It’s now a cliché to describe Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as the father of modern action cinema. Undoubtedly its DNA, whilst not entirely original in itself, has since colonised genre cinema on a worldwide scale. But Seven Samurai is, of course, far more than a blueprint for recycled multiplex fare. Few films attempt to encompass as much as Kurosawa’s narrative does, which depicts through its microcosm of struggle and triumph something close to a philosophy of life as well as violent drama in its most elemental and entertaining of forms. Kurosawa and his writing collaborators attempted to create not just a movie script, but an artefact, with life extending far beyond the margins. The finesse of detailing put into creating their samurai and the villagers who hire them reflected the desire to create a self-sufficient fictional universe. Kurosawa was reviving a mode of filmmaking, autocratic and exacting in a hunt for tactile force and authenticity barely seen since the heyday of director-gods of the silent era, like Stroheim, Gance, and Lang. For the Japanese film industry, still straitened after the war even as it was entering a golden age of artistic brilliance, such ambition seemed outsized. The arduous shoot at a remote location lasted nearly a year. Kurosawa’s vision cost his backers, Toho Studios, half a million dollars. Production was shut down three times, but Seven Samurai was completed, and the rewards were soon apparent: a huge hit, over time it has become perhaps the most famous film ever produced in the country, and one regularly and justly cited amongst the greatest films of all time.
Kurosawa’s original idea had been to make a film about a samurai as an institutional figure, possessed of great esteem and power, and yet whose life always rested on a knife edge of responsibility and decorum. But in researching his story, Kurosawa unearthed an anecdote about some samurai who had defended a village from bandits during the incessant civil wars of Japan in the 1500s. His imagination captured, he collaborated with screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni to construct a story that, whilst not adapted from specific mythology, nonetheless managed to seem, in the perfection of its operating parts and the microcosmic intensity and graphic clarity of its drama, as if it told a story reaching back to prehistory. The creators based their samurai on real models, except for odd-man-out Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), an avatar for the pressures of social change, held in check by ruthless feudal politics in the film’s time period, but depicted as straining against their fetters. Kurosawa, whose name was about to become synonymous with Japanese historical cinema, had made few period movies up to this point. His proper debut, Sanjuro Sugata (1943), had dealt with the tension between prowess in violent arts and conscientious action in historical context, but his other forays into the past had generally been deeply cynical about Japan’s historic social structures.
Kurosawa nonetheless set himself the task of analysing the mystique of the peculiar national warrior, a mystique that had been used to give a fig leaf of traditionalist honour to recent orgies of imperialistic warfare. The risk of glamorising a passé profession associated with oppression and militarism was present. But Kurosawa, whose family had been samurai for generations, was evidently searching for some worldview, questioning what it meant for past and present, according to the ethical theme that dogged Kurosawa throughout his career: how does one do good in an often unforgiving and evil world? The choice of a group of ronin, loyal not to feudal power structure but to their own proclivities and traditions, helped leaven Kurosawa’s interest in the code that the breed lived by, placing it in contrast to a more venal reality. The heroes of Seven Samurai are defined by their willingness to take an essentially thankless job because it accords all the more purely with their code and gifts. Kurosawa’s choice of study also allowed him to channel another cultural influence: the rugged heroes of the private eye and western novels and films he loved, and the films of John Ford, in particular. Ford’s films kept the near-mythical gunslingers and warriors of the West in resolutely social contexts, consistently translating the genre’s essential tension between vagrant heroes and settler factotums into a cosmology, and Kurosawa wanted to engage in a similarly encompassing form of storytelling.
The opening shots of Seven Samurai, with silhouetted horsemen riding across the horizon, obey the essential creed of genre masters as stated by the likes of Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller: a film’s first shot should possess instantly arresting power. The sound of the horses charging the landscape is like that of ominous thunder, full of wordless malevolence and their riders with chitinous black armour, looking like locusts, about to consume everything in their path. When the bandit army comes upon the hapless, unnamed village whose fate the film depicts, they propose stripping this one bare, but one bandit reminds them that they raided it not long before, so they decide to return once the work of growing and harvesting the rice is completed. Once they depart, a hiding villager rises from his nook, the bundled sticks on his back having blended in with the surrounds.
The contrast is immediately purposeful: the bandits are malevolent insects feeding off the landscape of which the villagers are a part. The geometrical arrangements of the villagers, situated in the clear ground in the centre of their hamlet, reconfirms the notion, capturing the mass in the context of their lives and refusing to release them from it (shades of Lang and Metropolis). But the fibre of the villagers emerges, as individual character resists the pressure of history to crush it into a lumpen mass: angry and haunted Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) loses patience with the consensus to grovel before the bandits in the hope they’ll leave enough to live on next time. Self-interested Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) upholds this view, but when Rikichi convinces the villagers to think about another course of action, they’re advised by the village’s ancient patriarch Gisaku (Kokuten Kôdô), who once saw a village guarded by samurai, to try the same trick: “Find hungry samurai,” he advises.
Poverty is a reality in Seven Samurai in a way it is in very few films: early scenes, filled with vivid shots of the gnarled, suffering faces of the farmers, ensures their reality tempers the narrative, even though the samurai come to dominate it. Farmers, samurai, and bandits are united by one inescapable truth: the world they live in has been picked clean by an age of war, the clash of factions across the length of Japan has left everyone defined by what power they have. The bandits have no real power; the farmers perceive themselves to have none at all, taking recourse in whatever trickery they can, a necessary amorality and craftiness that is nonetheless held against them as it grazes against the complex ethical system of the samurai.
The marginal nature of subsistence labour is brought out with excruciating immediacy as Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), the most timorous of the farmers who go in search of samurai aid, finds the small stock of rice he’s been charged with protecting, crucial for luring in the wayfaring ronin they need, awakens at one point to find the stock stolen, compounding desperation with a shame and fear that’s bone-shaking. In this way, Kurosawa indicates that although he’s making an epic adventure film, he has no interest in historical escapism, a la the Hollywood swashbuckler, or even most Westerns: rather he’s portraying the human condition in both static and active states, probing the past for its own essence, a time when, without technology or the manifold insulations of modernity, humanity was no better than the immediacy of its physical and mental gifts and needs. The overwhelming physicality of Seven Samurai gains drive from this urgency. “A battle is running,” one samurai advises with import that colours the entire film: “When you can’t run any more, it’s time to die.” And so goes life.
Yohei, Rikichi, and Manzo venture into a small town to find protectors, and fate, chance, whatever, steers them to Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), a ronin introduced having his head shaved, with excitable onlookers flocking about. The striking image of the shaven-pated samurai—paid tribute with amusing literalness in the film’s American remake, The Magnificent Seven (1960), by casting Yul Brynner—is disorienting at first for the witnesses and audience because the act of a samurai surrendering his topknot is one associated with ritual humiliation and shame. It turns out to be in preparation for a ruse, as Kambei has been enlisted to rescue a small child, kidnapped by a thief who’s taken refuge in a hut: he takes on the guise of a disinterested priest bringing food to the besieged pair. But the sense remains that Kambei has left behind the worldly pride of being a samurai and become, in his way, a priest. He is the narrative’s sage of war but also of interconnectivity, of communal responsibility and strategic awareness, an awareness that’s grown beyond mere military contemplation to the relationship of many levels of necessary relationship. As a kind of warrior-philosopher, he tethers together the myriad personalities and desires of the farmers and samurai into an axiomatic whole. In keeping with his new status, he attracts disciples—the farmers who, dazzled and sensing the exceptional character and skill of this paragon, try to hire him—as well as samurai. He is dogged by a schismatic duo who witnessed his feat, and want to pay homage and gain his favour. The youthful, well-attired, privileged young Katsushiro (Isao ‘Ko’ Kimura), is the son of a wealthy landowner who, wanting to be a samurai, has left home in search of a cause and a master, whilst the man claiming to be called Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is scruffy, showy, and rude. Katsushiro’s eager obeisance wins him a friend and, finally, a reluctant mentor, whereas Kikuchiyo’s simultaneously pushy and reticent attempt to gain introduction is a failure.
Kurosawa’s most pervasive stylistic influence on the action cinema that followed was in the many directors, most importantly Sam Peckinpah, who imitated his then-startling use of slow motion as a flourish in violent moments. Kurosawa’s use of this gimmick is as restrained as it is often excessive in followers, however: here it comes in moments where the talents of the samurai allow victories that scarcely best their opponents by more than a hair’s breadth, and yet that is, of course, all the difference. When Kambei plunges into the hut where the kidnapper is holed up, for several awful moments it’s like he plunged into the very maw of hell. The thief runs out, seemingly escaping, only to pause and in a drawn out moment of interminable wonder and horror, drops dead. The moment of death, the very crescendo of existence, becomes an eternity, the slow plunge to earth, kicking up a cloud of totemic dust, a vision of extinction at once ignominious and astrophysical.
The effect is repeated when Kambei finds the most skilled of his team to aid the farmers, Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), whose swordsmanship is as great as his dedication to a Zen-informed detachment and stoicism. Kyuzo competes with another swordsman who angrily claims victory in a pass with sticks, and so demands a repeat with bare blades. Kyuzo’s victory is inevitable: Kambei predicts it with mortification, groaning at the waste of the man who’s about to throw his life away. Kyuzo’s unflappable poise and impassive dedication are demanded by his understanding of his warrior art, knowing very well that life and death have become, in his rarefied zone, nothing more than the grace of a slightly better nervous reaction, the move practised until it becomes reflex, and the vagaries of chance and nature. Kyuzo initially turns down Kambei’s entreaties because his desire has only been to perfect his art, not to actually fight, and yet the pointlessness of his opponent’s death hangs in the air and surely informs his change of heart: for what good is the ability to beat any man in battle, if there is no reason to battle? Kyuzo’s innate existentialism suddenly requires, purpose, for the void waits. The art of the samurai, then, is not one of mere spiritual fence-sitting.
The team Kambei forges is tested at first with the amusingly simple trick of placing Katsushiro out of sight ready to conk contenders on the head to see if they’re up to standard as he looks for a vital synergy of elements. The team Kambei builds includes his former lieutenant Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô), with whom he spent much time fighting losing wars and who he had not seen since a burning castle fell on top of him. The cheery and intelligent Gorobei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba), laughs at spotting Kambei’s test, and in turn he recruits Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), a penniless ronin who’s taken to axing firewood for food who introduces himself to Kambei as “a swordsman of the woodcut school.” Kambei’s artisanal talents offset Kyuzo’s icy brilliance with stolid reliability and earthy humour. The talents and characters of the samurai, of course, form a functional balance, translated into an apt design by Gorobei when he creates a standard for the team that depicts its samurai as six circles, with Kikuchiyo as a triangle. Kikuchiyo, brought to be interviewed by Kambei by a gambling spiv who’s previously only been interesting in teasing the farmers, is humiliated by the samurai, who quickly discern his larceny and illiteracy: he claims descent from a clan whose family tree he carries about, except he has chosen to claim the name and estate of a 13-year-old girl. Kikuchiyo’s drunken, hysterical fury, after being caught out by Katsushiro’s test and this unpleasant detail, provokes the samurai to act like teenagers, teasing him until he falls down into a snoring slumber, the most perfect of disgraces and exposures.
The code of samurai behaviour of courtly courtesy, respect, deference, obedience, and above all, ability is then one that Kikuchiyo repeatedly offends. He has the impudent energy of an upstart and a rebel, replete with showy bravado and natural rather than honed physical wit. But he also provokes new reactions and levels of thought in his confederates. The samurai code also has elements of aristocratic pride and snobbery, one the farmers have to overcome in seeking their saviours. Even Kambei retains these unwittingly, until the first major social crisis hits the partnership of farmers and samurai. Kikuchiyo provides a vital bridge between classes, though he doesn’t do so willingly: with his feral aspect, flea-scratching and perpetually twitchy, and gruffly macho demeanour, he’s clearly neither of the farmer nor samurai worlds, though he has roots in one and aspires to another. Kikuchiyo defies his earlier mockery and outcast status by following the samurai to the village and, along the way, showing off his survival skills, resoluteness, and willingness, in spite of his braggadocio, to prove himself when challenged. Mifune’s performance imbues Kikuchiyo with a quality of the vaguely inhuman, his way of moving, grunting, eating, barking, all possessing an animal grace, seemingly imbued by years of surviving on the very fringes of society. Kikuchiyo is man out of time, and yet he’s also the most distinctive of the heroes, the one who drives it on the most elemental levels, with his passion, his humour, his buffoonery, his filthiness, his grit as a man of war. The feeling arises constantly that, in some way, Kikuchiyo represents man as a primal being, unevolved and yet loaded with immense potential, as he often really as, rather than how the samurai see the ideal to be fulfiled.
Nonetheless, Kikuchiyo knows well and loathes the character of the farmers, their dirty secrets and crimes, which include killing samurai scattered by wars and lost battles to strip them of valuable armour and weapons. This lowest devolution for human worth and economics offends the samurai to their innermost core, and for a moment it seems possible the samurai might turn their blades on the farmers rather than the bandits. But Kikuchiyo launches into an incendiary, hypnotic rant that lists the faults of the peasants and then contends that such barbarity is only the result of being degraded and mistreated for centuries by people calling themselves samurai, whose crimes stack up beyond tallying. As movie scenes go, it’s one of the most memorable in the medium’s history, in part thanks to Mifune’s acting: Kikuchiyo unleashes verbal articulateness at last, though hacked up into aggressive phrases barked out with the anger and self-disgust of centuries behind them. Kurosawa contrasts coolly even in the face of enormous emotional heat, fixating on Kikuchiyo’s prowling, leonine demonstration in close-up, and then cutting back to the neatly arranged, silent, and sullen samurai. It’s both one of the great character moments and moral exegeses in cinema. Kikuchiyo, who was a foundling left over from some slaughter, aims not just at the hypocritical pretences of the samurai, but speaks for a long, deeply suppressed fury of any repressed and angry populace tortured within inches of losing humanity and yet refusing to become less than human. He aspires clumsily but genuinely towards the status of samurai and all good that it represents, but refuses to lie. Finally it becomes clear why Kikuchiyo transfixes attention: he’s not just primal man but also, in a beautiful contradiction, modern man—angry, dynamic, classless, rootless, raging, joyous, pathetic, ridiculous, and tragically heroic.
Many of Kurosawa’s heroes wrestle in solitary agony with evil on a social scale, perhaps with a mentor, but often with the mentor falling in battle somewhere along the line. In Kurosawa’s genre work, many a “villain” proves to be pathetic and driven by forces beyond their control. Here, the action is collective, a vision of social concord that’s often a prize and rarely a reality in Kurosawa’s oeuvre: the final vision of Dreams (1990) of a rural village in beatific harmony is anticipated, but on the far side of a great and necessary trauma. Tellingly, Kurosawa refuses to characterise the bandits in much detail: the one bandit anyone shares many words with, a sniper Kikuchiyo approaches whilst pretending to be on the same side, proves to be a griping, famished grunt who is cowardly when separated from the herd. In the final battle, some of the bandits die bravely, but many go out in an ugly reversal of roles and perverse pathos, as the villagers hunt them with spears of bamboo, scrambling in desperation as they’re hacked to death with the crudest of implements: the thrill of payback and liberation felt by and through the farmers is countered by exacting depiction of its physical and metaphysical cost. Not that the bandits don’t deserve to be beaten good and proper: the thoughtless rapacity of the bandits is the flip side of the desperation of the farmers, but like the gamblers the farmers encounter in the town, they have only contempt for the people who nonetheless actually produce what they live off of. Unlike in The Magnificent Seven, which conforms to the conventions of Hollywood melodrama by providing a definite antagonist, here the bandit chiefs, including the rifle-wielding leader (Shinpei Takagi) and his one-eyed lieutenant (Shin Ôtomo), do not resolve as characters except in their single-minded ferocity and embodiment of malevolence: they might as well be the wind or the rain, elements that batter the world of the farmers, foreshadowing Kurosawa’s ever-vital, more literal use of elements to offset mortal and psychic struggle.
The shade of forces that will end the age of the samurai are already at the bandits’ command, in the three rifles they wield, and the problem of taking out these weapons becomes a special one the samurai must employ wit and special bravery to achieve. Kyuzo’s prowess sees him capture one gun with his customary deadpan lack of fuss, provoking Katsushiro to transfer his hero-worship from Kambei to him, which in turn inspires Kikuchiyo to do the same, only to earn a rebuke from Kambei for acting alone. Kikuchiyo grows to become a true samurai, albeit enforced as much through the experience of making mistakes and losing friends as through proving legerdemain. He drills the villagers with impudent humour and swaggering style in scenes clearly reminiscent of the repeated moments in Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy of Victor McLaglen breaking in feckless recruits. The affectionate, if often cruel relationship between buckaroo Kikuchiyo and cringing Yohei, who could be Kikuchiyo’s caricatured internal vision of his own murdered father, sees the timid old man becoming Kikuchiyo’s increasingly empowered wingman, but finally Yohei dies on a bandit spear when Kikuchiyo’s foray leaves him in charge. Kikuchiyo meets intimate grief both in losing Yohei and in trying to save Gisaku, who had wanted to remain in his outlying house in spite of the probability of death, and his son and child-bearing stepdaughter. Kikuchiyo arrives only for the mother to thrust her baby into his arms and drop dead. Kikuchiyo, the rugged brawler suddenly a mockery of a maternal figure a la Three Godfathers (1949), is left weepily telling Kambei the same thing happened to him as a baby. And the cycle starts again.
For a film as essentially masculine as Seven Samurai, the place of its major female characters is surprisingly consequential, as is their otherwise general absence: in this world, to be female is essentially to be either property or prey. The villagers hide their younger women from the samurai, provoking the resentment of these hearty males. Manzo worriedly forces his attractive virginal daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima) to cut her hair and pretend to be a boy. The bandits prey sexually on peasant girls, snatching many away into forced prostitution, including Rikichi’s wife, a source of shame and anger for the farmer that drives his determination to take on the bandits even as he keeps this secret from the samurai until a fateful, and fatal, moment. Rikichi leads Heihachi, Kikuchiyo, and Kyuzo on a raid on one of the bandits’ strongholds, whereupon Kurosawa suddenly changes viewpoint and moves to that of Rikichi’s captive wife (Yukiko Shimazaki), awakening amidst a sprawl of fetid, orgiastic humanity, with the bandits bedded down with other women. The sense of near robotic, sensually battered and emotionally alienated dislocation conveyed by Shimizaki contrasts the fearsome animation of Kikuchiyo, the gap between slavery and self-willed liberation all too apparent but with its own dazed acquiescence: the wife blinks in astonished and silent approval as the walls of the fort, set on fire by the attackers, begin to smoke and blaze. Acquiescence ends when she sees her husband amongst the attackers determined to drive out the human termites within: rather than run tearfully into his arms, she revolves and dashes back to die in the flames, and the hysterical Rikichi fends off Heihachi, who tries to drag the farmer back to shelter, only to be gunned down, the first of the samurai to die.
Such a grim fate is then one from which the villagers want to save their women, and, as Kikuchiyo’s rant makes clear, historically, the samurai have been as bad as the bandits in this regard. Manzo wants to save Shino from such a fate, and yet his act of forcibly cutting off her hair and getting her to dress as a boy has a series of ironic knock-on effects that destabilise the traditional hierarchies he wants to maintain. Katsushiro’s coming-of-age story is woven throughout Seven Samurai. Katsushiro looks for heroes and action, and finds rather love and social responsibility, signalled first when he tosses coins to Yohei after the rice is stolen so he can buy more. When he discovers Shino in the forest when he’s wandered away from Kambei’s side, daydreaming, he sees her and thinks at first she’s a boy: “Why aren’t you working instead of picking flowers,” Katsushiro demands, only to hastily throw down the blossoms he’s clutching. The game with gender coding apparent here signals the potential of the young to break down barriers and forge new paradigms. Later, as the young couple escape again into the woods and loll amongst the flowers, Shino erupts into hysterical laughter as she eggs the young man on to make love to her, leaving Katsushiro absolutely stricken before the thankful intervention of bandit spies. Tsushima’s unnerving laugh, straddling delight and terror, helps make this just as amazing a moment as Kikuchiyo’s rant as one of the film’s few fixated close-ups, reaching beyond Kikuchiyo’s stab at articulateness into the nonverbal angst of sexuality at its most vivid cusp, with the sharp jab at Manzo’s patriarchal protection given its most apt rebuke in Shino’s desire for the handsome young samurai to be her lover. Later, when the couple are found out on the night before battle, it sparks another of the crises that beset the alliance of social groups, and Kambei tries to mollify Manzo’s offence and fear. But the next morning, in the face of the enemy and daylight, Kambei uses the night’s events for a joke, declaring that Katsushiro is finally a man and he has to fight like one. Everyone laughs, and that’s that.
When battle finally comes in Seven Samurai, the long build-up and exacting clarity of construction pays off for both the heroes and the director. Whilst Kurosawa’s techniques helped point the way towards modern cinema’s far more dynamic sense of space and movement, Kurosawa has never less than an iron grasp on both the sense and sensatory intensity of his filmmaking, to an extent that embarrasses most successors. Just as physical bravura defines warrior capacity, so space defines action in Seven Samurai: the diagrammatic clarity of Kurosawa’s framing and editing, with his “wipe” interchanges, swiped by George Lucas, amongst other things, for his Star Wars films, utilised to give the film’s flow of scenes a quality of dynamic movement. A central sequence of Kambei and Gorobei assessing the village layout intercuts a sketched map and a clear sense of locale that makes their planning explicit. When the bandits finally appear sweeping over the top of the cleared hill above the village, the viewer expects this move and also knows what’s been done to forestall it. With the heroes each given their side of the village to defend, the “stages” of the drama can be coherently cut between. War is, indeed, running, but it’s the precision of the samurai’s physiques that form islands of technique in a sea of lunatic violence, like Gorobei’s lethal grip on his bow or Kyuzo’s fencer poise or Kikuchiyo’s ferocity with his colossal ōdachi, contrasting the madly frenetic, spidery masses of the villagers as they try to spear the bandits, and the bandits’ own attempts to use madcap speed or clambering sneakiness to overwhelm the defenders.
The rain that comes plummeting like heaven’s sprung a leak in the final bout enhances the visual drama and gives a fitting complication to the physical difficulty of the fight for these wearied, hungry fighters. It’s this quality of incidental effect that gives greater force and substance to this, as the most famous and crucial of Kurosawa’s use of natural elements as symbol for human emotions, as the muck and water enshrouds everyone, mimicking the tears Katsushiro bawls as his comrades fall and the blood that pours from their wounds. In the course of the battle’s three days and two nights, bodies thrash in ponds and pools of rain water, roll in heaving mud and shoot out of the gnarled and primal forest, squirm through troughs and dance between flames, writhe as they’re punctured by gruesome edges and flop down like refuse once dead. Kyuzo is tragically, inevitably brought down not by another swordsman, but the bandits’ last rifle. The gun is wielded by their boss, the last survivor, who in a last act in keeping with his expedient brutality, takes the village women hostage, only for Kikuchiyo, finally achieving almost mythic proportions even as he finally falls prey to his own bravery, expiring in a twisted mass on top of the last enemy, having answered his bullet with a katana in the gut.
Kambei’s flat declaration of victory over a sea of mud and dead flesh, and Katsushiro’s heartbroken sobs, closes the scene in the most understated and depleted of fashions. Yet the cumulative effect of Seven Samurai is not downbeat, for a definite victory is won, if not, as Kambei’s famous final words indicate, for the samurai, but rather for the people they defended and finally liberated. Katsushiro leaves the company of the samurai to rejoin both Shino and his roots in the land, whilst Kambei and Shichiroji stand by their fellow warriors on a burial mound, having dedicated their lives, unlike many, for an ideal that seems suddenly possible.
Maverick Japanese director Seijun Suzuki has built a sizeable reputation outside of his native country, and yet he is still nowhere near famous enough. A genuinely great film artist on a level with the most reputed names of world cinema, Suzuki’s oeuvre was, for better and worse, famously defined by his struggle against being pigeonholed as a director of gangland melodramas. He subjected the genre to increasingly strange and astounding formal experiments and thematic detonations, until he finally, effectively sabotaged his career with the mighty surrealist thriller Branded to Kill (1967). Fired from Nikkatsu Studios, Suzuki spent more than a decade in purgatory, spurned by other studios, before he returned as a maker of oddball, outright art films. Suzuki tested the tensile integrity of visual narrative with ever more daring force, keeping pace with and even outdoing the many western directors engaging with formal experimentalism during the ‘60s. In later work, he pushed ever closer to abstraction and complete fragmentation of narrative.
A product of the time when he was still part of Nikkatsu and yet also clearly a renegade, Story of a Prostitute is both a lacerating study of historical military and sexual insanity, and a monument to Suzuki’s own outsider bravado as a filmmaker and an relentless, ferocious commentator on his society. Breaking momentarily free from his allotted role at the studio, Suzuki inverts the usual focus of the genre films he made, with the stoic, loner action heroes he was already aggressively disassembling, to look at a determined, unruly, but ultimately self-destructive heroine and make a sustained assault on the evils of Japan’s recent past. In seguing into territory more readily associated with the female-centric works of Kenji Mizoguchi and the humanist angst of Masaki Kobayashi, whilst essaying drama with a force equivalent to the bristling provocations of Nagisa Oshima and Koji Wakamatsu, Suzuki here reveals the rare depths of his gifts.
Suzuki’s jagged, rapid, impressionistic stylistics are in constant evidence throughout Story of a Prostitute. Where the title might make one assume this is to be a realistic study in a woman’s move into the oldest profession in a style familiar from Mizoguchi’s films, Suzuki introduces his anti-heroine Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa) as already long immersed in the life, and with her carnal intensity and deeply asocial streak, in some ways utterly suited to it. Story of a Prostitute takes up the story of such a woman at the point where most others would leave off, and continues a thematic strand from Suzuki’s Tattooed Life (1964), where his period heroes aspired to flee Japan for the colonies in Manchuria but were constantly stymied by forces far larger than themselves.
Harumi is a creature doomed to survive on the margins of glorious enterprises. The opening is both dazzlingly artful and entirely efficient. The stark opening titles show a woman struggling across a vast volcanic wasteland that stands in for the frontier world in China where the story mostly unfolds. A voiceover states: “Prostitute, harlot, strumpet—Harumi is one in Tianjin.” Harumi is first glimpsed before a huge mural of a dragon motif, dressed impeccably for her trade, suggesting at once a formal acceptance of her role but with vivid emotional turmoil within, as the narrator explains that her Japanese lover, Tomoda, has just returned from Japan with a bride.
The declaration of Harumi’s status and profession immediately indicts her not as a meek or pathetic victim but as someone who will embrace with increasing volatility her role as a transgressor, a kind of guerrilla warrior against the entrapping paradigms of male dominance and military hierarchy. Her aggression is precisely envisioned in the very next shot: a knife hacks into frame, bright against the surrounding darkness. Harumi is wielding this weapon. The third shot is split, one side presenting a stylised tavern, represented as a table and chairs surrounded by epic darkness, and Harumi, wielding the knife, threatens her lover’s bride, telling her to go back to Japan, whilst the other side of the frame contains the wedding photo for the couple, emblem of the formal ties and powers that now weigh against Harumi. Suzuki cuts to a fourth shot, an inversion of the last in that now he offers an all-white room as the space in which Tomoda apologises to Harumi and explains that nothing need change between them. Harumi continues to insist he get rid of his wife, but then kisses him with voracity and bites his lip almost clean off, as visceral a depiction of erotic intimacy segueing into physical horror as any in cinema.
Suzuki makes a brutal jump cut then to the most innocuous of sights: the hinterlands into which Harumi travels with two other prostitutes recruited to serve at brothels in the frontier town of Buken. The crudity of the garrison soldiers is shocking to her fellows, but attractive to Harumi, who wants to lose herself in a delirium of sex, and the endless queue of virile, sex-starved soldiers at the town provides just what she wants. On the road to the town, the convoy is assaulted by the local partisan army that dogs the Japanese throughout the film. Trucks are blown to pieces by charging partisans on horseback, and soldiers crowd around a dead fellow, whose body is slung into the back of another truck, where it bobs pathetically on the continued journey. Such is the ferocity of the attack that Harumi’s fellows immediately jump out of the truck, wanting to walk back to Tianjin if they have to. But as Harumi flatly states she might as well go on because she has nowhere else to go, they climb back in and acquiesce to her cold realism. Now Harumi catches sight of handsome Corporal Shinkichi Mikami (Tamio Kawaji), just released from a stint in hospital, whilst a commander, angered by the attack, gestures to a nearby village and declares, “We’ve got to kill some men and set an example!” They reach Buken, a walled city, grimy and degraded—as unlikely a scene for imperial glory as any conceivable, on the edge of a wasteland that seems to stretch across the borders of the liminal to become an existential desert.
The girls are told they’ll be serving up to a hundred soldiers a day, but Harumi finds herself marked for a slightly different role than the one she wanted: she is swiftly claimed as the nighttime bed partner of Adjutant Narita (Isao Tamagawa), a swaggering bully and lascivious brute whose imperious claim over Harumi’s body offends her profoundly, except when he’s actually screwing her, and shocks her into a stance of resistance. When she learns that Mikami is his aide, she determines to seduce the corporal, partly out of revenge and partly out of sexual fascination. But her path to this fulfilment is made difficult by the fact that Mikami, though attracted to Harumi, is slavishly indoctrinated by the militarist ethos and truly tortured by the thought of transgressing his role. Harumi’s determination to gain revenge over Narita is illustrated with bravura as she imagines him coming upon herself and Mikami in an embrace: he turns into a photograph, and is torn to pieces. Harumi’s confident belief that her own fecund erotic power can destabilize the hierarchy is underlined as Suzuki offers a shot of her, clearly stripped but framed from just above her breasts and encompassing her grimly smiling face, as an icon of ripe, subversive intent. When she first tries to seduce him in a shed adjoining the brothel, Mikami slaps her when he thinks she’s mocking him: as her fellow prostitutes mass around Mikami and abuse him, Harumi screams in hysteria. Finally, she manages to bed Mikami by suggesting he’s a virgin, and she gradually emboldens him to sneak out of the barracks after dark to make rendezvous with her. But when Mikami is caught, he’s imprisoned, and during a partisan raid, is sent out on a suicide detail.
The small collective of prostitutes interests Suzuki in a fashion similar to Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse, except rather than a street of shame, Suzuki offers an entire world of it. Suzuki refuses to cordon off the masculine and feminine trials of war and whoredom, instead seeing them both as entwined matters of life, death, and above all, human freedom. He gives time to the prostitutes’ banter, fears, their collective sensibility, their louche deportment, play, despair, and gossipy pleasure in their moments of rest, before the columns of soldiers are marched in to begin the exhausting business of assembly-line rutting. At first, the girls doubt it when they’re told they’ll all find sweethearts amongst the soldiers—“How will we find the time?” one asks incredulously—but later they’re glimpsed rushing out to find their loved ones when the soldiers return from the front. The world Suzuki creates is at once fervidly seamy and tangible, a place of unremitting squalor and decay, and yet also littered with expressionist beauty, the town and the environs of the brothels with their décor and fine architecture long since pummelled and brutalised. Concurrent to the central matter of Harumi’s attempted rebellion, Suzuki offers two different case studies in schismatic grasps for individual affirmation. An aged colonist comes to the brothel to arrange for one prostitute to marry his son, whom the father suggests is busy working out on their remote farm. Sachiko (Kazuko Imai) takes up the offer, as she’s the most eager—she’s lugged a tea set to this godforsaken place for a traditional ritual just in case she gets lucky. She ventures into the wasteland, only to return sometime later bedraggled and dejected, raving that the son was actually a lunatic as her tea set falls from its case and lies on the sand.
This pathetic story is contrasted with that of one of Mikami’s fellow soldiers, Uno, an intellectual who keeps getting into trouble for reading things he’s not supposed to: busted down to the ranks and bullied by his sergeant, Uno comes to spend time at the brothel only to read his copy of Diderot, lounging in the room of the one Chinese prostitute at Harumi’s brothel, who watches him with confused affection. The association of soldiers and prostitutes is a time-honoured one, but what is the dividing line between the two professions actually, considering that they both theoretically surrender their individual desires for communal ones and give up control of their bodies? Suzuki keeps insidiously asking the question, and equates the demand with a surrender of will and individual thinking rights. Just as overt is the equation of Harumi’s body with the land the Imperial Army is attempting to subjugate, yielding to force and yet filled with shame for it, and attempting to mount an opposition. The first time Narita visits Harumi, he throws out the sergeant she’s sleeping with, and calls Harumi a whore. When she mouths off at him, questioning if the Emperor would use his language, as Japanese officers are supposed to be the mouthpieces of the Emperor, he strikes her with the scabbard of his sword and reduces her to cowering like an animal before he strips her violently and fucks her with impunity. Harumi does not merely give in to this force, but actually gives herself up to it, surrendering to masochistic desires, but she writhes in weepy self-loathing afterwards, and conflates Narita and her former lover Tomoda, still fantasising about clawing his face.
Suzuki’s textural experimentation was often as much about keeping himself from getting bored as it was about illustrating his films in the most original and vivid fashion possible. Story of a Prostitute is, however, an overflowing trove of stylistic riches where form and function are tethered in dazzling prolixity. Oftentimes, Suzuki’s dedication to cinematic freedom evokes the Unchained Cinema of Murnau and other Expressionists of the ’20s. After the spectacle of the early scenes, Suzuki calms down, relatively speaking, for a time, as he engages with a story that expands on two distinct planes, the personal and the macrocosmic. The personal is predicated around Harumi and Mikami, particularly Harumi’s overheated emotions, bordering on mania, and her sometimes discursive, often reactive way of conceiving the world, distorting the visual texture of the film. In the sequence in which Mikami slaps Harumi when she first makes a pass at him, Suzuki offers a slow-motion shot of Harumi stumbling out of the shed and collapsing in the dirt, accompanied by the sound of the slap and Mikami’s angry declaration, and then showing the actual moment in a flash cut, as if it’s a moment Harumi will have on loop in her mind for ages, raw in disbelief. Harumi kneels on the earth, squirming in inchoate frenzy and still locked in dazed yet urgent slow-motion, screaming, “It isn’t true!” with a passion as striking as it is obscure: Harumi’s face in the act of screaming is its own point, an expression of a primal force that can no longer be stymied.
Harumi’s fantasies occasionally flood out of her mind and onto the screen, like the ripping image of Narita, and a later moment when she imagines driving Mikami to a rebellious frenzy by running across the brothel courtyard, stripping naked and hurling herself onto Narita, causing Mikami to chase her with sword out, ready to kill his commander, only to arrive and snap into a solicitous salute. Suzuki constantly proffers shots through windows, cracks, dividing frames and bars in visualising the schisms in his characters’ psyches and assailed situations. On the macrocosmic level, Suzuki’s direction is a study in a time and place and distinct camps of entwined and also polarised forces—soldiers, partisans, men, women, mind, body. Suzuki expostulates this in cool master shots that absorb milieu and detail, and tracking shots as spectacular and revelatory as anything in Kubrick or Welles, his camera powering through landscapes of panicking humanity and war. In another quietly astounding throwaway moment, Suzuki’s camera roves up and down the length of a banquet table at which solider carouse with whores and geishas, one the girls attempting to seduce the dismissive Narita, the atmosphere raw with the frenetic boisterousness that covers deep unease; finally the camera seeks out Mikami as he sneaks about in the shadows, looking for Harumi.
Suzuki and screenwriter Hajime Takaiwa are unsparing in their depiction of militarist lunacy and colonial brutality. When a detachment sent on a punitive hunt for the partisans is wiped out, Narita leads a larger force to find them. Outside a small, abandoned town, Narita’s forces find their skeletons in a pit where their bodies have been incinerated. Narita leads the soldiers in a moment of service for their dead, the closest the film comes to any kind of sentiment for the Japanese military, and just as the service concludes, the town’s populace appears out of the dust clouds, returning to their homes. Narita promptly leads the soldiers in brutal reprisals, as random prisoners are hauled out of the crowd and hacked to death with swords. Uno is finally so appalled that he refuses to surrender to this level; he steals a horse and flees, and is last seen rising amidst exploding shells, and assumed dead by his superiors. Uno’s successful rebellion is, Suzuki suggests, clearly the result of his intellectual curiosity, whereas Mikami and Harumi are finally doomed by their lack of capacity to conceive of alternatives to their traps. Uno later turns up, having joined the partisans, and Mikami attacks him in a frenzy, asking, “Are you even Japanese anymore?” For Harumi’s campaign to liberate Mikami from his psychological fetters, products as they both are of a system and society that reduces individuals to chattel in the face of unchecked power, and Harumi’s wish to descend into an amour fou finally proves incapable of overcoming a different mad love, that of Pavlovian patriotic violence. “Die before you come back!” Narita tells his men.
Where most of the first part of Story of a Prostitute is grounded resolutely in the tension between intimate frenzy and collective oppression, the last phase gains overtures of spiritual intensity, signalled as Harumi and Mikami are found in a formalistic, sensual pose, bathed in hallucinatory light, momentarily escaping their liminal selves in a moment of genuine amatory transcendence. This intimation is expanded later in the film’s major sequence, as the imprisoned Mikami is let out to man a machine gun well beyond the city gates during a partisan attack. Whilst the town flounders in panic and the rest of the garrison race to battle and then to flee to save their necks, Harumi searches for her lover amidst scurrying refugees and fear-bitten soldiers. She finally learns that a wounded Mikami has been left at the post because it was considered more important to bring back the machine gun. Harumi makes a charge across the plain as bombs explode around her and tracer bullets scourge the air. When she finds Mikami, damaged and unconscious, she lays him on the floor of the trench and settles down to die alongside him, watching the firefight now rendered mute, turned into a dazzling fireworks display burning with all the fevered, pyrotechnic force of Harumi’s psyche, at the edge of mortality. Harumi seems to remember, or imagine, an idyll of a seaside village, perhaps her hometown.
But the couple is left tragically alive, taken prisoner by the partisans, who, in a coup of ironic disparity, are revealed as humanitarian and conscientious. Protesting that he and his fellows do not hate Japanese soldiers, a surgeon treats Mikami’s wounds in a cave temple filled with icons of the Buddha, lending the ensuing struggle not a tone of ethnic or political conflict but one between the dual poles of human identity, the communal and the personal-spiritual, with the latter, exemplified by Uno, defined as necessarily lonely. Mikami, for his part, sticks to his creed with increasingly fanatical determination, even as Harumi begs him to go with her and the partisans. Harumi evolves from whore to Madonna, singing songs with mystic power enough to delight the partisans, and praying in the midst of the carved Buddhas, suffused with angelic light. The partisans abandon them, and they’re brought home by their own side. However, far from being rewarded for his sterling patriotism, Mikami is now even more embarrassing to Narita and the Japanese command. The finale devolves into a tragicomedy in which the question becomes whether Mikami will die by the hand of the army he serves or his own. When Narita has a sergeant take him out to execute him and pass it off as a combat casualty, the sergeant can’t deliver a death blow with Mikami staring at him. His fellow soldiers refuse to shoot him and another partisan attack sends them all scurrying back to town again. Harumi finishes up tackling one of Mikami’s captors in an attempt to free him, and the confusion of the attack and a whirlwind evocation of one of Kurosawa’s rainstorms in invoking the pummelling force of the inevitable turned on humans, gives them a perfect chance for an escape.
Mikami determines to die instead with a grenade Harumi has stolen for him, slave to his personal commitment to his soldier’s oath. Suzuki offers flash stills of Harumi as she wrestles with her lover; but realising she can’t prevent his death, she grabs him and waits with him until the grenade blows them both to pieces. What their end means, if anything, is pondered over in a sadly equivocal epilogue, as their memory is abused and condemned by officers, whilst the soldiers hold their personal opinions and grief inside. Suzuki moving through the ranks, allowing their thoughts to flow in voiceover, and suggesting that the grinding gears of official reality and private truth are beginning to break down the machine, even as Narita and his superiors start out to pursue the partisans, with Narita’s superior musing worriedly that, “China is a large country,” as the soldiers march off into the dust. They are watched by the remaining girls of the brothel who have a funeral for what’s left of their friends, with the Chinese woman musing angrily over the cult of death that has claimed two new victims, no matter what private satisfaction they gained from it. By this end, the only thing that is not in doubt is Suzuki’s fulminating fury against the waste of life, the ignorance of militarism, and the strange power of love, even as it annihilates itself.
As regular readers here know, there’s not much I like better than finding lost films. Every recovered film fills a hole, however small, in history and provides insight into the artistic or documentary sensibilities of the filmmakers and the culture that influenced their creations. However, some discoveries are truly breathtaking, and the 1971 discovery of A Page of Madness by director Teinosuke Kinugasa himself while going through a warehouse is an extraordinarily valuable recovery. Japanese films from the silent era have one of the lowest survival rates of any national cinema, with only about 1 percent of an estimated 7,000 films still available for viewing in whole or in part. To compound the importance of this discovery, not only is the film silent, but it is also an experimental film, a subset of both silent and sound films that has an even lower survival rate.
Kinugasa, a former actor specializing in female parts, belonged to a group of avant-garde artists called the Shinkankaku-ha (School of New Perceptions). Like the German Expressionists also working at this time, the Shinkankaku-ha attempted to develop mood and subjective experiences through the manipulation of images rather than through traditional narration. Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner in Literature who supplied the story and part of the screenplay for the film, had seen Robert Wiene’s classic German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). He described that film’s experimental effects to Kinugasa, and these descriptions informed Kinugasa’s approach to telling the story of a janitor who works in the mental asylum in which his wife is incarcerated for trying to drown their baby.
The film offers what could have been a clichéd opening of suspense, a scene of a dark and stormy night. However, this storm is unlike anything I’ve seen since the Epstein/Buñuel silent The Fall of the House of Usher (1928). Sheets of rain slant in a skewed camera angle, stylized lightning looking a bit like Japanese calligraphy splitting the sky. A goddess-like creature dancing in front of a spinning sphere interrupts the elemental chaos. The image melds with a young woman (Eiko Minami) in tatters dancing in a cement-block cell, her imaginings of herself as an elegant priestess intercutting with her compulsive movements, unable to stop until she has danced herself bloody.
A stooped and aged janitor (Masuo Inoue) moves down the aisle of the cell block of women both restless and prostrate. He registers nothing until he reaches the cell that contains his wife (Yoshie Nakagawa). She stares blankly, madness alive in her eyes, even as he tries to reach into her mind and reawaken her memories of their marriage. Instead, we see a young woman in traditional garb carrying a baby to the edge of a pond and being pulled back as she starts to lower the infant into the water. Water is an important image in this film, a reference to the unconscious from which these dark and chaotic images emerge.
The daughter (Ayako Iijima) she tried to drown has grown to young womanhood and comes to visit her parents at the asylum to tell them of her engagement. Footage of the daughter and her fiancé appears to be missing, and I mistook her for the janitor’s memory of his wife as a young woman. Yet, this mistake still seems to resonate in the film, as the janitor is haunted by his memories and seems to be losing his grip on reality through constant contact with the insanity around him. A riot in the asylum occurs when the segregated male inmates pour into the women’s lock-up as they yelp in a frenzy over the dancing woman. Grotesque faces assault the screen and linger in the janitor’s mind as he imagines the men posing a danger to his wife—an allusion to his own mistreatment of her before she went mad.
A particularly effective scene has the janitor imagine that he passes out masks from the Japanese Noh theatre to the inmates so they can assume identities to replace the ones that have gone to pieces; donning the masks brings them a calming happiness they cannot find within themselves. When the janitor imagines that he places a mask of a lovely woman over his wife’s face and dons one of a wise man himself, we see him remembering what he feels for his wife and his desire to have his affection returned. Masks are always a bit eerie in film, and to see the collection of pale, immovable faces is to force a comparison to the largely blank, immovable face of the janitor’s wife. It is also a reminder that the janitor’s face, largely frozen in a half grimace, masks the tormented mind Kinugasa makes visible only to the audience watching the film.
Kinugasa engenders disorientation in the audience with the use of superimposed images, skewed camera angles, and quick-cut montages that telescope the chaos of the riot, for example, as well as the sharp contrast between the janitor’s imagination and the reality of his world. For example, he sees one bearded inmate menacing him and his wife, but a cut shows the janitor reclining on his bed as this same inmate, meek and harmless, is escorted past his door. Which is real? It doesn’t really matter. We understand that for the janitor, his chosen life and inner pain will forever keep “real” and “normal” a distant land.
The sense of confusion is quite extreme for the audience, particularly since the film has no intertitles. As was the practice in Japan, this film would have had a benshi narrate the story, interpreting the actions of the characters almost like an additional member of the cast. It would be fascinating to see the film with a benshi, but the powerful imagery and committed performances of the actors, particularly Inoue, communicate volumes. The film score used for the print from the George Eastman House uses atmospheric sound effects and a Japanese flute that I felt enhanced the haunted and alienated quality of the film.
A Page of Madness is an incredible achievement of Japanese cinema and a precious find for all cinephiles and scholars. It is also available for free viewing on YouTube.
In cinema, even documentary cinema, the question of who we think we see on screen and who is actually on screen are two different things, fueling all kinds of existential fun and games for the astute filmmaker and receptive audiences. Identity as a motif has preoccupied numerous filmmakers, from Ingmar Bergman (Persona) to Monte Hellman (Road to Nowhere) to Abbas Kiarostami (Close-up). Identity is often tied up with psychosis, and psychotics frequently feature in horror and suspense films because they channel the nameless, faceless Id that resides in all of us that, on some level, we all would like to release in all its rampaging glory once in a while. The idea that any one of us could become a gruesome killer if someone or something pierced our social conditioning is at the heart of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure. Kurosawa, interested in the shocked comments people invariably make after a neighbor or acquaintance commits a brutal murder (“He was such a nice man. They were an ordinary couple.”), explores the nature of identity and whether our bodies and minds are mere vessels waiting to be filled.
On a busy street in Tokyo, a man (Ren Ohsugi) walks through a damp tunnel as cars pass on his right. A fluorescent light illuminating the tunnel blinks and buzzes. We next see the man in a hotel room with a naked prostitute. He is moving about the room, and she is sitting up in bed. Suddenly, he grabs a pipe and bashes her twice on the head. When next we enter the room, it is filled with police investigators. The lead detective, Kenichi Takabe (Kôji Yakusho), observes that a deep “x” has been cut across the prostitute’s neck and chest. The man is found naked, hiding in an air duct in the hallway. When he is questioned at police headquarters by Takabe and police psychiatrist Makoto Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), the man has no idea why he killed the woman. The case resembles other murders under investigation where a similar “x” was carved into the victims.
Takabe will have several more such murders to investigate as the film goes on, but he must balance this puzzle with the increasing burden posed by his wife Fumie’s (Anna Nakagawa) mental deterioration. We first see Fumie talking with her psychiatrist (Toshi Kato) as an outpatient and observe her attachment to the story of Bluebeard. She tells the doctor that she knows how the story ends—Bluebeard is killed by his wife. Fumie doesn’t appear capable of murder, but the worry she causes Takabe, the things she does that drive him crazy, the loss of companionship he experiences by her disconnectedness certainly must cause a kind of death to his spirit. Not being able to talk to her about the pain of his work is especially difficult for him.
As other “x” cases come to the fore—a young man kills his wife of two years, a police officer shoots his partner in the head, a doctor kills a man in a public bathroom and peels his face away from his skull—we and Takabe slowly discover what links them together: a young amnesiac who is soon identified as Kunio Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a medical school dropout whose disheveled home reveals shelves of books about psychiatry, psychosis, and works about and by Franz Mesmer, a German physician who developed the idea of animal magnetism, or in the term used in the film, hypnosis, to influence behavior. We saw the young husband, Tôru Hanaoka (Masahiro Toda), encounter Mamiya on a beach and after Mamiya collapses, take him home. Mamiya questions him over and over about who he is and asks him questions about his wife Tomoko (Misayo Haruki) while transfixing Tôru with the flame of his cigarette lighter. As Mamiya bounces from one encounter to another—Hanaoka takes him to the police station, where he mesmerizes Oida (Denden), the cop, before being sent to a hospital to put Dr. Miyajima (Yoriko Dôguchi) under his spell—the daisy chain of violence barely outpaces Takabe’s efforts to unravel the mystery before he himself is drawn under Mamiya’s influence.
As with most detective-centered stories, Takabe is no ordinary cop. He is intelligent and tormented, a Japanese version of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and his complexity makes him a Rorschach image of good for his evil opposite Mamiya. Mamiya entices Takabe with an accurate assessment of the detective’s torment, mentioning a vision Takabe had of Fumie hanging dead in the couple’s kitchen that incited the detective to helpless wailing. Of course, as a mesmerist, Mamiya causes his victims to conjure such visions by helping them to access their deepest fears and hatreds through his highly developed gift for hypnosis. Only by remaining empty himself can Mamiya be the master rather than the victim.
It is Mamiya’s conviction that most people don’t know themselves, the many selves hidden under the surface, the duality of their generous and vicious impulses. He considers Takabe extraordinary, like himself, for recognizing the split in himself—trying to be a loving husband while seeing the worst in human nature on a daily basis. The encounters Takabe has with Mamiya create convulsions of emotion in him, signaled not only by his violent outbursts toward Mamiya but also toward some of his colleagues; in fact, when Takabe tries to turn the tables on Mamiya by forcing him to look at his own lighter while incarcerated, a vision of a rain-collapsing ceiling overwhelms Takabe, and the lighter goes out. It appears to have been put out by the rain water, but my guess is that while Takabe was having the visions, Mamiya merely blew the lighter out. But, of course, this wouldn’t be a horror story if we didn’t give ourselves over to wondering if the strange sights on screen are real or imaginary.
Kurosawa’s camerawork is beyond good. He scouted locations in and around Tokyo that reek of decay, giving us a fair approximation of a haunted house in the penultimate scene where the final showdown between Takabe and Mamiya takes place. He combines handheld work with static long shots of great beauty and atmosphere. He knows how to create tension by considering the images outside the frame that haunt our imagination, for example, having Sakuma enter Mamiya’s cell, which has a short wall hiding the toilet area in which Mamiya is standing. We don’t see the prisoner, but we know what he’s capable of, and the fear of actually looking at him infuses this scene powerfully. In a later scene, we see one handcuff hanging from a pipe, and the story a cop tells Takabe about it creates the image of the body that had been attached to it in our minds in an uncomfortable parallel to the way Mamiya was able to create images in the minds of his victims. Indeed, Mamiya is rather like a filmmaker, bringing us under his spell, finding our triggers, conjuring images through exposition and suggestion.
But Cure does more than that. It makes us wonder what Takabe achieved by resolving the murder investigation. The last two scenes are powerfully suggestive, but also highly ambiguous. Takabe has put his wife in a psychiatric hospital, and we see a very brief scene at the hospital in which the image of a corpse with the telltale “x” appears. Takabe is later seen eating heartily and happily in his regular diner, apparently cured of his previous troubles. His waitress removes his plates and is called over to speak to her boss. Calmly she moves to a station and picks up a large chef’s knife. Has Takabe taken over where Mamiya left off, or has our experience of the film left us imagining the worst?
The postwar rebirth of Japanese cinema and its eruption on the world stage reached its apex in the years 1953-54. Almost every great Japanese director of the age released a film within an 18-month period, and examples of the national cinema burst upon the international scene to general acclaim. Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Mikio Naruse made multiple works, including Mizoguchi’s eclipsing classics Ugetsu Monogatari and Sanshô the Bailiff, and Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums; Yasujiro Ozu released his most famous film, Tokyo Story; Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Nobuo Nakagawa likewise had movies in theatres; and Hiroko Inagaki made the first of his three-part Samurai series, which would win what was then a special Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1955. What would eventually prove the two most famous Japanese movies ever produced, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, came out in their homeland, headed for slow but permanent infiltration of Western culture. Of all the films amongst this cavalcade, it was Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell which captured both the 1954 Cannes Grand Prix, which was the festival’s top award at the time, and multiple Oscars the following year. Gate of Hell was Daiei Studio’s first colour production, utilising imported Eastmancolor technology, and adapted from a play written by Daiei’s erstwhile chief, Kan Kikuchi.
Kinugasa, by comparison with the other Japanese greats of the time, is now largely obscure, partly because little of his work was released overseas, and is also poorly represented on DVD. But Kinugasa’s life and career were multifarious, somewhat analogous to someone like King Vidor as a restless and innovative director whose oeuvre spans great shifts in cinematic modes and tastes and who settled into an uneasy relationship with studio cinema. Kinugasa began as an actor who had specialised in onnagata (female roles) in kabuki theatre before moving into film. In spite of his stage background, when he broke out as an independent filmmaker, he rode at the vanguard of emboldened, semi-experimental directors who severed Japanese cinema’s hitherto close relationship with the stage, in a flowering of revolutionary technique roughly equivalent to movements occurring then in Germany and Russia. Key to his early importance was his virtually self-financed, much-hailed, only partly extant drama A Page of Madness (1926), cowritten by the future Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata. Kinugasa then went overseas, managed to get one of his films distributed and praised in Germany, and studied for a time under Sergei Eisenstein. When he finally returned to Japan, he settled down as a studio hand. Kinugasa wasn’t particularly proud of Gate of Hell, disliking the studio interference he had to contend with, and was bewildered when it became such a sensation overseas.
Gate of Hell’s impact abroad was based chiefly in its use of colour, resplendent in the eye-gorging cinematography by Kôhei Sugiyama and set and costume design by Kisaku Ito and Sanzo Wada, to wilfully transform the cinematic space into a sprawl of segmented tones that often resemble the hues of classical Japanese ukiyo-e art. Depending on the emphasis of the scene, the effect was to imbue the drama with both naturalism and a saturated, psychologised air of abstraction. Whereas most serious Western filmmakers in the mid ’50s were still often embarrassed by the decorative quality of the era’s colour as a less-serious form of expression that that found in the black-and-white sparseness of television, Kinugasa’s work embraced the idea of high artificiality as an artistic device. Otherwise, Kinugasa’s film would almost invite an audience challenge to prove just how it was so much better than Seven Samurai and Sanshô the Bailiff. Well, it has neither the overflowing narrative richness nor psychological depth of either of those films, but then again, few things do. Kinugasa’s film is still a formidable drama that is something close to a noir film wrapped in the guise of historical exoticism, and Kinugasa’s formal control of the film is superlative.
Like Luchino Visconti’s near-concurrent Senso, Gate of Hell reverses the common structure of historical dramas by starting off with large-scale events and epochal ructions before spiraling inward toward a personal crisis that mirrors and subverts the presumptions of the larger battle. Set in the late 1100s, during the Heian period that was the dusk of Classical Japan, Gate of Hell’s main protagonist is Moritoh Enda (Kazuo Hasegawa), a mid-ranking provincial-born samurai attached to the imperial Taira clan. He finds his moment to show his worth during the Heiji Rebellion, an attempted coup d’etat against the ruling emperor that occurs when his chief supporter, Tairo Kiyamori (Koreya Senda), leaves the capital city of Kyoto to visit a monastery, giving rivals an opportunity to attack his stronghold and take over the government.
The imperial loyalists at the film’s outset frantically try to arrange to smuggle the emperor’s sister out of the Sanjo Palace, and Moritoh is called upon to stage a diversion where he and a band of retainers will defend a carriage carrying a decoy in the princess’ place. One of her handmaidens, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyô), volunteers to be the decoy, and Moritoh and his men have to fight their way through a pursuing force. Moritoh finally arrives alone with Kesa at his family villa in the country, only to encounter his brother Moritada (Kunitaro Sawamura), who announces that he’s siding with the rebels. Moritoh is outraged and refuses to join his brother, and as Moritada restrains his own men from killing Moritoh, Kesa runs away. Moritoh manages to reach the temple and report to the emperor and his men. He also kills one of the emperor’s retinue who tries to sneak away and warn the conspirators that the emperor is about to strike back. A battle follows that sees the emperor’s loyalists victorious and Moritoh distinguish himself again, but his brother is killed.
Moritoh visits a shrine for the dead set up just next to the Sanjo palace’s jigokumon, or, literally, hell gate. Moritoh encounters Kesa and her aunt Sawa (Kikue Môri) there, also intending to pray for the fallen, and Moritoh’s interest in the comely courtier hardens into ardour. When the time comes for the emperor to reward his followers for their aid, Moritoh asks to be given Kesa’s hand in marriage, and only then learns that Kesa is married to one of Kiyamori’s ministers, Wataru Watanabe (Isao Yamagata). Moritoh refuses to retract his request, asking the emperor to annul the marriage and thus entering into a public and conscious rivalry with Wataru.
Unlike Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), the film which largely opened the curtain on awareness of Japanese cinema in the outside world and which is set in the same period, Gate of Hell has a rigorously straightforward narrative, if a tad difficult to grasp towards the start as the film engages history presumably more familiar to Japanese than Western viewers, and a deceptive simplicity that nearly disguises the skill with which the tale has been pared down to its essentials. It could easily have been a mere sprawl of candy-coloured prestige pageantry, but it is instead a tightly wound and skilfully paced study in obsession, albeit one that proceeds with the clear delineations and iconic rigours of classical literature. The film barely runs an hour and a half, but fits in a whirlwind of events that flows with the same descriptive precision as the historical scroll painting that is unfurled at the film’s very outset. In his use of such motifs and his colour effects, Kinugasa anticipates and probably influenced aspects of Kobayashi’s dark plunge into the national mythology with Kaidan (1964): Gate of Hell is conscious of itself as not merely a film set in the past, but of the artistic prisms through which we conceive the past, lending depth to his stylisation. Kinugasa also downplays the sprawl of historical events and personages after the opening, and concentrates instead on his antiheroic protagonist, who for the film’s first half at least seems the definition of a loyal cavalier.
The rush of action in the first 10 minutes is worthy of Eisenstein or Michael Curtiz in its precise design and flow. Kinugasa’s camera is either at eye level or dizzyingly high above the action, in shots filled with actors and extras arranged in streams of colour, the panicking populace and chasing armies churning like multicoloured flotsam under boughs of hallucinogenic green leaves, more like an explosion in an orchard than a battle. This leads to the hard, vigorous edits of the decoy carriage and its guards fleeing, Kesa within the carriage fainting from the heat and bustling motion as the pursuers catch up with the retinue, who turn to engage in a few seconds worth of brutal combat. Moritoh cuts his way through a swathe of enemies with devastating panache, and repeatedly demonstrates his utter loyalty to his chosen master, even going so far as to riposte to his brother’s entreaties of pragmatism with the assertion that once a man’s given his loyalty, that’s the end of the matter. Moritoh’s race to reach the emperor’s friends at an island temple is another dazzling little sequence, as he chases a team of enemy assassins, shooting arrows at their backs, one plunging from his mount and lolling on the beach dying, his furled fingers leaking sand in symbolic place of his blood and life; but a few minutes later, Kinugasa offers a jarring moment of gore as in Moritou’s duel with the traitor, he lands a katana blow to the enemy’s face, bright gleaming blood seeping between his fingers before Moritou lands the coup de grace.
Moritou is offered literally anything he wants for his service, except, as the ruler jokes, “my head on a plate!”, but immediately finds this is a dishonest offer, if hardly without a good reason. Moritou’s obsession apparently transcends any materialist interests, but erotic fixation blends with awareness of Moritou’s subordinate role as a lesser samurai and a provincial outsider in the aristocratic, urbane ranks his new fame lifts him to, in a society that rewards the values he espouses but only in selective degrees. Moritoh’s singular determination to possess the lustrous Kesa warps him steadily into a lethal bete noir for the courtly, noble, but finally deferential Wataru, and the loyal, genuinely conscientious Kesa. The emperor even indulges Moritoh’s obsession so far as to invite Kesa to the palace to play the koto for him, and arranges for Moritoh to corner her and try to wring out an admission of mutual admiration for him, which he’s sure she feels.
Michiko Kyô soon became the closest thing Japanese cinema had to an international star after Toshiro Mifune, appearing in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) opposite Marlon Brando. She presented a specifically old-fashioned, specifically Japanese ideal of feminine beauty, with a sensual edge, emphasised here in her lips daubed a delirious red, which glisten throughout and lend a distinct quality of sexual intensity to Kesa. She is otherwise defined strictly by her rectitude and decency, which readily explains why Moritoh is so ardent in his quest to possess her. The film’s narrative revolves around the explicit likeness between the attempt by the emperor’s enemies to impinge upon his domain and Moritoh’s attempt to impinge upon Wataru, both eroticised acts of violent grasping and overthrow, and a distinctly Buddhist motif of desires that sooner or later dominate reason and torture men into irrational acts. In her suffering purity, Kyô’s Kesa is a practically archetypal distillation of feminine qualities, stoically attempting to hold her life together under the incessant battery of masculine force with the stoic determination of Mizoguchi’s women , but unlike, say, the ethereal remnant of such victimization found in Ugetsu’s Lady Wakasa, Kesa is provocatively corporeal.
The story’s underpinnings as a tale of sexual jealousy and fidelity amidst of a warrior culture evoke plentiful examples in the western canon, like Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece. Kinugasa’s background as an onnagata, a profession which leading man Hasegawa had also once essayed, supports a hint of an actor’s delight in Kesa’s role as tragic pivot for outsized passions and moral quandaries. As I’ve said, there’s also a hint of the noir film to Gate of Hell, as it zeroes in on a situation that’s a heady mix of desire and power, one that can only resolve in crime. In a mode with links to the same traditions Mizoguchi’s films also invoked regularly, and close to the Hollywood style of women’s pictures, Gate of Hell conflates the usually disparate figures of the femme fatale, whose sexually pulchritudinous existence taunts a man to the limits of sanity, and the self-sacrificing female apostle. The specific cleverness of the tale is in the way Moritoh starts out as a hero and finishes up as a murderer, viewers following him towards his calamity with perfect logic and forced to ponder its loyalties constantly. Like Moritoh, the audience has no idea Kesa is married until it’s revealed to him before the emperor, and Moritoh’s humiliation before the watching audience is palpable precisely when his triumph should be complete. But where a cheaper narrative might have made Kesa’s spouse unlikeable or cold, Wataru soon proves to be a patrician who is decent, good-natured, and deeply in love with his wife. He presents only a solicitous concern when he hears about the story that’s amusing the court involving his wife, and proves ready—perhaps, finally, too ready—to roll with Moritoh’s antagonism.
When Moritou enters a horse race held on an annual religious festival that Wataru is recognized for consistently winning, the challenge of the now-notorious suitors becomes a must-see event. When Moritou wins, Wataru graciously applauds the victory, but Wataru’s friends and others of the aristocratic party are boisterous at the banquet afterwards and suggest that Wataru let Moritou win, a bone thrown to a dog to keep him quiet. Moritou, hearing this, angrily challenges Wataru to a duel, but a courtier forestalls this, forbidding a fight at a holy event. The film’s title has a certain portentous quality, one fulfilled right in the last shot, but it’s interesting to note that like Rashomon, the titular gate is a real location in Kyoto, which becomes a fulcrum for a social, historical, and spiritual understanding of the action. Early in the film, the severed head of Shenzei, a Confucian monk and minister for the emperor, is hung from the gate, and the common folk flocking about it state that he deserved his fate for his past acts of repression. Kinugasa zooms in to the faded murals on the gate depicting the tortures of hell, amazingly similar in spite of the vast separations of culture and distance to Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions. Monks often sit apparently oblivious to the worldly goings on that swirl near this landmark. The notion of hell on earth takes on macro- and microcosmic, sociopolitical, and emotional overtones in the course of the narrative, with the gate arching over all.
Moritou literally and figuratively passes through the gate of hell several times, including when he approaches the shrine to the rebellion’s dead with his brother’s name on it, murmuring, “The poor bastard!” whilst steadily marching toward the fate he becomes agent of, entrapping Kesa through a ruse and promising, in his fearsome state, to kill her and her relatives if she will not help him to eliminate Wataru and become his wife. Moritou’s transformation of himself into a kind of demon in his pursuit of his desired one is matched by Kesa’s act of martyrdom, built up to in a spellbinding sequence reminiscent of the best Val Lewton films, in which Moritou sneaks up on the Wataru house through moonlit fields whilst Kesa, inside, cajoles her husband into swapping rooms. When Moritou strikes at his quarry in bed, he finds that he’s skewered Kesa, which, with bleak irony, breaks the spell of obsession on Moritou. Shocked and aggrieved, he awakens Wataru and demands that Wataru kill him as punishment and atonement for his crime.
But the stunned and horrified Wataru rather thinks about the implicit message of Kesa’s decision to offer herself in such a fashion, for he feels it reveals she did not trust him to protect her from the danger, and in fact, took it upon herself to protect him. Thus, both men are framed together in the house’s courtyard, Wataru standing over the kneeling Moritou who begs for death, in a shot that somehow castrates both of them, even before Moritou cuts off his samurai’s topknot and pledges to live the rest of his life in shame, probably as a monk. For both of them, not simply the woman they loved, but also the ideals and structures that guided them are dead. Kinugasa provides an interesting ending, partly for its explicit rejection of violence as an answer to violence, the acidic commentary on a culture where the capacity to wield lethal force is heralded but will inevitable cut into the very heart of its presumed sanctuaries, and the idea suggested by the final shot, of Moritou emerging out of the mist and heading through the hell gate, that his new life may give him something of the same selflessness and redemption Kesa was able to find.
There is a fine line between love and obsession, and perhaps cultural norms are the deciding factor. Here in the West, ex-lovers who can’t let go have been given a fairly new label—stalkers. Back when Floating Clouds was new, steadfastness in love wasn’t seen as something so sinister in either the West or the East; in fact, unrequited love was the basis for many satisfying love stories, including such classics as Jezebel, Gone with the Wind, and the ultra-romantic Wuthering Heights. Mikio Naruse, a man who lived a desperately unhappy life and whose protracted estrangement from his actress wife Sachiko Chiba during the 1940s led to divorce, offers a mainly unsentimental, even jaundiced look at love. Yet, no love affair starts unhappily; Naruse’s wistful look at the beginning of the affair is the flower struggling for light in a crowded field of weeds.
A flashback to the first meeting of Yukiko Koda (Hideko Takamine, Naruse’s regular leading lady) and Kengo Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) in a rural area of Japanese-occupied Indochina during World War II follows shortly after Yukiko has shown up at Tomioka’s Tokyo house, which he shares with his aging, sickly wife Kuniko (Chieko Nakakita). Yukiko knew he was married from the first, but she believes he will welcome her return to Japan and fulfill his promise to divorce Kuniko and marry her. Tomioka agrees to walk with her, one of many walks the couple will take during the film, but he says that their passion died when they left Dalat. Tomioka’s behavior during the film—sending Kuniko away so he can sell their house out from under her and start one of several doomed business ventures, enticing the young wife (Mariko Okada) of a gracious host (Nobuo Kaneko) away from him, using and rejecting Yukiko—marks him as an opportunistic cad who does not, maybe cannot, return Yukiko’s affection.
In a defeated and battered Japan, however, Yukiko has nothing to cling to but her bliss with Tomioka, born in the heightened reality of wartime and displacement. Keeping alive memories and feelings in the face of bitter disappointment, subsistence living, and distasteful alliances, Yukiko is emblematic of a country trying to survive and go on after a devastating war that unleashed the full fury of the atomic bomb on a civilian population. This film came out in 1955, the same year that Akira Kurosawa’s disturbing meditation on the bomb, I Live in Fear, debuted, and it seems no coincidence that both films traffick in irrational emotion and denial, though Naruse’s is based in romanticism.
Unlike Kurosawa’s deeply depressing film, Floating Clouds could be considered almost trite in its focus on claustrophobic emotional entanglement. Indeed, Yukiko’s hectoring bitterness toward Tomioka gets exasperatingly repetitive. Yet, the squalor of the characters’ history and circumstances tends to elevate the tale in a peculiarly compelling way. Yukiko briefly prostitutes herself to an American G.I., yet seems to be doing so more to make Tomioka jealous than to survive—that she succeeds confirms that there may be more under his callous surface than meets the eye. She continues to punish his faithlessness by going into the employ of the brother-in-law (Isao Yamagata) who raped her, a fact known to Tomioka. She stands in constant reproach to his every failure, a hurt but loving presence he tries fruitlessly to deny.
Takamine is a luminous presence in a vérité film with few visual graces. She is as beautiful in her moments of anger and despair as she is in the full bloom of her affair with Tomioka. Yet Naruse manages to find the age in her face, making Tomioka’s defection to a younger woman—as Yukiko once was in comparison with Kuniko—all the more banal and expected. Her nagging, her jealousy, her assertions that she knows Tomioka better than he knows himself strike an ordinary note for her character and their affair, and it is hard to believe that she really does love him or that he could have loved her so much. The Japanese reticence toward displays of affection make this passionate romance one of suggestion that may be too subtle for our sex-drenched Western appetites. However, a scene in which Tomioka goes to the public baths with the young wife with the full knowledge of her husband and Yukiko is startling in its own right to Western sensibilities.
One of the striking motifs of Floating Clouds is movement. Naruse trains his camera on Yukiko and Tomioka taking walks everywhere they are. Yukiko favors platform shoes, and her dainty, unsteady steps over some of the uneven surfaces she treads with Tomioka heighten her vulnerability. The restlessness of these scenes keeps the relationship provisional, homeless, but Tomioka almost never tries to outpace Yukiko. Perhaps he knows that to do so would be futile—everywhere he has gone, she has found him.
Finally, when all impediments to their union are gone, Tomioka more or less surrenders to her. It is not just that Yukiko has waited out all of his wrong turns and romantic distractions; Tomioka himself has found a purpose again by landing a job as a forest ranger on a distant island, mimicking the work and remoteness of his time in Dalat. Yukiko, saying she cannot live without him, seems a natural companion for Tomioka as he prepares again to exile himself from mainstream Japan. Finally, his remembrance of their love breaks through just as it finally seems to have a chance to take root and grow. But life is too cruel to offer true happiness to counteract all the misery each of them has suffered, and so we are left to reflect on whether a life of romantic illusion is one worth living at all. The answer to that question may depend on how one views the alternative.
Akira Kurosawa’s plummet in the late ’60s from the pinnacle of Japanese cinema to a state of almost complete artistic annihilation was a near-fatal interlude in the great director’s life. His partnership with favourite actor Toshiro Mifune had collapsed, and after the painful flop of Dodes’ka-den (1970), he was forced to pass on directing duties for the Japanese sequences of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) to Kinji Fukusaku. Kurosawa eventually attempted suicide during this period of crisis. He made a slow, but heroic resurgence thanks to the seeds he had planted decades before in the fertile soil of the international film community, which eventually rallied to his aid as a variety of sources provided him with financing. This spurred a surprising rally of supreme creativity before fading with some lesser but fascinating grace-note works. As well as being the last grand spectacle of his career, Ran provided a closing chapter in his trilogy of loose Shakespeare adaptations—Throne of Blood (1959), spun from Macbeth, and The Bad Sleep Well (1960), a riff on Hamlet. Ran took the Bard’s King Lear and resituated it in the age of Japan’s brutal civil wars of the 1500s. The subject immediately evokes not only Kurosawa’s career-long fascination with attempting to meld Eastern and Western cultural styles, themes, and epic traditions, but also the man’s own travails in the previous 20 years, as the dazed and crushed former Lord wanders about a cruel landscape owned by the young upstarts. The result was possibly the greatest film of the 1980s.
Tatsuya Nakadai, long second-fiddle to Mifune in Kurosawa’s films, including losing fights to him in both Yojimbo (1960) and Sanjuro (1963), had emerged in Kagemusha as his new actor-star. Nakadai, insolently handsome and lethally cool as a young actor, evolved into a fine tragedian as middle age loaned him a worn and uneasy countenance. Here Nakadai took on the Lear role, redubbed Lord Hidetora Ichimonji. The former ruthless conqueror, still physically robust at 70 as proven in the opening as he kills a boar in a mounted hunt, is now succumbing to age’s predations—falling asleep in the middle of chatting with guests and prone to bouts of almost senile disorientation. Sensing, if not quite admitting, his waning powers, he decides to hand over the reins to his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao), whilst giving control of other portions of his fiefdom to second son Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and young Saburo (Daisuke Ryû).
The mood of the opening scenes is deceptive in their summery tranquillity, proving rather hypnotically tense. Kurosawa, the ever-great utiliser of ambient noise and weather harbingers, bathes the scene with the droning of insects and watches the seething clouds sweep in, perceiving something malevolent in nature and its barometric relationship with human behaviour. The insects are gnawing their way through this seemingly peaceful handover of power, as ritualised scenes of the two elder sons making their obsequious pronouncements of admiration and loyalty to their father proceed. The moment in which Hidetora hands an arrow to each of the brothers and has them snap them, and then gives them three, which two of them can’t break, has the precise flavour of something out of folk wisdom, as does Saburo’s lesson-altering decision to break the three on his knee. The devoted but unsentimental Saburo mocks and shows up the rhetoric of both father and brothers, and gets exiled for his pains, along with clan warrior Tango Hirayama (Masayuki Yui), who sticks up for him. Saburo’s behaviour, at least, impresses Hidetora’s guest Lord Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki) sufficiently to offer him marriage to his daughter and a place in his clan, with generosity and also perhaps with an eye to the possibilities the course of events could offer him.
The evil mood lurking within the sun stupor of this opening is soon given tangibility. What Hidetora takes for peace and stability is merely a pause for breath, with all the old forces he only managed to cage after riding them without a pause or hesitation, ready to bust loose again and lay his world to waste. His sons, except for Saburo, have learnt well from the school of predatory behaviour Hidetora specialised in, but they’re not of the same calibre in character. Saburo’s disappearance from the scene clears the ground for an inevitable process whereby the elder brothers, the moment they have control of infrastructure and manpower of the clan, use it in a programme of conquest and back-stabbing. Hidetora is humiliated when Taro makes him sign an official renunciation of his power, and his sons use the pretext of the satirical boisterousness of Hidetora’s bodyguard and his Fool, Kyoami (Peter), to eject their father and Lord from their castles. Hidetora and his retinue, including his concubines, take shelter in a third castle that was to be Saburo’s, which Saburo’s own loyalists readily abandon so that they can go join their hero.
I’ve always had the greatest fondness for King Lear amongst Shakespeare’s tragedies: if Hamlet is the great myth of perplexed youthful conscience, Lear is the same for outraged elderly spite, fuelled by a folk-myth’s direct metaphorical force. I’ve seen, and I’m sure you have, too, real people hit their Lear phase in life, when everything they built, their accomplishments and labours crumble down around their ears: it’s not a pretty sight, and few have even the solace of such epic spectacle. Kurosawa’s screenplay, written with Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide, adapts and respects the Shakespearean original, but also adds a layer of relentless, more specific cynicism that subverts the usual, if often nominal, respect for hierarchical benevolence found in Shakespeare’s plays. By changing the wicked offspring to men—presumably the three daughters of the original would have been impossible to transpose convincingly to highly patriarchal, period Japan—Ran makes fierce and relentless sport of the values of the culture it portrays: the fetishising of war and respect only for power on all levels.
The film’s title means “chaos,” and chaos is not merely physical disaster here, but also the threat of existential disintegration of all standards and morals. Saburo’s and Tango’s urgent warnings to Hidetora of the way words mask violence falls on the deaf ears of the self-deluding old man whose one-time strength seems to have been his lack of self-delusion. Ghosts lurk behind the facades of family and fortress. In his family relationships, Hidetora is most fond and reverent of Jiro’s wife Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), who is the daughter of a rival lord he annihilated. Sue is a dedicated Buddhist who believes in forgiveness, an attitude that causes Hidetora more pain than abuse would. But Hidetora has instilled more than enough familiar emotion in Sue’s evil alter ego Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), Taro’s wife, also a survivor of an annihilated clan, but one who has no interest at all in forgiveness: she’s looking for ways to cause the Ichimonjis to collapse from within.
Kurosawa finally lets the film’s mask of concerted, grimacing reticence slip, and erupts into one of the most astoundingly staged, apocalyptic sequences ever committed to film, as Taro and Jiro’s forces combine and are let into the castle walls by two of Hidetora’s treacherous lieutenants. The castle is high on a volcanic mountainside, reminiscent of the setting of Throne of Blood, and as the enemy armies flow across the landscape, the wind assails them and matches their motions with ribbons of billowing ash. Primitive rifles bash great bloody holes in flesh, pummelled and curtailed humans loll about in pools of their own blood and crawl about whilst stuck with arrows until they look like porcupines. Hidetora descends a high staircase from the keep to do battle like a classical Kurosawa hero, only for his sword to break with the first soldier he strikes. Hidetora’s loyal concubines, the subject of a subtle but enormously meaningful clash of protocol forced early in the film by Kaede, now knife each other rather than be taken or hurl themselves in front of Hidetora to absorb the bullets being fired his way. Finally, as the castle goes up in flames about the lord, Taro dies from a bullet in the back fired by Jiro’s chief retainer Kurogane (Hisashi Igawa). Hidetora, unable to find a blade with which to commit seppuku, is suddenly engulfed in a dissociative daze and wanders out amongst the enemy soldiers who watch him pass by in bemusement; Jiro won’t actually kill the completely isolated patriarch, who wanders out into the wind-thrashed hills to go pick flowers.
This entire sequence is as disorientating and terrible as anything in the same year’s Come and See, Ran’s chief rival for the crown of the ’80s, as well as obviously a powerful influence on the famous Normandy opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998). The wonder of it is that it seems both brutally realistic and also highly stylised: Toru Takemitsu’s score here rises up from his familiar, near-ambient clicks and drones to infernal swarms of brass and strings. All other sound is blanked out, whilst blood and flame and the flags worn by the armies’ soldiers to differentiate them are rendered like swirls of calligraphic colour upon bleak, grey earth. In the first scenes of the film, the three sons are each designated by the coloured kimonos they wear—Taro yellow, Jiro red, and Saburo blue—and thereafter, each side is designated the same way, a simple device that makes the delirious rampages of the armies coherent.
Hidetora, once hurled out of the world of men, wanders in nature only be found by Tango, who has attempted to return to his Lord’s favour and is initially rebuffed, and Kyoami, who, seeing the state of Hidetora, erupts in a tragic-rhapsodic song and dance, instantly transmuting hard fact into artistic paean. Here, Kurosawa takes Kyoami, analogue of Shakespeare’s Fool, a character allowed to step outside the boundaries of medieval protocol to comment on both character and action with an almost meta-textual lenience, and combines him with the figure of the benshi, drawn from the traditions of kabuki and utilised to narrate and explain silent films. Fascination with the didactic art of the benshi, at odds with the ambiguity of narrative image-making, stayed with Kurosawa right through his career. Cinema owners in Japan had actually hired retired benshis to explain the complex cinematic layering of Rashomon (1951), and the benshi tradition flickers up throughout Kurosawa’s career, for example, in Princess Uehara’s prayer-rant in The Hidden Fortress (1958). The result is an outlandish, yet gripping moment, as Kyoami seems to occupy a nexus of art, life, death, nature, and humanity, wildly exultant at the spectacle of the disintegration of his Lord’s power and the certainties of the world he represented: for a moment there is only art, his art, standing between mankind and annihilation. Similar motifs would pepper Kurosawa’s impressive, if inevitably diffuse follow-up Dreams (1989).
Hidetora and his two hapless helpmates look for shelter in the storm and find instead only further icons of Hidetora’s own past mercilessness returning to mock him and drive him deeper into hysteria: the trio find shelter in a small shack, which proves to be the home of an ambisexual figure who first recalls Kurosawa’s figuration of the witch in Throne of Blood, but proves to be Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), Sue’s reclusive brother, blinded by Hidetora as a child to ensure he would never pose a threat. Later, Hidetora stumbles around the ruins of the clan’s ruined castle in a helmet of reeds and flowers given to him by a playfully satiric Kyoami, who shrinks in shame under Tango’s gaze when he sees Hidetora. The hypnotically intense early sequences give way to an equally composed, yet increasingly frantic and existentially despairing Beckett-esque sense of directionless grief in the latter stages. A second storm looms as Saburo, hearing word of Hidetora’s isolation in the wilderness, brings his small party of soldiers onto Ichimonji territory, while Fujimaki and fellow warlord Ayabe (Jun Tazaki) hover on the hills behind: to watch Saburo, or take a chance to swoop down on Jiro’s forces?
Kurosawa and Nakadai invest Hidetora with the arrogant pride of a man used to ordering the world how he wants it, but which also suggests an unconscious desire to test the structure of the world he built. He takes as much part in the destruction of it as his sons do, through not only his pugnacious blindness to the likely results of his own acts, but also in his declarative refusals to bend driving situations until there can be no turning back. Hidetora’s waning physical mastery is still communicated in the opening boar hunt, and again in a mordant moment in which he saves Kyoami from one of Taro’s samurai, infuriated by the satiric song the Fool was singing about Taro: Hidetora plants an arrow in the back of the samurai from high on the keep with brilliant warrior art and startling, cold-blooded judgment. Such is the kind of authority he’s used to wielding and his signal to all and sundry that he’s still the Lord, master of life and death, but it’s a power he has given up, and this act proves catalyst for Kaede’s goading of Taro into removing the old man from the political equation.
Increasingly infuriated by his sons, Hidetora finally walks out on Jiro, keeping his back to him as his men close the castle door between them—a showy act of rejection even though he’s only dooming himself. Hidetora wants to leave behind a more just world, in truth, one in which bonds of fidelity, oaths, and family are powerful enough overcome the Ran; instead he courts the oncoming dissolution like a toreador taunting the bull, in an all-or-nothing bout with nihilism. The irony of the story is at least partly that not everything gives way to the Ran. The bond of Saburo’s respect for his father, like Sue’s pacific forgiveness, is unbearably painful to the old man, and Hidetora regains his lucidity sufficiently to have a genuine, if brief, reconciliation with Saburo; Kurogane, loyal to his master enough to become an assassin, nonetheless refuses to exterminate the innocent. But by story’s end, the vulnerability of these good things in the face of rampant chaos is chillingly recapitulated.
Amongst Kurosawa’s female characters, it tends to be his most desperate victims and his spidery femme fatales that hook most firmly into one’s memory. Isuzu Yamada’s transposed, kabuki-garbed Lady Macbeth in Throne of Blood was the most memorable and original aspect of Kurosawa’s cultural translations. Having turned Lear’s daughters into men here, Kurosawa fittingly alters the insidious bastard Edmund into the breathtaking Kaede, and slowly, but surely, Ran turns from the tragedy of Hidetora to the Jacobean saga of Kaede. Having manipulated her first husband into squeezing out Hidetora, she plays Jiro like a violin when he comes to her to take over the house of Ichimonji after arranging Taro’s assassination: having gotten him alone, Kaede slides in close, her dress scuffling in insidious motion, until she’s close enough to pounce on Jiro, steal his dagger, and cut slices in his neck until he begs her forgiveness. Laughing in gleeful mockery of the easily cowered warlord, she shuts all the doors to the room, straddles him, and licks the blood from his neck in an erotic frenzy. It’s a riveting scene that Harada pulls off incredibly well.
Kaede, working from the inside out rather than with armies, moves far beyond victim or even avenger to become a force of total destruction, pushing Jiro into a fatal final battle that sees the Ichimonji realm totally destroyed. Her seduction of Jiro is prelude to this total nihilism, which she seeks to make good by having Sue assassinated: she commissions Kurogane to do it, but in spite of having helped Jiro take over, he balks at such a pointless killing. He instead plays a practical joke on her, presenting the head of a fox sculpture from a shrine in place of Sue’s head, and making an obvious allusion to Kaede being the secret fox devil eating away at the body politic from within. Kurogane instead gives Sue a chance to escape and take Tsurumaru away with her.
The interesting thing about Kaede is that she could easily be considered a tragic heroine, except that she’s given herself so completely to the violent world that she’s become rather a perfect incarnation of the monstrous spirit of the age. Her determination to kill Sue is just as wilful a courting of moral chaos as Hidetora’s and all the more conscious of its meaning: she determines that absolutely nothing will be left behind. In the whirl of slaughter and dissolution with which the film concludes, with Saburo shot dead accidentally, Hidetora so contorted by grief that he flops dead upon him right at the brink of rescue, Kurogane’s being handed Sue’s head by an assassin who got the job done, the film becomes like the ninth circle of hell. Kurosawa cuts violently from the midst of war to the sight of Sue and her handmaiden lying beheaded outside Tsurumaru’s hut, the pastoral beauty of the scene making the juxtaposition all the more grotesque. It’s impossible not to relish Kurogane’s swift retaliation, confronting Kaede, who stonily declares the success of her efforts, and hacking off her head with a single stroke of his sword. It’s as well-deserved and dizzying as movie deaths come, and yet it’s a hopeless gesture in another fashion, simply finishing off Kaede without doing a thing to save the world from what she accomplished.
Kurosawa’s brilliance as an artist of the plastic space of the cinema screen is in constant evidence throughout Ran, including, of course, the symphonic way he shoots the battle scenes, but also in the jarring simplicity of Kaede’s assault on Jiro. Her death is even more startling: Kurosawa’s camera quick-reframes away from where Harada sits at centre frame, craning up slightly, so that she’s sitting just beneath the edge of the frame: when Kurogane swings his weapon, he abruptly paints the wall behind with a geyser of blood like some abstract expressionist hurling paint about. So firm is the impression of this moment you’d swear afterwards, as I did for a long time, that you actually see her head cleft from her shoulders. But there are subtler moments of such cinematic concision, too, including in the eerie scene in which Hidetora, Tango, and Kyoami realise Tsurumaru’s identity, all three men framed around the younger man, their eyes glowing in fearful recognition from out of the shadows, as if they’ve all fused together into some hydra of guilt and fear. The final moments of the film depict Hidetora’s and Saburo’s bodies being marched across the bleak volcanic plain, whilst Tsurumaru, left alone in the universe, stumbles close to the edge of his family castle’s ruin, dropping over the precipice the Buddha icon Sue gave him for safe-keeping. A blind sexless figure teetering without a god on the edge of space—it’s one of those rare closing images that leave you with teeth clenched so hard you wonder if you’ll get them unstuck again.
Satoshi Kon’s death last year aged just 46 was a serious blow to anime fans and for cinema in general. Kon worked his way up through the animator ranks beginning in the early 1980s, and debuted as a director with 1997’s highly regarded Perfect Blue. For his second film, Kon wanted to adapt Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1993 novel Paprika, but that project was put on hold when the production company folded. Kon made three more films in the interim before he finally brought Tsutsui’s novel to the screen. Like Perfect Blue, it was considerably altered from the source material, becoming in almost all respects Kon’s brainchild. That word seems particularly apt here, for Paprika is about the transformative capacities and boundless expanse of the mind’s imaginative abilities.
Paprika, the titular heroine, is the literal brainchild and ultra-cute avatar of brilliant psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara in the Japanese version and Cindy Robinson in the English-language edition). Atusko works for the Foundation for Psychiatric Research that has begun moving beyond traditional therapy methods, thanks to new technology that can help the shrinks infiltrate the dream states of clients, including a new remote unit called the DC-Mini invented by the brilliant, corpulent, geeky, distracted techno wiz Kohsaku Tokita (Tôru Furuya/ Yuri Lowenthal).
At the film’s outset, Kon plunges deep into the head of police detective Toshimi Kogawa, or Konakawa in the English version (Akio Ohtsuka/Paul St. Peter), via a recurring dream in which he’s tracking down a criminal. His dream commences in a circus where he’s caged by a magician and passes through several different genres of fantasy, including a Tarzan film, a suspense thriller in which he’s being garrotted, and what he says is the scene of a true crime he’s working on. There, a man falls dead to the floor of a hotel hallway whilst the perp is disappearing into a fire escape, and when Togawa attempts to chase him down, the dream dissolves and sends him plummeting toward wakefulness. Togawa’s getting neurotic, and Chiba, in her Paprika guise, has begun treating him with the still-experimental DC-Mini.
When Chiba arrives at the institute the next morning, however, Tokita, whom she finds humiliatingly jammed in the elevator, admits an even more humiliating fact to her: his DC-Mini prototypes have all disappeared, apparently stolen by his assistant and fellow nerdy genius Himuro (Daisuke Sakaguchi/Brian Beacock). The singular brilliance of the DC-Mini is its capacity not only to allow mind-to-mind communication, but also to project remotely into other minds and allow people attuned to it to step into and out of the dreamscapes at will. Because Tokita had not put security settings on the device, there are no limits on what the thief can do with the gadget. Immediately, the thief makes some of his intentions known to Chiba and her fellows, as her immediate superior Dr. Torataro Shima (Katsunosuke Hori/David Lodge) starts talking gibberish and hurls himself out of a window. Seriously injured and in a coma, Shima dreams of being the grand marshal of a great, insane parade that includes horn-blowing frogs, singing dolls, walking soft drink machines, and a thousand other equally ludicrous figures. Shima recovers, but the race to find the villain who begins subsuming increasing numbers of people into the same seemingly wondrous, but deadly dream chosen from the mind of one of the Foundation’s psychotic patients becomes urgent.
One of the most outstanding qualities of Paprika is that it has a more complex plot than most mainstream thrillers, and whilst it frequently operates on the level of dream logic, it’s always tightly coherent. Yet, it manages to remember that, at heart, it’s a fantasy adventure though tracts of the subconscious and the unconscious built around that desire to maintain lucid control over the dream-state’s possibilities. Chiba, in the familiar guise of a professional woman with her sharp suits and tight hair, is uptight, sober, critical, and rigid, but she lets slip her alter ego Paprika when delving into the dreams. Paprika is a bob-haired redhead with the antic disposition of a playfully creative teenager, a warrior princess perfectly adapted for the surreal world. Chiba has mastered the capacity to move in and out of the dream-state and control herself within it. At one point, sent off to do battle, Chiba runs along a corridor, transforming into Paprika a la Superman in a phone box. Pursuing the villains through layered dreamscapes, she changes forms according to childhood fancies, turning into the hero of the cult Japanese TV show Monkey when she needs to fly, or Tinkerbell, or the Sphinx from Gustave Moreau’s painting.
Chiba/Paprika needs all her wits to survive. At one point, she seems to follow an Ichimatsu doll into a deserted fairground, and while trying to jump a fence, is snatched back by her colleague Dr. Morio Osanai (Kôichi Yamadera/Doug Erholtz), because she was actually about to leap off a balcony. Later, when she finds the real-life equivalent of the park, she’s nearly flattened by Himuro falling from the top of a Ferris wheel: far from being the mastermind, he’s just another patsy.
Simultaneous to the main plot, Chiba attempts to continue treating Detective Togawa through his work computer, with Togawa passing into the dreamscape and imagining himself in an upscale, but empty bar with two dapper waiters; Paprika shows up to guide him in an investigation of the meaning of his dream. They prove to be based in Togawa’s own suppressed interest in movies, with the recurring dream commencing in a street showing movies that include the ones through which his dream then proceeds—The Greatest Show on Earth, Roman Holiday, Tarzan. Here, of course, Paprika the film openly acknowledges the accord between its version of dreaming and cinema itself as a primal space where identities are swapped and fantasies actualised. Togawa, initially neurotic and denying any interest in movies, proves, in fact, to be a colossal film buff who once tried and failed to make a suspenseful short film with an interesting gimmick: all the way through the film the characters, a cop and criminal, were chasing each other. At one point, Togawa realises the man falling dead is himself, and he starts to realise the dream is a metaphor for his own regret over abandoning his cinematic aspirations. His dream also becomes another battleground in the attempt to corner the DC-Mini thief, as Togawa is the detective the Foundation members turn to for help in tracking down the villain. He immediately recognises Chiba as Paprika’s real-life equivalent. When the two plot strands intersect in Togawa’s dreamscape, Togawa manages to gun down the bad guy, save Paprika, and gain a heroic The End all to the applause of the audience within his dream. It’s not really The End, but it does get them all out of the closed loop in which the true villains have tried to trap them.
Those villains are Dr. Seijiro Inui (Toru Emori/Michael Forest), the wheelchair-bound director of the Foundation, who believes that the dream-invading techniques are an abomination he’s using to teach a painful lesson to their proponents, and Osanai. But it’s clear that both men’s intentions have become blurred with a hunger for power for its own sake, as Inui becomes a colossus unlimited by his physical disability. Osanai, terminally jealous and desirous of Chiba, has become Inui’s lover in order to share in using the DC-Mini and possess Paprika. Kon respects the protean, often highly sexualised, if not specifically sexual, nature of dreaming, and the film is richly, playfully, and sometimes acutely aware of the eroticism that pulses through the material whilst going nowhere near the seamier precincts of animation. Some of this is on the level of a naughty pun, like Paprika giving Shima a different kind of blow job: she sinks inside of him and then inflates him like a giant balloon, which then bursts, waking him up. Elsewhere it’s more evocative and pointed. Particularly, beautifully kinky and nasty is the scene in which Osanai, having captured Paprika, has transformed her into a huge butterfly he has pinned to a table, and, with relish, plunges his hand into her groin and slides his splayed fingers up under her skin, peeling the Paprika shell off Chiba, discovered inside.
Inui attempts to assert control over Osanai, growing off him and out of him, but the two men remain fused in one, self-wrestling body, a grotesque vision of their mutual homoeroticism, narcissism, and crippled aspects turned monstrous. Their fight gives Togawa time to snatch away Chiba, and, when Togawa shoots Osanai, who has taken the place of the fleeing villain in the film, they have a vision of him in the waking world as dying from the wound, and in Inui’s house, where his body was, he’s sucked into a void that begins opening, consuming reality and dreamscapes alike.
It’s embarrassing to think about the level on which most Western animation is still pitched, whatever the fine qualities of such contemporary models as Pixar are, for it’s still basically kid’s stuff. Perhaps that’s one reason why the equally inventive, but still firmly youth-oriented films of Hayao Miyazaki have found more favour with Western critics than that of any other anime director. Paprika mashes together traditional juvenilia with far more adult imagery and concepts; in fact, it’s very much about the state of flux between youth and experience and the psychological continuity, or lack thereof, that afflicts so many. The tropes of childhood and early obsession afflict most of the characters, including Chiba herself, Tokichi, and Togawa. Paprika’s singular brilliance is in using such tropes to fuel her capacity to navigate dreamscapes. The film named after her is equally the work of a director with a vision in perfect control of, and comfort within, his medium. The material could have played out in many different ways, from the riotously grotesque to something as numbingly literal-minded as Inception (2010), a film that drained the dream-infiltrating idea of all colour, wit, and sexuality. But Kon, who held particular esteem for George Roy Hill’s time-hopping Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and the works of Terry Gilliam (the influence of the latter is especially noticeable), and his animators kept a tight grip on this film, which swings from anarchy to crisp realism. As borderline psychotic as the imagery and as loopy as the story become in places, the film is never less than a carefully constructed, highly witty, and fluent piece of work.
Terrific little dashes of imagination and humour dot the landscape. A row of schoolgirls subsumed into the mass dream strut about with cell phones for heads, and a mob of perverts, similarly transformed, eagerly dash to look/photograph up their skirts. Togawa, when explaining a point of obscure cinema language to Paprika, suddenly appears dressed up in Akira Kurosawa’s signature peaked hat and sunglasses. Streams of weirdly poetic gibberish pour from the mouths of the victims plunged into the mass dream. There are morals to the story, of course, not least of which being that external appearances are rarely entirely true. As well as trying to save the day, Chiba finds herself as a point on an amusingly elusive romantic triangle between the cast-iron cop and the fat sweaty nerd, and all three characters are refreshingly complex creations. Togawa’s tough-guy job and his artistic impulses prove finally to have been deeply entwined, for he decided to live out the role of his movie’s hero in real life and thus joined the police force; his recurring dream is more about the way he lost contact with his forgotten collaborator on the film, who died young after getting attention. Chiba and Tokita’s love-hate relationship shows the psychotherapist in love with the genius in him but repelled by his weight and displacing that anxiety into tirades against his boyish obsessiveness.
Paprika herself embodies Chiba’s frustrated youth and playful instincts, which enables, rather than contradicts, her great professional ability. Paprika can be read as a film that is also about the creative impulse, with Chiba/Paprika evolving constantly in her sense of herself as a nexus of influences she takes in and then gives out. Similarly, Togawa comprehends his life as one of real dedication sprung from fictional creation. Tokita’s attempt to redeem himself by entering Himuro’s dream to draw out the villains gets him swept up pretty quickly, but later, Tokita, in his dreamscape reconfigured into one of his own collectible robots, destroys the gigantic Ichibana doll that is Inui’s favourite avatar. By the film’s madcap final 20 minutes, all of Tokyo has become engaged with the mass dream to the point where nobody’s sure what’s real and what isn’t; to Togawa and Shima’s bewilderment, Chiba and Paprika argue with each other over what course of action to take. Finally Paprika, yin to Inui’s yang, reconstructs herself into a colossus like him, growing both in size and through physical ages with the battle cry, “There’s always an opposite. Light and darkness, life and death, man and woman. And to spice it all up, you add Paprika!” She literally consumes Inui in defeating him. It’s both a send-up of, and a tribute to, the traditional monster-bashing finales of so much anime and keigu eiga movies. Finally, although he doesn’t get the girl, Togawa goes out and buys himself something just as vital to a well-balanced life: a movie ticket.
Weird, beautiful, sexy, funny, Paprika is a master class in film and story, and a great testament to its sadly departed creator. Also worth kudos is the terrific musical score by Susumu Hirasawa, particularly Paprika’s infectious theme.
Women of the Night, a panoramic drama of the shattered society of Japan after decades of repressive government and the grim final months of World War II, perhaps represents a turning point for the later career of Kenji Mizoguchi. The director, as well as attempting like all of his industry colleagues to rebuild Japanese cinema as a commercial and artistic brand, began seeking new spiritual and emotional paradigms and aesthetic qualities distinct in some regards from his pre-war films. The casual brilliance of those earlier films, with their cosmopolitan themes, question-mark resolutions, and succinct, epigrammatic stories, gives way here to something at once more declarative and expansive in vision: presented amongst the Eclipse series “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women,” it points towards Mizoguchi’s great last film Street of Shame (1956). Whilst perhaps the least aesthetically coherent of the four films in that collection, it’s also the most overtly powerful in its simultaneous compassion and hard-earned transcendence, at odds with a devastated and inhumane landscape in which all pretence to community and mutual responsibility has been nullified and the relations of the powerful to the weak have achieved a quotidian extremity.
An irony of Mizoguchi’s life was that he was a rootless man who often took refuge amongst geishas, throwing into fascinating relief his constant refrain of worrying about the lot of women who took that line of work, or the less privileged one of prostitution nominally beneath it, because he was implicit in the power disparity he portrayed with such acid intensity. But he had also been deeply affected by he fact that his own sister had been sold as a geisha when he was a boy. The world of Women of the Night, an adaptation of a novel by Eijirô Hisaita, has lost the shape it had in pre-war works like Naniwa Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both 1936). Everyone’s fair game now in a world in which vital loved ones have vanished, some to return, some forever. Fusako Owada (Kinuyo Tanaka) deals with both, having waited years to learn of her husband’s fate, living in the slums and resisting the suggestions of the woman who buys and sells clothing that she take up prostitution to provide for her consumptive baby son. She learns of her husband’s death from Kuriyama (Mitsuo Nagata), the owner of the trading firm he used to work for. Some months later, she encounters her sister Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), who had gone to live in Korea as a colonist, where she was raped during the evacuation, and now works as a taxi dancer at a nightclub. Natsuko moves in with Fusako, who’s since landed a secretarial job at Kuriyama’s company, but whose son has died.
The sisters’ momentary prosperity and harmony are broken when it becomes apparent that Kuriyama is romancing both of them. Fusako, enraged, walks away from sister and lover and determines to become a streetwalker. Meanwhile Fusako’s sister-in-law, the still-adolescent Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda), decides to leave home but stays in the slum and is dominated by her self-pitying brother, a black marketeer. But Kumiko, excruciatingly naïve, is take in by Kiyoshi, a petty thief who’s posing as a caring student. He fools her into coming back to the restaurant he and other young refuse use as an HQ, where he pours liquor into her, rapes her, and lets the young tarts from his gang strip her of her clothes: they offer her the choice of joining their number or going back home half-naked. Meanwhile, Natsuko, upon learning that Fusako’s been spotted amongst streetwalkers, goes to search her out and gets netted in a police raid. Natsuko encounters the embittered Fusako in a combination prison and VD clinic; Fusako soon breaks out on her own, whilst Natsuko is freed when Kuriyama comes to collect her. But he takes no responsibility for the baby and is soon imprisoned for smuggling morphine, stripping Natusko of support.
Copies of this film available in the West had some 20 minutes cut out, and this accounts for some abrupt continuity leaps and emphasises a somewhat episodic quality in the story. Women of the Night is also melodramatic by Mizoguchi’s standards, and in many ways it anticipates works like On The Waterfront (1954)—particularly in the finale—that used melodrama in service of social portraiture. Mizoguchi handles his exciting moments with hypnotic, yet rigorously simple flare: Fusako smuggling an illegal stock of morphine away from Kuriyama’s warehouse under the nose of investigating police; her later escape from the VD centre, hastily utilising an old bed and her belt to scale the barbed wire; Kumiko’s increasingly dreadful encounter with Kiyoshi and his gang; the final Calvary-like struggle between camps of prostitutes. But it’s also a tough, expressive, and deeply paradoxical film, like his later Sanshô the Bailiff (1954), an odyssey through degradation and a drama of family ties that are strained and warped, but finally not broken. The sisters fight to hold onto what little self-direction they possess. After learning of her betrayal by Kuriyama, Fusako tries to give her prostitution the veneer of revenge against men, knowing full well she’ll soon be a carrier of disease. Kumiko’s decision to join the waifs who just assaulted her possesses the same illusion of empowerment. When Natusko finishes up in jail with Fusako, she’s confident she’ll be released as soon as she undergoes a medical test, but the doctors find that Kuriyama has made her pregnant and also infected her with syphilis.
Mizoguchi claimed William Wyler as an influence on his cinema, and the deep-focus framing in his film does evoke that, although Mizoguchi’s own particular aesthetic developed more or less concurrently with Wyler’s. Either way, the deep-focus work is particularly revealing in scenes that invert the dramatic focus, like that in which Kuriyama eyes Fusako with appraising interest from the background whilst she stands in fumbling grief in the foreground, and later when Fusako’s son has convulsions, Mizoguchi keeps his camera outside the house, Fusako’s desperate reaction within distant and hopeless as the men in the foreground go racing off to fetch aid. This technique gave him a way of easing up on his usual exhausting long takes whilst retaining a fluidic, integrated mise-en-scène, as well as giving his dramatic style an ironic distance. The overall structure also bears similarity to John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), for Mizoguchi was also a Ford fan. The progress of the sisters towards finding temporary refuge and safety with a home for women run by conscientious men that offers shelter and food in exchange for labour echoes the way the Joads finally find the government farm in Ford’s film. Simultaneously, in its rigorous honesty, blasted imagery and vital humanism, Mizoguchi’s film certainly seems part of the post-War neorealist movement; indeed, his effortless fusion of the artistic and urgent sentiment is easily the equal of, and possibly superior to, what even the best of the neorealists were accomplishing at the time.
Mizoguchi charts the steady downfall of the sisters with remorseless logic, whilst also confirming how (comparatively) easy options consistently give way to bottomless pits. The extended scene of Kumiko’s degradation is rare in its concise nastiness: the way Kiyoshi forces drink down her throat and then eyes her like a cat does a chicken when it comes time to deflower her, and her own utterly clueless state afterwards, unsure whether she’s been loved or murdered after a fashion. The relationship between the sisters is the linchpin of the film, blending love and resentment, fear, and anger. Particularly fascinating in the way they alternate attitudes, Fusako and Natsuko take turns as the bitter, vengeful, self-destructive party, rebelling by assaulting their own bodies, their only remaining vessels for expressing hate. They evoke the sibling protagonists in Sisters of the Gion, but that film’s clean divide between the cynic and the idealist has been rendered much more blurred, inevitably, by a calamity that’s absorbed everyone. Fusako’s initial retreat into prostitution as her repudiation of dominance gives way to her attempts to drag a drunken and suicidal Natusko to the women’s refuge from the apartment Kuriyama left her with, but which she can’t afford. I love the moment when Fusako, trying to get Natsuko to cease her drunken lolling, strips the cigarette from her sister’s mouth, jams it in her own, and then manhandles her off the floor. Mizoguchi’s actresses smoke like those in modern films use guns. Equally amusing and acerbic is the scene in the VD centre when a representative of a “purity society” lectures a doctor on the virtues the women are missing out on and the collected whores lend their choral disdain of a ludicrous voice of morality and responsibility that echoes more concertedly and urgently from the doctors at the women’s refuge, with true moral weight but still without understanding that some things are unavoidable.
That’s partly because the alternatives can be degrading: staying at the women’s refuge is harder work and because there’s a rigorous dog-eat-dog truth to the world of the prostitutes themselves. Whilst there may be honour amongst thieves, there’s precious little amongst these hookers, who are regimented by the toughest and most psychopathic into turf-controlling gangs. When she’s first brought to the VD centre, Natusko is immediately set upon by the toughest ladies, who demand respect. Mizoguchi’s contempt for men who use women as a playground and then spurn them, and, worse, judge them, is condensed into the figure of Kuruyama, who’s as crooked as a corkscrew and yet maintains the most upright of affectations. But he’s implicated with the failure of an entire social philosophy and form of government that’s led to ruination. And Mizoguchi also offers ironies. The devastating scene in which Natusko gives birth to a still-born baby on the floor at the refuge presages the statement of one of the managers in trying to make the hardened floozies understand what’s at stake, “Life in all its beauty struggles to be born.” The men here have been rendered more maternal than the women.
In the delirious final scene, Fusako is horrified to be reunited with Kumiko when she’s caught and roughed up by the gang Fusako works with. Fusako is so shocked and outraged to find the ludicrously young girl is also a prostitute that she unleashes a flurry of anger and pain on Kumiko, slapping her in rage whilst screaming implorements and threats, love and rage in a remarkable confluence. “Give birth to a monster!” Fusako screams, meaning babies malformed by syphilis, but also invoking the perversion of common humanity: “Feel yourself rot inside and out!” Fusako’s subsequent determination to take Kumiko home and to stay there with her sees her bundled up and furiously beaten by a queen bee who wields a whip with hysterical rage: life on the edge is driving everyone mad, and a kind of nadir is reached in this scene that purposefully evokes a crucifixion image—the scene takes place in a bombed-out lot next to a Christian church, a stained-glass Madonna above it all.
It’s here that Women of the Night turns almost surreal in its cruel intensity, and anticipates the deeply fetishised, amoral turn that a lot of Japanese filmmakers would push at the end of the ’60s in portraying humanity’s capacity for baseness. But the spirituality offered by the religious imagery, couched in Christian terms possibly designed to please Occupation authorities also seems linked to both Mizoguchi’s love for such transcendental Christian writing as that of Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, whose works he had adapted at the start of his career, and to his later Zen and Confucian themes in Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sanshô the Bailiff, strive to synthesise a new sense of the ideals that sustain people through loss and horror. The spectacle of Fusako’s beating has, like Christ’s suffering, a positive effect: the watching whores who tackle and suppress the tyrants rediscover a shared sense of humanity, and the exhausted women lie sprawled afterwards like the wounded survivors of the war their mostly dead menfolk just fought, giving Fusako and Kumiko the chance to get away. It’s a bizarrely breathtaking end to a deeply compelling film, and one that asks as many questions as it answers. Fusako and Kumiko will go back home, but the future that awaits them there is still one that’s deadly to the foolish and the weak. l
In the late 1960s, Japanese cinema artisans, like many around the world, were driven to court youth markets and shake up the gentility of traditional cinema as cultural mores altered rapidly. But the Japanese film industry, unlike western ones, which mostly maintained a rigorous separation of mainstream and exploitation cinema, saw at least for a time a much bolder sea-change. Once-hidebound studios like Toei and fresh young filmmakers ranging from eager hacks to artistic guerrillas turned increasingly to tales of violence and sexuality. This gave birth to what has been generally memorialised as the “Pink” cinema, and one substratum of this, “Pinky Violence” films, has found some belated popularity outside Japan for it sheer, outrageously enthusiastic indulgence and correlation of soft-core sex and sadism of a variety that few Western filmmakers ever felt comfortable blending. Norifumi Suzuki’s Furyô anego den is certainly a prime example of that kinky new wave, but it demands attention for being one of the most visually and conceptually arresting films of the early 1970s, a bizarre, twisted, pop-art, even poetic, blood-and-skin action flick.
Like Toshiyo Fujita’s Lady Snowblood of the same year, (and, like that film, another influence on Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, 2003), it’s about a vengeance-seeking heroine whose art with a katana blade matches her streetwise wits in contending with monolithic corruption. But where Lady Snowblood is tough, semi-realistic, and structurally ironic, Sex and Fury is flashy and self-consciously pop in its stylisation, blurring into surrealism on occasion. Commencing with a title sequence that evokes, to my eye, the effects of a lot of hipster Eurocinema of the previous decade, including the James Bond films, Suzuki’s film suggests an effort to try to find a new export market, including, as its narrative does, not only visual shout-outs to foreign cultural phenomena but also a prominent Western character in the story. Suzuki’s almost abstract visual patterns kick off in a pretitle sequence in which a young girl, Kyoko Kazai, a picture-perfect specimen of Japanese girlhood swathed in an elegant kimono and balanced preciously on clogs, walks with her genial police detective father along a covered walkway framed by red trestles. When the girl loses her ball, she chases it, and whilst her back is turned, her father is set upon by lurking assassins who riddle him with stab wounds.
Cut to 20 years later, and the girl has grown into a pickpocket and brutally talented warrior calling herself Ochô Inoshika (Reiko Ike). Ochô is the most admired member of a gang of whores and pickpockets led by Ochô’s adoptive mother Ogin (Akemi Negishi). She becomes enmeshed in a larger power game when young radical Shunosuke (Tadashi Naruse) attempts to kill plutocrat Kurokawa, who is capping off a rise to unrivaled power and prestige through his business machinations and as the head Seishinkai political faction. Shunosuke’s attack fails, and he flees, wounded, only to run literally into Ochô. She tends him before passing him on to his fellow radicals, reflexively stealing his fob watch in which she find the photo of a beautiful European woman.
Ochô is still searching for her father’s murderers, working from the only clue he left her, three hanafuda gambling tiles displaying a deer, a boar, and a butterfly that he clutched as he lay dying. She has traveled to the town of Kanazawa to look to gambling kingpin Inamura for help in tracking down her father’s assassins and witnesses a violent spectacle in which a man is caught cheating and is summarily murdered by Inamura’s agents. He dies in Ochô’s arms, sputtering claims that he’s been set up and begging her to take his money and save his sister Yuki from being sold in a brothel. But before Ochô can leave the gambling house, she’s set upon by Inamura’s thugs whilst she is bathing, prompting Ochô to spring out of the tub and tear pell-mell through the attacking force like a provoked demon.
This brain-boggling scene would justify the film’s canonisation on its own. Anticipating and rendering rather timid the nude fight scene in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, Ochô, naked as the day she was born save for the elegant sprawl of tattoos on her chest and back, springs, twists, leaps, and rolls in contending with the assassins, blood spray steadily decorating her body in variegated patterns, and her own deep delight in dealing out death all too plain on her face. She is, all at once, an object of fetish, a study in motion, a dream of vengeance, and a cultural artifact as boldly revealing and reveling in the strength of the female body as any on record. Technically noteworthy is an extended shot that concentrates merely on Ochô’s legs after she dashes out of the house and does battle in a snow-covered courtyard, watching her dancerlike motions, feet dabbing at the snow, severed limbs and spitting blood dropping like rain around her. Ochô survives this battle, makes contact with both her sisters in crime and with Shunosuke, and then tries to buy Yuki (Rie Saotome). But Yuki, being kept in the whorehouse of scar-faced pimp Kizugen, has caught the eye of construction magnate Iwakura, who declares, “Deflowering virgins is my specialty.” Iwakura’s determined to keep hold of Yuki, however, leads him to propose a novel solution: he wants Ochô to play cards for Yuki, against Christina (Cristina Lindberg), a British dancer who’s also a famous gambler. They’re keenly contrasted types, Ochô with her traditional dress, Christina doll-like in her Victorian hoop skirts, and yet both possess streetwise cunning and cool self-control when it comes to their contest.
The contest between Ochô and Christina comes at a swanky function given by Iwakura’s industrialist partner Kurokawa, with Western guests present, including the stern Guinness (Mark Darling), an American businessman who’s conniving with and undermining Kurokawa to gain control over the Japanese government. Christina is actually his agent, whom he’s planning to use as a honey trap to infiltrate Kurokawa’s household. When Shunosuke and other radicals storm the ball to try again to kill Kurokawa, Christina shoots each of the intruders, but cannot shoot Shunosuke—he’s her former lover and the reason why she agreed to become Guinness’s pawn, the only way she could get into Japan. Shunosuke escapes, and a shaken Christina loses her card game with Ochô. Ochô compounds Christina’s humiliation by stealing her revolver, which brings a harsh punishment from Guinness. And yet Ochô, Shunosuke, and Christina all find themselves on a collision course with Kurokawa’s cabal, and soon enough Ochô discovers that Kurokawa and Iwakura sport tattoos on their backs corresponding to the boar and deer: their current prosperity is rooted in their assassination of her father, who was investigating one of their scams.
The film is saddled with some poor humour provided by the dopey student Kanichi who’s a kind of mascot for the pickpockets, prompting a dim scene in which he presents the women a strange new invention he stole from a woman—a condom. The most significant problem, however, with Sex and Fury is that whilst it doles out both title items liberally, there’s too much of the sex…no, seriously. The middle third bogs down with a proliferation of fan service: Yuki being raped by Iwakura; Christina being sexually bullied by Guinness; Iwakura drooling over Ochô; Iwakura sleeping with Kurokawa’s wife; Christina subjecting herself to a lesbian partnership with Kurokawa’s serving girl to excite the onlooking tycoon. It does all, however, relate to the film’s peculiar texture: the victimhood of the women plays as an inverted assault on the classic “fallen women” dramas of Mizoguchi. Apart from the innocent Yuki, the female characters, particularly Ochô and Christina, put up with gross subjugations in their silently relentless efforts to gain their desired objects.
A crucial apex comes when Ochô saves her fellow hustlers from torture by Iwakura’s thugs by agreeing to sleep with the sexually gluttonous villain, but gains her vengeance by coating her skin with a poisonous paste that sends Iwakura, who has licked her body, into contortions of agony before expiring. The old association of sex and death and the image of the femme fatale have rarely been as concisely codified as it is in this moment. Yet there’s a further twist to this sexualised warfare: Ochô is still to uncover the dread secret at the heart of her life’s enigma—her mother was Kurokawa’s wife, the possessor of the butterfly tattoo that is only revealed under a shower’s hot stream. She was a whore Kurokawa ordered to marry Ochô’s father to keep an eye on him, and then arranged his killing. Kurokawa’s wife’s efforts to appeal to her long-lost daughter are met with Ochô’s horrified derision, and when Kurokawa catches her trying to free Ochô, he strangles her, shutting this grotesque family tragedy down. In spite of the stalling proliferation of skin scenes, Sex and Fury’s a great pulp genre yarn infused with a near-surreal visual rapture in a mixture that perpetually eludes most Western filmmakers.
Suzuki’s direction of Ochô and Christina’s card game is a little suite of increasingly intense close-ups, Christina’s forehead sporting drizzling sweat as her mind fills with intense sensual memories of her affair with Shunosuke, whilst the two equal/opposite women try to stare each other down over their cards. Later, when Iwakura’s men capture Ochô’s fellows in the pickpocket gang, they tie them up and beat them in a fun fair parlour, where psychedelic light effects whir and a projector shows propaganda paintings and photographs from the Sino-Russian War, explicitly linking the gangsters’ abuse of the women’s bodies to the predations of the imperialist triumph. It’s in the last half-hour when the film really hits its stride, as Ochô and Shunosuke team up to try to assassinate Kurokawa, attacking him on a train, but having to contend with his team of guarding thugs, which includes, most bizarrely, a team of flick-knife-wielding nuns who press Ochô into a corner whilst Shunosuke fights Kizugen and falls from the train. Christina, outraged to realise that Ochô was trying to kill Kurokawa with her stolen gun, knocks Ochô out with it and later, with apparent enthusiasm, whips a bound and prostrate Ochô in the basement chapel of Kurokawa’s mansion with a colossal, art-nouveau stained-glass portrait of Jesus in the background. Ochô writhes under the thrashing a buckskin-clad Christina delivers, whilst Kurokawa, his wife, and his platoon of nuns watch in indulgent dispassion.
Such a delirious blend of religion, fetish, politics, and the compulsory plot-enabling brutalisation of a hero who will resurge with rampant, justified ferocity inherent in this scene is hard to top, but Suzuki does manage it, in a scene in which Christina ventures out to meet Shunosuke on the docks after receiving a message purportedly from him. Realising they’ve been fooled into coming together, the two can’t escape the hail of bullets sent their way by a gloating Guinness. Despite Christina’s way with her gun and Shunosuke’s efforts with a sword, they both finish up riddled with bullets, prompting Suzuki’s most amazing, emotive visuals as Christina, blood pumping from her chest, throws her head back, her hair swimming in a lustrous wash, before she collapses, hazily gazing at a Union Jack flying over the dock through a pall of glittering snowflakes. She and Shunosuke die holding bloodied hands, but not before Guinness, near to deliver a coup de grace, receives a katana blade in the gut from Christina with her next-to-dying breath. It’s an operatic scene of violence and loss that would have made Sergio Leone proud. Meanwhile, Ochô manages through her resourcefulness to escape her bonds and rips her way through Kurokawa’s associates and bodyguards with unstoppable force, receiving sword gashes and bullet wounds, but still coming on with unremitting rage until she’s skewered the villain with her blade.
The very final scene is suspiciously similar to that in Lady Snowblood, with Ochô tumbling through the snow, badly, but not fatally wounded, except here the flakes transform into gambling tiles as a motif that suggests that Ochô’s life has been and will always be dominated by the perversity of chance and the symbolic taunts of the deer, the boar, and the butterfly. But despite the verboten generic niche it occupies, Sex and Fury demands respect for its stylistic and thematic boldness. Above all, fearless actress Reiko Ike could well be the most genuinely convincing female action hero I’ve ever seen in a film. Perhaps sword-fighting in the nude makes that an easy conquest, but Ike’s physical keenness and portrayal of athletic killer instinct is something else, especially in the finale as her eyes grow wider with bloodlust as she hacks her way through opponent after opponent until her body begins to give in to all her wounds. When it comes to a Swedish actress delivering English dialogue written by Japanese filmmakers in character as a Englishwoman, Lindberg is as awkward as you’d expect, but her physical performance is actually very good, and her status as a cult figure of Swedish cinema is readily understandable. Director Suzuki’s apparent talent, much like that of the closest European comparison I can make, Jesús Franco, was likewise lost as the film industry pushed further toward outright porn and horror, but he did receive a lifetime achievement award at the Yokohama Film Festival in 1985. l
When is a fear irrational? Is there something wrong with the irrational? Two interests collided recently when I saw Akira Kurosawa’s snapshot of Japan in the atomic age, I Live in Fear, and started reading Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols. In both works, the irrational, or unconscious, are given legitimacy in the face of an overwhelming reality that ignites a fear that cannot be rationalized away.
The film opens in a dental office, where Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura) complains about how busy he is with work and with his duties as a court mediator. Just then, he receives a call asking him to report to the court in the afternoon. The case he will help mediate is of a family trying to have their patriarch, Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), declared incompetent. When he arrives at the courthouse, the large family is jostling in and out of a small courtroom, and they initially push him out of the way. When they learn who he is, much bowing and many apologies come his way.
The case, reluctantly brought by Nakajima’s wife Sue (Kyoko Aoyama) at the urging of her children, concerns her husband’s plan to sell his factory and home and move the entire family—including the son of a dead mistress and a second mistress, their grown daughter, and her son—to Brazil. None of them want to leave their homes and lives in Japan, nor do they wish to lose their inheritance, which Nakajima is going through rapidly to realize his plan. A declaration of incompetence is their only option.
When Harada and his legal colleagues hear evidence from Nakajima, it’s hard to consider him incompetent. He has found a longtime Japanese émigré (Eijiro Tono) in Brazil who wishes to return to Japan, shown a film of the farm he will exchange for the factory to his family, and given a reason for his urgency that is hard for anyone to dispute at a basic level—aboveground testing of the hydrogen bomb is to commence at Bikini Atoll. Nakajima asks the court and his family whether they are afraid of the bomb. No one can deny that they are, but not enough to run for their lives. Besides, says Nakajima’s son Jiro (Mironu Kiaki), there is really no place to hide from the bomb since fallout is carried around the world on the wind. But when the elderly émigré farmer tells Nakajima he’d rather have a large parcel of land facing Mt. Fuji than a factory, Nakajima tries to gather money quickly anywhere he can to buy the land, forcing the court to declare him incompetent, an action that haunts Harada. Catastrophe is just around the corner for Mr. Nakajima and his well-meaning family.
Jung has several things to say about the obsessive condition Nakajima found himself in and the results of that obsession:
I recall a professor of philosophy who once consulted me about his cancer phobia. He suffered from a compulsive conviction that he had a malignant tumor, although nothing of the kind was ever found in dozens of X-ray pictures. ‘Oh, I know there is nothing,’ he would say, ‘but there might be something.’ What was it that produced this idea? It obviously came from a fear that was not instilled by conscious deliberation. The morbid thought suddenly overcame him, and it had a power of its own that he could not control.
Nakajima’s fear, though based upon a real, imminent event, intensified because of posttraumatic stress brought on by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. In a very affecting scene, Nakajima is visiting his mistress and infant grandson. Lightning from a storm sends bright flashes through the house. Nakajima, disoriented and acutely anxious, runs to the child and covers him with his body. The uncomfortable reactions of his family to his panic only add to his torment. Says Jung of his cancer-obsessed patient,
It was far more difficult for this educated man to make an admission of this kind than it would have been for a primitive to say that he was plagued by a ghost. The malign influence of evil spirits is at least an admissible hypothesis in a primitive culture, but it is a shattering experience for a civilized person to admit that his troubles are nothing more than a foolish prank of the imagination. The primitive phenomenon of obsession has not vanished; it is the same as ever. It is only interpreted in a different and more obnoxious way.
Indeed, the people in Nakajima’s life live in a kind of mass denial. Coming from an island nation with a growing population, the Japanese’s well-known xenophobia makes them resist accepting immigrants and fear aggressors who could cut off the means of their existence. This particular point is brought home subtly when the Nakajimas view the film from Brazil, seeing a parched land populated by blacks—a graphic depiction of Jung’s often-feared and misunderstood shadow.
The Japanese also live on volcanic islands subject to eruptions and earthquakes. Again, the shrewd scene of Nakajima and the elderly émigré standing on verdant land, with a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji in the background, offers the double-edged sword of denial—a denial, for example, anyone who lives on the fire-prone, mudslide-ridden, earthquake-threatened California coast can understand. Such denial is crazy-making for Nakajima, who knows his fear is not irrational. Jung cautions, “If the warnings of the dream are disregarded, real accidents may take their place.” Indeed, Kurosawa could be said to have issued a warning to the people of the earth through his cinematic dream.
In our conscious life, we are exposed to all kinds of influences. Other people stimulate or depress us, events at the office or in our social life distract us. Such things seduce us into following ways that are unsuitable to our individuality. Whether or not we are aware of the effect they have on our consciousness, it is disturbed by and exposed to them almost without defense.
Alas, Nakajima’s inability to reconcile his fear with a rational calculation of the risks of remaining in Japan, or to convince his loved ones to share his fear, lead to a psychotic break. Desperation causes him to burn down his factory, hoping that if his family has no means of support, they will be forced to leave with him. In the end, he destroys himself, retreating into the delusion that he has been safely transported off the earth when he witnesses a rising sun from his cell in a mental hospital.
It is not possible to praise Mifune highly enough for the performance he gives. At first, he imbues Nakajima with the strong will and certainty of a traditional Asian patriarch, fanning himself obsessively in the heat of the courthouse, increasing the beats of his fan at a furious pace when his family challenges his decisions. His arguments in favor of his position are sound and his actions logically considered for the desired outcome. Yet, we are in the same difficult position the judges are—is it really likely that his family faces annihilation from the H-bomb testing and should he be allowed to uproot them and compromise their legacy and ability to earn a living based on fear of a remote outcome?
Nonetheless, our logic is forced to the back as Mifune pleads with the great love he bears his family to let him save them, to spare “that innocent life,” as he points to his infant grandson. His conviction is heart-rending, as is his genuine sorrow at the plight of his factory workers—when they ask him what will become of them now that the factory has been destroyed, he despairs only that he hadn’t planned a way to take them all to Brazil.
The great Takashi Shimura serves as the Doubting Thomas to our rational outlook. He digs below the surface into the irrational and wonders who is more sane—Nakajima or the rest of the world. The mushroom cloud, the newest symbol to enter our unconscious, exerts a potent force on him, as he finds he cannot dismiss Nakajima from his mind. In this sense, he, too, enters into this obsession sent from the irrational.
The film seems as though it should end when Harada and Nakajima view the rising sun, but it doesn’t. Kurosawa brings us back into the real world to consider the problem he has presented to us. As Harada slowly descends the stairs of the mental hospital after his visit, Nakajima’s illegitimate daughter, bearing her little boy, climbs up. They pass each other without recognition, as the implicit question about the future is left hanging in the stairway between sanity and madness. l
There is little that delights a film buff more than films about film buffs. Happy Ending, a perky rom-com from Japan, mixes the love of movies with just plain love, blurring the border between real life and movie life with knowing wit.
Momoko (Nahana) is a young “movie bum,” as the cranky owner (Reona Hirota) of the Asahi art house calls the small group of hardcore cinephiles who attend her failing movie theater. Edgy and unsentimental, Momoko dismisses a door-to-door fundraiser for a children’s charity with “Why do you have to do this now? Won’t the children still be there tomorrow?” As she pads around her cluttered and messy apartment getting ready for her job at a library, Momoko crushes her eyeglasses. With cellophane tape holding one of the arms in place and her dyed-red hair, Momoko’s nerd credentials are unassailable.
She visits the 21st Century video store to return and borrow some DVDs. She sloughs off suggestions about the latest rom-coms from Hollywood, flashing her returns in a clerk’s face—Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes (“the best”). Kuroda (Tomoharu Hasegawa), a Tarantino wannabe who also works at the video store, is Momoko’s film buddy, sharing with her a disdain for mainstream fare and its predictable plots.
Unfortunately for Momoko and Kuroda, biology overwhelms her good taste in films when she comes in contact with the dashingly handsome Murakami (Ryûnosuke Kawai), whose favorite film is Armageddon. Momoko’s coworker, the more traditionally feminine Maki (Mami Nakamura), starts calling Murakami “Prince” and points to the romantic cliché that brought the two of them together—when reaching for the same book, their hands touched.
Momoko is teased by Maki and Kuroda, replying “it’s not like that” over and over until it actually is like that. Murakami, who was first seen with a girlfriend, rather inexplicably asks Momoko out. Maki comes to the rescue with feminine clothing and the suggestion of contact lenses. When Momoko goes into the video store with some returns, she gets the full dolled-up scene, the camera panning from her high-heel shoes to the top of her head, where she now sports a Germanic braid headband. Kuroda, of course, is dumbstruck by her beauty and wants her for himself. But as in all rom-coms, he has to help Momoko in her quest for Mr. Wonderful, even though we all know that he and Momoko belong together.
References to John Hughes come up to let Momoko know what kind of a movie she’s in. And, of course, Kurado briefs her on the plots of these films she never watches to let her know what will happen next: for example, on her first date with the Prince, he tells her, something tragic will happen now that the two have finally gotten together. Sure enough, as Momoko protests to Kurado, who has followed her, that she’s not in a movie, Murakami is hit by an SUV as he is carrying some drinks back to her. It’s a very funny pratfall that leads to more mishaps that made me feel kind of sorry for the guy.
Kurado holds up Roman Holiday as his ideal of a good romantic comedy that doesn’t have a happy ending. And it is, of course, through Roman Holiday—just like Sleepless in Seattle and An Affair to Remember—that the destined pair are brought together. In between, we have a fair amount of movie magic that signals the film within a film within a film we’re watching—an appliance plummets to the ground out of thin air, Momoko watches a movie that is, in fact, the movie we’re watching, and empty streets and shops proliferate when Momoko is at her lowest.
A bit unusual for a DV-shot film, Happy Ending is a riot of crisp, dizzying color. All of the actors are wonderful and very appealing as screen presences. Even Kawai, who I thought looked like the surgically deformed Michael Jackson, creates a likeable cad who is only following the script. Most appealing of all is Nahana, who creates a gawky, confused nerd whom teens in any country could relate to—her character seems to have been closely modeled on Molly Ringwald’s in Pretty in Pink. The film has a Hollywood style, of course, but I was intrigued how director Yamata showed the odd mix of Western and Japanese cultures in his pans across storefronts and their strangely translated signage and artifacts of Japanese society in a vintage clothing and wares store.
Happy Ending is a lighthearted, Technicolor pleasure. Go see it with someone you love.
Happy Ending will be showing on May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hinman Theater on the 9th floor of the Hotel Orrington, 1701 Orrington Ave., Evanston, Illinois.
Many of the films many of us see are filled with death. War movies, detective and serial killer movies, fantasy and action films—and above all, horror movies—entertain us in one way or another by strewing the screen with corpses. It is the rare film, however, that actually deals with death as a rite of passage that all human beings will face. It’s easier to watch troops get mowed down somehow than it is to consider our own extinction. It’s a shame, really, that people rarely turn to the movies for instruction on how to die, because there are some great features and documentaries out there that could help us learn about our own mortality and create a fairly comfortable space for it in our thoughts and lives.
Departures, the 2009 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, is one such film. A gentle, often humorous look at death that explores not only grief and reconciliation, but also the commonplace needs of the dead and their families, Departures focuses on one man’s passage from one way of life to another—one in which he ritually prepares bodies for burial.
Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist for a Tokyo orchestra. We watch as the musicians perform the rousing finale to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and then learn after the performance that the bankrupt orchestra is being dissolved. Daigo breaks the news to his sweet wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), and they decide to move to his hometown, where he has a paid-for home his deceased mother left him in her will. Daigo sells his expensive cello, which he cannot afford to pay off, with a sigh of relief, feeling he was never a good enough cellist for the instrument. It’s time for a new kind of life.
Daigo sees a help-wanted ad in the local paper for someone to handle departures for a firm called NK Agency. The ad promises great pay and short hours. Thinking it must be a travel agency, Daigo arranges an interview with the owner, Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). He enters the establishment, and meets Yuriko (Kimiko Yo), the office manager, who tells him to have a seat. Directly in his line of sight are three wooden coffins. When Mr. Sasaki arrives, Daigo hands him his resume. Sasaki shoves it aside, looks at him closely, and asks him if he will work hard. When Daigo says “yes,” Sasaki hires him at a very handsome salary. When Daigo asks what the job entails, Sasaki merely says, “You’ll be my assistant.”
It isn’t until the next day, when Daigo is told to meet Sasaki at a theatre, that he learns what he is to do. Sasaki uses him as a demonstration model for an instructional video on encoffinment, showing how to pack the cavities of the body for burial, how to shave and handle necrotic skin, and how to dress and apply make-up to corpses. NK, it turns out, stands for “nokan” (encoffinment), and the ad should have said “the departed” rather than “departures.” When the next job involves handling a body that has been decomposing for two weeks, Daigo loses his cookies and very nearly quits, that is, until he goes with Sasaki to a proper funeral and watches the careful attention his boss pays to the corpse and the relief and gratitude the grieving family experience. He takes pride in the comfort he can bring to people and the reverence he can show for the deceased—but he keeps the nature of his work a secret from Mika, fearing she will be repulsed. When she does finally find out, she basically says, “your job or me.” When Daigo chooses his job, Mika leaves him.
Departures zeroes in on the passages of Daigo’s life in a way that universalizes the progression of life from birth to death. Daigo, in the middle of his life, has written off in bitterness the father who left him and his mother when Daigo was 6, and he failed to attend his mother’s funeral. Finding in Sasaki a surrogate father in whose shoes he can follow, he regresses somewhat and lets go of his adult life with Mika. Invited by Sasaki to share dinner with him after Mika’s departure, Daigo observes Sasaki’s lingering sadness over his wife’s death nine years before. He starts learning lessons his own father never had time to teach him and relearning some he did, such as returning to the cello he learned on when he was a child. Eventually, Daigo becomes reconciled to his past and ready to move forward as an adult.
The film mixes a bit of pathos with comedy, such as Daigo’s bewilderment at his role in the training video; Daigo’s first corpse preparation, when he learns the young woman he is washing is actually a man; and a full-scale fight among members of a family that blame each other for the death they are grieving. Although the story is somewhat predictable and broadly sketched, the fine performances of Motoki and especially Yamazaki as Daigo and Sasaki ground this film and keep it from flying away with the first strong gust of wind.
Director Takita provides some gorgeous “pillow shots” that show the beauty of nature, making death seem a natural part of life and encouraging audiences not to turn away from it. In the Q&A Takita mentioned a happenstance by which he first learned of the encoffinment profession and his own advancing age as spurs to his desire to make this film. I’ve seen better films on death and dying than Departures, but perhaps none as sweet and accessible. l
Kenji Mizoguchi’s legendary 1954 film is an arresting blend: a story derived from folk-tale themes, essayed with a rigorous clarity of storytelling, and realised in the most beautiful and involving cinematic terms. Mizoguchi is often cited as being Japanese film’s most perfect and lucid stylist, and Sanshô the Bailiff would certainly bear that reputation out. If his great rivals Ozu and Kurosawa preferred, respectively, the quiet, intricate intimacy of close, deeply personal drama or an expressive, elemental sense of nature and the soul, Mizoguchi rather evokes both sensibilities and sets them in subtle conflict. These tendencies can be seen in the intricate way Mizoguchi offsets the rhythms of his human drama, replete with cruelty, parasitic and hypocritical governance and officials, hard moral choices, and bleak chances, with the calm abundance and simplicity of nature, imbued with an undercurrent of spiritual longing. His work in Sanshô is both utterly heartfelt but also the product of a thoroughgoing ironist, as ideal and actual, nature and humanity, baseness and transcendence lock in a defiant, grueling struggle.
The film opens with a storytelling technique reminiscent of the in medias res tradition of classical sagas, as the family of Masauji Taira (Masao Shimizu) makes the journey across Japan to join their patriarch at his distant job post. His wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), son Zushiô (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), and the daughter Anju (Kyôko Kagawa), whom he hasn’t seen since she was an infant, are going on foot, accompanied only by their female servant Ubatake (Chieko Naniwa). Camping one night in a district that is rife with slave traders, the family are visited by a priestess (Kikue Môri) who offers them shelter. But the offer was a ploy to get Tamaki and Ubatake into the boat of two slavers who try to leave the two children behind: in a panicked struggle, Ubatake falls from the boat and drowns and Tamaki is taken to Sado Island and forced into a life of prostitution. Zushiô and Anju are sold to the estate run by Sanshô (Eitarô Shindô), bailiff for the state of Tango and defender of the interests of the entrenched aristocracy—he manages the estate of the Minister of War—who maintains a strict and brutal hegemony over a large population of indentured servants. Sanshô’s son Taro (Akitake Kôno), quietly disgusted by his father’s inhumanity, learns of Anju and Zushiô’s parentage and advises them to conceal their real identities and wait to until they are older and stronger to break free.
Zushiô takes on the name Mushu, after the place of his birth, and Anju becomes Shinobu, and they survive for 10 years amongst Sanshô’s slaves. Zushiô becomes hardened and callous, emptied of any intention to escape and preferring to get in tight with the bailiff, even carrying out one of his standard punishments for attempted escape—branding on the forehead—on an old man. When Anju hears a newly arrived girl singing a song she heard on Sado Island, in which her and Zushiô’s names are mentioned, it seems to confirm that their mother is still alive and living under the name Nakagimi. Tamaki is indeed still alive, and her captors are so fed up with her attempts to escape they have hobbled her by cutting her Achilles’ tendons. Zushiô is initially contemptuous of his sister’s attempts to talk him into escaping, but when they obey Sanshô by carrying a old and sick slave woman, Namiji (Noriko Tachibana), into the forest to die now, Zushiô comes around. Anju insists that Zushiô take Namiji instead of her. But once he’s gone and the bailiff’s men are roused, Anju drowns herself in a lake to avoid inevitable torture. Zushiô finds shelter at a monastery where Taro has become a monk, and Taro and the abbot endeavor to help him make contact with the prime minister in Kyoto.
For many good reasons, the exalted spheres of Japanese cinema in the late ’40s and ’50s were preoccupied with a deeply ruminative, urgently humanistic philosophy that arose from the country having to contend with the wrenching cultural and physical fall-out of the Second World War. That soul searching tended to be explored through historical parable. Sanshô is one of the most sublime results of that era, and, in spite of its formal beauty and warm heart, it’s also a coldly realistic film that tells a grim truth about Japan’s feudal past that’s virtually unimaginable in the Technicolor plasticity of Hollywood historical movies from the same period. Nor is the film at all hesitant about describing the interests of power and varieties of exploitation—physical, fiscal, political and sexual. It’s made clear early in the film that Taira was sacked for attempting to ease the burden on his citizens rather than meet the demands of a militarist government. Sanshô himself is protected and honoured for his capacity to turn human suffering and ruthless oppression into piles of money for the government coffers.
Later, as he attempts to assert his claims, Zushiô finds himself forced to sneak about the prime minister’s residence to have any hope of seeing the all-powerful official, reduced to despairing pleading before being dragged away and imprisoned. Whilst the minister and the state he serves are capable of recognising nobility—Zushiô carries an idol that was given to his clan decades before by the prime minister’s ancestor—and restore Zushiô not only to rank but give him the governorship of Tango as compensation, he soon learns he isn’t entirely empowered to end slavery or even legally punish Sanshô when his misdeeds are restricted to a private estate. Justice is entirely subordinate to the regular running of the state’s machinery and the interests of powerful men. From the smallest to the highest level of the society portrayed, people make commodities of each other, and respect is a debased currency as hierarchy is constantly abused.
Mizoguchi doesn’t offer any actual portrayals of violence, and yet the key moments of corporeal cruelty that punctuate the film are all the more effective for their judicious presentation of how this mass of exploitation is enforced: even when the physical damage is only hinted at, it’s impossible not to cringe during the scenes of branding and Tomiko’s hideous punishment—the antithesis of torture-porn. The narrative’s steady, committed assault on the aristocratic family unit—mother turned to whore, children as forced labourers, father a figure of distant impotence—becomes a tour through the precincts of hell for the most stable and hallowed of social institutions. This necessary awareness of the true state of things is, however, inextricable with Zushiô’s final dedication to realising his father’s ideals: the secure walls of social roles that have been violated by his family’s travails give him an awareness of the terror and complexity of life that is alien to the invested folk around him, and drives his determination to keep the wheel in spin for people beyond himself and his kin.
For all the high tragedy, darkness, and cynicism that permeate Sanshô as a narrative, however, it’s also a cracking good yarn that powers on with Dickensian twists of fortune and fortitude of moral meaning. The breathless intensity of the storyline is undeniable, and that’s something of a lost art these days in so much cinema and literature—the capacity to retain the depth of great art and the force of fine melodrama in a singular shape. Mizoguchi and his screenwriters Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda make the teeth clench with clever delaying devices, like Zushiô’s initial failure to make the prime minister listen and in the finale in which he tries to track down the woman known as Nakagimi only to be put on to the overeager tart (Teruko Omi) who’s inherited that reputed name first. By this time, Zushiô has triumphed not only over Sanshô, but also over the self-interested world he represents; Zushiô used the power given him by the prime minister to ban slavery, against the protests of his advisors and knowing that his action will surely end his career nearly before it begins. Sanshô, in retaliation, sends his men to knock down the decree signposts, which is what Zushiô counted on, for he can now exert his right to seize Sanshô for destroying the governor’s property, leading to liberation of the estate’s slaves.
But it’s a victory for other people more than Zushiô himself, as he learns of Anju’s death and grimly weighs his future as the former slaves party, riot, and finally burn down Sanshô’s manor in a nihilistic consummation. Hanayagi’s performance is the most compelling in the film (although no one is less than excellent), essaying an individual who passes through almost insensibly strange contortions of luck and station. His character swings from extremes of stiff-necked, glowering inhumanity to frantic pleading and unendurable, almost metaphysical terror as he appeals to the prime minister, to troubled but determined efforts to live up to his father’s creed and rescue what’s left of his family life. With him stand Tanaka and Kagawa, two pools of feminine calm and rooted conscience driven to terrible ends by their determination not to cave in to mere force.
Mizoguchi’s formal invention in interpolating fragments of explanatory flashbacks has become a common device in filmmaking, especially Japanese genre cinema, and yet it seems uniquely fresh and concise here. In a few deftly composed minutes of film, Mizoguchi describes the characters who will preoccupy the drama, their reasons for being in their current predicament, and the dangers, both emotional and physical, that await them: revealing the circumstances by which Taira lost his job and with a brilliantly economical flourish, panning down from Taira’s humiliation by a samurai general to show Tamaki’s reaction, before dissolving back into the present-tense as she takes a cup of water from a river, lost in pained reverie even as she tries to reunite the family. As the family makes it trek, Mizoguchi offers precisely composed shots encompassing characters and landscape that suggest a harmonic completeness to their world, usually offering frames filled with water, earth, flowers, and sky. The relationship between the material and spiritual lives of the characters is constantly entwined with physical setting, courtesy of Kazuo Miyagawa’s photography. In later scenes, as when Zushiô finally visits his father’s grave, he finds it caked in flowers brought by his grateful subjects; Mizoguchi restores here the pellucid beauty of the early sequences, once again including sea, sky, land, and humanity in the shot. Anju’s suicide, a careful composition of the dim light of dusk and the utter stillness of the water, evoke the soothing end of pain and a forlorn, beatific deliverance.
When Zushiô finally finds his mother, now aged, blind, and devastated by too much loss, it’s on the edge of a beach that’s been turned into a wasteland by the literal calamity of a tsunami, but that all too accurately reflects the shattered lives and mental states of the last two Tairas. When Zushiô apologises in grief for not returning as a great man or saving Anju’s life, but having tried to stick by his father’s principles, Tomiko, grizzled and crushed but not lost, assures him that if he hadn’t done so, she’s sure they would never have been reunited at all. It’s a simple message, but delivered with force and conviction. In cumulative detail and effect, Sanshô the Bailiff is like the universe in miniature. l
On March 24, 1860, in what became known as the Sakuradamon Incident, Ii Naosuke, virtual dictator of Japan for the Tokugawa shogunate, was assassinated outside Edo Castle by a confederation of clans led by the Mito. Ii had generated hate because he negotiated with foreign envoys; installed an easily manipulated boy, Tokugawa Yoshitomi, as heir to the shogunate; and eliminated disaffected clan chiefs and their samurai aides in the infamous Ansei Purge. However, far from restoring a sense of security, Ii’s death resulted in the collapse of the shogunate, leading to the civil wars of the 1860s that saw the destruction of the samurai class and set Japan on its wayward course into the modern world.
Kihachi Okamoto’s Samurai (and not to be confused with 1954’s Miyamoto Mushashi, also starring Toshirô Mifune, retitled Samurai for Western release and awarded an Oscar), about a time of upheaval, was made in a time of upheaval. 1960s Japanese cinema is a remarkably rich trove perhaps because of the pressures on it, when pop-art genre cinema overtook emperor director-artists like Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kobayashi, and even Kurosawa, who had helped usher in the new phase with his Yojimbo (1961). Okamoto’s career was erratic (and perhaps typical of the era), seeming most at home in the anarchic spirit of the late ’60s, with a run of darkly comic, satiric films like Nikudan (1968), cynical takes on popular fare (Kill!, 1968), and intense studies of fraught moments in Japanese history (such as Samurai itself and The Longest Day of Japan, 1967). He also made of one the best entries in the long-running Zatoichi series, Zatoichi vs. Yojimbo (1970), putting Mifune and Shintaro Katsu in close proximity, for which cinema fans ought to be eternally grateful. Samurai is a film that, in a wonder of construction, displays Okamoto’s cinematic gifts perhaps at their most vivid.
Okamoto and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, working from a story by Jiromasa Gunji, wove the story of Ii’s assassination around a dark and mordant parable involving an imaginary protagonist in that event, Sir Tsuruchiyo Niiro (Mifune), a ronin reduced to strong-arming and extortion. The film begin with the Mito clan’s band of assembled ronin gathered at the Sakurada gate of Edo Castle waiting to kill Ii, but he fails to show, forcing the conspirators, led by the ruthless Hoshino Kenmotsu (Yûnosuke Itô), to consider whether they have an informant in their midst. The chief suspects are the two non-clansmen in their number, Niiro, and Niiro’s friend Einosuke Kurihara (Keiju Kobayashi), an intellectual who claims to have joined their number because his studies of western philosophy assure him that Ii’s tyranny must end.
Niiro shares none of the elevated principles or sturdy loyalties of the other conspirators. His motivation is basic and willfully narrow: he intends to regain his honour, gain position as a samurai, and become famous for killing Ii (Koshiro Matsumoto). Having lived, as he describes it, like a dog for five years, he sees only two dimensions to life: the security of life as a samurai, and the degradation of survival in the everyday world. Niiro’s vague character and background become an enigma that the conspirators (and the audience) have to solve before moving on. They learn he is the son of a mysterious nobleman, was given the name of a doctor friend of his concubine mother, and raised with the aid of Seigoro Kisoya (Eijirô Tôno), a crusty but kindly merchant. Whilst awaiting the day of the assassination, Niiro encounters a comely waitress in a tavern, Okiku (Michiyo Aratama, the memorably suffering first wife of Kaidan’s “Black Hair”) whose troublingly familiar face and name unsettle and yet appeal to him.
Later, when he can’t pay the tavern bill, he goes to Kisoya to ask for money, but the old man, resentful of Niiro’s lack of contact and spurning of all he and his mother laboured for, sends him away. But Kisoya still pays Niiro’s debt to Okiku, and in meeting her is likewise stunned by her appearance. He explains to her that Niiro’s disgrace was owing to his falling in love with a princess, Kukuhime (Aratama again),the spitting image of Okiku. Niiro won Okiku’s affection by protecting her from some drunks, but because his lineage was in question, he could not marry her. His disappointment that turned him into a drunken, brawling wastrel. Okiku, touched by Niiro’s tortured soul, reaches out to him and offers him hope of peace without becoming a samurai, but Niiro fixates on his mission. The price for his coming glory mounts when he’s commanded by the Mito to kill Kurihara, whom they now believe is the traitor.
The narrative describes a near-perfect circle, beginning at and returning to the snowy compound outside the castle, and the flirtation of one of the young Mito men with a waitress, a motif that offsets Niiro’s desire to return to innocence with Okiku. The film digresses to explore the mysteries of both the situation and the characters, most vitally Niiro, whose fall from grace and relentless ambition to regain his standing is the linchpin. The very notion of telling a story, and the art of constructing history, are at stake here, as a dry, officious voiceover affecting to be an unexpurgated and precisely factual account of the assassination kept by the Mito clans, explicates the intricacies of the conspiracy and the efforts of the conspirators to locate the traitor and prepare for the great day. Except that figures and events keep getting edited out. After Niiro is compelled to kill his friend Kurihara, the Mito find that the spy was another man Hoshino, who is dispatched after a kangaroo court. He then orders both eliminated men similarly expunged from the official record expunged: “This must remain the conspiracy of honourable, serious men!” And Niiro stands watching as the appointed scribe burns the papers that included his dead friend and the traitor of this glorious enterprise.
Of course, it’s not a glorious enterprise, reeking as it does of reactionary politics and opportunism, hardly much better than Niito’s motives. The least trustworthy man seems to be Kurihara because he is actually motivated by high ideals, wanting as he does to usher in a new age for Japan and humanity in general. The innermost secret, which Kisoya desperately lets slip to Okiku when he realises the plot Niito is complicit in, is that he is in fact Ii’s natural son. This revelation is overheard by one of the Mito minions, and Kenmotsu sends nine assassins to take care of Niito on the morning of the assassination; Niito cuts them to shreds, and, still with no concept of the truth, accuses his boss of trying to get all the glory, and vowing to claim Ii’s head himself. Finally, the drama narrows the motivating idea of the assassination to a very direct metaphor—the outcast son, head twisted in knots by the confused realities of his creed, kills the corrupt father, and destroys the future both hoped for.
Not that it was necessary, but the film is further testimony to the awesomeness of coproducer Mifune, who, like many male movie stars of the period, loved playing seamy antiheroes, but with an edge few indulged. Who else, save perhaps Marlon Brando, would allow his first appearance in the film to be a shot of him picking his nose? Niiro, with his smouldering resentment, shabby style, and wayward passions, is a terrific addition to the Mifune resume, from startling displays of athleticism to dragging a platter of sake bottles by his toes to lying in a dissolute sprawl of self-loathing. Okamoto perpetually frames Niiro in doorways, poised between the domestic interior and the exteriors that are almost always buffeted by rain or snow. The whole film, too, plays like a scurrilous inversion of the normal generic assumptions, looking for the dishonourable and self-destructive tendencies in the samurai ideal—the exactness of the title confirms the desire to pinpoint the death of a creed rather than a celebration of it. And Itô is queasily effective as the deceptively limpid-eyed engine of the enterprise, particularly when he executes the real spy, swinging from plain shock as the man’s blood stains his clothes to laconically advising the distraught Niito to be “more cold-blooded,”and finally, bewilderedly and yet with utter efficiency, encouraging Niito to kill his father.
Okamoto’s direction, aided by Hiroshi Murai’s great cinematography and the editing of Yoshitami Kuroiwa, with a stunning array of lightning jump cuts, is as sharp as one of the flourished katana blades. Samurai maintains a relentless grip on its narrative even as it delves into flashbacks within flashbacks, sliced into crucially revelatory units, and quietening down for two portentous scenes. In one, Ii watches a Noh play that features a masked demon, and the other is Kurihara’s funeral, with his widowed wife and child mourning as the priest’s chant fills the soundtrack. Okamoto’s nihilistic streak strikes with force against the usual macho romanticism of the jidaigeki genre. Samurai tackles the complex narrative with a verve that predicts a film like Goodfellas (1990), in the propelling tension between the past-tense voiceover and the rapid on-screen drama, building its story in overlapping accounts that build an ironic tapestry. If the script perhaps makes the themes a touch too obvious, and the central conceit is distinctly melodramatic, the overall film still serves an acidic purpose.
The finale’s staging predicts the orgiastic, apocalyptic violence found within a couple of years in American films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Niiro and the Mito assassins assault Ii’s procession, the defenders and attackers butchering each other as the wind-driven snow buffets them in a giddy free-for-all, the warriors barely discernable in their frantic, desperate grappling. Blood and squirming bodies litter the snowy compound, the wounded flee along ditches and tumble into icy water, including the assiduous record-keeper, along with his papers. The final images are of Niiro bearing off his father head on the point of his sword, hysterically proclaiming that he’ll only part with it for a decent sum of money, while the mangled Kenmotsu beams in savage glee as he crawls after him, enfolded by the billowing snow. In a chilling coda to a superb piece of cinema, the voiceover dryly informs us that Niiro was to be cut out of the history, and that the cold weather was rather unseasonable. l
Japanese horror cinema has been bludgeoned in the past decade by a glut of cliché and repetition and cash-in Hollywood remakes. But it’s a genre with a long tradition, and arguably the most famous exemplar is still Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan. His film, consisting of four traditional ghost stories, was based in their collected retelling by Lafcadio Hearn, whose book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, first appeared in 1904. Kaidan was obviously an attempt to make a capital-A Art Horror film, with its showy artificiality and hyper-stylisation, quotations of traditional Asian artistic styles, and a famously spare score by the master composer Toru Takemitsu.
A more Japanese film is hard to imagine, but Kobayashi, director of The Human Condition (1959-61) and Seppuku (1962), admitted his desire was to communicate a sense of the Japanese tradition to the rest of the world. Japanese audiences rejected Kaidan, probably for being too slow, pretentious, and not sensational enough. I’m inclined to agree with them on a certain level. Kobayashi’s excellent visual storytelling renders unnecessary refrains in the narrative line that continually tell us the same thing twice. And the film’s episodes take their sweet time about getting to the point. But Kobayashi’s technique imbues his tales with a rhythmic, slowly uncoiling sense of dread: in each section, the domineering quiet and pregnant atmosphere holds the threat of grim portent before and after the moment of revelation, and never entirely disperses.
The first two stories explore the contracts by which men and women live together. Kurokami (“Black Hair”) is based on the same folk myth that Mizoguchi adapted in his Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and tells of a married samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who leaves his first wife (Michiyo Aratama) behind in poverty after his lord dies, ignoring her desperate pledge to ply her trade as a weaver even harder than she is now. He travels to take a position in the service of another lord. He prospers and marries the lord’s spoilt daughter (Misako Watanabe), and, soon disillusioned, begins to pine for his first wife. He finally packs in his post and returns to his old home, where he finds his wife seemingly unchanged, still labouring on her loom. They spend the night together. When he awakens in the morning, he finds he’s slept with a corpse; a spectral mane of black hair, like hers used to be, enfolds him and reduces him to an age-shattered husk before he can escape. It’s a moody opening, hurt by the cheesy effects of Mikuni trying to escape the wrath of a wig. But Kobayashi stares at his characters with implacable coldness, discerning in Aratama’s intense performance a palpable desperation, and discovering in Watanabe’s simpering, smug smile an obnoxiousness that is slowly confirmed.
Like so many ghost tales, it is about the immutable nature of loss and memory, here making biting commentary on the inability to regain what is thrown away in terms of a foolish man’s violence towards a generous wife, exchanging her for a woman who has a half-dozen people labour to bring her a bucket of water to cool her face. The finale is vicious in the reversal it represents: the first wife’s submissive self-sacrifice contains a contract of responsibility that transcends death. The gender roles cut both ways.
Yukionna (“The Woman of the Snow”), the second tale, was originally cut out of Western prints and sometimes shown as a short, but it’s the tightest, finest segment. It tells the story of a young woodcutter, Mi Nokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), who, with an older lumberjack, is caught in a blizzard. Unable to cross the river to get back to their village, they shelter in a ferryman’s boathouse. During the night, Nakadai awakens to see the elder having the life sucked out of him by a pale, stunningly beautiful spirit (Keiko Kishi), who moves to do the same to him. Impressed by his youth, however, she instead makes him promise never to speak of her, and departs. Nokichi is discovered near death the next day, and his mother (Yûko Mochizuki) nurses him back to health. Having recovered by summer, Nokichi encounters a young woman, Yuki (Kishi again), on the road; she claims to be an orphan travelling to Edo. She seems to fall swiftly for Nokichi, and marries him, eventually bearing him two children. One night, shaken in recognising the similarity of Yuki to the spirit, Nokichi dismisses it with a laugh and tells her about that encounter. But of course, Yuki is the spirit, and, outraged at his having broken his promise, which was a contract for life for “both of us,” only spares his life for the sake of their children. She returns into the snowy night leaving him with the threat to return and kill him if their children should ever have cause to complain about him. Now there’s a way to keep deadbeat dads in line.
Yukionna trembles with longing and regret, and Kobayashi’s stylisation is dazzling, but also subtle and intense. Under the motif of a painted sun that constantly evokes a relentless, watching eye, the forest world of the tale suffers under raw, lashing gales and a dreamy summer sun in which Nokichi and Yuki recline and make love, drawing out the sense of natural rhythms inherent in such folk myths. In one peerless shot, the woods about Nokichi’s hut quiver ever so slightly with a suggestion of a haunting presence, as the snowy cladding on the fir trees crumbles in misty veils. This second episode deepens the first’s anxiety over the complexities of male-female relations. Yuki’s state becomes a powerfully ominous avatar for the mystery any couple will find in each other, and the potential of denial and silence to destroy intimacy. The final image, of a pair of sandals Nokichi made for Yuki disappearing and leaving their imprint in the snow, is yearningly tragic.
Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi (“Hoichi the Earless”) is the blockbuster episode. Its hero, Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura), is a blind biwa player and reciter of historical songs about the Heike clan, which was wiped out in a civil war in the 1100s. The tale begins with a Kabuki-on-the-backlot vision of the Heike’s defeat at sea, followed by the mass suicide of the clan’s women: it’s a perfervid riot of colour and action, glazed with the sorrowful mystery of history. Hoichi is so gifted a reciter that shortly after moving into a monastery close to where the Heikes’ ruined castle lies, the ghost of one of their generals (Tetsuro Tamba) comes to ask Hoichi to recite for his lord. Being blind, Hoichi doesn’t know that his audience are ghosts. Meanwhile, mysterious will o’ the wisps accompany sightings of the Heikes’ ghostly ships and the wrecking of fishing boats: the Heike are still vengeful in their haunting.
Once the abbot of the monastery (Takashi Shimura) learns this, he and another monk work to save Hoichi from being torn apart by the ghosts. They paint his body with holy texts to make him invisible to the spirits. They forget to cover his ears, however, which the general can still see when he comes to collect, and he tears them off Hoichi’s head. Hoichi survives and becomes famous and rich thanks to his story.
“Hoichi” is the most visually dramatic tale, from its placidly threatening, shimmering seascapes to the full-bore genre chic of the Heike castle, where the ghosts casually morph from courtly hosts into their bloody post-battle states, and then into fog-wreathed grave markers. Although the episode is cumbersome and distended in points—having given us the tale of the battle in the beginning, Kobayashi labours the point in the middle—the screen positively bleeds colour and atmosphere in evoking Japanese Gothic. If the first two episodes meditate on the way past corrodes present interactions of men and women, “Hoichi” takes the same idea on in a broader, more political and artistic fashion. The victims of someone else’s triumph, having staked their claim to immortality in honour by fearlessly meeting death, refuse to be forgotten, consuming the living when they stray into the ghostly realm. Hoichi himself is a strong metaphor for the dangers of the accomplished artist. His gift stirs up the dangers inherent in analysing the past, exhuming the suppressed memory. Hoichi’s sense of the past is far greater than his awareness of the present, hence his blindness; to become a truly great artist, he has to sacrifice more than he would want to.
The final chapter, “A Cup of Tea,” depicts a writer in 1900 (Osamu Takizawa, also the film’s narrator) composing the title story, about a samurai retainer named Kannai (Kanemon Nakamura) who sees a demonically mocking face in his cup of tea. Soon, the owner of the face, Shikibu Heinai (Noboru Nakaya), who seems to be a ghost, appears to Kannai, claiming to have some sort of unfinished business with him. Kannai doesn’t know him and strike down the shade, but the ghost disappears. Three agents of Shikibu come to present his challenge to Kannai, and Kannai lashes out at them. He seems to kill them, but they reappear. Kannai’s situation evokes a proto-Kafka sense of the mysteries of social hierarchies and roles. The vengeful spirit is, in essence, the ethic of honour and feudal responsibility affixing itself to Kannai just for the hell of it; the ethic demands victims, and no warrior’s skill can overcome it. As Kobayashi put it in 1968, regarding Séquences: “Men, in their actual civilisation, let their human aspects dim. They have lost their faculty of wondering and their ability to recognise the soul.” The tale breaks off here, as the writer’s publisher and sister come to visit and find him gone, only his ghostly form beckoning from within a vat as Shikibu did from the tea cup. It’s a blackly humorous punchline, spun from the fact the story was never completed. It doesn’t really promote the story from being a concluding scrap, but it does bring the motif of telling stories to a terminus, as tale consumes teller. It also halts the film’s cultural memory at the edge of the modern world in which the folk-myth is fading yet still asserting a binding spell.
Although the film is largely specific in its cultural resonance, it fits into the genre of its period as well. The paint-in-water imagery of the title sequences present an interesting accord with the similar effects used in Roger Corman’s pop-arty Poe adaptations, and the generic reflexes in “Black Hair” resemble Corman’s explication of similarly morbid tales like “Morella” (in Tales of Terror, 1963) and the pseudo-Poe of The Terror (1963). The lustrous colour compositions place it in the company of Bava and others in the new vitality their embrace of colour gave to the gothic genre, pushing on to almost experimental extremes. The large budget and high grade of technical proficiency gives it a unique edge where it lacks concision in form. That Kobayashi stresses such a restrained, attentive style both sustains tension and draws out the latent themes with care: Kaidan seizes on the both the analytical relevance and the irreducible poetry of the tradition it invokes. Despite the longeurs, it provides one of the richest, most entrancing cinema experiences around.
Seijun Suzuki, now 86 and still making films, helmed a mind-numbing 39 movies between 1956 and 1967 as a stable director of Nikkatsu Studios. During that stint, the independent-minded director became fed up with formula films and began expanding, perverting, and subverting the gangland drama, a personal crusade that reached its apogee in Branded to Kill. That film drifted so far away from the script and the requirements of the studio, Suzuki was sacked and could not get work outside of television for a decade afterwards.
Branded to Kill is utterly original and utterly strange – and as we all know, there’s no strange quite like Japanese strange. Suzuki’s film is a crossbreed of genre yarn with Kafka, Orson Welles, Euro-art cinema, and the Japanese underground aesthetic. The arty existential assassin flick has been done to death over the past half-century, with entries from Jean-Pierre Melville and John Boorman to Beat Takeshi and Jim Jarmusch. Branded to Kill is particularly reminiscent of Boorman’s own 1967 picture Point Blank, but it’s more ferocious, more stylish, more sexy, more insane, more…more, than any rivals. Other aspects recall the Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner, also from 1967. Branded to Kill is, amongst other things, a perfect exemplar of 1960s Japanese cool, with omnipresent stovepipe suits, dark sunglasses, crisp black-and-white in a widest-of-wide frame, a blearily expressionist jazz score by Naozumi Yamamoto, and the sheer never-in-Hollywood boldness of it. It’s a blinding genre trash job that drags the gangster film into a surreal and cruel netherworld punctuated by startling sexuality and violence, as well as presenting a no-holds-barred savaging of the corporate-ladder existence at the high point of its near-religious grip on postwar Japanese society, leaving even Kurosawa’s cynical The Bad Sleep Well (1961) in its wake.
Penetrating Suzuki’s plot is initially a tall order, as the film’s visual narrative is sliced into cubist hunks. A shadowy organisation of assassins ranks its members according to prowess. The current No. 3, Goro Hanada (Jo Shishido), arrives back in Tokyo with his wife Mami (Mariko Ogawa) and is driven from the airport by Kasuga (Hiroshi Minami), another assassin who’s slipped far down the totem pole and is trying to get back in the game. He invites Hanada in on a job he’s been given by crime boss Yabuhara (Isao Tanagawa) to pick up a man who’s sneaking into the country and shuttle him to Nagano. On the way, they’re tracked by other top assassins hired to keep Hanada and Kasuga from getting their charge to his destination. In a battle within the grounds of a deserted building, Kasuga’s drunkenness sees him make a fool of himself, much to Hanada’s disgust, so Kasuga hysterically charges at No. 4, Koh, and the two men kill each other. Hanada then has to fight through another ambush on his own, this time taking out the No. 2 man before finally, and in underwhelming anticlimax, dropping his man at his rendezvous in a motel car park.
Returning to Tokyo, Hanada’s car breaks down, and he gets a lift with a young woman, Misako (Anne Mari), who claims to hate men. Holing up in his bleakly modern apartment, Hanada indulges in bestial relations with Mami and his own fetish for the smell of cooking rice, but continues to think about Misako. He’s hired by Yabuhara to kill several more men, and then Misako asks him to kill a western agent (Franz Gruber). But a butterfly landing in front of his rifle scope causes him to miss and kill an innocent woman instead, a foul-up that will spell his doom in the assassin’s ranks. But it’s at home that Hanada is shot by an apparently jealous Mami and left to die in their burning apartment. But he’s not fatally wounded, and he stumbles bleeding to Misako’s place.
He and Misako ensnare each other in erotically charged but aggressive, inchoate trysts. When he has recovered from his wounds, Hanada locates Mami at Yabuhara’s place. She’s been having an affair with Yabuhara and was ordered to kill her husband. Mami spills the beans before Hanada shoots her: both the assassinations Yabuhara had him commit and the one Misako hired him for are linked in an effort to stem the damage that’s been done to a diamond smuggling scheme by rogue operators. Yabuhara is shot by another killer before Hanada can take care of him, and Misako is snatched; a film left playing on a projector in the apartment shows footage of Misako being tortured for not killing Hanada. A voice on the film challenges Hanada to come and do battle with some other assassins. Hanada ventures into battle and defeats all five enemies, only to be confronted by his real enemy, No. 1 (Koji Nambara), the man he took to Nagano, who plans to grind down and destroy his last rival just for the hell of it.
Summarizing the plot can only partly communicate how all this unfolds in Suzuki’s fractured, oblique, intensely fetishist sequences. The Byzantine world of intrigue and insensible relations of power and lust is reflected in the style, all acute dividing angles shot in deep focus with mysterious nooks of the frame. Branded to Kill is fundamentally the drama of a man who assumes himself to be a man of power and certainty and discovers he’s anything but. The story follows the ritualised structure of so much Asian genre cinema that has the hero confronting an escalating series of professional and physical challenges from his opponents, and yet Suzuki’s film also eats away at the cliché of the arch-professional lone warrior. Unlike, for instance, Itto Ogami of the Lone Wolf and Cub series or, indeed, Melville’s Le Samourai or Walker of Point Blank, Hanada is not ennobled by an awesome ascetic stoicism. He begins the film icy cool, sneering in disdain at Kasuga’s incompetence, and is steadily reduced to a shambling, despairing wreck. The causes of his steady disintegration are laid out by Kasuga, whose degeneration he blames on loneliness, leading to women and drink, the two great pitfalls of the profession: soon Hanada gives in to one and then the other.
The narrative is suspended by Hanada’s three fraught, intimate relationships with Mami, Misako, and No. 1. Mami’s animalistic sexual encounters with her husband seem to reflect her inner certainty that “we’re all beasts,” a theory the film bears out. When Hanada shoots her through the head, her blood swirls in the flushing toilet over which her head hangs; later, the same image returns in a moment of pure madness in a restaurant washroom when Hanada’s equilibrium has been almost completely destroyed by No. 1. The narrative sustains a series of reversals. Mami’s veneer of chic conceals raw, masochistic carnality. The ethereal, misanthropic, almost ghostly Misako surrounded by images of gothic fetidness (dead birds, butterflies, soil, leaves, and most constantly, water) becomes an icon of selfless love, tortured almost to death without losing her faintly satisfied smile. And Hanada’s uber masculinity is so deeply undermined that he’s reduced to walking around in one of Misako’s midriff-baring tops and strolling arm-in-arm with No. 1 (the only way they can be sure the other can’t get away or get hold of a weapon).
Misako, the ultimate femme fatale, seems as much an angel of death as the Snow Witch in Kwaidan and is the butterfly that blinds Hanada’s perfect aim. But she’s also associated with the decayed remnants of a natural world that has otherwise been entirely exiled from the world of apartment buildings and ruined institutional monstrosities. When he’s in a particularly dire place, Hanada showers dead humus on his head, weeping for Misako, desperate for some return to that natural world. When Hanada meets Misako, she’s driving in the rain with her convertible open to the elements, utterly soaked. When she comes to his apartment, Mami becomes upset, so Hanada throws the naked Mami out into the rain where she claws despairingly at the window, as electric an image as any in the cinema of illogical emotion. The tables are turned as Hanada’s increasingly hysterical, unwound machismo grapples with the impossibility of penetrating Misako’s psyche.
As a pervert and a thug, Hanada is hardly a figure fit for heroic identification. And yet his situation compels in the urgency of his attempts to avoid being consumed. Hitman films usually are commentaries on the relationship between the individual and conformity. Branded to Kill makes the observation that to be a perfect killer is to essentially lose individuality and become a force of total nihilism: the compromise of the human existence, and the pleasures of that existence, is to accept weakness. The relentless striving to reach the top, to triumph in this rattiest of rat races, is skewered. The actual point to the business—the diamond-smuggling concern—is far less important than the mutual use and abuse of human beings.
Hanada is at the mercy of a hierarchical designation that seems almost deistically ordained. His struggle is with pure fate as much as it is with a concrete opponent. Fate ruins Hanada when the butterfly ruins his shot, and No 1 will unquestionably kill Hanada and destroy him mentally before doing it physically. Or at least that’s what No 1 thinks: Hanada eventually resolves to try and outwit No .1 and claim that post for himself. That he succeeds, but destroys himself and Misako at the same time, confirms that Hanada is good, but not quite good enough: to become No. 1 is to become a force of pure nihilism. This is a philosophical statement, but also a vicious joke on the desire to climb that corporate ladder, leading to the ultimate version of the cliché that it’s lonely at the top. Although Hanada finally beats No. 1, he’s still reduced to dancing around as bullets whiz about him, just like Kasuga, and the competition finally lays everything waste.
Parsing the substance of Branded to Kill is secondary nonetheless to simply absorbing its delirious visuals. Suzuki stages some excellent, uniquely terse action sequences, especially in Hanada’s battle on the breakwater pier, where he uses a pulley to drag his car over him as a shield that allows him to get close enough to take out his enemies. Other, more humdrum sequences are just as inventive. For example, when Hanada and Kasuga believe they’re being followed, they pull over suddenly, and the pursuing car passes them by. Suzuki cuts to close-ups of clapping hands and laughing mouths accompanied by blaring music to indicate it’s just a car full of rowdy teens in a fusion of unique visual technique and aural cues.
Another is the scene where Mami scratches on the glass in the rain, her fingernails squeaking excruciatingly to her face is a mask of pure woe. The only real clanger in the film is an overwrought moment where Hanada drifts in a delirium while being assaulted by animated butterflies. Suzuki’s direction is aided immeasurably by Kazue Nagatsuka’s startling, deep-focus cinematography by which even the smallest aspect in a frame can become a point of necessary attention. The film’s sound effects deserve accolades, too, and the way Suzuki uses imposing edifices and ruins to emphasise labyrinthine mystery in a genuinely dreamlike realm.
Branded to Kill is one of the best films of the ’60s. l
Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut film of: Akira Kurosawa, writer and director
By Roderick Heath
One of the tricky issues this new series presents is just what counts as a directorial debut. Before he made Sanshiro Sugata, Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) had worked for years as an assistant director and screenwriter, including having worked on several projects where he said he had been left to his own devices. We could consider that he essentially directed these films—including Uma (1941)—himself. Nevertheless, Sanshiro Sugata was the first completed feature film to carry the credit “Directed by Akira Kurosawa.” Sanshiro Sugata has a compact energy and sense of form that establishes a cinematic intelligence far above the ordinary. It portrays, in an immature and limited fashion, the images, ideas, and emotions that will recur in complex and nuanced ways throughout Kurosawa’s career. Released when WWII was still raging, it was edited by nearly 20 minutes after the occupation, and the excised sequences only exist in very ragged form. Based on a popular novel by Tsuneo Tomita that would have a half-dozen other adaptations in the next 50 years, Sanshiro Sugata feels like a foundation text not just for Kurosawa’s career, but also for the whole genre of Asian martial arts movies. You know the drill—impulsive student learns from stern master how to master himself, as the means by which he transcends from try-hard to great Jedi, er, Judo warrior. Hell, The Karate Kid owes a big something to this film.
The film is set in the 1890s. Sanshiro, embodied by the appealingly average-looking Susumu Fujita, wants to become a martial arts master. He comes to the seedy Jujutsu school run by Monma, who lounges about with his indolent, aggressive students, incensed by the rumored superiority of the new fighting style of Shudokan Judo practised by Sensei Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi). Monma leads his students to attack Yano on the street. Cornering him on the bank of the canal, the students all end up pitched into the water, and Monma finishes up pinioned and ashamed. Worshipful of a new hero, Sanshiro volunteers to wheel Yano to his school in a deserted rickshaw.
Time passes, and we rediscover Sanshiro showing off his new Judo skills, beating up street toughs and Sumo wrestlers. Yano is angry at this thuggish display, Sanshiro, now shamed, throws himself into the muddy pond next to Yano’s house, angrily declaring his intention to die. “Go ahead and die, then!” Yano shouts. Sanshiro spends the rest of the night clinging to a rotten stake in the centre of the pond, where, in studying a flower, he realises the fragile nature of human existence (or something like that), which gives him the self-insight to abase himself before Yano.
That’s the kind of pseudo-mystic jive we’re so familiar with in the genre and that Kurosawa portrays vividly, even though it’s cornball. Kurosawa would entirely toss out such claptrap from his later films. Kurosawa’s heroes usually have utterly corporeal talents, mixed with large dashes of guile; they generally prevail against enemies because they’re smarter. Even in his action films, Kurosawa usually had little time for the unrealistic. Fair enough. If, say, Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood had made it clear his amazing archery skills were thanks to “God-power,” audiences would have been wetting themselves with laughter.
More typical of Kurosawa is the subsequent development of Sanshiro becoming a great, but reluctant warrior. When he is let back in from the cold of Yano’s displeasure, he is chosen to fight in an exhibition match between his school and Monma’s, with future employment in training police officers at stake. He throws Monma against a wall, killing him and causing Monma’s daughter to attempt to stab him later. Such prowess attracts the dour attention of the Ryoi Shinto School, in the shape of star student Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata), a dapper, gimlet-eyed gent who, as one student says, resembles a large snake. Higaki is eager to fight Sanshiro. But Sanshiro’s next fight is to be against Higaki’s sensei, the recovering alcoholic Murai, played by an actor who would become one of Kurosawa’s fondest faces, Takashi Shimura. Standing amidst this fraught trio is Murai’s pious daughter Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki), scared of the obnoxiously attentive Higaki, protective of her dissolute father, and attracted to Sanshiro. Sanshiro is tortured by the idea that he might kill Murai.
It’s here that the film’s only note of wartime propaganda is struck, when the school’s priest (Kokuten Kodo) admonishes Sanshiro for his reluctance, reminding him that his duty to the school demands he fight Murai and that this will be a truly selfless act. This “duty, right or wrong” moment conflicts with the texture of the film and with Kurosawa’s oeuvre, but then he only made Sanshiro Sugata after having several projects knocked back by the wartime censors. Sanshiro is, however, one of Kurosawa’s familiar, conscientious, all-too-human heroes. In combat with Murai, Sanshiro is nearly brought down by the elder sensei’s skill, but finally he gains the upper hand, the valiant older man rising agonisingly to his feet repeatedly only to suffer another violent toss, before conceding.
But Murai doesn’t die. As he recovers, he gets Sayo to invite Sanshiro to their house, and Sanshiro becomes a friend. When Higaki finds him at their house, he promptly challenges Sanshiro to a duel to the death. Their confrontation is staged on a reed-clad hillside during a strong windstorm. Higaki nearly topples Sanshiro, but Sanshiro, remembering the flower (flower power!), resurges and defeats Higaki. A brief coda follows, where Yano and the priest discuss the fact that Higaki has reformed and forgiven Sanshiro, and that Sanshiro has decided to travel. On the train leaving town, Sanshiro promises Sayo that he will return.
Although the story of Sanshiro Sugata is generic and familiar, it’s a vivid experience—swift and entertaining. Many debut films suffer from imbalance as budding directorial talents test out their ideas without much thought for the overall texture of the film, but Kurosawa barely puts a foot wrong. As in his later work, his close-ups are carefully thought out and sparingly employed. Perhaps the most memorable shot in the film is of Munmo’s daughter, having just seen her father die, staring implacably at the camera, her grief and madness registering as the tiniest muscular twitches. Kurosawa’s background as a landscape painter is always apparent in the way he frames his actors in relationship to the environment, interested not just in their faces but in the behaviour of their whole bodies. The core action scenes are developed in a continuum of intensity. The poise of his camera makes Yano’s early victory over Munmo’s jujutsu brats look effortless; to Sanshiro’s eye, there is no indication of the draining physical and spiritual force required. Later, Sanshiro’s fight with Murai is filled with close-ups of their sweating brows as they engage in a deathly dance, each balanced on a knife-edge between defeat and loss. Finally, when Sanshiro and Higaki battle, the whole earth seems to explode into fractious elements.
Kurosawa’s intense, almost pantheistic relationship to nature as a reflector and counterbalance to humanity is strikingly nascent. As he would do so often later, atmospheric touches overtly or subtly set the tone of scenes—from the insects incessantly chirping in the background when Yano castigates Sanshiro, to the breeze that underscores the hollow-hearted, alien Higaki’s entry into Murai’s house, and finally, to the epic winds and racing clouds of the final elemental clash of the two men—not between good and evil, exactly, but between the humbled, humane, and responsible, and the dictatorial, arrogant, and grasping.
Kurosawa would rarely offer hissable villains like Higaki. His villains tend to be either foolish, or so collectively ill-defined as to be nearly abstract symbols of tribulation, or shaded reflections of the heroes. Higaki is the man in himself Sanshiro has defeated. Higaki’s introduction is so utterly splendid—his umbrella handle enters the film before him, tapping Sanshiro’s shoulder—that his eventual unmasking as a cardboard-thin opponent emphasises the limitations of straight genre for Kurosawa’s strength of style. It’s another possible indicator of when it was made that Higaki dresses like an English gentleman, complete with bowler hat, where Sanshiro wears traditional dress.
In many regards the later film that best displays Kurosawa’s growth from this point is Sanjuro (1965), one his few straight genre films of later years, a funnier, but also angrier film than Sanshiro Sugata. Toshiro Mifune’s title character and Tatsuya Nakadai’s villain represent a similar conflict, virtually separate to the rest of the plot—that of men who see too much of themselves in each other. Mifune’s victory releases not joy, but a sickening welter of blood and the ronin’s self-disgust and disavowal of a violent path. Such dark duality is also a consistent motif, particularly in female characters, clearly present here in the mirror of Munmo’s burning-eyed daughter and Sayo, and Sanshiro’s fear that he will turn one into the other if he kills her father, too.
Kurosawa’s distrust of violence—concurrent with his fascination with it—and love of humanity is ultimately confirmed by the sentiment of Sanshiro and Murai’s friendship and Higaki’s late alteration. Sanshiro is defined as much as the Seven Samurai by his learned determination to use his gifts to fight for a value, and for other people, rather than for self-aggrandisement. And it work for Sanshiro, as he apparently converts Higaki. Although naïve, it’s still a fascinating message for a Japanese film of 1943.
All of that said, there isn’t much more of the dramatic and character richness of Kurosawa’s later work. Sayo is a regulation, radiantly submissive female far from the pithy heroines of The Hidden Fortress and Sanjuro, although it might be fair to say she anticipates the cosmically forgiving Lady Sué of Ran. Yano is a stock, wise Yoda figure. Higaki a bad guy for barely any more reason than the fact that he acts creepy.
More superficially, familiar stylistic flourishes are present. When Sanshiro is showing off on the streets, Kurosawa likewise shows off, with a series of mirroring crane shots descending down to the street level, showing crowds back away from the attacking Sanshiro as he races forward and picks out men to beat up. This kind of physical-force camera work would later have a profound effect on directors like Godard and Scorsese; likewise, his small dash of slow motion—when Munmo dies, a panel falls like a gentle petal from the wall onto the dead man’s back. Like the device’s similar use in the early stages of The Seven Samurai, it emphasises a sudden, sad realisation of the nature of death in what has been, up until now, a game. Sanshiro Sugata is a truly enlightening sketch of so much that was to come.
The hubby is the person whose enthusiasm for Takeshi Kitano got me into watching the works of this film entrepreneur extraordinaire. Using the stage name—Beat Takeshi—he still uses when acting, Kitano was one half of a popular comedy duo in Japan. He turned to filmmaking in 1989 with the film Violent Cop (Sono otoko, kyôbô ni tsuki), in which Kitano plays a cop who never met a rule he wouldn’t break to get results. Kitano frequently includes yakuza plotlines and characters in his films, but his seemingly endless imagination has never stopped exploring other ways of telling stories. The first Kitano film I saw, A Scene at the Sea (Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi), his third outing as a director, was a gentle, bittersweet tale without a yakuza in sight.
Fireworks has some of Kitano’s trademarks—seaside scenes, yakuza, his own ensemble of actors—but strongly references the events and aftermath of his near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1995. The film focuses on policemen Nishi (Kitano) and his long-time partner Horibe (Ren Oshugi) and the course of their lives following violent encounters with a yakuza gang. Nishi is a legendary cop with a tragic life—after his wife was diagnosed with fatal leukemia, their young daughter died. He has had to go to a yakuza loan shark to help pay for her medical care. Horibe pities Nishi, cherishing as he does his normal family life.
One day, Horibe approaches the stakeout car of two cops he and Nishi are training, telling them they will have to remain on stakeout longer than expected because Nishi must visit his wife. Nakamura (Susumu Terajima) says he has a date waiting for him across town. Horibe releases Tanaka because he is a family man and takes the duty alone. As he sits in the car, he calls home and talks to his wife and daughter. He learns from his daughter that she has drawn a picture. Comically, he listens to her and then opens his notebook to look inside. This is the last bit of normalcy in the film. In a quick shot, we see a yakuza with his hand wrapped in a newspaper, pointing his gun downward. Switch to a shot of Horibe on the ground, his hands impotently pushing at the air to shield himself. Bang.
The film plays with time and characters in a seemingly random fashion. Nishi talks with a woman, asking how she is. As well as can be expected; she has a part-time job now as a clerk in a deli. We learn what has happened in Shakespearean style, as two incidental characters confound our expectations of what happened and relate that Horibe has been crippled and that his wife and daughter left him. Tanaka has been killed; Nishi was talking with his widow. Nishi is no longer on the police force, having resigned in the wake of Horibe’s crippling injury and Tanaka’s murder at the hands of the yakuza soldier being watched. The latter event is revealed slowly in flashback.
Nishi visits Horibe. The former partners stare at the sea, and Nishi asks Horibe what he plans to do. Paint, he says, almost at random. We see Horibe alone on the sand looking down as the water splashes at the front wheels of his wheelchair. Two parallel lines in the sand trail behind the rear wheels.
Nishi plans to take care of everyone, from providing for Tanaka’s wife and his own to settling his debt to the loan shark and setting Horibe up with art supplies. How he does this is interesting and not without consequences. His ultimate goal is to be left alone to spend all his time with his wife in her remaining days.
Fireworks takes us far inside Takeshi’s creative process. For example, the responsibility Nishi assumes for his extended family of police officers and their families could very well mirror his regard for his regular collaborators on the screen and behind it. Beyond providing for those affected by the fall-out of the yakuza shooter, Nishi refuses to put Nakamura in a difficult position when he has to track down Nishi for the murders of the yakuza loan shark and his gang. He maintains his honor, even though he must now be regarded as a ruthless killer.
Horibe is a stand-in for Kitano after his motorcycle accident. Months of recovery left the director time to learn how to paint. (All of the art in the movie is by Kitano.) We see Horibe regarding bunches of flowers and picturing animals and people with flower heads. The images are beautiful, alive, and meaningful, a reaffirmation of sorts of Horibe/Kitano’s desire to live and create. At one point, Horibe takes up a pointillist technique, producing an image interesting like Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of the Grande Jatte.” He refines this technique by substituting words for dots; the image at the beginning of this review has the Japanese pictogram for “star” forming the points of light in the sky. The bold, red word across this impressionistic landscape is “Suicide.” Horibe finishes the painting by splashing red on the canvas to resemble a blood spatter. This canvas certainly communicates not only the despair of many of the characters in Fireworks, but also that of Kitano as he mends and must come to terms with his disfigured face and noticeable limp. It also gives a graphic example of the rather pointillist construction of this film, in which the story assembles into a coherent whole from the out-of-sequence slices of life Kitano films.
What lends the efficiently violent Nishi, and this film, its sad tenderness is the relationship between Nishi and his wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto). Miyuki seems like a true innocent, enjoying simple pleasures like fishing and putting some wilted flowers in a vase and scooping water into the vase with her hand at the edge of the sea. The couple’s relationship is telegraphed in many intimate scenes. Nishi puts a sardine-sized fish on a stick and cooks it over a fire. He says, “Italian-style cooking,” and they both laugh, no doubt at some private joke this comment evokes. However, we don’t hear Miyuki speak until the very end of the film; rather Nishi “translates” her off-screen comments in his dialogue. He asks her why she wanted to see snow as they drive along a road plowed through a good 6 feet of snow. He stops and says, “Can’t you hold it?” Miyuki runs off into the snow, only to fall into a drift in one of the small comic moments Kitano peppers throughout the film.
Fireworks is an odd work that mixes almost cartoonish violence, comedy, and deep feeling to create a compelling and affecting film. “Beat” Takeshi Kitano is a wonderfully bold and original voice in world cinema who deserves your attention. l
One stop I make almost daily on my Internet travels is Cinebeats. Kimberly Lindbergs makes all things 60s and 70s fascinating and always offers gems to people like myself who want to learn more about this seminal time in cultural history. In her recent rundown of her top 30 DVDS of 2007 was a Japanese film from the early 60s I just had to see. Black Test Car promised a suspenseful ride through the revving-up capitalist economy in Japan by focusing on the industrial spying of rival car manufacturers Tiger Motors and Yomato.
The film opens on a road where two vehicles are assembled. One of them is completely draped in a black cover, the other contains employees of Tiger Motors. Using walkie talkies, the occupants of the two cars confer and once it has been determined there are no cars in front of or behind them, the black-draped car takes off. It accelerates, weaves, and finally goes off the road and crashes. The twisted metal and blazing chassis are photographed by spies who had hidden themselves on a bluff above the road. The embarrassing pictures surface, and it’s back to the drawing board for Tiger Motors.
Department head Onoda (Hideo Takamatsu) reveals his plans for the love of his life—the Pioneer, a four-door sports car that he hopes will help Tiger overtake their larger and more successful rival. I originally thought Onoda was in the design department, but as the film progressed, I thought perhaps he headed the industrial espionage department. He got regular visits from a portly, laughing slime of a man who provided him with intelligence on Yomato, and asked his entire team to get one step ahead of their rival by spying.
Young Asahina (Jiro Tamiya) is Onoda’s ambitious protégé. Onoda promises to make him department head if the Pioneer succeeds. Asahina wants the promotion so that he can afford to marry Masako (Junko Kano), a hostess at a cocktail lounge. Masako warns him about his ambition, wondering if the conservative Tiger corporation would approve of him marrying someone like her. He sloughs off the question, but makes her promise to start work at Pandora, a nightclub frequented by Yomato’s president Mawatari (Ichiro Sugai), a former colonel and a secret agent in the former Imperial Army in Guangdong who surrounds himself with men from his former command. She is to listen for information he can use. Reluctantly, she agrees and begins from her first night on the job to cozy up to Mawatari.
Still, Yomato stays one step ahead of Tiger, producing a plan for a sports car exactly like the Pioneer. Onoda knows a spy is at work among the Tiger executives and works to sniff him out. There are a great many double-dealings, with Yomato bugging a Tiger executive’s room, and Onoda and his men filming a board meeting at which Yomato is expected to set the price of their rival sports car and then having a lip reader interpret the film. Unfortunately for Onoda, Mawatari does not reveal the price. The crisis in the film occurs when Asahina asks Masako to sleep with Mawatari so that she can get the price from an envelope in his briefcase. Masako does his bidding in a rude and rough scene, then returns to him with her payment for prostituting herself—a precious ring. She writes the car’s price on Asahina’s pillow with a lipstick, kisses the ring repeatedly (“It’s warmer than you are”), and storms out. Tiger is able to undercut Yomato’s price and immediately jumpstart their sales. But Yomato isn’t done yet, and the web of betrayals starts to unravel and leads to scandal and death.
Black Test Car most resembles a film noir in look, tone, and storyline. People with whom we initially sympathize become cutthroat, amoral competitors jockeying for position in the new capitalist order. Onoda is married to his job, and his wife passively remarks to Asahina not to emulate him too closely. But ambition and money cause Asahina to lose himself. As riveting as the corporate espionage becomes—a first-rate spy thriller even though its gadgetry is as simple as it gets—the moral tragedy between Asahina and Masako really forms the heart of the film.
It is tempting to think of Masako as traditional Japan and Asahina as new, industrial Japan, but it’s not that simple. Masako is no fool and has no qualms about sleeping with Asahina even though they are not engaged. She’s a modern girl, but she doesn’t fall into the alienation seen in other films of this era, particularly those of Michelangelo Antonioni, a classmate of Masumura’s at Italy’s famed Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia and a great admirer. (Indeed, this film has a lot in common with Antonioni’s views and shooting style.) Alas, Asahina is all too like Antonioni’s cruelly romantic men. The other characters form a tight ensemble, but Onoda’s turn to the dark side, though getting progressively worse through the film, seems excessive by the end.
Black Test Car seems at first to be a candidate for a What’s Up Tiger Lily? treatment, which may be why it is being marketed as a dark comedy. It’s not, however. This film is an intricately plotted, caustic tale of the price of human frailty in a competitive, money-obsessed world. Thanks, Kimberly, for the turn-on! l