Growing Up (たけくらべ, Heinosuke Gosho, 1955)

Gosho Growing UpCaught in a moment of transition, it’s no great mystery that post-war Japanese cinema began to look back at the Meiji past. Progress had indeed been rapid but ended in national tragedy and collective madness. The post-war humanists were eager for a different outcome, to avoid the mistakes of the last fifty years and build a society that was kinder and freer than that which had come before. Though on the surface it might seem as if much had changed since the dawn of a new century, the problems were still the same and a failure to address them only likely to add new tragedies in place of the better future many hoped for. Among the foremost proponents of post-war humanism, Heinosuke Gosho made a rare trip back into the Meiji past in 1955’s Growing Up (たけくらべ, Takekurabe), an adaptation of the well known short story by Ichiyo Higuchi, finding that nothing much had really changed when it came to the fates of women and the poor in an often wilfully indifferent society.

The action opens on the outskirts of the Yoshiwara in 1894. Our heroes are a collection of children who find themselves dealing with typically adolescent problems but also, by modern standards, expected to grow up all too fast. Chief among them is 13-year-old Midori (Hibari Misora) whose sister, Omaki (Keiko Kishi), is the most famous courtesan of the red light district. Although she knows on some level that her parents have already sold her to the brothel owner in whose house they live as servants, Midori has not yet quite processed the full implications of her destiny or that her world of childhood innocence is rapidly drawing to a close. She is in love with a local boy, Shinnyo (Takashi Kitahara), who seems to return her feelings but is as awkward and confused by them as any teenage boy and treats her by turns with coldness and contempt mixed with grudging affection.

Shinnyo, meanwhile, is the son of a greedy and heartless monk (Takamaru Sasaki) who has decided to sell his older sister as a concubine to a wealthy man who already has a wife. As he loves his sister dearly and has a naive, childish sense of absolute morality, this is a sin Shinnyo cannot forgive. He argues with his father but has no real power to change the situation and then decides on rebelling against his father’s wishes that he not become a monk by leaving for the main temple in Kyoto to take holy orders. Of course, this also means he must sacrifice any youthful idea he might have had of pursuing his love for Midori.

The title, in a sense, could refer not only to the increasingly melancholy youngsters coming of age in an oppressive society, but also to Japan itself as it emerged into modernity in an effort to prove itself the equal of any other major power in the late 19th century. It is, however, an ironic a title as any could be. To “grow up” here is to abandon one’s humanity and conform to the kind of “real world” thinking that codifies cruelty and makes a virtue of heartlessness. Still an innocent child, Midori bounces her ball and basks in her somewhat elevated position as a wealthy young girl and sister of a “notorious” woman without fully understanding all that entails. When her sister tells her about a dream she had of climbing trees and picking persimmons, she is incapable of understanding her warning about the loss of innocence she’s about to experience, but her world is brought crashing down when a gang of rival boys rudely attack her and point out that all her finery was bought through “whoring” and that she is nothing more than a “whore” in waiting.

Another of the boys, Sangoro (Masanori Nakamura), whose family is poor, says he can’t wait to be “grown up”, reacting with less than sensitivity to Midori’s pained pleas that she wishes everything could stay as it was and they could be children forever. Sangoro sees adulthood as freedom. He’ll be free to earn his own living and maybe he won’t have to be like his father, too afraid to stand up to people with money because when you don’t have any you’re always reliant on their kindness. Sangoro may be poor, but he’s a man (or will be) and can’t process the total lack of agency that comes with being an adult female whose future is decided entirely by her closest male relative. Midori, like Shinnyo’s sister, has been sold by her father and there’s nothing she or anyone else can do about it now.

Nevertheless, confronted by her fate, Midori decides to own it. She encourages her parents to think of her as dead, cooly hitting back at their callousness but acknowledging an obligation as she goes. The final scenes preceding her passage across the small bridge which will forever sever her from her childhood are filled with dread and anger as if crying out for someone to stop the inevitable from happening, but of course, no one can. An old woman and former courtesan, Okichi (Isuzu Yamada), who owns a shop where Midori used to spend time and is indirectly responsible for Midori’s acceptance of her fate in some cruel, drunken words she threw at her, puts it best when she briefly feels as if she could have done something in affirming that it isn’t her fault, and it isn’t Midori’s, it’s simply “the world”.

Midori meets her fate not with resignation but rage and defiance. Shinnyo, who runs away from his inability to help his sister by becoming a monk, is forever incapable of declaring his real feelings in words but leaves a flower in front of her window in echo of another he gave her long ago. At first Midori picks it up and cherishes it for the innocent symbol of love that it is, but by the time she has travelled half way along the bridge which will take her to the Yoshiwara, she has realised this kind of innocence does not belong inside. She throws the flower to the mud and leaves her youthful dreams of love and happiness behind as she prepares to step through the doorway into a future which is not of her making and over which she has no say. To “grow up”, in this world, is a kind of spiritual death in which there exists nothing other than emptiness and indifference.


Born Under Crossed Stars (悪太郎伝 悪い星の下でも, Seijun Suzuki, 1965)

Born Under Crossed Stars posterFollowing his 1963 breakthrough, The Incorrigible, Seijun Suzuki returns to the work of Toko Kon for another tale of rural adolescent confusion in Born Under Crossed Stars (悪太郎伝 悪い星の下でも, Akutaro-den: Warui Hoshi no Shita demo). The Japanese title ties the film more closely to the earlier Kon adaptation by adding the preface “Stories of Bastards”, and once again stars Ken Yamauchi and Masako Izumi in leading roles though this time the setting is early Showa, swapping the promise and openness of Taisho for the rapidly closing doors of militarism. Much more obviously comedic than The Incorrigible, Born Under Crossed Stars is another anarchic coming of age tale in which an “incorrigible” youngster learns to find himself but is neatly undercut by the times in which he lives, his final triumph both a victory and a symbol of incoming tragedy.

Farmboy Jukichi (Ken Yamauchi) dreams of a way out of his lowly Osakan roots by getting into a prestigious local school, though his drunken father hardly sees the point of education and would prefer his son go out and earn some money. Jukichi is earning quite a bit working as a milkman for a local “cowboy” dairy farmer who’s recently returned from America but his sights are firmly set on university and a move into the city. Meanwhile, he experiences some personal turbulence thanks to his old friend, Yoshio (Jushiro Hirata). Yoshio gets himself into trouble with the Public Morals committee at school when he’s spotted out with a young lady – something which is against school regulations, but that’s not why he was stopped. Another boy, Oka (Keisuke Noro), wrote a letter to the girl Yoshio was with (who happens to be his cousin) but was rejected. Oka is abusing his position for personal point scoring. Jukichi can’t let it go and takes Oka to task, but his actions have serious repercussions when the humiliated Oka suddenly quits the school altogether.

Jukichi thinks Oka’s actions are very “manly”. Manliness is certainly something important to the boys at the school which has a noticeably militarist song along with various rituals involving fire and taiko drums, not to mention the shiny cap badges and weapons drills they seem to perform. As in Fighting Elegy released the following year, “manliness” precludes fraternising with women – sex has been placed off limits as the ultimate frivolity and a kind of theft of the zest of life which should be going towards more “productive” causes. Jukichi however, like The Incorrigible’s Konno has a taste for the ladies even if he reacts somewhat harshly to discovering Yoshio in flagrante with a girl in a park which turns out to be some kind of mass makeout spot behind a shrine. Uncovering the hypocrisy in his friend sets the two at odds and eventually turns them into enemies with disastrous consequences.     

Jukichi finds himself caught between two lovers – the elegant, shy sister of Yoshio, Suzuko (Masako Izumi), and the liberated, provocative Taneko (Yumiko Nogawa). Though resistant, Jukichi eventually succumbs to seduction and forever ruins his dreams in the process. Overcome with youthful frustrations, he channels his need for justice in a dangerous and destructive direction when he decides to start something with a bunch of local gangsters in a misguided attempt to avenge a wrong done to the father that has never supported him. Later seeing off an attack from the gangsters (tipped off by a remorseful Yoshio) Jukichi seals his fate, gives up on the “decent” life promised by a place at the prestigious middle school and commits himself to wandering, taking to the sea as one of many young men raised on nationalist myths finding their place in the military.

Another programme picture, Born Under Crossed Stars provides ample opportunity for Suzuki to embrace his taste for the strange – notably in his milk patter opening with its literal baby monkey, but also finding room for beetles on strings, “poisoned” manju buns, and illusionary visions. Sticking mainly to static camera, Suzuki nevertheless showcases his taste for unusual composition and editing, making use of rapid focus pulls, side wipes and dissolves to convey the passage of time. He closes with a voice over mimicking the one at the end of The Incorrigible only this time with a much more defiant (but in hindsight only tragic) declaration that Jukichi will continue living under his self made philosophy, vowing to do what ever it takes to survive and scale any wall which places itself in his path towards the achievement of his freedom.


Born Under Crossed Stars is the fifth of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

Original trailer (English Subtitles)

A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート, Takashi Nomura, 1967)

colt is my passport posterJo Shishido played his fare share of icy hitmen, but they rarely made it through such seemingly inexorable events as the hero of Takashi Nomura’s A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート, Colt wa Ore no Passport). The actor, known for his boyishly chubby face puffed up with the aid of cheek implants, floated around the lower end of Nikkatsu’s A-list but by 1967 his star was on the wane even if he still had his pick of cooler than cool tough guys in Nikkatsu’s trademark action B-movies. Mixing western and film noir, A Colt is My Passport makes a virtue of Japan’s fast moving development, heartily embracing the convenience of a society built around the idea of disposability whilst accepting the need to keep one step ahead of the rubbish truck else it swallow you whole.

Kamimura (Joe Shishido) and his buddy Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio) are on course to knock off a gang boss’ rival and then get the hell out of Japan. Kamimura, however, is a sarcastic wiseguy and so his strange sense of humour dictates that he off the guy while the mob boss he’s working for is sitting right next to him. This doesn’t go down well, and the guys’ planned airport escape is soon off the cards leaving them to take refuge in a yakuza safe house until the whole thing blows over. Blowing over, however, is something that seems unlikely and Kamimura is soon left with the responsibility of saving both his brother-in-arms Shiozaki, and the melancholy inn girl (Chitose Kobayashi) with a heart of gold who yearns for an escape from her dead end existence but finds only inertia and disappointment.

The young protege seems surprised when Kamimura tosses the expensive looking rifle he’s just used on a job into a suitcase which he then tosses into a car which is about to be tossed into a crusher, but Kamimura advises him that if you want to make it in this business, you’d best not become too fond of your tools. Kamimura is, however, a tool himself and only too aware how disposable he might be to the hands that have made use of him. He conducts his missions with the utmost efficiency, and when something goes wrong, he deals with that too.

Efficient as he is, there is one thing that is not disposable to Kamimura and that is Shiozaki. The younger man appears not to have much to do but Kamimura keeps him around anyway with Shiozaki trailing around after him respectfully. More liability than anything else, Kamimura frequently knocks Shiozaki out to keep him out of trouble – especially as he can see Shiozaki might be tempted to leap into the fray on his behalf. Kamimura has no time for feeling, no taste for factoring attachment into his carefully constructed plans, but where Shiozaki is concerned, sentimentality wins the day.

Mina, a melancholy maid at a dockside inn, marvels at the degree of Kamimura’s devotion, wishing that she too could have the kind of friendship these men have with each other. A runaway from the sea, Mina has been trapped on the docks all her adult life. Like many a Nikkatsu heroine, love was her path to escape but an encounter with a shady gangster who continues to haunt her life put paid to that. The boats come and go but Mina stays on shore. Kamimura might be her ticket out but he wastes no time disillusioning her about his lack of interest in becoming her saviour (even if he’s not ungrateful for her assistance and also realises she’s quite an asset in his quest to ensure the survival of his ally).

Pure hardboiled, A Colt is My Passport is a crime story which rejects the femme fatal in favour of the intense relationship between its two protagonists whose friendship transcends brotherhood but never disrupts the methodical poise of the always prepared Kamimura. The minor distraction of a fly in the mud perhaps reminds him of his mortality, his smallness, the fact that he is essentially “disposable” and will one day become a mere vessel for this tiny, quite irritating creature but if he has a moment of introspection it is short lived. The world may be crunching at his heels, but Kamimura keeps moving. He has his plan, audacious as it is. He will save his buddy, and perhaps he doesn’t care too much if he survives or not, but he will not go down easy and if the world wants a bite out of him, it will have to be fast or lucky.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Elegy of the North (挽歌, Heinosuke Gosho, 1957)

elegy of the north posterHeinosuke Gosho is perhaps among the most neglected Japanese directors of the “golden age”. A pioneer of the “shomingeki”, Gosho’s work is marked by a profound humanism but also a refusal to reduce the complexity of human emotions to the superficially immediate. Elegy of the North (挽歌, Banka) takes him much further in the direction of standard melodrama than he would usually venture, echoing contemporary American or European romantic dramas filled with soaring scores and moments of intense emotion bridged by long periods of restraint and repression. Yet it is also among the most psychologically complex of Gosho’s narratives, telling stories of death and rebirth in place of the usual coming of age and first heartbreak for which the genre is so well loved. In Reiko (Yoshiko Kuga) he presents us with a heroine we can’t be sure we like and certainly are not intended to approve of even as we sympathise with her pain and long for an end to her (often self inflicted) suffering.

Walking along the smoking volcanic soil of frozen Hokkaido, Reiko offers us the first of many voiceovers in which she tells us about her left arm – withered and almost numb due to childhood arthritis. When her withered arm is bitten by a dog, Nellie, owned by a melancholy architect, Katsuragi (Masayuki Mori), she barely feels it but Katsuragi is mortified. “She’s never bitten anyone before”, he tells Reiko by way of explanation, “I’ve never been bitten before”, Reiko fires back but bitten she certainly has been. Captivated by the idea of Katsuragi, she doesn’t immediately take him up on the offer of coming to his house and possibly adopting a puppy but catches sight of him around town and then decides to pay him a visit. He isn’t in, but Akiko (Mieko Takamine), his wife, is. Reiko didn’t want to see Katsuragi’s wife so she makes a speedy escape.

Having caught sight of Akiko, Reiko is equally intrigued. Akiko, as Reiko discovers, is having an (unhappy) affair with a much younger medical student, Tatsumi (Fumio Watanabe). Failing to read the emotional landscape of this sorry scene, Reiko regards this information as a juicy piece of gossip in her ongoing campaign to win over Katsuragi. She spies on the lovers, childishly eavesdropping on them in a local cafe, even suddenly delivering their coffee for them so she can get a proper look at Akiko – not that she really sees her or the distraught look on her face, she merely observes her rival – the wicked woman who has betrayed her beloved Katsuragi.

Reiko is constantly berated by her father and grandmother for her unwomanliness. Compared with the typical Japanese woman of the time and particularly with the stoic yet miserable Akiko, Reiko can certainly be thought unusual. Dressing in androgynous loose trousers, polo neck jumper and overcoat, without makeup and with unkempt hair, her aesthetic is one of rambunctious child or rebellious teenager. Her habit of throwing out awkward, inappropriate questions at first seems like childish ineptness but later seems calculated to unbalance. She is often cruel, perhaps deliberately so, but then remorseful (if only for selfish reasons). Though Reiko seems to feel that it’s her disability that marks her out as an outcast, unfit for marriage or a “normal” life, her family appear much more concerned with her unconventional rejection of femininity in her boldness, masculine dress, and refusal to learn the traditionally feminine crafts of housework and cookery so necessary to becoming the ideal wife.

What Reiko sees in Akiko is an image of her idealised self – beautiful, poised, elegant, and the wife of Katsuragi. As part of her nefarious plan, Reiko decides to “befriend” Akiko while Katsuragi is away on a business trip. What she never expected is that she would come to genuinely care for both Akiko and the couple’s small daughter Kumiko (Etsuko Nakazato), making her position as a potential home wrecker impossible. Reiko’s father blames himself for her unwomanliness, having raised her alone after his wife died, denying her of a maternal influence from whom she would have learned all the essentials of femininity which she now seems to lack. Akiko, a few years older, becomes both friend and surrogate mother – Reiko even begins calling her “Mamma” just as Kumiko does. Akiko’s distant poise begins to thaw when Reiko crawls in through her door one night after contracting pneumonia. Nursing Reiko as a mother would brings the two women closer together but it also unwittingly drives them apart in deepening Reiko’s sense of guilt in being torn between two loves in the knowledge that she must destroy one of them or herself.

Akiko, the tragic heroine of the piece, remains a cypher precisely because of her adherence to the rules of traditional femininity. Reiko is first drawn to her because of her sad smile – something she later brings up again in their fiercely undramatic yet heartrending parting scene as Reiko tries to undo the harm she has just done only for Akiko to mildly reject her by instructing her that she needs to take better care of herself. Her relationship with Katsuragi appears to have floundered and, trapped in a lonely marriage, Akiko has found herself in an emotionally draining entanglement with a younger man whose life she fears she is ruining. Tatsumi, needled, is irritated by Reiko’s buzzing around Akiko, asking her an awkward question of his own in accusing her of being a lesbian, to which Reiko gives one of her infuriately barbed replies with “call it what you want”. Reiko’s intentions probably do not run that way (at least consciously), so much as she longs for the love and affection she missed out on after losing her mother at such a young age. Akiko, however, may see things differently. Her life appears lonely, and her friendship with Reiko, whom she brands “reckless yet somehow cheerful” (again, like an infuriating child), is one of its few bright spots. The betrayal is not so much that Reiko has slept with her husband, but that Reiko has deliberately ruined their friendship by exposing it as a cruel ruse in the most wounding of ways. The last time we see Akiko, she is wearing the necklace that Reiko gave to her – a sure sign that her final decision is, in someway, taken on Reiko’s behalf.

Reiko’s tragedy is that her intense self loathing which she attributes to her withered arm, leads her to suspect each act of kindness is only one of pity and that no one can truly love her, they’re just overcompensating because of her “deformity”. At the beginning of the film she asks herself if her mind is as warped as her body. Her actions are often “warped”, as in she works against herself and ultimately destroys the very thing she wanted most yet there is a kind of settling that occurs through her interactions with Akiko. In the final sequence, Reiko has shed her dowdy, dark coloured, worn trousers and jumpers for an elegant skirt and blouse, and has learned to accommodate a certain level of domesticity. Even if she is merely echoing Akiko, Reiko has at least attempted to move forward in exploring the areas of femininity she had hitherto rejected outright. That it is not to say her “unusual” nature is tamed in favour of conforming to social norms, merely that a side of herself which she had decided to keep locked has been opened up for examination (and may then be rejected with greater self knowledge). Elegy of the North lives up to its name in singing a long and painful song of mourning, but Gosho ends on a note of hopeful, in pained, optimism for his contrary heroine, literally forced to move past the scene of her crime towards a possibly happier future.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.