Am I So Out Of Touch? No, It’s The Students Who Are Wrong
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
The Garden of Women could have come straight out of Berkeley, California in the 1960s, but no, this is Japan circa 1954 in the fictional Shorin Women’s College, Kyoto. The exact nature of the higher educational establishment in the film is unclear. It has the hallmarks of a boarding school and requires students to wear a uniform but it is not an institution for minors. On the other hand, it would appear the college may be a finishing school however the term is never used in the film. Regardless, following the film’s opening scene of students rallying together following the death of an unspecified character, the film presents a prologue stating; “The students demand academic freedom and human rights. The school wants to maintain its tradition of refinement and personal betterment. But must there be friction between the two?”. So you’re probably wondering how we got into this situation, well for that, we have to go way back…
While it would be fun to declare that Shorin Women’s College is a based and red-pilled intuition that did nuffin wrong, I will offer up the less sexy partial defense of the college against its rebelling students;
-Firstly, the students are attending the college at their own will. The institution itself is not forcing anyone to attend (as evident by a student declaring at one point “Why did I choose such a college?”).
-Secondly, it is established the college is 47 years old. It is a very arrogant attitude to join an institution and then proclaim you will change it from the inside out.
-Thirdly, the college is very front facing about its conservative morals and anti-communist stance, therefore the students should have had expectations of what they were getting into and that an establishment like this is not going to look too favourably upon books on dialectical materialism. To quote Robert Conquest; “any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing”.
-Lastly, there is a genuine lack of stoicism among many of the students, as much of the instigation for the student’s rebellion comes from the petty rule-breaking of student Tomiko Takioka (Keiko Kishi), failing to wear proper uniform and breaking curfew.
So where does fault lie with Shorin Women’s College and in what ways do the students hold legitimate grievances? Well, the college is overly parental with its students who are legally adults, lecturing them on sex, pastimes and their social lives. Especially the college’s matron (Mieko Takamine) whom it can be argued is too involved in the lives of her students. Secondly, the college goes through the mail of the students which is highly unethical and should not be tolerated in a free society. However, the biggest issue with the college in my book is the vicious circle the institution finds itself in from receiving financial support from the family of one of its students by the name of Akiko Hayahiro (Yoshiko Kuga).
Akiko Hayahiro is the most interesting character in the picture and Kuga steals the show with her performance which becomes increasingly sinister as the movie progresses. Akiko openly claims she is a communist however other characters in the story remain doubtful of her claims and see her as a larper. Regardless this champagne socialist comes from a wealthy and connected family who spend summers at a swanky beach. A communist who comes from a privileged background? Why, I am shocked, shocked I tell you! Even the character of Toshika is dismayed at this and can’t wrap her head around it. Due to her family’s connections to the college, Akiko receives establishment protection, as, despite the college’s purported values, she is allowed to do as pleases and receives no pushback from the faculty. As a result, the uprising she helps launch in the film’s third act, the college largely has itself to blame.
Moreover, in contrast to Akkio is Yoshie Izushi. Hideko Takamine should be too old at age 30 to portray an early twenty-something student but actually plays the part convincingly. As Yoshie, Takamine portrays a character who exudes such levels of sadness and despair as she holds Silvia Sydney’s beer. She struggles with her studies, in part from her overbearing father who doesn’t want her to marry the man she loves, but also because she had to work for 3 years after high school in her father’s Kimono shop, has forgotten almost everything and is denied the request to live and study off-campus. Such a request is denied to her by the college’s matron Mayumi Gojō (Mieko Takamine, no relation to the other Takamine), aka The Shrew. The Matron does strike the balance between being strict but friendly with the sense that she does have the student’s best interest at heart. Near the film’s conclusion, it is revealed the matron has a tortured past of her own as she once had a marriage banned by her parents and a child taken away from her. However, I would argue this reveal wasn’t necessary as Mieko Takamine’s performance already gives the character many layers, this added reveal doesn’t contribute to any additional characterization.
I do love a film set in a higher education setting from the crass to the more sophisticated (with any film of this nature, I can’t help but have The Kingsmen’s cover of Louie Louie play in my head.) The filming location for the fictional Shorin College however remains a mystery (unless anyone had info I’m not privy to). That said, the film’s sets have that lived-in quality, reminiscent of a classic English boarding school with various Japanese touches (ground furniture, paper doors etc). These sets are beautifully showcased with the film’s high-contrast cinematography as well as many lengthy, intricate, Mizoguchi-style camera pans (the film even features several striking deep focus shots of Himeji Castle in the city of the same name). One of the most memorable scenes in The Garden Of Women, for both its content and aesthetic beauty, is that of Yoshie and her boyfriend walking and talking about the present as well as their uncertain futures, with the sunlight reflected in the lake behind them as the camera pans really add to the romantic nature of the scene. Yoshie also gives one of the insightful comments in the film in which she describes the two types of women who attend the college. Those who really want to study to begin a career alongside men, and those who want a diploma as part of their dowry, of whom are the majority.
Eventually, the pressure on Yoshie becomes too much and she takes her own life, causing the already brewing student rebellion to go into overdrive as we return the events from the film’s prologue. The students blame the college for Yoshie’s suicide, even though her problems existed before she attended the college. Their use of her as a martyr in their cause is highly dubious as the students themselves alienated Yoshie and drove her to tears at one point when all she wanted to do was study. The Garden Of Women does not end in a pretty manner with everyone blaming each other for Yoshie’s death and the central conflict between students and the college remaining unresolved.
A film which could be tighter in areas, The Garden Of Women is a lengthy but rewarding affair. The middle portion of the film which takes place outside the college during the winter break and deals with a number of ancillary characters could have been left on the cutting room floor, which would have improved the film’s flow. Regardless, The Garden Of Women is a thought-provoking piece of work and not a film of two-dimensional bad guys as brief descriptions of the film might indicate. It is much more nuanced than that and doesn’t frame a narrative portraying one side as villains or clearly in the wrong. 1954 is arguably the apex year of Japanese cinema, seeing the release of Seven Samurai, Godzilla, Sansho The Bailiff, as well as director Keisuke Kinoshita’s other academia-based movie of 1954, Twenty-Four Eyes. The Garden of Women is an underrated gem within a single year’s amazing output.
Wait A Minute, There Were No Scattered Clouds In Scattered Clouds!
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
The plot synopsis of Scattered Clouds (aka Two In The Shadow or its original Japanese title Midaregumo) sounded fascinating and had me asking myself, how does such a scenario play out in a believable and non-contrived manner? A man falls in love with the widow of a man whom he killed in a car accident and eventually, she falls in love with him in return. Sounds like the type of intriguing fodder for a daytime talk show, I can just imagine the Jerry Springer-style title – “I’m In Love With The Man Who Killed My Husband”. However, the closest counterpart to Scattered Clouds is Lloyd C Douglas’ 1929 novel Magnificent Obsession (itself later adapted into a 1954 film by Douglas Sirk).
There is a little-known acronym for a person who is responsible for the accidental death or injury of another known as a CADI (Caused Accidental Death Or Injury). The term has no official recognition but to date is the closest term in existence for such an individual. Mishima Shiro (Yūzō Kayama) accidentally kills another man by the name of Hiroshi Eda (Yoshio Tsuchiya) in a car accident, leaving his wife Yumiko (Yōko Aizawa) widowed. The accident itself is not portrayed on screen nor does it have any build-up, it is just announced out of nowhere 8 minutes into the film, making its impact all the more shocking and reflective of reality. Mishima is later found in court to be not guilty of negligence (lost control of his vehicle due to a burst tire) and the film shows the negative toll it takes on the CADI with his company forcing him to relocate which in turn ends his current relationship and leads to depression. At the same time, his guilt and compassion result in him paying money in monthly installments to the newly widowed Yumiko even though he has no legal obligation. That said, Mishima doesn’t have the wisest of intentions when he chooses to actually attend the funeral of the man he accidentally killed (even if it is to pay his respects), and easily gives away that he is the man responsible (keeping in mind he hasn’t been acquitted at this point). Evidently, his unwise decision-making extends to later in the film with his cringe-worthy attempt to woo Yumiko with a Tommy Wiseau-level line (“You were so cute, like a child, when I surprised you. Actually, you were amazingly sexy too”).
The tragedy of Yumiko Eda on-the-other-hand actually reminded me of George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life, a character whom the world is their oyster with the prospect of travelling and seeing the world, only to have it taken away and instead find themselves stuck living in a dead-end town. Before his untimely death, Yumiko and Hiroshi were set to move to Washington D.C. after he got the job as an ambassador for the company he works for. This plight of a woman who was dependent on her late husband also results in the disappearance of her unborn baby, only in the womb for three months at the time of her husband’s accident. Shortly afterwards she goes to a hospital in which all that is shown is a doctor telling her to count to seven, after which there is no mention of the baby: miscarriage, abortion, stillborn? Abortion was and still is legal in Japan if the mother meets an economic threshold of poor living conditions. Prior to this scene in the hospital, Yumiko is forced to endure dehumanizing bureaucracy following her husband’s death (not to mention there are even discussions of Hiroshi’s replacement at his own funeral) in which she is told “No additional postnatal allowance will be paid for a pregnancy under five months” – make of that that what you will.
The plot in Scattered Clouds does have some reliance on coincidence bringing the characters of Yumiko and Mishima together. In particular, Mishima is relocated by his company to the town in which Yumiko grew up and decides to move back following her husband’s death (that being Aomori in the prefecture of the same name) but does so without the contrivance getting in the way. Scattered Clouds does a remarkable job of conveying the naturalistic evolution of their relationship, going from Yumiko’s inability to even look at Mishima to the pair eventually falling in love. Much has to be commended for the chemistry of the two actors in making this transition believable but the real turning point in the relationship is when Mishima finally challenges Yumiko on the way she treats him despite all the amends he has tried to make, only then does she herself begin to feel a sense of guilt. I believe the other aspect which aids the believability of this unorthodox romance is the Florence Nightingale syndrome from when Yumiko spends the night caring for Mishima after he catches a fever. Scattered Clouds can serve as a companion piece to Mikio Naruse’s earlier film Yearning (Midareru), with both films featuring Yūzō Kayama in a highly unlikely will they/won’t they relationship.
Scattered Clouds also has an odd distinction of featuring quite a few “put-downs” of various eastern hemisphere cities. Aomori, where much of the picture takes place (not to mention filmed) is described as having people who are blunt and unfriendly as evidenced by the waitress at the café, serving coffee with no care. Then the city of Lahore in western Pakistan (from which Mishima is to be transferred) is described as an “awful place” as well as the movie claiming it is the birthplace of cholera. I can’t find any evidence this is the case so was this a misconception in Japan at the time (I suppose it doesn’t help when your city sounds like the name of a French prostitute)? To wrap things off, whether justly or unjustly, the film describes Dhaka, Laos, Saigon and Karachi as places no one wants to go.
Scattered Clouds was Mikio Naruse’s final film of a 37-year career and can go down as one of the finest directorial finales. Scattered Clouds is only Naruse’s 3rd film in colour and only work in the post-black & white era and while the picture does have a more cotemporaneous feel than had it been made a few years earlier, there is still a dreamlike quality present. I just have to enquire as to what is the meaning of the film’s title as nowhere in Scattered Clouds are scattered clouds present. Well, the original Japanese title Midaregumo actually translates to Turbulent Clouds (which are present within the film during a key scene in which Mishima comes down with a fever). I guess Scattered Clouds has a more romantic ring evoking classic melodrama.
Hit And Run (a direct translation from the film’s Japanese title Hikinige) aka Moment Of Terror, has never been released via official means in any country (home media, streaming etc), yet I was able to get hold of an unofficial physical DVD copy which was in shockingly good quality (and in English subtitles) for such an obscure film, and what a film it is! Ah the joy (and in some parts frustration) of discovering a motion picture which knocks your socks off, yet you are the only person who knows about it.
Hit And Run is Mikio Naruse’s foray into a Hitchcockian-style thriller and a film which shares a number of similarities with Akira Kurosawa’s High And Low (1963), albeit a bit more schlocky (in line with the type of films Bette Davis or Joan Crawford spent the 1960’s appearing in). After the unfaithful wife (Yoko Tsukasa) of a business mogul named Kakinuma (Etaro Ozawa) accidentally kills the child of single mother Kuniko (Hideko Takamine) in a hit-and-run accident, they conspire in order to save the bottom line of the company (as well as the wife covering her own back) by having their lowly chauffeur (Yutaka Sada) be the fall guy. However once Kuniko hears word of this conspiracy, she plots her revenge by posing as a maid in the house of the killer. Hit And Run is the final of the 14 film collaboration from Naruse and Hideko Takamine, as the vigilante mother whose love is taken too far. Takamine delivers one intense, angry and histrionic performance of maternal anguish, completely losing her mind come the film’s conclusion in which she becomes a nervous scenery-chewing wreck. However, the film’s more subtle moments do showcase Takamine’s impeccable ability to convey so much without the aid of dialogue.
Comparisons to Kurosawa’s High And Low quickly become evident in Hit And Run, as the business mogul of Yamano Motors Kakinuma attempts to justify his reasoning to cover up the incident in order to save the company’s bottom line as well as their new product (which is ironically a high-speed motorcycle), and the calm manner in which he does so is fascinating in how it portrays the banality of evil. This is reminiscent of how Toshiro Mifune’s character in High And Low attempts to do the same by justifying not paying a ransom in order to save the life of someone else’s child in order to save his company. Likewise, both films showcase the stark differences between the upper and the lower classes, with both films featuring families living in a property up in the hills overlooking the plebs. Additionally, the chauffeur who takes the fall is indeed played by the same actor who portrayed the unfortunate chauffeur in High And Low, Yutaka Sada. There are no moral actors present in the Hit And Run. Kuniko’s revenge goes beyond “an eye for an eye” for “a child for a child” as she attempts to murder the wife’s son but at least struggles to fully go through with her intentions. The unnamed wife however (whom has a child of her own at the same age of the one she killed) is a highly reprehensible character. I never derive any sympathy for her, even when she continues to be plagued by bad dreams of the incident. Although it is never stated, it wouldn’t be unlikely that the husband and wife are in an arranged marriage due to their age difference and lack of commitment.
One scene from Hit And Run involves a flashback to how Kuniko meet her late husband, a Japanese soldier who is pushed into a ditch by prostitutes as they mock him for losing the war, to which he is retrieved by Kuniko as a more sympathetic prostitute followed by a subsequent fast forward to the birth of their son. This flashback however appears to be from another movie starring Hideko Takamine as evidenced by the fact that she appears significantly younger alongside the drastic change in film grain and tone. The inclusion of this flashback is the one criticism I would have with the Hit And Run as its inclusion feels very out of place as this other film is more saccharine in tone nor does it add anything to the larger narrative. Likewise, it also throws into disarray as to when the film is actually set as the flashback is clearly set in the immediate aftermath of the war yet the film’s setting is clearly contemporary for the mid-1960s. That said, would any cinema sleuths be able to identify this film within the film?
Regardless, any other criticism aimed at the very tightly plotted and brisk Hit and Run is largely inconsequential as it doesn’t negatively affect the film based on the strength of its material. Some suspension of disbelief is required that the family at no point would have seen an image of Kuniko (even with her brother doing all the negotiating on her behalf, she is still seen in court). Likewise, what happened to the original maid from whom Kuniko stole the identity from? There is also a piece of set-up in which the housekeeper tells Kunkio “the boiler is dangerous, let me handle that”, however, this never leads to any payoff. Throughout the film, there is also the recurring use of heightened lighting when portraying Kuniko’s murder fantasies. These are cheesy and cliché but do add to the film’s enjoyable schlock value, while the use of a rollercoaster to create a sense of unease is something that would be repeated time and again for years to come (Fatal Attraction, False Face, the aptly titled Rollercoaster).
At its core Hit And Run is about the dangers of automobiles and those who drive them (not exactly news to me having lived in Northern Ireland my whole life with our incredibly graphic road safety adverts). There is however a historical context for this as Takashi Oguchi of The University of Tokyo states:
“Japan has experienced an enormous increase of traffic accidents as a result of the country’s rapid economic growth from the late 1950s to the year 1970. Observers in the early 1960s called the proliferation of traffic accidents the “Traffic War” as the annual traffic-accident fatalities exceeded the average annual fatalities during the First Sino-Japanese war…”
There are several moments in Hit And Run featuring some very impressive two-dimensional shots of automobiles driving by so fast in the street as the drivers give no heed to any children attempting to cross (even as a child stands alone in the middle of the road) while the film concludes on a shot featuring a scoreboard detailing the injuries and deaths from road accidents in a local area to hammer the point home. Then there is the additional metaphorical irony that the company featured in the film itself is an automobile manufacturer that is currently testing high-speed motorcycles while using the intentionally provocative slogan “gamble your life on the moment” (and even laughing that the police object to it). The film ultimately goes as far as it can with this theme without crossing the line into being preachy or overbearing. There is something all the more unsettling at the sight of a body outline when it’s that of a child. Women drivers, amirite?
Mikio Naruse’s Yearning is a unique melodrama with its story combing unorthodox romance/family drama alongside commerce with the Morita family struggling to keep their Mom & Pop store in business against the closet the picture has to a villain in the form of the Walmart-esqe Shimizuya Supermarket. This scourge of modernity with its low prices and ease of convenience is represented throughout the film by a promotional truck as it drives through this small, unnamed town accompanied by music with sinister undertones to it and even more so when it is seen driving along the town’s outskirts with its barren wastelands making it all the more haunting. The supermarket simply doesn’t have the human touch that the shop around the corner such as the Morita’s store provides. However, they simply can’t compete when the supermarket sells a single egg for 5 yen when Mom & Pop need to sell them at 11 yen in order to turn a profit. It is surprising to see this subject matter being explored in 1964, but is the film’s fatalism justified with the supermarket owners acting like bullies and one of the town’s shop owners even committing suicide over the prospect of another supermarket opening? At least in the UK the corner store still soldiers on, many trading under franchise names but independent ones do exist. Yearning does have that British kitchen sink vibe with the store itself having an English feel to it with all its canned goods, glass bottles and weighing scales. Even the music score courtesy of Ichirō Saitō is oddly kitschy at times, throwing in what appears to sound like a theremin or synthesizer on occasions.
At the beginning of Yearning, we are treated to a scene in which a group of young people hold an egg-eating contest in a bar (move over Cool Hand Luke!). Before the contest begins, one woman speaks of how she “ate 12 of those, had diarrhoea and couldn’t stop burping for 3 days” (you know, like you do), as the gross, undignified spectacle proceeds with the young folk frantically stuffing eggs into their mouths while the referee sings the Can-Can (man, the Japanese are weird). The scene does introduce the character of Koji Morita (Yūzō Kayama) and establishes the rivalry his family’s store has with the supermarket, but why do it in such a bizarre manner? A potential metaphor that Koji is a bad egg is the best I can derive from the spectacle. I think of this scene like the Thunderlips fight in Rocky III, one which has no greater purpose or relevance to the plot but it sure is entertaining to watch.
Koji Morita is a total beta-male. This 25-year-old is unemployed with no desire to work, no concern for his future, takes no responsibility for his actions and frequently gets into trouble with the law (Kayama would play another spoiled-brat type character the following year in Kurosawa’s Red Beard). However, his sister-in-law Reiko (Hideko Takamine) is the polar opposite. Reiko has been with the family for 18 years, marrying in when she was 19 and Koji was 11 years her junior at 9 (the film forces the viewer to do some mental arithmetic to figure out the character’s ages). Following the death of Reiko’s husband during the war, she stayed with the family and rebuilt their business after it was destroyed in bombing raids. There is an odd and fascinating relationship between Reiko and Koji, the manner in which they interact you would believe they are biological siblings who grew up together, partially aided by Koji referring to Reiko throughout the picture as “sister”. Koji has an unhealthy dependence on Reiko, relying on her to run the family business which allows him to pursue a gallivanting lifestyle – in ways she is like a mother figure to him, often addressing him like a child. This already unconventional relationship is made all the more so with the film’s big reveal, Koji admits to Reiko that he is in love with her, leading to the most awkward will they/won’t they in cinema history (talk about the extreme opposite of being out with the in-laws, amirite?). Koji appears to be oblivious to the issues which could arise from the taboo and emasculating nature of an older woman/younger man relationship and while the film makes no mention of this, the question should be asked as to how much does he resemble his deceased brother? Moral and ethical conundrums are often raised in Naurse’s films. In the case of Yearning, one of these is to what extent can an in-law remain part of a family after the spouse has passed away – blood is thicker than water. This alongside the business implications of the family’s plan to merge their business with another in order to open their own supermarket puts pressure on Reiko to ultimately leave the family.
During the act of Yearning, Reiko embarks on the train journey home to her original family in Tokyo, only for Koji to unexpectedly accompany her. During their time on the train, there is a natural build-up of her affection towards him. Reiko eventually decides the two of them should get off at the next station and they travel to a little village in the woods called Silver Mountain, the most romantic setting imaginable. At this point it appears they may actually get together as Reiko delivers one of the film’s most poignant lines; “I’m a woman too. You told me that you loved me. To tell you the truth, I was so happy when you said that”. This period of romantic bliss doesn’t last long however as Reiko suddenly comes back to her senses when Koji attempts to kiss her. Yearning concludes with a final image which does stay burned into your memory after watching. When Reiko discovers the following morning that Koji has been found dead after falling off a cliff (boy, that escalated quickly), the picture finishes with a Leone-style close-up of Takamine’s face followed by a hard cut to “The End”. It is a very abrupt ending but I do believe it is appropriate as is does enhance the tragedy and also metaphorically relates to the film’s original Japanese title “Midareru”, meaning to be disordered, disarranged, disarrayed, dishevelled or to lapse into chaos.
As of writing this review, Yearning has never had any western home media release but you can watch it on the Criterion Channel but only in the US & Canada, that is of course unless you head over to our friends over at Express VPN and get three extra months for free, ok only joking (I’m not going to do a Ben Shapiro style ad read).
It’s 9 O’Clock On A Saturday, The Regular Crowd Shuffles In
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, the three big boys of Japanese cinema, but who is the fourth Beatle in this group of filmmakers? It would have to be one Mikio Naruse, a director in the genre of Shomin-geki – realist films which focus on the everyday lives of the lower to middle class. With this review, I will do what little I can to get this unsung master of cinema the attention he deserves.
Hideko Takamine is Keiko “Mama” Yashiro, the titular heroine of When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, the hostess with the mostest working in a bar within Tokyo’s Ginza district, one of the most expensive and luxurious districts in the world. The profession of bar hostess is very much a Japanese phenomenon, primarily female staff who cater to men seeking drinking and attentive conversations. Regardless of what exactly defines a bar vs. pub vs. nightclub, the establishments featured in When A Woman Ascends The Stairs are of the highest class with the bar deco seen throughout the film being to absolutely die for. When A Woman Ascends The Stairs is one of the best examples of a film to really capture the essence of the nocturnal urban jungle with this dark and brooding melodrama being shot in velvety black & white with stunning widescreen cinematography. This mood is also exemplified right from the opening credits with its Saul Bass-style minimalist illustrations of bar interiors accompanied by the music score courtesy of Toshiro Mayuzumi, comprised of very soothing, xylophone-infused, 60’s-style lounge music (sadly no soundtrack release or isolated score appears to exist). With this setting, When A Woman Ascends The Stairs has a Casablanca-like flavour with a cast (featuring many character actors) conducting conversations with sublime etiquette amongst a smoke-drenched atmosphere.
It is established in a subtle manner that there is an expectation for hostesses to sleep with their clients. Keiko outright says she is a conservative woman who doesn’t want to lower her standards as she battles to make a living while retaining her self-respect as well as staying faithful to her late husband. Keiko does not actually enjoy the job of being a bar hostess, hence the metaphor of the film’s title – ascending the stairs is an uphill battle to survive as she faces her job and life in general with a fake smile and glass in hand (at one point she is desperate enough to even visit a fortune teller to fork out a future path). Keiko is given the nickname of Mama-san, which I do find odd as she is only 30 years old but I guess that is still past the spring of her life. Due to this, she faces a crossroads in her life if she wants to maintain her standards – get married or open her own bar.
In one key scene, Keiko speaks to the bar’s owner after closing time whom she tells Keiko, “Isn’t your kimono rather subdued? A colourful one is better” (according to the film’s opening, Takamine herself designed the film’s costuming). A lot of implications come out of this one request and it is by another woman, enforcing a culture and expectation for hostesses to sleep with their clients. That brings to mind the other famous form of Japanese hostess, the geisha (of whom during the film one does appear in the bar Keiko works in much to her displeasure). There do exist a number of parallels between When A Woman Ascends The Stairs and Kenji Mizoguchi’s A Geisha (1953), both detailing women who are being forced to sleep with clients in order to stay afloat with such cultures being enforced by the female owners of the establishments – I do recommend both pictures for a double feature. Following the despair brought on by her failure to either get married or open her own bar, Keiko does eventually sleep with a client, Mr Fujisaki (Nobuhiko), or I should more accurately say is raped by him. Yet the morning after she expresses happiness to Fujisaki and expresses her love to him (make of that what you will). The closest the film has to a purveyor of morality is the bar manager Kenichi Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai), as he always refuses the advances of women in the bar and holds great admiration for Keiko for her conservative standards (“You can’t find many women like her in Ginza”).
When A Woman Ascends The Stairs features a lot of talk about money and the pursuit of it (we even see the use of the ancient abacus is still in effect as electronic calculators were not yet the norm) from unpaid bills from Keiko’s last bar to the investment of her own place to the money she has to send to her ungrateful family. Even in this heartless world, the talk of finance doesn’t even halt when Keiko is recovering from a stomach ulcer but more significantly, in the wake of a woman’s suicide over her own financial woes, creditors make an appearance at her funeral to ask the family for the money she owed them (debt cancellation after death doesn’t appear to exist). All this discussion of money does slightly work against the film’s favour to the western viewer unless you are an expert in Japanese currency as due to the nature of the Japanese yen and inflationary changes since 1960, it’s hard to quantify just how much money the character’s in the film are discussing. Nonetheless, I have done the research to quantify several key amounts mentioned throughout the picture. The 170,000 yen of Keiko’s unpaid bills from her last place is approximately 7,500 US dollars in 2023, her 30,000 yen apartment rent is 1,700 dollars and the 20,000 yen she gives to her family every month is 1,100 dollars.
By the conclusion of When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, nothing is resolved, Keiko is back at square one and has resigned to her fate. Hideko Takamine has that balance of lovability but also a strong sense of perseverance and stoicism and with the universality of many films from Japan’s golden age of cinema and regardless of the specifics of Keiko’s story, being stuck in a vicious circle of which there is no easy escape is one many a viewer can relate to with the continued ascension of those stairs.
While I hate to use a cliché, normie-tier phrase, Satoshi Kon’s animated psychological thriller Perfect Blue, the story of a pop singer who transitions to become an actress and loses her grip on reality in the process, is a film exceedingly more relevant now than when it was first released back in 1997, and scarily so. Fast forward to the current age of the content creator in which people who hold a dedicated online following but are not household names nor would get recognized in the street are a dime a dozen. This stands in contrast to the 1990s and prior when the status of being a low to med-level celebrity with a niche fanbase like Perfect Blue’s protagonist, Mima Kirigoe, was not so democratized – as the famous quote often misattributed to Andy Warhol states, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. The status of Mima Kirigoe is showcased during the film’s opening which cuts between an energetic live concert performance to Mima doing mundane activities such as buying groceries or riding the train before returning to her small, modest Tokyo apartment (itself a representation of the fascinating ecosphere that is the interior of tiny Japanese apartments in which every inch is in use). Perfect Blue features an early screen depiction of the internet from an age when web page design was at a very primitive and clunky stage (all the film is missing is that nostalgic dial-up connection sound). Likewise, the internet browser Mima uses is Netscape Navigator which at the time of the film’s production was the most popular internet browser on the planet, however, its popularity declined over the years and its development ceased in 2008. Mima is a total boomer when it comes to the internet and the dark side of fandom as seen through the web is something Mima is not prepared for. The majority of Mima’s fans throughout Perfect Blue are shown to be perfectly respectable, even standing up to the small minority of troublemakers at the opening concert and giving her friendly words of encouragement when she arrives at a TV studio. There is one fan however who gives Mima much more than she bargained for.
The fan in question is the creepy inbreed-looking stalker who is later given the name of Mr. Me-Mania – a terrifying figure with his crooked teeth, eyes so wide apart and even the build of Michael Myers. He is a counterbalance to the sweet and pleasant nature of Mima whose puppy dog eyes are larger than most other character’s in the film. Me-Mania is a man who cannot reconcile the image of Mima the wholesome pop-star with Mima the provocative actress – just observe the look of pure joy on his face during the performance of the song Alone But At Ease (even though this image occurs in a scene within Mima’s head and may not have actually occurred in reality, but more on that later). Me-Mania sets on getting revenge for having his perception of reality betrayed, murdering individuals involved in Mima’s transition to becoming an actress and (as he would see it) the perversion of her image, eventfully trying to take out Mima herself. There is one shot which tells the viewer everything about Me-Mania and how he views Mima – the point-of-view shot of him holding the image of Mima in his hand during the opening concert.
Within this early portrayal of the information superhighway, Perfect Blue explores the concept of the duality that exists between an individual and what would be referred to in years to come as an avatar, the image that comes to represent one’s carefully chiselled, romanticized image and personality – the image we present to the world as opposed to the lives we actually lead. Mima is informed of a website known as Mima’s Room in which someone (who is later revealed to be Me-Mania) is not only pretending to be Mima but is posting accurate information about her day-to-day life. The idea of not being in control of your image (whether online or off) as well as having no control over your own narrative is something Perfect Blue explores terrifying well and how it can lead to one losing their grip on reality. The image of the avatar is also metaphorically presented in the film by a ghostly image of Mima’s pop idol persona (with this metaphor doubly enforced by it appearing in the computer screen itself). This doppelganger acts as a sort of court jester with its bright colourful appearance as it bounces around like a near-weightless object and taunts Mima by telling her the (seemingly at the time) harsh truth that she has made the wrong career choice.
To return to the opening paragraph, only individuals of Mima’s status or higher would have been prone to becoming victims of this loss of control, but today any online content creator, online personality (or influencer to use that dreadfully narcissistic phrase) or even any random individual posting selfies on Instagram opens themselves as a target. Furthermore, most people can point to performers they were once a fan off but disliked a change of direction their image or career took – they didn’t fit the narrative we wanted or expected. Any sane person won’t dwell on this like an obsessive fan and go commit murder as a result; your average Joe has more important things in their life to worry about. Regardless, one lesson to take from Perfect Blue is that as a fan or consumer, one should not lose track of where a person starts and an avatar ends. As Satoshi Kon himself is quoted saying; “There’s a gap between the image people see of me and what I see myself. Perfect Blue is about the tragedy caused by that gap becoming too large”. A real-life example of when this did come to fruitarian was during the production of Perfect Blue itself in 1996, life would imitate art with the case of the Björk stalker Ricardo Lopez, whose extreme disillusionment in learning that Björk’s personal and romantic life didn’t align with his perception of who the artist was, culminated in him sending a bomb in the mail to the Icelandic singer (of which was intercepted by the police and no one was harmed), and proceeding to commit suicide himself believing the two of them would meet in the afterlife.
Satoshi Kon continued to explore the theme of fandom in his next film Millennium Actress, which is the yin to Perfect Blue’s yang, a film which explores the positive impact fandom can have. Perfect Blue also acts as an examination of the sacrifices and hardship one must endure for their art as well as the conflict between art and their personal life, with one of the most notable cinematic explorations of this theme being The Red Shoes (1948). In Perfect Blue, the later vision of Mima’s alter ego is seen wearing alongside a red dress, a pair of red shoes. Is there a connection or is my cinematic brain trying to draw strenuous ties that aren’t there? Furthermore, it’s well documented the influence Perfect Blue has had on Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan, although two other films I can feel the influence from Perfect Blue would have to be One Hour Photo and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance). However, if I was to select one film predating Perfect Blue which explores similar themes, it would have to be The Swimmer (1968), which going back to the theme of the duality between the person and the avatar, tells the story of a man who projects an avatar onto the world as opposed to the reality of his life which is vastly different.
Prior to making the transition to become an actress, Mima was a pop-singer in a girl group known as CHAM!. More specifically, Mima is a certain type of Japanese pop-star known as an Idol. This form of Japanese pop-singer may come off as odd to the western viewer who is not initiated into Japanese popular culture with the sight of grown men at a concert watching three women dancing in titillating, pink maid outfits while singing to 90’s Euro Dance style songs. Yes, what a bunch of weirdoes. I myself am a man of more refined taste who is above such coomerish degeneracy…maybe. CHAM! has three songs featured in the film, two good uplifting jams (Angel Of Love and Alone But At Ease) and a solid ballad (Now Embraced By One’s Memories) when listened to in their full, uninterrupted versions rather than hearing brief snippets within the film intercut to the movie’s more unsettling content. Correspondingly, I was taken back on my first viewing of Perfect Blue by moments in the animation appearing that they wouldn’t look out of place in Clutch Cargo, although charm and character are derived from the film’s modest production values of a picture which is only 77 minutes in length (81 minutes with credits). Even with the film’s references to various 90’s-isms such as mini-disc players and outdated internet browsers, the film’s rich, saturated, film-noir-like colour scheme has a real 80’s, Blade Runner-esque vibe (throw a vaporwave soundtrack over the picture and it wouldn’t be out of place). Correspondingly, the piece titled Virtua Mima is the musical highlight of the film’s score, a piece which itself calls to the vocal-laden music in the Blade Runner score. However, the real musical mystery of Perfect Blue is that synth-pop song featuring a female vocal which plays during the strip club scene. The song is unlisted in the film’s credits and not included in any official or bootleg release of the soundtrack. The song is however used in the Japanese trailer in which a snippet can be heard in greater clarity than that edited into the film, however, the song’s title and the artist remain a mystery. Get on the case lost media sleuths!
For Mima’s acting debut she lands a supporting role in a TV series called Double Bind. A cliché, CSI-like show featuring a Mulder & Scully style duo as unrealistically glamorous people attempting to solve crimes (“Why do psycho thrillers made in Japan turn out that way?”). The name Double Bind could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the show reflects the events occurring in the film from the various murders to Mima’s loss of sanity and her duels with an alternative persona. The show also foreshadows the twist ending regarding Mima’s manager Rumi Hidaka and her Dissociative Identity Disorder. Yes, it is revealed near the film’s conclusion that Mima’s manager Rumi was collaborating with Mr Me-Mania to get revenge on not only Mima but those who facilitated her image change (I also have to ask is there any connection between these two characters having their eyes spaced so far apart?). Like Me-Mania, Rumi herself could not reconcile Mima’s image change but went one step further. Rumi herself is a failed pop idol and instead became a manager of celebrity agency and was living through Mima’s success but took this to a more literal level with Rumi coming to see herself as Mima, leading to the disturbing sight of an overweight Rumi wearing a red idol dress and believing she is Mima the pop idol. Rumi attempts to take Mima out herself in a final clash, which once again going back to Blade Runner, does remind me of the final showdown between Rick Decker and Roy Batty on the rooftops in the sci-fi classic. During this clash, Rumi is shown as Mima’s pop idol doppelganger in a red dress, and like Roy Batty, displays superhuman jumping abilities and a distinct stain of blood on her face. As is the case of life imitating art with the parallels between Me-Mania and Ricardo Lopez, there is the reverse of art imitating life with the case of the murder of Mexican pop singer Selena by the president of her fan club Yolanda Saldíva in 1995. The most striking similarity between this real-life case and the fiction presented within Perfect Blue is Yolanda Saldíva reportedly turned her apartment into a shrine for her idol, which Rumi does by creating a duplicate of Mima’s living space within her own apartment. Ironically for a movie about pop idols, idolatry itself is one of its major themes. Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.
On first viewing of Perfect Blue, it would appear Rumi’s reaction to the filming of a rape scene featuring Mima for an episode of Double Bind is simply out of her concern for protégé, but when watching the film again aware of the real context, the scene takes on a different meaning. It is this key moment with Mima’s agreement and subsequent filming of a rape scene in which she plays a stripper at a club who is held down by multiple men as one man proceeds to penetrate her which signifies the destruction of Mima’s innocence. Even though the actions are not real and are only performances for a TV show it’s no less uncomfortable to watch (the actor pretending to rape even apologizes to Mima between takes). Mima’s other agent Mr. Tadokoro attempts to reassure Mima by telling her “Jodie whatshername did it too!”. The film they are referring to is The Accused (1988) starring Jodie Foster, which has a similarly staged rape scene atop a pinball machine in a bar. One of the questions raised by the filming of such an act is whether or not the scene is exploitive – for one I don’t like the slimy look on the writer’s face when is talking about the idea over the phone. Whereas The Accused is a serious film on a serious subject matter, Double Bind appears to be a show of the more trashy kind. Following the filming of the scene, Mima has a breakdown and admits to herself that she didn’t want to do it but the destruction of her innocence is complete as afterwards she starts giving interviews in provocative outfits and even poses for a nude photoshoot. This phenomenon is repeated time and again in the real world with numerous instances of child stars (more than often employed by Disney) whom once reaching an older age attempt to shed their squeaky clean images with a daring, more provocative one.
The opening moments of Perfect Blue feature three Power Rangers-looking dudes known as the Powertrons fighting a stereotypical bad guy, throwing off the viewer and giving the impression you’ve started watching a different genre of film, foreshadowing the reality-breaking nature of the picture. I’m not alone when I say I was left confused after my first viewing of Perfect Blue with the film’s 2nd half, in particular, being hard to decipher and even thinking about it several viewings later it still makes my head spin. This sense of disorientation along with scenes rarely transitioning in a conventional manner places the viewer inside the deteriorating mind of Mima. There are several times in which the film deliberately gives a false impression such as when Mima believes the statement “a link to Mima’s Room” means cameras are peeping into her apartment or when Mr. Tadokoro meets Mima alone in the car without Rumi, it gives the impression he’s going to do something sinister but no such thing occurs and the moment is never referenced again. Questions I have found myself asking when watching Perfect Blue several times include but is not limited to:
-Questioning if Mr. Me-Mania is real or not?
-When is the image of Mima’s pop-star doppelganger just her mental projection or Rumi dressed up as Mima?
-When is Mima actually in her apartment as opposed to the duplicate apartment created by Rumi?
-Is Rumi dressed as the pizza boy murdering the photographer or is Mima dressed as the pizza boy in a dream?
-During the four instances when Mima wakes up does that mean the proceeding scenes actually occurred or were they her dreams?
My brain hurts. Nonetheless, Perfect Blue brings to mind films like The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon or Clue, films in which it is extremely difficult to make heads or tails of the story but trying to make sense of it ends up being beside the point.
Much tension during Perfect Blue is derived from whether or not Mima has made a big mistake quitting CHAM!, since they have found increased success without her (reaching the pop-charts for the first time) whereas Mima is only getting a few lines per episode of Double Bind and is soon being taunted by the image of her pop-idol doppelganger that she has made the wrong decision. However, Mima’s career decision appears to be affirmed come the end but I don’t believe the film entirely dismisses Mima’s tenure as a pop-singer as Mima herself states when visiting Rumi at a mental asylum, “I know I’ll never see HER ever again. But, thanks to her I am who I am today”. I believe with this she is referring to both Rumi and her former alter ego (I also believe this is the same reason why Mima chooses to prevent Rumi from getting hit by the van during their final clash despite the fact Rumi was trying to stab her to death). The lyrics to the CHAM! song Alone But At Ease reflects the un-intellectual nature of their pop music (“from comics than difficult books and I want to stay the way I am forever”), although to quote C.S Lewis, “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up”. Likewise, there is the key message as notably derived from Preston Struges’ film Sullivan’s Travels (1941), that you might not be creating high art, but the joy it brings to people’s lives is a more than worthy endeavour. The final moments of Perfect Blue show Mima is no longer only famous among a niche crowd but is known to normies as evidenced by the gossiping nurses who spot her leaving the asylum. There is a cheeky nature of the final shot as Mima does a semi-4th wall break, looking into the camera and cheerfully stating “No, I’m real!” (followed by the end credits featuring a song which is tonally at odds with much of the film but in a good, playful sort of way). Mima’s smile and comment are not only a play on the nurses but also solidifies the key point of the story – that she is now in control of her own identity.
What struck me most on my first viewing of House (or Hausu)was that alongside the film’s sheer over-the-top, phantasmagoric madness, I found the whole thing to be weirdly endearing. Initially, I was concerned I was getting into something awfully pretentious but I was able to surrender myself to the fact that I was watching a film which employees a different filmmaking technique in just about every scene. House has one of themost cliché of horror movie premises, yet it gives way to one of the most unique and weirdest viewing experiences with descriptions ranging from “Evil Dead on steroids” to “a Scooby-Doo episode directed by Mario Bava” – perhaps no other film holds a better claim to the title of being “one wild and crazy ride”.
Japan’s reputation for “WTFness” could make House a film easy to dismiss, however, there is a method to the madness. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi was a director of commercials before taking on the mantle of House, and the artifice of commercials is all over the film alongside (pre-MTV) music video style editing, of which I’m sure it’s no coincidence that House was shot using the 4:3 aspect ratio – the aesthetics of House are all about the embrace of artifice. A film of contradictions, House is an art-house film (or art-hausu film one could say, ba-tum-tiss!) and one which was reportedly a huge success with the youth demographic in Japan upon its release (with the film’s extraction of sex appeal from its young female stars as well as nudity in several scenes may have got many young men into the theatres). In this regard it’s also worth mentioning House stands out as it is uncommon for Japanese films to have an English language title. Yet at the same time House symbolizes a return to tradition, a rejection of realism in 1970’s cinema. Right from the opening prologue, the movie proclaims in the vintage Broadway font what you are about to see is “A Movie Presentation”. This is part of the reason why beyond its scenes with killer futons, man-eating pianos and decapitated heads biting girls on the derrière, House is as I previously mentioned, weirdly endearing – the director’s love for cinema comes through and feels like a celebration of the medium. If I were to compare House to another film it would have to be Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. Both films celebrate the art form with their use of special effects which blur the line between reality and fantasy with both also featuring a movie within a movie. House has a Technicolor-look reminiscent of the work of Jack Cardiff with its use of deep, saturated colour with the film’s colour scheme remains largely consistent throughout with its use of oranges, reds and blues and being a horror picture, it does have that autumnal/Halloween vibe (even though it is set during the summer). Speaking of, as a horror film is House actually scary? Well, this measure is subjective of course but I did personally jump at the reveal of severed head of the character Mac as well as Gorgeous’ giant profile suddenly entering to the screen from the right.
House is like a feature-length dream with its mad array of images. The images from the film were conjured from the mind of a child, Obayashi’s pre-teen daughter Chigumi Obayashi (who does receive a conceptual credit and even has a cameo in the film as a shoemaker). I am dubious of having a child being a film’s creative consultant since the last movie I saw to do so was those dreadful Robert Rodriguez Spy Kids films but in House, this influence works and another aspect which makes the film endearing. To anyone who has never seen House, it’s difficult to put into words just how insane a film this is without sounding melodramatic. This encyclopedia of movie storytelling and its array of practical special effects wizardry is a joy to behold from primitive blue screen to the use of stop motion – there are a few films in which an obscene amount of effort is put into every shot. On the other hand, there are sections of House which do have a chilled-out nature to them and the cheesy vibes of Beach Party film. Just a warning that several sequences in the film do contain strobe lighting effects (as if the Japanese weren’t content enough with giving people seizures through Pokémon episodes). Upon my third viewing of House, I did find myself becoming more desensitized to its bizarre nature and more understanding the filmmakers’ mindset on how they could have created something like this. That said, where Mr. Togo’s transformation into a pile of bananas and the bear wearing the chef outfit fit into the grander scheme of things I can’t explain. I guess you got to have some randomness for randomness’ sake.
House follows seven girls each named after a single personality trait- Gorgeous, Kung Fu, Prof, Fantasy, Mac, Sweet and Melody. At the beginning of their summer break, they decide to spend some time at the country house of Gorgeous’ aunt, where all is not what it seems. The story does play as an inverse of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, seven girls each defined by a single personality trait, show up at a house in the middle of nowhere which is in need of cleaning, owned by an old woman who lives alone. Of the ensemble, Gorgeous is the closet to the film having a protagonist as she has a clearly defined arc, beginning with a subplot involving her father attempting to bring a stepmother into the family and freeing his daughter from domestic chores such as ironing his shirts in a story right out of a Yasujirō Ozu film. Even in the film’s opening scene, a teacher mentions how she is having an arranged marriage during the summer, a topic often explored in Ozu’s work. The only girl in the group named after a purely negative trait (and of course, she dies first) is the gluttonous Mac (derived from the English word “stomach”), although fantasy itself holds its negative aspects, My favourite of the group however has to be alpha in the form of Kung Fu, whose speciality skill leads to several very humorous (whether intentional or not) fight scenes against an array of moving objects.
Acting as a mascot for House with its prominence in promotional material is the white ragdoll cat that joins the girls on their adventure (good kitty!). Cats hold a supernatural significance in Japan and it’s evident the cat in House is doing the bidding of a witch, even preventing Mr. Togo from joining the girls at the house to potentially rescue them. This witch in question is the aunt (Yōko Minamida) herself who proves to be an interesting figure. She has an ominous ghostly look to her and is portrayed in the mould of the classic Yurei, a ghost from Japanese folklore that cannot pass onto the afterlife. She is also vampiric in nature, wearing tinted glasses when going outside, and feeling unwell after being in the sun not to mention the interior of her house is very dark. Oddest of all, she feels revitalized by the presence of the girls which allows herself to not require the use of her wheelchair. The aunt is a Willy Wonka-like figure and the house is her factory as the girls are taken out one by one by the house itself, much of this done through the watchful eye of Gorgeous assuming the mantle of her aunt, becoming possessed by her in act of metamorphosis. Like the kids in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, it’s not made clear if the girls are actually killed literally or just in a metaphorical sense. Usually, in slasher films, the young people are killed as a comeuppance for their promiscuous actions, but do the girls in House deserve what they receive? One of the film’s themes and one which is confirmed by the director is how the trauma of World War II still affects the aunt whose finance never returned from the war and correspondingly how the seven girls take their peacetime living for granted. To quote Obayashi; “These girls born after the war and therefore unaware of how precious peace is, come to the house on summer vacation. The old woman’s bitterness about the war turns into an evil spirit and devours the girls”. This taking of peace for granted is showcased during the movie within a movie, in which a flash from a camera cuts to an atomic cloud, to which one of the girls makes the trite comment, “That looks like cotton candy”. This is at least the case with the subtitles on the US Criterion Collection release. On the UK Masters Of Cinema release, there are no subtitles on this shot even though giddy chatter from the girls can be heard. Speaking of subtitle differences between these two aforementioned releases, in the scene introducing Gorgeous’ father, a film composer who has just returned from Italy after working with Sergio Leone, his line of dialogue in the Criterion release states the rather unbelievable comment “Leone said my music was better than Morricone’s”. However, in the Masters Of Cinema release, the line is the less dramatic “Both Leone and Morricone liked it very much”. Is someone taking liberties in the translation process?
Of the various interpretations of House, that which strikes me the most is the film being a coming-of-age tale of Gorgeous’ urge to stay a young woman and refusal to enter womanhood. As the house eats the young girls, blood erupts from it, the blood of menstruation – a symbol of womanhood triumphing over youth. It’s also worth noting the blood in question comes from the cat, an alternative name for a cat is a…, ok you know what I mean. Likewise, when people are young they will have certain friends and as they become older they may move on from these friends as a result of maturity. Gorgeous’ dying friends can be seen to represent this while her stepmother going up in flames in the film’s final scene could be viewed as her lack of need for a mother figure in adulthood. I have read theories bringing this theory to greater extremes of analyses, in particular, an extensive write-up on the now defunct (but thankfully archived) IMDB boards in which a user by the name of nemuro8 proposes the seven girls all represent aspects of puberty (I’m not sure if I buy into it but it’s food for thought); “Fantasy represents naivety and the fear of the change. Mac represents hormonal changes with her increased appetite. Sweet represents the desire to fill expectations and the role of domestic life. Melody represents creativity and the desire to have fun. Kung-Fu represents courage and brashness. Prof represents logic and leadership. Gorgeous represents vanity and beauty.”
The soundtrack to House (which was released before the film had even entered production) deserves a review in its own regard as it works as a cohesive album rather than just a collection of songs (with most but not all of the tracks you wouldn’t guess are from a horror film). The jovial main theme of the film has a section with a superb synthesized rendition of the melody, which is only heard briefly in the film itself. Hungry House Blues on the other hand is a delta blues style track that only appears very briefly in the picture, however, this version on the soundtrack is a whooping 6 minutes long complete with plenty of slide guitar action and even has vocals in the style of a 1930’s Mississippian black man (who provided these vocals?). Buggy Boogie is a piece of early ’60s, rockabilly cheese while The Beach Boys style Cherries Were Made For Eating is a real uplifting, banger of a choon, provided by the band Godiego (whom makes a cameo in the film as the song is being played). Eat is in a way the defacto theme of Kung Fu, as the piece is played every time she gets involved in her trademark skill – a good piece if you need a quick dose of adrenaline and the one track which has an undeniably funky, 70’s sound. In The Evening Midst is the most profound track and the real centrepiece of both the film and album, an instrumental played by Melody several times throughout the film which acts as a relief to the horror surrounding it. The track feels similar to the piano melodies from David Bowie’s Hunky Dory and ends on a beautiful crescendo (it’s also worth noting, this piano melody does bear a striking resemblance to the piano riff on the song Welcome to the Black Parade by My Chemical Romance). The final track of both the album and film is titled House Love Theme, this Beatles-like calm after the storm which feels reminiscent of Abbey Road side B. This is the only song in House which actually features Japanese lyrics of which I am unable to find a translation of thus I can’t comment if the lyrics actually hold any thematic relevance to the film.
House is the kind of film to be watched on the big screen at a midnight showing alongside the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It does feel like was designed and destined to become one of the ultimate cult films. I do find myself fascinated by films such as this which remained unknown in the west for decades before obtaining a mass following. Of the film’s 149 reviews on IMDB, only 14 were written prior to the film’s first North American release in 2009. It makes you wonder what’s still out there…
Combining elements from Casablanca, Only Angels Have Wings and A Matter Of Life And Death, Porco Rosso is Studio Ghibli’s romantic, swashbuckling cocktail. Porco Rosso (Italian for Red Pig), real name, Marco Pagot is an ex-Italian World War I fighter pilot turned bounty hunter in the Adriatic Sea. Porco is a Bogartian figure with his cool detachment, political apathy and romantic distance, but his most significant character trait is that derived from his physical appearance. Porco has had a curse put upon him turning him into, well, an anthropomorphic pig. Why is the film’s protagonist a pig? The two most apparent interpretations being firstly a reference to the saying “when pigs fly” and the cultural perception in the west (as well as in faiths such as Judaism and Islam) of pigs being dirty animals (keeping in mind the film is set in a western country). A common reading is that Porco put the spell upon himself out of survivor’s guilt when the rest of his comrades died in battle. He views himself as swine – self-loathing and unworthy of living. It’s only through the validation and the friendship he shares with the character of Fio that comes to cure him of this affliction. How someone possesses the supernatural ability to turn into an anthropomorphic animal is never explained nor does anyone in this world question why there is a walking-talking hog existing among humans. Still, the film has enough going for it to overcome this suspension of disbelief (Porco is even a hit with the ladies despite his appearance so I guess looks aren’t everything). The film’s ending indicates the curse may have been lifted but ultimately leaves the question unanswered.
Porco Rosso is one of the few films directed by Hayao Miyazaki in which the historical and geographical setting is clearly defined and gives the director a chance to indulge in his Europhilia with the film’s picture postcard scenes of Italy and the Adriatic Sea. Academic Chris Wood states in his article “The European Fantasy Space and Identity Construction In Porco Rosso” that the film can be understood as a representation of wakon yōsai (Japanese spirit, western learning) – a tendency, since the Meiji period, for Japanese artists to paint Europe in a spectacular manner, while simultaneously maintaining the distance necessary to preserve a distinct sense of Japanese identity. Chris Wood states, “[In Porco Rosso] Europe is tamed, rendered as a charming site of pleasurable consumption, made distant and viewed through a tourist gaze“. So yes, Hayao Miyazaki is a European otaku. If there is a scene in the movie which captures this beautifully then it has to be the flashback to a young Porco (or Marco as he would have been known before his curse) and his longtime friend Gina lifting an early seaplane into the air in this display of pure unabashed nostalgia which captures the human desire to fly (thanks in large part of the enchanting music score by Joe Hisaishi). Likewise, one of the film’s most striking scenes has to be the flashback to Porco’s near-death experience and the origin of his curse. In this otherworldly sequence following a battle near the end of the war, Porco found himself in what the film describes as cloud prairie (I can’t find any reference to this term outside the movie), in which fighter planes from other nations rise above him into the sky as if there are entering heaven. The scene has similar vibes to the stairway to heaven from Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life And Death while the use of synthesizers in the music score really makes it all the more captivating and eerie.
Porco Rosso is set during the final days of the roaring twenties and upon the onset of the Great Depression (“Farewell to the days of fun and freedom in the Adriatic”). The film’s setting also partakes in alternative history in which the wider Mediterranean Sea is beset with air pirates (albeit highly incompetent air pirates as reflected in their comical, circus-like theme music). From a romantic point of view it’s sad to say that air pirates are not real bar one incident in 1917 in which a civilian Norwegian schooner named Royal was boarded and captured by a party flying a German Zeppelin L23 – is the closest we’ve ever come to having steampunk fantasy become reality? As far as coinciding with actual history, Porco Rosso takes place during the days of Mussolini’s Italy as marchers in the street wave blue & green flags with bankers wearing the same design as armbands (this flag itself is fictional and was never an actual historical Italian flag). Porco is put under pressure from a former WWI comrade to join the state’s military to which he responds with the line “Better a pig than a fascist”. More sinister is the scene in which Porco pays off a loan at the bank and the teller asks him if he will invest in a patriot bond which of course, is only voluntary (wink wink). Despite its backdrop, Porco Rosso remains a largely apolitical film but if anything it shows that even under authoritarianism, life goes on.
The semi-love interest of Porco Rosso comes in the form of the pure feminine grace that is Madame Gina, of whom every flyer in the Adriatic is in love with as Fio claims. A longtime friend of Porco and his now deceased comrades, the film presents her as being “one of the guys” while not sacrificing any of her womanly demeanour. She will quickly run to a boat in a feminine stride but will make an epic and lengthy jump off the boat back onto the pier if required. Gina will dress to exemplance, even when in private and I do have to question if any particular Golden Age Hollywood actress is modeled after her? I am getting Mary Astor vibes myself. Gina occupies the island hotel known as the Hotel Adriano although it’s not made clear in the original Japanese version if she actually owns the establishment however, in the English dub, she refers to the place as “My restaurant” and the private garden as “my garden”. Regardless, the establishment is where all the hotshot flyboys of the Adriatic hang out where they kick back, relax and listen to Gina sing songs of lovers long lost. Like Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca, there is an unwritten truce between all men. In the clouds, you may be enemies but at Gina’s place, everyone is your buddy. In her introductory scene, Gina shows little emotion in relation to having been told the news earlier in the day that her third husband had died in a flying accident, which as seen in films like Only Angels With Wings, was the norm in the early days of aviation. Porco and Gina share a “beauty and the beast” romance in which they never verbalise their feelings towards each other but you can tell there is a deep affection between the two. The other major female presence in Porco Rosso is the young Fio Piccolo, the counterbalance to Porco’s bleakness (and whose grandfather appears to be related to Hans Moleman). Porco doesn’t trust her to design him a new plane due to her being young and a girl says she understands this and doesn’t take offence. Rather Fio is aware that she needs to prove herself to him instead of just dismissing him as a sexist, well, pig (“Forgive my sins of using women’s hands to build a warplane”). However, it is somewhat odd the film concludes with narration from Fio’s point of view when this never happened at any other point in the film.
Porco Rosso does have one of the better Studio Ghibli English dubs, especially with the casting of Michael Keaton as the titular swine whose voice talents perfectly capture the world-weary cynicism of the character. I also enjoy Brad Garrett as the dopey pirate Capo while the announcer aboard the cruise liner as its being attacked by pirates adds some great deadpan humour to the proceedings. The sound mix of the dub is inferior when compared to the original while the lack of any reverb on the voices during the flying sequences is slightly jarring. Gina’s cover of the French song Le Temps Des Cerises is also re-recorded although there was no need to do so and I do consider the vocal performance on the original to be superior. Be that as it may, it’s Cary Ellwes’ southern drawl for the Errol Flynn-esque Donald Curtis which really add extra character to the dubbed version (in the Japanese version he is from Alabama whereas in the dub it mentions he is from Texas). The quasi villain of the picture, Curtis is a Hollywood actor who on his down time like Frank Sinatra, appears to converse with outlaws, while his delusions of grandeur thinking he will become President Of The United States with Madame Gina as his First Lady does make him somewhat endearing. Curtis does attempt to kill Porco by taking out his plane only to later discover his attempt was unsuccessful, eventually leading to the picture’s finale in which the two men sort out their differences through some mono e mono (in which Porco doesn’t even remove his glasses). I understand the psychological aspect of men making amends and even becoming friends after engaging in hand-to-hand combat, but Curtis did literally try to murder Porco earlier in the film, but I digress. Porco Rosso is another breed of artistic excellence from Studio Ghibli, you uncultured swine.
Opening a film in which the protagonist is seen getting out of bed and going about their morning routine is one of the most cliché ways of beginning a story (i.e, every student film ever), but From Up On Poppy Hill is so utterly likeable that I don’t care. Set in Japan’s port city of Yokohama circa 1963, the romantic, seaside setting really amps the film’s likeability with the accompanying nostalgic soundtrack being a pure delight from the opening ragtime theme to the Nina Rota style compositions as well as the use of Kyu Sakamoto’s Ue o Muite Arukō (known in the US as Sukiyaki in which it charted at number 1 in 1963). With a script from Miyazaki Sr and directed by Miyazaki Jr, From Up On Poppy Hill is structured like a melodrama with its use of dramatic flashbacks and the common melodramatic trope of a maritime setting. At one point the picture even makes reference to its melodramatic state (“It’s like some cheap melodrama”).
Umi Matsuzaki is the eldest child in her family and has responsibility thrust upon her following her father’s death and her mother’s departure to study abroad resulting in her making everyone’s meals, keeping fiancés in check and raising maritime signal flags every morning. The selfless and humble nature of a character like this could easily come off as aggrandizing but rather the character of Umi does come off as somewhat inspirational with her ability to bring out the best in those around her, earning her the title of “Goddess of good luck”. Umi develops feelings for fellow student Shun Kazama, however, Shun ends up discovering as a result of post-war circumstances, that Umi is actually his sister (although this turns out not to be the case come the film’s end). The two are forced to continue as only friends although it’s evident they are trying to retrain their feelings for each other. This culminates in a scene by a bus stop in which Umi states “I’m in love with you Shun. Even if we’re related, even if you’re my brother, my feelings will never change” to which Shun responds “I feel the same about you”. There is historic precedence for this as From Up On Poppy Hill is set at the time following the war in which young couples in Japan couldn’t be too sure that they were not related in some way but it doesn’t change the fact that the scene is an absolutely jaw-dropping moment. The scene is played out to be romantic and perhaps the movie could have dealt with the subject matter in a different manner as opposed to upping the swoon factor over an incestuous relationship but I digress.
The other major plot point present in From Up On Poppy Hill regards the theme of traditionalism vs modernism as the students of the local high-school try to save their clubhouse known as The Latin Quarter which is set to be demolished and replaced with a new building ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Latin Quarter in its old state is a massive, creaky building with so much character contained within its walls in which every inch is in use – as a viewer I did become invested in its conservation. At a demolition meeting, Shun runs onto the stage like Elmer Gantry and declares “There’s no future for people who worship the future and forget the past”. Unintentionally prescient with this theme is that come the turn of the decade when From Up On Poppy Hill was released, the west had entirely done away with traditional animation on the big screen (bar a few pockets), whereas Japan has so far never let it go. Correspondingly, it is wholesome just how passionate these students are about learning (in particular the overly enthusiastic philosophy-loving giant) with The Latin Quarter having a club for just about every intellectual pursuit. Compare this to any American film set in a frat house where anarchy, mischief and mayhem are the name of the game. Alongside Umi and the responsibility thrust upon her, all these kids are more than ready for adulthood. I for one welcome our new oriental overlords.
Speaking of references to other pictures, in one of the film’s establishing shots, a single factory chimney is shown emitting Pink smoke whereas the others emit regular smoke. Anyone who has seen Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low will understand this possible reference, keeping in mind the Kurosawa picture is also set in Yokohama and was released in 1963 (so I can assume both these movies unofficially take place in the same universe). Likewise, when Umi sees her mother’s red slippers as an indication that she has returned home after months away, is this a nod to The Wizard Of Oz and its famous line “There’s no place like home”?
If there is one great standout supporting character in From Up On Poppy Hill has to be the high school’s chairman Chief Director Tokumaru, a total chad with his rough, gravely voice, larger-than-life figure, flawless posture and upbeat personality. He is not at all a typical, slimy bureaucrat and understands the kids on their level and is sympathetic to their cause. When the kids go to visit his office in Tokyo, he asks Umi in the past tense “what did your father do?”. There is no indication that he knew the kids beforehand and seems to instinctively know her father was dead. Having a figure like this in a position of power probably explains how the students were able to infiltrate the Ikiru level bureaucracy to save The Latin Quarter.
I Don’t Think There’s Any Artist Of Any Value Who Doesn’t Doubt What They Are Doing
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Whisper Of The Heart is Studio Ghibli’s love letter to creatives and a picture which contains great insight into the uncertainty derived from growing up and the role of education in this nostalgic coming-of-age tale. Fourteen-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima is the cheerful and infectiously optimistic protagonist of the story. She manages to find the joy in the mundanity of everyday life from something as simple as the sun coming out to seeing a positive message on the side of a blimp. Just observe the pure joy she gets from finding a quirky antiques store in a suburb (perhaps a bit too much as she nearly gets hit by a car while running across the road and never realizes it). The eccentricity of Japan is even on subtle display from the fact that a pork pie hat can be worn in common parlance and a girl can pursue a chonky cat for quite some distance just for the fun of it. It’s this aspect of Whisper Of The Heart which really makes you want to cherish life’s little moments.
Whisper Of The Heart is set over the course of 1994 (as indicated by Shizuku’s calendar), with a number of subtle indications for the passing of time throughout the film. The most noticeable of these being the seasonal variation of Shizuku’s school uniform with a white top for spring/summer and a navy-blue alternative for fall/winter. The initial catalyst of the story is set into motion when Shizuku’s father informs her that the local library is going through a transition from the old-fashioned book card system to a barcode system, much to her disappointment (I can recall my local library still using book cards in the early 2010’s). Goddammit modernity, sometimes the old ways are just better! It’s this tradition which ignites the film’s romance as Shizuku notices someone by the name of Seiji Amasawa has been taking out all the same books as her in this variation on The Shop Around The Corner formula re-imagined for the 1990’s. Shizuku and Seiji themselves aren’t too dissimilar to Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romantic comedy with Seiji’s initially jerky behaviour and Shizuku’s bookworm personality (unfortunately, when I was off this age any expression of a desire to read was social suicide – sad but true).
As is a common recurrence in Studio Ghibli’s films, Whisper Of The Heart is the story of a young, teenage girl forced into a position of maturity (it does make sense that the female sex tends to be the focus of these stories as research has shown that girls on average mature faster than boys). One major interlocked aspect of Whisper Of The Heart is the classic conflict of education vs. hands-on/real-world experience. Shizuku is attending middle school (aka junior high school) and is studying for her high-school entrance exams. Her love interest Seiji on-the-other-hand opts to attend a trade school in Cremona, Italy to further learn the craft of making violins rather than attend high school, much against his parent’s wishes (high school is not compulsory in Japan). This disapproval highlights the lack of respect one can entail for a practical hands-on profession over a more middle-class, so-called “real job”. Part of Shizuku’s impetus to embark on her writing of a novel comes from the insecurity that Seiji is far more developed in his own art form. Her focus on writing begins to affect her school grades, feeling that her need to write a first draft of her novel within two months before Seiji returns from Italy is more important than her school grades. Unlike Seiji, Shizuku doesn’t know what she wants to do with her future. She asks her older sister Shiho when she decided on her future, to which she responds with the dubious answer, “I’m at university finding that out”. This quote is particularly prevalent from a UK-centric point-of-view, when official figures state in the year 2017/18, 50.2 per cent of English 17-30-year-olds had participated in higher education, 20 years after the New Labour government set the target of having 50% of young people attend university (with these degrees often being of a useless nature and provide no stepping stone to a future career). From a personal point of view, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when I was 14 and it’s self-evident very few people of that age either have any idea. Seiji’s oddball choice of profession as a violin maker is an appropriate one at the end of the day as his character is an outlier of a person in their teens who has a definitive idea of what they want to do with their life. The film doesn’t take a position on the question on the role of higher education but does raise many a thought-provoking point as to its effectiveness. Come the film’s end, Shizuku returns to studying for her entrance exams. I can however relate to Shizuku’s unwillingness and nervous disposition to tell the rest of her family about her writing project even though they are aware something is occupying her time, to which her understanding parents sympathize and don’t question her on it any further.
Seiji’s grandfather and owner of the antiques store Shiro explains how artists or writers develop and grow in their talents with a simple metaphor – “The rough stone is inside you. You have to find it and then polish it”. Shizuku holds intense self-doubt about her work, disagreeing with anyone when they praise her work. This intensely self-critical manner and strive for perfection overtakes her and leads to overpowering anxiety when she shows Shiro the first draft of her novel. To quote filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, “I don’t think there’s any artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they are doing.” – It’s this which really drives at the heart of Whisper Of The Heart. The picture showcases the highs and the lows that can be endured by creatives and parallels between the feeling of falling in love and the thrill that comes with creative pursuits. That scene in which a band has an impromptu performance of Country Roads as Shizuku sings her little heart out and gradually falls for Seiji (still unaware he is the boy on her book cards) combines these elements in a wonderfully corny scene. Whisper Of The Heart does hold parallels to fellow Ghibli film Kiki’s Delivery Service with protagonists succumbing to stress, burnout and depression (also is Shizuku’s older sister a recycled character model of Ursula?). Whisper Of The Heart is after all set in a country in which death by overwork is so tragically common that it even has a name – Karoshi (“You doctor yet? No Dad I’m 12. Talk to me when you doctor!”). The ultimate irony of this is that the Whisper Of The Heart’s director Yoshifumi Kondo would pass away 3 years following the film’s release from an aneurysm brought on by overwork. Whisper Of The Heart would be his only directorial feature, with Kondo joining the likes of Charles Laughton or Walter Murch as directors who have helmed only a single film, but what a film it would be.
My first viewing of Whisper Of The Heart was somewhat marred by the film’s misleading (albeit still beautiful) poster, giving me the false assumption that Whisper Of The Heart was going to be a fantasy film in the vein of a picture like Labyrinth. This lead me to wonder when this non-existent fantasy element was going to kick in during the film’s first third, only to then realize it wasn’t that kind of film. The fantasy sequence inside Shizuku’s head which inspired the poster in which Shizuku and an anthropomorphic cat known as The Baron fly Superman ’78 style is a beautiful combination of fantasy and reality as those giant pillars (which do remind me of the backgrounds in Super Mario World) raise high into the sky above the suburbs of Shizuku’s world of West Tokyo. It’s easy to sound like a broken record when talking about the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli’s films, but god, this film is just so beautiful to look at it puts a smile on my face from the eye-popping colour of suburban Tokyo to those urban night-time landscapes. Even the film’s more mundane subjects such as the apartment block in which the Tsukishima family resides would be ugly in real life but has a certain beauty to it in the animated form. Correspondingly, the music score by Yuji Nomi is one of great variety from the whimsical nature of A Hilly Town to the Aussie outback vibe from The Cat Chases and even medieval-themed compositions with the track Engelszimmer. These pieces of orchestrated beauty make for a welcome contrast with the film’s urban setting however the film does also provide some more in-tune accompaniments to the Tokyo landscape with its use of electronic sounds and synthesizers as heard in Taking The Train and Starry Night Sky. Furthermore, I can’t help but notice similarities between the track A Hilly Town and the piece In The Evening Midst from the oddball, Japanese horror movie House, while these two aforementioned pieces of music surely must have influenced Michael Giacchino’s piece Married Life from Pixar’s Up (is it just me or do these three pieces of music work extremely well when listened to in tandem?). Whisper Of The Heart is also a rare instance of Ghibli film to feature licensed music with its recurring use of variations with John Denver’s Country Roads, including a real humdinger of a cover during the film’s end credits in which it is given the city-pop treatment. Correspondingly, like many a Japanese film, the always reliable sound of cicadas increases the atmosphere of anything tenfold.
Whisper Of The Heart concludes with a very sudden marriage proposal from Seiji to Shizuku. In the original manga from which the film is adapted, Seiji only says “I love you” but the film’s screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki changed the line to “I can’t say how soon it’ll be, but would you marry me?“. To quote the big man himself in defending this position – “I wanted to make a conclusion, a definite sense of ending. Too many young people now are afraid of commitment, and stay on moratorium forever. I wanted these two to just commit to something, not just ‘well, we’ll see what will happen”. Putting aside the oddity of receiving and accepting a marriage proposal when neither are of legal marrying age, I do agree this sense of commitment coming from these characters gives the film’s conclusion greater emotional weight (although I will say the film ends very abruptly and could have done with a few seconds to let the viewer take it all in). The Japanese and English dubs have different lines of dialogue in this final scene. In the Japanese version, Seiji makes the aforementioned proposal to which Shizuku nods and Seiji asks if she’s sure to which she replies “That’s exactly what I wanted.” However, in the English dub, their discussion of marriage is more tenuous. Seiji asks, “Could you see us getting married someday?” to which Shizuku nods and they agree that his question was corny. It feels like those responsible for the picture’s English dub had a lack of faith in the source material and outright disrespected it with said changes. Regardless, I am a sucker for a good story of hopeless romantics and this impulsive love present in the original Japanese version of Whisper Of The Heart defiantly delivers on the desired level of swooning.