwardian dress with a fancy bonnet which more resembles something a country girl might wear to church than the latest in Western fashions in an attempt to advertise their tailoring which seems primed to backfire. 

That she learns to ride a bicycle in this rather ridiculous outfit is again a symbol of her desire to seize and manipulate modernity even giving rise to a piece of innuendo from her much younger assistant Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai) as to the pounding she’s been getting from the saddle. Kimura seems to think the problem with the business is that Onoda’s patterns are outdated, offering her a new modernity while she prepares to cut Onoda out on catching him with his mistress taking their best employee with her to ruin his business and start another of her own. Though once again she cannot leave alone only with a man the ending is perhaps more hopeful than might be expected from a Naruse film allowing Shima to commit herself fully to the sense of industry she embodies always ready to start again, work harder, and achieve her desires unwilling to be bound by conventional ideas of femininity or to simply put up with useless men who refuse to accept her for all she is. Yet she largely fails to make men of them, each of her various suitors failing to live up to her, ruined by an oppressive social system that encourages them to exploit female labour while taking it for granted in their intense sense of patriarchal entitlement. 


The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (怪異宇都宮釣天井, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1956)

Crime does not pay for a series of conspirators at the centre of Nobuo Nakagawa’s supernaturally-inflected historical tale, The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (怪異宇都宮釣天井, Kaii Utsunomiya Tsuritenjo). As the title implies, Nakagawa’s ominous jidaigeki is inspired by a historical legend in which a retainer supposedly attempted to assassinate the shogun through the rather elaborate device of a mechanical ceiling designed to crush him as he slept. In actuality no such thing took place, the shogun changed his route and subsequent investigations of Utsunomiya Castle found no sign of a false ceiling, yet the story took on a life of its own as local folklore. 

In this version of the tale, conspirators Councillor Kawamura (Ureo Egawa) and local yakuza Kagiya (Masao Mishima) are conspiring to depose Tokugawa Iemitsu (Yoichi Numata) in favour of his brother, manipulating Lord Honda (Shuntaro Emi) of Utsunomiya Castle by convincing him that his clan will prosper when the other retainers fall in behind the new shogun. The pair have arranged for nine talented craftsmen to be shut up in the castle to install “the mechanism” in time for the arrival of the shogun who is due to stay at the castle on his way to Nikko. Meanwhile, Kawamura is also intent on sleeping with the daughter of head carpenter Toemon (Yoji Misaki), Ofuji (Konomi Fuji), whom chief minion Tenzen (Tetsuro Tamba) is supposed to kidnap once the workmen have gone into isolation in the castle. Righteous samurai Ryutaro (Hiroshi Ogasawara) however, an undercover shogunate bodyguard, begins to disrupt their plan saving Ofuji while bonding with a friendly bar hostess, Onobu (Sachiko Toyama), and secret princess forest woman Oshino (Akemi Tsukushi). 

The plot represents in itself a malfunctioning of the feudal order in the essential weakness of Lord Honda, the ambition of his underling Kawamura, and the cruel greed of Kagiya. As the two men conspire, Kagiya jokingly laments that he isn’t a samurai while Kawamura reminds him that if the plan comes off he’ll be fantastically rich. Kagiya, a yakuza who sends his thugs to extort protection money from the local market, is representation of the threat of the rising merchant class whose financial power presents a challenge to the authority of the samurai. Toemon, meanwhile, a master craftsman, is manipulated into participating in the plan because he is in debt to Kagiya, later promised that he too will be “promoted” in being given permission to carry a sword little knowing that Kawamura and Kagiya not only plan to kidnap and rape his daughter but never intend to allow any of the craftsmen to live because they simply know too much. 

The Ceiling at Utsunomiya is not a ghost story in the manner for which Nakagawa is best known but it certainly plays like one, Kagiya eventually haunted by the figure of a betrayed Toemon which in turn leads him to a self-destructive attack on Tenzen and his eventual demise collapsed over his ill-gotten gains, a koban falling from his hand. Greed and violence will only repay in the same, the weak-willed Lord getting his comeuppance from the ever confident shogun even if he himself coolly stands back while others risk their lives to protect him. Even so, the eventual operation of “the mechanism” is intensely startling, the ceiling abruptly collapsing with alarming ferocity though one wonders what the advantage is in such an expensive, elaborate contraption aside from its ironic symbolism when the point of a sword will do. 

Then again, the heroic Ryutaro is almost assassinated while crossing a river via zip wire later fished out of the river by sullen forest woman Oshino, first encountered hunting birds with darts but later revealed to be the illegitimate child of samurai parents who fell foul of political intrigue. In a sense this revelation emphasises the restoration of the political order, Ryutaro permitted to fall in love with Oshino because they are of the same social class, while the romance between Ofuji and craftsman Yoshichi (Kotaro Sugiyama) also comes to fruition eliding the minor class difference between them in allowing the boss’ protege to marry the now orphaned daughter. Onobu meanwhile pays heavy price for her misplaced love for Ryutaro, denied romantic fulfilment in her liminal existence as a bar hostess. In any case, the corruption is exorcised and the normal order resumes reinforcing the hierarchical shogunate society with each of the players back in their rightful positions and possessing new hope for the future as Ryutaro and the shogun continue their tour while their former comrades kneel at the roadside. 


Ghost Cat of Nabeshima (鍋島怪猫伝, Kunio Watanabe, 1949)

When is a ghost cat not a ghost cat? Drawing inspiration from classic folklore and kabuki theatre, the ghost cat movie had been a popular genre of pre-war cinema yet thereafter fell out of favour before a brief resurgence in the 50s and 60s. Inspired by the classic vampire cat legend, 1949’s Ghost Cat of Nabeshima (鍋島怪猫伝, Nabeshima Kaibyo-den) was part of a wave of post-war kaibyo yet in a slightly meta touch features no actual “ghost cat” leveraging instead the superstitious fear of their existence along with a mild prejudice towards otherwise supernaturally cute kitties. 

Set in the feudal era, the central drama revolves around a weakened lord, a supposedly cursed Go board, and local hysteria about a dangerous ghost cat lurking round the palace that has the townspeople nervous enough to have organised a patrol on the look out for suspicious-looking felines. A store owner has recently taken in an ornate Go board which has sent his wife into a minor frenzy because it looks just like the one from the local temple which she knows to be haunted by the vengeful spirit of a man who was killed during a dispute over a particularly heated game. As such, she pushes him to sell it as quickly as possible which he does to a lower level samurai whose gaming companion is so weirded out by the bad vibes emanating from the board that he gives it away to villainous retainer Tanuma (Ureo Egawa). Tanuma then gifts it to the rather effete lord ignoring the advice of his noble rival Komori (Denjiro Okochi) that Go is bad for the lord’s health both mental and physical. 

Komori may in a sense be proved right when, lacking a companion, the lord decides to summon Matashichiro (Haruo Tanaka) who is reputed to be a good player. Matashichiro is something of a Go obsessive and had been planning to leave for Edo in order to train with a true master partly it seems because he is carrying a chip on his shoulder as his family has been reduced in circumstances leaving him with few opportunities. On seeing the board, however, he appears to have something of an episode repeating the earlier tragedy in insisting the lord is playing “unfairly” before starting a fight during which the lord accidentally kills him, Matashichiro’s adorable black kitten Kuro leaving tiny bloody footprints as he scuttles away to relative safety glaring at the lord as he goes.

The lord thereafter develops an intense fear of cats, half-believing Kuro has become a bakeneko out to get him. All of this plays directly into the hands of Tanuma who is secretly plotting against the lord and hopes to capitalise on the ghost cat rumours while simultaneously making the lord seem mad in order to usurp and manipulate him. Tanuma had rejected concern over the cursed nature of the board insisting that “supernatural things don’t exist” while suggesting “weak government” is the reason such rumours were allowed to arise in the first place though it later becomes clear he too is manipulating them later sending out one of his minions in a ghost cat outfit with the instruction to cause trouble to keep the townspeople afraid. Komori, meanwhile, the good samurai later reminds the lord that he brought some of this on himself in his selfishness, failing to properly care for his subjects such as the rebellious Sanpei (Yataro Kurokawa) who openly disparages him while encouraging a peasant revolt in the face of samurai indifference. 

In this, there is perhaps a message for the immediate post-war world in the peasants’ frequent mistaken assertion that greed is good and a necessary tool for survival, Sanpei and the others half-heartedly taking part in a cat cull ordered by the increasingly paranoid lord which creates further animosity towards the samurai authorities from local people who love their cats and won’t stand for their beloved pets being sold off and killed because of a bizarre rumour about a vengeful feline spirit. One of the reasons cited for the decline in popularity of the ghost cat film is that post-war audiences simply no longer took such things seriously and some of that flippancy is indeed seen in the attitudes of some of the townspeople who are quick to dismiss such ridiculous superstition. Yet there are ghostly apparitions only they’re very much human if perhaps mildly linked to feline activity, a dishevelled Matashichiro appearing in front of the lord to remind him of his crime while Tanuma does his best to cover it up. Here more than most, there’s a heavy implication that the spirits of the deceased are mere hallucinations of a guilty mind, but could the Go board really be responsible, it did provoke a violent rage in the otherwise dejected Matashichiro after all?

Then again, when the townspeople regain it, they realise the Go board is just a Go board experiencing very few supernatural incidents despite having it in their possession for over two months and as any cat owner knows, footprints on the tatami are hardly an unusual occurrence. “Did anyone actually see the ghost that everyone was fussing about?” a woman asks to confused silence before someone jokingly points at Matashichiro’s former girlfriend Otoyo (Michiyo Kogure) now guardian to the adorable Kuro looking like butter wound’t melt. Order has in any case been restored, the disruptive Tanuma’s schemes unmasked, the lord reminded of his proper responsibilities whether by supernatural intervention or not, and the townspeople laying aside their “greed” while rediscovering a sense of mutual solidarity not to mention affection for their feline companions. Playful to the last, Watanabe closes with a handheld zoom into the cute kitten sitting innocently atop the cursed board while the drunken townsmen snooze all around him in ominous tranquility. 


The Ghost of Kasane (怪談かさねが渕, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1957)

“Fear the hatred of the dead!” a blameless slain wife exclaims after being cruelly cut down by her deluded husband in Nobuo Nakagawa’s tale of karmic vengeance, The Ghost of Kasane (怪談かさねが渕, Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi). Then again, though cleaving close to the standard formulas of the ghost movie not to mention the famous tale, these fatalistic, generationally twinned tales of ghostly revenge have an oddly imprecise quality in which it is the innocent who are eventually made to suffer, caught between concentric circles of guilt and retribution. 

The tale opens in 1773 with a blind masseur/money lender, Soetsu (Yoji Misaki), leaving his home on a snowy day hoping to catch venal samurai Shinzaemon (Akira Nakamura) at home. Shinzaemon and his wife are hospitable, but a conflict soon breaks out during which Shinzaemon accuses the old man of disrespecting him as a samurai and generally getting above himself as a mere member of the peasant class. All Soetsu has done is politely ask for the money he’s owed while making it clear that Shinzaemon’s attempts to give him the run around are wearing thin, but he ends up with a nasty gash on his face after the enraged samurai throws a pot at him. Driven into a frenzy by this unwelcome class-based anxiety, Shinzaemon slashes Soetsu with his sword and kills him, instructing a servant to stuff his body in a case and dump it in Kasane swamp. Soetsu, however, does not rest easy, returning to taunt him, eventually causing him to murder his wife by mistake and thereafter drawing him to his death by drowning in the very swamp where he dumped the body. 

20 years later in Edo, Soetsu’s daughter Rui (Katsuko Wakasugi) has become a successful shamisen teacher, while Shinkichi (Takashi Wada), the orphaned son of Shinzaemon, was taken in by a merchant family who continue to treat him as a poor relation. While having internalised a servant mentality that ironically inverts his father’s anxiety in his samurai status, Shinkichi has fallen in love with the daughter of the house, Hisa (Noriko Kitazawa), who is about to be betrothed against her will to the horrible son of local merchants, Seitaro (Shuji Kawabe). Rui, meanwhile, an older unmarried woman, is desperate to fend off the violent attentions of rough ronin Omura (Tetsuro Tanba), eventually convincing herself she is in love with the mild-mannered Shinkichi who might well think a rebound relationship is a good idea if it clears the way for Hisa’s inevitable marriage. 

Oddly enough and somewhat incomprehensibly, it’s Rui who becomes the target of her father’s curse, perhaps for her unwitting affection for the son of the man who killed him though it seems insufferably cruel that a father would involve his own child, not to mention the blameless infant of his murderer, in his bid for vengeance from beyond the grave. For his part, Shinkichi pays a heavy price for his unmanly diffidence, brave enough neither to say no to Rui or to run away with Hisa, simply passive if kind in the face of mounting impossibilities. Yet as much as it’s her father’s resentment that causes her downfall, struck by the pluck from the shamisen which scars her face to mirror his, she adds her own share in the wrath of a woman scorned dragging Shinkichi towards the lake for his inability to let go of his love for Hisa.

Old Soetsu might have a right to be vengeful, but his curse has collateral damage, enacted on women in order to target men as in Shinzaemon’s unwitting murder of his wife and Shinkichi’s accidental violence against Hisa at the instigation of Rui. Only the two old servants are left behind to make peace and tell the story, united by their respective positions rather than divided by their conflicting affiliations. Studio-bound yet filled with a series of supernatural tricks, Nakagawa’s atmospheric adaptation of the classic tale once again features the bug-eyed deformity of the scorned female ghost as Rui’s initial injury eventually balloons as her “sickness” intensifies, later finding time to turn her rage on Omura who was not, it has to be said, on the original list of victims being simply an embodiment of the cruelty of the age. Nakagawa ends, however, not with darkness but with light, freeing the souls of the troubled lovers from the gloom of earthly torment in urging them to leave their hatred behind and return to Buddha in eternal peace.