Punishment Room (処刑の部屋, Kon Ichikawa, 1956)

In the mid-1950s, Nikkatsu released a series of incendiary youth films which gave rise to a small moral panic in the older generation. The “Sun Tribe” movies proved so controversial that Nikkatsu could only release three of them before bowing to public pressure while Toho and Daiei both managed to release one each, bringing the total up to five. Produced by Daiei, Kon Ichikawa’s contribution to the Sun Tribe phenomenon, Punishment Room (処刑の部屋, Shokei no Heya), adapted another novel by Crazed Fruit’s Shintaro Ishihara who had, it seems, managed to capture something of the nihilistic spirit of the age.

Among the darkest of the Sun Tribe tales, Punishment Room follows near sociopathic university student Katsumi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) as he works out his frustration with his hangdog father Hanya (Seiji Miyaguchi) by kicking back against societal rigidity. Hanya is a bank clerk with some kind of stress-related stomach complaint for which he is forever taking medicine. One particular day, Katsumi and his friend Hideo (Shoji Umewaka) turn up to run some kind of scam on him, insisting that Hideo’s family are in dire straits because his dad’s working abroad and they don’t have money to make a payment on a loan. The boys want Hanya to buy the note of debt as security and lend them 30,000 yen, something which isn’t really allowed but he ends up taking out half of his own life savings to avoid embarrassing or being embarrassed by his own son in the workplace. The boys, however, were just trying to extort him and planning to use the money to host a college dance while making a little extra on the side. 

At this point, most still seem to feel that Katsumi is a “nice kid”, while Hideo is a bad influence. His middle school best friend Ryoji more or less says as much, but no one really knows the extent to which Katsumi is already becoming a black hole of nihilistic fury. His ire is provoked during a college debate session at which he’s outtalked by smart female student Akiko (Ayako Wakao) and abruptly cut off by the bored professor (Nobuo Nakamura). Despite knowing that one of his buddies has a crush on her, Katsumi makes a point of picking Akiko up during the chaos of celebration after a sports game. Along with Hideo and another, more innocent student they nickname “Sonny”, Katsumi takes Akiko and her friend to a nearby drinking house, popping out to buy sleeping pills and eventually spiking their drinks while they use the bathroom, knocking Sonny out for good measure to stop him getting in the way. After dragging the barely conscious girls back to Hideo’s family home, they take one each and rape them. On waking Akiko is defiant, threatening to call the police but an unrepentant Katsumi insists that she won’t be believed. Not content with their humiliations, the guys even insist on taking the girls home by cab only to run out and leave them with the bill. 

Katsumi is is equally unrepentant when someone sends his family a letter informing them of his conduct, admitting that the allegations are true but insisting that the women are complicit because they did not report him to the police. He even refers to Akiko, who has after a fashion fallen in love with him, as “sort of my girlfriend”. Hanya ironically blames his wife whom he has treated with nothing but contempt, giving his son a crash course in a inherited misogyny, but she turns the same logic of toxic masculinity back on him in pointing out that his own passivity is the major cause of his son’s resentful rebelliousness. If Katsumi is rebelling against something rather than just a sociopathic little punk, it is indeed the spinelessness he sees in his father, obliged to scrape and bow for a mere pittance as a “wage slave” of a cruelly conformist society. 

An angry young man, Katsumi preemptively rejects the salaryman straightjacket by rebelling against conventional morality. “I do what I want” he insists, as if proving that he’s a free agent acting under force of will alone and beholden to no one. His efforts are however, futile. His amoral violence buys him nothing but the same in return. Denied a mechanism for dealing with emotion, contemptuous of hollow authority figures, and infinitely bored by a society they believe has nothing to offer them bar empty consumerism, post-war youth seeks escape but finds only nihilistic self-destruction, trapped in a perpetual Punishment Room with no exit in sight. 


Opening Scene (no subtitles)

Wild Geese (雁, AKA The Mistress, Shiro Toyoda, 1953)

(C) Daiei, 1953In the extreme turbulence of the immediate post-war period, it’s not surprising that Japan looked back to the last time it was confronted with such confusion and upheaval for clues as to how to move forward from its current state of shocked inertia. The heroine of Shiro Toyoda’s adaptation of the Ogai Mori novel, Wild Geese (雁, Gan, AKA The Mistress), finds herself at a similar crossroads to the women of the 1950s, caught between tradition and modernity as they embrace the new freedoms but remain constrained by a conservative society. Toyoda, well known for his adaptations of great literature, makes a few key changes to Mori’s novel in effect placing a Showa era heroine in a recognisably “Meiji” world.

The Japan of the 1880s is one of extreme contrast and rapidly unfolding modernity. Having finally opened its doors to the outside world, the nation is in a big hurry to “catch up” to those it sees as its equals on the world stage. Consequently, Western thoughts and values are flooding into the country, bringing both good and ill. Arranged marriages are still common and Otama (Hideko Takamine) has been married once but the marriage has failed – she was deceived, the man she married already had a wife and child. Still, having lived with a man as his wife, Otama is considered “damaged” goods and will find it difficult to make a good match in the future (especially given the whiff of scandal from being involved in an illegitimate marriage with a bigamist).

When a matchmaker (Choko Iida) arrives with a potential husband it proves hard to turn down but the matchmaker is not quite on the level. Suezo (Eijiro Tono), she says, is a recently widowed man with a young child who is in need of a new wife but cannot marry again immediately for propriety’s sake. Otama will be his mistress and then in due course his wife. However, the matchmaker is an unscrupulous woman who has spun Otama a yarn in the hope of getting her debt written off by getting the shady loanshark she owes money to a pretty young woman to have some fun with.

The position Otama finds herself in is one of impossibility. A woman cannot survive alone in the Meiji era and its lingering concessions to feudalism. For a woman as poor and lowly as Otama whose marriage prospects are slim there are few options available. Otama’s neighbour (Kuniko Miyake) has managed to carve out a life for herself as a single woman through teaching sewing classes but such opportunities are few and far between, as Otama is warned when she considers following her example. The “arrangement” with Suezo may not seem too bad on the surface – he looks after her and her father, has set her up in a house, and treats her well even if his behaviour leans toward the possessive. Despite confessing to her father that she feels trapped and miserable, humiliated on learning she has been ostracised as the mistress of a married loanshark, Otama finds little sympathy as her father declares himself “very happy” and councils her against leaving because he has no desire to return to a life of poverty, remaining selfishly indifferent to his daughter’s suffering.

Resigned to her fate, Otama does her best to adapt to her new life but remains as trapped within Suezo’s house as the caged bird he presents her with “for company”. Jealous and fearing that his wife will find out about the affair, Suezo’s preference is for Otama to stay indoors waiting for him to call. His visits are routine and perfunctory. Handing the maid a few coins to go to the public bath, Suezo signals his intentions in the least romantic of ways, pausing only to lock the garden gate.

Catching sight of an earnest student who passes by everyday at 4, Otama begins to dream of something better. The student, Okada (Hiroshi Akutagawa), is a source of fascination for all the young women in the neighbourhood but he too is instantly captivated when he glimpses the beautiful Otama trapped behind the bar-like slats of Suzeo’s love nest. Adding a touch of biblical intrigue, it is a snake which eventually leads to their meeting but no matter how deep the connection this is a love destined to fail – Otama is the kept woman of a loanshark, and Okada is a medical student with international ambitions. They inhabit different worlds and, as his friend (Jukichi Uno) puts it, this is still the Meiji era, the times will not allow it.

Nevertheless, even if her brief infatuation seems doomed, the mere act of wanting something else provokes a shift in Otama’s way of thinking. This act of fierce individualism which prompts her to defy the dominant male forces in her life whose selfish choices have caused her nothing but misery would normally be severely punished in the name of preserving social harmony but Otama’s epiphany is different. The opening title card reminded us that this was a time wild geese still flew in the skies above Tokyo. It seems to imply that birds no longer fly here, that there is no true freedom or possibility for flight in the modern age of Showa, but Otama is a woman trapped in the cage of Meiji suddenly realising that the doors have been open all along. Her choices amount to a humiliating yet materially comfortable life of subjugation, or the path of individualistic freedom in embracing her true desires. Her dream of true love rescue may have been shattered, but Otama’s heart, at least, is finally free from the twin cages of social and patriarchal oppression.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.