What I’ve Been Watching in March: Japanese Cinema – Five Highlights

When I purchased the PlayStation game Ghost of Tsushima (2020) late last year, I knew that once I got around to playing through it, I would also provide an ideal opportunity to explore other forms of Japanese-based entertainment, specifically cinema, as supplements to the experience. I had learned a fair amount about filmmaking in Japan in my final year of college through the Non-Western Cinema elective module I took, and I had already seen lauded works from reputable directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Osu. However, I still had to fill in a few gaps in their filmographies, as well as delve into the features of other highly respected Japanese artists like Kenji Mizoguchi and Masaki Kobayashi. While many of the movies I watched over the past month were rooted in the samurai genre (complementing my playthroughs of Ghost of Tsushima), a multitude of issues were explored in riveting fashion, including loyalty, the corruption of power, fractured identity, the role of women in Japanese society, and the consequences of war. I have identified five pictures that tackle one or more of these themes in striking, profound ways, capable of transcending their cultural contexts and elicit strong responses from viewers across the world.

  1. Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
Sansho the Bailiff (1954) Movie Summary and Film Synopsis on MHM

Having seen a handful of Kenji Mizoguchi’s works over the past month, I ought to warn any film fans who are keen to check out his movies that you are in for a series of emotionally draining experiences. Whether it’s the uncompromising depiction of a woman’s turbulent descent into prostitution in The Life of Oharu (1952) or a potter’s vanity triggering the demise of a stable family unit in Ugetsu (1953), Mizoguchi has highlighted how devastating the consequences of both self-interest and societal upheaval can be. However, Sansho the Bailiff, set in feudal Japan,is the film of his that left me shattered by the time it concluded, offering a heart-rending portrayal of a family coming to terms with an unjust, swift, and drastic decline in class position. Its youngest members, Zushio and Anju, serve as the narrative’s primary characters who, along with their mother Tamaki, attempt to reunite with their father who was exiled to a distant province years earlier. An encounter with a deceitful priestess separates the aristocratic children from their mother, and they spend much of the feature working as slaves in a manorial estate under treacherous conditions.

The contrast in how both children adapt to their unfortunate circumstances. In his final exchange with his children prior to his departure, Zushio and Anju’s father tells them: “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others”. Zushio struggles to follow this piece of advice during his time in the slave camp; his capacity for compassion disintegrates as he inflicts brutal punishments on fellow prisoners who attempt to break out of the estate, demonstrating his pragmatic approach to the ordeal. Anju, on the other hand, remains true to her father’s word, assisting the female slaves and latching upon any signs of hope in order to instigate an escape. The sibling’s alternative strategies for survival showcase the lengths people will go to in order to regain some form of familial stability, as well as illuminating the limits of adhering to one’s sense of morality in a period characterised by stark class divide and a thirst for power. Mizoguchi recognises that endless optimism will only get these characters so far, but at the same time he uses this particular story as a counter to the notion that an individual’s status in this specific society is permanent, with Zushio in particular shifting between multiple positions over the course of the film. Some viewers may find the tone and certain plot developments a little disingenuous given the film’s main setting, but to me they only elevate the power of the storytelling, vindicating the audience’s emotional attachment to the protagonists but carrying enough complexity to generate a wide range of responses, from deep sadness to a profound sense of relief. Sansho the Bailiff is a tough film to endure, but there is so much beauty to be found in regards to presentation both thematically and visually.  

2. Twenty-Four Eyes (1954)

Twenty-Four Eyes

If this film had been an American production, I would be pretty certain that it would have swept the Oscars because it is tailor made to tug at the heartstrings of Academy voters. Chronicling the relationship between a schoolteacher named Hisako and a class of twelve students she first encounters when they are in first grade over the course of 18 years, Keisuke Kinoshita’s poignant drama highlights how the strength of a relationship between a group of pupils and their tutor can endure beyond a school setting. The feature opens in 1928 with Hisako Oisha (Hideko Takamine) arriving on the island of Shōdoshima, drawing the attention of the residents as she wears a suit and cycles to her workplace. Her warmth and generosity towards her new students creates a strong bond between them, and while an accident brings Hisako’s time in the school to an abrupt conclusion, it does not mark the end of her connection to the children, as they are eventually reunited once they enter the sixth grade. However, events outside of school hugely impact the students’ academic progress, from pregnancies to the commencement of World War II, thus Hisako’s mentorship carries even greater weight as they face the extreme challenges of adulthood earlier than anticipated.

Twenty-Four Eyes does not work if viewers do not buy into the dynamic between Hisako and her pupils, but thanks to Hideko Takamine’s exemplary performance and the chemistry she shares with the younger cast members, it does not take long for us to become endeared to their relationship. The students themselves, a mix of boys and girls, vary enough in personality to demonstrate the extent of the protagonist’s enjoyable teaching methods; some of them relish the prospect of fighting for their country when they grow up, while others have to balance school life with the rigorous work they carry out at home, assisting their parents with farming or fishing. Crucially, Hisako herself is a layered character, as Kinoshita spotlights the difficulties she faces at home, whether it be recovering from a nasty injury to becoming a parent. Furthermore, she faces pressure from the main school’s principal in regards to her discussion of politics during classes, which the latter insists she refrain from. This nuanced approach characterisation enhances the emotional power of the storytelling, and renders moments that could easily have come across as cheap ways to elicit tears from viewers earnest and deeply moving.

Just as Sansho the Bailiff was aware of the dark realities associated with its setting yet still offered a sense of optimism for viewers to latch onto, Twenty-Four Eyes understands the barriers that prevent Mrs. Oisha from fully transforming her students’ circumstances, but nevertheless it demonstrates how the special aspects of one’s childhood can remain impenetrable during adulthood. Once many students leave school, they never want to look back, but in the case of Mrs. Oisha’s pupils, it is pivotal to preserve the memory of the time they spent with their mentor and grasp any opportunity they have to meet her again, because they recognise the debt they owe her for shaping who they are twenty years on from their first encounter.

3. Harakiri (1962)

Harakiri | BAMPFA

About 10-15 minutes into Masaki Kobayashi’s drama, I found myself smiling. It wasn’t because something had happened on screen that was particularly funny, charming, exhilarating, or uplifting; it was because I knew that I was about to witness a very, very special film. I first came across this project when browsing Letterboxd and discovered that it boasted the fourth highest average rating of any narrative feature on the website. Once I was aware of that, it jumped straight to the top of my watchlist.

Set between the years of 1619 and 1630, labelled the ‘Edo’ period when Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, Harakiri begins with a warrior named Hanshirō Tsugumo entering the estate of the Iyi clan expressing his desire to commit seppuku in the palace’s courtyard. Despite pleas from members of the clan to refrain from doing so – relaying the story of another ronin whose similar attempt went awry – Hanshirō insists that he will not leave the premises alive. However, as the protagonist make certain requests for the ritual, those in the House of Iyi begin to realise that all is not what it seems with the masterless samurai. What unfolds is an incredibly tense, surprising, thrilling, and thought-provoking piece of filmmaking concerned with how authority can be challenged to various extents, from the disruption of myth-making to the exposure of hypocrisy.

Throughout the picture, Kobayashi confronts many aspects of samurai culture and highlights how symbols and moral codes that carry significant weight to its followers can be disregarded when there is a genuine threat to their position of power. Hanshirō personifies this threat, exhibiting an ability to manipulate senior members of the House of Iyi and forcing them to face up to their abuse of authority. In spite of his calm demeanour in his conversations with the clan and his assuredness in combat, the protagonist’s motivation is borne out of extremely tragic events which we only fully grasp towards the beginning of the final act that endear us to his cause to an even greater extent. He is aware of the risks associated with his mission, but the opportunity to break the façade of the House of Iyi and disclose their miscarriages of justice is too important on a personal and societal level to refrain from.

The non-linear narrative structure is crucial in maintaining a high level of suspense as well as slowly adding layers to the central figures that render the events in present day even more precarious. The exchanges shared between Hanshirō and the Iyi retainers are as gripping as the fight sequences which mainly feature in the final 30 minutes, a testament to the strength of Shinobu Hashimoto’s script. Ultimately, Harakiri is a damning indictment of how recklessly the responsibilities attached to authority can be mishandled not just in the context of the Edo period, but in contemporary society. Destabilising the aura of the elite psychologically and physically, Hanshirō should be regarded as one of cinema’s greatest protagonists, and in general Kobayashi’s masterpiece deserves to be held alongside Tokyo Story (1953) and Seven Samurai (1954) as one of the finest Japanese films ever produced.

4. Ran (1985)

Ran (1985) | Motion State Review

If you were to ask a casual film fan who would be on their personal Mount Rushmore of film directors, the obvious choices would be the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, and Alfred Hitchcock. However, it would be unfair to have this discussion without referencing the Japanese master by the name of Akira Kurosawa. Helming some of the most influential works of all-time, from Rashomon (1950) to Seven Samurai (1954), the Tokyo-born filmmaker has left a remarkable legacy not only in Japanese cinema but the entire industry. One of the last notable entries in his filmography is 1985’s Ran where, not for the first time in his career, he adapts a Shakespearean text, in this case King Lear, and contextualises the story in the tempestuous Sengoku period (1467 to 1615). It revolves around a warlord named Hidetora Ichimonji who chooses to divide his kingdom between his three sons, a decision which has significant and ultimately brutal ramifications for the members of the family.

Ran serves as a 2.5-hour showcase of Kurosawa flexing his directorial muscles. He is an exemplar of staging grand set-pieces with heavy emotional weight underpinning them. Both the opening and closing 15-20 minutes are startling in the contrast between the aesthetic, tone, and character dynamics, but this juxtaposition serves to strikingly illustrate how a combination of greed, the flawed transfer of power, and generational divide can trigger the collapse of an entire kingdom. The first section of Ran highlights Hidetora’s preoccupation with familial unity and collaboration, using the example of the robustness of three arrows bundled together to provide a tangible demonstration of this principle. As the process of initiating a succession plan deteriorates, so to does Hidetora’s sanity, struggling to deal with rejection from his children and having to confront the consequences of his actions as leader of the Ichimonji clan through encounters with impoverished figures. While Hidetora’s story on its own is incredibly gripping, the characterisation throughout the picture is meticulously drawn, with supporting players like Lady Kaede personifying the shift between the values that pervaded the warlord’s generation and the ones that dominate hers, notably distrust and a reliance on violence to achieve objectives. These conflicts between a father and his sons, siblings, in-laws, and close friends culminate in an arresting climax in which the exceptional camera work accentuates the extent of the chaos unfolding on screen, with Kurosawa eager to spotlight the advanced warfare being utilised in order to magnify its ruthless nature. Overall, Ran is arguably one of the Kurosawa’s most memorable works; his last epic is a riveting display of meticulous costume and production design, absorbing set-pieces, and Kurosawa’s stellar command of cinematic language.

5. Cure (1997)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure (1997) | Cagey Films

Helping to usher a new wave of Japanese horror cinema around the turn of the millennium along with efforts such as Ring (1998), Audition (1999), and Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s chilling piece offers an intriguing spin on the traditional crime thriller formula that will leave viewers in a daze by the end. It centres around a police detective named Kenichi Takabe (Kōji Yakusho) who is looking into a string of murders in which each victim’s neck has the letter ‘X’ carved into it. Furthermore, the culprit differs from one incident to the next, and when interrogated by the police force, they cannot recall what made them consider committing such an atrocity. Takabe realises that there is an individual manipulating the murderers, but he is unaware of just how much psychological torment his investigation will inflict upon him.

The unconventional manner of the crimes which act as the catalyst for the events that unfold throughout Cure is fitting given Kurosawa’s unorthodox way of gradually resolving the mystery. While a handful of viewers might find the deliberately slow pacing frustrating, it is successful in mirroring Takabe’s growing unease as he struggles to identify the figure responsible for these hideous undertakings. The majority of crimes happen off-screen, but again this serves the purpose of displaying the efficacy of the malefactor’s methods; the fact that numerous people have killed innocents but have no recollection of them makes the audience feel vulnerable as we realise that this could happen to us. His threat is not reduced to simply boasting brute strength, stealth, athleticism, etc; it is his proficiency in specific areas of psychology that triggers these killings. Knowing that the protagonist is potentially prone to losing his composure given how unsettling his private life has become (the dynamic between him and his wife is especially disconcerting at times) amplifies the tension to an even greater extent.

With most crime films, viewers expect to reach a moment of catharsis where the killer is caught, the victim is saved, the lead detective experiences some form of vindiciation, and so on. As Cure approaches its final few minutes, it feels inevitable that this kind of moment is not going to come. The cyclical nature of the offender’s technique is not destined to end with his imprisonment or death, and Kurosawa’s preoccupation with ambiguity remains transparent as the credits roll. When a casual film fan thinks of defining serial killer movies from the 90s, David Fincher’s Seven (1995) comes to mind immediately. Kurosawa’s haunting effort deserves to be held similar esteem, simply for the manner in which its unsettling impact lingers beyond the final frame.

Here is a selection of other films I watched throughout the month that I would highly recommend:

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939, Kenji Mizoguchi)

Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)

Aparajito (1956, Satyajit Ray)

The Sword of Doom (1966, Kihachi Okamoto)

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973, Victor Erice)

Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987, Louis Malle)

Saint Maud (2020, Rose Glass)

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