The Perfect Game (完全な遊戯, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

In the mid-1950s, Nikkatsu had courted controversy with a series of films depicting the amoral excesses of the immediate post-war generation. The “Sun Tribe” movies embedded themselves in a world of new bright young things who were largely independently wealthy and thoroughly bored by the ease of their lives. Nikkatsu was forced to halt production on the Sun Tribe films after only three (Toho and Daiei added one each of their own), but they did precipitate a wholesale shift towards youth movies which became the studio’s signature theme. 

Best remembered for his contributions to Nikkatsu’s action noir, Toshio Masuda’s The Perfect Game (完全な遊戯, Kanzenna Yugi, AKA The Tragedy of Today) arrived two years after the Sun Tribe craze but neatly picked up the baton dropped by Kon Ichikawa’s Punishment Room in its tale of nihilistic college boy amorality. As the film opens, our four heroes are playing mahjong and lamenting their lack of funds. They are all, it goes without saying, middle class boys largely supported by their parents who, as far as we know, are high ranking salarymen. They are not hungry, or worrying about how to pay rent or tuition, they are just bored and want extra money to go out having fun before they they are forced into the corporate straightjacket with the regular salaryman jobs many of them already have in the bag thanks to the tremendous power of nepotism. 

As the the opening text implied, they viewed their money making exploits as a game, proving how clever they think they are in getting one over on the universe, but all too quickly it spirals out of control. Toda (Yasukiyo Umeno), the ring leader, has come up with an ingenious money making scheme. It turns out that there’s an illegal betting office some distance away from the bicycle racing stadium that keeps taking bets until someone rings from the track and tells them who won, which means there’s about a five minute delay between the winner being declared and bets being called. The boys figure that if they can somehow beat the lag they can win big. To make it work, they ask their “friend” Kazu (Masumi Okada), who they seem to regard as a bit dim, to join them as well as recruiting an old codger to call the race before the boards go up. Surprisingly it works out, but unfortunately the yakuza-backed bookmaker, Matsui (Ryoji Hayama), wasn’t banking on such a big win and doesn’t have the funds to pay out in one go. 

Toda in particular is pissed off. The wind taken out of his sails, he’s not sure what to do which is when So (Akira Kobayashi), the pretty boy of the group, suggests an ironic punishment. Matsui had joked that he’d put up his adorable kid sister Kyoko (Izumi Ashikawa) as collateral if he couldn’t pay out, so why don’t the boys take him at his word and kidnap her. Rewinding a little, these snotty college boys are about to become kidnappers, adding a little blackmail on the side. This isn’t a fun game anymore, someone is going to get hurt whatever happens even if they can’t know the extent to which their plan to earn a few bucks to blow on jazz bars and pool rooms is going to incur collateral damage. 

Unlike the boys, Kyoko is a working class girl. She wants to keep her head down and work hard, not quite approving of her brother’s involvement with the yakuza and wishing he’d find an honest job but also acknowledging that he had few options and it’s his job at the bookies that’s been keeping them all this time. Their father died in the war, and their mother (Yumi Takano) is very ill, bedridden with heart trouble. Kyoko is no innocent, she brushes off So’s attempts to court her by revealing that dozens of creepy guys try the same thing every day, and most of them don’t stop at passing notes. For whatever reason she ends up warming to him, making him take her to a theme park while her mother worries at home, while he also begins to feel conflicted about the plan in falling for her for real. 

So’s mistake is the childish belief that they’re still playing a game and everything will be alright in the end. He foolishly trusts that his friend’s are men of honour and that Matsui will come up with the money and redeem his sister in no time at all. But money’s not easy to come by even if you’re a yakuza, and the boys might not want it anyway if it comes with additional complications. Visiting with Kyoko’s sickly mother, he perhaps begins to see the gap between his comfortable existence and theirs of constant struggle. He’d been so proud to tell Kyoko that he had an interview lined up at a big company because of family connections, but when he arrives there he feels irrelevant. The interview board only ask him questions about his dad, as if he didn’t really exist. Finally they ask him to talk about what he did at uni, what his “passions” are, if he did anything of note in the past few years, perhaps even fall in love? They’ve unwittingly touched a nerve, but So is in any case forced to reflect on the meaninglessness not only of his adolescence, but of his future. This interview has been a farce, but they’re giving him the job anyway because he’s his father’s son. What more is there to say?

The other boys are also worried about their job prospects, concerned that someone might talk and they’ll be forever tarnished by “youthful exuberance”, refusing to take any personal responsibility for the consequences of their “perfect game”. Unlike So they still want to live in that inherently unfair world which exists for upperclass men to do as they please. Toda and So weren’t quite like their friends. They felt conflicted. Toda embarrassed to be borrowing money from his girlfriend but rejecting the others’ belief that you don’t have to pay women back, only to angrily bark at her that there’s “no way a woman can understand” the intensely masculine debate he’s just had with So about responsibility, which he accepted by deflecting in pushing So’s complicity back on him in an attempt to share his guilt. Unlike the Sun Tribe films, youth takes responsibility for itself and its friends, but can find no way to atone for its moral abnegation. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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.


 

The Shiinomi School (しいのみ学園, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1955)

vlcsnap-2016-07-09-01h53m10s460Hiroshi Shimizu is well known as one of the best directors of children in the history of Japanese cinema, equalled only by the contemporary director Hirokazu Koreeda. The Shiinomi School (しいのみ学園, Shiinomi Gakuen) is one of the primary examples of his genius as it takes on the controversial themes of the place of the disabled in society and especially how children and their parents can come to terms with the many difficulties they now face.

The Yamamotos are a happy family with two sons. However, their elation at the birth of their first child soon turned to tragedy as the boy became seriously ill with polio. Times being what they were, the treatment is not completely effective and although their son thankfully survived, he did so with a lamed leg. Now an older child, Yudo walks with a crutch and is constantly left out or bullied by his fellow children. After their second son, Teruhiko, also contracts the disease and is left even more seriously affected than his brother, the Yamamotos decide to open a school for survivors of polio where they can play together, learning how to live with the effects of the disease, free of the stigma which plagues them in their everyday lives.

Yudo just wants to play baseball and the other kids tell him he can if he brings a catcher’s mitt of his own but when he does they take it away from him and use it themselves while he sits and sadly watches them play. When his dad arrives and tries to tell them off, the kids form a mob and all leave together, fake limping as they go. Children are monsters, and often far less forgiving of difference than their adult counterparts (though it has to be said that the parents of other children are hardly blameless here). It’s not surprising that Mr. Yamamoto would want to protect his son by taking him out of this harsh environment where he’s constantly reminded of his disability and a target for the other kids’ cruel games.

The Shiinomi School may be at odds with modern thinking, but its heart is definitely in the right place. The Yamamotos are operating from a humanist perspective – they want to provide a place which helps the children to grow up strong and independent, fully able to cope with their various disabilities, where they can also escape the extreme prejudice which infects society in general. This prejudice is best brought out not by Yudo’s treatment by the other boys, but by the sad case of Tetsuo whose father had so little idea what to do with him that he used to tie him to a pole. Tetsuo’s dad has since remarried and his new wife has no intention of looking after a disabled child so they’ve brought him to Shiinomi with the intention of abandoning him there. Mr. Yamamoto is shocked and originally refuses to take the boy in protest at the idea of a father who wouldn’t want to try and do everything for his son, but eventually reconsiders when he thinks about what the boy is going back to.

Unintentionally segregating the children has some benefits in the short term but there are those who may feel that it sends a message that the problem is with the children and not with the society which rejects them. Perhaps by giving these children a happy childhood and protecting them from the cruelty of others it’s also leaving them unprepared to deal with that same cruelty once they come of age. In any case Shimizu shoots with his trademark humanity, valiantly showing the children singing loudly and learning to enjoy their lives despite their many hardships. From tiny acorns mighty oaks do grow, the Yamamotos want nothing more than to raise these children in love and acceptance and, if the final scene of the children walking down the lane alone with a song on their lips is anything to go by, you could say their efforts have been richly rewarded.