A Woman’s Place (女の座, Mikio Naruse, 1962)

“A woman’s life is so dreary” laments a disappointed woman as she sits awkwardly at a funeral in Mikio Naruse’s A Woman’s Place (女の座, Onna no Za, AKA The Wiser Age). What exactly is “a woman’s place” in the changing post-war society? The continuing uncertainties of the age begin to burrow into the Ishikawa household as it becomes plain that the house is already divided, in several senses, as daughters and sons find themselves pulled in different directions, each of them perhaps banking on an inheritance to claim a different future. 

As the film opens, the sons and daughters of the Ishikawa family have been sent telegrams to come home at once because dad is at death’s door. Thankfully, that turns out to be premature. All he’s done is put his back out overdoing it in the garden by trying to lift a big rock in defiance of his age. Oldest daughter Matsuyo (Aiko Mimasu), who runs a boarding house, is quite put out to have rushed over for nothing, but everyone is obviously relieved that there turned out to be nothing to worry about after all. Widowed daughter-in-law Yoshiko (Hideko Takamine) realises that she needs to wire Michiko (Keiko Awaji) who moved to Kyushu when she got married that there’s no need to come, but she later turns up anyway along with her goofy husband Masaaki (Tatsuya Mihashi), claiming they’ve decided to make the trip a kind of honeymoon though it seems obvious to everyone that there must be reasons they seem intent on overstaying their welcome. 

“They depend on us, everyone does when they return home” mother/step-mother Aki (Haruko Sugimura) chuckles as Matsuyo and only remaining son Jiro (Keiju Kobayashi) pocket some paper towels from the family shop on their way out. Everyone is indeed depending on the family, not least for a clue as to where they stand as much as for a permanent place to return to. Three daughters of marriageable age still live at home. The oldest, Umeko (Mitsuko Kusabue), the daughter of patriarch Kinjiro’s (Chishu Ryu) first wife, has renounced the possibility of marriage and has made a career for herself as an ikebana teacher, a traditionally respectable occupation for “independent” women. In her 30s, she has become cruel and embittered, sniping at her sisters and always smirking away in a corner somewhere being aggressively miserable (nobody in the family seems to like Umeko very much, but still they accept her). Later she offers a sad, surprisingly romantic explanation for her decision in her unrequited love for a middle school classmate who died in the war, but is in someway revived by an unexpected attraction to a young man Matsuyo brings to the house who claims to be the infant boy Aki was forced to give up when she left her former husband’s family and married Kinjiro. 

The unexpected reappearance of Musumiya (Akira Takarada) destabilises the family across several levels, firstly in highlighting Aki’s awkward status as a second wife and step-mother to the two oldest children, and then by inciting a false romantic rivalry between the widowed Yoshiko and the unmarried Umeko. Umeko at one point cruelly describes Yoshiko as the only “outsider” in the household, viewing her connection to them now that her husband has died solely through the lens of being the mother of the only male grandchild, Ken (Kenzaburo Osawa). Yoshiko, only 36 years old, is repeatedly urged to remarry, but she like Aki would be forced to leave Ken behind if she did, though he is now a teenager and perhaps old enough not to feel abandoned. Ken in fact joins in encouraging his mother to find a second husband, but partly because she is always nagging him to study harder (something which will have have tragic, unexpected consequences). Yoshiko’s “place” in the household is therefore somewhat liminal, part of the family and yet not, because her status depends on solely on her relationships to others rather than blood. 

Nevertheless, Yoshiko is clearly in charge as we witness all of the other women disturbing her while she’s cooking to enquire after missing items, whether the bath is ready, or to attend to something in the store. Umeko has built her own smaller annex on another part of the property and mostly keeps to herself, while the two younger daughters busy themselves with a series of romantic subplots. Despite her sister Matsuyo’s eye-rolling that she should “forget about working and get married”, Natsuko (Yoko Tsukasa) is trying to find another job after being laid off when the company she worked for went bankrupt. Her brother, meanwhile, is experiencing the opposite problem in that it’s impossible to find and keep delivery staff at his ramen shop and he desperately needs help because his wife is pregnant again. Natsuko is convinced to “help out” though it’s clear that working in a ramen shop wasn’t what she had in mind, but it does bring her into contact with an eccentric friend of her sister Yukiko’s (Yuriko Hoshi) while she works on the box office of a nearby cinema. 

A crisis occurs when Natsuko is presented with the prospect of an accelerated arranged marriage to a man who took a liking to her while working at the company which went bust and has since got a job which requires him to relocate to Brazil. The ramen shop guy, Aoyama (Yosuke Natsuki), meanwhile is also getting a transfer but only to the top of Mount Fuji. Natsuko is torn, but also wonders if Yukiko actually wants Aoyama herself and only tried to set them up as a sort of test. In any case, both of these younger women also feel that their “place” is defined by marriage and their status conferred by their husbands even if they are exercising a personal preference in their choice, Yukiko’s in romance while Natsuko’s is perhaps a little more calculation in that she knew and liked her suitor but would not go so far as to call it “love”. 

In her own strange way, Umeko may be the most radical of the women in that she has attempted to define her own place through rejecting marriage and making enough money to buy her own home (albeit still on the family property) in a kind of independence, later deciding that perhaps she does want marriage after all but only on her own terms. Unfortunately, she is drawn to Musumiya whose presence poses a threat to the family on several levels, the most serious being that he is quickly exposed as a conman guilting Aki into assisting him financially while also trying some kind of car sale scam on the smitten Umeko who wants to add to her independence through learning to drive. Musumiya, it seems, prefers Yoshiko and his affection may well be genuine, but she is trapped once again. While she and Aki privately express their doubts about Musumiya, they have no desire to hurt Umeko’s feelings and cannot exactly come out and say that he is no good seeing as he is Aki’s son. Yoshiko stoically keeps the secret, perhaps also attracted to Musumiya but loyal to the Ishikawas and wanting no trouble from such a duplicitous man. Still, Umeko regards Yoshiko’s attempts to discourage her as “jealousy” and wastes no time embarrassing them both in a nasty public altercation. 

While all of this going on, there has been some talk that the shop may be compulsory purchased to make way for an Olympic road, and each of the Ishikawa children is eagerly awaiting their share of the compensation money, not least Michiko and her feckless husband who turns out to have fled Kyushu after getting fired from his job for assaulting a client. The “heir”, technically is Ken as the only male grandchild and Yoshiko’s tenuous status in the household is entirely conferred on her as his mother. When that disappears, her “place” is uncertain. Most of the others are for kicking her out, she’s not a “real” member of the family and so deserves none of the money with only Natsuko stopping to defend her. But, as so often, the widowed daughter-in-law turns out to be the only filial child. Mum and dad feel themselves displaced in their own home, somehow feeling they must stand aside, but it turns out they have plans of their own and Yoshiko is very much included. They want to take her with them, and if one day she decides to marry again then that’s perfectly OK and they will even provide a dowry for her as if she were one of their own daughters. 

“We have many children but they only think of themselves” Kinjiro laments, “let’s not worry about them and live peacefully by ourselves”. It’s easy to see their decision as a strategic retreat, as if they’re being left behind by a future they cannot be a part of, but it’s also in some ways an escape from the increasingly selfish post-war society. Yoshiko may not have actively chosen her “place” but she does at least have one and reserves the right to choose somewhere else in the future. The older Ishikawas choose to be happy on their own, freeing their children and giving them their blessing so long as they’re “doing their best”. It’s a strangely upbeat conclusion for a Naruse film, if perhaps undercut with a mild sense of resignation, but nevertheless filled with a hope for a happier future and an acknowledgement that “family” can work but only when it is defined by genuine feeling and not merely by blood. 


The Last Gunfight (暗黒街の対決, Kihachi Okamoto, 1960)

“Times may change but there’s always a bunch of greed-blinded old men to rip you off” according to the sidelined noble yakuza pushed into the shadows of Kihachi Okamoto’s anarchic gangster romp The Last Gunfight (暗黒街の対決, Ankokugai no Taiketsu). Another of Okamoto’s early crime movies, Last Gunfight, adapted from the novel by hardboiled king Haruhiko Oyabu, as its name implies finds a stranger in town arriving at the tail end of a gang war in which the wrong side seems to have won hoping to offer a course correction for the post-war future. 

Branded a “dirty cop” and demoted to small-town Kojin, Fujioka (Toshiro Mifune) is a maverick officer exploring the local landscape by getting into fights with foot solders from differing outfits, quickly finding out that the Ooka gang are currently in the ascendent while old school Kozuka flounders. Improbably enough, the local flashpoint is over control of the gravel dredging business currently operated by Kozuka but contested by Ooka. Fujioka meanwhile is caught in a complex web at the nexus of which is Tetsu (Koji Tsuruta), a former Kozuka man who now runs a bar while he plots revenge for the death of his wife in a traffic accident he suspects may have been foul play possibly at the hands of Ooka man Niki, brother of brassy bar girl Sally (Yoko Tsukasa). 

Arriving on the same train as dodgy lawyer Tendo (Akihiko Hirata) and an exotic dancer destined for the club, Fujioka keeps his cards close to his chest leaving his loyalties all but clear. The station are less than thrilled to have him, especially as he spends his first night in town in one of their cells after starting a bar fight, waking up right under a sign which reads “stop violent crime”, while another earnest young officer reminds him that “policemen should never be involved in violence”. Fujioka continues to play both sides, cosying up to both Ooka and Tetsu, walking the line between cop and thug while seemingly scoping out the terrain on either side of the tracks. 

Meanwhile, the town is mired in a battle for its soul as the amoral Ooka gang slowly take over. As Kozuka foot soldier Yata (Makoto Sato) puts it, his boss is the sort who won’t have anything to do with yakuza who don’t obey the code which is why he won’t simply cut a deal with Ooka. According to Kozuka (Jun Tazaki), others might lump him in with “fools and trash” but he’s the old school kind of yakuza providing a genuine service to the community. He dredged the river to stop it flooding and was given the gravel business as a thank you so he resents having it stolen out from under him by the likes of Ooka who makes his money primarily through the drugs trade trafficking “China White” and has seemingly corrupted the entire city council. 

Then again, as Kozuka points out ties based on greed are the most fragile of all and it appears Ooka has secrets he’d rather weren’t exposed. Living in a Western-style mansion complete with open fireplaces and hunting trophies on the walls Ooka is laying claim to a fiefdom as the new inheritor of the feudal legacy. Tetsu’s bar, meanwhile, seems to have a Wild West theme which perhaps speaks of his love of freedom and independence as opposed to Ooka’s elitist authoritarianism. As a representative of legitimate authority Fujioka walks a tightrope between the two but eventually shuns a potential love interest in bargirl Sally, currently Ooka’s squeeze but playing her own game hoping to find out what happened to her brother, in favour of a bromance with the wounded Tetsu.  

Like Okamoto’s other gangster movies from this era however and in contrast to the heaviness of the title, Last Gunfight is imbued with a strong sense of irony and the director’s characteristically cartoonish sense of humour with its ridiculous fight scenes, elaborate production design, and playful subversion of gangster movie tropes right down to the frequent musical numbers starring a trio of minions clad in black suits and lip-syncing to songs about killing the moon. Ending as it began, Okamoto’s elliptical narrative sees the strangers leaving town, job done, but laying themselves bare as they go now shorn of their cover identities and headed back into the heart of corruption in search of new destinations.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Boxer (ボクサー, Shuji Terayama, 1977)

Boxer posterArtistic polymath Shuji Terayama was fond of claiming that more could be learned about life from boxing rings and race courses than from conventional study. Immersing himself in the countercultural epicentre of mid-century Shinjuku, he became known for iconoclastic street theatre before shifting to film, instantly recognisable for his striking use of colour filter and theatrical, avant-garde aesthetic. 1977’s Boxer (ボクサー) is, however, his most conventional experiment, a generic tale of a struggling boxer yearning to be a champion and battling himself, along with his society, in the claustrophobic arena of the ring, but for all the expected triumph it’s futility which marks his life and the ropes which restrain rather than liberate.

Former boxing champion Hayato (Bunta Sugawara) now lives a lonely existence alone with his beloved dog in a rundown boarding house. His brother is about to be married and wanted him to be in the engagement photos, but he told the young couple to go ahead without him. He may come to regret that because his brother quickly becomes the victim of an accident that may not have been quite that at the construction site where he and his fiancée worked. It seems that another employee, Tenma (Kentaro Shimizu) – an aspiring boxer with a limp, had taken a liking to the same girl and, either distracted by the news she intended to marry someone else, or not thinking clearly, he allowed his digger to hit Hayato’s brother and kill him. Of course, Hayato is not happy about that and determines to track Tenma down, looking for him at a neighbourhood bar where a small boy guides him to the gym, which he is eventually expelled from by the other boxers. Nevertheless, Tenma, having heard about Hayato’s past and been dismissed by his trainers because of his disability, is determined to overcome the debt that exists between them and become Hayato’s mentee hoping to go on to boxing glory.

Like many a Shinjuku tale, this is one of scrappy chancers longing to escape the vice-like grip of an underworld that refuses to release them. In the land of broken dreams, the hopeless man is king, and Hayato is nothing if not hopeless. Years ago, we’re told, he was a champion, yet he suddenly quit boxing mid-way through a bout that he was clearly winning. He had a wife and daughter, but now lives alone (except for the dog), making a living by pasting up flyers. In response to Tenma’s request, Hayato recounts to him the histories of boxing champions in Japan all of whom met a sticky end: dying of typhus in Manchuria, drowning after demobilisation, dying under a bridge, hit by a train, suicide after revenge on a yakuza who’d killed his brother, killed when a runaway truck hit his home, car accidents etc. The boxing match which opens the film is preceded by a minute of silence for a champion who died just a few days previously. So what, Hayato seems to say, we fight but we all die in the ring anyway. What’s the point?

Still, for all the meaningless of his success, he too finds a kind of purpose in Tenma’s quest even if he knows it’s futile and that it is perhaps perverse to commit to saving the man who killed his brother either by accident, as he claims, or out of romantic jealousy. Tenma tells him that he wants to be a champion to appear on TV and be famous. He has, it seems, something to prove. Hayato tells him that boxing’s not for everyone, cruelly echoing the words of the president of the boxing society in his letter explaining to Tenma that there is no place for him in the boxing world because of his disability. His reasoning is however different. He asks him if he is able to hate, to which which he replies that yes, he hates his mother, father, brother, and in fact “the whole damn world” which makes him a perfect mirror for his defeated mentor.

Terayama opens the film with a melancholy black and white sequence in which a boxer walks down a long corridor towards a door filled with light while other contenders pass him from the opposite direction, some badly beaten and others unable to walk. This is the price, he seems to say, a literal manifestation of life’s battery. Even the denizens of the strangely colourful, warm and cheerful little neighbourhood bar with its Taisho intellectual, former actress turned streetwalker, smoking child, and bookmakers who don’t pay their bills, are fighting a heavy battle, crushed under the weight of their broken dreams. Hayato tries to offer encouragement from the sidelines, “Get up if you refuse to be a loser”, he yells to a barely conscious Tenma struggling raise himself from the mat, but even if he does what will he gain? Suitcase in hand the women leave looking for better lives, while Tenma struggles to escape from the ring, chasing hollow victories of illusionary manhood but finding salvation only in the struggle.


Opening sequence (no subtitles)

Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1961)

vlcsnap-2019-03-15-00h18m28s351Working from a Keisuke Kinoshita script, Kinuyo Tanaka’s first film as a director, Love Letter, made a point of exploring the often hypocritical and contradictory attitudes towards women who had engaged in sex work or become the mistresses of American servicemen in the immediate aftermath of the defeat. For her fifth film, Tanaka returns to the same subject but this time adapting a novel by Masako Yana scripted by Sumie Tanaka (no relation) with whom she’d previously collaborated on The Eternal Breasts. Somewhat suggestively retitled Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Onna Bakari no Yoru), Tanaka’s adaptation tones down the novel’s sensuality but dares to ask a series of subversive questions regarding female agency and sexuality in the rapidly changing post-war society.

Set in the contemporary era, the film opens with reportage-style voiceover and newspaper clippings highlighting the enforcement of the anti-prostitution laws of 1958. According to the voiceover, the red light districts of Japan may have all but disappeared but streetwalking and other forms of casual sex work are still very much a part of the post-war economy. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the old ways and new, those arrested by the police are divided into two camps – those deemed beyond “redemption” sent to prison, and the rest to reform centres such as the Shiragiku Protective Facility for Women which is where we find our heroines.

The reform centre itself is a fairly progressive place and much more forward looking that seen in the earlier Women of the Night though perhaps sometimes patronising even as it makes a strenuous attempt not look down on the women who enter its care. Our first entry into the facility is in the company of a similarly well meaning women’s association whose misplaced pity only reinforces their innately privileged position. They are as far from many of these women as it is possible to be and struggle to understand how it is possible that they found themselves engaging in a practice they find both shameful and degrading. Having got to know many of the women through trying to help them, the school’s headmistress Nogami (Chikage Awashima) and her assistant are better placed to understand even if they also apologise that many of the women in their care are of “low IQ” and fail to convey the kinds of pressures that many have been subject to from desperate poverty to bad family situations and abusive relationships.

Abuse and the trauma of abuse remains one of the barriers to the women moving on, as in the reason many of them found themselves in sex work was because of their relationship with an exploitative partner who either forced them to sell their bodies or left them with no other choice in order to support themselves through being unable or unwilling to work. Nogami, a compassionate and understanding woman, is at pains to insist that the reason many of these women see nothing wrong in sex work is that they have an insufficient level of self respect and value their bodily autonomy too cheaply in allowing others to buy and sell access to it without full consideration of everything that implies.

Then again, asked by one of her most promising cases, Kuniko (Hisako Hara), what is actually so “bad” about sex work, Nogami is forced to admit that she doesn’t know – only that it is now illegal and her job is to help these women live “honest” lives within law. It is difficult to evade the hypocrisy that Nogami is telling these women that they should exercise full agency over their bodies while simultaneously telling them what they shouldn’t be doing with them, but then for all the centre’s talk about “purity” Nogami herself is refreshingly frank and practical in her approach to helping these women towards reintegration into mainstream society in the assumption that that is something they would want rather than out of any quasi-religious ideas of moral goodness.

Shame and social stigma, however, become another barrier as Kuniko finds to her cost in her attempts to move on from the centre. At her first placement as a live-in assistant at a grocer’s, she is quickly outed by a nosy deliveryman already acquainted with the true nature of the Shiragiku centre. The exposure of Kuniko’s past provokes not only mild disgust and suspicion among “respectable” people but also unwanted male attention from those who assume her former life as a sex worker means that they are already entitled to her sexuality with or without her consent.

Thinking the direct approach might be better, Kuniko decides to share her past with the ladies in the dorm at her next job in a factory but they are not quite as supportive as she might have hoped. Despite the fact that many of these young women are sexually active and in fact involved in what might be thought of as acts of casual sex work, they collectively look down on Kuniko while also seeking to exploit her both for the practical knowledge they assume she must have and by attempting to pimp her out to other men they know. When the attempt fails (Kuniko humiliates the three men who try to pressure her into sex by frightening them off with nothing more than confidence and self-possession), the women turn on her and enact an extremely violent and sadistic revenge.

Despite what she observed at the centre, Kuniko learns to her cost that she cannot necessarily rely on female solidarity as a bulwark against male exploitation. Nevertheless, it is to female communities and friendships that she ultimately returns. The leader of the women’s group from the beginning turns out to be less of a dilettante than she first seems and eventually takes Kuniko in with a promising job in a rose a garden which seems to suit her perfectly. Roses, however, have thorns – this one’s being her tentative relationship with gardener Hayakawa (Yosuke Natsuki) who is aware of her past but falls in love with her anyway only for her romance to hit the barrier of entrenched social mores when she discovers that Hayakawa is in fact a member of a noble family. In another instance of women not helping women, Hayakawa’s mother puts the kibosh on her daughter-in-law being a former sex worker which both reinforces Kuniko’s sense of being irreparably damaged and makes her feel as if she has become a problem for a man with whom she has fallen in love. Vowing to live up to Hayakawa’s vision of her as a “pure” woman, Kuniko retreats once again to a supportive community of women – this time of pearl divers in what seems to be an act of spiritual cleansing.

In Kuniko’s final identification of the “disgracefulness” of her past and declaration that she does not hate the world but only herself, Girls of the Night shifts into a more conventional register than the broadly empathetic, subversively positive attitude it had hitherto adopted towards the idea of sex work and the women who engage in it, opting to blame the woman rather than engage with the various forces of social oppression which attempt to micromanage female sexuality. Nevertheless, Tanaka’s deft touch remains as sympathetic as it’s possible to be in affirming that there is a path forward for those who might feel trapped by past transgression even if it simultaneously insists that its heroine save herself only by rejecting her happy ending in atonement for her past “sins”.


The H-Man (美女と液体人間, Ishiro Honda, 1958)

H-man
Toho produced a steady stream of science fiction movies in the ‘50s, each with some harsh words directed at irresponsible scientists whose discoveries place the whole world in peril. The H-man (美女と液体人間, Bijo to Ekitainingen), arriving in 1958, finds the genre at something of an interesting juncture but once again casts nuclear technology as the great evil, corrupting and eroding humanity with a barely understood power. Science may have conjured up the child which will one day destroy us, robbing mankind of its place as the dominant species. Still, we’ve never particularly needed science to destroy ourselves and so this particularly creepy mystery takes on a procedural bent infused with classic noir tropes and filled with the seedier elements of city life from gangsters and the drugs trade to put upon show girls with lousy boyfriends who land them in unexpected trouble.

Misaki (Hisaya Itou) is not a man who would likely have been remembered. A petty gangster on the fringes of the criminal underworld, just trying to get by in the gradually improving post-war economy, he’s one of many who might have found himself on the wrong side of a gangland battle and wound up just another name in a file. However, Misaki gets himself noticed by disappearing in the middle of a drugs heist leaving all of his clothes behind. The police immediatetely start hassling his cabaret singer girlfriend, Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa), who knows absolutely nothing but is deeply worried about what may have happened to her no good boyfriend. The police are still working on the assumption Misaki has skipped town, but a rogue professor, Masada (Kenji Sahara), thinks the disappearance may be linked to a strange nuclear incident…..

Perhaps lacking in hard science, the H-Man posits that radiation poisoning can fundamentally change the molecular structure of a living being, rendering it a kind of sentient sludge. This particular hypothesis is effectively demonstrated by doing some very unpleasant looking things to a frog but it seems humans too can be broken down into their component parts to become an all powerful liquid being. The original outbreak is thought to have occurred on a boat out at sea and the scientists still haven’t figured out why the creature has come back to Tokyo though their worst fear is that the H-man, as they’re calling him, retains some of his original memories and has tried to return “home” for whatever reason.

The sludge monster seeps and crawls, working its way in where it isn’t wanted but finally rematerialises in humanoid form to do its deadly business. Once again handled by Eiji Tsuburaya, the effects work is extraordinary as the genuinely creepy slime makes its slow motion assault before fire breaks out on water in an attempt to eradicate the flickering figures of the newly reformed H-men. The scientists think they’ve come up with a way to stop the monstrous threat, but they can’t guarantee there will never be another – think what might happen in a world covered in radioactivity! The H-man may just be another stop in human evolution.

Despite the scientists’ passionate attempts to convince them, the police remain reluctant to consider such an outlandish solution, preferring to work the gangland angle in the hopes of taking out the local drug dealers. The drug lord subplot is just that, but Misaki most definitely inhabited the seamier side of the post-war world with its seedy bars and petty crooks lurking in the shadows, pistols at the ready under their mud splattered macs. Chikako never quite becomes the generic “woman in peril” despite being directly referenced in the Japanese title, though she is eventually kidnapped by very human villains, finding herself at the mercy of violent criminality rather than rogue science. Science wants to save her, Masada has fallen in love, but their relationship is a subtle and mostly one sided one as Chikako remains preoccupied over the fate of the still missing Misaki.

Even amidst the fear and chaos, Honda finds room for a little song and dance with Chikako allowed to sing a few numbers at the bar while the other girls dance around in risqué outfits. The H-man may be another post-war anti-nuke picture from the studio which brought you Godzilla but its target is wider. Nuclear technology is not only dangerous and unpredictable, it has already changed us, corrupting body and soul. The H-men may very well be that which comes after us, but if that is the case it is we ourselves who have sown the seeds of our destruction in allowing our fiery children to break free of our control.


Original trailer (no subtitles)