Oar (櫂, Hideo Gosha, 1985)

oar posterUntil the later part of his career, Hideo Gosha had mostly been known for his violent action films centring on self destructive men who bore their sadnesses with macho restraint. During the 1980s, however, he began to explore a new side to his filmmaking with a string of female centred dramas focussing on the suffering of women which is largely caused by men walking the “manly way” of his earlier movies. Partly a response to his regular troupe of action stars ageing, Gosha’s new focus was also inspired by his failed marriage and difficult relationship with his daughter which convinced him that women can be just as devious and calculating as men. 1985’s Oar (櫂, Kai) is adapted from the novel by Tomiko Miyao – a writer Gosha particularly liked and identified with whose books also inspired Onimasa and The Geisha. Like Onimasa, Oar also bridges around twenty years of pre-war history and centres around a once proud man discovering his era is passing, though it finds more space for his long suffering wife and the children who pay the price for his emotional volatility.

Kochi, 1914 (early Taisho), Iwago (Ken Ogata) is a kind hearted man living beyond his means. Previously a champion wrestler, he now earns his living as a kind of procurer for a nearby geisha house, chasing down poor girls and selling them into prostitution, justifying himself with the excuse that he’s “helping” the less fortunate who might starve if it were not for the existence of the red light district. He dislikes this work and finds it distasteful, but shows no signs of stopping. At home he has a wife and two sons whom he surprises one day by returning home with a little girl he “rescued” at the harbour after seeing her beaten by man who, it seemed, was trying to sell her to Chinese brokers who are notorious for child organ trafficking.

Iwago names the girl “Kiku” thanks to the chrysanthemums on her kimono and entrusts her to his irritated wife, Kiwa (Yukiyo Toake), who tries her best but Kiku is obviously traumatised by her experiences, does not speak, and takes a long time to become used to her new family circumstances. Parallel to his adoption of Kiku, Iwago is also working on a sale of a girl of a similar age who ends up staying in the house for a few days before moving to the red light district. Toyo captures Kiwa’s heart as she bears her sorry fate stoically, pausing only to remark on her guilt at eating good white rice three times a day at Iwago’s knowing that her siblings are stuck at home with nothing.

Iwago’s intentions are generally good, but his “manly” need for control and his repressed emotionality proceed to ruin his family’s life. He may say that poverty corrupts a person’s heart and his efforts are intended to help prevent the birth of more dysfunctional families, but deep down he finds it hard to reconcile his distasteful occupation with his traditional ideas of masculine chivalry. Apparently “bored” with the long suffering Kiwa he fathers a child with another woman which he then expects her to raise despite the fact that she has already left the family home after discovering the affair. Predictably her love for him and for the children brings her home, but Iwago continues to behave in a domineering, masterly fashion which is unlikely to repair his once happy household.

Kiwa is the classic long suffering wife, bearing all of Iwago’s mistreatments with stoic perseverance until his blatant adultery sends her running from marriage to refuge at the home of her brother. Despite the pain and humilation, Kiwa still loves, respects, and supports her husband, remembering him as he once was rather than the angry, frustrated brute which he has become. Despite her original hesitance, Kiwa’s maternal warmth makes a true daughter of Kiku and keeps her bonded to the eldest and more sensitive of her two sons, Ryutaro, even if the loose cannon that is Kentaro follows in his step-father’s footsteps as an unpredictable punk. Her goodheartedness later extends to Iwago’s illegitimate daughter Ayako whom she raises as her own until Iwago cruelly decides to separate them. For all of Iwago’s bluster and womanising, ironically enough Kiwa truly is the only woman for him as he realises only when she determines to leave. Smashing the relics of his “manly” past – his wrestling photos and trophies, Iwago is forced to confront the fact that his own macho posturing has cost him the only thing he ever valued.

Gosha tones down the more outlandish elements which contributed to his reputation as a “vulgar” director but still finds space for female nudity and frank sexuality as Iwago uses and misuses the various women who come to him for help or shelter. More conventional in shooting style than some of Gosha’s other work from the period and lacking any large scale or dramatic fight scenes save for one climactic ambush, Oar acts more as a summation of Gosha’s themes up until the mid-80s – men destroy themselves through their need to be men but also through destroying the women who have little choice but to stand back and watch them do it. Unless, like Kiwa, they realise they have finally had enough.


Short clip from near the beginning of the film (no subtitles)

The Catch (魚影の群れ, Shinji Somai, 1983)

the-catchSome men become their work, the quest for success consumes them to the extent that there is barely anything left other than the chase. The Catch (魚影の群れ, Gyoei no Mure), Shinji Somai’s 1983 opus of fishermen at home on the waves and at sea on land is a complex examination of masculinity but also of fatherhood in a rapidly declining world filled with arcane ritual and ancient thought.

Fusajiro (Ken Ogata) is a middle aged man who looks old for his years. Man and boy he’s spent his life at sea, hunting down the elusive tuna fish which can be sold for vast amounts of money in the rare event that one is actually caught. This “first summer” as the title card refers to it, marks a change in his life as the daughter he’s been raising alone since his wife left him many years ago, Tokiko (Masako Natsume), has found a man she wants to marry. Her boyfriend, Shunichi (Koichi Sato), owns a coffee shop in town and Fusajiro has his doubts about a city boy marrying into a fisherman’s family. However, Shunichi isn’t just interested in Tokiko, he wants to set sail too. Though originally reluctant, Fusajiro eventually agrees to take Shunichi as a kind of apprentice but is dismayed when he gets seasick and seems to have no hint of a fisherman’s instinct.

Fusajiro is a legend among his peers – a big man of the sea, a true sailor and top hunter. He’s the one people turn to whenever anything goes wrong on the waves. However, he’s also a gruff man who speaks little and seems to prefer his own company.  In the rare event that he is speaking, it’s generally about tuna. When Shunichi first meets Fusajiro he remarks that he knew it must be him because he “smells of the sea”.

A later scene sees Fusajiro catch sight of a woman caught in the rain who immediately starts running away from him. Chasing her  just like one of his ever elusive tuna he eventually pins the woman down and takes her back to his boat to complete his conquest. The woman turns out to be his ex-wife, who left him precisely because of this violent behaviour. After momentarily considering returning to him, she realises that he hasn’t changed and accuses him of being unable to distinguish people from fish – he hooks them, reels them in, and if they don’t come willingly he hits them until they do so he can keep them with him. This overriding obsession with domination also costs Fusajiro his daughter when Shunichi is gravely injured on the boat and Fusajiro delays returning to port until he’s secured the tuna he was chasing at the time. Shunichi’s blood and the fish’s mingle together on the deck, one indistinguishable from the other, both victims of Fusajiro’s need to reign supreme over man and fish alike.

Fusajiro tried to warn Tokiko not to marry a fisherman, it would only make her miserable. Shunichi is warned that a fisherman’s life is a difficult one and the seas in this area less forgiving than most, but his mind is made up. Finally acquiring his own boat after selling his cafe, Shunichi, just like Fusajiro, starts to fall under the fisherman’s curse – endlessly chasing, living only for the catch. Unlike Fusajiro, however, Shunichi has little instinct for life at sea and fails to bring home his prey. Little by little, the mounting failures eat away at his self esteem as he feels belittled and humiliated in front of the other sailors culminating in an attempt to reinforce his manhood by raping his own wife. These men are little better than animals, consumed by conquest, permanently chasing at sea and on land. To be defeated, is to be destroyed.

Somai never shies away from the grimness and brutality of the work at hand. Ogata catches and spears these magnificent fish for real and the unfortunate creatures are then carved up right on the dockside before our very eyes. As we’re constantly reminded, physical strength is what matters for a fisherman and Fusajiro is a strong man, duelling with the tuna fish and straining to hold the line with all his might. Yet he’s getting old, his body is failing and like an aged toreador in the ring, his victory is no longer assured. The Japanese title of the film which translates as crowds of shadows of solitary fish expresses his nature more clearly, his fate and the tuna’s are the same – a lonely battle to the death. Unable to forge real human connections on land Fusajiro and his ilk are doomed to live out their days alone upon the sea wreaking only misery for those left behind on land.


Original trailer (No subtitles, graphic scenes of animal cruelty)