The Little Runaway (小さい逃亡者, Eduard Bocharov & Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1966)

The little runawayTeinosuke Kinugasa maybe best known for his avant-garde masterpiece The page of Madness even if his subsequent work leant towards a more commercial direction. His final film is just as unusual, though perhaps for different reason. In 1966, Kinugasa co-directed The Little Runaway (小さい逃亡者, Chiisai Tobosha) with Russian director Eduard Bocharov in the first of such collaborations ever created. Truth be told, aside from the geographical proximity, the Japan of 1966 could not be more different from its Soviet counterpart as the Eastern block remained mired in the “cold war” while Japan raced ahead towards its very own, capitalist, economic miracle. Perhaps looking at both sides with kind eyes, The Little Runaway has its heart in the right place with its messages of the universality of human goodness and endurance but broadly makes a success of them if failing to disguise the obvious propaganda gloss.

Little Ken (Chiharu Inayoshi) is ten years old and lives with his violinist uncle, Nobuyuki (Jukichi Uno). Ken has obvious talent at the violin and, like most kids in this rundown area, his drunken uncle has roped him into helping out for a few extra pennies. One fateful night, Nobuyuki has tied one on and lets slip that Ken’s dad might not be dead, but stuck in a hospital in Moscow. Soon enough a Russian circus comes to town and Ken strikes up a strange friendship with the kindly clown, eventually stowing away to the Soviet Union to look for his long lost father.

From one point of view, The Little Runaway conforms to a certain type of family drama which centres on the disconnect between a father and a son. Ken feels abandoned (no reference is ever made to his mother), though he loves and respects the uncle who takes care of him even if recognising his standard of care often leaves a lot to be desired. His desire to find his father is not so much motivated by unhappiness (his life is difficult but it’s the only one he’s ever known), but by the desire for answers as regards his own ancestry and the emotional need to reconnect with the biological father he no longer remembers clearly.

From another point of view, The Little Runaway conforms to the genre of children’s cinema in its close following of Ken’s quest. With no word of warning, Ken takes off for Russia as if he were simply going to check out a neighbouring town. Unaware of the political context and hoping to use his friendship with the circus troupe to his advantage Ken stows away on a boat headed for the USSR, but his clowning friends aren’t on it and he doesn’t speak any Russian.

The central tenet of the story is that there are kind people everywhere willing to help a determined little boy with melancholy eyes. Ken manages to get to Russia but then escapes his “escort”, hoping to travel to the capital faster. Wandering through the empty landscape, he chances into a house and makes friends with a peasant boy who introduces him to his wider family and a man with many daughters who could use a son just like Ken. Ken also tries to support himself by taking casual work as a labourer, having learnt the Russian word for such a job and repeatedly emphasising it, trying to assure them that he’s stronger than his appearance suggests.

Despite not speaking the language Ken manages to make himself understood through sand paintings, though the Russians he meets are all eager to share their food and shelter with him without much by way of explanation. As might be expected, the Russia depicted may not be particularly realistic, the officials are kind and jovial, the streets are clean, the people healthy and happy, and you can even buy Moscow cigarettes from woman running a stand in the square. The Japan Ken knows, by contrast, is one down at heels in which children are being pressed into shady forms of employment from Ken’s violin playing to little girls selling flowers on the street.

Depicting events from an innocent, child’s eye view, The Little Runaway finds only goodness rather than political anxiety but it is quick to emphasis the importance of helping those in need as the clown later avows. More or less straightforward in shooting style, Little Runaway is more intent on seeing the virtues of the cooperation between the Soviet block and the burgeoning Japanese economy than resolving its central mystery but nevertheless provides another welcome addition to the plucky child adventure genre while urging a kind of universal kindness probably not much in evidence in the real life Tokyo or Moscow of 1966.


Original Japanese trailer (no subtitles)

The Snow Woman (怪談雪女郎, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1968)

snow womanThe Snow Woman is one of the most popular figures of Japanese folklore. Though the legend begins as a terrifying tale of an evil spirit casting dominion over the snow lands and freezing to death any men she happens to find intruding on her territory, the tale suddenly changes track and far from celebrating human victory over supernatural malevolence, ultimately forces us to reconsider everything we know and see the Snow Woman as the final victim in her own story. Previously brought the screen by Masaki Kobayashi as part of his Kwaidan omnibus movie, Tokuzo Tanaka’s expanded look at the classic tale (怪談雪女郎, Kaidan Yukijoro) is one of extreme beauty contrasting human cruelty with supernatural inevitability and the endless quest for compassion.

As in the original folktale, the film begins with two sculptors venturing into snow filled forests looking for the perfect tree to carve a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kanon, for the local temple. Having finally located the longed for tree, the pair spend the night in a cabin only to receive a visit from the Snow Woman herself who freezes the older man but is taken by the younger one’s beauty and spares his life, instructing him never to speak of these events.

Yosaku is taken back to the village followed not long after by the tree trunk. In tribute to his master, the head of the temple asks him to complete the statue himself despite his relative lack of experience. Later, a beautiful yet mysterious woman takes shelter from the intense rain under Yosaku’s roof and is taken in by his adoptive mother and wife of his former master. Eventually, Yosaku and “Yuki” fall in love and marry but the two quickly come to the notice of the higher samurai orders who seem determined to ruin their happy union.

Inspired by Lafcadio Hearn’s version of the story, this retelling adds a layer of social commentary with the constant interference of the higher echelons who exist solely to plague those below them with their petty games of subjugation. We first meet the local bailiff Jito when he rides into town trailing a massive entourage and immediately stars beating some of the local children who were playing with piles of wood. When Yosaku’s adoptive mother pleads with them to stop, he beats her too for having the temerity to speak to a samurai. Unfortunately, he has it in for Yosaku because he has another master sculptor he wants to use for the statue, and now he’s also taken a liking to the beautiful Yuki and will stop at nothing to have his wicked way with her. He is in for quite a nasty shock but even so, the higher orders remain the higher orders and those below them are left with no recourse but simply to follow suit.

The real villain of the film is this enforced class system which allows or even encourages those at its summit to run rampant over those below. The samurai will have their way and the people have nothing to oppose them with save their sense of personal integrity. The Snow Woman then becomes the film’s unlikely heroine. By the time we reach the film’s emotionally devastating finale, Yuki claims that she learned human compassion in her life with Yosaku and their child and ultimately sacrifices her own happiness to preserve that of her husband and son. Yosaku finds himself in competition with the other sculptor who manages to complete a beautiful statue but the temple priest finds it wanting, its expression is soulless and devoid of the sense of compassion he was looking for in the face of a goddess of mercy. Yosaku finds the very look he needs in his wife’s face, exhausted from lending her supernatural strength to save the life of a small child and her husband’s freedom, and in her eyes as she prepares to bid goodbye to him.

The Snow Woman is only obeying her own nature and cannot be blamed for merely being what she is, but the human cruelty and selfishness inherent in the feudal world is a matter of choice. Jito is an evil man, doubtless his world has also made him cruel and selfish but the choice always remains for him not to be – a choice which he is incapable of making. Men like Yosaku toil away endlessly and honestly but their rewards are fragile, personal things rarely recognised by the world at large. Only the Snow Woman, a cold creature, possesses the necessary warmth to breath life into a monument to mercy built solely by a pair of sincere hands.

Tanaka creates a stunning visual world using mostly simple effects and optical trickery to bring the Snow Woman’s icy domain into the ordinary feudal environment. The Snow Woman glides eerily through impressively layered snow scenes, dissolving from one world only to reappear in another. Beautifully filmed and filled with warmth and compassion despite its frozen aesthetic, The Snow Woman is deeply moving plea for empathy in a cruel world which successfully makes a tragic heroine out of its supernatural protagonist.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

The Rainbow Man (虹男, Kiyohiko Ushihara, 1949)

The Rainbow Man“The Rainbow Man” sounds like quite a cheerful fellow, doesn’t he? How could you not be excited about a visit from such a bright and colourful chap especially as he generally turns up after the rain has ended? Daiei have once again found something happy and made it sinister in this 1949 genre effort which is sometimes called Japan’s first science fiction film though there isn’t really any sci-fi content here so much as a strange murder mystery with a weird drug at its centre.

The story begins with lady reporter Mimi beating her rival Akashi to an important scoop but soon after she runs into an old school friend who seems about to become a major story herself. Yurie has been taken in for questioning regarding a mysterious incident in which a rural cottage burnt down with the body of a murdered man hidden inside it. Heading into town with her maid, Yurie was taken ill near the crime scene and the maid left to go get help meaning Yurie can’t account for the hour or so that she was alone there and being so ill her memories aren’t clear either.

The case at hand concerns the extremely strange Maya family which is led by the mad scientist father who insists on studying artificial rainbows despite an ancient curse on his family which makes this a very bad idea. He is joined by his equally mad artist son Katsuto who creates disturbing, psychedelic paintings, younger son Toyohiko who has recently returned after a five year absence, and his second wife who likes Yurie and cats but not much else. The murdered man, Hachiro, was also connected to the family and was the first to fall victim to the curse of the Rainbow Man!

Unlike some of Daiei’s other genre pictures from this period, Rainbow Man (虹男, Niji Otoko) is a little more straightforward and doesn’t feature any particularly complex special effects. That said, the most notable feature of the film is the rainbow effect itself – right before the murders occur, the victims start shouting about the Rainbow Man whilst hallucinating bright rainbow-like colours. At this point, the screen erupts with psychedelic colours in strong contrast to the regular black and white footage of the rest of the movie. As surprising as this effect is now, it must have been truly shocking to the audience of 1949 who were understandably much less used to colour movies let alone the use of colour in films otherwise monochrome.

Though The Rainbow Man is tagged as sci-fi or horror, it’s really much more of a regular murder mystery with a scientific bent. In the end, it all comes down to the effects of the perfectly natural real world drug mescaline which though unusual is not a scientific fiction. The only instance of strangeness is in the bizarre rainbow man curse in which the Maya family is not supposed to be asking questions about rainbows, which is fairly odd thing to be cursed with, but then they are a very odd family in all aspects. There is, however, a strong mad scientist vibe which, mixed with the creepy old Western style house and persistent stormy weather, makes for an excitingly gothic atmosphere.

The special effects were once again designed by Eiji Tsuburaya and, even if this isn’t such a FX heavy film as some of Daiei’s other movies from the period, are always quite exciting. Director Kiyohiko Ushihara does a nice job of keeping the tension up and provides several interesting set pieces filled with unusual compositions which also make good use of gothic lighting.

The Rainbow Man is also quite interesting as an example of female led genre cinema as lady journalist Mimi takes the central investigator spot and is presented as a talented reporter who always seems to outsmart her male counterpart from a rival newspaper, Akashi. The police too, who are also depicted as competent and open minded, take Mimi seriously by valuing her investigative skills and her desire to protect her presumably innocent friend from harm. The Rainbow Man might not be the sci-fi/horror film it is often supposed to be, but it does provide an intriguing murder mystery with gothic overtones and light layer of genre inflected strangeness.


Can’t find any clips of the movie but here’s a recording of the main theme plus some stills:

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (蛇娘と白髪魔, Noriaki Yuasa, 1968)

snake girl and the white haired witchLittle Sayuri has had it pretty tough up to now growing up in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, but her long lost father has finally managed to track her down and she’s going to able to live with her birth family at last! However, on the car ride to her new home her father explains a few things to her to the effect that her mother was involved in some kind of accident and isn’t quite right in the head. Things get weirder when they arrive at the house only to be greated by the guys from the morgue who’ve just arrived to take charge of a maid who’s apparently dropped dead!

If that weren’t enough her “mother” calls her by the wrong name and then dad gets a sudden telegram about needing to go to Africa for “several weeks” to study a new kind of snake! On her tour of the house, Sayuri finds a room full of snakes, reptiles and insects (and also for some reason a large vat of acid?!) as well as a room with a buddhist altar where the food seems to disappear just as if Buddha himself were really eating it. Eventually, Sayuri is introduced to her secret sister, Tamami, who has slight facial disfigurement and a wicked disposition which has seen her locked away from view for quite some time…..

Based on the manga by Kazuo Umezu, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (蛇娘と白髪魔, Hebi Musume to Hakuhatsuma) is, apparently, aimed at a younger audience which explains its child’s eye view of events but the film makes no concessions to the supposed softness of little minds. With a host of surreal imagery including dream sequences full of creepy, hypnotic spirals, and moments of shocking violence such as a large frog being suddenly ripped in half right in front of Sayuri’s eyes the film certainly doesn’t stint on blood, horror and general freakiness.

Sayuri herself seems largely unperturbed by these strange goings on outside of her nightmarish serpentine visions. She seems to have been well cared for at the orphanage and is happy to have found her family rather than just to be escaping the institution. On getting “home” she does her best to fit in right away, acting politely and trying to bond with her mother even in her confused state. She even tries to get on well with her mysterious sister despite the ominous warning to keep her very existence a secret from her father. Tamami, however, is a nightmare child with homicidal tendencies who isn’t interested in playing happy families with the girl who’s come to usurp her place in the household.

There’s a little more to the set up than just snake based horror (the clue being the Silver-Haired Witch of the title) but the secondary message seems to be one of remembering that the true beauty of a person lies not in their external appearance but in the goodness of their soul. The previously deformed Tamami is later said to be looking sweeter after having “redeemed” herself and Sayuri pledges to honour Tamami’s sisterly sacrifice by always remembering to hold fast and true to the beautiful things in her own soul without being swayed by worldly charms.

Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is more of a psychological horror tale than some of the effects laden efforts of the period. However, there are a fair few practical effects on show most notably during the dream sequences – one of which sees Sayuri actually fighting a giant snake with a sword, as well as the creepy spirals and the appearance of weird vampire-like snake women, dancing oni masks and the Silver-Haired Witch herself.

A children’s film that no one in their right mind would actually show to a child, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a freakishly psychological horror show seen through the eyes of a little girl. Part dreamscape and part terrifying reality, the film mixes the real and the imagined with a fiendish intensity and it just goes to show that sometimes you really do need to pay attention to the strange fancies of intrepid young ladies.


This trailer doesn’t have any subtitles but it is actually quite scary…..