Gate of Hell (地獄門, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Which is the greater challenge to the social order, love or ambition, or are they in the end facets of the same destabilising forces? Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (地獄門, Jigokumon) is, from one angle, the story of a man driven mad by “love”, reduced to the depravity of a crazed stalker betraying his samurai honour in order to affirm his status, but it also paints his need as a response to the chaos of his age along with its many repressions while the heroine is, once again, convinced that the only freedom she possesses lies in death. Yet in the midst of all that, Kinugasa ends with a triumph of nobility as the compassionate samurai restores order by rejecting the heat of raw emotion for an internalised contemplation of the greater good. 

Set in the 12th century, the film opens in revolt as two ambitious lords combine forces to attack the Sanjo Palace in what would become known as the Heiji Rebellion. The lords have attacked knowing that Taira no Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) is not in residence, having departed on a pilgrimage. Fearful for the safety of his sister and father, retainers order decoys to be sent out to distract the rebels. Kesa (Machiko Kyo), a court lady in service to the emperor’s sister, agrees to be her decoy and Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa), a minor retainer, is ordered to protect her. He manages to escort her back to his family compound where he assumes she will be safe, transgressively giving her a kiss of life, pouring water into her mouth with his own, after she has fainted during the journey. Unfortunately, Morito has miscalculated. His brother has sided with the rebels and they are not safe here. During the chaos they go their separate ways, and as soon as Kiyomori returns he puts an end to the rebellion restoring the status quo.  

Shocked at his brother’s betrayal, Morito tells him that only a coward betrays a man to whom he has sworn an oath of loyalty but he explains that he is acting not out of cowardice but self interest. He has made an individualist choice to advance his status in direct opposition to the samurai code. Morito doesn’t yet know it but he is about to do something much the same. He has fallen in love with Kesa and after meeting her again at the Gate of Hell where they are each paying their respects to the fallen, his brother among them, is determined to marry her, so much so that he asks Kiyomori directly during a public ceremony rewarding loyal retainers for their service. The other men giggle at such an inappropriate, unmanly show of emotion but the joke soon fades once another retainer anxiously points out that Kesa is already married to one of the lord’s favoured retainers. Kiyomori apologises and tries to laugh it off, but Morito doubles down, requesting that Kiyomori give him another man’s wife. 

This series of challenges to the accepted order is compounded by a necessity for politeness. Morito is mocked and derided, told that his conduct is inappropriate and embarrassing, but never definitively ordered to stop. Making mischief or hoping to defuse the situation, Kiyomori engineers a meeting between Morito and Kesa, cautioning him that the matter rests with her and should she refuse him he should take it like a man and bow out gracefully. Kesa, for her part, has only ever been polite to Morito and is extremely confused, not to mention distressed, by this unexpected turn of events. She is quite happily married to Wataru (Isao Yamagata) who is the soul of samurai honour, kind, honest, and always acting with the utmost propriety. That might be why he too treats Morito with politeness, never directly telling him to back off but refusing to engage with his inappropriate conduct. That sense of being ignored, however, merely fuels Morito’s resentment. He accuses Kesa of not leaving her husband because Wataru is of a higher rank, as if she rejects him out of snobbishness, rather than accept the fact she does not like him. 

Morito continues in destructive fashion. We see him repeatedly, break, smash, and snap things out of a sense of violent frustration with the oppressions of his age until finally forced to realise that he has “destroyed a beautiful soul” in his attempt to conquer it. “One cannot change a person’s feelings by force” Wataru advises, but is that not the aim of every rebellion, convincing others they must follow one man and not another because he is in someway stronger? The priest whose head was cut off and displayed at the Gate of Hell was killed in part because he reaped what he had sown in beheading the defeated soldiers of a previous failed revolution. Morito kills a traitor and he falls seemingly into rolling waves which transition to an unrolling scroll reminding us that rebellions ebb and flow through time and all of this is of course transient. Only Wataru, perhaps ironically, as the unambiguously good samurai is able to end the cycle, refusing his revenge in the knowledge it would do no real good. Morito is forced to live on in the knowledge of the destruction his misplaced passion has wrought, standing at his own Gate of Hell as a man now exiled from his code and renouncing the world as one unfit to live in it. 


Gate of Hell is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Suspicion (疑惑, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1982)

Suspicion posterBy the early ‘80s, Japan had successfully shaken off post-war desperation for burgeoning consumerism, but even as the nation rocketed into a more comfortable future, social equality proved slow to arrive. Once again adapting a novel by Seicho Matsumoto, Yoshitaro Nomura’s Suspicion (疑惑, Giwaku) makes allies of two very different women who are each in one way or another rejected by the conservative, infinitely rigid society in which they live.

Former bar hostess Kumako (Kaori Momoi) falls under suspicion when she alone survives the car accident that takes her husband’s life. A brassy, aloof woman, Kumako does not behave in the way the police might expect a recently bereaved spouse to behave which instantly turns them against her. This becomes a real problem once they discover that her husband, Shirakawa (Noboru Nakaya), was an extraordinarily wealthy man on whom she had recently taken out a number of life insurance polices. Shirakawa’s public profile ensures that the potentially salacious case is taken up by the newspapers who waste no time proclaiming Kumako a gold digging murderess while openly baying for her blood. Intimidated by the public outcry, the police are determined to charge Kumako with her husband’s murder despite the only existing evidence being extremely circumstantial.

After a prominent lawyer declines to take her case, her legal council stands down citing his poor health leaving Kumako entirely undefended. The court eventually appoints her a new lawyer, a woman – Ritsuko Sahara (Shima Iwashita), more practiced in civil than criminal law and just as much of an outcast as Kumako though in very different ways. Ritsuko has divorced her husband and he has custody of their young daughter whom Ritsuko makes a point of seeing once a month. Though the arrangement seems to suit her well enough, her status as a career woman who has “rejected” the roles of wife and mother also makes her one viewed with “suspicion” by those around her.

The central issue is indeed Kumako’s character. A former bar hostess with a traumatic childhood, Kamako has four previous convictions including assault and blackmail as well as an abrasive personality and a tendency to rub people up the wrong way. She doesn’t do herself any favours, but no kind of justice would be served if she were sentenced to death not for her husband’s murder but for the crime of being an “unpleasant” woman in a society which expects women to be docile and polite.

The papers, however, are very invested in the story of the coldblooded, gold digging murderess. Akitani (Akira Emoto), a local reporter, cosies up to the police for insider information, and does his best to root out Kumako’s sordid past including a sometime boyfriend who might have been her “pimp”. Ritsuko makes “trial by media” a key part of her defence strategy, arguing that her client’s case has been unfairly prejudiced by the image the press has sought to construct of her, but is unaware of the extent to which the police investigation has been distorted by the desire to appease the media or the various ways in which a venal press has gently perverted the course of justice in search of a better story.

Cool and efficient, Ritsuko isn’t really sure whether Kumako did it or not but is determined to ensure she is tried by the codes of law and not of conventional morality. A disgraced Akitani later barks at her that he sees no need to defend “a woman like that” in the papers, but Ritsuko’s having none of it – the purpose of the law is precisely to ensure guilt or innocence is assessed rationally on the basis of the evidence presented, as free of personal prejudice as it’s possible to be. An idealistic claim, given Japan’s famously implacable legal system, but one that sits well with a functioning democracy.

Ritsuko’s defence of Kumako is not particularly a feminist exercise, though a grudging kind of mutual respect eventually arises between the two women who have each in one sense or another rejected socially defined gender roles. While Ritsuko proclaims herself happy enough to be a mother once a month on Sundays, her husband’s new wife is a more territorial sort, eventually asking her to stop seeing her own daughter because she would rather raise her believing that she is hers alone. Kumako, however, is entirely unrepentant, even emboldened, vowing that she will continue using men until the day she dies. The two women remain mirror images of each other, both rejected, viewed with “suspicion” for the choices they have made, and forever at odds with a society which has already found them each “guilty” in the court of public opinion.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

An Inn at Osaka (大阪の宿, Heinosuke Gosho, 1954)

inn at osaka cap 2Heinosuke Gosho may be most closely associated with the Chekhovian interplay between laughter and tears, but what are you to do when life is so unutterably miserable that levity seems almost offensive? By 1954, many might have assumed that society was on the way to recovery, that the promises of the new democracy so proudly affirmed in the post-war constitution would be available to all paving the way for a freer and fairer society. Of course, that wasn’t quite the case and many found themselves trapped on the periphery of the burgeoning economic miracle in which unemployment was high and the bitterness of the times had led many to believe that human decency was a luxury they couldn’t afford.

Made a year after his renowned masterpiece Where Chimneys are Seen, An Inn at Osaka (大阪の宿, Osaka no Yado) is a much less cheerful affair in which suicide and degradation linger permanently on the horizon. The hero, Mita (Shuji Sano), has been exiled from Tokyo, demoted to the Osaka office after slapping his boss in argument over immoral business practices. Much reduced in circumstances, he has been unable to find a lodging house that suits his budget, the local barman lamenting that these days most of the hotels in the area have been co-opted by sex workers. Just at that moment, a dishevelled old man pops up and says he knows of a good place where the rent is reasonable and the innkeeper kind. As you might expect, it turns out that he works there. The innkeeper is his sister and though she is not particularly nice, the place is warm and friendly with three kindly maids – Orika (Mitsuko Mito) who is constantly pressed for money by her no-good husband, Otsugi (Hiroko Kawasaki) who is forced to live apart from her son, and “modern girl” Oyone (Sachiko Hidari) who is much younger and having a fling with the inn’s other longterm resident, Noro (Jun Tatara), a sleazy gentleman who likes to throw his weight around because he co-signed the loan on the hotel.

In once sense, the city of Osaka itself is being painted as a “fall” from sophisticated Tokyo, an earthier place where people do what they have to to survive. This Mita learns to his cost when drunken geisha Uwabami (Nobuko Otowa) picks up his “luxury English-made blanket” and peels off a thread which she burns to expose its smell. Wilier than the innocent Mita she tells him he’s been had, lamenting that it’s “Osaka’s shame” that they wilfully trick people from Tokyo. Mita is irritated, slightly hurt and embarrassed to have been deceived, but affirms that it hasn’t damaged his views on Osaka because in the present society everyone is being cheated by someone somewhere. In any case, he allows himself to be bamboozled by the innkeeper’s brother (Kamatari Fujiwara) into tracking down the teenage girl who sold it to him, Omitsu (Kyoko Anzai), who seems upset, explaining that she bought the blanket in good faith and has been tricked herself. During their visit, Mita notices that they’re in the middle of some sort of shamanistic ritual over the sickbed of her ailing father and feels pity for her but stops short of cancelling the debt there and then.

Not cancelling the debt even though he can see Omitsu never meant to trick him and cannot afford to pay him back, is part of his rather sanctimonious rebellion against the immoralities of the post-war society. He feels wronged and thinks that getting the money back for the blanket will somehow put things right, but like many of his attempts to help those in need it eventually backfires. Mita is a good man, compassionate and honest, but he’s also disappointingly conservative in ways he hasn’t quite realised. Uwabami, who has fallen in love with him, later chides Mita that he is like a star looking down on everything from above. He doesn’t quite understand what she means, failing to grasp that what she’s telling him is that though she can see that he cares, he has a tendency to view himself as somehow “better” than the world around him and lives in silent judgement of those he believes to be fundamentally different from himself.

After a brief argument, Uwabami confesses that she feels trapped and miserable in her impossible geisha existence, just trying to make enough money to survive when too old to ply her trade. She can’t quit because she’s responsible for her whole family – her younger brother has just been laid off from his railway job and his children will go hungry without her money. She provokes Mita a little, chastising him for not caring about her on a human level only for Mita to counter that he likes her but they live in “different worlds”. Disappointed, she laments that she thought they were the same, realising that Mita’s conception of the world is defined by ideas of middle-class respectability and that he views her as occupying a lower order, forever walled off from “decent” people like himself. Though he treats her warmly and regards her as a friend, there can never be anything more between them than that.

Omitsu later shows him something similar. Having scraped together some of the money to pay him back, she arrives at the inn only for Mita to try to refuse it. Otsugi offers her some sewing work for Noro who later takes advantage of her, gossiping with the maids that she was a “bargain”. To make matters worse, Omitsu gets caught on the way out and is berated by the innkeeper for bringing the hotel into disrepute. Mita starts to feel guilty. This is, after all, largely his fault – he pushed her about the blanket out of pettiness and brought her to the inn where she has debased herself to get back the money he took from her. He tries to return it but it’s already too late. “Why do you always insist on being good?” she asks him, partly offended that he won’t take her money because he now thinks it’s tainted by immorality. “I just want to trust in people” he tells her, beginning to realise that his ‘well-meaning” gesture is both patronising and futile because if he’d really cared about helping Omitsu, he could have done it before.

Mita is good person, but like everyone else he’s flawed and human. He genuinely wants to help, for the world to be better than it is, but in his goodness allows himself to be self-involved and insensitive. The reason he didn’t get fired from his job even for so great a transgression as slapping the boss, is that his grandfather founded the company. In an effort to break with the past, he decides to sell his grandfather’s expensive French pocket watch, but retains the chain as if unable to definitively sever the connection to his privilege. To prove that he’s done it for symbolic and not financial reasons, he spends the money taking Otsugi and Orika on a day trip to Osaka castle after Orika declines his offer of money of which she is in desperate need.

“Money’s everything, what happened to humanity?” Mita asks himself, still not quite aware of his position within the system. Mita refuses to conform to the demands of the post-war era as exemplified by his boorish boss who sneeringly asks if he’s a “socialist” while dismissing him as an “intellectual” and doing illicit backroom deals to get ahead, but he does so largely passively and with little more than resentment. At his farewell dinner, he reflects that had he not come to Osaka he might have quit his job but now he’s determined to stay and try to make things better. There might be something a little sanctimonious in his new found fire born of living among the poor now he’s on his way back to Tokyo, but he has perhaps awakened to his failings and is resolving to do better.

Meanwhile, the innkeeper finds the strength to break with the odious Noro, but unlike Mita decides to throw herself into the abyss of modernity by turning the hotel in a rent by the hour kind of place complete with Western beds and tacky decor. She too feels there are two kinds of people, refusing Otsugi time off to see her son, barking that “a dog doesn’t forget what is owes its master”, while Otsugi remains powerless, aware she’s entirely out of options as a young widow in the cruel post-war economy. Orika too gives up on changing her life after finding herself unable to separate from her no-good, drunken, violent, husband, while Oyone alone seems excited by the new job possibilities at the inn, and Omitsu, despite having coldly exclaimed that she’d do whatever it takes to survive, throws herself into “honest” work, unable to attend Mita’s leaving do because now her life is one of ceaseless industry which provides her no opportunity for rest. “None of us can say we’re really happy”, Mita laments, “let’s have the dignity to laugh in the face of unhappiness”. Everybody’s tired, everybody’s disappointed and afraid, but they haven’t lost their humanity and when there’s really nothing else, all you can do is laugh. 


Short clip (no subtitles)

Growing Up (たけくらべ, Heinosuke Gosho, 1955)

Gosho Growing UpCaught in a moment of transition, it’s no great mystery that post-war Japanese cinema began to look back at the Meiji past. Progress had indeed been rapid but ended in national tragedy and collective madness. The post-war humanists were eager for a different outcome, to avoid the mistakes of the last fifty years and build a society that was kinder and freer than that which had come before. Though on the surface it might seem as if much had changed since the dawn of a new century, the problems were still the same and a failure to address them only likely to add new tragedies in place of the better future many hoped for. Among the foremost proponents of post-war humanism, Heinosuke Gosho made a rare trip back into the Meiji past in 1955’s Growing Up (たけくらべ, Takekurabe), an adaptation of the well known short story by Ichiyo Higuchi, finding that nothing much had really changed when it came to the fates of women and the poor in an often wilfully indifferent society.

The action opens on the outskirts of the Yoshiwara in 1894. Our heroes are a collection of children who find themselves dealing with typically adolescent problems but also, by modern standards, expected to grow up all too fast. Chief among them is 13-year-old Midori (Hibari Misora) whose sister, Omaki (Keiko Kishi), is the most famous courtesan of the red light district. Although she knows on some level that her parents have already sold her to the brothel owner in whose house they live as servants, Midori has not yet quite processed the full implications of her destiny or that her world of childhood innocence is rapidly drawing to a close. She is in love with a local boy, Shinnyo (Takashi Kitahara), who seems to return her feelings but is as awkward and confused by them as any teenage boy and treats her by turns with coldness and contempt mixed with grudging affection.

Shinnyo, meanwhile, is the son of a greedy and heartless monk (Takamaru Sasaki) who has decided to sell his older sister as a concubine to a wealthy man who already has a wife. As he loves his sister dearly and has a naive, childish sense of absolute morality, this is a sin Shinnyo cannot forgive. He argues with his father but has no real power to change the situation and then decides on rebelling against his father’s wishes that he not become a monk by leaving for the main temple in Kyoto to take holy orders. Of course, this also means he must sacrifice any youthful idea he might have had of pursuing his love for Midori.

The title, in a sense, could refer not only to the increasingly melancholy youngsters coming of age in an oppressive society, but also to Japan itself as it emerged into modernity in an effort to prove itself the equal of any other major power in the late 19th century. It is, however, an ironic a title as any could be. To “grow up” here is to abandon one’s humanity and conform to the kind of “real world” thinking that codifies cruelty and makes a virtue of heartlessness. Still an innocent child, Midori bounces her ball and basks in her somewhat elevated position as a wealthy young girl and sister of a “notorious” woman without fully understanding all that entails. When her sister tells her about a dream she had of climbing trees and picking persimmons, she is incapable of understanding her warning about the loss of innocence she’s about to experience, but her world is brought crashing down when a gang of rival boys rudely attack her and point out that all her finery was bought through “whoring” and that she is nothing more than a “whore” in waiting.

Another of the boys, Sangoro (Masanori Nakamura), whose family is poor, says he can’t wait to be “grown up”, reacting with less than sensitivity to Midori’s pained pleas that she wishes everything could stay as it was and they could be children forever. Sangoro sees adulthood as freedom. He’ll be free to earn his own living and maybe he won’t have to be like his father, too afraid to stand up to people with money because when you don’t have any you’re always reliant on their kindness. Sangoro may be poor, but he’s a man (or will be) and can’t process the total lack of agency that comes with being an adult female whose future is decided entirely by her closest male relative. Midori, like Shinnyo’s sister, has been sold by her father and there’s nothing she or anyone else can do about it now.

Nevertheless, confronted by her fate, Midori decides to own it. She encourages her parents to think of her as dead, cooly hitting back at their callousness but acknowledging an obligation as she goes. The final scenes preceding her passage across the small bridge which will forever sever her from her childhood are filled with dread and anger as if crying out for someone to stop the inevitable from happening, but of course, no one can. An old woman and former courtesan, Okichi (Isuzu Yamada), who owns a shop where Midori used to spend time and is indirectly responsible for Midori’s acceptance of her fate in some cruel, drunken words she threw at her, puts it best when she briefly feels as if she could have done something in affirming that it isn’t her fault, and it isn’t Midori’s, it’s simply “the world”.

Midori meets her fate not with resignation but rage and defiance. Shinnyo, who runs away from his inability to help his sister by becoming a monk, is forever incapable of declaring his real feelings in words but leaves a flower in front of her window in echo of another he gave her long ago. At first Midori picks it up and cherishes it for the innocent symbol of love that it is, but by the time she has travelled half way along the bridge which will take her to the Yoshiwara, she has realised this kind of innocence does not belong inside. She throws the flower to the mud and leaves her youthful dreams of love and happiness behind as she prepares to step through the doorway into a future which is not of her making and over which she has no say. To “grow up”, in this world, is a kind of spiritual death in which there exists nothing other than emptiness and indifference.


Elegy of the North (挽歌, Heinosuke Gosho, 1957)

elegy of the north posterHeinosuke Gosho is perhaps among the most neglected Japanese directors of the “golden age”. A pioneer of the “shomingeki”, Gosho’s work is marked by a profound humanism but also a refusal to reduce the complexity of human emotions to the superficially immediate. Elegy of the North (挽歌, Banka) takes him much further in the direction of standard melodrama than he would usually venture, echoing contemporary American or European romantic dramas filled with soaring scores and moments of intense emotion bridged by long periods of restraint and repression. Yet it is also among the most psychologically complex of Gosho’s narratives, telling stories of death and rebirth in place of the usual coming of age and first heartbreak for which the genre is so well loved. In Reiko (Yoshiko Kuga) he presents us with a heroine we can’t be sure we like and certainly are not intended to approve of even as we sympathise with her pain and long for an end to her (often self inflicted) suffering.

Walking along the smoking volcanic soil of frozen Hokkaido, Reiko offers us the first of many voiceovers in which she tells us about her left arm – withered and almost numb due to childhood arthritis. When her withered arm is bitten by a dog, Nellie, owned by a melancholy architect, Katsuragi (Masayuki Mori), she barely feels it but Katsuragi is mortified. “She’s never bitten anyone before”, he tells Reiko by way of explanation, “I’ve never been bitten before”, Reiko fires back but bitten she certainly has been. Captivated by the idea of Katsuragi, she doesn’t immediately take him up on the offer of coming to his house and possibly adopting a puppy but catches sight of him around town and then decides to pay him a visit. He isn’t in, but Akiko (Mieko Takamine), his wife, is. Reiko didn’t want to see Katsuragi’s wife so she makes a speedy escape.

Having caught sight of Akiko, Reiko is equally intrigued. Akiko, as Reiko discovers, is having an (unhappy) affair with a much younger medical student, Tatsumi (Fumio Watanabe). Failing to read the emotional landscape of this sorry scene, Reiko regards this information as a juicy piece of gossip in her ongoing campaign to win over Katsuragi. She spies on the lovers, childishly eavesdropping on them in a local cafe, even suddenly delivering their coffee for them so she can get a proper look at Akiko – not that she really sees her or the distraught look on her face, she merely observes her rival – the wicked woman who has betrayed her beloved Katsuragi.

Reiko is constantly berated by her father and grandmother for her unwomanliness. Compared with the typical Japanese woman of the time and particularly with the stoic yet miserable Akiko, Reiko can certainly be thought unusual. Dressing in androgynous loose trousers, polo neck jumper and overcoat, without makeup and with unkempt hair, her aesthetic is one of rambunctious child or rebellious teenager. Her habit of throwing out awkward, inappropriate questions at first seems like childish ineptness but later seems calculated to unbalance. She is often cruel, perhaps deliberately so, but then remorseful (if only for selfish reasons). Though Reiko seems to feel that it’s her disability that marks her out as an outcast, unfit for marriage or a “normal” life, her family appear much more concerned with her unconventional rejection of femininity in her boldness, masculine dress, and refusal to learn the traditionally feminine crafts of housework and cookery so necessary to becoming the ideal wife.

What Reiko sees in Akiko is an image of her idealised self – beautiful, poised, elegant, and the wife of Katsuragi. As part of her nefarious plan, Reiko decides to “befriend” Akiko while Katsuragi is away on a business trip. What she never expected is that she would come to genuinely care for both Akiko and the couple’s small daughter Kumiko (Etsuko Nakazato), making her position as a potential home wrecker impossible. Reiko’s father blames himself for her unwomanliness, having raised her alone after his wife died, denying her of a maternal influence from whom she would have learned all the essentials of femininity which she now seems to lack. Akiko, a few years older, becomes both friend and surrogate mother – Reiko even begins calling her “Mamma” just as Kumiko does. Akiko’s distant poise begins to thaw when Reiko crawls in through her door one night after contracting pneumonia. Nursing Reiko as a mother would brings the two women closer together but it also unwittingly drives them apart in deepening Reiko’s sense of guilt in being torn between two loves in the knowledge that she must destroy one of them or herself.

Akiko, the tragic heroine of the piece, remains a cypher precisely because of her adherence to the rules of traditional femininity. Reiko is first drawn to her because of her sad smile – something she later brings up again in their fiercely undramatic yet heartrending parting scene as Reiko tries to undo the harm she has just done only for Akiko to mildly reject her by instructing her that she needs to take better care of herself. Her relationship with Katsuragi appears to have floundered and, trapped in a lonely marriage, Akiko has found herself in an emotionally draining entanglement with a younger man whose life she fears she is ruining. Tatsumi, needled, is irritated by Reiko’s buzzing around Akiko, asking her an awkward question of his own in accusing her of being a lesbian, to which Reiko gives one of her infuriately barbed replies with “call it what you want”. Reiko’s intentions probably do not run that way (at least consciously), so much as she longs for the love and affection she missed out on after losing her mother at such a young age. Akiko, however, may see things differently. Her life appears lonely, and her friendship with Reiko, whom she brands “reckless yet somehow cheerful” (again, like an infuriating child), is one of its few bright spots. The betrayal is not so much that Reiko has slept with her husband, but that Reiko has deliberately ruined their friendship by exposing it as a cruel ruse in the most wounding of ways. The last time we see Akiko, she is wearing the necklace that Reiko gave to her – a sure sign that her final decision is, in someway, taken on Reiko’s behalf.

Reiko’s tragedy is that her intense self loathing which she attributes to her withered arm, leads her to suspect each act of kindness is only one of pity and that no one can truly love her, they’re just overcompensating because of her “deformity”. At the beginning of the film she asks herself if her mind is as warped as her body. Her actions are often “warped”, as in she works against herself and ultimately destroys the very thing she wanted most yet there is a kind of settling that occurs through her interactions with Akiko. In the final sequence, Reiko has shed her dowdy, dark coloured, worn trousers and jumpers for an elegant skirt and blouse, and has learned to accommodate a certain level of domesticity. Even if she is merely echoing Akiko, Reiko has at least attempted to move forward in exploring the areas of femininity she had hitherto rejected outright. That it is not to say her “unusual” nature is tamed in favour of conforming to social norms, merely that a side of herself which she had decided to keep locked has been opened up for examination (and may then be rejected with greater self knowledge). Elegy of the North lives up to its name in singing a long and painful song of mourning, but Gosho ends on a note of hopeful, in pained, optimism for his contrary heroine, literally forced to move past the scene of her crime towards a possibly happier future.


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

Alone Across the Pacific (太平洋ひとりぼっち, Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

Alone Across the PacficKon Ichikawa made two sorts of movies – the funny ones and the not so funny ones. Despite the seriousness of the title, Alone Across the Pacific (太平洋ひとりぼっち, Taiheiyo hitori-botchi) is one of the funny ones. Like many of Ichikawa’s heroes, Horie is a man who defies convention and longs for escape from the constraining forces of his society yet is unable to fully detach himself from its cultural norms. Based on the real life travelogue of solo sailor Kenichi Horie, Alone Across the Pacific is less the story of a man battling the elements, than a cheerful tale of a man battling himself in a floating isolation tank bound for the “land of the free”.

Kenichi (Yujiro Ishihara) is a strange man. He has few friends (aside from the family dog, Pearl) and is obsessed with the idea of running away to sea. Inspired by the tales of other intrepid sailors, his dream is to sail all alone across the Pacific Ocean from Osaka to San Fransisco. Despite the fact that it is illegal for small boats to leave Japanese waters (and that he is too impatient to wait for his passport to come through), Kenichi has custom made his own yacht, one without an engine, and has set off on his longed for voyage under the cover of darkness.

Rather than filming Kenichi’s journey naturalistically, Ichikawa opts for an adventurer’s tale as Kenichi provides an ironic voice over detailing some of his naive failings as a rookie sailor undertaking such a daunting mission. Each of Kenichi’s crises links back to a memory from his shore life, reminding us why he’s on this journey in the first place. Kenichi’s struggles are the same as many a young man in post-war Japan and, in fact, many of those previously played by the poster boy for youthful rebellion, Yujiro Ishihara.  Unwilling to live a life hemmed in by the predetermined path of a job for life, wife, children and total social conformity, Kenichi longs to be free of his cultural baggage by abandoning his civility during a long process of isolation therapy free of overbearing fathers, fretting mothers, indifferent sisters and a generally noisy world.

Kenichi’s father (Masayuki Mori) is the very personification of authority, berating his son for his fecklessness and pointless obsession with sailing – a sport a working class boy like Kenichi can barely afford. Kenichi’s determination to achieve his goal sees him leave school early, take a job in his father’s workshop only to quit suddenly for a more lucrative one delivering luggage for a travel agents, and quitting that too to work full time on his boat. While his father huffs and puffs his mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) worries, hoping her mad son won’t really go through with it but knowing that he will.

When Kenichi finally reaches San Fransisco, he’s assaulted by congratulatory voices from all directions. Towed into harbour by a motor boat, Kenichi first has to deal with mundane problems like the customs patrol wanting to know if he’s got any fruit left on the boat before a crowd gathers to shake his hand asking where he’s come from and why, what he wants to do now, and praising him for his daring feat of solo sailing glory. In Japan however, things are different. Dragged out for an interview by the press, Kenichi’s worried mother avows that she’s just happy to know her son is safe while his father bows deeply and reassures everyone that he will absolutely put a stop to any such random acts of individualism his wayward son may attempt in the future. 

Kenichi evades the twin pulls of his mother’s apron strings and his father’s handcuffs by taking off alone but even at sea he’s never free of his cultural programming, checking the wide empty ocean before removing his clothes and then stepping back down into the cabin to finish the job. Kenichi’s failure to acquire a passport is an ironic one seeing as part of what he’s running from is being Japanese but even as his quest is one for self determination it is also intensely selfish and self involved. In this Kenichi commits the ultimate act of individualism, caring nothing for the thoughts and feelings of others in the all encompassing need to achieve his goal. Kenichi may have found a home at sea, but on land he’s caged once again, a prisoner both of social conformity and his own need to defy it.


Available on R2 DVD from Eureka Masters of Cinema.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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

Odd Obsession (鍵, Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

odd-obsessionJunichiro Tanizaki is widely regarded as one of the major Japanese literary figures of the twentieth century with his work frequently adapted for the cinema screen. Those most familiar with Kon Ichikawa’s art house leaning pictures such as war films The Burmese Harp or Fires on the Plain might find it quite an odd proposition but in many ways, there could be no finer match for Tanizaki’s subversive, darkly comic critiques of the baser elements of human nature than the otherwise wry director. Odd Obsession (鍵, Kagi) may be a strange title for this adaptation of Tanizaki’s well known later work The Key, but then again “odd obsessions” is good way of describing the majority of Tanizaki’s career. A tale of destructive sexuality, the odd obsession here is not so much pleasure or even dominance but a misplaced hope of sexuality as salvation, that the sheer force of stimulation arising from desire can in some way be harnessed to stave off the inevitable even if it entails a kind of personal abstinence.

Our narrator for this sardonic tale is an ambitious young doctor, Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai), who opens the film in an unusually meta fashion with a direct to camera address taking the form of a brief lecture on the decline of the human body (which begins at age ten and then gets progressively worse). Kimura reminds us that we too will grow old, but his warning is intended less to engender sympathy for the elderly patriarch who will become our secondary protagonist than it is to raise a grim spectre of the inescapability of death.

The story Kimura wants to tell us of a man who fought against senility centres on antiques expert and respected cultural critic Kenmochi (Ganjiro Nakamura). Advanced in years, Kenmochi is beginning to feel the darkness encroaching along with the desire to resist it through restored virility. For this reason, he’s been making regular appointments at Kimura’s clinic which he keeps secret from his wife who would be unhappy to know he’s been getting mysterious injections to help with his sex drive but which also come with a number of side effects including dangerously raising his blood pressure.

Eventually Ikuko (Machiko Kyo), Kenmochi’s slightly younger wife and mother of his grown up daughter Toshiko (Junko Kano), does indeed find out though what she does not appear to know is that Kenmochi has also been drugging her so that he can take photos of her naked body and enjoy his rights as her husband without her needing to be 100% present at the time. Kenmochi’s plan is to lure Kimura into having an affair with his wife so that the resultant jealousy will stimulate his system, staving off senility and other unwelcome effects of ageing. This would be strange enough on its own were it not that Kenmochi has also been trying to set up a marriage between Toshiko and Kimura who are already engaged in a discreet affair.

In contrast with the source material which takes the form of a number of diary entries providing differing perspectives on events, the film takes the point of view of the cynical and morally bankrupt doctor Kimura who feels himself above this “pathetic” old man with his sexual preoccupations and diminished prospects. As the narrator, Kimura evidently believes himself in control but Ichikawa is keen to play with our sense of the rules of storytelling to show him just how wrong he could be. Intrigue is everywhere. Kenmochi may think he’s using all around him in a clever game to prolong his own life but he’s entirely blind to a series of counter games which may be taking place behind his back.

Sex is quite literally a weapon – aimed at the heart of death. Kimura recounts a dream he sometimes has in which he is shot through the heart in an arid desert, only for this same scene to invade the mind of a paralysed Kenmochi on gazing at the naked body of his wife. The marriage of Kenmochi and Ikuko has apparently been a cold (and perhaps unhappy) one with Kenmochi berating his wife for remaining “priest’s daughter” all these years later, prudish and conventional. Nevertheless, Ikuko – the kimonoed figure of the traditional Japanese wife, subservient yet mysterious and melancholy, becomes the central pivot around which all the men turn, eclipsing her own daughter – a Westernised, sexually liberated young woman rendered undesirable in her very availability. Kimura is not quite the destructive interloper of Pasolini’s Theorem so much as he is a “key” used by Kenmochi to “unlock” a hidden capacity within himself but one which, as it turns out, opens many doors not all of them leading to intended, or expected, destinations.

Ichikawa continues with a more experimental approach than was his norm following the bold opening scene in which Kimura directly addresses the audience with a straight to camera monologue. A pointed symbolic sequence of a train coupling, freeze frames, dissolves and montages add to his alienated perspective as he adopts Kimura’s arch commentary on the ongoing disaster which is the extremely dysfunctional Kenmochi family home. Middle class and well to do, the Kenmochis’ lives are nevertheless empty – the house is mortgaged and the beautiful statues which taunt Kenmochi with their physical perfection have all already been sold though Kenmochi refuses to let the buyer take them home. Old age should burn and rave at close of day, but as the beautifully ironic ending makes plain it will be of little use, death is in the house wearing an all too familiar face which you will always fail to recognise.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Opening scene (no subtitles)

Her Brother (おとうと, Kon Ichikawa, 1960)

ototoPerhaps oddly for a director of his generation, Kon Ichikawa is not particularly known for family drama yet his 1960 effort, Her Brother (おとうと, Ototo), draws strongly on this genre albeit with Ichikawa’s trademark irony. A Taisho era tale based on an autobiographically inspired novel by Aya Koda, Her Brother is the story of a sister’s unconditional love but also of a woman who is, in some ways, forced to sacrifice herself for her family precisely because of their ongoing emotional neglect.

Oldest daughter Gen (Keiko Kishi) is still in school though she’s more or less running the household seeing as her invalid step-mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) spends most of her time bedridden with rheumatism and the rest of it pontificating about religion and listening to her poisonous friend (Kyoko Kishida) who likes to stir up trouble in this already difficult family environment. Gen’s father (Masayuki Mori) is a well known writer who needs a lot of quiet time for his work. As fathers go he’s very laid back and content to think his kids will be OK because they’re his kids, which isn’t to say he doesn’t care but he’s not exactly present most of the time. It’s no surprise then that care of the family’s youngest, Hekiro (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), has largely fallen to his sister. Where Gen is naturally responsible and practically minded, Hekiro is reckless and always in search of adventure. Eventually this lands him in trouble when he gets involved with a bad crowd but whatever his family might have been feeling towards him, everything changes once they discover that he’s facing a serious illness.

Because of the family’s odd arrangement, Gen has become almost a maternal figure towards Hekiro despite only being a couple of years older than he is. In fact, the pair have an almost comically childish physical fight at one point which is quite undignified considering their ages, especially when it involves staining their tatami mat floor with a puddle of bright red ink. Gen does her best but like her father she more often than not lets Hekiro off the hook by bailing him out, much of the time with her own rather than her father’s money. Not having the kind of authority a parent, uncle, or aunt might have all she can really do is ask him to think about behaving better, but Hekiro constantly pushes the boundaries to get a more concrete form of attention than his sister’s well meaning attempts to help are able to provide.

Hekiro’s stunts  eventually threaten to pull his sister into his darkening world, especially when a man claiming to be a detective starts more or less stalking Gen before pulling her into a shrine on the pretext of talking about her brother’s case before trying to have his wicked way with her. Luckily Gen is saved by a flock of geese cunningly released by some of her brother’s friends which gives her enough time to escape and finally get rid of the odious little man.

Similarly, Hekiro deliberately introduces his sister to the local pool hall. Though Gen seems to enjoy the game and is even good at it, she quickly realises she’s been brought as a sort of guarantor for her brother’s mounting debts. Add in other expensive and dangerous hobbies like his boat habit (he can’t swim) and it’s not surprising everyone’s had enough of Hekiro before he’s even left school. When he has an accident which results in the death of a horse (again, very expensive), it does at least lead him to reflect on the negative effect his actions can have on those around him, even if all he wanted and continues to want is an escape from his boring and miserable family life.

Even Hekiro’s illness fails to arouse very much in the way of concern from his well meaning father and grumpy step-mother who is hellbent on marrying Gen off against her wishes. Gen is, again, the only one to nurse Hekiro in hospital, managing the household as well as looking after her brother on his sickbed. When the illness becomes more serious it provides a last opportunity for the family members to bond and make amends for the various ways they’ve failed each other. The step-mother’s visit is not as altruistic as it seems when it transpires she’s only really come to “convert” Hekiro to her religion, but she begins to feel something more for him on believing that Jesus has already saved him thanks to his outwardly calm and polite manner. The final irony is that the idealised family is only born as it is destroyed, Gen puts her pinny back on and takes the reins from her stepmother who is presumably headed straight back to bed.

Gen’s devotion can’t save her brother either from himself or his fate and it may even be the end of her too. Vowing never to marry and rising from her own sickbed stopping only to instruct her stepmother to rest, she’s very clearly chosen her path even if Ichikawa’s camera and musical cues seem to find the ironic comedy of the situation rather than the sadness of her possibly tragic plight. Ichikawa and his cinematographer invented a whole new technique for this picture – the bleach bypass, which appropriately robs the environment of its vibrancy, dulling even bright colours with a sort of heavy leaded effect perfectly reflecting Hekiro’s increasingly depressed mindset as he reflects on being someone who has no firm anchor or place to feel at home. A strange, comically melancholic piece, Her Brother is a characteristically sideways swipe at the family drama from the master of irony though one which does not altogether escape his taste for the sentimental.


Original trailer (not subtitles)

The Fireflies (螢火, 1958, Heinosuke Gosho)

bxbnzqmccaa5-cg-jpg-largeHistory marches on, and humanity keeps pace with it. Life on the periphery is no less important than at the centre, but those on the edges are often eclipsed when “great” men and women come along. So it is for the long suffering Tose (Chikage Awashima), the put upon heroine of Heinosuke Gosho’s jidaigeki The Fireflies (螢火, Hotarubi). An inn keeper in the turbulent period marking the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and with it centuries of self imposed isolation, Tose is just one of the ordinary people living through extraordinary times but unlike most her independent spirit sparks brightly even through her continuing strife.

Beginning in the “present” – the late 1860s, Tose is the de facto manager of Teradaya, a successful inn in Kyoto. Japanese history buffs will instantly recognise the name of the establishment, as well as that of Tose’s 18 year old adopted daughter, Oryo (Ayako Wakao). Nevertheless, that story can wait as we flashback with Tose as she gazes blankly at a stretch of water, remembering the time she first came to Teradaya as a young bride. The daughter of peasant farmers, Tose was not welcomed by her mother-in-law, Sada, both because of the class differences, and because the man she’s married is not Sada’s son but that of a concubine and she would prefer her biological daughter, Sugi, to inherit. Tose’s husband Isuke, though by no means unpleasant towards her, is a feckless man obsessed with cleaning and singing folk songs, leaving the bulk of the work to his wife.

Tose bears all, taking on the running of Teradaya and making it the most popular inn in town thanks to her friendliness, efficiency, and discretion. However, her position is threatened when she is almost ruined by a bizarre scam involving dummies and ventriloquism. Vindicated, Tose’s position is strengthened but there is more trouble in store when Sugi runs off with the conman leaving her infant illegitimate daughter in Tose’s care. Becoming a mother as she’s always wanted, Tose begins to find a little more fulfilment in her life only to have her dreams cruelly dashed once again. In an act of kindness she later adopts another orphaned girl, Oryo, who arrives at the inn starving and in the care of an older man who’d been looking after her since her doctor father was murdered for supposedly collaborating with the rebel ronin trying to over throw the shogunate.

This is the first mention of the ongoing political instability present in the country at large but largely unseen in the peaceful world of a small inn in Kyoto. Of course, you can’t say Teradaya and Oryo without eventually saying Sakamoto Ryoma (Miki Mori). Ryoma does eventually arrive in all his revolutionary glory albeit in an appropriately humanised form and proceeds to turn Tose’s life upside down in more ways than one. Locked into her loveless, but far from cruel, marriage Tose’s spirited nature is reignited by Ryoma’s fervour. Falling in love with him for his commitment to creating a better world for all, Tose’s dreams drift a little but are dashed again when she realises he and Oryo are the more natural pair.

Though Tose reacts badly to the discovery that Oryo is also in love with Ryoma, she is later able to patch things up, entrusting the man she loves to her daughter in an act of maternal sacrifice. Tose talks about her admiration for those who sacrifice all of themselves for other people but this is exactly what she has done with her own life, only in a much quieter way. Where Ryoma was a father to a movement, Tose is a mother to the world. Denied a child of her own through her husband’s indifference, Tose first adopts her niece and then an orphaned girl but consistently acts in the best interests of others rather than herself. Hearing the cries of betrayed revolutionaries, she describes them as sounding like howling babies – an idea she repeats several times including when describing Oryo’s famous naked dash from the bath to warn Ryoma of the impending arrival of the Shinsengumi. Tose’s only instinct is to silence those cries through maternal warmth, even if it ultimately causes her pain.

Tose, for Gosho at least, is no less a heroic figure than Ryoma as her everyday acts of kindness and strength contribute to an ongoing social change. Where other inn owners turn in the rebels either for material gain, active opposition, or desire to avoid the hassle, Tose stands firm and allows Teradaya to become known as a safe haven for the revolutionary movement. Ryoma shone brighter but for a short time, whereas Tose’s life goes on and Teradaya continues to be the favourite stop for beleaguered travellers passing through the old capital in these difficult times. Reconciling with her husband who finally offers the possibility of having a child of their own to inherit the inn, there is a glimmer of hope for Tose once again even if it’s clear that Isuke hasn’t really changed. It may seem that Tose’s firefly has blinked out as she takes her dull and self centred husband back, vowing to spend less time on the inn as she does so, but there is a glint of light in her few final words which are followed by putting her apron straight back on to meet the first boat, shouting the virtues of her beloved Teradaya all the way.