It Was a Faint Dream (あさき夢みし, Akio Jissoji, 1974)

It was a faint dream posterFollowing his ultramodern Buddhist Trilogy, Akio Jissoji casts himself back to the Kamakura era for a tale of desire and misuse in It Was a Faint Dream (あさき夢みし, Asaki Yumemishi, AKA Life of a Court Lady). Taking its name from a Heian era Buddist ode to transience, Faint Dream follows its melancholy heroine on a fleeting path of love, loss, romantic disappointment, and finally spiritual rebirth while the nation faces the external threat of putative invasion by warlike imperialists hellbent on domination and conquest.

Shijo (Janet Hatta), an orphaned young woman taken as a concubine by the lord Tameie (Kotobuki Hananomoto), has returned home to await the birth of her child. The baby she is carrying, however, is not Tameie’s but that of another young noblemen, Saionji (Minori Terada), with whom Shijo had fallen in love before being taken by the lord. Hoping to pass the baby off as merely premature, Shijo has been deceiving Tameie and remains fearful she will be found out. Meanwhile, Saionji’s wife is also pregnant. When Saionji’s legitimate child is stillborn, an obvious solution presents itself and Shijo loses the first of her children.

A young woman without means or protectors, Shijo finds herself forced to indulge the whims of men in order to survive. Yet Tameie, falling ill, apparently thinks only of her when he pushes Shijo towards sleeping with other men in order to keep the peace, so that their resentment doesn’t become an all consuming evil. Thus it is that Tameie’s own brother, the high priest Ajari (Shin Kishida), falls for Shijo with a burning passion which Tameie fears could drag her down to hell with its implacable intensity. Reluctant and half disgusted, Shijo follows her lord’s advice, falling for the priest as she goes, and becoming pregnant with another child she must also lose.

Ajari’s radical Buddhist philosophy insists that chanting sutras is enough for salvation. It doesn’t matter if you’re high born or low or whether you believe or not, simply saying the words gets you into paradise. It’s a philosophy that appeals to Shijo for obvious reasons, but still she finds it near impossible to reconcile herself to her position of powerlessness within the court. A figure of desire, she is “courted” by just about every man she meets but has little right to refuse their attentions, especially as they often hold financial as well as social power over her. Tameie’s warning, ironic as it is in insisting that hell hath no fury like a man scorned, has its merit in bearing out the intensely destabilising properties of romantic love in a highly regimented society.

For all of that, however, Tameie is a romantic man, himself embittered by the disappointments of his life. Born to be a king, he prefers music and poetry to the sword but still laments his “betrayal” at the hands of the older generation who crowned him at three only to depose him at 16 and hand power to his 10-year-old brother with only a promise, apparently now broken, that his son would inherit the throne. Abandoned as a child, he has little sympathy for Shijo’s maternal pain on repeatedly having her children taken from her because of social propriety, merely reminding her that children and parents walk different paths and hers is evidently here, with him, at court.

Even so, men are content to have it both ways. Romance is a transient thing, Shijo is told, a flower which blooms in an instant of truth but then scatters. Attachment is the enemy of love, the wise man admires the flower as its falls but does not mourn its loss forever. Shijo finds this hard to understand, but continues to live her life as an object of desire rather than an active participant until she finally stops and makes a firm decision of her own in choosing to reject it. She becomes a nun and wanders the land looking for serenity despite being told that no woman can become a Buddha because of the five obstacles in her way no matter how nobly she might seek it.

Ironically enough, Shijo’s life is in itself a “faint dream”. She chooses to reject her desires, but admires other women for embracing theirs, and remains seemingly ageless while the fleeting loves of her youth grow old and fade. The lords sit around perfecting their poetry while boys are pulled off their farms to combat a Mongol invasion, and a deadly disease ravages the country. Shijo turns to ask her former lover about the child they conceived together, but it’s as if she were asking about someone else in another time. Having received her answer, she walks off into the distance, a nameless nun, free of the cares of the world and no longer burdened by desire.


It Was a Faint Dream is the fourth of four films included in Arrow’s Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy box set.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Tadashi Imai, 1953)

inlet of muddy water dvd coverTadashi Imai was among the greatest directors of the golden age though his name remains far less known than contemporaries Ozu or Mizoguchi. Despite beginning in outright propaganda films during the war, Imai is best remembered as a staunchly left wing director whose films are known for their gritty realism and opposition to oppressive social codes. An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Nigorie) very much fits this bill in adapting three stories from Japanese author Ichiyo Higuchi. Higuchi is herself a giant figure of Japanese literature though little of her work has been translated into English. Like Imai’s films, Higuchi’s stories are known for their focus on female suffering and the prevailing social oppression of the late Meiji era which had seen many changes but not all for the better. Higuchi was not a political writer and her work does not attack an uncaring society so much as describe it accurately though her own early death from tuberculosis at only 24 certainly lends weight to the tragedy of her times.

In the first part of the film which is inspired by one of Higuchi’s best known stories, The Thirteenth Night, a young woman returns home to her parents, no longer able to bear living with an emotionally abusive husband. Oseki (Yatsuko Tanami) had been raised an ordinary, lower middle-class girl but, like many a heroine of feudal era literature, caught the eye of a prominent nobleman who determined to marry her despite their class difference. Life is not a fairytale, and so the nobleman quickly tired of his beautiful peasant wife, belittling her lowly status, lack of education, and failure to slot into the elite world he inhabits.

Oseki’s plight elicits ambivalent reactions in each of her parents though they both sympathise with her immensely, if in different ways. Her mother (Akiko Tamura) is heartbroken – having long believed her daughter to be living a blissful life of luxury, she feels terribly guilty not to have known she had been suffering all this time and believes Oseki has done the right thing in leaving. Her father (Ken Mitsuda), however, also feels sad but reacts in practicality, pointing out that to leave her husband now would mean losing her son forever and probably a long, lonely life of penury. He, somewhat coldly, tells her to go back, grin and bear it. Oseki can see his point and considers resigning herself to return if only to look after her son.

On her way home she runs into a childhood friend whom she might have married if things had not turned out the way they did. “Life gets in the way of the things we want to do”, she tells him by of explanation for not staying in touch. Rokunosuke (Hiroshi Akutagawa), once a fine merchant, is now a ragged rickshaw driver, bereaved father, and divorcee. Like Oseki his life is a tragedy of frustration with the added irritant that he and Oseki might have been happy together, rather than independently miserable, if an elite had not suddenly decided to interfere by crossing class lines just because he can rather than out of any genuine feeling.

The callousness of elites is also a theme in the second story, The Last Day of the Year, in which a young maid, Omine (Yoshiko Kuga), works for a wealthy household dominated by a moody, penny pinching mistress whose mistreatment of her staff is more indifference than deliberate scorn. Omine’s uncle, who raised her, has fallen ill. At the beginning of his illness he took out a loan but he’s got no better and still needs to pay it back so he asks Omine to ask the mistress for an advance of the paltry sum of two yen in the hope that his son will be able to enjoy a new year mochi like the other kids. The mistress says yes and then changes her mind, leaving Omine to consider a transgressive act of social justice.

Where The Thirteenth Night and The Last Day of the Year pointed the finger at uncaring elites, Troubled Waters broadens its disdain to the entire world of men in focussing on two women caught on either side of the red light district – Oriki (Chikage Awashima), a geisha stalked by a ruined client, and the client’s wife, Ohatsu (Haruko Sugimura), who endures a life of penury thanks to her husband’s geisha obsession. Oriki’s sad story is recounted to a wealthy patron (So Yamamura) who is more fascinated in learning the secrets of her soul than her kimono, but like many of her age it begins with parental strife, orphanhood and perpetual imprisonment as a geisha wondering what will become of her when her looks fade and she’s no longer number one. She has no control over the men who spend time with her but is worried by Gen (Seiji Miyaguchi) who ruined himself buying her time and now stalks her in and around the inn. Infatuated and obsessed with Oriki, Gen has turned against his noble wife Ohatsu who is working herself to the bone to support the family while Gen has resorted to a life of casual labour but rarely does much of anything at all.

Recalling Higuchi’s famous diary, Imai opens each of the segments with a brief voiceover detailing the inconsequential details of the weather with a world weary, often melancholy tone as the writer laments too much time spent on fiction and resolves to tell the story of the world as it really is. There is no real connection or overarching theme which unites the three stories, save for the continued suffering of women at the hands of men and the society they have devised. Oseki must return to her abusive husband, Omine will continue to work for her heartless mistress, and Ohatsu will have to make do on her own after being so thoroughly let down by her husband. There is no recourse or escape, no path forward that will allow the women to break free of their oppression or even to learn to be free within it. Each of the stories is bleak, ending on a note of resignation and acceptance of one’s fate as terrible as that may be but Imai’s ending is most terrible of all, reminding us that today is simply another day and the heavy atmosphere of dread and oppression is certain to endure as long as we all remain resigned.


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

Diary of a Mad Old Man (瘋癲老人日記, Keigo Kimura, 1962)

e0022344_20155095Junichiro Tanizaki is giant of Japanese literature whose work has often been adapted for the screen with Manji alone receiving four different filmic treatments between 1964 and 2006. His often erotic themes tallied nicely with those of the director of the 1964 version, Yasuzo Masumura who also adapted Tanizaki’s The Tattooist under the title of Irezumi, both of which starred Masumura’s muse Ayako Wakao. Preceding both of these, Keigo Kimura’s Diary of a Mad Old Man (瘋癲老人日記, Futen Rojin Nikki) adapts a late, and at that time extremely recent, work by Tanizaki which again drew some inspiration from his own life as it explores the frustrated sexuality of an older man facing partial paralysis following a stroke. Once again employing Wakao as a genial femme fatale, Kimura’s film is a broadly comic tale of an old man’s folly, neatly undercutting its darker themes with naturalistic humour and late life melancholy.

Tanazaki’s stand in is a wealthy old man, Utsugi (So Yamamura), who has recently suffered a stroke which has paralysed his right hand and significantly reduced his quality of life. He currently operates a large household with a number of live-in staff, including a round the clock nurse, his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. The son, Joukichi (Keizo Kawasaki), is a successful executive currently having an affair with a cabaret dancer, leaving his extremely beautiful wife, Sachiko (Ayako Wakao), herself also formerly a dancer, at a loose end. Though approaching the end of his life and possibly physically incapable of acting on his desire, Utsugi is consumed with lust for Sachiko and thinks of little else but how to convince her to allow him even the smallest of intimacies. Sachiko, for her part, is not particularly interested in pursuing a romantic entanglement with her aged father-in-law but is perfectly aware of her power over him which she uses to fulfil her material desires. Meanwhile, Utsugi’s rather pathetic behaviour has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the household who view his desperation with a mix of pity, exasperation, and outrage.

Kimura’s film takes more of an objective view than the subjective quality of the title would suggest but still treats its protagonist with a degree of well intentioned sympathy for a man realising he’s reached the final stages of his life. Utsugi’s sexual desire intensifies even as his body betrays him but this very life force becomes his rebellion against the encroaching onset of decay as he clings to his virility, trying to off-set the inevitable. As such, conquest of Sachiko becomes his last dying quest for which he is willing to sacrifice anything, undergo any kind of degradation, simply to climb one rung on the ladder towards an eventual consummation of his desires.

Sachiko, instinctively disliked by her mother-in-law, is more than a match for Utsugi’s finagling. A young, confident, and beautiful woman, Sachiko has learned how to do as she pleases without needing permission from anyone for anything. In this, the pair are alike – both completely self aware yet also in full knowledge of those around them. The strange arrangement they’ve developed is a game of reciprocal gift giving which is less a war than a playful exercise in which both are perfectly aware of the rules and outcomes. Sachiko allows Utsugi certain privileges beginning with slightly patronising flirtation leading to leaving the bathroom door unlocked when she showers (behind a curtain) and permitting Utsugi to kiss and fondle her leg (even if she hoses it down, complaining it feels like being licked by a slug).

Tanizaki’s strange fetish is again in evidence as Utsugi finally deifies Sachiko in creating a print of the sole of her foot which he intends to have carved into his grave so he can live protected beneath her forever, as insects are under the foot of Buddha. This final act which takes the place of a literal consummation goes some way towards easing his desire but may also be the one which pushes him towards the grave he was seeking to avoid. Notably, Sachiko is bored and eventually exhausted by the entire enterprise even whilst Utsugi is caught in the throws of his dangerous ecstasy.

Other members of the household view the continuing interaction of Sachiko and Utsugi with bemusement, pitying and resenting the old man for his foolishness whilst half-admiring, half disapproving of Sachiko’s manipulation of his desires. Utsugi had been a stingy man despite his wealth and even now risks discord within his own family by refusing to assist his grown-up daughter who finds herself in financial difficulty and in need of familial support, yet lavishing vast sums on Sachiko for expensive trinkets even as she continues an affair with a younger man right under his nose. Still, Sachiko uses what she has and gets what she wants and Utsugi attempts to do the same only less successfully, completely self aware of his foolishness and the low probability of success yet buoyed with each tiny concession Sachiko affords him. A wry and unforgiving exploration of the link between sex and death, Diary of a Mad Old Man undercuts the less savoury elements of its source material with a broadly humorous, mocking tone gradually giving way to melancholy as the old man begins to accept his own impotence, the light around him dwindling while Sachiko’s only brightens.