Ken (剣, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

Most closely associated with jidaigeki, Kenji Misumi’s only film to be set in the contemporary era, Ken (剣), shifts his persistent concerns into the modern day in the clash of the warrior ideal and the emotional costs of living, but also takes a sideways look at conflicted post-war masculinity as two young men vicariously lock horns in a quest for mastery over their desires. Adapting a short story by Yukio Mishima, Misumi dials back on the tragic romance of militarism painting the hero’s ultimate acceptance of nihilistic futility less as a noble sacrifice than a humanist failure of the society that failed to save him from his absolutist fallacy. 

Obsessed with strength and honour, Kokubun (Raizo Ichikawa) has convinced himself that he can capture “this spark of pure life” he saw in the sun through perfecting the art of kendo. An aloof and austere figure, he has foregone all else and dedicated himself to his skill alone. For this reason he is appointed captain of his university kendo club over his jealous rival, Kagawa (Yusuke Kawazu), who loses out because his sword is “sentimental” and there is a concern that he draws his power from “arrogance”. There is indeed something in that, and it’s Kagawa’s sense of male pride that partly sets him on a quest for vengeance and vindication in a obsessive desire to dominate Kokubun but there’s also an unspoken attraction as he later admits to a female acquaintance in remarking that he finds Kokubun’s way of life “infuriating” but despite himself also “refreshing”. 

Literal sword play, Kagawa’s obsession with Kokubun results in a vicarious seduction in which he attempts to corrupt him by enlisting the help of a female student to expose him as a fraud by rupturing his asceticism and thereby destroying his source of strength if not his sense of self. The quasi-sadomasochistic relationship between the two men is further borne out by the implication that Kokubun is in fact finding his sexual release in the intense act of repression, satisfying himself through physical exhaustion in the company of other men, Misumi’s roving camera fully capturing the homoeroticism of this intensely homosocial society. Humiliated by Kokubun who forces him into a public act of contrition through physical endurance after disappointing the club by breaking the rules smoking on the job at their part-time gig at a supermarket, Kagawa goes to the chairman to complain that Kokubun’s leadership style is far too intense, “feudalistic” as another member puts it shortly before quitting, claiming that all he wants is for his rival to wake up from his militarist dream and live in the real world though his final act of mutiny will engender consequences unforeseen in his conviction that Kokubun’s ideology is largely performative self-delusion. 

The team manager perhaps thinks something similar, reminding Kagawa that he is merely “more grown up” as if Kokubun is in a sense maintaining his childlike innocence in refusing to enter an adult world he regards as “ugly” and “corrupt”. His ideal is simplicity and he finds it in the primacy of the sword. There is in this something of an uncomfortable militarist throwback that finds a disciple in the ever loyal Mibu (Akio Hasegawa) who dutifully parrots back the quasi-facist philosophy to his quietly horrified mother and sisters who probably don’t help the situation by mocking his lack of masculinity in his inability to grow a proper beard while insisting on shaving every day anyway. Attracted by Kokubun’s dynamism and energy, he longs for strength through self denial. “We must move away from those empty desires” Kokubun instructs him while discussing the suicide of a young man who was discovered next to a selection of half eaten fruit. Rather than sympathy the man is largely mocked by his male peers, Kokubun dismissing him as “weak in mind and body” for having taken his own life apparently in fear of failure, but also stressing that suicide is a choice taken by the very strong as well as the very weak. 

In this brief exchange he opens the door to a notion of nobility in the choice to take one’s own life which leads straight back into the death cult of militarism, perhaps something that only Mibu as a fellow devotee is able to see. Yet Misumi perhaps undercuts this sense of nobility with a return to collective shame, eulogising Kokubun’s determination to preserve his “uprightness and strength” as Kagawa admits defeat in the face of Kokubun’s unbreakable purity, while placing the burden of failed responsibility on the kendo troupe not for their inability to live up to his ideal but for their lack of understanding in failing to free him of his moral absolutism. The way of the sword once again leads only to death and while there may be an uncomfortable beauty in such moral purity, in the end all there is is futility. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Seisaku’s Wife (清作の妻, Yasuzo Masumura, 1965)

Seisaku's wife posterFor Yasuzo Masumura, sexuality is both freedom and constraint but also the ultimate act of social rebellion. Seisaku’s Wife (清作の妻, Seisaku no Tsuma), set in late Meiji as Japan prepares for the possibility of war with Russia, finds its melancholy heroine a defiant outcast as she first abandons her cruel, conformist society for empty independence and then reclaims her sense of self only through a love deemed inappropriate by those around her. The seeds of militarism are already being sown and breaking the programming is hard but transgressive acts of love can, it seems, overcome persistent societal oppression.

Okane (Ayako Wakao), our heroine, was sold as a bride to a much older man (Taiji Tonoyama) at 17 to provide for her parents. Three years later she views her husband, a wealthy kimono merchant, with contempt – as does much of the local area where he is derided as a sex crazed pervert. Luckily for her, Okane’s husband eventually dies leaving her a small sum of money while his extended family would rather she absent herself as quickly as possible to minimise embarrassment. Her father now too passed away, she and her mother (Tamae Kiyokawa) return to their home village which they were chased out of some years previously for their massive debts, but are now resented by their former neighbours for their seeming wealth and aloofness. Okane, traumatised by her experiences and having lost the will to live, barely interacts with the villagers who regard her as arrogant and haughty, and has been ostracised as a result.

The situation begins to change with the return of Seisaku (Takahiro Tamura) – the village’s bright hope. Seisaku had been away doing his military service and has come back with order and discipline on his mind. Now believing that the villagers are lazy and frivolous he has brought back with him a bell he had forged himself which he hooks to a nearby tree and bangs early in the morning to “awaken” them lest they sleep in rather than hasten to their fields. As might be anticipated, the villagers find this quite irritating but respect Seisaku too much to stop him and so find themselves going along with his new brand of militarist austerity. Meanwhile Okane is the only one to refuse the call, wasting no time in telling Seisaku that she has no intention of following his “orders” and his assumption that she should is in itself offensive.

Seisaku is intrigued rather than offended and finds himself attracted to Okane despite the villagers’ obvious animosity towards her. Convincing her that his feelings are real, the pair drift into an intense sexual relationship which eventually sees the model soldier Seisaku make a transgressive choice of his own in rejecting his longstanding betrothal to a village girl in favour of marrying Okane without the approval of his conservative mother and sister. Holed up together in Okane’s remote farmland shack, they remove themselves as much as possible from village life in an insular, obsessive world of their own.

Okane, rejected because of her past as the kept woman of a wealthy man (something over which she herself was powerless and means never to be powerless again), in turn rejects the village after having lost all faith in human relationships except perhaps that with her mother whose cruel treatment at the hands of her father she both identified with and resented. Intensely lonely, she subsumes herself entirely into her love for Seisaku, eventually trying to rebuild bridges in the village in order to strengthen their relationship but finding herself rejected once again by Seisaku’s austere mother even if his sister begins to come around. Meanwhile, the spectre of the war hovers on the horizon. Seisaku, as hopelessly in love with Okane as he is, is still the model soldier in his heart and unwilling to abandon his proto-militarist ideology which tells him that dying in service of the nation is man’s highest calling.

Having abandoned such obvious brainwashing to claim her independence, Okane struggles to convince Seisaku he should do the same. She clings to him and pleads, begging him not to leave her behind alone while he resolves to go off to battle and a glorious death. The village men too regard failure to die on the battlefield as a disgrace but send their sons away with cheers and celebration. Facing the possibility her dream of love may die, Okane takes drastic action to ensure its survival but does so at an ironic cost which sees her separated from her love possibly forever. Seisaku, meanwhile, angry and resentful, begins to understand something of Okane’s life when branded a coward and traitor by his former friends, no longer the model soldier but an outcast himself. Having suffered her fate, he begins to let go of his rage in favour compassionate understanding, allowing his love to triumph over his hate as he strives to forgive the woman who has both trapped and helped him to free himself from the oppressive ideology which turned him into an unthinking “model soldier” who wilfully abandoned his freedom in favour of internalised conventionality.

Freed from didactic social brainwashing, the pair are then in a sense imprisoned by their individualistic freedom, forced to isolate themselves within a bubble of love and mutual dependence but with a new hope for the future for which they now plan even while acknowledging that they cannot know what will come of it save that they will face it together. They can no longer live within the conservative society, but must form their own new world within it in which they can be fully free and express their freedom through their love. Melancholy but tranquil, Masumura ends on an uncharacteristically hopeful note which implies that love, though violent and transgressive, can be an effective weapon against destructive militarist ideology and the folly of war through a warmer path towards compassionate freedom.


Original trailer (no subtitles)