The Last War (世界大戦争, Shue Matsubayashi, 1961)

As The Last War (世界大戦争, Sekai Daisenso) points out, by 1961 16 years had passed since the end of World War Two during which Japan had begun to rebuild itself, heading into a period of unprecedented economic prosperity with the Olympics already on the horizon. But the early 1960s were also a time of increased international tension as the Cold War mounted and many in Japan feared being pulled into another conflict especially with the Korean War not quite so much in the distant past. Toho had become the home of special effects cinema and such films were often coloured with strong messages of peace and social responsibility as humanity banded together to combat an existential threat be it a giant monster or mad scientist. The Last War is no different in that regard, but sadder in showing us that the end of the world may come suddenly and without warning and that if we for a second become complacent it could already be too late to stop it. 

Patriarch Mokichi (Frankie Sakai) has made a decent life for himself after the war working as a driver. His wife, Oyoshi (Nobuko Otowa), is in poor health and he dreams of buying a house by the sea where she can live in comfort. Meanwhile, they have a grownup daughter, Saeko (Yuriko Hoshi), born before the war, and two much younger children, a girl, Haru, and boy, Ichiro. They are a very happy, very ordinary family who are beginning to think that their days of hardship are finally behind them and they have escaped the war’s shadow. The only note of potential conflict lies in the fact that Saeko wants to marry a family friend, Takano (Akira Takarada), a sailor, and is afraid of Mokichi’s reaction, especially as he keeps trying to set up matches for her. 

In fact, having lived through the war Oyoshi and Mokichi are certain that nothing like that is going to happen again, even if the younger generation is filled with anxiety. “Who could ever profit from the destruction of the Earth?” Mokichi not unreasonably asks, signalling his newly consumerist world view. Mind you, he adds, everyone knows the alternative to calamity is hard work, “you have to work hard for peace”. 

Mokichi has indeed been working hard, but has perhaps begun to neglect other areas of his life in his desire to become rich even if that desire is only to make his family more comfortable and give his children better opportunities than he had. Brought over to see a new TV set now on sale, he scoffs that he already has one, “Who needs a second TV?” he asks, but on hearing the news that tensions are rising because a military plane has gone down off the coast of Africa, his first thought is to get on the phone to his broker and junk his real estate stocks for shares in aeronautics. Mokichi is unconvinced by an old man selling potatoes on their street who apparently lost everything in Hiroshima and has since become a devoted Christian donating most of his profits to anti-nuclear charities, describing him as just “showing off”, firmly believing that nothing like that is ever going to happen again. “I cannot accept it” he says, “what would be the point of the aspirations of humble folk like us if we’re all destined to go poof into extinction?”.  

As the only nation to have directly experienced nuclear war, the intense fear of its recurrence is indeed understandable. If a nuclear war escalates, it will be the end of everything. All human endeavours over thousands of years will be mere dust. There will be no weddings, no births, no graduations, no grand discoveries, just nothing. When the bomb does indeed hit, the scenes of devastation must have proved extremely traumatic for many in the audience as buildings crumble ominously, the sky turns a fiery red, the streets run with lava, and we can see the outlines of charred bodies lying among the wreckage. The tip of the Diet building sits neatly atop the rubble as if in rebuke of the political failures which, despite the best efforts of the Japanese politicians who make an effort to govern responsibly and are honest with the electorate while advocating strongly for peace through diplomatic channels, have led to the literal end of the world. “You have to work hard for peace” the closing title card reminds us. “We can stop this before it happens, but we have to work together”. “I won’t let you destroy our happiness” Mokichi had screamed at the void, but in the end he was powerless. All it takes is a minor slip, and the world as we know it will cease to be.


Only the Cat Knows (初恋 お父さん、チビがいなくなりました, Shotaro Kobayashi, 2019)

Only the cat knows poaterThe disappearance of a beloved cat has sparked many a crisis in Japanese cinema. In Shotaro Kobayashi’s* Only the Cat Knows (初恋 お父さん、チビがいなくなりました, Hatsukoi: Otosan, Chibi ga Inaku Narimashita), the disappearance is as metaphorical as it is literal in that this particular cat has come to symbolise the faded love of a couple married for fifty years whose relationship has begun to disintegrate if in a very ordinary way.

Chibi had been a constant companion to Yukiko (Chieko Baisho) who often feels neglected by her salaryman husband of 50 years, Masaru (Tatsuya Fuji). Now that he’s (semi-)retired, she hoped they might be able reconnect, perhaps even travel, but he is just as disinterested in domestic life as ever and mostly spends his days popping back into the office or playing shogi in a nearby club. An awkward, conservative man, Masaru aggressively ignores his wife, even irritatedly blanking her when she spots him out and about, while she dutifully waits for him at home to take his socks off for him in the hall and pick up the jacket he so casually throws to the floor for her to deal with. Chibi’s disappearance is then another blow to her already lonely world and Masaru’s extremely unsympathetic reaction to her fears eventually provokes her into wondering if she should leave him.

Masaru, it has to be said, is not an easy man and it’s easy to imagine that much of Yukiko’s married life may have been difficult or even unhappy. This is perhaps why though youngest daughter Naoko (Mikako Ichikawa) is originally panicked by her mother’s mention of divorce, all three of the couple’s grown-up children are eventually on her side and claim they can completely understand why she might feel that way. As if trying to fill a very real void in her life, Yukiko has taken to watching romantic Korean dramas dubbed into Japanese while reminiscing on her own romantic past which led her to marry Masaru all those years ago.

Nevertheless, despite her own dissatisfaction, she remains perturbed by Naoko’s disinclination to marry even at the comparatively late age of 37. Avowing that she doesn’t think a woman needs a career, Yukiko tries to push her daughter towards the socially conservative choices of home and family. Yukiko may worry that Naoko will end up all alone in her old age, but then as Naoko points out, Yukiko did everything “right” and feels alone anyway. Tellingly, Naoko was once engaged to man who jilted her right before the wedding because he was insecure about her career success which had exceeded his own and apparently needed to be master in his own home. Unfortunately, the world has not quite moved on enough and it seems many men still only want women who will take their socks off for them at the end of a busy day.

Naoko doesn’t want to get married just for the sake of it which, ironically, seems to be the same way Yukiko felt when she was young though as it turned out her courtship with Masaru was an awkward mix of arranged and not. Having fallen for him at her job on the milk counter at the station, she was slightly stunned to spot his picture in an omiai book and agreed to the meeting only for Masaru to tersely tell her he’d decided to take the first offer and didn’t even open the envelope to peek inside. In true Masaru fashion, this may turn out to be a lie of awkwardness but it’s left a note of anxiety running right through their decades long marriage which only is now bubbling the surface. Yukiko worries she “stole” Masaru from her friend on the counter who liked him first and whom she spots him secretly meeting all these years later. A lack of emotional honesty has created a widening gulf between husband and wife with Yukiko left wondering if her husband ever really loved her at all.

The search for the missing cat becomes a quest to rediscover the smouldering love of a longterm couple that a lack of communication has all but smothered. Yukiko tries everything she can to find Chibi, even hiring a pet detective, while Masaru irritatedly tells her to give up – that Chibi has most likely gone off to die and wanted to spare Yukiko the pain of watching him suffer. Masaru may be somewhat casting himself as the wandering cat, the strong and silent type who thinks he’s protecting his wife by making her miserable, but deep down he too wants to save their love even if it means he will finally have to find the wherewithal to talk about his feelings without embarrassment. A charming late life love story, Only the Cat Knows is careful not to sugarcoat the the destructive social codes of a bygone era but allows its pair of former lovers to rediscover what it was they once had while allowing them to move forward into a happier future.


Only the Cat Knows was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

*Director Shotaro Kobayashi’s name is also romanised as Syoutarou Kobayasi

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Kazuki Omori, 1996)

night train to the stars posterKenji Miyazawa is one of the giants of modern Japanese literature. Studied in schools and beloved by children everywhere, Night on the Galactic Railroad has become a cultural touchstone but Miyazawa died from pneumonia at 37 years of age long before his work was widely appreciated. Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Waga Kokoro no Ginga Tetsudo: Miyazawa Kenji no Monogatari), commissioned to mark the centenary of Miyazawa’s birth, attempts to tell his story, set as it is against the backdrop of rising militarism.

An aimless if idealistic young man, Miyazawa (Naoto Ogata) is at once fiercely religious and interested in mildly left-wing, agrarian politics. Together with a close friend, Kanai, he dreams of building a village utopia in which a community of farmers works the land enjoying peace and prosperity free of the oppression of landlords. The eldest son of a money lender, Miyazawa does not approve of his father’s profession and attempts to show him up by interfering in his business but only succeeds in showing his own naivety and though he has an especially close relationship with his older sister Toshi (Maki Mizuno), Miyazawa longs for pastures new but never manages to stick at anything for very long. After failing to join a religious sect in Tokyo, he returns home to start an agrarian school which will teach ordinary famers’ sons the joys of the arts.

Miyazawa had seemingly always been a strange, ethereal presence – a drunken guest at his family home mocks the way he used to wander around town robotically banging his toy drum as a child, and it’s clear he doesn’t fit within any of the environments he attempts to carve out for himself save the solitary cabin where he later begins his personal agrarian experiment. As the eldest son of the family it would be expected that Miyazawa take over the family business but there just isn’t any way he could. Second son Seiroku (Ryuji Harada) later adopts the familial responsibilities, even if remaining committed to his brother’s legacy by collating and publishing his work following Miyazawa’s death.

Miyazawa’s strangeness extends to his diet – he’s a strict vegetarian thanks to his attachment to Nichizen Buddhism. Intense religiosity remains a central part of Miyazawa’s life but it’s often one that’s hard to integrate with his other relationships. Not content with leading by example, Miyazawa is continually trying to convert his reluctant friends and family to his own beliefs, refusing to take their polite refusals seriously. Though his father simply ignores Miyazawa’s pleas and accepts them as a part of his strangeness, other friends are not so tolerant. One even eventually decides to sever the friendship entirely, giving the young Miyazawa a painful station platform lecture on the true nature of friendship. Berating him for the fact his letters are essentially all about himself and his religious claptrap, his friend reminds him that true friendship is accepting someone for what they are, implying that he’s not a trophy to be won for the cause of Nichizen Buddhism and has his own beliefs and causes which are just as valid as Miyazawa’s.

Yet even if sometimes misguided, Miyazawa’s intensions are altruistic. His is a love of the world, of dreams, and nature and people too though something in him has never quite felt at home in conventional society. Miyazawa’s writing is more an artistic pursuit than an attempt at a literary occupation – his first published volume sold so badly he felt guilty enough to get himself in debt buying all his own books so that the publishing company wouldn’t be out of pocket after supporting him. The son of wealthy family, Miyazawa could perhaps afford to indulge his eccentric ideas but the same is not true for all as he finds out when visiting the home of a pupil who is considering giving up his studies because of an alcoholic parent. Miyazawa offers to pay his tuition for him, but the boy turns him down, studying is a frivolous affectation that he can no longer afford.

Though he talks of romance, Miyazawa prefers the one of the mind to the one of the heart. A young woman falls in love with his writings and, she thinks, with him though Miyazawa explains that her feelings are too big for him to process – just as one cannot eat all the clouds in the sky, he cannot accept the weight of her emotion. Knowing that his health is failing, Miyazawa chooses a fantasy, idealised love over a physical one he fears he will abandon, cleaving to the beauty of the landscape rather than those who people it.

On his deathbed Miyazawa asks his family to throw his notebooks away – he only kept them to try and figure things out but he feels as if he knows all he needs to know by now. Miyazawa’s constant search, as it was for the characters of Night on the Galactic Railroad, was for “true happiness” – perhaps he found it, perhaps not, but thankfully his work lived on thanks to his brother who later took up his interest in agricultural reforms. A typical prestige picture of the time, Night Train to the Stars is a straightforward biopic but one which also bears out Miyazawa’s dreamlike world view with all of its strangeness and wonder.


 

Young Girls in Love (恋する女たち, Kazuki Omori, 1986)

young women in loveThe friends you make in high school are the friends you’ll have the rest of your life, says Takako – the heroine of Kazuki Omori’s Young Girls in Love (恋する女たち, Koisuru Onnatachi). Only she doesn’t quite want hers – they’re weird and cause her nothing but trouble. Also one of them is too pretty so she soaks up all of the attention – where’s the fun in that? Takako is not altogether happy in her adolescence but at least she has her friends there beside her, right?

Takako’s two best friends have both recently fallen in love leaving her feeling a little left out. Midoriko (Mamiko Takai), the most “unusual” girl in her group (but also thought to be the prettiest), had fallen in love with a teacher and even struck up something of a friendship with him as evidenced by her collection of cute photos of them together. However, he’s recently got married leaving her heartbroken so Midoriko is having another one of her trademark “funerals” in which she buries painful memories from her past. Previously she’s had funerals for an unfortunate PE related incident in which she ripped her shorts during gymnastics, and another for when her grades got so bad that the teachers told her she probably wouldn’t graduate from high school.

Teiko has a difficult homelife as her literature professor father has left the family for unspecified reasons and her mother is still mourning the end of the marriage. However, she has found herself and older poet who formerly wrote lyrics for cheesy teen idol pop songs (though he’s a serious poet now so that’s all beneath and behind him). Teiko knows that this relationship is doomed to failure but is pursuing it in any case.

Takako is so wound up by her friend’s series of love stories that she finds herself visiting “raunchy” movies like 9 1/2 weeks. This is where she encounters possible crush and high school baseball star Kutsukake (Toshiro Yanagiba), but does she really like him or is she just lovesick and jealous of her friends? A new complication also arises in the form of fellow student Kanzake (Yusuke Kawazu) who previously had a crush on older sister Hiroko (Kiwako Harada) but seems to have shifted his attentions on to Takako.

Young Girls in Love is a little broader than the average idol drama though it maintains an overall quirky tone with a few swings towards melodrama. Takako continues with her romantic dilemma although in contrast to what she says towards the opening of the film she mostly does so alone. Rather than her similarly romantically troubled friends, Takako confides in a painter friend, Kinuko (Satomi Kobayashi) who has some rather more grown up advice for her than other friends (or sister) are willing or able to offer.

During her troubles Takako also goes to visit another girl who is kind of involved with low level bosozoku motorcycle gangs, and finds out that her morbid friend Midoriko has gone seriously off the rails. Leading some kind of double life, Midoriko is a disco queen in another town, dancing her troubles away and enchanting all the boys in the club (including the other girl’s biker boyfriend). Distressed, yet a little envious of Midoriko’s ability to soak up all the attention for herself, Takako is the only one to try and intervene during a drag race duel though little heed is given to her desperate plea for sanity and she is only one that gets hurt during the proceedings.

It’s all fairly innocent stuff even though biker gangs, older boyfriends, and boyfriend stealing, all fall into the mix. Omori keeps things simple and brings his idols to the fore to do what they do best though he does overly rely on TV style reaction shots for some of his gags. According to the anecdote Takako offers at the end, none of the various love stories have worked out they way the girls hoped (at least for now) but everything carries on more or less as normal. The three girls have another of their traditional extreme tea ceremonies dressed in kimono and sitting on the edge of a cliff, but they’re all still together despite their recent romantic adventures. The real love story is between three childhood friends who may have temporarily drifted apart over teenage drama, but their bonds are strong enough to withstand the storm and, as Takako stated in the beginning of the film, they’ll be together for the rest of their lives.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.