Category: Japanese Cinema

LFF 2021 #3: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Gûzen to sôzô, Japan 2021)

This is the highest profile film in my selection, winner of the Silver Bear at Berlin this year. I chose it partly because Nick Lacey had written about Happy Hour (2015) on this blog, the five hours plus earlier film by Hamaguchi Ryûsuke. I didn’t think I’d make it through the five hours but at only two this more recent film looked doable. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an odd title that conjures up for me a different kind of film than that offered here. The original Japanese title is ‘Coincidence and Imagination’ which is a little more helpful. It’s a compendium or anthology film comprising three separate episodes each written and directed by Hamaguchi. The characters and settings are different in each short film. In each case the narrative is built around strained meetings and conversations, behind which are other relevant relationships.

Meiko (Furukawa Kotone) and her ex-boyfriend Kazua (Nakajima Ayumu) discuss his recent meeting with Tsugumi

Episode 1 ‘Magic (or Something Less Assuring)’ deals with two twenty-something female friends. The coincidence in this case turns out to be that Tsugumi meets a man and they appear to fall for each other almost immediately (thus the ‘magic’). But as Meiko listens to her friend’s story she realises that this is Kazua who was once her boyfriend. What will she do? Will she tell Tsugumi and if so, how? Is she jealous? Does she still love Kazua? Episode 2 ‘Door Wide Open’ is rather different. Nao, a mature university student who is married with a small child takes another, younger, student as her lover. They have both taken a French course with Professor Segawaya who always keeps his office door ‘wide open’, mindful of harassment charges. The young man has been held back in class by the Professor and seeks revenge. When the Professor wins a prestigious prize for his novel, the young man dreams up an entrapment plan which he forces his partner to carry out. But what can she do when the door is always wide open and any passing student or staff could look in?

Nao (Mori Katsuki) reads a passage from his novel to Professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko)

Episode 3 ‘Once Again’ involves only two characters, but there are other missing characters who are important to the narrative. Natsuko returns to her home city of Sendai to attend a high school reunion of the class of 1998. She hasn’t been back for twenty years since she started work in Tokyo and she discovers that she doesn’t know anybody, until a woman does recognise her but Natsuko can’t remember her name. Next day on her way to the station she sees another woman on the escalator. Is this her old lover? After an entertaining chase around the escalator the two women manage to find each other. But will this ‘reunion’ work out? They go to the woman’s house to make tea. This last episode has a ‘speculative fiction’ aspect to it in that the world has experienced a computer virus which has caused personal files on computers to be dispatched to contacts, sharing secrets and causing disruption. Hamaguchi made this episode after COVID struck and this idea was his response.

Natsuko (Urabe Fusako) and Aya (Kawai Aoba) by Sendai Station

There are several notable aspects of each of these encounters. Most of the ‘action’ is simply a conversation between two people and in one case the two characters are framed in a continuous two-shot for what seems like several minutes with sustained dialogue. To do this, the actors must be very well prepared and at ease with shooting. Hamaguchi discussed acting in his online Introduction and in the Q&A. He stresses that his main motivation was working with his actors and he outlined his methods. What was most interesting for me was his revelation that it was his prior production experience on documentaries that enabled him to understand the issue of anxiety on a shoot, both for himself and the actors or the subjects of the narrative. He works with all the actors together on their lines, repeating them so many times that they internalise the words and relax.

As to the three scenarios, he argues that he thought about seemingly impossible set-ups and how the characters might react to the events in realistic ways. Of the three episodes I found the second most gripping because it generated an erotic tension and the third the most interesting in the way the script developed what seemed a not unusual occurrence when two people meet and they are not sure whether they know each other or who the other person is. What happens is very interesting. The first episode was in some ways the most conventional scenario, but even so did hold my attention because of the quality of the performances.

Nao with her younger lover Sasaki (Kai Shouma) in ‘Door Wide Open’

What surprised me about this film was that I assumed it would feel slow with long conversations but I was very surprised to discover just how quickly the time had flown by because I was so engrossed. Hamaguchi’s work has been compared by international critics to several other directors but mostly I think to Eric Rohmer. He himself mentions the French New Wave plus John Cassevetes and his film Husbands (US 1970) as a major influence. These comparisons represent high praise but the startling thing is that Hamaguchi completed a second film in 2021 and it is also in the LFF programme. Ride My Car (2021), adapted from a Murakami short story is the Japanese Oscar entry for 2022 (and it won the Cannes screenplay this year). It must be very good. One of our regular correspondents, John, has seen it, however, and stated that for him it dragged a little during its three hour running time. I’ll be interested to see it after watching Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. It does seem that with these two films, Hamaguchi is being accepted as the latest international auteur to emerge from Japan.

The technical credits of Wheel of Fortune are all strong but I’d like to pick out the cinematography of Iioka Yukiko which is a crucial element in the success of the acting. I thought the ‘light classical’ piano soundtrack was effective but it doesn’t appear to be credited. I don’t want to pick out any of the actors, all of them were very good for me, though studying performances and following subtitles does mean missing some facial expressions and gestures as the BFI host of the screening Hyun Jin Cho suggested. I realise that I haven’t emphasised that in both Happy Hour and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi has presented female-led stories about women’s desire, but without any sense that this is unusual. This shouldn’t need to be said but still seems necessary. I enjoyed this film very much, especially the opportunity to explore these scenarios.

Modern Films have acquired this film for UK and Ireland distribution. I recommend seeing it and discussing the scenarios. Would you act differently in the same situation as these characters?

Wife of a Spy (Supai no tsuma, Japan 2020)

Can Satoko trust her husband Yusaku – or is he a spy?

Wife of a Spy won the Best Director prize for Kurosawa Kiyoshi at Venice in 2020. It’s an unusual film in several ways. Kurosawa, well-known mainly as a horror/crime genre director from the 1990s and early in his career in the 1980s as a director of pinku eiga and roman porno films for Nikkatsu before the studio’s collapse, now offers a different kind of genre film distributed by the revived Nikkatsu. Wife of a Spy is a co-production between independents and NHK, the PSB (public service broadcaster) in Japan. NHK required the production to use 8K digital cameras so that the film would become an experimental/promotional vehicle for the technology. I didn’t know this until after the screening but I did notice that the HD print streaming on MUBI was sometimes very cold and bright, but at other times cinematographer Sasaki Tatsunosuke used shallow focus to blur backgrounds and sometimes low light (?) to produce a grainier image.

The only other Kurosawa film that I’ve seen which shares some of the same elements is Tokyo Sonata (Japan 2008). That film too had appeared at major festivals and was treated as an arthouse film for cinema distribution whereas Kurosawa’s genre films were generally only on DVD in the UK. Like Tokyo Sonata the new film is a melodrama of sorts but it also plays with the spy film, the mystery film, the marriage drama etc. The setting is the city of Kobe (Kurosawa’s home town), Japan’s second-largest port on the Bay of Osaka in 1940-41. Fukuhara Yusaku is a wealthy and still relative young man, running his own textile trading company. The first few scenes introduce the main characters. In a long shot sequence, a British businessman is arrested by the kenpeitai (military police responsible for security). An angry young man, Fukuhara’s nephew Fumio, protests. Then in his office Fukuhara receives a visit from the ‘squad leader’ of the kenpeitai. This turns out to ‘Taiji’, a childhood friend of Fukuhara’s wife Satoko, offering a ‘friendly’ but formal warning about the arrested spy who is a client of Fukahara. Finally we meet Satoko, masked and stealing something from a safe. She is caught by a young man, who turns out to be Fumio. We hear ‘one more time’ and realise that this an amateur film shoot organised by Yusaku.

Taiji is surprised to meet Satoko in the woods, gathering winter yams with her maid . . .

The quartet introduced in this way offer the basis for a family melodrama of some kind Taiji still has feelings for Satoko, though his embrace of the militarism of the 1930s is a problem. The real ‘disruption’ which pushes the narrative forward is Yusaku’s decision to visit Manchuria on business in early 1941, taking Fumio with him. After his return Satoko becomes suspicious when she realises that something happened in Manchuria, which by 1941 was formally a puppet state of Imperial Japan and one which after years of Japanese occupation and repression of the Chinese population was seen as a valuable colonial territory in Japan. At this point it is perhaps helpful to correct some of the initial reviews of the film. Satoko is not an ‘actress’, she is a bored wife of a wealthy man. 1940 is not ‘before the Second World War’, Japan had been active in different ways in China since 1905 and the full-scale Sino-Japanese War began in 1937. Elsewhere in East Asia, events were influenced by the war in Europe, so at one point in the film, Satoko and Yusaku go the cinema and watch a newsreel in which a large Japanese fleet arrives in Saigon in June 1941, ostensibly to help support Vichy France to defend Indochina. The ‘Pacific War’ didn’t start until Pearl Harbour but  much had already happened by then.

Satoko goes to Taiji’s office wearing traditional dress, hoping to persuade him

The critics liked the film at Venice but there have been negative comments since. Some of these refer to the slow pacing of many scenes. The Hitchcock references used in MUBI’s introduction don’t help even if I can see why Hitchcock is invoked. The image of Satoko at the safe reminds me of Marnie (1964) but the obvious reference is to Notorious and the marriage between Ingrid Bergman’s and Claude Rains’ characters. The title ‘Wife of a Spy’ also perhaps suggests a Hitchcock narrative since the famous Hitchcock ‘romance thriller’ often hinges on the trust or lack of it between the two central characters. But in the end the reference isn’t very useful. I think there is a real emotional depth to some of the scenes between Satoko, Yusaku and Taiji. I suppose there is even a ‘MacGuffin’ of sorts in the form of a document Yusaku brings back from Manchuria and also a murder mystery at one point. Even so, Kurosawa seems to be attempting something else. Whatever possessed large numbers of Japanese to embrace militarism in the 1930s comes up here against personal relationship and codes of honour. There is also a strong sense of the dilemma for the Japanese middle-class (i.e. those with some control over their lives because of social position and/or wealth). Should they fight the West or embrace its culture? Taiji warns Satoko and Yusaku that their attachment to Western dress (and drinking Scotch not Japanese whisky) marks them out. The only escape for the couple is to trust each other and try to get to the US. But the Pacific War is on the horizon. Can they get out in time? The ending of the film will no doubt frustrate some audiences but it seems appropriate to me, ending on a beach.

What is the future for Satako and Yusaku?

Wife of a Spy works for me, primarily I think, because of the strong central performances by Aoi Yu as Satako and Takahashi Issey as Yusaku, who manage to make the marriage believable. The script is by Hamaguchi Ryûsuke and Nohara Tadashi, younger writers who I think have an earlier connection with Kurosawa. The music by Nagaoka Ryosuke has also been criticised but I found it effective. I’m intrigued most I think because of the ‘feel’ of the film as historical drama. I don’t think there are as many Japanese films about this period as there are in American or European cinemas, but I have recently noted other films from South Korea and China/Hong Kong covering the period. The 8K images have something to do with that ‘feel’, but I’m not sure what as yet. There is also the suggestion that the film could be controversial in Japan where issues about the conduct of the war, especially in China, are still sensitive. Finally, I did find some echoes of other Japanese films in Wife of a Spy. One was Grave of the Fireflies, the terrific anime from 1988, also set in Kobe. The other intriguing aspect of Wife of a Spy is the use of 9.5mm film which is central to the plot. It made me think of both the earlier Kurosawa film Cure (Japan 1997) and in some ways back to the Ringu films. I don’t want to explain these references in detail at this point but it is worth remembering that in the 1930s Japanese studios were the biggest producers of films in the world, with a studio system that rivalled Hollywood but not in export terms. Moving images had become an important part of Japanese culture and as well as the newsreel that Satoko and Yusaku watch in the cinema, there is a brief clip from the feature in the programme, a ‘Nikkatsu Talkie’, Priest of Darkness (1936) directed by Yamanaka Sadao. If you get the chance to see Wife of a Spy, I’d recommend it to you.

Ramen Shop (Singapore-Japan-France 2018)

Producer-writer-director Eric Khoo has an interest in Japanese culture as seen in his animated film about a manga writer Tatsumi (Singapore 2011). Khoo has also long been interested in films about food and cooking. Ramen Shop is therefore a logical choice of subject for a film which is about national and personal/familial relationships and centred on identity issues.

Masato (right) working in his family shop with his father in the centre and his uncle on the left of the image

Masato is a very handsome young man (played by Saitō Takumi who worked as a model in his teens and who is rather older than he appears to be in this film). Masato’s mother was from Singapore where the family lived for ten years before his father took them back to Japan. Lian Mei (Jeanette Aw) died in Japan when Masato was still a young teenager and life with his father Kazuo (Ihara Tsuyoshi) was quite difficult as his father tended to ‘shut down’ after his wife’s death. Masato began to work in the family ramen shop in Takasaki in Central Honshu alongside his father’s brother, a man with a much more open personality. Suddenly one day his father collapses and dies. After the funeral Masato discovers his mother’s diaries which detail her life in Singapore. Unfortunately, they are all written in Mandarin which Masato is not able to read. (We assume that as a child he spoke either English or Japanese.) Masato doesn’t remember much about his childhood but as a chef he has been interested in Singaporean food and has kept up a correspondence with a blogger called Miki in Singapore who sends him recipes and spices. He makes a decision to travel to Singapore to try to find out more about his mother’s past. He also wants to find the secret to making the best ‘pork rib soup’, in some ways the Singapore equivalent of ramen. The narrative will develop with a parallel set of flashbacks as Masato uncovers the history of his parents’ relationship.

Masato and Miki enjoying views of Singapore when he first arrives

When Masato arrives in Singapore he meets Miki and she begins his education about Singaporean culture. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to say that eventually Masato finds his other uncle, Wee (Mark Lee) and through Wee he uncovers the family history and answers to some of the puzzles that are in his mother’s scrapbook/diary. Ramen Shop is a family melodrama and in some ways a quite conventional film narrative, but alongside the food angle it has one other important narrative line. Masato’s mother’s family suffered Occupation by Japanese forces in 1942 with various consequences. Masato learns about the War through a visit to a museum in Singapore. I was struck by this sequence, partly because I experienced something similar in New Zealand, in the National Museum in Wellington which at the time I visited was commemorating the New Zealand experiences of 1915 and the abortive landing of Anzac troops at Gallipoli. New Zealand troops suffered heavy losses and terrible conditions in the Gallipoli Campaign. I’ve always seen Winston Churchill as the villain in this instance, being reckless and risking high casualties in his support for the landings (as First Lord of the Admiralty). The Australians and New Zealanders took the events very seriously and Anzac Day is held annually to remember the fallen. As a Brit I felt humbled and shamed in that Museum. There is clearly a Singapore ‘folk memory’ of the Japanese Occupation and for younger Japanese I can imagine that taking on board the prosecution of the Occupation must be an uncomfortable aspect of modern history. There are still questions, I think, about how Japan has dealt with memories of the militarism of the 1930s and the subsequent wars in China and across South and South East Asia. It is ironic that at first Kazuo and Lian Mei must converse in English but I’m still not sure what to make of this.

Father as a young man with Lian Mei

The search for authenticity in cooking both ramen and pork rib soup acts in the film as a way of exploring globalisation. Part of this is connected to the history of both ramen and pork rib soup which were introduced or more correctly popularised and ‘commodified’ at more or less the same time. Both were Chinese in origin. In Japan around the end of the nineteenth century when the Japanese industrial revolution was developing rapidly, the new army of industrial workers facing early starts and tiring days needed hot food available close to workplaces. ‘Chinese noodles’ in broth developed as a form of fast food with a distinctive method of ‘pulling’ noodle dough by hand and using a form of alkaline water to produce round yellow noodles. Various different forms of broth and meat and vegetables have been developed over time and now ramen are eaten in many parts of the world, famously becoming a staple of student life in their dried ‘cup noodle’ form, for cheap instant meals as well as a popular restaurant option. At the same late 19th century point in the exploitation of the potential of the British colonial possessions of Singapore and Malaya, the day labourers on the docks and in the warehouses of Singapore needed food for energy. The labourers were mainly Chinese migrant workers and the solution to the problem of developing a new ‘fast food’ was to import the idea of pork bone soup from Hokkien China (the region from which many migrants came). This proved successful and the Singapore dish of ‘Bak Kut Teh’ developed in which the soup is always accompanied by traditionally mashed Chinese tea. All of this is recognised in the film script and Masato comes to recognise what it means.

Masato with Uncle Wee, taking notes about preparing pork rib soup

Ramen Shop has not been released in the UK but it has opened in North America and many parts of Europe as well as South-East and East Asia. ‘Ramen’ as such haven’t made the same kind of impact on British food culture, simply because, I think, of the competition from Indian, Italian and other cuisines. Chinese food in the UK was at first dominated by Cantonese cuisine as migrants were mainly from Hong Kong or Southern China. More recently Sichuan food seems to have become important. Has the UK missed out by not getting to see Ramen Shop? I found this an enjoyable and informative film. The script is written by two of Eric Khoo’s long-term collaborators, Tan Fong Chen and Wong Kim Hoh. I think these kind of food-focused stories tend to produce ‘feelgood’ endings and that’s the case here but there is enough drama to leaven the overall effect. Ramen Shop is currently available on MUBI in the UK and I would recommend it.

Tanaka Kinuyo will not appear at Locarno

One of the promising highlights for 2020 was the Locarno Film Festival’s intention to screen a retrospective of the work of Japanese actor and director Tanaka Kinuyo. I have long been a fan of this talented and pioneering film-maker so I was working on plans to be able to attend. The arrival of the pandemic torpedoed this prospect. However, the Locarno Festival postponed the retrospective to 2021. Now, whilst only a possibility, there was a prospect of being able to enjoy this programme of films in the summer; 35 titles including a large number in 35mm prints.

Locarno to fete Japan’s Kinuyo Tanaka in first retrospective devoted to female filmmaker.

The Locarno Film Festival will celebrate the work of Japanese director and actress Kinuyo Tanaka at its upcoming 73rd edition (August 5-15), in its first ever retrospective dedicated to a female artist.

Tanaka (1909 –1977) was a pioneering figure in Japanese cinema throughout her 50-year career, appearing in the films of legendary directors Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi before striking off to direct her own films.

“This is the first time that the festival will be dedicating its retrospective to a female director, after 73 years,” said Locarno Film Festival artistic director Lili Hinstin, who is embarking on her second edition at the helm.

At the same time, she added, it also raised the question of how an artist like Tanaka – with such “an original and exciting filmography” had been overlooked for so long.

Tanaka first rose to fame in the 1920s, initially working under contract for the Shochiku Film Company, the film department of which is celebrating its centenary this year. There, she collaborated with Japan’s best-known “modernist” directors such as Heinosuke Gosho, Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu.

In the years immediately after World War Two and the 1950s, her striking screen presence became a hallmark of some of the best work by directors of the golden age of Japanese cinema, including Keisuke Kinoshita, Mikio Naruse and Kaneto Shindo.

She also renewed her collaboration with Ozu but her most important artistic partnership was with Mizoguchi, with whom she made 14 films, including the 1952 drama The Life Of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna), which premièred at the Venice Film Festival, winning best international film.

Around this time, Tanaka also started going behind the camera to direct a number of films of her own with various studios. At the time, she was only the second women in the history of Japanese cinema to direct after Tazuko Sakane.

Locarno described her six features films as “innovative portraits of women’s roles and conditions in the changing social environment of modern Japan”. The retrospective will screen Tanaka’s complete filmography as a director as well as a selection of 250-odd films in which she appeared.. (Melanie Goodfellow, 23rd January 2020).

Then a friend informed me of the bad news; set out in a report in Screen Daily:

The Locarno Film Festival will turn the spotlight on the work of late Italian director Alberto Lattuada for the retrospective of its 74th edition, scheduled to run from August 4- 14 this year.

The programme is the first element of Locarno’s 74th edition to be unveiled by the festival’s newly appointed artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro.

Plans have been dropped for a retrospective celebrating the work of Japanese director and actress Kinuyo Tanaka, which was announced by Nazzaro’s predecessor Lili Hinstin for last year’s cancelled edition as the festival’s first-ever retrospective dedicated to a female artist.

Regarding the decision to cancel the Kinuyo Tanaka retrospective, a spokesperson for the festival said: “The programme was a personal choice of [former artistic director] Lili Hinstin. Therefore, in respect to her work and despite it is a great programme, we have decided to propose another author to our audience for the next edition of the festival.”

My thoughts are best summed up by a borrowing from Oscar Wilde:

“To lose one female artist, dear festival, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.”

I also realised how fortunate I was that in 2012 we had a small but very fine retrospective of the work of Tanaka Kinuyo both as an actor and as a film director at the Leeds International Film Festival.

” Retrospectives has an especially strong selection this year. The ‘special focus’ is a profile of the Japanese actress and filmmaker Kinuyo Tanaka. She worked through several different periods of Japanese film and with three of its greatest masters, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu. Her scene at the end of Sansho Dayu (1954) is one of the most sublime endings in World Cinema.  She was also a pioneer woman direction in the Industry. There are six of her films, all in either 35 or 16mm. And there is a workshop on November 3rd at the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds.

While Kinuyo Tanaka (1909-77) is widely recognised as one of the greatest actresses in the history of her nation’s cinema, a lesser known fact is that she was also the first Japanese woman to build a body of work as a filmmaker in her own right. This year’s LIFF Special Focus aims to remedy this by presenting two of Kinuyo Tanaka’s rarely-screened directorial works alongside a selection of her finest performances in films by three of the masters of Japanese cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse. Presented in collaboration with the Centre for World Cinemas, University of Leeds and curated by Michael Smith.”

The posts on the retrospective, with plot information and the quotations from the English sub-titles, include:

A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no naka no mendori, Japan 1948)

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/a-hen-in-the-wind-kaze-no-naka-no-mendori/

Mother (Okasan), Japan 1952

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/mother-okasan/

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, Japan 1954)

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2021/03/13/sansho-the-bailiff-sansho-dayu-japan-1954/

The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, Japan 1955)

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/the-eternal-breasts-i-chibusa-yo-eien-nare/

Girls of dark (Onna bakari no yoru, Japan 1961)

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/girls-of-dark-onna-bakari-no-yoru/

Festival Workshop on Tanaka Kinuyo

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/leeds-iff-2012-tanaka-kinuyo-workshop/

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, Japan 1954)

This was the third of the films featuring Tanaka Kinuyo screened in 2012. This was a film that I had seen before on 35mm, unlike the other titles. It is one of the great films by Mizoguchi Kenji with whom Tanaka worked on a number of occasions.

The post contains plot information and the quotations are from the English sub-titles.

The film opens with a set of titles on-screen, setting out the story:

“This story dates from medieval Japan when there was a form of feudal society. The majority of the people were considered less than human. This legend has been told since those days.”

In the manner of legends the exact times and places are not spelt out. It is apparently set in the 11th century. This was a period of imperial rule with the capital in Kyoto though the military class exercised effective power. In is mainly from the dialogue that ages and places can be discerned. The film falls into three segments separated by time and space; again only discernible in the dialogue. The titular character, the bailiff of a mansion of a high official, only appears in the second segment, forty minutes into the film.

After the initial titles the film presents a family on a journey. There is the mother Tamaki (Tanaka Kinuyo): her son Zushiô (Hanayagi Yoshiaki) now about 13 years: her daughter Anju, (Kagawa Kyôko) aged about seven: and a woman servant, Ubatake (Naniwa Chieko). As they walk through the Japanese countryside there are several flashbacks, not obviously motivated’ but apparently the memories of Tamaki; mainly opened and closed by lap dissolves. These are set six years earlier when her husband Mausaji Taira no (Shimizu Masao), the father of the children, was the Governor of a province, Mutsu. Provinces were the basic level of administration in Feudal Japan; and this large province was in the North East alongside the sea.

The Governor had fallen foul of military leaders by opposing increased conscription of the peasants. His humanity had made him popular with the ordinary people but not with officials. As a punishment he is sent into exile to the province of Tsukushi, far away in the south of Japan. We see his support amongst the poor. And we see the farewells to his family who are to stay with Tamaki’s brother. When he parts from Zushiô the father recites his philosophy to his son and gives him an amulet, the Goddess of Mercy.

“Without mercy, a man is like a beast. Be sympathetic to others. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness.”

These mantras will be repeated at key stages of the subsequent narrative and the amulet becomes an important icon in the story.

On their journey the family are misled by a woman claiming to be a priestess. The result is the death of Ubatake, Tamaki being sold into prostitution and the children sold into slave labour.

We now encounter the mansion of which Sansho is the Bailiff (Shindo Eitaro). He is a brutal and exploitative master; illustrated by the branding of an inmate who attempts escape. However his son Taro (Kono Akitake) is critical of his father’s brutality and attempts to ease the plight of the labourers; then leaving the mansion for Kyoto. The children do not reveal their names for fear of the consequences, [the possibility of ransom demands?]. For their time at the mansion they are known as Mutsu and Shinobu.

There is an ellipsis of ten tears and now Zushiô/Mutsu is 23 and Anju/Shinobu is 17, Zushiô has been brutalised over time and has become an overseer. The illustration is when he brands another would-be escapee. Anju remains committed to the teachings of their father. In an important sequence she hears a new girl worker sing a song;

“How I long for you, Zushiô, Anju”

On Sado Island [in the sea of Japan] Tamaki {now called Nakayama] desperately tries to flee and find her lost children. As a punishment she is hamstrung and disabled. We see her singing her sad refrain. Anju realises this is their mother pining for her children. She tells Zushiô but he is immured in their situation.

An opportunity now arises for Zushiô and Anju to escape when they have to carry an aged woman, no longer able to work, to a place to die alone. . But to prevent her brother’s recapture Anju remains and commits suicide rather than betray Zushiô. He gains sanctuary in an Imperial Monastery where he meets Taro again; now a Buddhist monk.

In the final section Zushiô journeys to the capital Kyoto. His father has died recently and it is too late to reinstate him. However, the injustice suffered is recognised and Zushiô is appointed Governor of the province of Tango, which contains the Mansion overseen by Sansho.. Once there Zushiô goes even farther than his father and confronts Sansho and the system of forced labour. He then journeys to Sado Island and after some travails find his mother in a hovel on a beach, now blind as well as crippled. He has to tell her of the death of both her husband and her daughter. Whilst they comfort each other he shows his mother the amulet of the Goddess of Mercy that he still carries.

His mother responds,

“I do know that you followed your father’s words. That is … that is why we can meet here now.”

The scene and the film end with a crane shot which pans across the beach and rests two small islands: offering what critics have called a transcendental conclusion to the film: reinforcing the humanist values which are embodied in the film. The ending uses as music woodblocks, flutes and a harp, adds an appropriate emotional tone. The whole films show the command of Mizoguchi and his craft team, especially cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo, of visual style: there are frequent graceful tracking shot and the mise en scene uses the landscape to great effect: physically beautiful on occasions, grimly realistic on others. The contrasting vistas add to the dramatisation of the story. When we first encounter the family the landscape is beautifully set; at one point they traverse a bed of flowered reeds. One spot is where Zushiô and Anju collect wood and reeds for a night time shelter. This scene has a parallel in the woody spot just before Zushiô’s escape, offering a motivation for his change of heart. Later the open and large seascape when the family are seized has an appropriately desolate feel. The mansion of Sansho is a grim setting as is the hovel on Sado island. These contrast with the opulent and highly formal setting of Kyoto, the Governor’s palace and the reception offered by Sansho to an emissary of the owner. And the monastery presents a solemn silent space rudely disrupted by Sansho armed retainers; and Taro’s care a contrast to the brutal treatment of the serfs in the mansion. The music, led by the woodblocks, flutes and harp has occasional orchestral backing but is minimal only accompanying key scenes. The harp dominates in the sequence as Anju slowly walks into the lake in a sacrificial suicide. Parallel music accompanies the scene as Zushiô stands by the lake mourning his sister. And the song we hear in the sequence showing Tamaki prostituted on Sado island re-appears in the final sequence but now the crippled Tamaki can hardly sing the words and mostly she is just humming theme.

The cast are excellent. Tanaka Kinuyo has an important presence in the opening section; following this she appears in shorter sequences in the middle and concluding sections. In the course of the film she is changed from a formally attired aristocratic lady to a crippled and poverty stricken old woman. This is a part of the powerful and tragic development in the film.

The critical sense in the narrative also develops. Mausaji Taira opposes the ruling of the military elite but accepts the punishment laid down. But when Zushiô becomes a governor he is warned not to overstep the bounds but deliberately does this and confronts the unjust laws. Immediately he resigns knowing that this will lead to his punishment. So his conduct is more radical than that of his father thought the oppressive system remains. An audience may wonder what happens to the protagonist after mother and son are reunited. But they should also wonder if the oppressive serf system will not be re-imposed when a new Governor takes office.

Mizoguchi was one of the directors in the 1950s who bought Japanese cinema to the attention of western critics and audiences. A number of the films were winners of prestigious awards at European film festivals; Sansho dayu won the Silver Lion Award at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, alongside Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai.

Haruka’s Pottery (Haruka no sue, Japan 2019)

One of the aims of the Japan Foundation Film Tour is to introduce UK audiences to aspects of Japanese culture and this title fulfils that role more directly than most. The insistency of the importance of craft skills is a key feature of both Japanese arts and crafts and industry and commerce. In recent years I can remember watching films about the art of sushi preparation and achieving the perfect ramen dish. The titular character of this film is Haruka (Honda Nao), a young office worker in Tokyo who is unfulfilled by her job and her life in general. One day, accompanying her boss on a shopping trip, she is taken into an exhibition of Bizen ware pottery in a department store. Unaccountably, she falls in love with a large plate in the small exhibition and, noting the potter’s name, she determines to seek him out.

Bizen is an area in the prefecture of Okayama in the South of Honshu, the main island of Japan and some 4 or 5 hours from Tokyo by train. The main pottery centre is Imbe and Haruka decides to visit the town to see if she can find the potter Wakatake. Bizen ware dates back to the 16th century but could be linked to earlier pottery styles. In danger of dying out in the 20th century, it was maintained by a small number of potters until in 1982 it was designated a ‘traditional Japanese craft’ by the Japanese government with around 300 potters at the start of the 21st century (see Wikipedia entry). This film is a fiction but it seems to be accurate in terms of the processes and the potteries shown.

Wakatake is not very communicative . . .

When Haruka arrives she struggles in the heat of summer to find Wakatake’s pottery but by chance meets an older man who directs her to the building. She doesn’t realise it yet but the older man is a ‘National Treasure’, an official designation for a skilled craftsman now mainly retired. When Haruka meets Wakatake he is incommunicative and unwelcoming. Haruka is persistent and eventually when the ‘National Treasure’ re-appears he tells Wakatake that he will never become a great potter if he doesn’t communicate with people and express this in his work. He suggests that Wakatake should accept Haruka as an apprentice and she readily agrees although she has been treated quite rudely. Unperturbed, Haruka returns to Tokyo to settle her affairs and starts as an apprentice in Imbe.

The ‘National Treasure’ in the karaoke bar

Wakatake Osamu is a highly-skilled potter but he has not got over the deaths of his parents. His father was a master craftsman who taught his son well but the stressful life of the potter is an issue for someone with poor mental health. The second section of the film sees Haruka trying to find a way around her master’s ‘prickliness’ and refusal to teach her directly. She must watch and listen (and do the chores). It occurred to me that this is the Japanese way of learning ‘on the job’ that was used in the Japanese film industry of the 1930s and is discussed in Kurosawa Akira’s writings. In the UK this used to be called ‘sitting next to Nelly’. It’s a time-consuming process but a long apprenticeship conducted in this way can work very well. It then requires proper support when the apprentice has to ‘fly solo’ for the first time. It wouldn’t really make sense to pad the film narrative out to cover several years so I think the process we see is time-compressed and geared to the annual calendar in Imbe.

Haruka helps out in the fields – a relief from her struggle with Wakatake’s behaviour

Each year Imbe holds a Bizen festival with demonstrations and exhibitions which has become a tourist attraction. After this in the Autumn the potters begin firing the kilns. This is particularly stressful because of the qualities of the local clay which require the kilns to reach a very high temperature but to do so gradually. They must be watched and fed with wood 24 hours a day over several days – this is when the strain becomes very great. If the process fails, the potter could lose all the pieces produced in the previous season. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but you can probably guess what happens with carefully orchestrated setbacks and later triumphs.

Haruka’s Pottery is an independent film whereas all the other titles I’ve seen on the tour have been from major studio brands or affiliated, established distributors. It was still shot in ‘Scope but with a debut writer-director and a largely inexperienced cast and crew, apart from the two actors playing Wakatake (Hirayama Hiroyuki) and the ‘National Treasure’ (Sasano Takashi). It’s also slightly problematic that there are relatively few promotional websites with details of the production or useful materials. The film actually looks pretty good with only two main locations, a brief section in Tokyo and then most of the set-ups in Imbe. The music score comprises slow and gentle piano with what sounded like folk music sequences. The narrative is fairly predictable and the leisurely running time of just under two hours could perhaps be reduced, but the main attraction of the film is the detailed illustration of the potter’s technique and the process of firing the pieces in the kiln. The human story is about how the apprentice helps to ‘humanise’ her ‘master’ allowing him to express himself through his work and to deal with the loss of his parents. There are flashbacks in which we see him as a boy with his parents. For Haruka it is a case of finding something she loves to do and finding herself through the challenges that working with Wakatake and struggling with the techniques of the wheel and the kiln that are thrown up for her. As a takeaway message about Japanese culture, the film stresses that great art needs ‘soul’ – something of the potter must be in the pot and the more the potter gives, the more pleasing the piece will be.

I did worry that this would be too ‘nice’ a film but I enjoyed it for what it is – an entertaining and informative film and a nice contrast to some of the more dramatic films that appeared in my selection from the Japan Foundation Tour.

The trailer below lacks English subs. Below it is a link to the Japan Foundation Q&A and discussion about the film.