The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Masaki Kobayashi, 1985)

The Empty TableJapanese cinema of the 1980s is marked by an increasing desire to interrogate the idea of “the family” in an atmosphere of individualist consumerism. Yoshimitsu’s Morita’s The Family Game had blown the traditional ideas of filial piety and the primacy of the patriarch wide open in exposing his ordinary middle-class family as little more than a simulacrum as its various members sleepwalked through life playing the roles expected of them free of the true feeling one would expect to define familial bonds. A year later, Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family took a different, perhaps more positive approach, in depicting a family descending into madness through the various social pressures of maintaining a conventional middle-class life in the cramped environment of frenetic Tokyo. Masaki Kobayashi, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not so much interested in families as in individuals whose struggles to assert themselves in a conformist society became his major focus. The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Shokutaku no nai Ie) is not perhaps “a family drama” but it is, if indirectly, a drama about family and the ways in which the wider familial context of society at large often seeks to misuse it.

Set in 1973, The Empty Table is also among the earliest films to tackle the aftermath of the 1972 Asama-Sanso Incident. For ten days in February, the nation watched live as the police found themselves in a stand off with five United Red Army former student radicals who had taken the wife of an innkeeper hostage and holed up in a mountain lodge, refusing to give themselves up to the police. The discoveries surrounding the conduct of the United Red Army which had descended into a cult-like madness involving several murders of its members (including one of a heavily pregnant woman) shocked the nation and finally ended the student movement in Japan.

Kidoji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the father of one of the student radicals, Otohiko (Kiichi Nakai), who took part in the siege. In Japanese culture, it’s usual for the parents of a person involved in a scandal to come forward and offer an official apology to the nation on behalf of the their children. During the siege itself the family had also been weaponised as mothers, particularly, were enlisted to shout from outside the inn, offering poignant messages intended to get their sons to give themselves up and come home. Kidoji, unlike the other fathers (one of whom hanged himself in shame), refuses his social obligation on the grounds that the actions of his grownup son are no longer his responsibility. 

As a scientist, Kidoji is used to thinking things through in rational terms and outside of Japan his logic may seem unassailable – after all, it is unreasonable to hold the conduct of a family member against an otherwise upright and obedient citizen. In Japan however his actions make him seem cold and unfeeling, as if he has disowned both his son and his position as the father of a family with whom rests ultimate responsibility for those listed on his family register. This way of thinking may be very feudal, but it is the way things work not just in the late 20th century, but even in the early 21st.

Kidoji’s refusal to do what is expected of him eventually leads to the crumbling of the family unit. Far from the cheerful scene we see of Kidoji, his wife, and their three children seated around a dinner table in celebration, the family now eat separately and Kidoji returns home to cold meals and an empty table. Kidoji’s wife, Yumiko (Mayumi Ogawa), has had a breakdown and had to be hospitalised, while his daughter Tamae (Kie Nakai) is forced to break off her engagement only to resort to underhanded methods to be allowed to marry the man she loves. While Otohiko languishes in prison, only his younger brother Osamu (Takayuki Takemoto) remains at home.

Kobayashi’s central concern is the conflict in Kidoji’s heart as he faces a choice between maintaining his principles and saving his family pain. It’s not that Kidoji feels nothing – on the contrary, he is profoundly wounded by all that has happened to him, but ironically enough, puts on the face society expects but does not want in maintaining his composure in a situation of extreme difficulty. Kidoji’s deepest anxieties rest in the need to “take responsibility”, something he must do in acknowledging that it’s not his son’s disgrace which has destroyed his family but his own rigidity in refusing to bend his principles and obey social convention. What Kidoji wants is for his son to take responsibility for his own choices as an individual rather than expecting his family to carry his load for him. He must, however, also take responsibility for the effect his choices have had on others, including on his family, and accept his role both as an individual and as a member of a society with rights and obligations.

Kidoji’s refusal to apologise on behalf of his son looks to the rest of society like an abnegation of his paternal authority, and without paternal authority the family unit crumbles like a feudal household whose lord has been murdered. Yet Kidoji, like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, refuses to compromise his principals no matter how much personal pain they eventually cause him. Where the rules of society make no sense to him, he will ignore (if not quite oppose) them, remaining true to his own notions of moral righteousness.

In many ways, Kidoji is the archetypal Kobayashi hero – standing up to social oppression and refusing to simply give in even when he knows how beneficial that may be to all concerned. He is also, however, just as problematic in allowing his family to continue suffering in preservation of his personal beliefs. Kobayashi’s final feature film, The Empty Table is extremely dated in terms of shooting style with its overly theatrical dialogue and frequent use of voice over and monologue which were long out of fashion by the mid-1980s. Kobayashi does, however, return to the more expressionist style of his earlier career, moving towards an etherial sense of poetry as his hero contemplates his place in a society which often asks him to behave in ways which compromise his essential value system. The family, broken as it is, is also (partly) mended once again as Kidoji begins to reconcile his various “responsibilities” into a more comprehensive whole as he prepares to welcome a new generation seemingly as determined to live in as principled and unorthodox a way as he himself has.


Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Yoji Yamada, 1965)

flag in the mist poster 2In theory, we’re all equal under the law, but the business of justice is anything but egalitarian. Yoji Yamada is generally known for his tearjerking melodramas or genial comedies but Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Kiri no Hata) is a rare step away from his most representative genres, drawing inspiration from America film noir and adding a touch of typically Japanese cynical humour. Based on a novel by Japanese mystery master Seicho Matsumoto, Flag in the Mist is a tale of hopeless, mutually destructive revenge which sees a murderer walk free while the honest but selfish pay dearly for daring to ignore the poor in need of help. A powerful message in the increasing economic prosperity of 1965, but one that leaves no clear path for the successful revenger.

Kiriko (Chieko Baisho), a twenty year old typist from Kyushu, has taken an arduous train journey into Tokyo to get a meeting with a top lawyer she hopes will defend her older brother and only living relative from a trumped up murder charge. The clerk attempts to dissuade her – Mr. Otsuka (Osamu Takizawa) charges a hefty sum for his services and, in any case, his docket is too full to be travelling back and forth to Kyushu never mind the additional travel and accommodation costs. Kiriko is disappointed but undeterred – she thinks she can manage the expenses, but asks for a discount on the fee. The clerk finds this amusing and does at least ask Otsuka who finally agrees to see Kiriko seeing as she’s come all this way. She makes an impression on him but ultimately he tells her he’s just too busy and she’s better off looking for a lawyer closer to home.

Kiriko leaves disappointed but refuses to give up, missing her original train to try again by telephone but Otsuka has already gone out “to see clients” and so she finally has to accept her mission to save her brother may have stalled. While Kiriko was using the public phone, she was overheard by a reporter, Abe (Yosuke Kondo), who wants to write something on the case but his Tokyo based bosses aren’t so keen on a local interest story from halfway across the country.

A year later, Kiriko’s brother Masao (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) has been convicted and sentenced to death. After his second appeal fails, Masao dies of illness in prison before the sentence could be carried out. Kiriko writes a bitter letter to Otsuka blaming him for her brother’s death which forces Otsuka to reconsider his decision not to take the case. He comes to the conclusion that the case was unwinable and therefore his decision not to take it made no difference but then, he spots something that no one else seems to have noticed.

A tenacious and strong willed young woman – you’d have to be to jump on a long distance train from a tiny village all the way to the big city on your own in 1965, Kiriko is determined to save her brother but finds herself facing an uphill battle against a society deliberately structured to ignore her voice and those of everyone like her. Kiriko is an orphan and so her older bother is also a kind of father figure as well as the only living relative she has left. Masao had been a primary school teacher, which is to say a respected member of society, but found himself involved with a loanshark who was later murdered after he lost some cash collected from students to pay for a school trip and borrowed money he couldn’t pay back from a ruthless old woman. Masao has made a mistake he’s going to pay for dearly – disgraced and humiliated, it was easy work to frame him for a violent crime and force him into a confession through the usual police methods. Kiriko won’t stand for it, but she’s powerless to help him.

Otsuka is, in a sense, entitled to charge what he wants for his services. He’s clearly a talented lawyer, very much in demand, and so why “should” he trek all the way out to Kyushu for a case that doesn’t interest him when he has enough clients already. He does, at least, bother to listen to Kiriko’s pitch before letting her down gently, but just when it seems he might be about to change his mind he tells his clerk to cancel all his appointments and winds up on the golf course with his girlfriend. So much for being too busy to save an innocent man’s life.

Kiriko’s “whole life has been desecrated by one incident” as she cuttingly writes later in a letter which forms a crucial part of her plot of revenge against the man who refused to save her brother’s life (half talking about something else). Forced out of her hometown where she’s the murderer’s sister, she finds work as hostess going by the club name of Rie in a Tokyo bar which has a Kyushu theme. This brings her back into contact with the reporter, Abe, and that isn’t the last of the coincidences as Kiriko finds herself swept up by circumstances which allow her to turn an unfortunate series of events into a cunning plan to ruin Otsuka by neatly echoing the precise circumstances of her brother’s case. Now it’s Otsuka forced to plead with her night after night, begging on his knees that she agree to testify and turn over key evidence that proves his client is innocent all while Kiriko adamantly sticks to her story.

Yamada conjures a tense and gloomy film noir world, following Kiriko down foggy passageways as she tries to navigate the city from the shadows, chasing the spectre of the unjust but losing herself in the process. Masao dies because he was too poor to hire a good lawyer to save him from the police who were supposed to be protecting him, but decided it was easier to stitch up someone without influence than find the real killer. His sister destroys herself to get revenge not just on lawyers more interested in fame and success than in serving justice but on an entire society which believes her existence is insufficiently important to merit full consideration. Otsuka is not a bad man, he is not corrupt or incompetent, he is merely selfish in all the ways his society encourages him to be. Originally letting himself off the hook with the excuse that his decision made no difference, he’s genuinely horrified when he realises he’s noticed a crucial clue which could have exonerated Masao even if it’s an equally selfish guilt he feels more than a recognition that he’s failed his duty to justice by letting an innocent man die while a guilty one lives to kill again. No one wins in this case, everyone emerges ruined and broken by the increasing inequalities and selfish individualism of the post-war world. Justice is blind, so they say, but perhaps she needs to open her eyes.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Illusion of Blood (四谷怪談, AKA Yotsuya Kaidan, Shiro Toyoda, 1965)

vlcsnap-2017-07-01-00h50m36s347Shiro Toyoda, despite being among the most successful directors of Japan’s golden age, is also among the most neglected when it comes to overseas exposure. Best known for literary adaptations, Toyoda’s laid back lensing and elegant restraint have perhaps attracted less attention than some of his flashier contemporaries but he was often at his best in allowing his material to take centre stage. Though his trademark style might not necessarily lend itself well to horror, Toyoda had made other successful forays into the genre before being tasked with directing yet another take on the classic ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan (四谷怪談) but, hampered by poor production values and an overly simplistic script, Toyoda never succeeds in capturing the deep-seated dread which defines the tale of maddening ambition followed by ruinous guilt.

As usual, Iemon (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a disenfranchised samurai contemplating selling his sword due to his extreme poverty. Iemon had been married to a woman he loved, Oiwa (Mariko Okada), whose father called her home when Iemon lost his lord and therefore his income. Oiwa’s father is also in financial difficulty and Iemon has now discovered that he has been prostituting Oiwa’s sister, Osode (Junko Ikeuchi), and plans a similar fate for Oiwa.

Still in love with his wife, Iemon decides that his precious sword is not just for show and determines to take what he wants by force. Murdering Oiwa’s father, Iemon teams up with another reprobate, Naosuke (Kanzaburo Nakamura), who is in love with Osode and means to kill her estranged fiancee. Framing Osode’s lover Yoshimichi (Mikijiro Hira) as the killer, Iemon resumes his life with Oiwa who subsequently bears their child but as his poverty and lowly status continue Iemon remains frustrated. When a better offer arrives to marry into a wealthier family, Iemon makes a drastic decision in the name of living well.

The themes are those familiar to the classic tale as Iemon’s all consuming need to restore himself to his rightful position ruins everything positive in his life. Tatsuya Nakadai’s Iemon is among the less kind interpretations as even his original claims of romantic distress over the loss of his wife ring more of wounded pride and a desire for possession rather than a broken heart. Selling one’s sword is the final step for a samurai – it is literally selling one’s soul. Iemon’s ultimate decision not to is both an indicator of his inability to let go of his samurai past and his violent intentions as the fury of rebellion is already burning within him.

Iemon defines his quest as a desire to find “place worth living in”, but he is incapable of attuning himself to the world around him, constantly working against himself as he tries to forge a way forward. Oiwa’s desires are left largely unexplored despite the valiant efforts of Mariko Okada saddled with an underwritten part, but hers is an existence largely defined by love and duty, pulled between a husband and a father. Unaware that Iemon was responsible for her father’s death, Oiwa is happy to be reunited with him and expects that he will honour her father by enacting vengeance. Only too late does she begin to wonder what her changeable husband’s intentions really are.

An amoral man in an amoral world, Iemon’s machinations buy him nothing. Haunted by the vengeful spirit of the wife he betrayed, Iemon cannot enjoy the life he’d always wanted after purchasing it with blood, fear, and treachery. Despite the odd presence of disturbing imagery from hands in water butts to ghostly presences, Toyoda never quite achieves the level of claustrophobic inevitability on which the tale is founded. Hampered by poor production values, shooting on obvious stage sets with dull costuming and a run of the mill script, Illusion of Blood has a depressingly unambitious atmosphere content to simply retell the classic tale with the minimum of fuss. Only the final scenes offer any of Toyoda’s formal beauty as Okada appears under the cherry blossoms to offer the gloomy message that there is no true happiness and her husband’s quest has been a vain one. Achieving her vengeance even whilst Iemon affirms his intention to keep fighting right until the end, Oiwa leaves like the melancholy ghost of eternal regret but it’s all too little too late to make Illusion of Blood anything more than a middling adaptation of the classic ghost story.


 

Dreams (夢, Akira Kurosawa, 1990)

dreamsDespite a long and hugely successful career which saw him feted as the man who’d put Japanese cinema on the international map, Akira Kurosawa’s fortunes took a tumble in the late ‘60s with an ill fated attempt to break into Hollywood. Tora! Tora! Tora! was to be a landmark film collaboration detailing the attack on Pearl Harbour from both the American and Japanese sides with Kurosawa directing the Japanese half, and an American director handling the English language content. However, the American director was not someone the prestigious caliber of David Lean as Kurosawa had hoped and his script was constantly picked apart and reduced.

When filming finally began, Kurosawa was fired and replaced with the younger and (then) less internationally regarded Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda. The film was an unmitigated failure which proved hugely embarrassing to Kurosawa, not least because it exposed improprieties within his own company. Other than the low budget Dodesukaden, Kurosawa continued to find it difficult to secure funding for the sort of films he wanted to make and in 1971 attempted suicide, thankfully unsuccessfully, but subsequently retreated into domestic life leaving a large question mark over his future career in cinema.

American directors who’d been inspired by his golden age work including George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were keen to coax Kurosawa back into the director’s chair, helping to fund and promote his two biggest ‘80s efforts – Ran, and Kagemusha, both large scale, epic jidaigeki more along the line of Seven Samurai than the arthouse leaning smaller scale of his contemporary pictures. The success of these two films and the assistance of Steven Spielberg, allowed him to move in a radically different direction for his next film. Dreams (夢, Yume) is an aberration in Kurosawa’s back catalogue, a collection of thematically linked vignettes featuring surreal, ethereal, noh theatre inspired imagery, it was unlike anything the director had attempted before and a far cry away from the often straightforward naturalism which marked his career up to this point.

Inspired by Kurosawa’s own dreams from childhood to the present day, Dreams is divided into eight different chapters beginning with a solemn wedding and ending in a joyous funeral. Each of the segments takes on a different tone and aesthetic, but lays bare many of the themes which had recurred throughout Kurosawa’s career – namely, man’s relationship with the natural world, and its constant need to tear itself apart all in the name of progress.

Casting his central protagonist simply as “I”, Kurosawa begins with an exact recreation of his childhood home and a little boy who disobeys his mother in leaving the house during a spell of sun streaked rain. Weather like this is perfect for a “kitsune” wedding, only fox spirits do not like their rituals to be witnessed by humans and punishment is extreme if caught, still, the boy has to know. His fate is echoed in the second story in which the still young I is lured to the spot where his family’s orchard once stood to be berated by the spirits of the now departed peach blossoms in the guise of the traditional dolls given to little girls at the Hina Matsuri festival. The spirits are upset with the boy, who starts crying, but not, as the spirits originally think because he’s mourning all of the peaches he’ll never eat but because he truly loved the this place and knows he’ll never see the glory of the full orchard in bloom ever again.

The spirits recognise his grief and contritely agree to put on a display of magic for him so that he may experience the beauty of peach trees in full blossom one last time. However, the illusion is soon over and the boy is left among the stumps where his beloved trees once stood. Later, the adult I finds himself in a monstrous nuclear apocalypse which has now become much harder to watch as the Ishiro Honda inspired horror of the situation has turned mount Fuji and the surrounding sky entirely red with no escape from the invisible radioactive poison. Quickly followed by I traipsing through a dark and arid land in which giant mutant dandelion provide the only sign of life aside from the remnants of post-apocalyptic humanity reduced to devouring itself in scenes worthy of Bruegel, these sequences paint the price of untapped progress as humans burn their world all the while claiming to improve it.

Humans are, in a sense, at war with nature as with themselves. The Tunnel sees an older I return from the war to encounter first an aggressive dog and then the ghosts of men he knew who didn’t make it home. Apologising that he survived and they didn’t, I contrives to send the blue faced ghosts back into the darkness of the tunnel while he himself is plagued by the barking, grenade bearing dog outside. The mountaineers of the blizzard sequence are engaged in a similar battle, albeit a more straightforwardly naturalistic one of human endurance pitted against the sheer force of the natural world. That is, until the natural becomes supernatural in the sudden appearance of the Snow Woman which the mountaineer manages to best in his resilience to the wind and cold.

The better qualities of humanity are to be found in the idyllic closing tale which takes place in a village lost to time. Here there is no electric, no violence, no crime. People live simply, and they die when they’re supposed to, leaving the world in celebration of a life well lived rather than in regret. People, says the old man, are too obsessed with convenience. All those scientists wasting their lives inventing things which only make people miserable as they tinker around trying to “improve” the unimprovable. As the young I says, he could buy himself as many peaches as he wanted, but where can you buy a full orchard in bloom?

Of course, Kurosawa doesn’t let himself off the hook either as the middle aged I finds himself sucked into a van Gogh painting, wandering through the great master’s works until meeting the man himself (played by Martin Scorsese making a rare cameo in another director’s film) who transforms his world through his unique perception but finds himself erased by it as his art consumes him to the point of madness. I wanders back through van Gogh’s landscapes, now broken down to their component parts before eventually extricating himself and arriving back in the gallery as a mere spectator. Even if the work destroyed its creator through its maddening imperfection it lives on, speaking for him and about him as well about a hundred other things for an eternity.

For all of the fear and despair, there is hope – in humanity’s capacity for endurance as in the Blizzard, in its compassion as in The Tunnel, and in its appreciation for the natural world as in The Peach Orchard alongside its need to re-envision its environment through the glorious imperfection of art. There is the hope that mankind may choose to live in The Village of the Water Mills rather than the hellish post apocalyptic world of fear and greed, however small and slim that hope maybe. Creating a living painting filled with hyperreal colour and a misty dreaminess, Kurosawa’s Dreams, like all dreams, speak not only of the past but of the future, not only of what has been but what may come. Equal parts despair and love, Kurosawa’s vision is bleak yet filled with hope and the intense belief in art as a redemptive, creative force countering humanity’s innate capacity for self destruction.


Original international trailer (irritating English language voiceover only)

My Second Brother (にあんちゃん, Shohei Imamura, 1959)

vlcsnap-2017-01-07-22h53m01s073Like most directors of his era, Shohei Imamura began his career in the studio system as a trainee with Shochiku where he also worked as an AD to Yasujiro Ozu on some of his most well known pictures. Ozu’s approach, however, could not be further from Imamura’s in its insistence on order and precision. Finding much more in common with another Shochiku director, Yuzo Kawashima, well known for working class satires, Imamura jumped ship to the newly reformed Nikkatsu where he continued his training until helming his first three pictures in 1958 (Stolen Desire, Nishiginza Station, and Endless Desire). My Second Brother (にあんちゃん, Nianchan), which he directed in 1959, was, like the previous three films, a studio assignment rather than a personal project but is nevertheless an interesting one as it united many of Imamura’s subsequent ongoing concerns.

Set in the early 1950s, the film focuses on four children who find themselves adrift when their father dies leaving them with no means of support. The father had worked at the local mine but the mining industry is itself in crisis. Many of the local mines have already closed, and even this one finds itself in financial straits. Despite the foreman’s promise that he will find a job for the oldest son, Kiichi (Hiroyuki Nagato), there is no work to be had as workers are being paid in food vouchers rather than money and strike action frustrates what little production there is. After receiving the unwelcome suggestion of work in a “restaurant” in another town, Yoshiko (Kayo Matsuo) manages to find a less degrading job caring for another family’s children (though she receives only room and board, no pay for doing so). With younger brother Koichi (Takeshi Okimura) and little sister Sueko (Akiko Maeda) still in school, it seems as if the four siblings’ days of being able to live together as a family may be over for good.

Based on a bestselling autobiographical novel by a ten year old girl, My Second Brother is one of the first films to broach the Zainichi (ethnic Koreans living in Japan) issue, even if it does so in a fairly subtle way. The four children have been raised in Japan, speak only Japanese and do not seem particularly engaged with their Korean culture but we are constantly reminded of their non-native status by the comments of other locals, mostly older women and housewives, who are apt to exclaim things along the lines of “Koreans are so shiftless” or other derogatory aphorisms. Though there are other Koreans in the area, including one friend who reassures Kiichi that “We’re Korean – lose one job, we find another”, the biggest effect of the children’s ethnicity is in their status as second generation migrants which leaves them without the traditional safety net of the extended family. Though they do have contact with an uncle, the children are unable to bond with him – his Japanese is bad, and the children are unused to spicy Korean food. They have to rely first on each other and then on the kindness of strangers, of which there is some, but precious little in these admittedly difficult times.

In this, which is Imamura’s primary concern, the children’s poverty is no different from that of the general population during this second depression at the beginning of the post-war period. The film does not seek to engage with the reasons why the Zainichi population may find itself disproportionately affected by the downturn but prefers to focus on the generalised economic desperation and the resilience of working people. The environment is, indeed, dire with the ancient problem of a single water source being used by everyone for everything at the same time with all the resultant health risks that poses. A young middle class woman is trying to get something done in terms of sanitation, but her presence is not altogether welcome in the town as the residents have become weary of city based do-gooders who rarely stay long enough to carry through their promises. The more pressing problem is the lack of real wages as salaries are increasingly substituted for vouchers. The labour movement is ever present in the background with the Red Flag drifting from the mass protests in which the workers voice their dissatisfaction with the company though the spectre of mine closure and large scale layoffs has others running scared.

One of the most moving sequences occurs as Koichi and another young boy ride a mine cart up the mountain and talk about their hopes for the future. They both want to get out of this one horse town – Koichi as a doctor and his friend as an engineer, but their hopes seem so far off and untouchable that it’s almost heartbreaking. Sueko skipped school for four days claiming she had a headache because her brother didn’t have the money for her school books – how could a boy like Koichi, no matter how bright he is, possibly come from here and get to medical school? Nevertheless, he is determined. His father couldn’t save the family from poverty, and neither could his brother but Koichi vows he will and as he leads his sister by the hand climbing the high mountain together, it almost seems like he might.