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.

A Samurai Chronicle: an earnest and heavy-going lesson in how to live a good life with grace, compassion and humility

Takashi Koizumi, “A Samurai Chronicle” (2014)

I’m afraid that these days the Japanese just don’t make samurai dramas the way they used to, with devil-may-care flair and an eye for stunningly choreographed sword-fighting action, and a simple story and moral to justify the flashy chang-a-chang violence and high body counts. “A Samurai Chronicle” is an earnest and heavy-going investigation of what real honour should mean to a samurai, and how a samurai should use his fighting skills in helping and defending the weak, the poor and those oppressed and exploited by the rich and powerful. Young samurai Danno Shozaburo (Junichi Okada), in trouble for having picked a fight with another young hot-headed fellow and drawn his sword in his lord’s castle, is dispatched by the head of his clan to assist and spy on Toda Shokaku (Koji Yashudo) who was exiled to his property seven years ago for apparently having insulted Lord Nakane by interfering with his concubine and killing a bunch of retainers. The punishment is seppuku (ritual suicide) but the lord gives Toda ten years’ grace to write a history of their clan’s lineage. Toda retires to his rural villa to do so and the matter that led to his exile is hushed up. It is Danno’s job to make sure that Toda keeps on working on the family history and genealogy, and that when the man’s time is up, he does not try to avoid his punishment.

For three years then Danno lives with Toda’s family and becomes a close friend of Toda and his bold and headstrong adolescent children. At first surprised that Toda engages in farming and treats the local villagers as his equals, Danno gradually takes up agricultural labour himself and follows the family members in their interactions with the villagers, and discovers that he enjoys working around the farm and meeting people unlike himself and learning about their lives and troubles. The villagers are harassed by moneylenders wanting loans repaid and the corrupt commissioner who visits them and makes threats against them. (He is later killed by two of the villagers.) At the same time, Danno decides to learn more about the incident that disgraced Toda and makes a series of discoveries about the incident that suggest Toda is innocent of indiscretion against the concubine (who has now become a nun), and that the cover-up was done to get rid of the concubine’s young son and to protect and keep secret the false genealogy of Lord Nakane’s wife so that her son Yoshiyuki would succeed Lord Nakane as clan head.

The plot is quite complicated and doesn’t leave much room for character development so viewers will find Danno’s character and maturation from willful fighter to thoughtful leader rather flat and subdued. His romance with Toda’s daughter is equally sketchy to the point of being non-existent. Indeed all characters remain much the same throughout and are little more than stereotypes. Toda accepts his fate graciously, even happily, and the impending death obviously has influenced his outlook on life and how he lives it. Danno strives to achieve justice for Toda but eventually has to accept that all his efforts are in vain. Even so, the film ends on quite a happy note as Toda’s son Ikutaro comes of age and accepts leadership of the family in spite of his youth, and Danno marries Toda’s daughter. The villagers’ lot is still heavy but their burden is somewhat lightened thanks to Ikutaro and Danno’s intercession with their clan leader on behalf of young village boy Genkichi who takes the brunt of the punishment meant for his dad Manji for the murder of the commissioner.

The film can be beautiful to watch though scenes of nature indicating the passage of time have become something of a cliche in Japanese historical films. The action tends to be lumbering rather than light and each scene seems bogged down with layers of messages about honour, helping others, being courageous, taking action and how samurai folks ideally should behave. At times the film seems to be a didactic travelogue through traditional Japanese culture, and perhaps it is for young Japanese people ignorant of their history as much as for curious Westerners. There is also a critical attitude towards public pretence for the sake of preserving people’s reputations and not upsetting the social order, even if that means innocent people end up suffering severe punishment. Above all through the character of Toda Shokaku, the film says something about how one should live a life of grace and compassion, and use one’s talents and abilities to the full to help others when one’s time on Earth is finite.

Perhaps the film might have worked better as a two-part or three-part mini-series to enable better character development and allow viewers time to absorb the messages. The romance sub-plot and other sub-plots would have had a better chance to evolve. As it is, “A Samurai Chronicle” comes across as rather strained and a bit dull.

The Makioka Sisters: a flat commentary on tradition and modernisation alike through a soap opera plot

Kon Ichikawa, “The Makioka Sisters” (1983)

Admittedly this is a beautifully shot film and its style is very graceful but even the skill and experience of a director like Kon Ichikawa – who lacks the flair of a Kurosawa or a Mizoguchi – can’t hide the fact that the source material novel by Junichiro Tanizaki is an extended soap opera. From what I’ve read about the film, it follows the novel quite faithfully. The film revolves around the activities of four sisters living in Japan in the late 1930s, during a period of greater militarisation in the country, though if you’re not paying deep attention, the historical background can escape you as the main characters tend to ignore events around them but are obsessed with maintaining family traditions and status. In that aspect of the plot alone, one theme of the film is people’s preoccupation with fading traditions and customs to the extent that they completely ignore political, cultural and economic changes around them until too late the results of those changes hit them hard and force the abandonment of the very rituals that had been sedulously cultivated over and over.

The older Makioka sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko, both married to men of lower class who have taken their surname, busy themselves with finding a suitable husband for their third sister, Yukiko, who is painfully shy and who prefers the company of Sachiko’s young daughter Etsuko. The fourth and youngest of the Makioka sisters, Taeko, cannot marry until Yukiko is disposed of appropriately, so she spends her time making dolls in her studio and rejecting the advances of dissolute ex-boyfriend Okubata. She becomes attracted to photographer Itakura, of whom her older sisters disapprove because of his lower class background. Itakura dies from an ailment and Okubata tries to pressure Taeko to return to him. Taeko rejects Okubata emphatically and becomes involved with a bartender, Miyoshi, whom her sisters eventually accept because at least he is honest and hard-working. Meanwhile Yukiko is introduced to various prospective suitors, all of whom are twice her age, and nearly all of whom are found wanting in some way.

The film traces the decline of a once-prosperous merchant family and its eventual break-up: Tsuruko must follow her husband to Tokyo after he is promoted at work and this transfer forces her and her husband to rent out the Makioka family mansion for who knows long. Sachiko’s husband Teinosuke is an ineffectual clerk lacking in leadership qualities who has an eye for pretty ladies and is not really looking forward to Yukiko leaving his household in the event that she accepts a marriage proposal. Tradition and custom clash with the realities of a changing, Westernising society, and not always for the better.

The plot seems quite fragmented, with plot strands developing but being resolved off-screen, which may annoy Western viewers. At one point in the film Okubata threatens to blackmail Teinosuke and Sachiko and create a scandal over money he spent on buying jewellery for Taeko but the frisson this provides is very brief because the film then cuts immediately into a scene taking place in a future in which the money has been paid and Okubata has gone his own way. All characters seem to represent types and are rather one-dimensional. Male characters generally seem quite ineffectual and inadequate in some way. The women tend to be much firmer and more resolute but they waste their energy trying to preserve customs and ideas that have long outlived their usefulness and relevance.

Adherence to tradition and ritual, repeated over and over, as in the constant match-making rituals that Yukiko is forced to undergo, starts to look ridiculous. No-one ever asks Yukiko if she even wants to marry, let alone find out what kind of suitor she would prefer. The other alternative, becoming modern and finding one’s niche in the commercial world, does not look appealing either: Taeko gives up her doll-making enterprise, rejects her financial inheritance and becomes a seamstress to support herself and Miyoshi; and Tsuruko resigns herself to giving up the family mansion and its heirlooms to follow her husband to Tokyo when his employer requires his transfer as part of his job promotion. In all of this, the choices presented by the nature of the capitalist society of the period are stark and unyielding, and one must bend to the system’s demands or be left isolated and unwanted.

The film is lavish in its visual style though the use of nature-based scenes to indicate the passage of time and the impermanence of life is a well-worn stereotype in Japanese film-making; it seems ironic that a film about fading traditions that have lost their meaning through repetition should itself rely on film techniques that through over-familiarity have also become tired.

When all is said and done, the film seems very flat: a hack work by a hack director. Whatever the merits of the original novel are – it is a highly regarded work of 20th-century Japanese literature – may have disappeared in transition from page to screen. A work that appears ready-made for cinematic or television mini-series adaptation turns out to be more resistant than it first seems to be. We may read in that failure a final criticism by the novel on capitalist society.

Conflagration: a competent critique of modern Japan and an unreal quest for beauty and purity

Kon Ichikawa, “Conflagration / Enjo” (1958)

Based on the novel “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” (itself based on an actual incident) by notorious Japanese writer / actor / nationalist Yukio Mishima, this film is a character study of a young and idealistic if very flawed Buddhist acolyte in the throes of a spiritual and psychological crisis, and the behaviours that his crisis leads to, with all their tragic consequences. Goichi Mizoguchi (Raizo Ichikawa) comes from an unfortunate background: his parents have been custodians of a remote country Zen Buddhist temple that received few visitors, and to relieve the stress of poverty and isolation, Goichi’s father spoke frequently to his son of his desire for them both to visit the famous temple of the Golden Pavilion, the most beautiful object in Japan. However the elder Mizoguchi dies from illness and so Goichi journeys alone to become apprenticed as an acolyte to the head priest Dosen Tayama (Ganjiro Nakamura) who is a friend of his father’s. Though shy and suffering from a stutter, Goichi is accepted by Tayama. Tayama recognises that Goichi is diligent and has some good qualities, and hopes that the teenager will eventually succeed him as head priest: to that end, he arranges for Goichi to continue his schooling and then to attend the local university. While settling down at the temple, Goichi visits the Shukaku building, the actual focus of the temple complex, and realises that it indeed is a beautiful creation.

Goichi’s mother insinuates herself as a maid at the temple and starts to pressure her son to put his head down and tail up in the expectation that he will succeed Tayama, though there are other worthy apprentices also working at the temple. Over time, as Japan undergoes American military occupation and becomes Westernised, the temple becomes a tourist attraction, making good money, and the unworldly monks become corrupted by easy wealth and materialist desires. Tayama himself visits geishas (and gets a woman pregnant) and spends money in ways unbecoming of an austere Zen Buddhist monk. Mizoguchi’s only friend, the kindly Tsurukawa, dies in a horrible accident and his place is taken by the cynical Togari (Tatsuya Nakadai), a cripple who eggs on Mizoguchi to commit various misdemeanours that escalate in seriousness so as to offend Tayama enough that he will throw out Mizoguchi. But no matter how much Mizoguchi skips school and university, runs away, borrows money without paying back, spends his tuition fees on prostitutes or lies about accepting cigarettes from an American soldier for pushing his girlfriend and causing her to have a miscarriage, the head priest does nothing.

Eventually Mizoguchi, stressed by his mother’s demands and Togari’s manipulations, infuriated at Tayama’s silences and apparent inaction, and disappointed that the Shukaku building itself means nothing more to the monks and society at large as a money-making machine, vows to take drastic action: on a journey back to his former rural home, he remembers his father’s funeral and cremation, and there he makes the decision that will damn him for the rest of his life: he will destroy the Shukaku temple to preserve its beauty and purity from the defilements of materialism.

The film can be read as a critique of modern Japanese society, its obsession with money and materialism, and how such obsession corrupts Buddhist values. However Toyama still retains a conscience, and is troubled by his new double life: in that, there is the suggestion that no matter how corrupted and sinful one becomes, there is always the possibility of redemption if one repents and makes amends. Nakadai plays a significant role in undermining Mizoguchi with his cynicism and knowledge, but ends up a pathetic character. Mizoguchi himself, for all his idealism and potential, has a rotten core: having been bullied and spurned throughout his childhood for his stutter and background, he grows up with self-loathing and hatred, and fails to see that, in spite of their weaknesses and imperfections, Tayama and the other priests do mean well and want him to succeed.

Mizoguchi’s tragedy is that he is unable to overcome his dysfunctional family background, his resentment at his vulgar and sensuous mother for betraying his father and bullying him, and the flawed idealism, combined with revulsion for the physical senses, that both his parents inspired in him.

The bulk of the film is told in flashback form which enables significant events relevant to Mizoguchi’s final actions to be inserted into the narrative smoothly and help to escalate the tension and derangement that the young man suffers.

While the film is not very deep – Ichikawa left out much of the Zen philosophy of the novel so that the movie could appeal to a wide audience, and made his central character less conflicted and somewhat more bland than in the novel – it does a very good job of criticising Japanese society in the 1950s with its grasping nature and the potential loss of ethical values. Redemption though is always possible – but this makes the film’s final scene all the more devastating.

Becoming a legend through humility and earning grace in “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island”

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island” (1956)

Inagaki’s third and last installment in the historical fiction drama series on the life and times of master swordsman Musashi Miyamoto is a mellow and almost wistful study of the samurai’s spiritual and mental evolution as he prepares for the fight of his life against an evil challenger. At the end of the second film in the series, the samurai Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta) vows to seek out and fight Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) and this determination becomes the main focus of the third film as the two characters warily circle each other on their respective journeys through life, knowing that once they have decided to fight one another, they can’t avoid their fate. To this end, Miyamoto requests of Sasaki that he be allowed to spend a year to prepare for the fight, during which time he rejects an offer from the Shogun to train warriors and travels to a village where he devotes his life to farming and defending the villagers against feared bandits. The bandits rope in Akemi (Mariko Okada), one of Miyamoto’s rivals for his affections, to lead them to the village. Akemi’s rival, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), tracks down Miyamoto herself and joins him on his farm. This means that in addition to preparing himself psychologically for the showdown with Sasaki, Miyamoto must fight off the brigands and deal with two women jealous of one another and reconcile with Otsu. What’s an ascetic samurai to do under such circumstances? In the meantime, Sasaki lives a life of ease and easy pleasures, visiting courtesans and courting the young daughter of a noble family at Kokura.

Like its predecessors, the film includes nature as a significant character in the narrative: scenes of flowing water reflect the plot’s concern with the passage of time and past memory and hint at emotions within Miyamoto and Otsu that they are afraid to admit to themselves, much less each other. To be frank, I found the romantic sub-plot and the rivalry between Akemi and Otsu uninteresting: the two characters are too stereotyped as one-dimensional scheming bitch and helpless no-brain damsel respectively to generate any real tension. The film’s attempt to contrast Miyamoto and Sasaki through their life-styles and activities is laudable, and demonstrates Miyamoto’s down-to-earth integrity and maturity – he had formerly spurned the life of a farmer as he admits to Otsu – compared to Sasaki’s glide through fun and luxurious living.

Made for the general public, the film brushes over how and why Miyamoto adopts a more humble attitude to life. The priest who helped Otsu in the earlier films has gone and the film makes no attempt to explain any Buddhist principles that might be relevant to Miyamoto’s inner quest. We see Miyamoto being quite reluctant to fight the brigand leader and various others but the film does not explain his change of attitude from his early eagerness to prove himself. He avoids fame and celebrity but the film does not show how this desire came about. In short, if viewers want to learn something of Buddhist philosophy and what aspects of it influenced Miyamoto’s life, they will not find anything useful in the film to help.

The main glory of the film is the final battle scene between Sasaki and Miyamoto on the beach at sunrise. Framed between two trees and their canopies and branches, the fight is surprisingly swift and brisk. The end when it comes is unexpected and the victor, overcome by the momentous nature of the fight, is saddened at a life’s brief duration, cut off in its prime. Is he also sorrowful that the fight did not need to take place at all, that because of pride and an obsession with fame, a man has died unnecessarily?

The film does flow better than its predecessors and is much more focused due to its plot. Loose ends are tidied up and there is a definite sense of release and freedom at the end of the film. Miyamoto’s life quest is complete and he earns undying fame: the lesson he had to learn to become a legendary samurai was to become humble and to think of others and care for them before caring about himself and his reputation. There might be a lesson there for Japan and other nations to learn.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple – bridging two films capably with character and thematic developments

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple” (1955)

Its predecessor in the Musashi Miyamoto trilogy might have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 1954, but this second installment is a superior film in its characterisation, plotting and cinematography. The plot makes greater demands on its audience’s attention and understanding of pre-Meiji Japanese culture and Buddhist philosophy in amongst the clashing of swords in combat and a sappy love triangle. While the conventions of the American Western film genre are followed in the detail of the lone itinerant fighting hero who forswears love and a normal life in his quest for self-knowledge and understanding, these conventions are extended to embrace and illuminate Buddhist values and beliefs and to impart a message that toughness and stoicism need to be tempered with compassion and love and respect for others, especially those who are weaker than oneself.

Our man Takezo aka Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) challenges a swordfighting school led by Seijuro Yoshioka to a fight to demonstrate his skill and underline his reputation as a swordsman. The coming showdown anchors the film and focuses attention. In-between skirmishes with members of the school, keen to set an ambush for him and wear him down before he meets Seijuro, Takezo is pursued by the women Akemi and Otsu, both of whom were betrayed by Takezo’s former friend Matahachi. Takezo’s encounters with the ill-fated women and his feelings for them both are as much a battleground for him as the marshy grounds surrounding Ichijoji Temple. The biggest battlefield though turns out to be his own ego as Takezo slowly comes to realise that his pride, stubbornness and fixation with his reputation as a fighter are a cover for various inadequacies which he must deal with before he can truly be called great.

In real life, Miyamoto probably never had to contend with 80 seasoned fighters at the crack of dawn over fields of swamp but let’s not allow reality to intrude upon gritty and brutal fighting through mud and slush. As expected, Mifune performs capably as the cynical gunfighter … err, swordsman, with not too much required of his acting skills at least until a scene near the end where without words Takezo is overcome by his desire for Otsu. The supporting cast play their roles, stereotyped and one-dimensional as they are, well for the most part; an unexpected and droll little twist is provided by a courtesan’s young assistant with a breathy little girl’s voice.

The countryside becomes a significant character in the film as well with the main battle taking place in swampy, muddy territory during the dying hours of night. Scenes of nature feature throughout the film and perhaps the best use of nature comes near the end where shots of flowing water are interspersed with shots of Takezo and Otsu together, with no dialogue but the camera focused on their faces. The water alludes to the growing affections they feel for one another.

Although the movie falls far short of what the great Akira Kurosawa did with his samurai films – there’s too much melodrama, characters are flat for the most part and the various sub-plots are not handled too well with some minor characters appearing for no other reason than that they appeared in the first movie so we’d better not forget them – “… Ichijoji Temple” performs adequately as a second installment that builds on what the first film established and sets up the framework for the third movie, in which Takezo must meet and fight a swordsman who not only is his equal in skill but may even be superior to him in fighting tactics.