Oar (櫂, Hideo Gosha, 1985)

oar posterUntil the later part of his career, Hideo Gosha had mostly been known for his violent action films centring on self destructive men who bore their sadnesses with macho restraint. During the 1980s, however, he began to explore a new side to his filmmaking with a string of female centred dramas focussing on the suffering of women which is largely caused by men walking the “manly way” of his earlier movies. Partly a response to his regular troupe of action stars ageing, Gosha’s new focus was also inspired by his failed marriage and difficult relationship with his daughter which convinced him that women can be just as devious and calculating as men. 1985’s Oar (櫂, Kai) is adapted from the novel by Tomiko Miyao – a writer Gosha particularly liked and identified with whose books also inspired Onimasa and The Geisha. Like Onimasa, Oar also bridges around twenty years of pre-war history and centres around a once proud man discovering his era is passing, though it finds more space for his long suffering wife and the children who pay the price for his emotional volatility.

Kochi, 1914 (early Taisho), Iwago (Ken Ogata) is a kind hearted man living beyond his means. Previously a champion wrestler, he now earns his living as a kind of procurer for a nearby geisha house, chasing down poor girls and selling them into prostitution, justifying himself with the excuse that he’s “helping” the less fortunate who might starve if it were not for the existence of the red light district. He dislikes this work and finds it distasteful, but shows no signs of stopping. At home he has a wife and two sons whom he surprises one day by returning home with a little girl he “rescued” at the harbour after seeing her beaten by man who, it seemed, was trying to sell her to Chinese brokers who are notorious for child organ trafficking.

Iwago names the girl “Kiku” thanks to the chrysanthemums on her kimono and entrusts her to his irritated wife, Kiwa (Yukiyo Toake), who tries her best but Kiku is obviously traumatised by her experiences, does not speak, and takes a long time to become used to her new family circumstances. Parallel to his adoption of Kiku, Iwago is also working on a sale of a girl of a similar age who ends up staying in the house for a few days before moving to the red light district. Toyo captures Kiwa’s heart as she bears her sorry fate stoically, pausing only to remark on her guilt at eating good white rice three times a day at Iwago’s knowing that her siblings are stuck at home with nothing.

Iwago’s intentions are generally good, but his “manly” need for control and his repressed emotionality proceed to ruin his family’s life. He may say that poverty corrupts a person’s heart and his efforts are intended to help prevent the birth of more dysfunctional families, but deep down he finds it hard to reconcile his distasteful occupation with his traditional ideas of masculine chivalry. Apparently “bored” with the long suffering Kiwa he fathers a child with another woman which he then expects her to raise despite the fact that she has already left the family home after discovering the affair. Predictably her love for him and for the children brings her home, but Iwago continues to behave in a domineering, masterly fashion which is unlikely to repair his once happy household.

Kiwa is the classic long suffering wife, bearing all of Iwago’s mistreatments with stoic perseverance until his blatant adultery sends her running from marriage to refuge at the home of her brother. Despite the pain and humilation, Kiwa still loves, respects, and supports her husband, remembering him as he once was rather than the angry, frustrated brute which he has become. Despite her original hesitance, Kiwa’s maternal warmth makes a true daughter of Kiku and keeps her bonded to the eldest and more sensitive of her two sons, Ryutaro, even if the loose cannon that is Kentaro follows in his step-father’s footsteps as an unpredictable punk. Her goodheartedness later extends to Iwago’s illegitimate daughter Ayako whom she raises as her own until Iwago cruelly decides to separate them. For all of Iwago’s bluster and womanising, ironically enough Kiwa truly is the only woman for him as he realises only when she determines to leave. Smashing the relics of his “manly” past – his wrestling photos and trophies, Iwago is forced to confront the fact that his own macho posturing has cost him the only thing he ever valued.

Gosha tones down the more outlandish elements which contributed to his reputation as a “vulgar” director but still finds space for female nudity and frank sexuality as Iwago uses and misuses the various women who come to him for help or shelter. More conventional in shooting style than some of Gosha’s other work from the period and lacking any large scale or dramatic fight scenes save for one climactic ambush, Oar acts more as a summation of Gosha’s themes up until the mid-80s – men destroy themselves through their need to be men but also through destroying the women who have little choice but to stand back and watch them do it. Unless, like Kiwa, they realise they have finally had enough.


Short clip from near the beginning of the film (no subtitles)

Coup d’Etat (AKA Martial Law, 戒厳令 Kaigenrei, Kiju Yoshida 1973)

Snapshot-2015-11-18 at 01_34_49 PM-1660087891Having taken avant-garde story telling to its zenith in Heroic Purgatory, Yoshida returns to the realm of politics with a far more accessible effort in Coup d’Etat (AKA Martial Law, 戒厳令 Kaigenrei). Inbetween the two films, Yoshida had made another more mainstream offering, Confessions Among Actresses, which had been moderately successful with both audiences and critics but with Coup d’Etat he came back to the artistic fare he’d been pursuing since leaving Shochiku. Unlike the other two films in Arrow’s Love + Anarchy boxset, Coup ‘Etat deals with a right wing rebellion rather than the communists and anarchists which are more familiar to the post-war world.

The film begins with a nervous young man brutally stabbing an elderly businessman in the street before taking his own life. On claiming his remains, the man’s sister finds a letter addressed to Ikki Kita – a well known right wing intellectual in favour of the institution of martial law. Kita, or more particularly his work, becomes a figurehead for a putative revolution organised by young army officers who have become disillusioned with the elected government, its plans for increasing Westernisation and treatment of the poor. They seek to overthrow parliament and put the Emperor back in charge for a kind of paternalistic socialist state. Kita remains on the fringes of this movement, coming into contact with a young soldier who wants to join the revolution and advising him but repeatedly making it clear that he is not involved with the coup itself. Nevertheless, even if not directly involved, Kita will still pay the price for his radical ideas.

Less an examination of the historical events of the time or the coup itself, Coup d’Etat is a psychological portrait of Kita’s last days. Marking the only time Yoshida was not involved in the screenplay (this time leaving things entirely to playwright Minoru Betsuyaku) the film follows a much more linear structure rather than playing with time in the same way as Eros + Massacre or Heroic Purgatory. Kita had written a hugely influential book which advocated moving to a system of martial law under the paternalistic care of the emperor alongside nationalisation of industries, minimisation of private property and a better welfare state. However, Kita is a public intellectual not an activist. He takes no personal part in the armed struggle (though he is aware of each of the actions and close to the people who facilitated them), yet still he pays the price. Whether this is an indictment of his lack of physical commitment to the ideals that he spoke of, or an indictment of a system which seeks to shoot the messenger is up for debate but in any case Kita is “betrayed” by the very same emperor that he worshipped as a god.

Having said that, it’s Emperor Meiji who hangs on Kita’s wall. What Kita and the officer class wanted was a “Showa Restoration” in line with the “Meiji Restoration” but almost the reverse as they returned to a form of paternalistic government where personal freedoms were restricted but everyone was well cared for. We actually don’t learn a lot about Kita during the film (a strange thing to say about a “biopic” which is often how the film is described) but it seems that he had a strict childhood in which he was prohibited from feeling fear – each time a boy was a afraid, he was supposed to cut himself as a punishment. Yet Kita is afraid and this tension between intellectual thought and irrepressible emotion is one that restricts his physical actions to the point that he remains a solitary figure entrapped by his own ideology. That he is then betrayed by the very figures that he sought to exult is the very highest form of tragedy and it’s difficult not to believe that the real coup d’etat is being perpetrated against Kita himself.

Perhaps because of its relative narrative simplicity, Coup d’Etat is a visual masterpiece taking Yoshida’s especial gifts for composition to new heights of beauty. Once again shot in black and white 4:3 Academy ratio, the film is an unsettling maze of shadows and light coupled with uncomfortable angles and a musical score that’s almost like a science fiction film. Yoshida’s prognosis is indeed bleak – the young soldier for example who’s unable to carry out his part of the mission and eventually falsely confesses to having been a spy simply because he felt insignificant and wanted to be a part of something is symptomatic of the self-centred ineffectuality of the younger generation. Once again, youth has been evaluated and found wanting though age doesn’t fare much better in the end. The filming of Coup d’Etat was delayed for sometime as Yoshida underwent an operation to remove a tumour from his stomach. His ultimate satisfaction with the film and the feeling of having come to the end of a cycle coupled with the need to recuperate more fully kept Yoshida away from the director’s chair until 1986 though he’d never return to it with the same intensity as in his political trilogy.


Available now on blu-ray in the UK as part of Arrow Films’ Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism box set.

Scene from near the end of the film:

Reviews of the other movies in the set: