Empire of Passion (1978) 愛の亡霊

Country: Japan
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 104 minutes
Starring: Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Tatsuya Fuji, Takahiro Tamura, Takuzo Kawatani, Akiko Koyama
Theme: Romance/Erotica, Crime

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 6.9/10

Film Festivals:
1978 Cannes Film Festival

Awards:
1978 Cannes Film Festival: Best Director
1979 Japanese Academy Awards: Best Music Score

Nominated:
1978 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or
1979 Japanese Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film, Best Lighting, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actress

The Empire of Passion (1978) is Japan’s official submission to the 51st Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film award, although it missed out on a nomination in the end. Yet the controversial director did pickup the Best Director gong at Cannes for this film. It is definitely noteworthy this is Oshima’s follow-up film to In the Realm of the Senses (1976), the film that directly taunts the censorship board with full-frontal explicit nudity, unsimulated sexual sequences and several unflinching bone chilling scenes that involve the shoving of a hard-boiled egg up a woman’s vagina and the severance of a man’s penis in its full glory. Comparatively, Empire of Passion is a much milder offering, though the international attention that In the Realm of the Senses received would definitely have helped thrust—no pun intended—The Empire of Passion into international spotlight. It is noteworthy that Director Oshima opts to keep faith with the male lead from In the Realm of the Senses, Tatsuya Fuji, who plays the protagonist in this film as well. There is this innate physical quality to Fuji’s look that makes his portrayal of the attractive, horny, philandering male so alluring and convincing – he turned in a decent performance as the master who falls in love with his servant in In the Realm of the Senses, and was equally convincing here as the young man who falls for – and rapes — a much older woman in this film.

The Empire of Passion is also Oshima’s only foray into “horror” in his prolific filmography, with the supernatural elements involved that yields an arresting mix that involve eroticism as well. The ghastly appearances of the deceased husband create several spooky moments that can rival those in a full-fledged horror movie that Japan would become famous for several decades later. Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) is a 41-year-old working-class mother who falls in love with the 26-year-old Toyoji (Fuji), and they begin an affair surreptitiously behind the back of her rickshaw-puller husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) away from the watchful eyes of the close-knit village. Their initial exchanges were that of open flirting, and when Gisaburo at one point of time questioned whether Toyoji might have taken a fancy for Seki, became more discreet. One day, Toyoji forced himself on Seki in a rape sequence that ended in Seki relishing the process and desiring for more, as opposed to the conventional norms of hysteria that rape victims typically end up in. That marked the turning point as they grew closer and closer in an infidelity that sees them having coitus much more often and eventually indulging in erotic behavior. Toyoji “shaves” Seki clean, and they hatch a plot to murder Gisaburo when it becomes apparent that he would probably notice something amiss. Gisaburo’s body was dumped into an old, unused well and the couple goes on their adulterous ways after his death, not expecting that rumors surrounding his sudden disappearance would resurface three years later. Apparently Seki’s story that he had gone to work in Tokyo was flawed, and no one in the village was buying it.

The Empire of Passion explores themes like guilt, passion and dishonesty, especially that of how passion can easily convince people into unthinkingly performing immoral acts. Oshima’s unrelenting close-ups and style leads me on a guilt trip where I actually empathize with the adulterous couple, rather than cast a judgmental eye on them. They want each other so badly, but unfortunately fall prey to societal norms and pressures. The director’s mastery of skill becomes apparent from the way he deals with stereotypes and conventions that prevail in such a movie. In fact, the climax is pretty much expected, though he deals with clichés in an alternative manner that sees the introduction of supernatural beings in a context that does not seem ludicrous. In fact, the “ghosts” may not even have been real as per an archetypical horror movie, but rather the “ghosts of Seki’s past” manifesting as she allows the rumors that are flooding around the village and her immense guilt in her hand at murdering her husband to take reign over her psychological senses. We notice how the pair struggle to come up with cover-up stories the more they lose their head, to which Seki’s chaste and non-manipulative nature shines through from her unwillingness to lie and her inflexibility to deal with the murder in the moments after it happened. Toyoji himself is not as headstrong as he seems, and the guilt he suffers manifests in a bizarre habit that sees him returning to the well the infidel couple disposed the body off in to throw in dead leaves, handful by handful.

This is a humble tale by Japanese folklore standards, and a far cry from the big-budgeted Godzilla films that have thrust Japanese cinema into global spotlight by that point of time. Oshima delivers, through stunning luscious shots, a breathtaking tale of sex, lust and passion. It is hard not to draw Freudian references to the film. Eros and Thanatos are prevalent in the movie as love and death take centerstage. Further, there exists a compelling Oedipal desire between the 26-year-old Toyoji and the 41-year-old Seki – the 15-year-old age gap making Seki scientifically old enough to be Toyoji’s mother. We see this manifesting in a scene where Toyoji chides Seki for breast-feeding her baby son and wondering when he will ever get his turn. In a reversal of conventions from the typical femme fatale that sees a female villain turning on sexual desires in the male, we see a male disrupting the nature of the family and society in The Empire of Passion.

The love surrounding the couple is bittersweet – beginning with a romance that would not be incongruous in a Shakespearean play and culminating in a psychological drama full of remorse, guilt, anguish and fear as the spirit of the wronged bites back.

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Princess Mononoke (1997) もののけ姫

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Running Time: 134 minutes
Starring: Yōji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yūko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi
Theme: Culture (Anime)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.4/10 | Metacritic: 76/100

Film Festivals:

Awards:
2001 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films: Saturn Award
1998 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Film, Special Award
1998 Blue Ribbon Awards: Special Award
1998 Mainichi Film Concours: Best Animated Film, Best Film, Reader’s Choice Award

Nominations:
2000 Annie Awards: Outstanding Individual Achievement for Directing in an Animated Feature Production
2000 Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards: Sierra Award for Best Animated Film
2000 Golden Reel Award (Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA): Best Sound Editing – Animated Feature
2000 Satellite Awards: Golden Satellite Award for Best Motion Picture, Animated or Mixed Media
2001 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America – Nebula Award for Best Script

The main reason I chose this animation movie for one of my 50 films is because it would definitely be severe injustice to the huge cultural movement that surrounds anime in Japan if the genre is left out. Princess Mononoke (1997), to sum it up in one word, is epic, and that comes from someone who is not even an anime fan to begin with. The film is directed by animation visionary Hayao Miyazaki, who later went on to direct Spirited Away (2001) that clinched an Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2002, and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) that was nominated for the same award in 2005. His latest work is Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008). The prolific manga artist and prominent film animator has nearly five decades worth of experience, and this shines through in the sharp pacing and crisp imagery of the film, that also had a 1999 English-dubbed American release.

Princess Mononoke combines both historical elements—being set in the late Muromachi period of Japan—with the paranormal as supernatural beasts and spirits take centerstage here, much like all of his later works. The titular character is otherwise known as San, a human being adopted by a pack of wolves when she was abandoned by her parents as a baby. The self-righteous character is against the industrialization of the nearby Iron Town, run by Lady Eboshi, an authoritarian feminist leader who renders the men slaves and the women her aides. Feminist lines such as “Women are more intelligent than men” are reiterated throughout the show, for instance. The development of Iron Town means the forests have to be cleared to make way for more factories and buildings. Meanwhile, the forests are full of (very cute) diminutive tree spirits and a Forest Spirit that adopts the form of a deer reigns.

Miyazaki avoids moral simplifications as he opts not to take a stand for or against industrialization versus environmental protection in this struggle for triumph. His sympathies switching between both sides in a rather convoluted manner that would perhaps be clearer in a more straightforward story thread. The protagonist is Ashitaka, the “Chosen One” brought to the area because he was wounded and poisoned by the boar god whilst fending off the enemy to protect his hometown. He becomes the middleman between the two parties as he tries to seek a compromise between the environmental perpetrators with the industrialists, and is the ultimate victim of the hard-wringing battle for supremity between the two. I’m not sure whether the release of this movie has anything to do with the lead-up to the Kyoto Protocol that was released the same year, or was it sheer happenstance. But the environmentalist messages against global warming and the emission of greenhouse gases that started taking prominence in the 1990s make the release timely. Miyazaki also succeeds in not making Ashitaka the typical hero, revealing in an interview that, “Ashitaka is not a cheerful, worry-free boy. He is a melancholy boy who has a fate. I feel that I am that way myself, but until now, I have not made a film with such a character. Ashitaka was cursed for a very absurd reason. Sure, Ashitaka did something he should not have done – killing Tatari Gami. But there was enough reason to do so from the humans’ viewpoint. Nevertheless, he received a deadly curse. I think that is similar to the lives of people today. I think this is a very absurd thing that is part of life itself.” (Toyama, R., 1997).

The movie is ranked 6th on seminal film critic Roger Ebert’s Top Ten movies of 1999 (apparently he only managed to catch to English-dubbed version). He writes, “Animated films are not copies of “real movies,” are not shadows of reality, but create a new existence in their own right. True, a lot of animation is insipid, and insulting even to the children it is made for. But great animation can make the mind sing.” (Ebert, 1999). The critical and box office acclaim garnered by the movie is significant because it marked a shift away from the Disney monopoly into the other ancillary markets of Japanese anime, and other animation films by the up-and-coming studios of Pixar and Dreamworks.

References

Eberts, R. (1999, October 29). Sun Times: Princess Mononoke review. Retrieved on November 1, 2010, from http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19991029/REVIEWS/910290303/1023

Toyama, R. (1997). An interview with Hayao Miyazaki. D. Goldsmith [Ed.] Retrieved on November 1, 2010, from http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/interviews/m_on_mh.html

Black Rain (1989) 黒い雨

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 123 minutes
Director: Shôhei Imamura
Starring: Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Shoichi Ozawa

Theme: War

Ratings:
IMDB: 8.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 83%

Film Festivals:
1989 Cannes Film Festival
1989 Asia-Pacific Film Festival
1989 Ghent International Film Festival

Awards:
1989 Cannes Film Festival: Prize of the Ecumenical Jury / Technical Grand Prize
1989 Asia-Pacific Film Festival: Best Screenplay (Toshirô Ishidô)
1990 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Actress (Yoshiko Tanaka) / Best Cinematography (Takashi Kawamata) / Best Director (Shôhei Imamura) / Best Editing / Best Film / Best Lighting / Best Music Score / Best Screenplay / Best Supporting Actress (Etsuko Ichihara)
1990 Blue Ribbon Awards: Best Actress (Yoshiko Tanaka)
1989 Ghent International Film Festival: Georges Delerue Prize, Grand Prix
1989 Hochi Film Awards: Best Actress
1991 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Foreign Film

Nominated:
1989 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or
1990 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Art Direction / Best Sound

Black Rain (1989) is a film based on the aftermath of the nuclear bombings in World War II. It tells of life in Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed, with the film following the lives of survivors (hibakusha) who were contaminated by the radioactive fallout – also known as black rain. They struggle with social discrimination and suffer from isolation in psychological repercussions that may be much worse than the health damage they experienced. The film is based on Masuji Ibuse’s titular novel of 1965.

Essentially, the film focuses on Yasuko, a young girl who was not in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. However, while returning to Hiroshima to find her uncle and aunt, she was exposed to the ‘black rain’ together with other survivors who were searching through the contaminated ruins. With the ebb of time, Yasuko and her fellow survivors begin to resemble time bombs, with certain telltale signs of their sickness and ultimate death.

First of all, to fully appreciate this film, we have to understand why director Shohei Imamura shot it in black and white, and that is because he felt that this was the best way to convey the magnitude of the atomic destruction. It wasn’t just the deaths or debris, but also the way people went about their lives. Life was bleak and stark. Furthermore, the use of black and white film played an important part in amplifying the horrific nature of the incident; it evoked an eerie resemblance to the archival photos of the victims after the bombing. The choice of black and white had artistic merits.

Imamura did not set out to create a film condemning anyone for the war or the incident that led to its end. America for example, was only mentioned once throughout the film. What he did really wanted to do through Black Rain was to make a statement against war in general. Furthermore, a deeper look into the film’s narrative and focus reveals that what Imamura really wanted to condemn his own country for the way they went about picking themselves up/recovering after the bombing.

Imamura interjects realism with the underlying horror of the whole post-bomb situation gripping the country and the peoples’ attempts to recover. He intersperses shocking scenes of “impressionistic horror” (Schenker, 2009) between calm mundane domesticated scenes. Some examples include the upping of lighting and sound for flashback scenes that dramatically change the mood in an instant, and the use of haunting images of unrest. A pertinent example would be the recurrent shots of the quintessential household clock, given exceptional prominence in these scenes through the shadows cast by the hands burnt during the nuclear meltdown.

Black Rain is an excellent cinematic portrayal that explores not only what the survivors experienced before, during and after the explosion of the bomb, but also addresses how the lingering effects of such a weapon can transpire throughout a survivors life. Throughout the film, the characters constantly refer to experiencing “pika-don” (English translation: pika refers to the flash of light and don refers to the thunderous blast)— and speculate its longstanding effects that appear out of nowhere and afflict those exposed to the explosion. The opening scene is a good example that brings out pikadon – where survivors aboard a train experience a sudden bright flash of light followed by an immense blast that pulverizes through the interior of the train. The entire scene is a visual spectacle that allows us, as viewers to understand and experience the impact and disorientation of the blast. It’s as if the entire world was torn apart in one blinding instant.

The imminent message is that macro worldly decisions can have potential repercussions on the micro-individual scale. One fateful decision, one fateful day, and one’s life course can be changed forever. The weaving of past and present further reinforces the uncertainty that existed then over the collateral damage that the bomb had afflicted on survivors.

References

Schenker, A. (2009, October 15) Movie review: Black Rain. Retrieved October 27, 2010, from http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/black-rain/4509)

 

Departures (2008) おくりびと

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Yōjirō Takita
Running Time: 131 minutes
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Takashi Sasano

Theme: Death

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 81% | Metacritic.com: 68/100

Film Festivals:
2008 Hawaii International Film Festival
2008 Montréal World Film Festival
2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival
2010 Pacific Rim Film Festival (Santa Cruz, USA)
2010 Borderlines Film Festival (Hertfordshire, UK)

Awards:
2009 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (controversially beating hot favorite Waltz with Bashir)
2009 Asia Pacific Screen Award: Best Performance by an Actor  (Masahiro Motoki)
2009 Asian Film Awards: Best Actor (Masahiro Motoki)
2009 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Actor (Masahiro Motoki) / Best Cinematography / Best Director / Best Editing / Best Film / Best Lighting / Best Screenplay / Best Sound / Best Supporting Actor (Tsutomu Yamazaki) / Best Supporting Actresss (Kimiko Yo)
2009 Blue Ribbon Awards: Best Actor (Masahiro Motoki)
2008 Hawaii International Film Festival: Audience Award for Favorite Feature
2009 Mainichi Film Concours: Best Film, Best Sound
2008 Montréal World Film Festival: Grand Prix des Amériques
2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival: Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature
2009 Yokohama Film Festival: Festival Prize for Best Director, Best Film, Best Supporting Actress (Kimiko Yo; Ryoko Hirosue)

Nominations:
2009 Asia Pacific Screen Award: Best Screenplay
2009 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Actress (Ryoko Hirosue) / Best Art Direction / Best Film Score
2010 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Asian Film

Departures (2008) by Yojiro Takita won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, thus thrusting the otherwise humble film about traditional rites and rituals of death and funeral processions into international limelight. Much unlike the hot favorite nominee of that year, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) that created waves in the film festival circuit, Departures (2008) was not picked up by any of the Top Three film festivals in the world, such is the nondescript, low-key nature of the modest production. Its stoic sentimentality borders on calmness and tranquility, even in the face of death. The underlying emotional currents will thus land the greatest impact on anyone who watches the film, which is also based on Aoki Shinmon’s autobiography Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician.

There are no pretentious effects or fancy cinematic techniques. Everything is portrayed in its  barest stripped-down beauty that does not steal attention away from the core subject of death and moving on. And it would take someone with a heart of stone for the story to not tug at the heartstrings by the third quarter of the film.

The protagonist is an ex-cellist in Tokyo, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), who moves back to his hometown with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). He falls for a cleverly-worded advertisement for a good-paying job seeking assistants for “departures”, and goes for an interview uncertain of what to expect. Comic relief is provided in the earlier parts of the movie with Daigo acting as a corpse for a DVD explaining the embalmment process. His first assignment involved a lonely old woman who has been dead for two weeks. While Daigo becomes more experienced, the sense of gratitude of the survivors of the dead gives him a sense of accomplishment in the job. But social taboos kick in as his peers started to ostracize and humiliate him for his “disgusting” profession. Yet the honor and respect of the profession finally shone through in a redemption only possible when he performs the rituals in front of his family when a family friend passes away. Daigo bears a grudge against his father, but when he dies Daigo was meant to prepare the body. The finale scene was emotionally affective, and it symbolizes Daigo coming to terms with the death and finally seeking closure to the innate hatred. It is ironic that Daigo has to give up his big-city dreams and reclaims his sense of his roots in the small-town context. Director Takita exercises restraint in sensationalizing the event, opting instead to show death as a commonplace cycle of life rather than flirting with it as a denouement or melodrama.

The topic is fresh as the hardly-understood profession takes centerstage and the movie is relevant in according morticians the transcendent respect amid cultural condemnations. No one likes dealing with death, and for someone to have to meet death face on everyday is no mean feat. The solemn film is able to straddle the balance of lamentations and regret of what could have been, with that of laughter—as the death of someone is clearly in today’s society taken on communal importance as people visit the funeral to pay their last respects, and this cuts across cultures. And it is with this positivity that the movie attempts to bring forth the positivity that might surround death. A euphemism for “death”, the title Departures hardly counts for a negative word especially when it primarily refers to the act of leaving for new places. Regardless of whatever cultural or religious beliefs you subscribe to, dying is a natural act of moving on, whilst the living—following a prolonged process of grief, denial and coming to terms with the unfortunate situation—learn to do so as well.

Tokyo Story (1953) 東京物語

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Running Time: 136 minutes
Starring: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura

Theme: Family/Aging

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.3/10

Film Festivals: N/A

Awards:
1953 British Film Institute Awards Sutherland Trophy
1954 Mainichi Film Concours for Best Supporting Actress (Haruko Sugimura)

Nominations: N/A

Tokyo Story is based around a very simple tale. An old couple comes to the city to visit their children and grandchildren, only to realize that their children are too busy to attend to them, and that their visit only served to upset their routines. The parents return home. A few days later, the grandmother dies and the scenario is reversed, as it is the children’s turn to make the journey home.

Billed as one of the greatest films of all time, Ozu’s Tokyo Story is a film that allows us, as viewers to “share its understanding … [rather than] force our emotions” (Ebert 2003). Unlike typical films that tend to exploit dramatic moments or situations to trigger our senses, Tokyo Story does away with all these. In fact, the beauty of the film lies in focus on the subtlety in everyday life that we tend to take for granted. A good example is Ozu’s use of brief evocative images from the characters’ daily lives such as trains, clouds, hanging clothes, street lamps and banners blowing in the wind. Watching the film is like looking out of the window, everything happens as it would in reality without overhyped drama or emotions.

Another thing to note about Tokyo Story is its visual style and strategy. Movement for example, comes not from the camera i.e panning and tracking but from the objects within the scenes themselves i.e. people and nature. Often, an empty room is shown before people start entering and filling up the visual space in front of the camera and it lingers for a while even after they leave. Furthermore, scenes are viewed almost always from the floor, lower than the eye level of a seated character, as part of Ozu’s theory that “no actor was to dominate a scene” (Malcolm, 2000). This is also known as Ozu’s trademark ‘Tatami-level shots’. There are no obvious cutaways or overlapping dialogue. If there are conversations, they are always shown in whole; otherwise the scene might be a totally silent one. Such simplicity reflects Ozu’s appreciation of the subtle shades of his characters and humanity – that what isn’t said can be more important that what it is and less is better.

Overall, Tokyo Story can be summed up in one word: “reality”. A delicately crafted story packaged in a deliberately leisurely manner, it draws the viewer into the sweeping, beautiful images with Ozu’s enchanting sets and cinematography key as the story transpires. The conclusion is muted yet heartbreaking in all its understated poignancy.

References

Ebert, R. (2003, November 9). Sun Times: Tokyo Story (1953). Retrieved on October 11, 2010, from http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20031109/REVIEWS08/311090301/1023

Malcolm, D. (2000, May 4). The Guardian: Yasujiro Ozu – Tokyo Story. Retrieved on October 11, 2010, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2000/may/04/artsfeatures1

 

Villon’s Wife (2009) ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ

Country: Japan
Theme:
Family; Aging

Runtime: 114 min
Directed By: Kichitaro Negishi
Starring: Tatako Matsu, Tadanobu Asano, Shigeru Muroi

Film Festivals:
2010 Cleveland International Film Festival
2010 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
2009 Montreal World Film Festival

Awards:
Best Director, Montreal World Film Festival 2009

Nominated:
33rd Japan Academy Prize (Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor: Tadanobu Asano, Best Actress: Tatako Matsu)

Villon’s Wife is set in post-World War II Japan. The exact month, December 1946, and the atomic bomb cataclysm just barely a year ago presumably implying a grayish, bleak cityscape. The country struggles to come to terms with such a monstrosity; what began as a goal of a visionary—to broaden the pastures of the Japanese Empire into region—had ended rapidly, along with the hopes and lives of millions.

Yet the Japanese were no weaklings. The stereotypical image of Japanese soldiers have never bowed down in the face of adversity, the fierce opponents they’ve been as seen from the HBO TV mini-series The Pacific (2010) and war films like Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). But admittedly this forms the limit of what most know of the Japanese in that era. Many films depict the wartime period, rather than its aftermath. As such, layman knowledge of everyday Japanese lives is pittance at best.

Setting the tone right from the start is a black-and-white sequence of a young Otani activating a ‘spinning wheel’, the metaphorical scene an indicator of the strong will it will take to propel a family forward up the socioeconomic strata. Even back then a clear proletariat-bourgeois hierarchy had been formed. This perhaps serves as a backdrop to the rapid economic advancement Japan saw in the following years.

But what provides food for thought is how the boy was unable to set the spinning wheel running beyond the minimal two-or-three turns on his first spin. He spun harder only on the goading of his mother. This weak reflex was to eventually prove telling of Otani’s character as an enfant terrible novelist unable to lift himself out of a rut for the sake of his life and his family. Rather, he rested on the laurels of one particular success, with his subsequent work floundering among critics.

This initial sequence led into another black-and-white scene via a graphic match. Otani, now a man decked in business-wear, pants heavily as he sprints down an otherwise quiet road. The picture shifts from black-and-white into color as the man moves nearer and nearer the stationary camera as he runs. The mise-en-scene of which is a barely-lit bent road. The attention is solely on Otani and Otani alone. Eventually, the shot becomes a colored close-up of the tired man. The lack of dynamism of this low-octane scene (a static shot without any camera movement whatsoever) creates a stark contrast vis-à-vis Otani’s rapid sprint down the road. The viewer senses that he is running away from something—and that is something he needs to take ownership of alone—as the viewer is not made to ‘run along’ with Otani. This forms a lack of interaction with the protagonist, and rather than look at Otani from an empathizing perspective, the viewer sees himself on a vantage point detached from the world of the protagonist altogether.

The distal effect gleaned throughout the course of the movie is that Otani was running away from himself alone, though the proximal reason was because he was running away from the owners of a wine bar he store from just minutes ago. Yet throughout the apparent chase we do not see the owners of the wine bar appearing within the shot. The impact of the previous scene was evidently a clever double entendre technique that features more than the running away from these owners.

The movie then shifts into Otani’s home and introduces his wife, Sachi, to the viewer for the first time. Having reached home and caused a ruckus with his noisy entrance, Sachi awoke to find her fatigued husband. Evidently, the latter refused to say anything of his plight, and Sachi had to find out of the theft, rudely, through the owners’ appearance at their home.

The set-up of the home was a traditional one, implying traditional Japanese familial relations where nurturing wives are viewed upon by society as subversive to their husbands, the natural breadwinner of the family. Indeed, the theme of Japanese masculinity and a nurturing wife was a running thread throughout the film. And this was precisely the character Sachi embodies, much to the certain aghast of feminists around. It is definitely implausible today that a woman can possibly bear with such hardship—a philandering, thieving, good-for-nothing husband no less—and still not voice out any unhappiness or illspeak. Granted, Sachi appeared to have gotten the short end of the stick, and there doesn’t seem to be any shift in her character arc throughout the film. But rather than a 2010 perspective, the viewer should bear in mind the 1946 Japanese anachronism.

Yet in this particular family, the wife acts as a rational balance to the irrational Otani, caught up in his own dreams of an idealistic utopia that proves unachievable to say the list. Otani spouts highbrow quixotic lines such as:

  • “Women know neither joy or grief, men know only grief. They’re always fighting fear”
  • “It sounds pretentious but I really want to die. All my life I’ve been thinking of that”
  • “What frightens me is that there is a God in this world.”
  • “I’m a writer, so I’m good at being deluded.”
  • “What you don’t know about me isn’t worth knowing”
  • “I wonder what dying is like”
  • “Even monsters have feelings. I’m afraid to die, I’m afraid to live, but I’m most afaird of you”
  • “I can’t even love a dandelion the way I should”

Meanwhile, Sachi laughs to hide her anxiety and nervousness; she laughs to defuse awkward situations; she laughs to digress from a confrontation of her husband.

In the confrontation scene through which the bar owners came by Otani’s home:

Bar Owner: “Your husband almost single-handedly drank us dry. And that wasn’t praise.”
Sachi: (Nervous laughter) “I’m sorry” (Laughs)

This exchange evidently was in a bid to defuse (i) the confrontational mood of the bar owners, and (ii) the sorry life she found herself caught in through the marriage. Her husband is a philanderer and a drunkard, who is unable to bring in a stable income. And now she realizes, the hard way, that he’s a flagrant thief as well. He loses himself in the fin de siècle of Tokyo’s underground of bars and brothels, kasutori culture to the Japanese, named after a vile and often poisonous homebrewed alcohol called kasutori shochu, exploiting this world of black markets and illegal nomi-ya drinking houses purportedly to gain inspiration for his writing (Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, 2010)

But as an inkling of familial relations of the past, she opts to believe that he stole so as to give the family a better life, and says: “The three of us [Otani, herself, and their son] living together is enough for me.”

To repay the owners of the bar, Sachi takes on a job of waitressing at the bar. This act also implies that women were precious commodity in post-war Japan. Sexily clad women appeared to have the connotation of prostituting themselves. This in turn leads to a comedic bar turn where all the males in the bar clamored to please Sachi in a tipping competition to flaunt their wealth. Money is power, and those in power will get the woman. Indeed, prostitution was a legal trade in 1946-1947 Japan; only the Anti-Prostitution Law of 1956 outlawed the act in its entirety. One can easily draw reference via Sachi’s outfits in these scenes, which are uncannily similar to what the prostitutes wore in post-war Japan.

Source: http://www.asianoffbeat.com/default.asp?Display=1675

But though Sachi gladly accepted the tips, she refused to perform any act that might bring disgrace to the family and her husband. Yet the job evidently left her empowered. In a scene, she purposefully placed away the tips she earned in front of her husband—obviously with the intention of provoking her husband, a sarcastic attack on his apparent good-for-nothing nature. The fly-by-night nature of her cash did not go unnoticed by the husband, who proceeded to demean her efforts by stealing the cash to fund his own needs yet again. And at this point I’d like to draw parallels to the starting “spinning wheel” scene.

Evidently, this is no longer a symbol of passive duty toward country, but an indication of the necessary actions required for survival. Again, a parallel might be drawn to the beacon of survival in postwar Japan.

Otani eventually decides that life was too much for him, and wants to perform ‘love suicide’ with a mistress. Yet after his mistress popped pills that left her unconscious, he chickened out, such is his character of being unable to bring a plan to fruition.

Yet Sachi, while heartbroken, chose to forgive Otani instead.

In a pivotal scene, Sachi called up her old flame to help fight Otani’s case of attempted manslaughter in the love-suicide gone awry. But being unable to pay off the debts required for the lawyer services, Sachi appeared to have struck a Faustian bargain with the lawyer. A symbolic sequence of Sachi entering the law firm ensued. She bought a tube of lipstick off the street from a girlfriend of an Allied soldier. The bright red hue of the lipstick forms a clear semiotic symbolism of seduction, of sexing up her look, of wanting to provoke desire. She puts on the lipstick, and ensures that everything was perfect before she enters the law firm. No hair is out of place, her immaculate attire reeking of longing. The pay-off was perhaps coital, through her eventual emergence with frazzled hair and a comparatively messy outfit. Bidding “goodbye” to the woman she had bought the lipstick from, she laid the tube to rest against the lush green grass and wiped the lipstick off her lips. This scene itself symbolized how this was supposed to be a one-time act that will never be mentioned ever again in future.

It is definitely germane that the film was released in 2009, the centennial anniversary of the birth of revered author Osamu Dazai, and based on the latter’s titular thinly veiled autobiographical novella, Villon’s Wife. That, itself, was a reference from 15th century French poet François Villon. With muted performances, particularly from Tatako Matsu as the long-suffering Sachi and Tadanobu Asano as the brooding Otani, the subtle nuances and exchanges of this film are exceptionally affective.

Note: Caught the film while it was on a limited run in the cinema. All screen caps included in this essay are gleaned from its trailer on Youtube.