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

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

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

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

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

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


Opening Scene (no subtitles)

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.


Lullaby of the Earth (大地の子守歌, Yasuzo Masumura, 1976)

lullaby-of-the-earthYasuzo Masumura is best remembered for his deliberately transgressive, often shockingly grotesque critiques of Japanese society and its conformist overtones. Lullaby of the Earth (大地の子守歌, Daichi no Komoriuta) is one of his few completely independent features, filmed after the bankruptcy of Daiei where Masumura had spent the bulk of his early years. As such, it is quite an exception in terms of his wider career both in terms of its production and in its earthy, spiritual themes. Adapted from the 1974 novel by Kukiko Moto, Lullaby of the Earth is the story of an abandoned and betrayed woman but one who also draws her strength from the Earth itself.

13 year old Rin (Mieko Harada) has been living with her adopted grandmother in a remote mountain community. Returning home one day triumphantly carrying a rabbit for dinner, Rin discovers that her grandmother has passed away. Being just a child and now alone and frightened, Rin does not know what to do and later receives harsh treatment from the villagers from whom she temporarily conceals her grandmother’s death. With no one to look after her, Rin is approached by a kind seeming man in Western dress who offers her a good job on a nearby island which, he says, pays well and offers a much better quality of life than Rin’s current survivalist setup in the mountains. Rin has heard tales of men like him before and is not taken in by his arguments, even when he suggests she could use the money to buy a proper grave for her grandmother. She is, however, caught when he mentions taking her to see the sea – something she has been longing for for most of her life.

However, Rin’s pure joy at the waves and endless horizons of the shoreline is short lived when reality hits home and she realises she has been sold to a brothel. The brothel owners are not a bad sort, considering, and intend on using her as a servant until she comes of age but Rin is not having any of it. Refusing to eat, work, or wear her new clothes, Rin is proving to be a very bad investment but changes her tune when she strikes up a friendship with a girl who works at a local store who convinces her that her rebellion is misplaced. Work hard and pay off your debt, she says, and they’ll let you go home. Rin decides to do just that, and with her characteristic energy, but her journey home is not to be such a straight forward experience.

Lullaby of the Earth maybe unusual in Masumura’s filmography due its period setting and gentler, more spiritually orientated progression but Rin is, in many ways, a typical Masumura heroine. A true child of nature, Rin is athletic, at home in the forests and woods trapping rabbits and building fires. Her downfall is brought about precisely because of her desire for total freedom. Longing to see the sea with all of the freedom and possibilities that it suggests, Rin allows herself to be taken in by the false promises of a procurer (presumably alerted by a less than helpful villager), little knowing that she’s damned herself for a period of at least three years.

Made to suffer numerous degradations from the humiliation of her servitude, to a beating that leaves her half dead and her final forced prostitution, Rin maintains her resistance in whichever way she can. Striving for control, Rin takes on a masculine quality defined by strength and agility rather than elegance and beauty. Once again longing for the sea, Rin begs to be allowed to row the boat that takes the girls out to find business from passing ships. “If you take my oar you’ll be in trouble” she later exclaims, clinging to her source of male power even whilst being forced into the gaudy brothel kimono. Displaying her own ability for active choice even within her controlled environment, Rin takes the scissors to her own hair, cutting it short like a man’s.

Given the chance to escape the brothel for a comfortable life as the mistress of a wealthy man, Rin refuses. A decision which seems bizarre to many of the other girls, but Rin will have her freedom back in its entirety – she will not swap one cage for another as the prized possession of a some other authority. Meeting a man who claims he may be able to help her, Rin starts working overtime to save the money to escape with the consequence that her health suffers, leading to almost total blindness followed by listless depression. Only at this point does her inner fire start to waver, but it is never extinguished allowing her to finally make a break for it even if she literally cannot see where she is headed.

Rin’s guiding voices come from the Earth itself as mediated by the kindly internal presence of her grandmother. The soil is sacred, as her grandmother told her. Rub soil into your wounds and you’ll soon be healed. In times of trouble, lie against the Earth’s surface and you will know what to do. Rin wants to find the way back to her mountain, but it may no longer exist for her. Nevertheless, the Earth itself is singing and will tell her where to go, so long as she can find the strength to listen.

Masumura begins the film with Rin at prayer, dressed in the white clothes of a pilgrim and dutifully following the temple paths around the island of Shikoku. Suffering a final PTSD flashback of all she’s suffered since her grandmother’s passing, Rin is once again comforted by the sounds of the Earth, beginning with her grandmother’s voice to which more are slowly added, cheering her on with chorus of support as she walks towards the end of her journey. A wonderful, early leading performance for Mieko Harada, Lullaby of the Earth is a far more new age exercise than Masumura’s generally cynical approach to human spirituality would usually allow but neatly tallies with his primary concerns in its heroine’s eternal quest for her own autonomy, body and soul, as she traverses a cold and unforgiving world.