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.

Freezing Point (氷点, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1966)

freezing point posterRevenge is a dish best served cold, so they say, but just how cold can you go before your own heart freezes over? Based on a novel by Ayako Miura, Freezing Point (氷点, Hyoten) is a somewhat unusual family drama centring on parental responsibility, familial love, and the necessity of forgiveness following betrayal and tragedy. Maintaining Miura’s characteristic Hokkaido setting with its appropriately snowbound vistas, Yamamoto sidesteps the author’s Christianising viewpoint whilst embracing her views on the nature of sin and the innocence of children.

Ophthalmologist Keizo (Eiji Funakoshi) returns home one day to find his wife, Natsue (Ayako Wakao), playing the piano, seemingly in a kind of self involved rapture. The maid has taken their son, Toru, out, and their daughter, Ruriko, is supposedly playing outside. Only, she isn’t – Ruriko has gone missing. Some time later they find the little girl’s body at the riverside, apparently strangled. The killer is caught and commits suicide in prison. Natsue has a breakdown and spends some time in a hospital but on her release Keizo decides to adopt a baby to help her recover from losing Ruriko.

More exactly, Keizo is torn between altruistic, humanist values and a deep and cruel desire for revenge on the wife he believes neglected their daughter while she entertained a lover at home. Keizo’s plan is to adopt the now orphaned baby girl of the man who murdered his daughter both as a way of proving himself a good, forgiving person and of getting his own back on his wife by forcing her to raise a murderer’s child, only revealing the truth once she has come to love it like her own.

Natsue’s heart truly is broken by the death of her daughter. It’s not exactly unusual for small children to be playing outside in ‘60s Japan – in this Natsue is not at fault. Here is the first grain of “sin” – there was indeed someone else in the house that day, another doctor from Keizo’s hospital, Murai (Mikio Narita). What exactly happened is not clear but Keizo is convinced the pair have been having an affair for some time and assumes his wife had asked the maid to take their son out and put Ruriko outside so that her lover could visit unseen. Natsue is also unable to bear any more children due to complications with a previous pregnancy and Keizo seems to think she gave herself free reign in having an affair seeing as there could be no “consequences”. Keizo’s “revenge” is as much about his betrayal as a husband as it is resentment in holding his wife responsible for the death of their daughter even though, as another friend points out, unexpected, random events occur all the time and this one was no one’s fault but the killer’s.

Parenthood, or more specifically motherhood, becomes a persistent theme as Natsue becomes pre-occupied with being a “good mother”. Time moves on and the baby, Yoko (Michiyo Okusu billed here as Michiyo Yasuda), grows up only for Natsue to discover the truth by accident after she finds a letter Keizo had written to a friend in which he expresses his inability to love Yoko knowing what she is. Yoko is not and cannot be responsible for her father’s crime but its effects are visited on her as she is branded a “murderer’s child” or a carrier of “murderous genes”. Once Natsue knows the truth the relationship changes and becomes one of artificial game playing as she and Keizo tiptoe around the issue, each unwilling to give the other the satisfaction of knowing that the game is up. Yoko realises she must be an adopted child but remains cheerful, kind, and innocent, not wanting to be a burden to the family to which she is desperate to belong.

Matters come to a head when Yoko approaches adulthood. Brother Toru (Kei Yamamoto), overhearing his parents’ ugly argument, discovers Yoko is not his blood sister and develops complicated, inappropriate romantic feelings for her (feelings which his mother almost wants to encourage if only as a kind of revenge against Keizo). Meanwhile, he also brings home a university friend, Kitahara (Masahiko Tsugawa), as a possible suitor for her and way out of this dead end tragic love story. Natsue tries to put an end to this by literally getting in the middle of it – cutting off the correspondence between Yoko and Kitahara before trying it on with him herself either as a way of frightening him off completely or positioning herself as a direct rival to her adopted daughter. Rival she already is in the eyes of her son, and also perhaps those of Keizo whose eyes linger on the daughter he couldn’t force himself to love a little too long in realising she is no longer a child and no blood relation. Thus it comes as a relief to him when a family friend offers to make Yoko her heir, paying for a college education or foreign travel if those are things Yoko would like to do.

Yoko, however, wants nothing more than to stay with her family forevermore. This is a common sentiment from a daughter in a family drama, one which usually changes when an appropriate marriage partner is found, but it means more for Yoko whose single concern is feeling unwanted by her parents whilst also feeling grateful to them for taking her in. Her romance with Kitahara provokes a revelation which leaves her feeling internally destroyed. A classically “good” person, she did not want to see any “bad” in herself but now finds out her birth father committed a heinous, senseless crime against people she loves. This, she says, is the freezing point of her heart. Realising that “sin” is everywhere and even if it hadn’t been her father there would be other instances of wrongdoing somewhere in her lineage she feels as if her heart is frozen, her spirit killed, and she can no longer continue.

Of course, there are more revelations to come provoked by yet another tragedy which threatens to bring the whole thing full circle. Nobody expected or intended this as a result of their own petty desires for revenge, but then all they really thought about was themselves and the way they’d been slighted. Keizo asked his doctor friend who facilitated his adoption whether there existed two people in the world who’d be able to love the child of the man who’d killed their own. His friend is sure such people do exist (though it turns out he had his own solution to this particular problem), but Keizo’s desires are less about trying to prove himself one of them than exacting the most painful kind of emotional wound on a wife he feels has humiliated him. This family is a fraud and the only “innocent” member is the adopted daughter whose capacity for goodness they have in part destroyed. Bleak, probing, and extremely uncomfortable, Yamamoto’s adaptation of Miura’s novel is an artfully composed dissection of family values, such as they are, in the post-war world.


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)