Bu Su (BU・SU, Jun Ichikawa, 1987)

Busu poster 2Already a well respected and much in demand director of television commercials Jun Ichikawa released his debut feature, Bu Su (BU・SU), in 1987. “Bu Su” is, loosely translated, pejorative slang for a woman who is not considered to be attractive. The closest equivalent, in British English at least, would be something like “a dog”. It’s especially ironic then that the movie was conceived as a vehicle for a popular idol whose success was perhaps dependent on a perception of attractiveness, or at least of “kawaii” innocence. Yasuko Tomita was at that time at the height of her fame having shot to stardom through open audition leading to an award winning role in Aiko 16 Sai. Two years later she starred for Nobuhiko Obayashi, who was originally slated to direct Bu Su, in Miss Lonely, but even in comparison to Obayashi’s melancholy heroines, Bu Su’s Mugiko (Yasuko Tomita) is a particularly moody teen, the “ugliness” here apparently relating to her emotional isolation.

For reasons we never quite understand, Mugiko leaves her island home after a traumatic incident and moves in with her aunt in Tokyo with the intention of becoming a geisha. It seem’s Mugiko’s mother was once a famous geisha herself until she met Mugiko’s late father and left for a more conventional life in the peaceful countryside. Mugiko’s flight then has a peculiarly perverse quality in being both to and from her mother with whom she seems to be on bad terms despite her mother’s obvious affection for her. Unfortunately Mugiko is not a fantastic fit for the world of the geisha, being somewhat innocent and childishly clumsy, not to mention her ongoing grumpiness. Nevertheless, everyone at the geisha house is keen to help her if only out of loyalty to her mother.

At school, meanwhile, Mugiko is nervous and withdrawn, barely audible during her introduction to her new classmates and with her eyes permanently on the floor. Her teacher, taking her aside, adds to the mystery in remarking that she’s certainly been through a lot back in Izu and that she should leave all that behind and try to make a new start. Nevertheless, she remains sullen and isolated, barely speaking to anyone yet perhaps examining the dynamics of the people around her. Maybe that’s why she alone finds the strength to stand up to a popular kid bullying another girl (Yuriko Hirooka) considered to be “plain” with a mean trick teasing a nasty surprise lurking in a box which turns out to be nothing more than a hand mirror.

Mugiko might not be quite sure what it is that’s worrying her, or at least we can’t be sure because we don’t know exactly what happened in Izu, but the rest of her classmates have their own insecurities to deal with from Sakurako’s preoccupation with her perceived lack of looks to boxing enthusiast Tsuda (Masahiro Takashima) who knows he’s not much for studying but is less than convinced of the possibility of living off his fists. What they’re going through is the normal teenage process of figuring themselves out, which they begin to do through the time-honoured fashion of the school cultural festival which is an extra special event this year because it’s the school’s centenary. Goaded into it by the mean popular girl who meant to embarrass her by outing her as a geisha, Mugiko agrees to dance the dance of Yaoya Oshichi who was prepared to burn the world in the hope of meeting her love.

Yaoya Oshichi was burned at the stake for arson, and though Mugiko’s path eventually ends in flames they’re of a much less threatening variety. When she first arrives in Tokyo we see her taking in some of the iconic sights of the city, crossing at Shibuya Scramble and taking a stroll through upscale Ginza before taking a bite out of a fast food hamburger as if she were about to taste some famous local delicacy. When not training with the other geisha we see her wander through the city alone, sullen but also taking pleasure in exploring her new environment. It’s here that we hear the film’s title uttered, crudely, by a sleazy middle-aged man who picks Mugiko up and takes her to a coffeeshop where he embarks on weird chat up lines about the beauty of the local railway before trying to drag her into a love hotel. Luckily, Mugiko manages to get away from him only for the man to shout “busu” after her, implying that he didn’t want her anyway but also that her refusal is in someway arrogant.

By Ichikawa’s logic, Mugiko’s “busu”ness is not because she’s “ugly” but that she’s so sour faced, permanently sulky and angrily keeping a deliberate distance from everyone around her. We see her spikily refuse her mother’s tearful attempt to see her off to the train, and then speak rudely to her on the phone, while remaining aloof from most of the other geishas save her aunt’s daughter, primed to take over the business but unbeknownst to most longing for a more conventional life with a boring salaryman husband. Yet through all of these encounters, some friendlier than others, her heart finally begins to open and she’s no longer so closed off or aloof, eventually able to laugh along with her mother and pithily dismiss her questions with the generic answers that Tokyo is “fun” and yes she’s going to school. Mugiko’s path is certainly a meandering one, taking the scenic route through the charms of bubble era Tokyo, but it has its charms and even if she takes her time she gets there in the end, smiling at last having rediscovered the joys of being alive.


Short clip (Japanese subtitles only)

Tokyo Bordello (吉原炎上, Hideo Gosha, 1987)

yoshiwara-enjoHideo Gosha maybe best known for the “manly way” movies of his early career in which angry young men fought for honour and justice, but mostly just to to survive. Late into his career, Gosha decided to change tack for a while with a series of female orientated films either remaining within the familiar gangster genre as in Yakuza Wives, or shifting into world of the red light district as in Tokyo Bordello (吉原炎上, Yoshiwara Enjo). Presumably an attempt to get past the unfamiliarity of the Yoshiwara name, the film’s English title is perhaps a little more obviously salacious than the original Japanese which translates as Yoshiwara Conflagration and directly relates to the real life fire of 1911 in which 300 people were killed and much of the area razed to the ground. Gosha himself grew up not far from the location of the Yoshiwara as it existed in the mid-20th century where it was still a largely lower class area filled with cardsharps, yakuza, and, yes, prostitution (legal in Japan until 1958, outlawed in during the US occupation). The Yoshiwara of the late Meiji era was not so different as the women imprisoned there suffered at the hands of men, exploited by a cruelly misogynistic social system and often driven mad by internalised rage at their continued lack of agency.

Opening with a voice over narration from Kyoko Kishida, the film introduces us to the heroine, 19 year old Hisano (Yuko Natori), as she is unwillingly sold to the red light district in payment for her father’s debts. After a strange orientation ceremony from the Yoshiwara police force where one “kindly” officer explains to her about the necessity of faking orgasms to save her stamina, Hisano is taken to the brothel which is now her home to begin her training. Some months later when Hisano is due to serve her first customer, she runs from him in sheer panic, leaping into a lake where a young Salvation Army campaigner, Furushima (Jinpachi Nezu), tries and fails to help her escape.

Taken back to the brothel and tied up in punishment, Hisano receives a lesson in pleasure from the current head geisha, Kiku (Rino Katase), after which she appears to settle into her work, getting promoted through various ranks until she too becomes one of the top geisha in the area. Sometime later, Furushima reappears as a wealthy young man. Regretting his inability to save her at the river and apparently having given up on his Salvation Army activities, Furushima becomes Hisano’s number one patron even though he refuses to sleep with her. Though they eventually fall in love, Hisano’s position as a geisha continues to present a barrier between the pair, forcing them apart for very different reasons.

Despite having spent a small fortune accurately recreating the main street of the Yoshiwara immediately prior to the 1911 fire, Gosha is not interested in romanticising the the pleasure quarters but depicts them as what they were – a hellish prison for enslaved women. As Hisano and Furushima later reflect, the Yoshiwara is indeed all built on lies – a place which claims to offer freedom, love, and pleasure but offers only the shadow of each of these things in an elaborate fake pageantry built on female suffering. Hisano, like many of the other women, was sold to pay a debt. Others found themselves sucked in by a continuous circle of abuse and exploitation, but none of them are free to leave until the debt, and any interest, is paid. Two of Hisako’s compatriots find other ways out of the Yoshiwara, one by her own hand, and another driven mad through illness is left alone to die like an animal coughing up blood surrounded by bright red futons in a storage cupboard.

As Kiku is quick to point out, the Yoshiwara is covered in cherry blossoms in spring but there is no place here for a tree which no longer flowers. The career of the courtesan is a short one and there are only two routes forward – become a madam or marry a wealthy client. Kiku’s plans don’t work out the way she originally envisioned, trapping her firmly within the Yoshiwara long after she had hoped to escape. Hisano is tempted by a marriage proposal from a man she truly loves but finds herself turning it down for complicated reasons. Worried that her lover does not see her as a woman, she is determined to take part in the upcoming geisha parade to force him to see her as everything she is, but her desires are never fully understood and she risks her future happiness in a futile gesture of defiance.

Defiance is the true theme of the film as each of the women fight with themselves and each other to reclaim their own freedom and individuality even whilst imprisoned and exploited by unassailable forces. Hisano, as Kiku constantly reminds her (in contrast to herself), never accepts that she is “just another whore” and therefore is able to first conquer and then escape the Yoshiwara even if it’s through a second choice compromise solution (albeit one which might bring her a degree of ordinary happiness in later life). Land of lies, the Yoshiwara promises the myth of unbridled pleasure to men who willingly make women suffer for just that purpose, further playing into Gosha’s ongoing themes of insecurity and self loathing lying at the heart of all physical or emotional violence. Though the ending voiceover is overly optimistic about the climactic fire ending centuries of female oppression as the Yoshiwara burns, Hisano, at least, may at last be free from its legacy of shame even whilst she watches the object of her desire destroyed by its very own flames.


Oiran parade scene (dialogue free)