Bronze Magician (妖僧, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1963)

Even when you’re the empress, a woman has little freedom. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Bronze Magician (妖僧, Yoso) is loosely based on a historical scandal concerning Nara-era empress Koken/Shotoku and a Rasputin-like monk, Dokyo, who unlike his counterpart in the film, eventually tried to seize the throne for himself alone only to have his ambitions frustrated by the empress’ death and the fierce resistance of her courtiers. As the title implies, Kinugasa is more interested in Dokyo than he is in the perilous position of Nara-era women even in power, painting his fall from grace as a Buddhist parable about a man who pays a heavy price for succumbing to worldly passions. 

As the film opens, Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa) emerges from a shallow cave amid many other caves after meditating for 10 years during which he reached a higher level of enlightenment and obtained mystic powers. Now he thinks it’s time to continue the teachings of departed mentor Doen and use his abilities to “actively do good and save the masses”. Before that, however, he does some not quite Buddhist things like turning a rat into a living skeleton, and twisting a snake into a tangle. In any case, he begins roaming the land, miraculously healing the sick. While reviving a thief who had been killed by samurai after trying to make off with a bird they shot, Dokyo is spotted by a retainer of the empress who brings news of his miracles back to her closest advisors. 

Empress Koken (Yukiko Fuji), in the film at least, was a sickly child and even after ascending the throne has often been ill. She is currently bedridden with a painful respiratory complaint that is giving her servants cause for concern. None of the priests they’ve brought in to pray for her (apparently how you treat serious illness in the Nara era) has been of much use. The empress’ steward Mabito (Tatsuya Ishiguro) orders that Dokyo be found and brought to the palace to see if he can cure Koken, which he does while stressing that he’s helping her not because she’s the empress but in the same way as he would anyone else. 

As might be expected, the empress’ prolonged illness has made her a weak leader and left the door open for unscrupulous retainers intent on manipulating her position for themselves. There is intrigue in the court. The prime minister (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is colluding with a young prince to depose Koken and sieze power. Left with little oversight, he’s been embezzling state funds to bolster his position while secretly paying priests to engineer Koken’s illness continue. Dokyo’s arrival is then a huge threat to his plans, not only in Koken’s recovery and a subsequent reactivation of government but because Dokyo, like Koken, is of a compassionate, egalitarian mindset. She genuinely cares that the peasants are suffering under a bad and self-interested government and sees it as her job to do something about it, which is obviously bad news if you’re a venal elite intent on abusing your power to fill your pockets while the nation starves. 

As the prime minister puts it, however, the empress and most of her courtiers are mere puppets, “naive children”. At this point in history, power lies in the oligarchical executive who are only advised by the empress and don’t actually have to do what she says. As she is also a woman, they don’t necessarily feel they have to listen to her which is one reason why the prime minister assumes it will be easy to manoeuvre the young prince toward the throne. Koken’s short reign during which she overcame two coups is often used to support the argument against female succession because it can be claimed as a temporary aberration before power passed to the nearest male heir. Nevertheless, Koken tries to rule, even while she falls in love with the conflicted Dokyo. Her right to a romantic future, however, is also something not within her control. Many find the gossip scandalous and use it as an excuse to circumvent her authority, especially after she gives Dokyo an official title which allows them to argue she has been bewitched by him and he is merely manipulating her to gain access to power. 

Dokyo, meanwhile, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. After 10 years of study he as reached a certain level of enlightenment and attained great powers which he intended to use for the good of mankind. He is happy to discover that Koken is also trying to do good in the world but she is, ironically, powerless while the elitist lords “indulge in debauchery”, abusing their power to enrich themselves while the people starve. He begins to fall in love with her but the palace corrupts him. He accepts a gift of a beautiful robe despite his vows of asceticism, and then later gives in to his physical desire for Koken only to plunge himself into suffering in the knowledge that he has broken his commandments. He loses his magic, but chooses to love all the same while rendered powerless to hold back Koken’s illness or to protect her from treachery. 

The pair mutually decide they cannot “abandon this happiness”, and Dokyo’s fate is sealed in the acceptance of the extremely ironic gift of golden prayer beads which once belonged to Koken’s father. He is reborn with a new name in the same way as the historical Koken was reborn as Shotoku after surviving insurrection, embracing bodily happiness while attempting to do good but battling an increasing emotional volatility. The lords continue to overrule the empress’ commands, insisting that they are really commands from Dokyo, while Dokyo’s “New Deal” involving a 2 year tax break for impoverished peasants finds support among the young radicals of the court who universally decide that they must stand behind him, protecting the ideal even if they are unable to save the man.

This troubles the elders greatly. Declaring that Dokyo has used “black magic” to bewitch the empress, they determine to eliminate him, but Dokyo never wanted power. “Power is not the final truth” he tells them, “those blindly pursuing status and power only destroy themselves”. Yet Dokyo has also destroyed himself in stepping off the path of righteousness. He damns himself by falling in love, failing to overcome emotion and embracing physical happiness in this life rather than maintaining his Buddhist teachings and doing small acts of good among the poor. Nevertheless, he is perhaps happy, and his shared happiness seems to have started a compassionate revolution among the young who resolve to work together to see that his ideal becomes a reality even in the face of entrenched societal corruption.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tsukigata Hanpeita (月形半平太, Kokichi Uchide, 1952)

Tusgikata Hanpeita still 1In the midst of post-war confusion, Japanese cinema increasingly looked back to Meiji in all of its chaotic possibility in order to ask what went wrong and what lessons it might have for a second kind of revolution as the nation tried to rebuild itself after decades of militarist folly and chastened wartime defeat. “Tsukigata Hanpeita” (月形半平太) is a “legendary” fictional character first imagined for a kabuki play in 1919 who finds himself swept up in Bakumatsu intrigue as he tries, along with daring revolutionaries Sakamoto Ryoma and Katsura Kogoro, to forge an alliance between the clans of Choshu and Satsuma in order to take on the corrupt shogun in defence of the Emperor and foster a new era of peace in an increasingly uncertain world.

When we first meet him, Tsukigata Hanpeita (Utaemon Ichikawa) is on the run from Kyoto-based special police force the Mimawarigumi but also making time for his mistress, Umematsu (Chizuru Kitagawa) – a geisha. This in particular is a problem which has left him dangerously exposed, even the Mimawarigumi leader Okudaira (Joji Kaieda) seems to be aware of the relationship and is apparently not above using it to his advantage. Meanwhile, he’s not only threatened by shogunate defenders, but by his own side – both by those who remain unconvinced by Sakamoto’s (Jotaro Togami) internationalist philosophy, and by those who simply hold a grudge against Satsuma because of a previous conflict and regard Tsukigata as a traitor for daring to talk to them at all. Despite everything, Tsukigata hides in the shadows and commits himself to living, and if necessary dying, to bring about a better world free of shogunate oppression.

Unlike other revolutionary legends, however, Tsukigata’s fervour has not made him cold or cruel even if he must sometimes act in ways which are mysterious and confuse those around him. Meeting a young man on a bridge, he applauds his studious nature, agreeing that “nothing is more important than to understand advanced civilisation”, and is as polite as he could be when the man tells him he has just joined the Mimawarigumi. Rather than attack or berate him, Tsukigata cheerfully wishes the young man well, allowing him the space to see that his present allegiance to the shogunate is perhaps misguided and out of line with his personal beliefs.

Indeed, his compassion extends even to Okudaira – his mortal enemy. Offering his condolences to a grieving Somehachi (Isuzu Yamada), Tsugikata laments that in a better world he and Okudaira may have been friends, that he had no personal grudge against him despite the fact that they clearly lived on different sides of an ideological divide. He could perhaps even harbour a kind of professional respect for him in his dogged defence of his duty for all he believes it to be misguided. “It’s so unfortunate”, he exclaims, “We have to make the world a better place”.

His desire to change the world is what keeps Tsukigata alive. Several times he faces certain death, but declares but he cannot die now with his great work left unfinished. He is not afraid of death and would gladly give his life in the service of his cause, only not just yet. “Would you please spare my life until I change the world?” he begs of someone he fully believes has a right to kill him, eventually winning their support and unexpected allegiance solely through his guileless goodness.

Yet for all that, his moral austerity does at times perhaps cause him problems in giving rise to emotional confusion. So it is that he winds up in an accidental love triangle with the smitten Somehachi – a former geisha turned madam whose patron is none other than Okudaira, and Umematsu an ageing courtesan with whom he has developed a more or less settled relationship. This is clearly the story of Tsukigata Hanpeita, but more than that it’s the story of the three women who support him without whom the revolution may even be impossible. Somehachi, despite her allegiance to Okudaira, has been a longstanding Tsukigata ally several times helping him escape from the oncoming Mimawarigumi, while Umematsu provides him with safe harbour and occasional message carrying services which is where teenage geisha Hinagiku (Hibari Misora) comes in, acting as a revolutionary go-between with deep-seated political passion.

Speaking strongly of female solidarity, the fallout from the love triangle is eventually minimised by the sisterly geishas who later bond in their shared support of Tsukigata and resolve to put past pettiness behind them. Meanwhile, Tsukigata is deceived by male treachery, only to finally receive the message he’s been waiting for which seems to make everything worthwhile. “I can see the dawn of a new era”, he exclaims, “the new era will be peaceful”. Suddenly he’s not just talking of himself anymore, but directly to the post-war era as he begins to see the way out of a “chaotic society” towards a prosperous future in the faces of his friends united in mutual support and the belief that his better world will soon be a reality.


The Girl I Loved (わが恋せし乙女, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1946)

The Girl I loved DVD coverThe post-war era, as confusing and chaotic as it was, offered several choices, among them that to change to course, choose to create a better, kinder world than the one which had led to so much suffering. As always, however, the human temptation is to choose the opposite and allow anger and resentment to make everything even worse than it had been before. Occasionally censured for his sentimentality, Keisuke Kinoshita was perhaps among the more defiantly positive of the post-war humanists whose fierce love human goodness knew no bounds. In The Girl I Loved (わが恋せし乙女, Waga Koiseshi Otome) he puts his ideas to the ultimate test as a young man recently returned from the war must learn to cope with various kinds of disappointment but eventually resolves to take solace in other people’s happiness even at the cost of his own.

The tale begins some years earlier when a baby girl is abandoned in front of the Asama Ranch, her mother apparently having taken her own life by jumping from a nearby cliff. The Asamas are good people and moved by the letter they find with the baby so decide to take her in. Yoshiko (Kuniko Igawa) is raised alongside older brother Jingo (Yasumi Hara) as an adopted sister always aware of her origins but very much a full member of the family.

Flash forward to the present day and Yoshiko has become a beautiful young woman. Jingo has returned from five years of war in perfect physical health, keen to resume his idyllic farm life in the beautiful Japanese countryside. The fact is that Jingo has long been in love with Yoshiko, though the situation is understandably complicated seeing as they were raised as siblings even if there is no blood relation between them. Somehow it seems a perfectly natural idea that the pair will marry and many assume this will be the case. Jingo, however, remains somewhat reticent and afraid to voice his feelings. It seems Yoshiko has something to tell him too and so he dares to hope as they both agree to share their respective secrets after the harvest festival.

At the festival, however, Jingo gets a shock. He sees the way Yoshiko looks at another man and realises that what she wanted to tell him was probably that she had fallen in love with someone else. Shaken and confused, Jingo bites his tongue. He knows to say anything now would only create more pain and suffering for everyone while he alone will suffer if he decides to stay quiet.

Nevertheless the temptation is there. Mr. Noda (Junji Soneda), Yoshiko’s intended, is a quiet man, an intellectual who returned from the war early thanks to injury and still walks with a cane. Yoshiko has been fearful that her family may object to the marriage on the grounds of Noda’s disability – something he has also been aware of and warned her about in explaining the potential hardship she may have to endure as his wife seeing as he is also merely a poor schoolteacher. Jingo could try to refuse her permission to marry, try to force her to marry him instead, or refuse to give his blessing for her to marry anyone at all, but if he did that all he’d be doing is condemning both of them to eternal misery. It would be understandable if he began to resent Noda and most particularly his disability which brought him home from the war early and enabled him to be here to fall in love with Yoshiko while Jingo was away and dreaming of home, but then it could so easily have been the other way around.

In the end, Jingo’s love is selfless and good. What he wants is for Yoshiko to be happy and if being with Noda is what that means then Jingo will not stand in her way no matter how much it may hurt him to stand aside. After all, as Noda says, aren’t they both lucky to be alive in this beautiful place? Having suffered so much, the two men understand how precious life is and know it’s far too short for pettiness or resentment. A quiet, gentle tale The Girl I Loved is a sad story of youthful disappointment in love, but it’s also a kind of melancholy manifesto for the new post-war world built on compassion and understanding as a young man decides to take the noble path in accepting that the girl he loved loves someone else and that’s sad but it’s also happy and if you can learn to rejoice in someone else’s happiness even in the midst of your own pain then perhaps everything will be alright after all.


Titles and opening scene (no subtitles)