In the Realm of the Senses: two lovers pursuing happiness and freedom in a repressive society

Nagisa Oshima, “Ai no korida / In the Realm of the Senses” (1976)

Forty years ago this film was made and it still has the power to shock current audiences with its explicit sexual scenes, the intense sexual obsessions, and the asphyxiophilia leading to the shocking climax and aftermath. For much of its running time though, “In the Realm …” can be boring and excruciating to watch: the plot is very basic and repetitive, and only really gets going towards the end when its protagonist and antagonist start exploring the extremes of their sexual passion; and the characters themselves tend to be one-dimensional and underdeveloped.

The plot is based on an actual historical case in Japan during the 1930s and the names of the two main characters are unchanged from those of the original doomed lovers. Kichi Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) runs an inn in Tokyo where Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) comes to work as a waitress. The two are attracted to each other and in no time at all have commenced an affair even though Ishida is already married. Initially in their affair the two experiment sexually and indulge one another but gradually their affair becomes all-consuming: Ishida leaves his wife and Sada becomes intensely jealous and obsessive to the point of threatening to kill Ishida if he returns to his wife or sleeps with another woman. Their affair soon occupies their attention almost daily and their sexual experimentation becomes ever more extreme with Ishida suggesting to Sada that she try strangling him to excite him sexually. Sada cannot conceive of life and happiness without Ishida and the emotions this arouses together with the erotic strangling has horrific if entirely predictable consequences for the two lovers.

As a character study, the film doesn’t work very well: there are early indications that Sada has been a prostitute in the past and is possessed of a powerful sexuality that draws men to her. She can also be easily roused to anger and strong emotions, and her anger may respect no human-made boundaries. It’s apparent that life for a passionate young woman in the Japan of the 1930s, a hierarchical and strongly conformist society then passing into militarism and fascism, is going to be very difficult. Unfortunately Oshima does not emphasise the conflict between Sada’s nature and the society that would try to turn her into a meek and submissive woman much at all. By contrast Ishida is a curiously passive man who readily gives in to Sada’s demands to the point of leaving his wife and any children they already have, and to neglect his business. This surely would have been enough to earn the couple considerable social opprobrium and ostracism. As it is, the affair forces Sada to take up prostitution again at various points in the film. With the way Oshima has framed the narrative though, focusing exclusively on the intense affair and Sada’s obsession with continuing it, viewers see nothing of the effect it has on Ishida and Sada’s ability to cope and survive, and on the people most affected by the relationship; and this narrow focus may be considered a major defect of the film.

The film’s themes are more important than its plot or its character development, superficial though the latter is: through Sada and Ishida’s obsession, Oshima raises the question of how far people can go to pursue happiness and fulfillment in an increasingly repressive society. At first their obsession provides Sada and Ishida with some measure of happiness, connection and freedom to express and explore themselves, psychologically as well as physically; but over time it becomes a destructive and paradoxically enslaving addiction for both. While the two pursue their passion, the outside world comes to see them as strange and perverted though curiously it makes no attempt to separate them. The sexual experimentation (and its explicitness and increasingly extreme character) becomes a revolt against political and sexual oppression; at the same time this revolt isolates Sada and Ishida from the rest of humanity so as rebellions go, it is a rather pathetic one. This alienation could have been made more devastating had Oshima included something of the outside world’s opinion of the affair through Ishida’s wife and employees, or through the rural inns the couple flees to, to conduct their relationship.

The film can be seen as a criticism of the roles men and women are or were expected to play in Japanese society: Sada, a poor working girl and prostitute, plays the active role in the relationship while Ishida, her employer and social superior, follows her lead. Again the sexual experimentation represents a break with the expectations of what is appropriate behaviour for men and women in sexual relationships, and gives a glimpse of an alternate world where people are free to express themselves and explore new identities free of gender limitations.

While the film is sexually graphic, I don’t see it as a pornographic film: the sex on display illustrates the couple’s break with and alienation from society, and it is not at all titillating or arousing. Whereas pornography seeks to enforce the status quo in gender and class relations, “In the Realm …” goes out of its way to question and criticise what pornography accepts without question. This is a film of two people trying to find inner peace, happiness and freedom in a world marching towards war and repression.

Dead Sushi: wacky comedy horror film takes pot-shots at corporate culture and greed, and food obsessions

Noboru Iguchi, “Dead Sushi” (2012)

In the tradition of wacky Japanese comedy horror flicks comes this little number that takes a bizarre concept (bloodthirsty monster sushi) and milks it for all it’s worth (and then some) while managing to sneak in a coming-of-age / road movie theme in which discovering your true self and talents is the goal. Teenager Keiko (Rina Takeda) is trained by her sushi chef father to be both a sushi chef herself and a martial arts practitioner. The exacting standards her father imposes on her – plus his disdain for the fact that she was born a girl, not a boy – lead Keiko to run away from home and take up a job as a waitress at a rural hot springs resort. The other waitresses bully her and the resort owners kick her around roughly and warn her to maintain the place’s high (chortle) standards. Only the gardener Mr Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki) treats her kindly. A group of corporate employees from a pharmaceutical firm arrives at the resort and the guests start throwing their weight about as well. Unbeknownst to all, a former employee has followed his erstwhile work colleagues to the resort, planning to avenge his sacking on his former bosses by injecting a liquid into sushi that turns the tasty morsels into fanged ravenous critters with the power of flight!

The computer-generated gore flies freely and bloodily and the fight sequences are perhaps a little too sharp and smooth in their choreography. Most characters are as one-dimensional and stereotyped as can be – even Keiko isn’t completely plausible as the shy, put-upon doormat who becomes an unexpected heroine – and director Iguchi has to continually pile on one send-up or cliche on top of another to keep the film going. The victims of the mutant sushi turn into rice-spewing zombies, the angry researcher transforms into a giant tuna monster, two pieces of sushi propagate an army of killer baby sushi balls (which later make for a beautiful spectacle of whizzing colour as they attack a human victim) and a giant salmon roe sushi battleship flies after Keiko flinging chains and blasting fire at her!

What helps to keep the movie going, aside from the pace and the ratcheting up of more jaw-dropping silliness, is a sub-plot involving the resort owners and the sushi chef they employ, along with themes of corporate corruption and the eventual triumph of good over evil. Underdogs, be they human or sushi, perform heroic deeds and sacrifice themselves if necessary to thwart evil. No-one associated with the film, least of all the cast and the director, takes it all that seriously and the general tone is light-hearted. The film ends on a happy note with both the corporate baddies and the monster sushi brought to heel and Keiko finally discovering her life’s purpose. For all the silly fun and jaw-dropping freakishness, the film cleverly skewers plenty of cultural stereotypes in modern Japanese society: the obsession with perfection in food preparation that amounts to gastro-pornography, the control that corporations have over their employees, and men’s sexist treatment of women, among others. Like Iguchi’s other gonzo freak-fest “RoboGeisha” which I reviewed not so long ago, “Dead Sushi” in its own way critiques contemporary Japanese society and values by throwing its obsessions at it and exploiting them to the hilt.

Ugetsu: a parable of two men in pursuit of fame and glory, with social justice themes

Kenji Mizoguchi, “Ugetsu” (1953)

Two interwined morality plays about peasants blinded by thoughts of personal fame and glory are the basis for an exploration of love, loss and the importance of community and working together in this sumptuous historical drama. The story of Tobei and Genjuro is set during a period of civil war and instability in mediaeval Japan. Tobei, a farmer, dreams of becoming a samurai and Genjuro is obsessed with becoming a master maker of pottery, selling his wares and enriching himself and his family. A skirmish of samurai employed by a local landlord gives Tobei and Genjuro the opportunity to escape their ravaged village and realise their dreams.

The tale of Tobei is very straightforward, centred around the foolish Tobei himself and his long-suffering wife who pays a heavy penalty for her husband’s ambitions. The story could have ended very badly for Mr and Mrs Tobei but at the end they are still together … and moreover, living quite happily ever after. Genjuro’s story is as complicated as the character himself: taking his ceramics to sell in a market town, Genjuro encounters the mysterious aristocratic Lady Wakasa who invites him to stay at her family mansion. As you might guess, Genjuro and Lady Wakasa become a little too friendly with each other and Genjuro forgets that he has a wife and son waiting for him at him. A mendicant monk disabuses Genjuro of any fancy notions about living with Lady Wakasa as man and wife and Genjuro finally realises that Lady Wakasa and her retinue are ghosts. Sadder and wiser, he goes home only to discover that his wife has been killed by soldiers, leaving their son behind.

Both Tobei and Genjuro’s stories can be read as parables on the folly of men trying to achieve dreams and ideals beyond their talents or abilities to control, and the suffering they cause to their wives and children. On one level, the film can be read as essentially conservative, in urging people to accept their places in society according to their abilities and skills. On another level, the film warns that individuals who try the play the system for material profit risk being destroyed by forces against which all their own intelligence, skills and wiles are bound to fail – because the system is rigged against them. Certainly Tobei comes across as a stereotypically foolish dreamer who lacks insight and who fails to understand that to become a samurai, one needs to be born into the right social class and have the means to pay for intensive weapons training, learning how to fight and how to plan military strategy. As for Genjuro, a more intelligent man on the other hand, his materialist greed and lack of concern for his wife and child separate him from his family and put him in spiritual danger and his loved ones into danger from the chaos and violence of war. While Tobei and his wife survive simply by sheer luck, and one is unsure as to whether Tobei has truly learnt his lesson, Genjuro’s family is much harder hit – yet his suffering and his son’s suffering have an unexpected benefit as the wife’s spirit becomes an inspiration to Genjuro to refine and improve his pottery-making skills, and concentrate on creating pottery of intrinsic beauty rather than pottery aimed at pleasing others and for monetary profit.

The suffering that Tobei’s wife is subjected to as a result of his folly – and the tragedy of Genjuro’s wife – highlights the social injustices women were forced to endure in traditional Japanese society. Even an aristocratic woman such as Lady Wakasa is denied the freedom to live and love as a human, and has to become a ghost in order to experience the full range of human experiences.

The film has a smooth gliding quality that enables the ordinary and the supernatural to co-exist and allows a fairy-tale featuring ghosts to deliver a message about the suffering political instability (represented by civil war) and socio-economic hierarchies cause to working-class people and their families. While the editing is sometimes slower than most Western audiences would prefer and the film’s conclusion tends to drag, the narrative weaves from Tobei’s story to Genjuro’s story and back easily and smoothly. The horror provided by the ghost story sub-plot is stealthy and insidious rather than overt, and viewers get the impression that Genjuro is very lucky to escape Lady Wakasa with his life and soul intact.

The film is often cited as one of Japan’s greatest movies though I sometimes wonder whether the social justice aspects of the film make much impression among its fans.

A socialist revolutionary parable and story of Buddhist compassion in “Yuki: Snow Fairy”

Tadashi Imai, “Yuki: Snow Fairy” (1981)

In the hands of Tadashi Imai, notable as a director of social realist films in Japan in the 1950s / 1960s, the novel by children’s author Ryusuke Saito becomes a socialist revolutionary parable. Thirteen-year-old snow spirit Yuki is entrusted by her heavenly grandparents with saving a village in mediaeval Japan from robbers and rapacious samurai over a twelve-month period, after which time, if she fails, she will turn into an insubstantial grey puff of smoke. Yuki descends to earth and is befriended by orphan girl Hana who leads her to her adoptive family of other orphaned beggar children led by the one-eyed, one-legged patriarch Only One. The beggars hang about the village whose farmers pay rent to local landlord Goemon. Almost as soon as Yuki becomes known in the village, a gang of robbers attacks but Yuki is able to best their leader thanks to her ability to tame and ride Goemon’s high-strung colt Blizzard. The farmers and Goemon’s hired samurai are able to drive the robbers away.

Next thing you know, after the summer rice harvest Goemon raises the taxes the farmers must pay and this leads to a revolt against him. Goemon flees but Yuki and the beggar children pursue him and the chase leads to Goemon’s ignominious death at the bottom of a cliff. The farmers rejoice that they have overthrown their oppressor and are now able to govern themselves but a series of earthquakes shakes their confidence and leads them to wonder if Goemon’s invocation to the Demon God to rain disaster on them is having effect. At this point Yuki realises that the farmers are faltering in their belief that they can be self-governing and determines to battle the Demon God herself – though this confrontation is certain to kill her …

The social realist slant of the film’s plot is noteworthy: significantly Yuki doesn’t appear to do a great deal apart from being an inspirational role model and catalyst but that’s the point of her mission: to show humans the path to their liberation and allow them to seize their destiny and work towards freedom. Gifts are best appreciated when blood, sweat and tears are exerted in the effort to obtain them. The farmers overcome their fears at upsetting the social hierarchy but become emboldened as they realise that by working together they can defeat the robbers and get rid of Goemon. Once the Demon God intervenes on behalf of lackey Goemon, the farmers are trapped by superstition and pagan belief and Yuki realises that the psychological warfare waged by elites against the common people can be as dangerous and deadly as physical warfare. She then determines to battle the Demon God, no matter what the consequences may be for her, to free the villagers and her friends from the internal mental fetters that Goemon has placed on them to keep them under control.

The film can also be read as an example of Buddhist compassion and empathy for one’s fellow humans: Yuki resembles a bodhisattva returned to earth to help others overcome negative karma and work towards their own enlightenment. Only when one is emptied of all selfish attachments and desires, when one is prepared to sacrifice oneself for others, is nirvana possible.

The plot is easy and straightforward to follow and its pace is fairly brisk. There are stereotypical characters in the film but they never seem limited and one-dimensional in what they do and say, and Yuki herself gives the impression of being self-possessed and having reserves of inner strength. She certainly needs all that strength when she confronts the Demon God. Other characters can be fun and child viewers can readily identify with Hana and the other beggar children. The film’s delivery is so matter-of-fact and business-like that one barely blinks an eye at the schmaltzy pop music that plays while Yuki and her fellow mendicant minors travel through treacherous mountain territory to find and confront the villagers’ ultimate oppressor.

While the film’s look has dated somewhat and can be placed in the late 1970s / early 1980s, its unfailing optimism, hilarious child characters and detailed shots of nature and people hard at work cultivating and harvesting the rice in ways typical of rural Japan hundreds of years ago are sure to appeal to all age groups and pique interest in the history and culture of pre-modern Japan.

Onibaba: a psychological horror study with an anti-war theme

Kaneto Shindo, “Onibaba” (1964)

An old Japanese Buddhist tale of a woman who uses a mask to frighten her daughter from visiting a temple becomes in Kaneto Shindo’s hands a psychological study of a post-apocalyptic society in which people crushed by warfare and poverty exist as best as they can but are undone by the stresses of day-to-day living and the repressed emotions and tensions generated which can explode in unexpected ways. The film is set in mediaeval Japan during a period of civil war and widespread destruction; the capital Kyoto has been set ablaze and two rival Emperors are vying for power and control. Peasants have been recruited by daimyo to fight for either Emperor or the Ashikaga shogun family. Two women, the mother (Nobuko Otawa) of one such peasant and his young wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have fled into swampy countryside where, hidden by tall seas of grass, they eke out a living killing and robbing lone samurai and selling their armour and swords to a merchant who pays them in bags of millet.

One day, a soldier peasant, Hachi (Kei Sato), returns from the wars: the mother immediately plies him with questions about her son Kichi and Hachi replies that he is dead. Hachi sets up his hut not far from where the mother and daughter-in-law live and eventually he seduces the daughter-in-law and invites her to live with him. The mother, dependent on her daughter-in-law to help in killing samurai, offers herself to Hachi once she realises what is going on but Hachi is not interested. The mother tries to prevent the younger woman from visiting Hachi every night but her efforts exhaust her.

One night while the daughter-in-law is out with Hachi, the mother meets a lost samurai (Jukichi Uno) who wears a demon mask. The samurai tells the mother the mask is necessary as he has a beautiful face that is not for peasants to see. The samurai forces the mother on pain of death to lead him out of the swamps but she tricks him into falling down a large hole where the women usually lure their victims. Once she is sure that he is dead, the mother descends into the hole to retrieve his armour and swords, and with effort takes the mask off his face. She sees that the samurai is severely disfigured.

The demon mask gives the mother an idea of how to control her wayward daughter-in-law and for the first few times she succeeds in stopping the girl from visiting Hachi by putting the fear of demons into her. Unfortunately an unexpected rainstorm enables the girl to escape and creates another problem for the mother with the mask …

The film may be very slow for some viewers but the pace helps to build up unbearable tension, especially unbearable sexual tension, gradually and relentlessly. The main actors do a fine job in expressing their fears of isolation and loneliness, and their need for connection and love, through their expressions, actions and dialogue, minimal though these are. The mother’s sexual frustrations and jealousy lead her to deny her daughter-in-law the chance of fulfillment with Hachi, even though he is a drunk and a sleaze, and these emotions transform the older woman into the demon hag of the film’s title. The film’s swampland setting, dominated by restless waving forests of susuki grass, and with its lone tree and the vagina-like hole that promises death to high-born samurai but gives life to the peasant women, reflects the sexual frustrations of its main characters and becomes a significant character in its own right. The music soundtrack which ranges from improvised jazz bebop to ritual drumming adds to the feeling of unease and tension.

Some audiences may be perturbed by the macabre grand-guignol climax which turns the film into uncomfortable comedy, completely at odds with its otherwise realist themes. The film’s conclusion comes quickly and is deliberately left open-ended. The one thing we can be sure of is that chaos will follow: the vagina-like hole, which had received male victims of wealth and status, might now receive an impoverished female victim and what cosmic disruption might now be caused by a new imbalance in nature can only be guessed at.

The film derives its impact and horror from the characters’ psychology, the stresses, inner conflicts and tensions they experience and the actions that result with their devastating consequences. Stunning black-and-white cinematography, an arch music soundtrack and a minimal style that throws emphasis on character development help turn a bare-bones story into an unforgettable work of art. Few other films showing how a debased society at war and the pressures of poverty and uncertainty it creates can lead to people treating one another in the most dreadful ways can match “Onibaba” for drama and impact.

The Red Turtle: a pretty and glossy package with a conservative and banal message

Michaël Dudok de Wiet, “The Red Turtle” (2016)

God save us all from pretty packages with lots of high gloss finish and finicky attention to detail that ultimately reveal very little of substance to sustain for a long time. The latest such trinket is Michaël Dudok de Wiet’s animated film “The Red Turtle” which he wrote and directed with the support of Studio Ghibli and French-German distributor Wild Bunch. The film wears its influences openly: the background animation reflects the high level of technical care and attention that Studio Ghibli gives to the appearance of its films while the film’s characters show a French influence in their simple features that emphasise their generic nature.

The plot is simple and vague enough as to form a parable of sorts. A man is lost at sea during a storm and washes up on a remote island somewhere in a vast ocean. He attempts to leave the island by building a raft out of bamboo trees he finds on the island at least three times and each time he is thwarted by a force that smashes the raft’s logs from below once out at sea. This strange force turns out to be a red turtle which incurs the castaway’s wrath. The turtle climbs out of the water onto the island beach, at which point the angry castaway overturns the animal onto its back, leaving it helpless and exposed to dehydrating heat. The creature dies and the castaway, overcome with remorse, covers it in bamboo branches and leaves.

The dead animal transforms into a woman and from then on the pair find love and play happy family, bringing up a son to adulthood. The trio appear to encounter very few problems during the long years they have together, the biggest being a giant tsunami that engulfs the island and leaves it completely devastated.

Problems abound with the film’s paper-sliver thin narrative and the message it is trying to tell. Everything is so generic – even the island is generic (we can’t even tell if the island is a tropical one or one in a more temperate climate zone) – that audiences will have a hard time identifying with the characters and their issues. The island itself could have been a significant character in testing the castaway’s resilience, moral and spiritual as well as physical, and in helping him to learn something about himself. Unfortunately the island setting and its inhabitants remain passive players in the entire movie. The turtle woman is hardly more active than the island: she merely plays a stereotypical good wife to the castaway. If she teaches him anything about how to accept his fate and how to live in harmony and peace with nature and to find his niche in the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth, none of this is made obvious to viewers who have to infer all these notions for themselves.

The view of woman as being at one with nature, represented by the ease with which the turtle woman emerges from her carapace in human form and returns to her original form decades later, is a tired stereotype that should have been consigned to the dust-bin decades ago. It is a dangerous and demeaning stereotype that denies women their intelligence, qualities and distinctiveness as individuals, and puts men in opposition to nature from the moment of their birth: a deterministic and narrow view of humans that takes gender for granted instead of treating it as a cultural construct. At the end of the film, all that the castaway has learned from his island experiences is that his role in life is to find a wife, raise a family and let his son go out into the world to repeat the same banal cycle.

Ultimately the film carries a very conservative and depressing message about humans and their connections to the natural world and their place in the cycle of life. Nature is mysterious and unknowable, and humans can do no more than accept this idea and submit without complaint to the natural world’s whims, as represented by the suddenness of the tsunami that smashes into the island. (Er, shouldn’t the turtle woman with her deep knowledge of the natural world have received sufficient advance warning from earth tremors to warn her men to build a raft and put out to sea before the tsunami arrived?) The possibility of humans being partners with Nature and maintaining a balance between their interests and the restrictions of the natural world does not even occur. Those viewers anticipating that the film might address philosophical issues of existence and life’s purpose will be astonished that the plot has no time for such questions.

I don’t like to say that a film has been a waste of time to watch but with “The Red Turtle”, I’ve lost 80 minutes of time that could have been better spent doing something else. The film itself could have been condensed into much less time than it took to tell its story.

RoboGeisha: a quirky and outrageous sci-fi film with a message of love, connection and reconciliation

Noboru Iguchi, “RoboGeisha” (2009)

For a film about two sisters and their love-hate relationship, “RoboGeisha” offers more than just the usual floods of tears, emotional declamations of undying loyalty and a climactic reconciliation in which the siblings united save the world from being wiped out by a nuclear bomb. Anyone keen on an army of bikini-clad cyborg bimbo ninja soldiers who shoot burning-hot milk from their nipples and shurikens from their bums at enemies? Who’s dead set on watching a geisha transform herself into a racing hot-rod or a flying mini-jet chasing a giant pagoda castle robot intent on chucking a nuclear bomb down Mount Fuji? “RoboGeisha” has all this, and much more.

Well yeah, the story is very thin and hardly makes much sense so let’s get it out of the way quickly. Maiko (trainee geisha) Kikuyakko and her younger sister Yoshie (Aya Kiguchi), also a maiko, meet a mysterious client Hikaru who is the son of the founder and head of Kagero Steel, a giant zaibatsu-like corporation. Needing new blood for his army of geisha girl soldiers, Hikaru spots fighting potential in Yoshie, an otherwise shy and unassertive girl constantly bullied by Kikuyakko. Through extreme training and body modifications, Kikuyakko and Yoshie become fearsome fighting machines. They are sent out on various missions to kill enemies of Kagero Steel … until Yoshie is given the job of obliterating a group of elderly people. She learns that the pensioners have all lost their daughters and grand-daughters to Kagero Steel and that Kagero Steel is planning to destroy Tokyo – and maybe all of Japan – by dumping a nuclear bomb into Fujiyama and causing that dormant volcano to become active again.

The geisha cyborg gimmick wears out very quickly after the first scene in a geisha house and so Iguchi and his screenwriters throw in every outrageous joke and cliché they can think of. The female body as a metaphor for what men fear about women’s body fluids is, er, milked for all it’s worth. Just when you think the film-makers have exhausted every wacky device and avenue to hold viewers’ attention, they deliver a tour de force of a giant walking castle that wades into Tokyo and karate-chops down office buildings which (inexplicably) gush human blood while frightened crowds mill about and run for their lives. Where is Godzilla when you need him?

The acting is as embarrassing as having your face filled with those bum shurikens though Kiguchi manages to acquit herself as the cyborg geisha who still loves her sister in spite of everything the older girl has done to her and who transforms herself into a hot-rod racer and flying machine without falling over laughing. Good use of spinning cinematography compensates for the failed acting but the film also relies too much on cheap CGI which gives it more of a cartoony look than it should have for a campy B-grade film that at its core has a message about the importance of love and connection.

What makes the film work in spite of all the cheese is its hidden plea for families and siblings to stick together thick and thin, and for adults to care more for their children. If children are deprived of parental love and left to their own devices, they may end up joining a bad crowd or become hateful and jealous people. Self-sacrifice for one’s family and nation and working and striving together as a team – both very Japanese values – are also key themes. The film has a wide-eyed innocent naivety that makes the comedy work. Even crude and apparently sexist jokes come across more as absurd rather than knowing and derogatory.

On a certain level, the film celebrates and sends up Japanese institutions and values, and mocks itself as well, and this aspect is likely to ensure it continued cult status as a sort of quirky social commentary.

I Live in Fear: a portrait of society in denial of looming nuclear attack disaster

Akira Kurosawa, “I Live in Fear” (1955)

I must admit to not being very impressed with this film: it seems like an over-long and overwrought soap opera with hammy performances and a rather cheap look. At the very least the tag team of director Kurosawa and star actor Toshiro Mifune prove they can do more than pop out one hero-samurai film after another. Though the film may be rather dated in some respects, it is most noteworthy for its social commentary on the institution of family in Japanese society and as a snapshot of Japanese society and public attitudes in the aftermath of World War II and the atomic bomb hits on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Mifune plays ageing industrialist Kiichi Nakajima who is terrified that Japan will soon be targeted for nuclear attack (again) to the extent that he is determined to move his entire extended family, including two mistresses and their children, and another child by a third mistress who is no longer alive, to Brazil where he is trying to buy a farm in São Paulo state. Not surprisingly his children are all upset for various reasons at having to be moved and they are convinced that Dad has gone raving mad. As a result everyone is at loggerheads with one another and the whole affair is referred to third-party mediation. Dentist Dr Harada (Takashi Shimura) tries to listen to and understand all sides’ points of view, but he cannot stop Nakajima from destroying his business or the adult children from dumping him in a mental asylum.

Kurosawa’s film deftly exposes the adult children’s greed and selfishness in wanting to stay in Japan and bickering over their father’s fortune. They are exposed as lazy parasites who think only of themselves and never give a fig about what may happen in the future. Nakajima as played by Mifune is an intense, almost monomaniacal figure: one can appreciate how he must have single-mindedly built up his business with sheer force of will and hard work, and how he drives his workers like a slave-master. Obviously accustomed to being obeyed without question, he is at a loss at how to deal with his children’s rebellion.

The family conflict is a microcosm of the tensions existing in 1950s Japan between an older generation who believed in hard work and absolute obedience to the Emperor and the political elite, and a younger generation that’s politically cynical and more interested in living for today rather than working towards a better future. Into this cauldron Kurosawa throws in a few stereotypes: the compassionate mediator; the young mistress with Nakajima’s latest child, a small baby; and a young teenage boy, another illegitimate offspring, who is loyal to Nakajima. Funny how for all his paranoia about what will happen to Japan, Nakajima still keeps fathering more children.

The whole action takes place in a society where the vast majority of people appear not to care what might or might not happen and who carry on with their lives as if living in an eternal present. Whether they don’t care or are in denial of the future and suppressing their fears is not known; only Nakajima has mentally come out of Plato’s cave and seen the light, and this revelation threatens to drive him insane. Indeed, he does go mad when someone points out that in the event of a nuclear attack, Brazil would not be spared the after-effects and this gives Nakajima’s children the opportunity to appeal to the court which gives them the permit they need to have him admitted to the asylum.

For all its shortcomings, the film is worth watching as a portrayal of a society in denial about a future catastrophe it is helpless to prevent and as an examination of how individuals aware of such a danger might live their lives. Some, like Nakajima, will try to flee and persuade others to come with them, at risk to their sanity and health; others perhaps might try to awaken society and work towards preparing to confront the looming disaster and minimise the potential damage.

The film might have worked better (if more stereotypically) if Shimura’s character Dr Harada had been the main character and the family dispute presented with the two sides appearing to be evenly balanced; the children’s prejudices and selfish motivations could have been exposed more gradually, and the father’s rationality coming as the climax. Dr Harada would have been the individual forced to make a decision as to whether to remain in denial (and stay in Plato’s cave) or to see the light and deal with the consequences of doing so.

Spirited Away: a lavish film representing the peak of Studio Ghibli’s creativity and the start of its decline

Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” (2001)

In many ways, “Spirited Away” represents the peak of Studio Ghibli’s creativity and innovation, and the beginning of its decline as a creator of imaginative anime films aimed at children and families. Technically the film cannot be faulted and its production values are very high, colourful and lavish, even overdone. Its narrative is easy to follow and its theme of a young girl who learns responsibility and caring for others, and who matures a great deal during her Alice-in-Wonderland adventures, will be apparent to most people. There is a definite message about caring for the natural environment and a condemnation of capitalist society and the ways in which it corrupts people with easy wealth. At the same time, I feel that the film lacks zest and a carefree quality that was present in earlier Studio Ghibli films like “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, and that the plot’s resolution gives it a suffocating circular hermetic quality and condemns its young heroine Chihiro to living in a world that will deny her further spiritual and moral development.

Chihiro is delivered unexpectedly into the fantasy world by her parents when they lose their way to their new home in a new semi-rural community and stop at the wall of what they believe is a theme park. The three enter the place and the parents come across a sumptuous buffet which they tuck into without hesitation. The adults are turned into pigs and Chihiro is forced to appeal to strangers such as a young boy called Haku within the fortress for help. The fortress is actually a bath-house for spirits and to survive, Chihiro has to apply for a job there. Her employer is the witch Yubaba who steals the girl’s name on the contract and forces her to answer to the name of Sen. Sen is forced to undertake the toughest and dirtiest jobs such as helping a filthy river god to bath and divest itself of accumulated pollution and junk (with hilarious results) but almost comes a cropper when she allows a mysterious spirit called No Face to enter the bath-house and cause havoc and chaos when it tries to buy her affections with gold it conjures up and instead turns into a voracious monster gobbling up food and bath-house staff alike.

By chance and through the kindness of the other bath-house employees, Sen learns that Yubaba has Haku under an evil spell and she breaks the spell by returning a stolen gold seal to Yubaba’s kindly identical twin sister Zeniba. To do this, she has to travel all day and all night by train over a vast sea with No Face who has sobered up from his manic eating and vomiting spree. She helps Yubaba’s spoilt sumo-wrestler baby as well and the baby becomes an ally of hers. Through her ordeals and adventures, Sen learns love and discovers the true nature of Haku, and together they work to break her contract with Yubaba and force Yubaba to restore her true name and release her parents from their porcine forms before they are sent to the abattoir.

Some parts of the plot are a bit wonky – it’s never clear as to why Chihiro’s parents start munching away on food in an apparently abandoned restaurant, and Chihiro’s own transformation from spoilt brat to dependable young woman, and the admiration and respect she gains as a result from the other bath-house workers, is a bit too speedy for my liking – but the plot is clear enough and proceeds leisurely and gracefully from start to finish. Japanese cultural tradition is laid very thickly and the nostalgia that Miyazaki feels for a lost pre-1867 world is very real. Haku’s transformation from boy to dragon and back again hints at a shamanist past in Japan. Quirky Japanese humour is evident in such characters as the giant crybaby sumo-wrestler child and the guide that takes Chihiro and No Face to Zeniba’s cottage.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the film’s richly layered style, the didactic messages it delivers and its conservative view of the world, “Spirited Away” seems very overwrought for a story that probably needs a more minimalist style. The initial shock of seeing the huge bath-house and the unusual clients it attracts gives way to the mundane realisation that Yubaba’s workers are as much exploited and trapped as Chihiro and Haku are – yet in all the shenanigans the two youngsters are forced to undergo, there’s no indication that they want to or try to help the workers overthrow their tyrannical employer and institute a form of workers’ democracy. Perhaps it’s too much to expect a 10-year-old girl and an equally young water spirit (not to mention all the other nature spirits who patronise the bath-house) to know anything much about socialism and lead a revolution that will throw out Yubaba and force her either to treat the workers fairly or to go into exile. This means that at the end of the film, Chihiro is reunited with two adults who learn nothing from their error and are completely oblivious to their daughter’s new ways, and it would seem that the bath-house will continue to labour under Yubaba’s capricious rule. Chihiro and Haku part in a way that suggests they will never see each other again, though Haku may continue to think about the girl and treasure his memories of her.

The film perhaps would have worked better if Chihiro and Haku had been older, and a real love story allowed to develop between the two. The two by their example would have inspired the bath-house workers to rise up against Yubaba and send her packing. Chihiro’s parents would have been allowed to make amends for their greed and everyone would have learned something about the nature of the capitalist society that encourages selfishness, undermines loyalty and co-operation, and ultimately corrodes traditional Japanese values and customs. The ending could have been … well, open-ended, with Chihiro and her parents on the brink of choosing whether to return to their humdrum suburban lives working for The Man or remain in a vivid world that promises real values and a more authentic way of living and being.

Kakekomi: historical soap opera drama labouring under several sub-plots to tackle serious social issues

Masato Harada, “Kakekomi Onna to Kakedashi Otoko” (2015)

A light-hearted historical drama set in Japan during the early 1840s, “Kakekomi …” combines comedy with some social criticism of contemporary Japan’s economic austerity policies and their effects on more vulnerable members of society. Based on a novel “Tokeiji Hanayadori” by Hisashi Inoue, the film’s plot revolves around the plight of women who desire to escape unhappy or dysfunctional marriages to abusive and violent men. Jogo (Erika Toda) is a young working-class woman who flees her slave-driver husband’s iron foundry when she hears of the Buddhist temple at Tokeiji which takes in women wishing to leave their marriages on the condition that they spend two years working on tasks set for them by the monks and nuns there. On her way to Tokeiji, Jogo meets O-gin (Hikari Mitsushima), a courtesan who has left a rich merchant and who is also on her way to Tokeiji. They enter the temple together and under the kindly yet watchful supervision of motherly Genbei and the head nun commence their 24-month working stint. Being of the lower social orders, Jogo performs the more menial tasks while O-gin, who had offered to pay for Jogo to undertake sewing, is shoved into working at less physical and more refined tasks. They are soon joined by Yu (Rina Uchiyama), a woman of the samurai classes who has fled her alcoholic and violent husband and who intends to avenge her dead father, killed by hubby. (What a lovely fellow.)

Tokeiji temple relies a great deal on its doctor Shinjiro Nakamura (Yo Oizumi) who nurses a desire to become a published writer and who provides much comedy relief in sticky situations where he bluffs his way through with clever wit and brazen bravado. And sticky situations come, one after the other: O-gin sickens from terminal tuberculosis and another woman suffers from a false pregnancy. Shinjiro must treat both patients without looking at them under temple rules. Yu’s husband threatens to come and kill her. Shinjiro and Jogo become attracted to each other but must conduct their romance clandestinely, since Jogo must not look at men during her 2-year confinement. Shinjiro nearly comes a cropper at the hands of O-gin’s jealous lover and his hired thugs. In the meantime, the local governor Torii, intent on enforcing a severe and authoritarian rule over his territory, shuts down restaurants and entertainment venues. He tries to shut down Tokeiji temple and forcing all the women there to return to their husbands by hiring a woman to pose as another unhappy wife and in that disguise report on any scandals of nuns or inmates falling pregnant, that could be used as pretexts to close the place.

The film strains under its several sub-plots but manages to tie them and resolve them all in its last half-hour. The plot is sometimes confusing and fragmented, with some sub-plots very weakly developed and settled in quite implausible ways. The sub-plot with the mole barely lasts a few minutes and the mole quickly disappears from the rest of the film. The slapstick comedy does become tiresome but at the same time it provides relief from tensions that build up in the plot’s attempts to tackle serious issues such as mental illness, death, corruption, domestic violence and survival in a repressive society that treats its women badly. The temple is a microcosm of the wider society and Jogo finds she is not completely free of abuse from other women who look down on her.

In spite of the considerable obstacles placed before them, Shinjiro and Jogo do eventually walk off to a happy future together, and their efforts make manifest the film’s message that with the passage of time, social change can and does bring freedom and hope for a better life if people work, learn and study together.

What character development exists is limited to Jogo’s growth from a frightened and much put-upon girl into a self-confident and mature young woman; the other characters, even Shinjiro, remain static. The acting ranges from excellent to utilitarian. The cinematography pays much attention to nature and the passage of time as reflected in the passing seasons, and to the lavish settings of the film. The film works well as a historical soap opera dealing with a particular institution that helped one downtrodden section of society, one largely forgotten by most Japanese after the Meiji restoration in 1867.