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In terms of its reputation here in the United States, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000) is widely considered one of the weaker entries in the Godzilla franchise; and while I cannot bring myself to outright loathe the film, I don’t necessarily disagree with most of the points brought up by its detractors. On the surface, the movie seems to have all the right components for a colorful, lightweight piece of entertainment (futuristic world-building; imaginative new weapons and gadgets with which to combat Godzilla; a finale that doesn’t consist solely of the protagonists watching the monsters fight) but is ultimately undone by weak characters and largely inept direction courtesy of Masaaki Tezuka. Especially in its first hour, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus comes across as turgid and aimless, flat and unfocused, dragging its feet from one mediocre scene to the next as the audience exhaustedly waits for the monsters to show up. (What this film really needed, more than anything else, was a more experienced director: someone who could charge the narrative with real energy, bring out the best of his actors, stylize the visuals, and zero in on the script’s finer qualities for maximum entertainment value.)
However—and this is why my stance on the film is not overly hostile—whenever the focus shifts to the monsters, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus comes to genuine life, thanks in great part to the efforts of special effects director Kenji Suzuki. A clever technician whose tenure on the Godzilla series ended much too soon, Suzuki took over as Toho’s go-to effects man after the retirement of his mentor, Koichi Kawakita, and from the start exhibited an uneven but undeniably ambitious style. His two preceding genre efforts, Rebirth of Mothra III (1998) and Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999), did away with his forerunner’s preference for dousing the screen with animated beams in favor of balancing projectile-based attacks with physical combat, all complemented by exciting camerawork and daring—if not always successful—moving composite shots. And while his work in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is certainly in need of further polish, it still conveys the same visual wit and resourcefulness which has made him one of the more interesting Toho effects directors since Eiji Tsuburaya’s time.
The first major set piece vividly exhibits Suzuki’s strengths. Godzilla makes an entrance plowing through a large building, continuing his march forward as Suzuki’s camera cuts to a close-up of his face drenched in shadow, the sky behind him a deep, haunting red. The scene continues to build as a platoon of soldiers position to ambush the creature and we see their point of view down an alleyway: a thunderous footstep sends trashcans jumbling into the air; a car comes sailing down the street on fire and explodes; and then, after much beforehand tension, Godzilla’s foot wanders into frame and hits the pavement with a concrete-shattering thud.
Despite the nonsensical premise of foot soldiers taking on Godzilla with bazookas, the scene prevails through imaginative visual storytelling, colorful monster action, and marvelous choice of camera angles (extreme low shots, vistas of Godzilla silhouetted against the earlier mentioned glowing sky, etc.). Tezuka’s direction here is more interesting than elsewhere in the film, and the editing of the human footage with the special effects no doubt benefits from Suzuki’s widely praised willingness to cooperate with his directors. “While I love effects and always want to see as many of them as I can, I think the most important thing is drama,” Suzuki explained to Norman England in a 2000 issue of Fangoria. “I constantly search for the smoothest integration between my work and that of the live-action crew.”*
In Godzilla 2000: Millennium, the monster was portrayed as ponderous and majestic, a slow-moving object of wonder. When confronted by man’s arsenal, he casually walked through every shot, merely advancing even as the bombardment started to annoy him, waiting until he started suffering actual damage before preparing to use his atomic breath. By contrast, the Godzilla in the second Millennium film is quick to act and react, temperamental and easily angered, much like a wild animal. This Godzilla responds immediately and violently to even the slightest bit of offense, and he’s rather cunning. When the foot soldiers retreat into the alleys, he tears apart the buildings around them, crushing his enemies within their own hiding spots. When the Meganula swarm him, he crashes his body against a nearby cliff to flatten those clinging to his side (using his surroundings to his advantage) and employs his tail as a lure before swatting others away. When the Dimension Tide’s launched at him for the second and final time, he remembers his first encounter with the weapon and, rather than stand and wait for the impact to come, sends his atomic breath to explode it in midair.
Suit actor Tsutomu Kitagawa, under Suzuki’s direction, enhances this personae by injecting various nuances into Godzilla’s movements: crouching as he bellows at Megaguirus; swinging his body this way and that in search of his opponent. Shinichi Wakasa, the suit maker, recalled, “Having made Godzilla once, rather than having to worry over a new look, I could concentrate on making the suit more flexible, lighter and easier for the actor inside to give a better and more polished performance.” His efforts paid off, as the touched up costume in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is capable of more expressive movement than its predecessor; and Kitagawa makes the most of it, delivering a far better performance than the stiff, robotic one he would give for Yuichi Kikuchi in Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla two years later.
“There is nothing harder than dealing with airborne kaiju,” Suzuki said in regards to Godzilla’s aerial opponent. “Regular scenes of Megaguirus flying don’t pose too much of a problem, but putting it in a fight is demanding.” Alas, Megaguirus doesn’t fare nearly as well as Godzilla: the main prop for the monster is too stiff and repeats many of the same blunders Kawakita’s flying monsters were prone to—with more than a few shots of Megaguirus levitating in place, her wings flapping at a rate of (perhaps) once every three seconds.
On the other hand, Suzuki must be commended for creating a menacing creature in spite of these limitations. Compared to, say, Battra from Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), who had six hulking appendages that never budged an inch on-screen, Megaguirus uses her massive claws in close-quarters combat against Godzilla, grappling and battering him (some shots utilize suitmation to achieve more violent motion). Most notably, though, she can swing her long, stinger-equipped abdomen under her body and impale Godzilla through the stomach, cutting off his atomic breath and absorbing the energy for use against him later. In what’s also a nice change of pace from the last few flying monsters in the series, Megaguirus is capable of sudden, darting motions, evading attacks, whisking out of sight and reappearing when—and where—least expected. “One thing I’m after is that quick, jarring motion dragonflies have,” Suzuki explained. “My idea is to make Megaguirus like a ninja.”
The premise of the final battle in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is rather clever: Godzilla’s up against an enemy he can physically destroy with a single hit of his atomic breath, but due to Megaguirus’s great speed and agility (and her ability to deactivate his signature weapon), he cannot resort to spitting fire every three seconds—nor does he have a “surprise move” (say, a nuclear pulse, as in the Heisei series) to use at the last minute. This is where Suzuki’s real forte as an effects director comes into play: as was also evident in Godzilla 2000: Millennium, he knows how to dramatize a monster battle, how to give it its own narrative.
Maintaining this movie’s depiction of a quick-thinking monster, Godzilla depends on strategy. He tricks the giant insect into flying closer and then uses his dorsal spines to slice off one of her pincers. He plunges her stinger into the ground to hold her in place. He allows Megaguirus to creep up behind him so he can coil his tail around her abdomen and slam her into terra firma. As the battle ensues, Godzilla occasionally attempts to charge his atomic breath but refuses to give in when Megaguirus again cuts it short, falling back on strength and intelligence in an effort to prevail. The result is a very engaging monster battle with more than enough switches to make up for the technical gaffes. And the unique setting of the artificial island Odaiba, combined with marvelous use of foreground objects (construction cranes, piles of rubble, skeletons of half-finished buildings), gives the sequence a tantalizing visual flair.
In the last few minutes of the battle, Megaguirus pulls her surprise move: concentrating all of the energy she’s absorbed from Godzilla and propelling it at him in the form of a huge, crimson sphere. After Godzilla has collapsed, she dives in, striking him again and again, preventing the King of the Monsters from regaining his footing. This continues for a while until Megaguirus, having sufficiently exhausted her opponent, maintains distance. She permits Godzilla enough time to rise and then flies in for the kill, stinger lowered, aiming for the head. In what is easily the film’s very best moment, Suzuki positions his camera behind Godzilla and we see the stinger strike the latter’s head with a sickening wet crack. The image holds, the long pause amplifying the shock, before the camera swings around to reveal Godzilla has, in fact, caught Megaguirus’s stinger between his jaws. He bites, slowly at first, before tearing off the entire appendage. Another long moment of silence ensues before a stunned Megaguirus retreats skyward and Godzilla is at last able to deliver the coup de grâce.
The first blast of atomic fire sets Megaguirus’s fragile body aflame; Godzilla charges his atomic breath again as she falls. The second ray strikes her mid-descent, and—all presented in a breathtaking extreme wide shot—her obliterated carcass slowly finishes its journey to the ground. The camera toggles in on Godzilla as he lets out a much-justified victory roar, the audience relishing along with him in his moment of triumph. An immensely satisfying finale to one of the more interesting monster battles in the Millennium Godzilla series.
I could go on about other scenes: the moment where Misato Tanaka rides on Godzilla’s back exemplifies Suzuki’s daring use of moving composites (not to mention the scene it’s in is genuinely fun to watch with great high and low angle shots that never betray the illusion of scale); the robotic Godzilla used for water scenes is an absolute success, far better than Teruyoshi Nakano’s wobbly Cybot from The Return of Godzilla (1984); the Meganula swarm scenes feature some of the less distracting CGI in the Millennium series. But to summarize: whenever I watch Godzilla vs. Megaguirus these days (which isn’t very often), my interest is almost solely in revisiting the effects scenes and admiring what Kenji Suzuki brought to them. He may not have been the series’ most consistent special effects director, but he was certainly one of the more interesting, capable of providing enjoyable monster action and bursts of succulent energy—even into an otherwise inconsequential movie such as this. That he was never again given charge of a Godzilla movie is, indeed, quite sad.
* Suzuki’s mentor, Koichi Kawakita, had a reputation among studio personnel for being uncooperative and standoffish with his live-action directors. Takao Okawara, who’d worked with Kawakita on Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (1993), Yamato Takeru (1994), and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), described their relationship as tenuous. “We spent very little time in discussion even though we were working on the same films. We’d get together, go over storyboards and then go our separate ways. He was very much a ‘Don’t say a thing about my work’ kind of guy.”
By contrast, Okawara had nothing but great things to say about Suzuki’s work ethic on Godzilla 2000: Millennium. “Suzuki impressed me greatly, because he understands the balance between the effects and human scenes. Suzuki also takes an active part in the story creation, which allowed me to introduce my own ideas into the [effects] process. Out of all my Godzilla films, this one had the best teamwork among the live-action and effects crews.”General // September 22, 2019
Often remembered in her country as “The Eternal Virgin” (as well as “The Goddess of Militarism” and “The Goddess of Democracy,” depending on which section of her career one wishes to focus on), Setsuko Hara first appeared on cinema screens as a teenager when she was cast in 1935’s Don’t Hesitate, Young Folks, produced by Nikkatsu. Two years and ten films later, she rose to immense popularity with The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai, a Japan-Nazi Germany co-production whose success sent her on an international voyage and—it was hoped—a career in the west. For German filmmaker Arnold Fanck, the young actress (who he claimed to have discovered on the set of Sadao Yamanaka’s 1936 The Priest of Darkness), evoked a pure “Japaneseness” ideal for his picture’s heroine*; for the domestic co-producers, however, she embodied an opportunity to inaugurate a more prominent stream of Japanese film exports and establish the most globally recognized Asian actress since Anna May Wong.
To a certain extent, the producers’ hope was realized. Regular exports of Japanese film did not become a thing for a while and Hara never enjoyed a career in Hollywood, but they’d found a star and gradually got her recognized abroad. In 1937, the press scrambled to cover Hara’s visit to Germany, for which she attended the Berlin premiere of The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai, stayed at the luxurious Eden Hotel, and shook hands with several of Germany’s top film stars as well as the Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels. And even though the film was not shown theatrically in the U.S., she ended up traversing to America to meet Marlene Dietrich and Spencer Tracy, even celebrating her seventeenth birthday aboard the Queen Mary. In 1939, she was chosen to embody “the face of Japan” at the New York World Fair.
Hara remained in the Japanese public eye throughout the remainder of the ‘30s, soon seguing into films championing militaristic politics (as international tensions were escalating into what became World War II). Since Japanese screen performers were not persecuted by the western occupying forces who took over Japan after the 1945 surrender, she was allowed to continue working into the postwar years, now appearing in films favoring democratic ideals pushed by the Americans; and when Japan’s first post-surrender print poster (a colossal color ad for Shiseido Cosmetics) appeared in the fall of 1946, it was Hara’s face that was used to represent “the emergence of the postwar modern nation of Japan, including the Japanese new woman.” (In all of this, we can see why the actress obtained the two “Goddess” monikers listed above.)
But, of course, it was mainly through the exposure of her work in the 1950s that Hara attained true international prominence. Though much of it reached foreign audiences after her sudden retirement in the 1960s**, these later films were the ones that came closest to realizing the sort of recognition the producers of The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai had hoped their starlet would receive in 1937. To this day, Setsuko Hara has been the subject of considerable attention in numerous film events, including the 56th Berlin International Film Festival in 2011; and back in 2000, fifteen years before her death at the age of 95, she was chosen by Kinema Jumpo magazine as the greatest Japanese film actress of the 20th century—her six films with Yasujiro Ozu no doubt having been first and foremost in the voters’ minds.
It is because of this default association of Hara and Ozu that I have chosen to exclude their collaborations from this list. Despite my immense admiration for Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953), Tokyo Twilight (1957), Late Autumn (1960), and The End of Summer (1961), none of them will make an appearance going forward. Hara made a number of very noteworthy pictures with other directors in the course of her too-brief career (which lasted less than three decades), and it is a handful of those less-talked-about films which shall be saluted here.
The first movie to appear on this list is something of a nonconformist choice, as it is not a picture I would recommend to anyone on the basis of quality or entertainment. Like many of the “spiritist” propaganda films spat up by Japan during the second world war, Kunio Watanabe’s Toward the Decisive Battle in the Sky (1943) is perfectly sufficient from a technical standpoint (well shot and put together) and boasts an array of very fine performances; unfortunately, it is also like many of its brethren in that it is cloyingly simplistic and so superficial in its “characterizations” that it ultimately proves to be ridiculous and, more often than not, simply boring.
The story revolves around a family, the Marumatsus, who regularly receive visits from local military trainees. The cadets come by ostensibly to rest, but their primary purpose in stopping by is to share cheery stories from their training sessions—stories their hosts are all too eager to hear. The family is excited and proud to be in the presence of young men who’re not only prepping for war but who are actually excited to die in battle (as voiced in a song the characters themselves write***; none of these boys expect to come back alive). And in the picture’s absurdly jovial denouement, the Marumatsus beam with elation as the cadets depart for certain death in the Pacific—their pride further enhanced by the fact that the young son of the family has started prepping for military training himself.
I chose to begin this list with a national policy film mainly to exemplify an important chapter in Setsuko Hara’s life and career. As touched on earlier, Hara was, due to her star status, a regular presence in nationalistic/jingoistic propaganda films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and she even had familial ties to people with aggressive wartime politics****. (Another curious detail: unlike other movie stars of her time, such as frequent co-star Susumu Fujita, she never, in any document I’ve come across, expressed regret for her involvement in military recruitment pictures or movies championing the Japanese invasion of the Far East.) Her character in Toward the Decisive Battle in the Sky is a textbook example of the Japanese “spiritist” woman: a movie stereotype of the time encompassing mothers, sisters, etc. who openly support the men in their lives (lovers, children, etc.) going to war—without expressing, even in private, the slightest ounce of sadness*****. These women are honored to see those close to them perish for the honor of the nation; when mothers cry upon learning of the deaths of their loved ones, they shed tears of pride, not sorrow.
In the case of this film, Hara plays the oldest daughter in the Marumatsu family, whose unapologetic admiration for the army inspires a new generation of nationalistic fighters in the form of her little brother, himself transforming from a weakling into a proud soldier-in-training. Hara had played an imperial soldier’s sibling the year before, in Kajiro Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942), but in that picture, she was confined mostly to standing in the background and had no influence over the narrative or anyone around her; here, she is up front and center—ostensibly the star—giving a vivacious performance, and plays an active role in persuading her bedridden sibling to man up and enter the services. Viewed with a certain historical context, the character—and the film—has an air of fascination to it; and on that level, I’d argue it’s one of Hara’s most important movies and, therefore, worth seeing.
After the surrender of 1945, Setsuko Hara’s reign as “The Goddess of Militarism” came to an end. For the next seven years, every film she made would be subject to an entirely different set of political agendas. More details can be found in my article on Kurosawa’s Those Who Make Tomorrow (1945), but in short: when the Allied Powers (namely, the United States) took over the Land of the Rising Sun from 1945-1952, it was with the intent of “democratizing” and “westernizing” the country and its people. This in turn led to some major restructuring of Japanese society and the complete and total supervision of Japanese media. Until the end of the occupation, everything from literature to the motion picture industry would be scrutinized in great detail prior to being released to the public.
During this time, “feudalistic” traditions such as arranged marriages and miai (the practice of setting up meetings between prospective marriage partners) were frowned upon by the Americans (who wanted to push the idea of young people deciding on their own who they will marry—i.e., marrying for love as opposed to tradition), though there were some instances where films tackling these subjects could still receive a general release. The romantic comedy Here’s to the Young Lady (1949) begins with a successful automotive entrepreneur (played by Shuji Sano) being reluctantly talked into attending a miai. He’s 34 years old and needs to find a wife as soon as possible—or so says a business associate who hounds him into agreeing to meet the girl in question. Sano has no interest in marriage and shows up at the miai determined to make a disaster of it, insisting on an unromantic locale (a bar) and showing up in his work clothes. But when he sees the woman (Setsuko Hara) and is dumbstruck by her beauty, he rashly agrees to marry her and is surprised when she accepts his proposal.
However, as it turns out, there’s more to this arrangement than meets the eye. The woman’s family, a once-wealthy aristocratic group, has since fallen into poverty and is looking to wed off their daughter in hopes of gaining an in-law who can provide a secure future for everyone. (Sano was chosen because of his success as a businessman.) Furthermore, the girl had a fiancé who died some time ago and, as she admits, she used up all her love on him and finds it difficult to express affection for anyone now. After many trials and tribulations regarding class and lifestyle differences, Sano, despite his love for Hara, calls off the wedding (but gives the family a check to save themselves) and departs for a visit to his hometown—only to have Hara chase after him, as she’s fallen in love with him as well. It might’ve been this portrayal of an arranged marriage being initiated by people interested solely in capital gain and the ultimate depiction of two people deciding to be together out of love that convinced the censors to let it get through. That the girl’s imprisoned father encourages her to ignore the family’s plans and find someone who makes her happy might’ve also played in the film’s favor. (Also possible is this unflattering portrayal came about per the censors’ suggestions, since the record shows they initially objected to some of the film’s subject matter******.)
Here’s to the Young Lady marked the first and only time Hara worked with the versatile director Keisuke Kinoshita, and it is not one of her finest hours. While her unrivaled good looks certainly fit the physical demands of the part, Hara overplays (underplays?) the “ill-at-ease” aspect of her character to the point of not being very interesting. Instead, the strength of the film is evoked through the people surrounding her. Sano, in particular, is delightful, as is Keiji Sada as the brother with romantic woes of his own. The women who work at the bar where the miai takes place—which itself becomes a recurring setting throughout the film—are also quite likable. The movie ultimately fares as an enjoyable romantic comedy which just so happens to co-star Setsuko Hara—as opposed to an all-out great film exhibiting the actress at her peak.
Like a good many of the major Japanese film artists of her generation, Setsuko Hara had no childhood aspirations to work in the movies. Rather, her dream job in youth was to one day become a teacher; but, due to her family’s poor financial status at the time, she was never able to attain the education necessary for such a profession. It is strangely fitting, therefore, that fourteen years into her career, she would play a teacher in one of her most fascinating roles. Though one can only wonder: had her teaching career come to fruition, would she have become even half as progressive and challenging to the social norm as the educator she played in Tadashi Imai’s two-part drama The Blue Mountains (1949)?
Based on Yojiro Ishizaka’s novel of the same name, the film stars Hara as a free-minded English teacher at an all-girls school. She works in a small town in which the residents are still reluctant to adopt the democratic views of the postwar era; this is a place where if two teenagers of the opposite sex are seen walking side by side in public, they become objects of scorn and mockery among their peers. When such circumstances befall one of her own pupils, Hara decides to take a stand, denouncing what she perceives to be the closed-minded views of the past; and this attitude, in turn, filters out to make the entire town question its own ethics and beliefs.
The Blue Mountains was precisely the sort of film which would’ve appealed to the occupation censors: a liberal drama defiant of outmoded feudal values and loaded with unambiguous dialogue. Consider some of the lines used when Hara challenges the bullies in her classroom: “Walking with a boy or knowing boys is not some immoral act, and to think so is very old-fashioned. I would like you to stop thinking that way. Dating boys and being honest about your feelings is perfectly natural.” As the scene continues, she calls into question whether the tormentors went after their pupil for the honor of the school or if they used that antiquated notion as an excuse to bully. “To fetter individuals in the name of ‘the family’ or of ‘the nation’ [has] been the greatest wrong in Japan.”
In another crucial scene, Hara is walking home with the town doctor (Ichiro Ryuzaki, who bears a certain resemblance to Toshiro Mifune) when he essentially speaks for the town with his conservative and nigh-misogynistic views. “I know there is a new constitution and new laws, but […] all the girls leave school and get married. Then they get bullied by their female in-laws. And their husbands will often hit them. They put up with this life, and just when they think they’ve got enough money to have it a bit easier, their husbands start drinking and chasing other women.” To which Hara responds, “It’s as if you’re saying you want to keep this town like that.” In scenes following their conversation, the doctor becomes an ally to Hara and fights alongside her in the struggle for acceptance and change within their town.
Much like the wartime propaganda films of the early to mid-1940s, The Blue Mountains is a fascinating if not especially subtle time capsule reflecting political diatribes occurring within Japan at the time; but it’s vastly entertaining compared to many of those earlier films. The picture is full of lively characters, well-realized by the cast—which includes Michiyo Kogure and Setsuko Wakayama, who would later play the heroine of Godzilla Raids Again (1955)—and a vivacious performance by an adolescent Ryo Ikebe (far more impressionable here than in any of his science fiction endeavors). But most of all, there’s Setsuko Hara. Here, the actress is at the top of her form, taking what could’ve been a preachy, obnoxious character and rendering her into a truly fascinating individual. And in this we can see a fine example of her reign as “The Goddess of Democracy.”
In her first role after becoming an independent actress in 1947, Hara teamed up with the director Kozaburo Yoshimura for a story about an aristocratic family whose “days of glory” are coming to an end. With their wealth depleted by the postwar tax hikes and agrarian reforms, the Anjo family stages a final ball at the mansion that will soon no longer be theirs. For the father, Mr. Anjo (Osamu Takizawa), the ball is an opportunity to make some last-minute negotiations with a wartime associate in hopes it would allow him to keep his house and his way of life. His son Masahiko (a marvelous performance from the always dependable Masayuki Mori) seeks to humiliate his former fiancée (the daughter of that same man) upon discovering her father has no interest in Mr. Anjo now that his days of power are gone; mixed in with this is a subplot involving his affair with one of the family’s maids (Akemi Sora). The family’s oldest daughter (Yumeko Aizome) wishes the ball to serve as a final, lasting memory of her family’s noble past—but does not wish to see the presence of their former chauffeur, who’s continued to love her even after leaving servitude, and who is now a potential buyer for the mansion. A plethora of other stories intertwine within the narrative. And running through the entire film like a quiet stream of reason is the younger daughter, Atsuko (Hara).
The Ball at the Anjo House (1947) is one of the most immaculately written films Setsuko Hara ever starred in and features one of her most well-rounded characters. From the beginning, Atsuko battles calmly and intelligently against the raging winds of arrogance, pride, and misguidedness within her home. The film opens with her adamantly opposing the titular ball and suggesting everyone simply accept the inevitable—in other words: try to make the most of their new life—while also being smart enough to recognize it might be tough, given most of them have never worked a day in their lives. She refuses to cling to the ways of yesteryear (brilliantly conveyed when a guest knocks over a suit of samurai armor—a symbol of Japan’s feudal past—and she tells a servant to leave it where it is) while taking serious the future. She acts against the wishes of her kin by trying to arrange their former chauffeur to purchase the mansion (knowing the father’s old associate has no interest in helping). And as the ball progresses and the various subplots erupt to climax, Atsuko regularly appears, constantly trying to keep things under control.
The film’s final sequence is nothing short of perfect. After the ball has ended and the rooms have gone dark, Atsuko searches the home for her father and manages to stop him from taking his own life. After saving him, she pleads for him not to despair what’s been lost but to embrace the future. She turns on the gramophone and invites her father to one final dance. The picture ends with the father and daughter dancing as the morning sun comes up; and appropriately, the final shot is one of Hara venturing up close to the camera, her hauntingly perfect smile agleam, a glowing representative of Japan in a new age.
The screenplay for The Ball at the Anjo House was written by Kaneto Shindo, but director Yoshimura claimed the idea came from his own personal experiences. As Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson recounted in their book The Japanese Film – Art and Industry, “The original idea was conceived when Yoshimura was invited to a dance party held at a peer’s mansion the night before it was sold, and many of the occurrences shown in the film actually happened that night. Yoshimura was so taken with what was happening that he stayed up until morning writing down ideas.” If the character of Atsuko was, indeed, based on a real person, one can only wonder how wondrous and inspiring her real-life counterpart must have been and if the girl was even half as charming and inspirational as Hara is in this picture.
A year after The Ball at the Anjo House, Hara reunited with director Kozaburo Yoshimura for what this writer sincerely believes to be one of the most beautiful and touching movies ever made about a May-September romance. In my review for Takashi Minamoto’s Tokyo Tower (2005), I concluded with a recommendation: that readers skip over that picture and instead seek out Yoshimura’s Temptation (1948) for a superior story about love between people of different generations; and I stand by that suggestion to this day.
From the beginning of Temptation, when a middle-aged father of two (Shin Saburi) runs into Hara, here playing the daughter of a colleague who died in the war, the relationship between the two is immediately fascinating. At first, Saburi holds no particular affection for Hara; he has sympathy for her becoming orphaned and feels obligated to look after her. As the story progresses, they spend more time together, their relationship naturally evolving from platonically mutual respect to special friendship to pure bliss—which comes through in one of the most romantic dance scenes ever put on film.
In contrast to some of the pictures discussed thus far, Temptation is not overtly political. It contains some food for thought (a few observations regarding postwar Japanese society—such as poverty among the lower classes), but at its core, it’s a simple love story about two people who care for one another and who just happen to be separated by a few decades of age; it doesn’t sling mud at its subject or utilize it for a series of crass jokes; it just tells its story sweetly and sincerely; and it ranks with pictures such as Delbert Mann’s Middle of the Night (1959) as one of the most touching movies about such romances I’ve come across to date. The sooner a western disc/streaming label adds this lovely gem to its itinerary, the better.
I’ve written extensively about Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) over the last couple of years—including in an in-depth article back in January—so I’ll keep my thoughts here relatively brief. Although Setsuko Hara admitted to having had no particular interest in starring in this film (and likely only took the part due to being under contract to Toho at the time), whatever apathy she felt toward the project goes completely undetected in her simply remarkable performance. The actress’s versatility and Kurosawa’s interest in personal growth and self-discovery combine to form one of the most transfixing female characters in postwar Japanese cinema: an initially care-free bourgeois girl who comes to recognize the vapidity of her own existence and begins a quest to uncover a way to lead her life with meaning during one of the most intense chapters in Japan’s sociopolitical history.
No Regrets for Our Youth is not one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, but it is—I sincerely believe—his first truly special motion picture, and Hara’s performance stands firm as one of its most hauntingly perfect qualities.
In one of the best scenes from Mikio Naruse’s Sudden Rain (1956), Setsuko Hara, playing a lower middle-class woman trapped in a passionless marriage, arrives on a Tokyo rooftop, where she has agreed to meet her husband. When she reaches the roof, another couple starts advancing in her direction. The wife, she notices, is clad in elegant attire: quite the opposite of her own drab clothing which reveals her poverty-stricken lifestyle. Humiliated, Hara bows her head, clutches the lapels of her coat, and deliberately tries to avoid eye contact with the better-off woman as they pass one another (even after the other woman temporarily meets her gaze and gives her a long, somewhat contemptuous stare afterward). Poverty and loveless marriages were among the most recurrent subjects in Naruse’s oeuvre, and that’s true also of this extremely powerful film.
Hara’s husband is played by Shuji Sano (of Here’s to the Young Lady) and this time both of them are at the top of their form as an impoverished couple who exhibit no love whatsoever for one another. The movie opens with them going through the almost comic monotony of their existence: he yawns, she yawns; he asks for his stomach medicine, she unenthusiastically supplies it for him; he complains about her cutting out recipes in the paper (leaving big gaping holes in the newsprint on the other side), she asks him to drop a letter at the post office only to find he abandoned it at the doorstep. When her niece (Kyoko Kagawa) comes by to visit and complain about the (very funny) nature of her not-so-happy marriage, the advice Hara and Sano offer results in them turning on one another, offering harsh critiques of their individual shortcomings. And then there’s the ending of the movie, in which the couple—having openly contemplated separation—engage in a juvenile game of toss, yelling and cursing as they swat a paper balloon back and forth (to the utter bewilderment of the children who accidentally knocked the toy into their yard).
The neighborhood in which the couple resides is loaded with gossip and distrust; just about everyone spends their day griping about everyone else. Hara herself is hardly an angel and is rather prone to being critical of other people: about her husband, about her neighbors, about the proprietors in the town who only treat their highest-paying customers with any kind of special politeness. This recurring theme comes to a “climax” in the form of a town meeting, in which everyone congregates at the local school building, the adults squatting on the undersized chairs before engaging in another all-out complaint brawl.
As all of the above description above would indicate, Sudden Rain is something of a comedy of manners, but more than anything it is an extremely bleak, pessimistic, and at times downright depressing film from the director who knew how to evoke such emotions like few others. The scenes depicting Hara’s loneliness and struggles with poverty are among the most gripping in the film. When her husband fails to return home one night—after she gives up waiting for him at the train station—she winds up sharing her dinner with a local stray dog. And whenever she ventures into the local marketplace, the entire world seems content in reminding her of her own poverty. The street vendors push her to buy expensive appliances she cannot afford, and while watching a salesman in action, she becomes the victim of a pickpocket.
Continuing on a thematic note from the last entry: Setsuko Hara’s five-movie association with Mikio Naruse showcases the actress tackling a broad variety of roles and, even when working with scenarios that appear to be similar on a surface level, being able to evoke completely different characterizations each time out. As far as her work with Naruse is concerned: in the lost propaganda film Until Victory Day (1945), Hara was merely an entertainment act, someone who—literally—came popping out of an exploding “Entertainment Bomb” along with a plethora of other Japanese celebrities to amuse troops on a South Seas island. (For more information regarding this perplexingly bizarre project, see my article on The Lost Films of Mikio Naruse.) In the director and actress’s final collaboration, the 1960 color melodrama Daughters, Wives, and a Mother, Hara played a recently widowed woman juggling between love with a younger man and a more “compatible” marriage.
And in between these two end points, Hara starred in a “miserable housewife” trilogy, if you will, for Naruse, in which she three times played an unhappily married woman whose drama often stemmed from a strained relationship with her husband (Sudden Rain was the third and final “chapter” in this series). However, despite some basic similarities between the three films, Hara didn’t replicate the same performance each time; no two roles or performances mirror one another in minute detail; each woman had her own assortment of personalities, agendas, and—most importantly—interactions with those surrounding her. For example, the protagonists of Sudden Rain and Naruse’s earlier Sound of the Mountain (1954) are diametric opposites of one another in many respects. To begin with the simplest of distinctions, the former resides in an impoverished, two-person household whereas the latter has married into a well-off upper middle class family; both are burdened by the duties expected of a Japanese housewife (in Sound of the Mountain, it’s because the family’s recently lost their maid), but that’s about it as far as similarities go.
Now, consider the characterizations. In Sudden Rain, Hara played a blunt and at times censorious woman; the character she plays in Sound of the Mountain, by contrast, is meek, shy, and extremely vulnerable: too passive to make a stand or speak out against anything, even her own unhappiness. Both women have to deal with an apathetic husband, but they respond in entirely different ways. Rather than complain about her situation or argue her way into a possible separation, the non-confrontational housewife in Sound of the Mountain suffers silently as her husband repeatedly comes home drunk and later impregnates both her and a mistress—until finally she decides to abort her unborn child and untie her marital bonds. Because she’s not as outspoken as her counterpart in Sudden Rain, Hara evokes an entirely different breed of acting, relying not so much on dialogue and shifting emphasis instead to physical nuances—facial expressions and movement—to demonstrate what her character is feeling, even when she’s trying to “mask” her emotions (as Naruse cleverly indicates in a scene where a character observes a Noh mask and realizes the face of the mask can appear ecstatically happy when viewed from one angle and depressingly sad when viewed from another).
The most fascinating relationship in the film exists between the housewife and her caring father-in-law (So Yamamura). As Catherine Russell notes in her book The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, the further Hara’s husband pushes her away, the closer Hara and Yamamura become. And at the end of the movie, the father-in-law exhibits a very progressive attitude in encouraging her to free herself completely and find what little happiness she can still achieve. They have grown close and are sad not to see each other anymore but realize this is the only way she can go on. Naruse considered Sound of the Mountain one of his favorites from his oeuvre and had personally pitched the idea of adapting Yasunari Kawabata’s source novel to Toho, and the end results are simply mesmerizing.
In 1951, Akira Kurosawa assembled what is unquestionably the single most impressive cast in his entire filmography. In adapting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot for the big screen, he recruited the talents of several people he’d worked with before (Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Yoshiko Kuga, Bokuzen Hidari, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Noriko Sengoku, etc.) as well as adding some impressive faces new to his cinematic canon (Chieko Higashiyama, for one). The entire cast is excellent and brings a tremendous amount of energy to this unusual and intoxicatingly watchable film (as this intro might suggest, this is a picture I hold with considerably higher regard than most Kurosawa aficionados), but it is Mori, in the eponymous role of a prisoner of war mentally scarred by his experiences, and Hara as a sinister yet sympathetic “kept woman” who really stand out.
Despite her sinister appearance (perpetually dressed in dark clothing with her hair slicked back—an appearance reputedly modeled after María Casares in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus), Hara doesn’t play her character as a cold-blooded villainess, instead depicting a lonely person who has spent her life believing the world to be an unfriendly place completely against her and whose cynicism and at times unpleasant demeanor is a byproduct of said conditions. But at the same time, she is presented as still in touch with her own humanity and carrying a willingness to respond to someone capable of—or at least willing to try—understanding her and accepting of the truth that she did not ask for the miserable existence she’s stuck with. This becomes especially prevalent in the film’s marvelous “birthday” sequence: a twenty-seven-minute masterwork of cinematic storytelling in which the mentally damaged Mori converses with Hara and accomplishes what no “sane” person has managed.
She invites him to her birthday party, having previously been touched by his innocence, and stands defiant of those scorning him. Over the course of the evening, Mori tells Hara about his experiences during the war and compares her to a fellow POW whose execution he witnessed; she reminds him of that twenty-year-old boy who seemed all alone and whose eyes, like hers, seemed to beg the question: “Why have I suffered like this?” In doing so, he sees straight into her heart and professes his belief that she is a good person who has simply endured a horrible life. “You see,” she tells him, “I’ve been waiting for somebody like you. Ever since I began this awful life as a kept woman, I’ve been waiting. I hoped and prayed, imagining someone like you. Hoping that a good, honest, kind man would appear [and say] ‘Taeko, it’s not your fault. I still respect you.’ How I longed to hear those words!” So moved is she that she ultimately decides not to let him take care of her. Even after all that has transpired, she still views herself as a damaged woman and doesn’t want to taint the life of someone so pure. Instead, she leaves with a man who has offered to pay a million yen for her “hand,” but not after taking the money and throwing it in a fireplace, burning it before the man who was to receive it.
As with the movie itself, Hara’s performance in The Idiot is simultaneously unusual and electrifying: the actress consciously goes for an over-the-top acting style with exaggerated expressions and sweeping gestures while still maintaining control of her character. Although she had been cast against type before—such as in Hideo Oba’s crime picture The Woman in the Midst of the Typhoon (1948)—under Kurosawa’s direction, she completely sells the role, giving a much better portrayal of a promiscuous woman with shades of sympathy than she had in the dreary aforementioned Oba thriller.
Released in the same year as The Idiot was Hara’s second movie with Mikio Naruse and the first entry in the earlier mentioned “miserable housewife” trilogy. Based on an unfinished novel by Naruse’s favorite author, Fumiko Hayashi, Repast is one of the two or three finest Naruse films I’ve come across yet and is unquestionably the greatest film of Hara’s I’ve seen outside of the best of her collaborations with Ozu: a compelling character study revolving around a lower middle class woman so disheartened by the passionless repetition of her day-to-day existence that she ultimately tries to escape from it.
Once again, on a surface level, all three films in this “trilogy”—Repast, Sound of the Mountain, and Sudden Rain—sound quite similar, but examined in greater context, we see three entirely different stories and three entirely different women. Whereas Sound of the Mountain presented the struggles of Hara’s character mainly through the observations of her kindly father-in-law (the actual protagonist of that film), the story of Repast is told predominately from the perspective of the housewife herself, sometimes in the first person. In the film’s beginning, she describes to us through voiceover her unhappiness as we witness the monotony of her daily life: relentlessly cleaning her cramped Osaka suburb home and tending to her husband (who mostly just lets her know when he wants something to eat). Every day is nonstop work for her, her life confined almost exclusively to the kitchen and family room 365 days a year. “I had hopes and dreams before,” Hara asks through narration. “Where have they gone?” (In one revealing moment, she takes advantage of an opportunity to get out of the house and meet with some old friends. One of them asks what she talks about with her husband all day, to which she replies, “I have a cat.”)
The idiosyncratic details of the marriage in this film further distinguishes Repast from the other two Naruse pictures discussed thus far. For example, the husband in Repast is nothing at all like his counterpart in Sound of the Mountain. Both men are played by the same actor (Ken Uehara), but the characterizations are starkly different. Uehara in Sound of the Mountain was completely negligible, caring not at all about his wife’s feelings as he stumbled home drunk every night and regularly betrayed her trust in the arms of another woman. By contrast, the husband in Repast is, at his core, a decent and kindhearted person. His central flaw is naïvete toward his wife’s feelings and his taking for granted the “duties” expected of a Japanese housewife. But he works hard and by the end of the movie becomes conscious of and more sympathetic to her unhappiness. And he no doubt becomes more appreciative of her hard work—which he initially took for granted—after she leaves home and he proves incapable of handling most of the household chores.
In the third act, the estranged couple bump into one another in Tokyo. Uehara informs his spouse he’s been offered a better-paying job but won’t accept it without discussing it with her first—an acknowledgement of respect, that he cares what she thinks, an implication of willingness to treat her better going forward. (Meantime, Hara herself has gone through a journey of her own, being awakened to her own shortcomings—her brother calls her out for taking advantage of their mother’s hospitability—and witnessing first-hand the difficulties of surviving on one’s own in postwar Japan.) Before they leave for home, Uehara rubs his stomach and remarks “I’m hungry,” before suddenly looking up at his wife and apologizing, and they share a laugh.
In this we can see another quality distinguishing Repast from, say, Sudden Rain, whose protagonists simply tolerated one another and nothing more. Despite the bumps in their matrimony, the protagonists of Repast still love one another (the key word being still: in Hara’s opening monologue, she confesses she married her husband against the wishes her family, out of personal desire). They just need to work out their differences—i.e., the husband needs to be more aware of his wife’s plights. Hara agrees to go home with him not only because she’s run out of options, but also because she hopes they can still find happiness together, if they work at it.
The emotional climax of Repast is one of the most uplifting and beautifully filmed sequences in the annals of cinema. On the train ride home, Hara sits by the window as her husband lounges sleepily in the chair next to her. She reaches into her purse and withdraws a letter—presumably one asking for divorce—before glancing over at her husband and then tearing the letter to pieces, smiling as she does. Hara’s wordless performance here is nothing short of immaculate; she acts with everything from her eyes to her hands—every gesture, every glance timed exactly right—complemented by Naruse’s simple yet mesmerizing camerawork and Fumio Hayasaka’s hauntingly romantic score. As the picture comes to a close, Hara’s monologue returns, this time voicing optimism. “My husband sits beside me. I see the profile of an ordinary man, with his eyes closed. He is floating in the current of life, exhausted from swimming. Still, he will continue swimming and struggle through the current. I stand beside him as we share our lives together in search of happiness. Perhaps that is what true happiness means for me. Happiness for women is perhaps to live life in just such a way.”
The ending of Repast is quite unexpected for Naruse, who almost always ended his pictures on a pessimistic “life goes on” note—and this upbeat denouement likely resulted from the fact that Fumiko Hayashi’s source novel had never been finished, thereby allowing someone at the studio to create the ending for her******. The film does champion a “life goes on” message but with much more optimism than is expected from this director. And yet this ending still ends up working. For Repast is not about a neglected woman who has no choice but to escape from her circumstances or die miserable (as in Sound of the Mountain) but rather about a woman who mutually agrees with her life partner to try and make a better future by working together, caring for one another, not simply accepting the status quo. And throughout the film, Setsuko Hara never strikes a false note, validating once again her status as one of the most important and gifted film actresses of the 20th century.
* Fanck’s original intention was to cast Kinuyo Tanaka in The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai. Tanaka was already an established star in her home country and her work had been seen, to an extent, in Germany, but this casting prospect was never realized due to contractual issues.
** Not long after making her final screen appearance—in Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1962 film version of Chushingura—Setsuko Hara withdrew from the motion picture industry, claiming she had never enjoyed being an actress and only took on her career to assist with her family’s financial difficulties, which were now resolved. Over the years, people have speculated there might’ve been other factors in her decision, but regardless, she never returned to the silver screen and spent the rest of her life in Kamakura, shunning publicity and living under her birth name, Masae Aida.
*** Young Eagle’s Song, the song used prominently this film, was a popular martial tune during the Pacific War, reportedly selling more than 230,000 records. It has since been used in movies looking back on Japan’s wartime involvement, including Kihachi Okamoto’s Japan’s Longest Day (1967).
**** Setsuko Hara entered the film industry through the assistance of her brother-in-law, the director Hisatora Kumagai. Kumagai acted ostensibly as her manager while she was overseas promoting The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai and later cast Hara in his 1939 production Naval Brigade at Shanghai. In that picture, Hara played a Chinese woman who initially hates the Japanese soldiers occupying Shanghai but later comes to admire them for their “true” intentions in invading the Far East.
Kumagai was furthermore an outspoken nationalist and a purveyor of Jewish conspiracy in Japan during the war. Tadashi Imai, who also directed Hara in the 1943 film Suicide Troops of the Watchtower, recalled: “One night, Setsuko Hara visited me with a letter from her brother-in-law, Hisatora Kumagai. The letter went something as follows: ‘Just when Japan must pour all its energies into securing its strategic position among the southern countries, the Jews start an intrigue to divert our eyes to the north. Suicide Troops of the Watchtower is clearly part of this Jewish plot designed to throw us into confusion. The film must be halted immediately.’”
On a side note, it is worth noting that anti-Semitism had been somewhat prevalent in Japan during the war years; one survey reported at least thirty-eight Japanese books were published about “the Jewish attack on Japan” in 1938 alone.
***** Wartime Japanese films which depicted parents saddened or concerned about their children going to war were often attacked by the government. Keisuke Kinoshita’s Army (1944), for example, pleased the nationalist authorities with its depiction of two parents shaping their son into a soldier but angered them with its final scene, in which the mother worriedly chased her son through the streets as he went off to war.
****** It is also possible the film was allowed to get by due to the occupation censors being more lenient with subjects such as arranged marriages. While they strictly enforced policies of banning nationalistic and militaristic material, they had a record of being less strict with movies tackling arranged marriage. For example, the script for Ozu’s Late Spring initially ran into trouble because of its subject of a young woman being married off to someone she’s never met and a line of dialogue reporting that the prospective husband comes from a well-off family (making him a good match on grounds unrelated to emotion). The censors instructed this line be written out but for reasons unknown allowed it to be reinstated in the final draft and kept in the finished film.General // June 17, 2019
My relationship with the films of Ishiro Honda has always been a bit, shall we say, nonconformist. While I am certainly of the opinion that he was by and large the best and most capable director to work in kaiju eiga, I’ve never been able to rank him in the same league as the true masters of his generation (Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu, etc.). His track record is simply less consistent and not as impressive as theirs. As far as his work in science fiction is concerned, Honda made, to my mind, one masterpiece—the original Godzilla (1954)—four or five outstanding pictures, a number of solid entertainments…and more than a few unfortunate misfires. As a matter of fact—and I say this at the risk of voicing blasphemy in the minds of fellow kaiju fans—it’s always been my opinion that only about half of Honda’s genre movies were truly any good and that for every worthwhile film he made, there was another that was incredibly dissatisfying. For every Godzilla (1954), there was a Varan (1958). For every Matango (1963), there was a Dogora (1964). For every Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), there was a Battle in Outer Space (1959).
Now, to be fair, Honda often had to deal with factors that were beyond his control (shrinking budgets, changes in business strategies at Toho), but I think one could fairly argue his poor handling of certain types of sequences (namely physical action) and his lack of a visual flair (it was his cinematographers and art directors who predominately created the look of his films) contributed to the failings of pictures such as Latitude Zero (1969) and Atragon (1963). More action-heavy films like these probably would’ve benefited from a director who could not only approve a decent-looking shot but also make it his own and coordinate moving components for exhilarating effect.
In general, Honda’s finer qualities seemed to emerge through his natural direction of actors and his attempts to address social issues. When he was matched with a strong script and situations that were within his range, the results were often absorbing: the long, grueling aftermath of Tokyo’s destruction in the original Godzilla; the depiction of a mini-society breaking down into anarchy in Matango; the three leads of Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) pleading with the residents of Infant Island to forgive the wrongs of the past; the real-world struggles of children (loneliness, bullying) presented within the context of one of Japan’s toughest socioeconomic times in All Monsters Attack (1969). These are highlights which used science fiction predominately as framework—or even didn’t use science fiction at all—in favor of cogent examinations of the human condition and showcased Honda playing to his strengths.
Because of everything described thus far, I’ve taken a keen interest in the last few years in exploring Honda’s lesser known films—especially after the release of Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski’s superb biography on the director, Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa. That book, in addition to painting a compelling picture of Honda’s life and the times he lived in, presented great insight into the man’s entire filmmaking spectrum and how some of his pictures related to his personal experiences. Not to mention: many of the “missing” films didn’t seem to require from him the building of compelling action set pieces or some kind of pictorial tour de force—instead depending on interesting characters, good performances, and stories about ordinary life.
As of the time of this writing, I’ve seen Honda’s two war pictures, Eagle of the Pacific (1953) and Farewell Rabaul (1954); his romantic comedy Come Marry Me (1966); and the 1961 gangster picture The Scarlet Man. (I also have a copy of 1956’s Night School, which he made for Daiei, but haven’t gotten around to watching it yet.)* And most recently, just a few days ago, I had an opportunity to watch a certain film that’s been on my radar for some months now: the non-genre film covered in the aforementioned biography that I most wanted to see.
1957’s Good Luck to These Two, starring Hiroshi Koizumi and Yumi Shirakawa and featuring a fine supporting cast (Toshiro Mifune, Keiko Tsushima, Takashi Shimura, Shizue Natsukawa, Yoshifumi Tajima, and Kamatari Fujiwara), tells the story of a couple whose love is tested by poverty, familial demurral, and ultimately each other. I was compelled to seek out this film because while Honda did touch on the subject of young people marrying for love in Godzilla (1954), a motion picture without a monster in it would allow the human element to take center stage and offer a more upfront examination of the theme under discussion. The fact that Koizumi and Shirakawa have always been two of my favorites in Honda’s “stock company” only amplified my curiosity. And finally, based on what Ryfle and Godziszewski described in their book, some of the events in Good Luck to These Two seemed to mirror trials and tribulations that Honda and his wife had endured themselves.
A note before we continue. The print of Good Luck to These Two that I saw naturally came with no subtitles, and my bare minimum understanding of Japanese permitted me to grasp only the gist of a handful of sentences; but thanks to the detailed plot descriptions in the Honda biography, I was able to connect some of the narrative dots/understand character motivations a little easier, and I feel confident enough to offer basic thoughts and observations (I shall reserve more in-depth analysis for when and if the film ever receives a subtitled release).
The screenplay for Good Luck to These Two was penned by Zenzo Matsuyama, whose credits include other melodramas such as Mikio Naruse’s Yearning (1964), and I suspect director Honda might’ve applied some touches of his own to the film’s story**. It might be a stretch to call the film “autobiographical,” but certainly a number of sequences would’ve reminded the director of things that had happened in his own life.
I am thinking predominately in terms of how the couple in the movie falls in love and gets married, and the reactions to their getting married. In the beginning, Wasao (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Masako (Yumi Shirakawa) are presented as platonic colleagues who exhibit no especially strong feelings for one another. The first time we see them together is when Wasao steps into the office where they both work and Masako casually informs her co-worker the branch manager wishes to see him; he thanks her and heads for the manager’s office while she returns to her desk, neither so much as glancing back at the other. Now, long before this film’s making, Honda and the woman he married, Kimi Yamasaki, were employed at the same company (Toho) and were, by all accounts, completely unromantic in their friendship for many years. They spent time together and were fond of one another but were not involved on any particularly deep level. That is, until one day, when Honda and Kimi were standing alone on an overpass and he abruptly asked if she wanted to marry him.
In Good Luck to These Two, the first indication that Wasao has any special interest in Masako comes when we see him waiting for her outside a subway station on the way to the office. They spend a day together and it’s when walking her home—crossing an overpass—that he confesses he’s in love with her. And just as Honda and his wife survived on very little money in the early years of their matrimony (him drawing a meager salary from the studio, her giving up her livelihood per tradition), Wasao and Masako agree to live on one income and consciously enter poverty.
Overt similarities extend to the reactions of Masako’s parents. Just as Kimi’s well-off father was adamantly opposed to his daughter marrying a low-wage salaryman, Masako’s father (Takashi Shimura) vocally and fiercely refuses to give his blessing to Masako becoming engaged to anyone other than a man who could take over the family business. Like her real-life “counterpart,” Masako gives up financial support to marry the man she loves; and like Honda and Kimi, Wasao and Masako go through an utterly anti-exorbitant wedding: simply making the arrangements, paying their respects at a shrine, and beginning their life together.
One nice little touch that, as far as I know, doesn’t bear any overt similarities to events in Honda’s life: when Masako gets married, her parents quietly watch from outside the shrine—heartbroken not to participate but too proud to show themselves. When a crowd of people approach the shrine, they retreat and look on from a hilltop as their daughter gets into a car with her groom and is driven away. To alleviate some of the sadness, Honda adds a bit of whimsy, with Toshiro Mifune, as the musician brother-in-law, playing an impromptu wedding march on his French horn.
Once again, it’s difficult for me to offer deeply analytical thoughts on an un-subtitled film whose language I can’t really understand, but in terms of basic technicalities, Good Luck to These Two is well made and features some nice black-and-white photography by Hajime Koizumi (no relation to Hiroshi), who would remain Honda’s regular cinematographer for the next ten years. Honda and Koizumi make great use of their Tokyo locations, most notably in a scene where Masako meets a friend at a diner and we can see, through the window behind them, the distortions of sunlight bouncing off a hidden water source, the warbling light effect plastered on the infrastructure outside. Scenes set in darkness are lit quintessentially: showing just enough of what we need to see while drenching the rest of the frame in shadow.
As for dramatics: watching the film, I was reminded of a quote in Ryfle and Godziszewski’s book in which producer Tomoyuki Tanaka compared Honda to Mikio Naruse***, a director whose films very often depicted the hardships of life in poverty. Tanaka’s words came to mind because while Honda’s film isn’t nearly as pessimistic and morose as those by Naruse, he does tackle a number of the same issues that were of interest to Naruse and other directors of shomin-geki (films about ordinary life). In a key scene, Wasao loses his job trying to break up a fight between two of his company’s managers and returns home with a bandage around his head; his attempt to do something noble backfired and left him for the worse; Masako tearfully cleans the stains from her husband’s jacket, realizing they’ll be plunged even deeper into poverty now that they’ve lost their only source of income. Continuing on that note, much of the film’s third act follows Wasao’s unsuccessful quest to find work—at a time when there weren’t nearly enough jobs for everyone despite the lush economy the country was enjoying. Also akin to a Naruse film, the couple in Good Luck to These Two remains childless—likely because they can barely afford to feed themselves.
The performances are uniformly good. As mentioned before, Hiroshi Koizumi and Yumi Shirakawa were always two of my favorite regulars in Honda’s sci-fi filmography. Even though the former was generally cast as a stoic science type and the latter as a milquetoast love interest, there was always something immensely appealing about both of them which managed to shine through; and I certainly enjoyed the more dynamic characters they respectively enacted in Matango and H-Man (1958). However, in Good Luck to These Two, they play average, everyday people living under ordinary circumstances and are utterly natural and believable as such. And this comes through especially well—along with everything else—in the movie’s incredibly touching finale.
Following an argument with her husband, Masako goes to visit her sister and brother-in-law before returning home—just as Tokyo experiences a citywide blackout, a rather common occurrence at the time. She steps inside her cramped apartment to find Wasao attempting to cook dinner over a grill, the only illumination in the room stemming from a single candle. The couple talk through their problems and gently hold one another, foreheads touching, speaking softly. Honda then cuts to a beautifully composed master shot of Wasao and Masako standing in the middle of their dark, shadow-laced apartment, the score by Yoshinao Nakada swelling in the background. As our protagonists embrace, the power comes back on—in what could be read as a symbol for their newfound hope. They throw their arms around each other again and the picture fades to black. I cannot think of an ending I would’ve wanted more for this film, and it also offers a distinction between Honda and the director I’ve compared him to thus far. Whereas Naruse’s pictures typically concluded with the protagonists accepting their unhappiness and moving on in spite of it, Honda gives us an ending that, while not a total victory for the heroes (Wasao is still unemployed), is nonetheless cheery, hopeful, and optimistic.
Of the five non-genre pictures directed by Ishiro Honda that I’ve seen, Good Luck to These Two might be my second favorite, coming in behind Farewell Rabaul. Part of the fun for me might’ve been in drawing comparisons to Honda’s life as I watched this film—and also in seeing two of my favorite kaiju eiga regulars tackling a more emotional story—but it’s movies like this which really make me wonder what sort of director Honda might’ve been had he not gotten stuck making science fiction almost exclusively throughout the later parts of his career. The lack of monsters and spectacle allows Honda to exhibit his genuine talent for directing actors and his interests in the struggles of ordinary life. I’m not sure if the film would rank with the best of what shomin-geki has to offer, but I have a feeling that if I ever got to see a subtitled print (thereby obtaining a stronger understanding of the characters and the dialogue), I might find myself ranking it favorably in the company of films made by people such as Kozaburo Yoshimura and Heinosuke Gosho.
Regardless, even with the language barrier that will exist for some, Good Luck to These Two is a very nice little film. And again, that ending with the couple reconciling under that “ray of hope” lingers in my mind still—one of the sweetest and most satisfying denouements I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Eagle of the Pacific: Well-meaning but somewhat static picture about Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto that comes alive mostly in its flashy air battle sequences composed of special effects (both new and recycled) from Eiji Tsuburaya. Veteran actor Denjiro Okochi is uncharacteristically dull as Yamamoto. The most memorable performance comes from Toshiro Mifune, who has a small part as a fighter pilot. It is very talky, so it might be easier to enjoy for someone with a solid understanding of Japanese.
Farewell Rabaul: The best of the lot; a riveting antiwar drama with interesting characters and a remarkable leading performance by Ryo Ikebe. Those who only know Ikebe for Battle in Outer Space, Gorath (1962), and The War in Space (1977) owe it to themselves to see this film, for his performance is completely unlike the wooden, resolutely inexpressive “acting” he gave for Honda and Jun Fukuda in their science fiction pictures.
The Scarlet Man: I would give a good deal to learn more about how Honda worked with whoever it was that choreographed the action in this colorful and very entertaining gangster movie. The fistfights and shootouts are surprisingly well executed, much better than I expected from a Honda movie. Excellent color photography by Hajime Koizumi, another nice performance from Yumi Shirakawa, and a great leading man in the form of Makoto Sato, who had also acted for Honda in H-Man but was most memorable for playing smart-alecks in the films of Kihachi Okamoto, such as Desperado Outpost (1959) and The Big Boss (1959). Highly enjoyed this one.
Come Marry Me: Interesting little romantic comedy about marrying for love rather than gain. As a huge fan of actor/singer Yuzo Kayama, this one was also on my radar for a while. Kayama, of course, gets a chance to show off his magnificent vocal talents a couple of times.
** Ishiro Honda’s mentor during his days as an assistant director for Photo Chemical Laboratories (a laboratory service provider which later started making films of its own and was subsequently merged with other filmmaking companies into Toho) was Kajiro Yamamoto, who also trained directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Senkichi Taniguchi, and Motoyoshi Oda, the director of Godzilla Raids Again (1955). One of the filmmaking principles that Yamamoto taught his apprentices was the value of rewriting screenplays. As is documented in the Ryfle-Godziszewski book, Honda sometimes reworked screenplays written by other writers to suit his own image.
*** In Tomoyuki Tanaka’s biography, the producer is quoted saying that if Honda had not become pigeonholed in making science fiction throughout much of his career, he probably would’ve become a director “like Mikio Naruse.”General // April 21, 2019
Kensho Yamashita’s Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) is a film I’ve always held with somewhat higher regard than most genre fans. While it’s never been one of my all-time favorites, the penultimate Heisei film has always struck me as a decent enough piece of feel-good entertainment and has charmed me from the start with its lighthearted tone, memorable characters, gorgeous cinematography (the best to be found in the post-‘80s Heisei movies, in my opinion), and one of my personal favorite soundtracks from composer Takayuki Hattori; and I was genuinely sad to learn of the passing of the film’s director three years ago—realizing then I would never have the chance to shake his hand and thank him for the many wonderful hours of joy his movie had given me as a kid.
Having said that, I am certainly not oblivious to the film’s multitude of defects—the most damaging of which inspired this article. The first time I ever saw Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla was not through any kind of home release, but rather via taping it off the SyFy Channel sometime in the early 2000s (and this was the copy I ended up watching again and again, to the point where I’m surprised the tape didn’t wear out). It wasn’t until I got the old Tristar DVD some years later that I discovered the film I’d grown up with was, in fact, a shorter, more condensed version of its original theatrical release. Seeing the film in full for the first time, I was all of a sudden being treated to a plethora of scenes unfamiliar to me. “New” moments of character interplay; “additional” buildup in the first act; “more” cutaways during SpaceGodzilla’s aerial traverse to Fukuoka; gobs of material that had technically always been part of the film but had never been part of my experience until now.
Alas, in complete and brutal honesty, I cannot say I was enthused by most of this “unseen” material. Especially in regards to what I found in the first act. It just seemed to slow the film down. Granted, pacing was, in general, not one of the Heisei series’ strongest assets; all of the post-1991 entries could’ve afforded to be whittled down; but Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, more than the others, feels like a rough cut as opposed to a polished theatrical release. The picture is hampered by pointless scenes and extraneous shots that accomplish nothing other than to pad out the runtime. And when SyFy’s editors employed their editing scissors for the sake of commercial airtime—cutting a scene here, taking out a few shots there—they actually greatly improved the film’s pace, resulting in something that was considerably more manageable and enjoyable. And these days, when I occasionally revisit Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, I find myself wishing about 90% of their edits had been in the cut that went to theaters.
Since the film under discussion is so guilty of sloppy editing, I thought it would be fun to look back on the 1994 Godzilla film, remember the most notable trims SyFy had made, and discuss how they improved the flow of the story. Very little special effects footage is going to turn up on this list (in fact, SyFy’s editors left the monster scenes largely intact, to no objection from me*). By contrast, it’ll primarily be the more lead-footed moments in director Yamashita’s live-action footage that gets called out. And once again, we’re tackling only post-production (post-post-production?) excisions that would impact the film from a pacing standpoint—there are plenty of fundamental scripting issues here that no amount of cutting could ever fix.
But I digress. On we go.
Let us begin with what I personally consider the most egregiously awful scene in the entire movie: a mind-numbing concoction so poorly executed it makes the infamous Asteroid Belt scene from later in the movie look and feel masterly by comparison. I am, of course, referring to that dreadful confab in which representatives of NASA and G-Force gather around a table and review shoddy-looking footage of SpaceGodzilla’s crystals obliterating a space station. Inept and awkward, utterly devoid of atmosphere or tension. A truly embarrassing scene.
And one that, from a narrative standpoint, is not even necessary—as SyFy’s editors so persuasively demonstrated when they axed this abominable sequence from their cut. The NASA scene serves no fundamental importance to the story. For immediately after we’re done being told about “some sort of huge monster” threatening outer space, we cut to Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka) receiving a warning from the Cosmos that an extra-terrestrial monster is en route to Earth, repeating what we already know. And, only a few minutes after that, in an entirely different scene, we get a much tighter, more efficient scene in which G-Force picks up the inbound SpaceGodzilla on their radar—thus validating their decision to send Moguera to intercept it. So even if the NASA sequence had been well staged and edited—even if Koichi Kawakita’s effects didn’t look like something out of a television commercial—it still wouldn’t have contributed anything outside of providing excess buildup.
SyFy’s sequence of events is more efficient. We cut straight from our male leads meeting on Birth Island to Miki being greeted by the Cosmos, and the moment of SpaceGodzilla appearing on G-Force’s radar remains intact. Nothing of importance is lost (Miki and the military still learn of the incoming threat), one of director Yamashita’s most crushing missteps is done away with, and the film flows much better as a result.
A great amount of time passes between Moguera’s taking off to battle SpaceGodzilla in the Asteroid Belt and the operation to attempt to control Godzilla through Project T. During this interlude (all set on Birth Island), we get lots of undeniably gorgeous location work (filmed at Okinoerabu-Shima Island), a cute scene of Miki exploring the terrain and encountering Little Godzilla, some dialogue establishing a rapport/history between Yuki (Akira Emoto) and Dr. Gondo (Towako Kimijima) which also reveals where the former got the chemicals for his blood coagulant bullets, and a rather slow sequence of Little Godzilla accidentally setting off the tear gas mines intended for his adoptive parent.
As nice as some of these scenes are—and as good-looking as most of them are—their combined runtime does dampen the film’s pace considerably. And, truthfully, the exchange between Yuki and Dr. Gondo is needless. There’s already enough material in the film showcasing their relationship and it’s really not that essential for the audience to know where Yuki got the chemicals for his “Yuki’s Special.” He’s a soldier, he worked for G-Force, we can fill in the blanks on our own (as I did as a kid).
In the television edit, however, we promptly cut from Moguera’s space-bound departure to inside the Project T tent as Miki informs Dr. Okubo (Yosuke Saito) that Godzilla’s on his way. A four-minute deletion that drastically streamlines the pace and keeps the story moving.
This next entry concerns not the removal of any particular scene but the process of simply axing inapposite shots from scenes that run a bit long for their own good. All throughout the movie, SyFy’s editors whittled out little clips of dead air where needed, allowing individual scenes to flow more smoothly. Gone were static landscape shots, pointless shots of mines sitting inertly in the water, etc. Little cuts such as these added up in the long run and tightened the overall film for superior effect.
One scene that benefited from this practice was: Godzilla marching ashore on Birth Island while being struck by mines and tear gas bombs. The scene has a nice skirmish feel to it, but it does drag with too much of the characters moving about in search of good shooting positions. When SyFy re-edited the film, they took out a few shots here and there (such as an awkward composite placing the characters into a foreground plate before the special effects shot of Godzilla coming ashore) to keep things moving. They also brought the axe upon the moment of Yuki aiming at Godzilla, lowering his gun to put on a gas mask, and then shouldering his gun again—as well as him subsequently firing a few shots into Godzilla’s shoulder. Taking out all of this greatly improves the scene’s rhythm—and makes it a little easier to ignore the sheer stupidity of trying to kill Godzilla with a finger-sized bullet.
As far as whittling down the film’s middle section is concerned, one of SyFy’s wisest choices was trimming SpaceGodzilla’s long flight over various cities. Namely, cutting a comic relief scene set in a gaming room.
In the theatrical version, director Yamashita made a little too much room for extensions of the peculiar romantic theme that runs throughout his picture, including a little moment in which Yuki and Gondo say their farewells before the former gets ready to board Moguera for the final battle. Also present here was a silent exchange between Miki and Shinjo (Jun Hashizumi) in which the two, who had started bonding on the island, give each other a worried glimpse just before the doors shut between them. This scene was wisely removed for the television edit for it’s just additional footage beefing up character relationships that are already sufficiently defined elsewhere. (In short: most of the island scenes and the denouement after the climax provide us with everything we need to know.) In the television edit, Commander Aso (Akira Nakao) distributes helmets to Yuki and his two co-pilots, wishes them good luck—jump cut to Moguera taking off.
One of my favorite sections in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla is without a doubt Godzilla’s episodic march across Kyushu, heading from Kagoshima Bay to combat SpaceGodzilla in Fukuoka. Matched with Takayuki Hattori’s exquisite theme for the character—itself charged with a sense of determination—it sticks out in my mind as a highlight. As much as I enjoy it, however, there are too many cutaways to Godzilla, especially after SpaceGodzilla and Moguera have already started their fight. At one point, we go from SpaceGodzilla knocking his mechanical opponent down and then approaching the fallen machine—and then cut to some shots of Godzilla marching through the city—and then back to the battle zone as SpaceGodzilla starts hitting Moguera with his corona beam. Here was another good editing decision when the film was adjusted for television. Instead of cutting away to Godzilla, we remain at the battle zone. SpaceGodzilla topples Moguera, roars, starts approaching, strikes him, and we immediately cut inside the machine’s cockpit as Yuki regains consciousness. Much more streamlined than its theatrical counterpart.
Not to mention: that additional footage of Godzilla is incongruent on two fronts. One, we see Godzilla plainly entering the outer rim of SpaceGodzilla’s crystal fortress even though he doesn’t actually join the battle until much later. And second—in what recalls a similarly sloppy sound editing job during Rodan’s entrance in Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster (1964)—Godzilla opens his mouth and roars…and SpaceGodzilla’s roar is heard instead of his own.
* A lot of commentators on Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, even those with a generally softer view on the film like myself, are of the opinion that the film’s final battle goes on for much too long. I sympathize with this sentiment, but it’s never been an issue for me personally. I’ve always enjoyed the visual splendor of this sequence (the unique setting of the crystal fortress helps) as well as the broad variety of battle techniques employed, many of them unseen before: the Gravity Tornado; SpaceGodzilla using his crystals as projectiles; Moguera breaking into two separate machines and fighting from the air and underground at the same time; the strategy of needing to destroy Fukuoka Tower in order to cut off SpaceGodzilla’s energy.General // March 14, 2019
The opening of Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) is set in 1933—two years after the Manchurian Incident, the event which hastened the invasion of northern China by the Imperial Japanese Army—and depicts a love triangle between the daughter of a well-off bourgeois family and a pair of university student suitors. The two men are diametric opposites in terms of their personalities and agendas. One is an outspoken antimilitarist determined to save Japan from its own expansionist policies. The other’s a weak-willed law student perfectly content to live in accordance with the system rather than take a stand or even voice a word against it. Both can see the wrong in their country’s recent actions—especially when one of their professors loses his job for liberalism—but only one sees fit to do anything about it. As for Yukie Yagihara, the young woman caught between them, her choosing between these two embodies a struggle which runs much deeper than the mere selection of a marital partner. Life with one would provide total economic security at the cost of free speech; marriage with the other would “blaze so brightly” with passion reminiscent of that which the man carries in his struggles for academic freedom in Japan and peace for the world.
Based on this inaugurating plot thread, one might assume No Regrets for Our Youth to be a politically charged movie with our heroine’s choice representing a stance favored by the people behind the camera. That was certainly my impression when I reviewed the film in June of 2014: “It’s all the more surprising (and impressive) that here, [director Kurosawa] should have chosen to project some of his country’s postwar feelings through a female protagonist.” I felt pretty confident in this verdict at the time, and I more or less stuck by it when I wrote about the movie again in my career retrospective article on Kurosawa a year later: “By using a love triangle—with a strong female character at the center—Kurosawa could represent Japan’s divided pre-war attitude and ultimately, via the heroine’s decision, stand for the ideology he personally supported.”
I don’t necessarily disagree with either of these statements today. As a matter of fact, the record would support them, as part of the filmmakers’ intent was to demand justice for people who’d lost their jobs—and even their lives—to Japan’s prewar/wartime authoritarian government. On the other hand, it wasn’t until my most recent viewing that I came to discover my earlier interpretations of this picture were, in fact, merely scratching the surface of its true depth and humanity. Seeing the film again—and having done more extensive research into its background and pre-production—I realize now: No Regrets for Our Youth is not a hardcore political movie, nor is it really about any political theory in general. Sure, there are politics in the film, but the film is ultimately not about the politics; the character roster features a few activists, but the story’s not about activism; the plot opens with academic persecution, but the struggle for academic freedom does not become the center of the narrative. The subjects I mentioned are all relevant, of course, but they predominately serve as structural framework before which the real theme of the movie unfolds—a theme Kurosawa had touched on in earlier films and would return to again and again throughout his career.
Before we continue, it is perhaps worth noting that No Regrets for Our Youth was initially going to be a film teeming with much heavier political content. The screenplay was written by Eijiro Hisaita, a man noted for his resentment of Japanese militarism* (an image of the scriptwriter can be seen to the right), and modeled in part after two real-life controversies: the persecution of liberal university professor Yukitoki Takigawa; and the imprisonment/execution of Asahi Shimbun journalist/accused spy Hotsumi Ozaki. These two men were well-known political victims of the 1930s-40s, and their struggles are recreated, albeit in fictionalized form, in the movie. According to the testimonies of both Kurosawa and producer Keiji Matsuzaki, Hisaita’s script (penned over a course of twenty days) was meant to be a through-and-through fictionalized account of Takigawa’s persecution and Ozaki’s murder and was to take a few well-aimed swipes at the people behind the wrongs done to them. But between completion of the script and actual shooting of the film, interferences sprung up, restraining the political content on a number of grounds.
For example, the opening intertitle, as originally written, was to call out by name Ichiro Hatoyama, Japan’s Minister of Education from 1931-1934, the man responsible for the arrests/terminations of many educators deemed leftist or liberal during the pre-war years (Takigawa included). This intertitle was heavily modified for the finished film, pinning blame for the real-life tragedies on a more generalized culprit: “militarists.” Interviewed decades later on the subject, Kurosawa confirmed suspicions that Hatoyama’s name had been removed at the behest of the studio. “I wanted to demand that these people, such as Hatoyama, take responsibility [for the Takigawa and Ozaki incidents.] However, the Toho company told me to delete [Hatoyama’s name] because it would have been upsetting.” While the western powers governing the Land of the Rising Sun from 1945-1952 probably would’ve had no issue with a film directly attacking the former authority figure in question, the front office at Toho clearly did not want to go along with the idea—perhaps due to the fact that, at the time, Ichiro Hatoyama was president of the Liberal Party, the most popular government body in the first postwar general election. (The executives who made this decision probably congratulated themselves in hindsight when Hatoyama rose through the ranks and became Japan’s 35th prime minister in 1954.)
Continuing on the subject of internal interference. On March 20, 1946, Toho’s labor union—which consisted of 5,600 members—went on a fifteen-day strike, demanding higher pay and more creative power from their superiors. As Kurosawa recalled in his autobiography, “the Toho employees’ union became very powerful [after the studio relented], and the number of Communist Party members among the employees increased. Their voice in matters of film production became more important than before, and a Scenario Review Committee was formed. This committee decided that the script for No Regrets [for Our Youth] required changes, and the film was shot from a rewrite.”
It was not the political nature of Hisaita’s script that was forging objections from the unionists. Rather, it was the simple fact that another script modeled after Ozaki’s arrest and execution was already set to be produced by Toho. Kurosawa argued in favor of his project, insisting that while both screenplays drew inspiration from the same event, they handled their stories in entirely different ways and thus could be filmed simultaneously without adjustments being made to either. Alas, the committee members refused to concede and even questioned Kurosawa whether adherence to his vision was worth upstaging a fellow director. “After my film was completed, it turned out that the other film [Kiyoshi Kusuda’s As Long as I Live (1946)] was totally uninteresting. Therefore, [the unionists] began to say that they should have let me make my film as I had wanted to. I yelled at them, ‘What are you talking about now?’ The unionists and communists were really lording it over us then. A communist screenplay writer was repatriated, and he insisted on incorporating the device of syllogism into screenplay writing. However, I replied that an uninteresting screenplay is uninteresting despite all such devices. I argued often because I was young.” (This last quote comes from a 1985 interview with Kurosawa conducted by Kyoko Hirano, excerpts of which are printed in her book Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the Occupation.)
The Protagonist and Casting
Despite misgivings between Kurosawa and the studio, the protagonist of No Regrets for Our Youth, Yukie Yagihara, became a textbook example of the sort of role which appealed to (American) film censors in the immediate years of the occupation**. Though not an outwardly political character (as I shall demonstrate shortly), Yukie associates with politically minded people in the first half of the story and is driven by personal needs. She acts according to her own feelings, her own morality, her own impulses, her own agenda. Add to that: depicting an idealistic young woman would’ve been deemed favorable, as movies with strong female leads had been heartily encouraged to Japanese movie studios in the postwar years—deriving from Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers Douglas MacArthur’s mission to “democratize” Japan, which included the political, social, cinematic, etc. emancipation of women***. All of this made Yukie an ideal heroine for an occupation-era movie.
There was also tremendous irony in the casting of Setsuko Hara in the role. Hara had entered the film industry in 1935 and rose to (historically fascinating) prominence two years later when she appeared in the Japan-Nazi Germany co-production The New Earth / The Daughter of the Samurai (1937), a film which championed, among other things, the Japanese invasion of the Fast East. In the picture’s denouement, a Japanese man who has given up his German love interest marries a “pure” Japanese woman—played by Hara, who, oddly enough, was speculated throughout her life to have been quarter-European—and they begin wedded life farming on occupied Manchurian soil: the titular New Earth.
As the war went on, Hara’s public image intensified and she began taking on roles in movies promoting national policy, such as Kajiro Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942) and Mikio Naruse’s Until Victory Day (1945). In films such as these, she regularly played ordinary women carrying out their part in boosting national spirit as well as promoting the war effort. To give specifics from another example, her character in Kunio Watanabe’s Toward the Decisive Battle in the Sky (1943) spends the vast majority of her screen time hosting local military trainees, listening to their cheery training stories, and seeing them off at their Pacific-bound departure with an unabashedly happy smile on her face (her pride further enhanced by the fact that her little brother has started basic training).
Here was an actress who’d attained stardom in movies that were either tacitly or explicitly nationalistic or jingoistic; and now, all of a sudden, that same talent had been cast in a film defiant of those same policies. Once a cinematic flag-waver, she was now, on screen, the daughter of a liberal teacher (the film’s Takigawa equivalent), the love interest of a radical (modeled specifically after Ozaki), and a victim—like them—of wartime militarism.
For reasons which have never been made clear, Hara did not wish to star in Kurosawa’s film (however, being under contract to Toho at the time, she would’ve had no choice). But regardless of whatever apathy she might’ve felt toward the film’s script or political content (or something else entirely), the actress turned out one of her most mesmerizing screen performances, one so rich and engrossing that it leaves one genuinely sad to realize she would only work with Kurosawa once more, on his 1951 adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. And as impressive as their 1946 collaboration turned out, there’ll always be a tantalizing “What If…?” quality imbuing this picture. One cannot help but wonder what sort of performance—and character—Hara might’ve evoked had Kurosawa been allowed to shoot the script he wanted….****
But hypothetical scenarios really don’t amount to much—especially in the face of the exceptionally strong movie that came out of this troubled production. In dialing back on the political content, Akira Kurosawa was able to emphasize an omnipresent and ever-important theme that he’d dealt with before and would continue to dabble in throughout his professional life. The theme of independence and personal growth, which is evoked in No Regrets for Our Youth through its heroine and her unrelenting quest for self-discovery.
An Apolitical Person in an Intensely Political Environment
The movie begins with twenty-year-old Yukie walking amid the gorgeous natural scenery of Arashiyama (one of the major sightseeing destinations just outside of Kyoto). In her company are her parents and seven of her father’s students—two of them being Noge (Susumu Fujita), the freedom fighter, and Itokawa (Akitake Kono), the conformist. The parents stop for a rest on the banks of a river while the young people traverse to Mount Yoshida, where they can see their university. One of the students labels the school the “cradle of freedom.” No sooner has he finished his proclamation when the rattle of machine guns shatters the air. Imperial soldiers are on maneuvers close by, training for action overseas. The politically aware Noge cynically comments, “We can sing about academic freedom all we want, but fascism’s on the rise since the Manchurian Incident.” Yukie glances over her shoulder at him with a look of bemusement. “Back on your favorite subject, I see,” she remarks. After rising to her feet, the young woman starts skipping down the slopes, excited by the sound of distant gunfire, before coming to a halt at the sight of something in the brush. Her companions gather around and Kurosawa’s camera swings downward, revealing the crumpled form of a wounded soldier lying face-down in the dirt.
This opening sequence is a masterclass of great filmmaking on so many levels. In addition to the impeccable camerawork and editing, Kurosawa and screenwriter Hisaita plainly dictate the social environment in which their story takes place (and also show us a sample of the consequences of said social environment; the movie never actually goes overseas to the battlefront, so the filmmakers transpose an image of human carnage home, instead). But more important, they provide us the first glimpses into the intensely political leanings of the character of Noge as well as the genuine lack of political leanings of our heroine. Yukie recognizes and acknowledges Noge’s politicizing in an utterly nonchalant manner, clearly having heard it before; but she neither endorses nor counters it; she merely brushes it off. And her excitement over the sound of machine guns is, as she describes it, due to it being “so clear and rhythmic.” No mention of what it contextually represents in this scene (Japan’s expansionist policies) interesting her in the slightest. The movie’s only a few minutes old and already we have some understanding as to how the characters individually feel about the world around them. And while Yukie, in true Kurosawa fashion, soon undergoes a journey of immense personal change, the path she ends up taking is not what one might expect after this opening. (A quest to prevent war does not become her life mission.)
Like his real-life counterpart, Yukie’s father (Denjiro Okochi) has been expelled from Kyoto Imperial University for holding liberal beliefs, as revealed in a montage of newspaper headlines announcing his termination. Immediately after this, we segue into an argument between the professor’s daughter and Noge. (Itokawa, meantime, sits quietly between them.) Noge goes on about their nation’s recent plundering of Manchuria and how “militarists, backed by industry […] hope to resolve Japan’s internal contradictions through foreign conquest.” Yukie, who’s been staring at her fingers the entire time, scoffs: “All you talk about are Manchuria, militarists, and industrialists. I hate leftists.” (That last sentence clearly intended as an insult to Noge due to his constantly bringing up the subject.) Consistent with behavior seen in Arashiyama, her initial retaliations in this scene stem from disinterest and boredom—boredom of having heard the same thing again and again—with no disagreement with what’s actually being said.
However, as soon as the topic shifts to her father’s expulsion, Yukie begins to exhibit 1) pride-generated obstinacy, and 2) genuine naïveté. She states her father is “a liberal, not a Red,” only to be accurately countered with the fact that the government considers anyone even remotely opposed to overseas aggression a Red. (Unlike Noge, Yukie doesn’t even have basic understanding of the political landscape forming around her.) It’s furthermore not until Noge points out that the plan for mass resignation of university faculty would do nothing to halt the militarists (or restore the professor his job) that Yukie exhibits even an iota of serious concern. (“Then what do you suggest?”) In addition to these revealing bits of dialogue, take note of actress Setsuko Hara’s body language and how it evolves over the course of the scene: distraction-prone in the beginning, fidgety and agitated in the middle, stubborn yet tinged with defeat at the end. Finally, Yukie announces she’s done with the conversation, insisting there’s more to life than “logic,” though she hasn’t a single example to offer in demonstrating her point. And rather than describe what she has in mind, she hurriedly encourages Itokawa to follow her to the piano to listen to some “nice music.” A feeble attempt to scurry away from the argument she has just lost.
As we can see from both the movie’s opening and the subsequent conversation in the Yagihara household, Yukie’s a free spirit more than anything else. Her ideologies, such as they are, consist of extremely basic notions of right and wrong—“My father is in the right, and right will prevail.”—and she’s far more truculent than knowledgeable, not only about politics but about basic human existence. Which is something Noge’s quick to point out. “All you know of life are the pretty scenes outside your window. […] You ridicule logic, but beauty and pleasure not founded on reason are mere bubbles.”
The scene presses on. Yukie, visibly hurt by Noge’s words, starts hammering away on her piano, pretending to play Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for the amusement of Itokawa—continuing to do so even after Noge picks up his hat and leaves. After abruptly putting a stop to her banging on the keys, she crams a cigarette into her mouth, turning to Itokawa for a light…only to pull away at the last second. Then, the young woman, eyes gleaming, begs her remaining companion to kowtow and apologize (for whatever he wants, so long as he gets down on his knees). When he relents, Yukie becomes distraught at the submissiveness on display and admonishes the law student for not being able to tell her the truth about herself as Noge had just done. What might come across as a confusing burst of erratic behavior is actually, upon further examination, a depiction of a naïve, spoiled individual who thought she could live without a thought or a care in the world briefly attempting to regain some sense of control over her environment before coming around to reluctant acceptance of the facts. All her life, she’s led a mindless existence, soaking up the carefree benefits provided by her parents, blissfully and ignorantly disregarding the world and her place within it. The argument with Noge has brought all of this crashing around her.
Flash forward to 1938. Noge was arrested and sent to prison by the militarists five years ago, following a failed student demonstration, and hasn’t been seen since. But his argument with Yukie has remained on the latter’s heart and mind. Having come to realize the vacuity of her life and saddened to see Noge’s cause simmering—the activist’s colleagues decide not to pursue further action against the government following his arrest—Yukie’s suddenly hurled into her newfound void. No longer does she go frolicking through the wilderness with fawning university students. Instead, she passionlessly studies. In one of the movie’s very best scenes—one exhibiting how brilliantly Kurosawa could use imagery to evoke thoughts from the audience—Yukie dismantles one of her projects in a flower arranging class, responding to glowing compliments from her peers. “Our teacher said that in flower arrangement, you should express yourself freely,” she explains. To prove her point, she plucks the heads of three flowers and places them in a triangular formation in a tray of water, exemplifying her state of mind and her psychological relation to her two suitors. (She momentarily considers marrying Itokawa, now a prosecutor, but ultimately decides against the idea, for life with him would be safe but “boring”; on the other hand, life with Noge would “blaze,” making the prospect “terrifying” but “enticing.”)
Notice how most of these situations have remarkably little to do with Japan’s mounting political scenario. Although she is far more acute to her own existence at this point, Yukie has not taken up any particularly strong activist beliefs; indeed, any newfound political notions on her part are, like her ideologies, extremely basic and marginal. For instance, she now recognizes her country’s expansionist agenda as a bad thing—eyeing troops on the street as they voice anticipation for death on the battlefield—but never takes action against it. At best, she’s more aware that government-led actions affect the world in which she lives.
Even the second “twist” in her life is largely divorced from politics. A half-decade after his arrest, Noge, released from prison, pays a visit to the Yagihara household, seemingly a changed man. Once vibrant and full of revisionist passion, the young activist’s been transformed into a passive, soft-spoken wimp; he renounced his leftist beliefs in exchange for early release and, even in private conversation, is very careful not to say anything even remotely abrasive. In short, he’s become another conformist. Seeing Noge like this leaves Yukie in a state of emotional despair.
And it is immediately after this visit that Yukie decides to leave home. She’s bound for Tokyo (having studied typing and foreign languages in college, she can get a job at a trading company). When confronted about her decision by her father, the young woman breaks down before tearfully professing her reasons. “[R]ight now, I feel as if I’m not even living. I want to at least go out into the world and see for myself what it means to be alive.” Her father then encourages her to go, provided she understands “freedom” (notice he doesn’t say “academic freedom” or “political freedom”) comes with a price, for which she must be prepared.
Yukie’s behavior and decisions make eminent sense upon close examination—and, once again, have remarkably little to do with social beliefs she still has no outward passion for. Seeing her old companion so radically changed was indeed the final turning point for her, but the political nature of Noge’s (seemingly abandoned) cause was incidental: it was his drive and determination that was important to Yukie, because it defined who Noge was; he exemplified living life with reason and purpose (something Yukie’s come to realize she lacks in her own life); and seeing that same man dehumanized, gutted of what he used to be, has left her an emotional wreck. (That she’s fallen in love with him only makes the realization more painful.) And now, the only way she feels she can replenish her belief in the self is to strike out on her own and discover a way to lead life with meaning. She doesn’t know what that might be or what role she should take on, but she believes she’s able—rather, needs—to find it.
All of this is subsequently augmented when Yukie and Noge reunite in Tokyo.
In an intensely claustrophobic scene running seven minutes in length, Yukie and Noge converse in the latter’s deserted office building, drenched in the shadows of night. It is now 1941, three years since their last encounter. Yukie’s lived in Tokyo all that time and has changed jobs three times since moving. “They were never more than a way to put food on the table,” she confesses. “I want something…I can throw myself into…body and soul. That’s the kind of work I want.” Having failed to find a fulfilling occupation on her own and further motivated by her emotional feelings for him, Yukie became determined to find Noge (she’d even considered going to China earlier, having heard he might be there) in hopes that he could set her down the path that was right for her. To emphasize a point I alluded to earlier: in the course of their conversation, the closest Yukie comes to asking about antimilitarism is when she asks Noge if he’s keeping a secret about something “wonderful” (wonderful because it would indicate he’s reverted back to being a radical, back to who he is). Still no enunciated interest in joining the movement herself.
In any event, even though Noge doesn’t have an answer as to what his companion can do on her own, Yukie’s suspicions about him prove correct. Despite prison time and the charade he’d put on at the Yagihara home three years earlier, Noge hasn’t given up his beliefs. He’s merely moonlighting as an office man, continuing his antimilitarist practices behind the scenes. But as the national authorities are steadily pushing themselves into war with the United States (and doubling down on their efforts to silence anyone against it), the police will inevitably catch onto him, and when they do, the consequences will be deadly. Well aware of this and wanting to make the most of their limited time together, the two young people share an apartment in Tokyo. (Yukie professes to have been Noge’s spouse, but all evidence in the film indicates they were simply lovers*****.) Although she studied languages and has skills as a typist (qualities which would surely be helpful in Noge’s professional and personal interests), Yukie merely takes care of him when he comes home, assuming—for all intents and purposes—the role of a housewife. Even when they’re arrested by the police and Noge dies his cell (presumably tortured to death), Yukie never actually follows in his footsteps and becomes an antimilitarist. In fact, the mission she undertakes in the last part of the movie (to be discussed shortly) has virtually nothing to do with her lover’s ambitions and accomplishments.
Based on everything that’s been described thus far, we can plainly see Yukie Yagihara is not an especially political person. In truth, she’s a relatively apolitical person in love with an inspiring man who just happens to be political and living in intensely political times. The fact that she chooses the freedom fighter can be read as a tacit endorsement of his cause—and that is certainly a subtheme in the picture—but the cause itself is not the force motivating her and is ultimately not the core of the movie. Because of this, Yukie’s quite dissimilar from, say, the protagonist of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Flame of My Love (1949), to whom she is often compared. And No Regrets for Our Youth is hardly an ideal companion piece to that particular film. Both movies feature strong female protagonists striving for something in times of great political upheaval, but the way the two films treat their subjects and what their respective heroines actually fight for are drastically different. Kinuyo Tanaka’s lead in the Mizoguchi film was an ardently political person. Her motives, her decisions, even her choice of company were fueled by her activism, her desire to seek emancipation and equality (and respect) for all women in Japan. (At one point, she leaves her insurrectionist boyfriend after discovering he’s been philandering behind her back; they may have enemies in common, but she cannot remain—even associate—with someone who won’t even respect her as a woman.) By contrast, Setsuko Hara in No Regrets for Our Youth is motivated by the need for self-discovery; the person she’s out to save—at least before Noge’s death—is herself. And through her subsequent mission to redeem the man she loved, she ends up redefining herself and finds what she was looking for in the first place.
An interesting footnote before we continue. No Regrets for Our Youth left a very positive impression on contemporary audiences and was even selected by Kinema Jumpo magazine as the second best Japanese movie of the year, but it also drew some considerable ire from critical voices. In a “Short Review” published in Eiga Times, for instance, the complaint was made that: “The film is proud of itself as progressive; however, it is fatal that the film in reality praises the conventional morality.” The jabs made by this reviewer were aimed at some of Yukie’s key decisions: decisions seeming to conform to standard virtues for women in mid-20th century Japan (such as taking on housewife-esque roles and responsibilities). On the one hand, the reviewer’s correct that some of Yukie’s decisions lead to her assuming “standardized” tasks, and it’s certainly possible to contend her not participating in Noge’s cause deprived them of even more time to be in each other’s company. (One could compellingly argue this is a lapse in the film’s screenplay.) But on the other hand, to reiterate something I’ve discussed at length, Yukie’s political outlook is and remains extremely marginal, and certain scenes demonstrate that mere reminders of Noge’s endangerment leave her emotionally frail—such as when she breaks down upon hearing of “good news” in his mission (the fact that Noge’s making progress means the odds of him getting caught are now tenfold). Being around him at work and behind the scenes—receiving much more than hints of his inevitable fate—might’ve exacerbated the emotional ordeal she was going through. Also to reiterate: the reason why Yukie lives with Noge in the first place is due to them acting on their limited time left to be together—as is made clear through dialogue. (It’s not her mission or salvation to become a housewife.) Still, one could quibble a bit with the writing here.
But where the Eiga Times reviewer most egregiously missed the mark was in his criticizing Yukie’s next decision: to move in with Noge’s parents after his death (“The theme that a woman has to stay with her husband’s family even after he dies is very obsolete.”). On the surface, this may seem like a valid observation; but when examined in context, scrutiny does not align with this interpretation. For it is here, in this long, absolutely marvelous final forty minutes of the picture, that Yukie Yagihara’s quest for self-discovery comes to fruition, and in ways that are only superficially “conventional.”
Personal Transformation and Discovery of the Self
Yukie’s motivation for what ultimately brings about the greatest change in her life stems from her final conversation with Noge. Mere hours before his arrest, the seemingly impervious freedom fighter revealed his one true weakness: his estranged relationship with his rice farmer parents, whom he hadn’t seen in ten years (and would never see again). He feared the scolding of his father and the tears of his mother, and despite his belief that fighting for peace in Japan would, in a way, include amending his relationship with them, he still considered them his “weak spot.” In this scene, Yukie realizes Noge, too, had a void in his life, one he was never able to fill.
In the wake of their son’s much-publicized death, Noge’s parents refuse to make the journey to claim his remains—for reasons that are soon made clear and somewhat understandable. In addition to the strained relationship that existed between the deceased and his progenitors, the government-controlled media’s denouncement of Noge as a spy has cast a nationwide bias over his family. The farming community in which the parents reside has completely turned on them, forcing the two elderlies to board up their doors and windows (covered with graffiti spelling out phrases such as “Spies Live Here”) and work their fields only under the cover of night. Indeed, as Yukie learns in delivering Noge’s ashes, the mother (Haruko Sugimura) blames her son for their newfound circumstances, cursing him while she digs his grave. After seeing all of this, Yukie’s determined to remain, at least temporarily, with her in-laws. Not because “conventional morality” insists the daughter-in-law tend to her husband’s family, but because she sees it as her task to mend the “weak spot” Noge could never mend himself. She knows not how she can do it, only that she must. And at no point in this last section do we see her take on especially “conventional” roles: she doesn’t prepare meals, clean the house, etc. (As a matter of fact, she frequently acts against the wishes of her in-laws.) As with the political events in the film, the change of scenery/company merely forms a framework—a situation—through which Yukie undertakes her journey. And in the process, she completely strips herself of her bourgeois background and everything that came with it.
As is demonstrated in what is, unquestionably, the film’s most mesmerizing scene. Having made it clear she will not—cannot—leave, Yukie joins her mother-in-law in the long, taxing process of growing rice. Kurosawa ends the previous scene with a shot of Yukie on her hands and knees and then cross-dissolves to a pair of hoes, the blades of the tools directly matching the position of our protagonist’s hands. The first hoe’s picked up by the mother-in-law, the second by Yukie, who’s already undergoing a change of wardrobe. In the earlier scene, she was clad in a full-fledged middle-class suit; now, she’s without her suit jacket. (The first “layer” of her background, peeled away.) Next, Kurosawa takes us to the fields. The mother-in-law’s hacking apart the hard, grassy terrain with an attitude that can only be described as antagonistic. Yukie stands off to the side in a state of horror. Once again, the mother starts cursing her dead child: “Rotten, ungrateful son!” At the mention of these words—reinforcing why Yukie came here in the first place—the young woman lifts her hoe off the ground and takes a step forward. As she does, one of her shoes comes loose—stripping away yet another layer of her background—and she takes her first strike at the earth, eventually, with some effort, tearing out a large chunk of it. The two women then start working as a team, the mother no longer saying a word, perplexed by her daughter-in-law’s determination. Yukie’s adjustment is not immediate. Her pristine white shirt’s soon caked in mud; she quickly begins to tire; discomforting blisters open on her hands. But she doesn’t stop. To counter the blisters, she forges a couple of makeshift bandages. To prevent her hair from flying around, she pins it back, away from her face. And the harder she works, the more efficient she becomes. She has found it. After much searching, in a way she never imagined—and for a cause she never hoped for—Yukie’s found work into which she can completely throw herself, “body and soul.”
In capping off this remarkable sequence, Kurosawa segues into a series of cross-dissolves, transitioning between four similarly composed wide shots of Yukie hoeing laterally before the camera. With each cross-dissolve, part of the heroine’s former wardrobe disappears, replaced by lower-class work attire. And then, the final dissolve. Our protagonist is completely unrecognizable and in more ways than one. Whereas previously in the scene Yukie would pour herself a cup of water during breaks, she now hefts the entire jug over her head, drinking straight from the spout. Her wardrobe has changed, her etiquette has changed, Yukie herself has changed. (A later image in the film: her hands skillfully whisk over the keys of her piano back home, soon dissolved and replaced by a shot of those same hands—covered with bandages—being rinsed in the countryside river. With that, every iota of who Yukie Yagihara used to be is, figuratively, metaphorically, washed away.)
Through a great deal of physical and mental anguish, Yukie attains the respect of her in-laws and makes strides in improving their way of life. She tears down the boards covering their doors and windows and endures the hostile gazes of the villagers when she strolls through town (Kurosawa does not glamorize lower-class communities—once again, it’s merely a venue). She continues to work right alongside her mother-in-law (in daylight now) until they’ve converted whole acres of grassy fields into rice paddies. And when all of their hard work’s destroyed in a night raid by the villagers—who leave hate-spewing signs in the muddy water—it is Yukie who makes the first move to start planting all over again. The mother-in-law follows suit. And then, at last, the father-in-law (Kokuten Kodo), who has been silent and inactive all this time, takes action, tearing down the signs, shouting defiance of the people (their own neighbors) who’ve done this to them. Noge’s parents finally realize the cruelty inflicted upon them is and always has been the cause of society, not their son. Yukie’s mission is a success.
The story of No Regrets for Our Youth ends twelve years after it began, in 1945. An intertitle proclaims: “The war is lost, but freedom is restored.” Yukie’s father has been restored to his teaching job at Kyoto Imperial University, and Noge’s come to be revered as a martyr. (The late antimilitarist once told Yukie that, in time, the public would appreciate what people like him had done.) Still, there is an air of sadness in the present—reflection over what was lost in the struggle for freedom, academic and otherwise—especially at the reception where Professor Yagihara gives a speech about his former student. All is certainly better, but hardly ideal.
As for Yukie, now thirty-two years old, there’s much left to be done. Her successfully mending Noge’s image in the minds of his parents unintentionally paved her way to a new cause worthy of devotion. However, promoting outright liberalism is still not her forte; her mission instead is to ease the hardships inherent in the lives of lower-class people, which she has now experienced first-hand. “Their lives—especially the women’s lives—are brutally hard,” she informs her mother. “If I can improve their lot even a little, my life will be well spent.” Examined with everything which has come before it, this line by Yukie emphasizes the same overarching theme present from the start. Yukie may have become an activist (and in some limited sense might now be a political person—albeit in a much more reserved sense than Noge was; notice how she doesn’t outright blame anyone for the farmers’ hardships or declare herself an enemy of anyone), but whatever politics she might have uncovered still play second fiddle to the notions of personal growth and transformation. In setting out to redeem the man she loved, Yukie ended up redefining herself and found the reason for living she was seeking in the first place.
There is tremendous irony in the last few minutes of No Regrets for Our Youth—both in the writing and in Setsuko Hara’s performance. In playing the scene of Yukie explaining her situation to her mother, Hara beams incessantly, even forcibly, as though putting on a façade of happiness. And if the next scene is any indicator, she just might be. On her way out of town, Yukie stops by beautiful Arashiyama, and this time, she’s all alone (in a place where she used to frolic with others in naïve innocence). Resting next to a babbling brook, she watches a new generation of students—ones who didn’t have to choose between conformism and individuality—hopping across the stones spanning the stream (just as she and her friends had done; they even sing the same songs). Framed in a long-lasting close-up, Yukie somberly stares after the students, remembering her youth and everything she’s lost. The title of the movie comes from a phrase Noge once said to her and she’s adopted it herself, but it’s only somewhat true. Yukie may have found a meaningful way to lead her life, but it’s come at a terrible price.
For the picture’s ending, Kurosawa added a dialogue-free coda absent in Eijiro Hisaita’s screenplay. Three trucks come barreling past the camera down a gravel road—destination: the farming community—the last one stopping to pick up Yukie, who needs a ride. The farmers in the back of the truck are all smiles as they take her suitcase and help her up. Once aboard, Yukie leans against the chassis, standing before everyone else. An irony-fueled montage ensues with the farmers smiling and bowing (apologetically as well as welcomingly) to the very same woman who, just a few years before, they had all scorned and shunned as the wife of a spy. Perplexed at first, Yukie finally gives a soft smile. Noge’s words have proven true: in time, the Japanese people came to realize the nobility of his cause. Our heroine’s smile is tinged with sadness (she did lose Noge, after all), but at least now she has proof her love’s death wasn’t completely in vain. The final image begins as a group shot of everyone with Yukie framed in the center; the truck then resumes its journey, pulling away from the camera, taking Yukie back to the village where she uncovered not so much her political beliefs but her independence, her cause, her reason for living, and her sense of self.
In a 1956 issue of Eiga Junkan magazine, Kurosawa was quoted saying: “I believed [at the time of No Regrets for Our Youth] that it was necessary to respect the ‘self’ for Japan to be reborn. I still believe it. I depicted a woman who maintained such a sense of ‘self.’” And following a very careful and thorough analysis of the picture under discussion, I am convinced, now more than ever, that this is the core of his movie. The film’s social backdrop certainly influences key narrative events but only takes center stage on occasion; much more attention is instead zeroed in on Yukie and her journey.
Themes of individual growth had been of interest to Kurosawa ever since his directorial debut in 1943; but his ability to flex this notion had been greatly restricted by the confines of wartime censorship. His earliest movies showed characters growing only within government-approved subjects (such as mastering judo—Japan’s national sport) and women were, for the most part, meek, inspiring only in their spiritual purity. The closest Kurosawa had come to a Yukie Yagihara before was in 1944’s The Most Beautiful, his one wartime film with a determined, self-regulating female lead. Despite the propaganda-infested context of this film, there were some aching bits of humanity evoked through its main character: the heroine relentlessly searching for an unchecked rifle lens through all hours of the night, for fear one of her countrymen would die a needless death due to having a faulty weapon in battle; the same person breaking down in tears upon realizing her ceaseless devotion at work cost her the chance to say goodbye to her terminally ill mother. A discussion on the humanity of The Most Beautiful in and of itself is an interesting topic (perhaps one for another day); but it wasn’t until No Regrets for Our Youth that Kurosawa was able to present individuals and individual achievement in a way that was truly special.
And in Yukie, the director cemented traits destined to filter into other characters of his down the road. Besides what Kyoko Hirano has mentioned in her book (that stubbornness and insistence on pushing through life’s struggles would define later Kurosawa women), I would like to note that bits and pieces of Yukie’s characterization sometimes resurfaced through protagonists in Kurosawa’s predominately male-centric filmography—with Takashi Shimura’s civil servant in Ikiru (1952) immediately coming to mind. Like Yukie, Shimura undertakes his journey in that film primarily to satisfy a personal need, to accomplish something meaningful with his life. And while he’s awakened to this need by a very different set of circumstances, the emotions behind his reasoning are quite similar to those of the woman who gave up her carefree bourgeois existence in favor of something she couldn’t even identify but eventually discovered with redefining passion. As both characters admit in key scenes from their respective movies, all either of them wants is to discover what it truly means to live.
All of this renders Yukie Yagihara into an essential figure in Kurosawa cinema, worthy of careful thought and analysis. Passionate, vigorous, and endlessly fascinating—very much like the movie around her.
* No Regrets for Our Youth screenwriter Eijiro Hisaita had been imprisoned by the government before the war for practicing as a leftist writer. Although he was forced to write national policy films during the war years—such as Kozaburo Yoshimura’s Final Struggle (1943)—he returned to his leftist beliefs immediately after the surrender. Most notably, during the same year as his collaboration with Kurosawa, he wrote Keisuke Kinoshita’s antimilitarist drama Morning for the Osone Family (1946), which was chosen by the prestigious Kinema Jumpo magazine as the best Japanese movie of the year (No Regrets for Our Youth was chosen as the second best).
** When the Allied Powers took over Japan after the surrender, they immediately set out to control all Japanese media, including the content of movies. See my article on another Akira Kurosawa film, Those Who Make Tomorrow, for more information.
*** As early as October 11, 1945—mere months after the surrender—General Douglas MacArthur personally recommended that Prime Minister Kijuro Shidehara make the emancipation of women the highest of his priorities. The occupation government’s demands led to the formation of the Women’s and Minors’ Bureau in the Japanese Ministry of Labor in September 1947 and opened national universities to women. Furthermore, in the first postwar general election (April 10, 1946), the number of women occupying seats in the Shugiin (the Japanese House of Representatives) increased from zero to thirty-nine.
**** Kurosawa was forever insistent the original script that Hisaita wrote for him was much better than the script he ended up shooting. “[Hisaita’s] first script for my film was such a beautiful piece of work that it still pains me to remember that it was shelved at the hands of such thoughtless people.”
***** The film never shows a wedding ceremony, pictures, etc. But the key piece of evidence is when Yukie is interrogated by the police, in which they ask her how long she and Noge had been (their words) “lovers.”General // January 17, 2019
Ever since I first learned about Mikio Naruse—I remember very well: during my senior year in college, I happened upon an archived review of 1955’s Floating Clouds, which Vincent Canby of the New York Times described as the work of one of Japan’s best directors—I’ve been disheartened by the general lack of exposure this man’s films have received in the United States and the even scarcer availability of information pertaining to his life and legacy. As of the time of this writing, a mere six Naruse films have acquired stateside DVD releases; ten more are available through Criterion, but only in streaming format; and the number of comprehensive, book-length studies published in English on the director can be counted on one finger. And while my efforts in writing about Naruse over the last couple of years have been primarily out of pleasure, there has always been a certain (perhaps naïve) hope in the back of my mind that my writing about a lesser-known artist might encourage readers of this site to track down a few of his films or, at the very least, explore what Japanese cinema has to offer outside of Godzilla. I know not how successful my efforts have been, but surely to acknowledge these films for even a modicum of interested parties is of greater service than to not acknowledge them at all.
It is similarly for this reason that I took it upon myself to put together a guide on Naruse’s lost movies. (After all, if the extant films struggle to find an audience, how can interest in the non-surviving ones develop without someone shedding light on them?) Naruse directed eighty-nine pictures between 1930 and 1967. Of those eighty-nine, twenty-one have vanished. Nineteen herald from his brisk period of directing silent cinema, and the remaining two preceded what is generally acknowledged as his peak in the 1950s. All were part of a great director’s oeuvre and, as such, are worthy of investigation. This was my sentiment in researching and writing this article. I only hope my efforts will provide, at the very least, a good idea of what the missing films were about and what the experience of watching them might’ve been like. I also took great care to detail historical context—the circumstances under which the films were made and how some of them came to be lost—and hope this will be of interest as well.
And now, to extend my thanks to the authors and film historians whose individual research efforts into the lost films of Mikio Naruse made all of this possible. What you are about to read consists of data collected from various sources published in various countries—amassed and put together into a single document for easy accessibility. Everything is, unless directly quoted, my own words, but let it be known the truly hard work was carried out—decades ago, in most cases—by people far more authoritative than myself.
First and foremost, there’s Audie Bock, who, along with Catherine Russell, has done more to share information about Naruse with western audiences than any other American critic; her French language book on the director, simply titled Mikio Naruse, offered not only a guide as to the order and release dates of his films but also presented a window into how Japanese film critics responded to them at the time of their release. Russell’s colossal study on Naruse, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, detailed the various career stages in which these films were made and was, in its own way, equally valuable. Another French book, Jean Narboni’s Mikio Naruse: The Uncertain Times, provided the backbone for almost all of the plot descriptions. I’ve praised, on many past occasions, Kyoko Hirano’s excellent Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the Occupation, and I praise it once more, as her findings remained useful in contextualizing the Japanese film industry as it existed in the 1940s. Mark Schilling’s Shiro Kido: Cinema Shogun helped flesh out some context regarding Naruse’s relationship with Shochiku studio boss Shiro Kido. Major credit goes to Peter B. High’s The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 for the lush information on 1945’s Until Victory Day, the one Toho film covered here. High’s book was an unexpected treasure in that it was not something I initially intended to use for this article; it just happened to be what I was reading in evenings before bed; and yet, it ended up containing the most information on the one film that, frankly, justifies this article’s presence here on Toho Kingdom in the first place. (A happy coincidence this happened to be my “for-fun” book at the same time I was conducting research.) A smattering of other resources were used to fill in certain details and are noted where applied.
Last but most certainly not least, I wish to thank my friend and colleague Erik Homenick, webmaster of akiraifukube.org, whose expertise on the French language provided authoritative translations of the more difficult material in the Bock and Narboni texts regarding the films Hard Times (1930), Until Victory Day (1945), and Delinquent Girl (1949).
Mikio Naruse came to P.C.L. (Photo Chemical Laboratory—the antecedent of Toho) in 1934, after a suffocating fourteen-year stint at rival film studio Shochiku, where he’d received less than stellar treatment. Right away, excitement began to build as people in both the creative and critical fields eagerly awaited his next project. For Naruse, pleasure came in realizing that his joining P.C.L. came with a nice bump in pay and that his producers had taken the liberty of acquiring for him the rights to a novel by esteemed author Yasunari Kawabata (which would serve as the basis for his 1935 film Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts). Also in Naruse’s favor and especially of interest to the critics was the fact that his changing studios also signified his transition from silent cinema to sound cinema. The director had never been given the chance to work with sound during his time at Shochiku, but he would work exclusively in this medium from here on out. He would also remain loyal to this studio, staying with them through their fateful August 1937 merge (in which P.C.L. consolidated with other filmmaking companies, the amalgamation christened Toho) and directed almost every single one of his subsequent movies under their banner. Though he occasionally made films for other companies such as Daiei and Shin-Toho, with one very slight exception in 1950*, he would never again return to the production house where his career had started; and in articulating the record, one can easily see why.
Examining the behind-the-scenes narrative of Naruse’s early career is both frustrating and fascinating. On the fascinating side, here was a director who, pretty early on, started leaving notable footprints within his industry. For one thing, he practically made a star out of actress Sumiko Mizukubo, introducing her to audiences with his 1932 film Moth-eaten Spring, itself chosen by Kinema Jumpo magazine as the sixth best Japanese film of the year**. In 1933, two more films—Every-Night Dreams and Apart from You—respectively occupied the #3 and #4 rankings on the same publication’s “Best Ten” list. Critics championed his rhythm and sensitivity. He befriended and was openly supported by colleagues at Shochiku. Later films saw him adapting respected novels; and in time, he was directing young starlets such as Kinuyo Tanaka and Sumiko Kurishima.
And yet—swinging to the frustrating side of the equation—despite all of the above mentioned accolades, he remained coldly regarded by the front office: an attitude which had seemingly and mercilessly been geared at him from the beginning. Naruse came to Shochiku in 1920 at a time when most employees at this particular studio could rise to director’s status within a few years (Yoshinobu Ikeda, for instance, made his first movie after a single year’s employment). But Naruse himself didn’t receive his sought-after promotion for, literally, a full decade. For ten agonizing years, he was confined, first to the prop department and later as an assistant (often to people who had joined the studio long after him), the stress of waiting while his colleagues continually advanced past him proving so unbearable that he came within inches of tendering his resignation. And when, at last, he moved into the director’s chair, it was at the insistence that he film a script written by studio boss Shiro Kido, the man solely responsible for stalling his promotion in the first place.
Ginza Cosmetics (1951) screenwriter Matsuo Kishi once voiced his suspicion that the head of the studio simply disliked Naruse on a personal level and that he may have intentionally made professional life difficult for him on this basis alone. And while no account in my recollection has ever proven genuine hostility, Kido certainly didn’t refrain from dismissing Naruse’s storytelling, labeling him a second-string Yasujiro Ozu (“We don’t need two Ozus,” he famously said). Unsurprisingly, and perhaps because of this, Kido regularly assigned Naruse material for which he was ill-suited; he shelved two completed films for months at a time; and, in what placed the proverbial final straw that broke the camel’s back, the studio boss declined Naruse’s request to adapt a Fumiko Hayashi novel he very much wanted to film. Add to all of this the fact that Naruse spent his entire tenure at Shochiku on a miserable pay grade of less than ¥100 a month and one can easily understand his wish to move to a company where his intelligence and talents might be respected.***
Having said that, it’s strangely—for lack of a better word—“expected” that the majority of Naruse’s missing films should come from his rather unhappy years directing at Shochiku.
The five silent Naruse movies that Criterion released in 2011 as part of their Eclipse series are the only such films of his which survive; the other nineteen he made fell victim to a cinematic holocaust that wiped out—it is estimated—96% of all Japanese silent films. Between poor preservation systems, catastrophic damage brought down upon the studios during the second world war, and additional factors****, the legacies of vintage Japanese cinema and the people who made it possible suffered irreparable harm. (As Donald Richie so eloquently wrote in The Japan Times in 2000, “Even in a medium where two-thirds of all silent cinema is lost […] the destruction of early Japanese cinema is extraordinary.”) As such, all that remains of the films under discussion are critical reviews, plot details, behind-the-scenes factoids, and the occasional comment from the director himself.
Mr. and Mrs. Swordplay
Release date: January 15, 1930
Running time: 21 min
Chaos momentarily erupts at the home of Hachiro Momogawa (Hisao Yoshitani) when a café waitress named Eiko (Nobuko Wakaba) shows up at the front door and asks to speak with his wife (Mitsuko Yoshikawa). Rash assumptions are forged and the two women engage in an intense scuffle. The trouble ends when Eiko reveals she merely came to collect the debt Hachiro still owes to the café. Hachiro’s wife, suddenly relieved, pays the money, and Hachiro himself settles his nerves by going to the movies. (The movie he sees, incidentally, is The Husband’s Fight, an actual Shochiku movie from the same time period.)
This burlesque comedy, set during the Japanese New Year, comes from a screenplay credited to Haruo Akaho (the penname of studio boss Shiro Kido). Naruse cast the actors immediately after receiving the script, scouted out locations the following day, and then proceeded to shoot the entire thing nonstop over a period of thirty-six hours, after which he promptly collapsed from exhaustion; editing was completed by his friend and mentor, Heinosuke Gosho. In his review for Kinema Jumpo, film critic Akira Okamura expressed reservations with the script but otherwise championed Mr. and Mrs. Swordplay as a very promising directorial debut.
Release date: February 14, 1930
Running time: 45 min
Otsuta Takeda (Mitsuko Takao) spends her days toiling in the fields near the small mountain town where her impoverished family resides. A routine existence…until the day the local teacher comes forward with his belief that Otsuta’s brother Keichi (Shoichi Kofujita) is a very bright student who should continue his studies after primary school. Unfortunately, the Takeda family is in such poor financial shape they cannot afford to pay for tuition. This doesn’t deter Otsuta, who takes it upon herself to move to the capital, where she can get a better job and start saving money for her brother’s schooling; also, she’s been harboring a desire to become a city-dweller like her childhood friend (Hatsuko Tsukioka), so this is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Keichi insists he’s fine with the status quo, but Otsuta’s made up her mind. The film ends with the sister boarding a train destined for Tokyo.
Naruse mentioned in a 1960 interview that this medium-length picture, released on Valentine’s Day thirty years earlier, exhibited a mature style comparable to that of his later work. His colleague, Yasujiro Ozu, was greatly impressed with Pure Love, proclaiming: “Someone who can do that well on only his second film has real directorial strength.”
Release date: May 2, 1930
Running time: 26 min
A man (Tatsuo Saito) and his son (Tomio Aoki) are out for a walk with their dog, Poochie, when the father starts contemplating whether their four-legged friend might be able to help them make some money. During their walk, they stumble upon an advertisement for dogs, and the father comes up with the idea of stealing and reselling other peoples’ pets for gain. They attempt to steal a puppy from an affluent home, only to get caught by the young girl of the family (Hiroko Kawasaki). The girl’s father (Takeshi Sakamoto) arrives on the scene and agrees to give the would-be crooks money if they leave them alone. After being reprimanded by his son, the father returns the cash, and the duo continues their journey down the street, penniless once more.
A Record of Shameless Newlyweds
Release date: August 29, 1930
Running time: 37min
In the late 1920s, a new comedic genre exploded within Japanese film. As Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson write in their book The Japanese Film – Art and Industry, “nonsense” comedies featured “little to no sense whatever, amusing happenings, one thing tacked onto the other, something ludicrous—though not often slapstick—for its own sake” and “[t]he characters cavorted and chased each other across the screen with very little regard for plot, characterization, or motive.” The genre instantly gained an audience thanks to “the vast number of naughtily erotic or purposely frivolous novels […] which, if it could not make full-scale tragedy out of the most minute of personal experiences, could at least create a comedy out of nothing at all.” In other words, these films capitalized on a taste already provoked by other forms of media.
Richie and Anderson categorize, in that same book, A Record of Shameless Newlyweds as a “nonsense sex comedy.” The story concerns Sabuko (Hisao Yoshitani), a blue-collar worker in a textile factory who falls in love with a woman named Aiko (Midori Matsuba). Too shy to confess his feelings, he asks his friend Yuji (Teruo Mori) to arrange a double-date with Aiko and one of her friends (Mariko Aoyama). While the group is out together, Yuji finds himself alone with Aiko and reveals to her his friend’s secret longing. But then, Aiko confesses she’s in love, too, but not with Sabuko; the man she loves is, in fact, Yuji. Upon learning the girl of his desires is infatuated with his friend, Sabuko runs away.
A Record of Shameless Newlyweds was actually the third movie Naruse directed—he shot it after Pure Love—but the studio withheld it from release for several months. Naruse himself considered it a failure and took full blame for ruining what he described as a very good script by Tadao Ikeda.
Love is Strength
Release date: August 29, 1930
Running time: 65min
Toshio (Ichiro Yuki), the son of a sensonarikin (a person of affluence who earned their fortune during wartime), is to marry Teruko (Hiroko Kawasaki) of the wealthy Yanagida family, their forthcoming matrimony having been arranged by their kin and not by affection for one another. Toshio leads a reckless and frivolous life, his spare time eaten up by booze, parties, and games. That is, until he happens to visit Café Showa and meets one of its waitresses, a pretty orphan named Chiyoko (Shizue Tatsuta). Smitten, he becomes inspired to take up a job in his father’s business and start leading a responsible life. A happy ending’s achieved when the Yanagida family agrees to adopt Chiyoko. She and Toshio are then permitted to marry, and Teruko weds her true love (Shin’ichiro Izawa).
Released on the same day as A Record of Shameless Newlyweds, this melodrama had also been shelved for some time, though it’s not clear whether Naruse started working on it before or after Hard Times. The picture opened to mixed and negative reviews.
It is also possible the reason these two films were shelved was because Shiro Kido often liked to shelve even quality work by fledgling directors in order to prevent them from becoming overly confident.
Now, Do Not Get Excited!
Release date: February 7, 1931
Running time: 15min
The title is in reference to one of the main characters: a sailor with a tendency to faint whenever he becomes nervous or excited. One day, when his ship is at port, our agitation-prone hero, Yokoyama (Tomio Yokoo), and his fellow mariner Sano (Eiran Yoshikawa) take leave and disembark into town. During their stopover, they witness a man purloining a woman’s handbag. Yokoyama chases after the thief while Sano stays behind to comfort—and seduce—the victim, quickly winning her over. Having failed to catch the thief, Yokoyama returns to the scene of the crime, whereupon he suddenly becomes agitated—envy to the core over his friend’s way with the ladies—and collapses, unconscious. Sano abandons his friend in favor of accompanying the woman to the bar where she works. Yokoyama regains consciousness and follows, running into the purse-snatcher along the way. After winning a scuffle with the thief, the victorious sailor finds himself surrounded by a plethora of women applauding his heroics…and he faints again. Sano puts his friend in a rickshaw and they return to the port, only to discover they overstayed their leave—the ship is leaving without them! The film ends with the two sailors hopping into a rowboat and frantically paddling after their ship.
Kinema Jumpo’s Jun’ichiro Tomota, who had given a mixed review to Love is Strength, labeled this offering one of the best-made “nonsense” comedies. In his review, Tomota further suggested the filmmakers might’ve been influenced by Hollywood comedies starring Sammy Cohen and Ted McNamara.
Screams from the Second Floor
Release date: May 29, 1931
Running time: 30min
In writing this picture (the first time he was allowed to shoot one of his own scripts*****), Naruse drew from his own experiences. At the time, he was living with a family of sushi proprietors, occupying the second floor over their shop (and, some years down the road, he would return to live with them, after the collapse of his first marriage). The protagonist of this picture is an unemployed man named Yagi (Isamu Yamaguchi), who resides on the second floor of a family somewhat better off than him. Because he has no money, Yagi earns his keep performing mundane chores: shopping, babysitting, etc. Eventually, he finds work and leaves the house but is quickly begged to come back after Mr. Hosokawa (Hisao Yoshitani) receives a letter of dismissal from his company. Much of the story focuses on tension between Yagi and Hosokawa’s wife (Nobuko Wakaba), who doesn’t want a non-paying guest in the house.
Fickleness Gets on the Train
Release date: August 15, 1931
Running time: 32min
Struggling with creative block and unable to find work, a painter named Murayama (Isamu Yamaguchi) decides to take his wife (Tomoki Naniwa) and their son (Masao Hayama) on a trip. Their destination: the fishing village where his in-laws live. On the train ride over, they run into an office worker and his wife. Engaging in conversation, Murayama and his spouse conjure up a fantasy, bragging about an affluent lifestyle they do not have, trying to impress their fellow passengers. Unbeknownst to them at the time, their companions, in telling their own “story,” are doing the same thing. The couples exchange lies, making one another envious of luxuries that, in reality, none of them possess. By chance, they meet again in the aforementioned fishing village, whereupon everyone realizes the fickleness of everyone’s dishonesty. And then, as though karma’s seeking to rub salt in the wound, Murayama’s turned away by his in-laws as they already have a tenant and cannot accommodate any other guests at the time. Dejected and disappointed, the painter and his family hop on the first train back to Tokyo.
The Strength of a Mustache
Release date: October 16, 1931
Running time: 32min
Naruse’s penultimate film of 1931 bears certain similarities to Ozu’s The Lady and the Beard from the same year in that the narrative comically focuses on facial hair and how it affects one’s social image and relation to others. In this case, Kato (Ken’ichi Miyajima) is a working class father who boasts a very fine mustache—an adornment which draws admiration from his son and envy from his boss (Reiko Tani). After his employer fails to grow comparably chic facial hair, Kato’s ordered to shave or else lose his job—and then he loses his job anyway after his son gets into a fight with the boss’s son. To remedy the situation, Kato strips his upper lip of hair and presents to the boss a “miracle lotion.” With this, the boss succeeds in growing some nice whiskers, and Kato gets his job back—though his son no longer reveres him like he used to.
According to Audie Bock’s book on Naruse, the script originally called for a different ending. As initially penned, the boss was to return the “miracle lotion” to Kato rather than accepting it. No explanation is given as to why the studio opted to change this denouement, though Kinema Jumpo reviewer Shigeru Wadayama felt it lessened the impact of the ending (he otherwise championed the film, comparing it to Flunky! Work Hard).
Under the Neighbor’s Roof
Release date: November 28, 1931
Running time: 34min
Another “nonsense” comedy, this time about mutual assumptions of adultery between a married couple. After catching her husband buying a shawl, Hamako (Tomoko Naniwa) assumes the item being purchased is for her spouse’s pretty secretary (Masako Kiyokawa) and moves out in a huff. In turn, the husband, Aoyama (Shigeru Ogura), suspects his wife’s up to some philandering of her own, as the apartment building she moves into is the same one occupied by his colleague, Machida (Kan Ikki); he even climbs onto the roof of the building to keep an eye on them. In the end, the couple reconciles and Hamako returns home.
Ladies, Be Careful of Your Sleeves
Release date: January 29, 1932
Running time: 28min
An unmarried office worker named Tabe (Kenji Oyama), who’s a little on the hefty side, has a habit of slipping love letters into the sleeves of women he finds attractive. But sometimes the letters end up in the hands of people for whom they were not intended, leading to hysterical results. Tabe’s antics take a turn for the humiliating when one of the letters finds its way into his boss’s daughter’s purse. Immediately fearful of losing his job, he makes a vain effort to get the letter back, crashing into a statue in the process. Giving up, he goes home, only to find a woman waiting for him. But instead of the boss’s pretty daughter, it’s an unsightly typist (Shizue Heito); she, too, accidentally received one of his love letters, and now she’s moved into his apartment. The film ends with Tabe envisioning the years ahead, right up to his funeral.
Eiga Hyoron magazine critic Shun’ichi Sugimoto described this film as one of the best of the “nonsense” genre.
Crying to the Blue Sky
Release date: March 10, 1932
Running time: 53min
Reuniting with the screenwriter of Pure Love (Ayame Mizushima), Naruse once again tells a story about a bond between brother and sister, albeit this one concludes with a tragic finish. Kikue (Mitsuko Takao) and her younger brother Eiichi (Hideo Sugawara) have lived with their uncle (Shoichi Nodera) since the death of their parents. One day, Kikue decides to leave for Tokyo to find work. Eiichi asks his elder sister to bring him back a gift: a toy airplane. She agrees. Some time after his sister’s departure, Eiichi falls into the river while fighting with another boy and comes down with a deadly case of pneumonia. In Tokyo, Kikue receives a telegram that her brother’s prognosis is not good; she quickly buys the model airplane he asked for and hurries home—but it’s too late. With her brother dead and her heart broken, the dejected sister somberly walks to the river, sets the toy upon the water’s surface, and watches as it’s carried away by the current.
Release date: April 15, 1932
Running time: 39min
Yamano (Shigeru Ogura) is a poor office worker who cannot afford to buy his son the toy kite he wants. One day, he and his wife (Tomoko Naniwa) receive an unexpected visit from a couple who’ve invited themselves over for dinner. To get them to leave, they lie, claiming to be in the process of housecleaning—and scramble to cancel the food they’d asked be delivered to their address. Later on, their son, Shin’ichi, is pushed into a puddle by another boy. While cleaning his clothes, the parents think back to much happier times: when they were newlyweds, frolicking on the beach, dragging sand between their fingers. (All they have now is cold ash in the stove—perhaps a crude metaphor for the way poverty has diminished their passion.) The film ends with the couple encouraging their son to become someone important—someone great!—and thereby avoid a life in poverty.
Naruse compared this to his earlier Flunky! Work Hard. Shigeru Wadayama, writing in Kinema Jumpo, showered the film with glowing comments, describing it as a “psychological nonsense film” done to perfection. Less enthusiastic was Eiga Hyoron’s Shun’ichi Sugimoto, who deemed the movie too similar to Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932). The box office was in this film’s favor, and Naruse moved on to direct what just might’ve been the first great movie of his career.
Release date: May 27, 1932
Running time: 103min
After the success of Be Great!, Naruse was entrusted to adapt a novel by respected author Kan Kikuchi and, with this promotion, scored a number of career milestones. In addition to being able to adapt something by an esteemed writer, he was permitted for the first time to shoot a picture of feature length (everything he’d made up to this point consisted of shorts and medium-length productions). And the film—in what was also a first for the director—was saluted by Kinema Jumpo in their annual “Best Ten” list, ranking at #6. Printed some months earlier in the same magazine was a review by Fuyuhiko Kitagawa, who applauded Naruse’s success with a “difficult adaptation,” his capturing the psychology of the young bourgeois, the Soviet-influenced editing, and the direction of the actors.
Speaking of which, Moth-eaten Spring also marked the screen debut and essentially made a star of Sumiko Mizukubo, an actress whose career spanned a mere three years but which nonetheless granted her the opportunity to work with a number of Japan’s finest directors. In addition to three more collaborations with Naruse, she acted under the guidance of such people as Hiroshi Shimizu, Yasujiro Shimazu, Heinosuke Gosho, Hiroshi Inagaki, and Yoshinobu Ikeda. She also had a sizable role in Ozu’s excellent Dragnet Girl (1933), as the record store girl of whom the shadier characters are universally enamored. (Image of Mizukubo, in the Ozu film, seen to the left.)
In Moth-eaten Spring, Mizukubo plays the youngest of three sisters in a family saddled with an uncertain future. The father’s poor business practices have wrecked their financial stability, and his attempt to bribe an official results in him becoming incarcerated and, later, committing suicide. The loss of their parent affects the three daughters in different ways. Kazuko (Kinuko Wakamizu), the eldest, calls off her engagement in order to assume responsibility for the entire family. The middle daughter, Kumiko (Yumeko Aizome), sinks into a state of depression when her fiancé hears of the suicide and breaks up with her. As for Kasumi (Sumiko Mizukubo), the youngest, she takes a job to help make ends meet and later becomes engaged to the nephew of a businessman. Learning about her sibling’s engagement exacerbates Kasumi’s state of mind and she attempts to seduce Kazuko’s former lover. But the young man, still in love with Kazuko, rejects her advances.
Release date: August 26, 1932
Running time: 56min
Based on an award-winning novel by Ryuji Nagami (who also penned the screenplay), this project was brought to Naruse’s attention by Kogo Noda, Ozu’s regular co-screenwriter. The director described it as a combination of the various genres he’d worked with and furthermore labeled the finished product his best film up to that point. In terms of a narrative, it certainly shares much in common with Naruse’s best-known movies: divides between upper and lower classes, issues pertaining to money, a denouement in which the main character doesn’t receive the happiness she wanted but tries to endure life all the same, etc.
Sumiko Mizukubo, who’d exploded into popularity after the release of Moth-eaten Spring, is promoted to lead. Here, she plays Mieko, a young woman whose life changes after she’s invited to accompany rich student Mizushima (Koji Kaga) to an upper class party. At the get-together, Mieko proves a rousing success with the boys and a source of jealousy for the other girls. The next day, two of the girls show up at Mieko’s workplace, sneering at her—and on their way out, they leave her a tip (a practice virtually unheard of in Japan, even to this day—and which can be interpreted as an insult). Mieko later learns Mizushima is to wed a girl his father has chosen for him; and when she gets home that night, her mother and uncle announce they’ve arranged a match for her as well. Surrendering to their will and giving up the man she loves, Mieko allows time and society to take their course. The film ends with her boarding a Tokyo-bound train, her hair now arranged in the marumage (the knotted hairstyle identified with married women in Japan).
Kinema Jumpo’s Shigeru Wadayama praised Naruse’s editing and his sympathy for the lower class, though he was turned off by the “excessive sadness” of the picture’s finale.
The Scenery of Tokyo with Cake
Release date: 1932
Running time: Unknown
Little is known about this advertisement film other than it was produced for the still-extant snack food company Meiji Seika. Whether Naruse used crew and equipment from Shochiku or if Meiji Seika provided everything for him remains unknown.
My Bride’s Hairstyle
Release date: September 21, 1933
Running time: 75min
A light comedy written for Sumiko Mizukubo, My Bride’s Hairstyle was met with approval from studio head Shiro Kido, who deemed it one of Naruse’s “greatest achievements.” A rare compliment, and one perhaps explainable in that this particular movie seemed to possess little in the way of semblance to Naruse’s last few films. The happy ending, for instance, is completely unlike the sad—even tragic—denouements found in Every-Night Dreams and Chocolate Girl. In any case, the studio boss’s affinity was not shared by Naruse himself. To him, My Bride’s Hairstyle was a big wad of mediocrity and not something he looked back on very fondly. Kinema Jumpo’s Tadahisa Murakami reciprocated this sentiment when he panned the film, blaming Kido for relegating a poor subject to such a talented and capable (and proven) director.
Mizukubo plays Toshiko, the love interest of Matsui (Mitsugu Fujii), who has been infatuated with her since they were children and who finds himself close to her again when he becomes employed at her workplace. Unfortunately for him, the boss of the company also has designs on Toshiko. Because their employer has been deliberately making things difficult for Matsui, both he and Toshiko agree to quit the company together. But love and roses ever after has not been ascertained yet: Toshiko’s parents want her to return home and marry a suitor of their choice. While on a picnic, Matsui notices Toshiko’s styled her hair in the marumage: seemingly a sign he’s going to lose her. In the end, though, he lands a good job and is permitted to marry the woman of his dreams. Matsui and Toshiko live happily ever after.
Release date: December 7, 1933
Running time: 107min
Now in the twilight of his Shochiku years, Naruse was granted the chance to work with Kinuyo Tanaka (already one of the major stars of Japanese cinema). Given his feelings that the project was not his kind of film and much closer to the melodramas Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu specialized in, Naruse tried to make it stand out by employing techniques influenced by veteran craftsman Hotei Nomura. (Shiro Kido labeled Two Eyes a “big film.”)
Yoshiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Naeko (Yumeko Aizome), the daughters of political rivals, have maintained their friendship in spite of the bad blood between their fathers—and in spite of the fact that they’re in love with the same man. Both women are infatuated with Sunaga (Joji Oka), but since they don’t want to jeopardize their friendship, they mutually agree not to pursue him. That is, until the day Naeko discovers that Sunaga has romantic feelings for Yoshiko—at which point she conjures up a story that her friend’s already betrothed. Meantime, Yoshiko’s father is ordered to pay a fine for attempted bribery and, lacking the capital, instructs his daughter to marry the son of a rich family. Unwilling to take the fall for her father’s lawbreaking, Yoshiko leaves home, taking a job in sales—at the same company, it so happens, where Sunaga works. Both of them are chosen to model for a pretend wedding at the store and are subsequently spotted by Naeko, who confuses the mock ceremony for the real thing. Yoshiko learns her father has been jailed, and the daughter reluctantly agrees to marry the rich suitor in order to spare her father of prison time. But when she returns home, she discovers Naeko has already married the young man, leaving her and Sunaga free to be together.
The film was based on a novel by Masao Kume, which Kinema Jumpo’s Fuyuhiko Kitagawa deemed well beneath the author’s usual standards and certainly beneath Naruse’s, as he expressed in his vicious, hostility-laden review. The critic wasn’t enthused with Naruse’s Nomura-inspired techniques, either, passing off bits of frantic camera movement intended to emphasize emotion. In the end, Kitagawa only commended the performances by Tanaka and Oka and offered his hope that Naruse would return to filming original scripts and find something closer in quality to Apart from You and Every-Night Dreams.
Happy New Year!
Release date: December 21, 1933
Running time: Unknown
Naruse’s penultimate silent film, of which there seems to be no extant information.
On April 26 of the following year, the director released his last picture for Shochiku, the dull and mediocre Street without End (1934), which survives today. Filmed from a script that no one at the studio wanted to touch, the project had been accepted by Naruse on the condition that he would be allowed to make whatever he wanted for his next movie. Alas—and not unexpectedly—Shiro Kido didn’t uphold his end of the bargain, denying Naruse the chance to adapt Fumiko Hayashi’s novel Fallen Woman, and the director made his fateful move to P.C.L. that same year. Interviewed decades later on the subject by Audie Bock, Kido denied having ever held any personal grudge against Naruse and even admitted he shouldn’t have let him leave the studio—though he nonetheless claimed he’d never cared much for Naruse’s aesthetic.
Film censorship had played a role in Japan since the early 20th century; although, in the beginning, it was mostly implemented in policing foreign imports (and usually to gauge respect for the Imperial House). The prime example of this practice concerns the French film The Reign of King Louis XVI (1905) and what needed to be done to get it shown in Japanese theaters. When the picture came to Japan in 1908, it was initially banned due to a key scene in which the common people rose up in arms against their king. Even though the sequence depicted French townsfolk rebelling against French monarchs, authorities in Japan did not like the idea of popular entertainment showing rebellion against royalty of any kind; what if such a scene inspired radicals to attempt something similar against the Emperor? In the end, due to pressure from exhibitors to show the film in some capacity, reworked dialogue (read aloud by benshi******) and a new title—The Curious Story of North America: The Cave King—sufficiently changed things up so that the French monarchs became American bandits and the film was passed for distribution. The domineering interest, in these days, was to preserve a very pure image of Japan and avoid provoking subversive thinking. And it was this sort of censorship that was maintained and then expanded when, on April 15, 1939, the government set the Film Law loose on the motion picture industry.
Provoked by the Sino-Japan Incident of 1937 and modeled after the Spitzenorganisation der Filmwirstchaft program of Nazi Germany, the Film Law set out not only to keep the Emperor’s image pure but to also “promote the quality of film and the sound development of the film industry so that films can contribute to the nation’s cultural development.” Essentially outlawed was anything that “might hamper the enlightenment and propaganda basic to the exercise of national policy.”
Conditions intensified with the rise of World War II; and in 1940, the Ministry of Affairs implemented a new set of censorship rules. Slice-of-life films promoting individual happiness were banned, to be replaced by stories embodying feudalistic values (read: absolute loyalty to the government). Movies showcasing industrial productivity fell into favor. Comedians and satirists received instructions to tone down their act. And, most notably, the government sought to advocate the making of “national movies of healthy entertainment value with themes showing persons ready to serve.” From this came a slew of jingoistic national policy films, including Yutaka Abe’s Flaming Sky (1940), Eiichi Koishi’s Soaring Passion (1941), Kajiro Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya (1942), and Kunio Watanabe’s Toward the Decisive Battle in the Sky (1943). Films which essentially came to represent Japanese populist cinema in the early 1940s due to their sheer quantity and the profits they reaped.*******
Of course, movies on other subjects were still possible, provided they operated within certain parameters. In regards to Naruse, he for the most part managed to avoid making propaganda, though some of his films in the late 1930s and early ‘40s contained little glimpses of Japan’s political climate. His 1939 film Sincerity concludes with one of the characters receiving a draft notice. In A Face from the Past (1941), parents recognize their son as one of the soldiers in a military newsreel. More overt politicization appeared in Shanghai Moon (1941), a film which still exists (albeit in fragmented form) and stars Isuzu Yamada as a terrorist who infiltrates a pro-Japan propaganda radio station, cannot bring herself to kill its occupants, and is done away with by her fellow terrorists.
Yet another case of unambiguous propaganda appeared in Naruse’s Until Victory Day, his last movie before the surrender of Japan to the Allied Powers; the only film in his Toho repertoire which, it seems, has vanished from the face of the earth.
Until Victory Day
Release date: January 25, 1945
Running time: 59min
Well before the release of this film, it had become unmistakably clear Japan would end up on the losing side of the war. A reality that was steadily making itself felt within the entertainment industry. Film stock was running short on supply. Nearly one thousand movie theaters either ceased operation, converted into facilities for other uses, or perished completely in the Allied air raids. Studio structures endured damage, sound stages reduced in number, budgets shrank, and it wasn’t unheard of for editors to drop what they were doing in the sudden arrival of an attack and rush to the shelter with all the footage they could carry. So rather than turn out huge, special effects-laden projects like The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, the studios, still under the control of the government, opted to make small-scale movies with nationalistic and jingoistic themes. (Akira Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful, about patriots employed in a war factory, functioned as a replacement project for a fighter pilot movie which had recently fallen through.) In addition, comedians were still welcome to employ restricted doses of their personalities for the screen—especially in feel-good entertainments that supported the military, or movies designed specifically to entertain soldiers. Films of the latter category could sometimes attain funding from the militarists themselves, as was the case with Mikio Naruse’s Until Victory Day.
Described by its director as a project utterly lacking narrative coherency and made for the purpose of amusing troops on the front, this comedy venture had been funded by the Imperial Japanese Navy, allowing Toho to take a breather in terms of expenses. The sheer ridiculousness of the plot was described in Nihon Eiga magazine: “A scientist invents an ‘entertainment bomb.’ When it explodes, various kinds of acts and comedy routines come popping out. The ‘bomb’ is detonated in front of soldiers and sailors on a lonely South Sea island, bringing unexpected joy to their hearts.” Originally, the film was to be directed by Tadashi Imai, but a conscription notice and a summons to the front prevented him from taking the job (one wonders, therefore, if he was among the soldiers who saw this movie while on duty overseas).
Perhaps to give the target audience a sense of home, Toho went the distance in cramming Until Victory Day with recognizable faces. In addition to comedians Ken’ichi Enomoto (better known by his stage name, Enoken) and Roppa Furukawa, the entertainers who came out of the rocket included well-known actresses such as Isuzu Yamada, Setsuko Hara, Hideko Takamine, and Yukiko Todokori. Another familiar presence was former benshi Musei Tokugawa, who reflected the general attitude toward the picture in an interview many years later: “[Y]ou could actually feel the approach of [Japan’s] inevitable defeat in the utter imbecility of the storyline. The fact that it had been directly commissioned by the navy made it all the more pathetic.”
The circumstances under which Until Victory Day and many other Japanese national policy films became lost were as diverse as they were devastating. A sizable number vanished in the same poor preservation systems and the same firebombing raids responsible for whittling down Japan’s silent cinema legacy. Others were confiscated and subsequently destroyed by the victorious Allied Forces. Still others were lost when film studios, perhaps anticipating censorship from the Americans, exterminated copies of various films in their possession. Toho, for example, burned every last trace of the 1945 film I Believe I Am Being Followed. Unless a copy was hidden in secret and has yet to turn up, this particular film is gone forever, wiped away by its own creators.
Of course, not every nationalistic film extant in Japan at the time was obliterated. In some cases, the Americans chose to collect certain films rather than destroy them and send them to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. for study and preservation. In other cases, studio staffers stowed away copies until such a time when the films could be shown again. (Toho’s studio boss, Iwao Mori, assigned a select few employees to bury prints of eight national policy films until the Americans vacated. The interred reels were never discovered by the occupying forces, and the films survived to be run again.) But it appears such favorable circumstances did not befall Until Victory Day. It remains classified as a lost film. Over the years, I’ve come across scant rumors on the internet claiming about fifteen minutes of the picture still exist today; but these sources, lacking corroboration, don’t offer much in the way of hope or credibility.
The final missing film in Naruse’s oeuvre comes from an era in which Toho was experiencing intense political unrest. In the early years of the occupation, when the Americans first set out to “westernize” and “democratize” the Land of the Rising Sun, organized labor was heartily encouraged to the Japanese (the hope being that encouraging working class people to demand better perks from their employers would help weed out allegiance-oriented sentiments prevalent during the war—see my article on Kurosawa’s Those Who Make Tomorrow for more detail). And seeing as how Toho possessed the strongest labor union among the studios, theirs was naturally the one which took the most noteworthy actions.
Between the years of 1946 and 1948, the unionists at Toho conducted a total of three strikes, resulting in a few positive changes (such as increased wages) and a vast quantity of negative consequences. Over the course of these events, most of the major stars under contact left the studio, alternate unions came into existence, the short-lived and incompetently managed Shin-Toho was formed, fewer Toho movies were produced, and in what constituted the third and final strike, the studio shut down completely for 134 days. For more than a third of the year, unionists occupied the studio grounds, holding off their employers and the police with, among other things, barbed wire and firehoses. In the end, it required the presence of the United States military—a dispatch of troops, three aircraft, and seven tanks—to coerce the unionists to yield.
Naruse’s participation in this tumultuous chapter seems to have been minimal. He did join an “Artist’s Group” demanding the resignation of Toho’s anticommunist executives but apart from that kept a low profile, became an independent director, and took work wherever he could find it. He made no movies in 1948, instead directing for the stage, and the few films he directed shortly thereafter were produced by other production companies. One of those companies was Toyoko Eiga, for whom he made the last movie under discussion.
Studio: Toyoko Eiga
Release date: March 29, 1949
Running time: 72min
The story concerns a pair of schoolgirls, Eiko (Yoshiko Kuga) and Tamie (Michiko Aizome). Tamie, the daughter of an English teacher, passes her exams and takes a job in an insurance company; Eiko, the daughter of a single parent, flunks out and begins the life of a delinquent, hanging around bars with a dubious class of people. Tamie, whose life has become dull and drab, feels a surge of envy for her schoolmate’s newfound lifestyle. Both girls experience an assortment of troubles related to men and money, and by the end, Tamie realizes her “boring” life wasn’t so bad after all.
This was Naruse’s only movie released in 1949. Despite attaining commercial success, the film was panned by film critics. Naruse himself knew from the start that his talents were not suited for this kind of film; he’d taken the job for the money. Audie Bock’s book on the director contains the following remark: “Certainly, nobody would have been able to make a good film based on a vulgar erotic novel like [Tajiro] Tamura’s.”
After Delinquent Girl, Naruse took on the assignment of Conduct Report on Professor Ishinaka (1950), which he made for Shin-Toho, before coming back to Toho that same year with The Angry Street. And despite the occasional future job for another production house, he was more or less back to being a company man. A great many of his best films—Repast (1951), Sound of the Mountain (1954), Floating Clouds (1955), Sudden Rain (1956), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), Lonely Lane (1962), Yearning (1964), Two in the Shadow (1967), etc.—would be produced by Toho and, thankfully, none of these pictures have been obliterated by forces of any kind. One does not have to settle for plot synopses and reviews in trying to understand these later pictures; each and every one survives to be sought out and analyzed—and enjoyed—today.
** To achieve a ranking on this publication’s annual “Best Ten” list was considered a major accomplishment. Most prestigious was the #1 ranking, also known as the “Best One.” As Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson wrote in The Japanese Film – Art and Industry: “There is nothing quite like it in the West. Japanese critics poll to select the ten best films of the year and their choice has the greatest influence, not only in critical circles but also among the public and within the industry itself. It is an award relatively untouched by commercial consideration and is, therefore, highly respected.” During his lifetime, fourteen of Naruse’s films appeared on the magazine’s “Best Ten” list, and two of them—Wife! Be Like a Rose (1935) and Floating Clouds (1955)—garnered the coveted “Best One” prize.
*** According to Audie Bock’s book Japanese Film Directors, while Naruse was at Shochiku, his monthly pay grade roughly equated, at the time, to $365. Although the higher pay offered by P.C.L. makes sense as further reason for Naruse wishing to leave Shochiku, he insisted his departure was not due to “economic reasons.” Rather, he stated: “The number one reason was: I just wanted to get out. At Shochiku, I was low man on the totem pole and I didn’t know if I’d be allowed to shoot a talkie. So I moved to P.C.L. What was my impression of P.C.L. and Shochiku? At Shochiku, they allowed me to shoot. At P.C.L., they asked me to shoot.”
**** Even though Naruse’s directing career began after this event and was not directly affected by it, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 played a major role in the destruction of vintage Japanese cinema.
***** In the ten years prior to becoming a director, Naruse continually wrote and submitted screenplays to the front office, knowing Shiro Kido usually determined promotions according to scriptwriting. Unsurprisingly, none of these early scripts of his were approved. Screenwriter Matsuo Kishi speculated Kido might not have even bothered to read them due to (he suspected) a personal disliking of Naruse.
****** In the days of silent film in Japan, movies—domestic and foreign imports alike—were very often narrated live by performers called benshi. Many of these performers became famous and, in a sense, became the starring attractions, more so than the on-camera actors, the directors, and sometimes even the movies themselves.
******* The prime example is Kajiro Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, which cost a whopping $380,000 to produce, featured an infamous recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor (with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya), quickly recouped its costs, and was saluted by Kinema Jumpo as the “Best One” in their annual “Best Ten” list. Its success resulted in Yamamoto later directing Colonel Kato’s Falcon Squadron, itself the first big hit of 1944.General // December 3, 2018
It was a few weeks ago from the time of this writing that I had the opportunity to see Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) in a theater; and at the risk of stating the obvious, it was an experience I am certain I’ll never forget. Of course, I had seen this remarkable motion picture several times before, enjoying it on Blu-ray and DVD in the comfort of my own home; but this was my first time seeing Kurosawa’s masterpiece the way it was meant—and frankly deserves—to be seen. So amazing was the experience that, when it was over, I was mighty tempted to rush on home and start drumming up a comprehensive review for the site. I ended up dropping that notion for fear of producing a hollow imitation of what greater minds have said. After all, Seven Samurai is one of the most carefully scrutinized films in the annals of 20th century art; like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s been the subject of videos, essays, even full-length books—meticulously analyzed by people far more intuitive and knowledgeable than myself. (What could I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before?) As much as I enjoyed seeing one of my all-time favorite movies on the big screen, there won’t be a Seven Samurai review coming anytime in the foreseeable future.
There was, however, a second idea for an article which came into my head recently—and this one I was determined to write from the start. As is common with such things, the screening I attended began with an introduction: our host for the evening stepped up to the front of the auditorium and rattled off some “fun facts” about the making of Seven Samurai and the extent of its legacy. Or, perhaps better put, he spewed an entirely predictable assortment of factoids which had no doubt been culled from the movie’s Trivia page on the Internet Movie Database. By this point, I’d already learned a great deal about Akira Kurosawa (and from sources far more reliable than IMDb), so I just sat back and waited for the lights to go down. I calmly waited for all the chatter about the film’s expensive shoot and numerous remakes (both official and spiritual) to pass over. But then, our host relayed a rather dubious story which has become disturbingly widespread among fans of Japanese cinema. A story which has, for years, been reiterated on websites, on podcasts, and in discourse—despite the sheer lack of evidence to support it and the volumes of information indicative of the contrary.
A story which claims, to use the words uttered that night: “Toho spent so much money making Seven Samurai and a little movie called Godzilla that the studio almost went bankrupt.”
I remained civil, of course, and kept my mouth shut, but deep within the random archives that is my mind, gears were turning. It was time. Time to raise some important questions no one else seemed to be asking. Time to address the collateral evidence that this story, charming and tantalizing as it is, has no real foundation of truth.
A disclaimer before we continue. While I am about to describe in great detail the many things leery about this “bankruptcy” yarn, I cannot, for the time being, definitively prove it a myth. Despite my best efforts to trace its origin, it’s never turned up in any book, magazine, interview, documentary, etc. in my recollection. It seems to exist mainly within the confines of the internet, and the websites recapitulating it consistently fail to offer citations; thus, I have no original source to track down and scrutinize.
That said, there’s plenty of evidence—from plenty of resources—strongly suggesting it’s not true.
Figurative Figures and Actual Figures
As mentioned before, the story goes that the productions of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954) ate up so much money that Toho nearly went out of business, and that the studio survived only because both pictures became hits at the box office. Let’s begin with what’s accurate: it is absolutely true that both Seven Samurai and Godzilla required budgets quite exorbitant for Japanese features of their day. Godzilla utilized a variety of then-untested special effects techniques, namely the process now known as “suitmation,” in which stunt actors donned thick, cumbersome monster costumes and were turned loose on intricately detailed miniature city sets. And while the screenplay of Seven Samurai, lacking elaborate effects sequences and confining most of the action to just a couple of locales, could’ve been cheaply filmed by an average studio director, Kurosawa’s working methods and his insistence on capturing the exact image in his head ended up prolonging the shoot to just under a year. (Filming of Godzilla, by contrast, finished in about three months.) Time is money, as they say, and the studio was famously unhappy with Kurosawa as he sacrificed his ever increasing budget at the altar of perfectionism.
These were expensive films to make. Of that there is no question. Both pictures also garnered immense profits, ranking among the highest attended Japanese movies of the year and attaining further ticket sales via their (edited) overseas editions. Of that there is no question, either.
So, where do the inaccuracies begin? Well, first off, contrary to what has been reported in some venues, Godzilla was not the more expensive of the two pictures. All costs accounted for—including advertising and printing—disbursements on Honda’s monster movie came to roughly $275,000. Seven Samurai, by contrast, was the most expensive Japanese feature ever made up to that point in time, with an end budget hovering somewhere between $560,000-580,000 (blown up from an original allocation of $150,000-200,000). Secondly, even if these two movies had come close to sinking the studio, they wouldn’t have been alone in doing so. For there was another über-exorbitant motion picture released by Toho in 1954, one of whom repeaters of this urban legend seem curiously unaware.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) was a gigantic production featuring hundreds of fully costumed actors and considerable location work. Director Hiroshi Inagaki was no rampant perfectionist—more a highly skilled journeyman—and he didn’t have hordes of special effects on which to deliver, but the mechanics of this project nonetheless demanded a higher-than-average budget for a Japanese feature of the time. Furthermore, Inagaki was instructed to photograph his film in color, which resulted in lengthier filming and more expensive lab work. As assistant director Jun Fukuda recalled, “There were something like 210 warriors on horseback, and 800 samurai extras. […] Filming it in Eastman Color took longer to shoot than black and white […] it took six months to shoot the film.” Inagaki’s picture ended up with a rough budget of $500,000, not too far beneath that of Kurosawa’s and nearly double that of Honda’s. As the press (accurately) reported at the time, it was “the second most expensive motion picture to be produced in Japan.”
(Before we continue, sources for those who desire them: Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa and The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune.)
So even if Godzilla had been a factor in some near-bankruptcy gamble on Toho’s part, it would’ve played second—no, third—fiddle to two notably more expensive features made that same year. (So, why no ubiquitous cyberspace story about a duo of Toho-produced samurai movies threatening to derail the studio?) Now, switching back to the main topic at hand, did any or all of the films under discussion pose any actual threat to the studio in the long run? The overwhelming lack of evidence would suggest no.
Let us address that now.
Oh Evidence! Where Art Thou?
As mentioned in my disclaimer: I have yet to come across any reliable source even suggesting the rumor in question is true. In fact, in my experience, it’s been consistently absent in every serious study done on Japanese cinema of this time period. Consider, for example, Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson’s The Japanese Film – Art and Industry, first published in 1959. Perhaps the single greatest study on cinema from the Land of the Rising Sun, Richie and Anderson’s book covers, among other things, all the major Japanese studios in existence at the time—detailing their origins, their histories, their personnel, their politics, their strengths, their shortcomings, even their respective close encounters with bankruptcy. The authors address and articulate, at various points and with great detail, the many roadblocks Toho had endured up to that point (for instance: the postwar labor strikes of the 1940s, which set the studio back in more ways than one until producer Iwao Mori stepped in and put the company back on its “financial feet”).
And yet, nowhere in the text, in any chapter, is there mention of the studio nearly foundering in 1954—for any reason at all, let alone because of the shootings of Godzilla and Seven Samurai. Both films are (separately) covered and credited for the revolutions they spawned (the rise of the Japanese science fiction picture, then a recent thing, receives some page space), but never are they paired together as culprits of anything greater than that. Nor are the expenses incurred by Inagaki’s samurai movie blamed for any kind of short or long-term suffering within the studio.
Absence of proof is of course not proof of absence, but this was a comprehensive study made just a few years after the supposed “bankruptcy debacle.” The fact that Richie and Anderson omitted such an event from their book—and that it remained omitted in updated editions; and that no other Japanese film historian, to my knowledge, has ever published a single word on it—could very well indicate it never happened at all, that the studio experienced no serious financial peril that year.
Not So Dangerous Financial Danger
In preparing for this article, I sought insight from film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, author of such books as Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! and The Toho Studios Story. When I asked for his opinion on whether Toho nearly collapsed shooting Godzilla and Seven Samurai, he told me:
“I found no evidence of that at all, and there’s probably no truth to it, either. Seven Samurai did go over budget, but I’d doubt the final cost of the two films combined was even 7-8% of the total negative cost of the studio’s annual slate that year. So, no, it wouldn’t have bankrupted them, even if the films had flopped.”
That, too, makes imminent sense in context. As expensive as these films were and as miffed as the Toho execs would’ve surely been had one or all of them flopped, the studio was holding up very well on a financial level and more than likely would’ve survived. At the time, the Japanese film industry was in full force, cranking out—literally—hundreds of films each year. While Toho’s bastard child Shin-Toho (formed during the unrest of the earlier mentioned labor strikes) was struggling along due to poor management and insufficient bookings, the parent company was thriving, spawning an average annual output of 60-100 pictures, with 68 Toho-produced films in 1954 alone (hence the 7-8% negative cost estimate Galbraith suggests above). Very few of these pictures would’ve had budgets even remotely comparable to those spent on Seven Samurai or even Godzilla; but the combined costs of such a huge quantity would’ve likely outdistanced the two films under discussion, and then some. On top of that, Toho, then as now, owned many of its own theaters, meaning they could keep a greater percentage of the profits.
And profits there were. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Trade and Industry in 1958, the average Japanese citizen at the time attended up to twelve movies a year; and for Tokyo residents, the number metastasized to twenty. That, in turn, was reflected in the often claustrophobic packing of movie houses. As Richie and Anderson write in their book, contemporary theaters in Japan were typically jam-packed with audiences, to the point where every available inch of space was used to fit another body. “The aisles at the sides and down the middle are full of people. Some even sit on the edge of the stage while others stand outside the exit doors looking into the auditorium.” The movies were there, and so were the audiences.
This is not to say, of course, that Japanese films made in the 1950s never flopped or that Seven Samurai and Godzilla were incapable of flopping; but the truth of the matter is that the industry and the studio were, by and large, in good shape. Had the two movies (and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto—don’t forget about that one!) bombed, the studio likely could’ve afforded to go on due to the omnipresent audiences and the vast multitude of other pictures they were simultaneously cranking out and profiting from. (In short, it would’ve taken more than two or three flops to put the Toho of 1954 in any kind of dire straits.)
That alone makes this Godzilla + Seven Samurai = Bankruptcy “factoid”—questionable and unlikely from the beginning—seem all the more dubious in the end.General // October 2, 2018
Of the many stories which have been said about Akira Ifukube, one of the most widespread and admittedly endearing examples concerns the manner in which the composer supposedly rejected the opportunity to score 1984’s The Return of Godzilla. As the tale goes, Ifukube, after receiving Toho’s offer to write music for the aforementioned 30th anniversary reboot, expressed displeasure with some of the changes being made to the titular character, namely the decision to increase Godzilla’s height from 50 to 80 meters; and in refusing the assignment, he’s reported to have said: “I do not write music for 80-meter monsters.”
A wonderful anecdote, one that’s been reiterated in numerous books, magazines, web articles, forums, etc. over the last thirty-some years—and one I seriously question in terms of its validity. Now, I personally love stories about artists turning down work via snark-laden comments (I’m rather fond of Noël Coward allegedly refusing the eponymous part in Dr. No with, “Dr. No? No! No! No!”), but this supposed statement of Ifukube’s strikes me as little more than an urban legend: something fun to share in jest, but not to be taken serious. It’s been my stance for a long time now that if Ifukube uttered these words at all, he used them ironically; and my guts compel me to believe he never used them in the first place.
I cannot claim expertise on Ifukube’s life and career, but I have read/watched a sizable number of post-1984 interviews featuring the composer—not one of which contain quibbles on his part regarding Godzilla’s stature here or in any of the later Heisei movies. Also: having never come across the supposed quotation in any Japanese source, I’ve been inclined to believe its propagation occurred mostly here in the west. And considering it was believed for many decades on this side of the Pacific that Godzilla emerged victorious in the Japanese ending of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), my willingness to accept yet another unsubstantiated rumor regarding this franchise resides about three notches beneath the tier labeled “skeptical.”
And so, in the interest of research, I thought it would be fun to get to the bottom of this “I do not write music for 80-meter monsters!” yarn: pinpoint its origins, consult with people with more knowledge on the matter than I possess, and try and figure out what’s what.
In carrying out my detective work, I first amassed every English language book, magazine, etc. in my collection that contains the infamous Akira Ifukube “quote,” going through each of them for reference. I also scoured the world wide web for additional clues. From there, it was a matter of locating mentions that came with citations and bibliographies, and searching through my archives for what I hoped would end up being the very first instance of this quote appearing in the English-speaking world. Following a session of backtracking citations, I arrived at Issue #7 of Ed Godziszewski’s magazine Japanese Giants.
And now, a clarification: Godziszewski’s magazine may have been the first time this anecdote was shared stateside, but it was not the avenue through which the story in question came to be passed off as “the truth.” Please pay close attention to the exact verbiage in which this collection of words was first reported.
In detailing preproduction of the 1984 Godzilla movie, Godziszewski specified that Ifukube was offered the chance to score the film but turned it down and that (again, please read this verbatim) “upon learning that changes were being made to the Godzilla legend such as increasing Godzilla’s height from 50 to 80 meters, Ifukube was rumored to have said, ‘I do not write music for 80 meter monsters.’”
Notice that key word. “…rumored to have said…”
When I started planning this Urban Legends article, I reached out to Godziszewski for further details as to where he heard the story and what he’s gathered on it in the thirty-some years since. His response:
“[The quote] was something that I had heard from a couple of friends in Japan during my visit there in January 1985, to see the new Godzilla film. This was well before I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Ifukube, so it was not something I got first-hand. When I used it, I qualified it as something he was rumored to have said. It was certainly an amusing way to explain his absence from this film. Not having met him at the time, I couldn’t say if he had a wry sense of humor and said this as a way to dismiss the endless badgering from Toho’s people who were asking him to work on Godzilla again. It seemed believable in that vein, but I never took that statement terribly seriously. By chance, during a recent trip to Japan, I happened to run into one of the people who I heard this from, and he told me that “it was just a joke.” Given the way this rumor has sort of morphed into something quoted as fact in some circles, I now regret that I used it at all in the article.”
And there we have it. Even though Godziszewski, from the start, unambiguously classified “I do not write music for 80-meter monsters!” as a rumor in Issue #7 of Japanese Giants, some of us who’ve passed the story along in the decades since have forgotten to repeat said clarification. The subsequent circulation of this infamous quote merely exemplifies what sometimes happens in distributing the research of others: a rumor initially clarified as a rumor, eventually repeated and repeated and repeated until it began transmuting into a “fact.” A mistake on our part since the “fact” ended up being “just a joke.”
As for Ifukube’s not taking part in the 1984 film: that, too, can be explained with postulations far more plausible than an upsurge in Godzilla’s height. To gain insight into what Ifukube was up to at the time of this film, I consulted Erik Homenick, webmaster of akiraifukube.org, who explicated with the following:
“I supposed that the refusal comment attributed to Ifukube had to be false because, in the 1980s, he did not compose any film music at all—not for Godzilla, not for anything. Ifukube had retired from the world of film music and at the time was focused on his career as a professor of composition at the Tokyo College of Music. Even his concert output in the 1980s was comparatively meager; his overriding priorities were in education. Long story short, Akira Ifukube did not compose music for The Return of Godzilla not because of any objection to Godzilla’s size, but because he was funneling his energies elsewhere.”
As history demonstrates, Akira Ifukube eventually returned to the franchise, scoring 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, a film in which the radioactive behemoth’s height was increased further still, to a whopping—and utterly ridiculous—100 meters. In his 1996 interview with Steve Ryfle, Ifukube cited familial persuasion and Toho’s use of his music in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) as the factors behind his return. “I did not accept the assignment for Godzilla vs. Biollante, but after the film was released, my daughter pointed out they had used some of my music in the film. Also, they had made some of my music into a rock theme, and I did not like that! So, my daughter encouraged me to accept the next Godzilla movie so I would have some control over how my music was used.”
When all’s said and done, the claim of Ifukube commenting “I do not write music for 80-meter monsters!” certainly makes for a humorous conversation piece, but it doesn’t appear to be true at all. And with that, another dubious story bites the dust.General // September 1, 2018
On September 6, 1998, veteran screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto was visiting his daughter at a lodge in Kita-Karuizawa when he received some dismaying news: one of his colleagues—someone whose name he will forever be associated with—had just passed away. That colleague being none other than the internationally acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa. Hashimoto had collaborated with Kurosawa (always one to participate in the writing of his films’ scripts) a total of eight times, their combined efforts leading to classics such as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), and Throne of Blood (1957). And upon learning of his associate’s death, Hashimoto realized he was the sole surviving member of a once-prominent team of storytellers. All the other writers who’d participated in crafting Kurosawa’s movies—Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, etc.—had already passed on. Hashimoto, then a physically decrepit man of 80, was unable to attend the farewell gathering due to poor health, so he sent the following in a condolence telegram: “I want to ask a favor of our leader, Mr. Kurosawa. Tell everyone ‘Hashimoto’ll be here soon.’ Leave some space for me to sit with my legs crossed. It will probably be only a little while, so until then, Mr. Kurosawa, from Kita-Karuizawa […] goodbye.”
Hashimoto ended up waiting nearly twenty years to join his senior: pneumonia claimed his life on July 19, 2018, three months after his 100th birthday. An incredibly long time to be alive—especially for someone who’d suffered through an assortment of grueling health issues from a relatively young age. He was a twenty-year-old soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army when tuberculosis landed him in a sanitarium, where he remained for four years. In his early thirties, a herniated disc left him temporarily bedridden and proved so painful that mere vibrations generated by another person walking across the floor racked him with agony. A skiing accident in 1957 injured his neck and cost him a scriptwriting assignment. He went in and out of hospitals throughout much of his later life, and his 2006 memoir Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I contains a passage near the end in which the screenwriter once again predicted his days were running out. And yet, he endured: twelve years past that book’s publication and two decades after his previous self-determined prognosis that he was close to dying. That, in and of itself, is remarkable.
And that’s to speak nothing of his incredible body of work, both for and apart from Kurosawa.
Hashimoto’s attachment to writing began in the late 1930s, when he was a patient in the Okayama Disabled Veteran’s Rehabilitation Facility. Bored and restless, he spent many hours of many days staring at the ceiling until a fellow patient offered to loan him a copy of a film magazine. In it, Hashimoto happened upon a published film script, of which he proclaimed: “I’m surprised it’s so simple. [E]ven I could do better.” Confident in his abilities, he wrote a scenario of his own and mailed it to Mansaku Itami, the most celebrated Japanese screenwriter of his age. Much to his surprise, Itami wrote back with suggestions on how to improve and subsequently became his mentor. Hashimoto recovered from his illness and took a job in a munitions company, continuing to write until Daiei greenlit his adaptation of a Ryunosuke Akutagawa short story called In a Grove. When Kurosawa joined the project, they beefed up the script together, integrating a second Akutagawa story to increase the picture’s length; from that, Kurosawa proceeded to revise the amalgamation on his own (due to Hashimoto becoming bedridden) and created the world-renowned masterpiece Rashomon (1950).
Over the next twenty years, the duo collaborated on seven other projects, their working methods constantly evolving. Hashimoto’s health had improved to where he could now remain active throughout the entire screenwriting process; and to enhance what was already a sensational team, Kurosawa recruited a third man, Hideo Oguni, to serve as their “navigator”: to tell them when an idea was no good or when the story was straying off course. (As noted by the late film historian Donald Richie, the great artistic success of the 50s-60s films stemmed from the virtues of teamwork: of multiple artists playing to each other’s strengths.) In writing Ikiru and Seven Samurai, Hashimoto penned the initial draft himself and then extensively rewrote it with Kurosawa; the more experienced Oguni, meanwhile, sat off to the side and merely looked over their progress, handing back anything in need of further revisions.
Beginning with I Live in Fear (1955), Kurosawa introduced the “straight to final draft” technique, in which everyone simultaneously wrote their own version of an individual scene and critiqued each other’s work to get the best results. Hashimoto’s involvement during this particular phase wavered—he joined the production of The Bad Sleep Well (1960) late in the game and claimed never to have watched the finished product, for instance—always with a certitude that the previous method had been better.
After a brief return to partnership with 1970’s Dodes’kaden, Hashimoto ceased writing for Kurosawa; though he did remain, in two fleeting instances, present in the director’s later life. He helped shop around the script for Kagemusha (1980), personally convening with producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to help secure partial funding for the picture, before 20th Century Fox supplied the balance; and his final encounter with the director occurred in 1990, at the premiere of Dreams, a picture Hashimoto described in his memoir as the Kurosawa film he liked best. Even though Kurosawa made two more features before his passing, Hashimoto deliberately avoided seeing them, holding to his conviction that Dreams embodied a perfect and most personal closure for his associate’s career. And he forever held onto his last memory of them together, at the premiere: “He seemed honestly happy. It had been more than forty years since Mr. Kurosawa and I had met, but this was the first time I’d ever seen him with such an untroubled, happy smile.”
Of course, those eight assignments with Kurosawa made up only a small portion of Shinobu Hashimoto’s career, not to mention his ideas on the cinematic medium. In discussing his screenplay for Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (1962), Hashimoto stated “those of us who make movies feel differently than those who watch them” and asserted the anti-feudalism themes of the aforementioned picture had been applied by filmgoers and critics and was not his intent as the writer. He might’ve been onto something: history’s full of artists who scoffed at interpretations of their work. On the other hand, one cannot help but recognize a certain (perhaps subconscious) leeriness toward authority figures as well as militarist traditions that imbues some of Hashimoto’s scripts. His other Kobayashi-directed project, the outstanding Samurai Rebellion (1959), shows members of a family standing against cruel demands imposed by their superiors. And I recently saw a picture he co-wrote for Tadashi Imai called Broken Drum (1958), about a samurai who discovers his wife slept with another man during one of his journeys—at a time when adultery was punishable by death. It was only because of his (regular) long absences, demanded by the shogun, that his wife, under tremendous pressure as revealed in a series of flashbacks, did what she did; he knows this, and yet he morosely insists she take her own life for the sake of an unfair tradition—especially since others in their village, including men in authority, are aware of it. The characters don’t rebel as in Kobayashi’s pictures, but their abhorrence for the dark side of Japan’s feudalistic social structure and reluctance to follow codes of “duty” and “honor” comes through nonetheless.
Other notable credits in Hashimoto’s résumé. Three of Kihachi Okamoto’s most popular films: Sword of Doom (1966), Samurai Assassin (1965), and Japan’s Longest Day (1967). Miki Hirate (1951), the second script of his to be produced, based on a historical figure who, like Hashimoto, suffered from tuberculosis. Mikio Naruse’s first color picture, Summer Clouds (1958). For Shiro Moritani, he penned the original Submersion of Japan (1973), likely the most intelligent and thoughtful disaster movie ever made.
And, in discussing Hashimoto’s career, it would be remiss to overlook Lips Forbidden to Talk, better known as I Want to Be a Shellfish, a Tetsutaro Kato novel he adapted first as a teleplay in 1958 and then again, for the big screen, the following year, for which he also assumed directorial responsibilities. (Of the two, the fleshed out theatrical version is the superior effort.)
I Want to Be a Shellfish’s narrative is set during and immediately after the events of World War II. It begins with a civilian barber named Toyomatsu Shimizu (played in both versions by Frankie Sakai) radiantly voicing support for the war, happily asking customers to wait while he steps outside to wish luck to disembarking troops…until he receives a conscription notice with his name on it, at which point his mood swiftly changes to the dejected. The tendency to read anti-authority themes in Hashimoto’s work becomes somewhat justified at this point. In the Imperial Army, Shimizu’s verbally admonished by his superiors, chastised for taking too long to report to his bunker after doing officers’ laundry, instructed to pop the blisters on his feet by walking long patrols at night (during an air raid). Worse still, after two American planes are shot down over Japanese soil, our protagonist and one of his comrades are ordered by a bloodthirsty captain to stab the pilots (who are already dead and strapped to trees) for the sake of boosting morale. Years later, Shimizu’s arrested and tried by the Americans for the “crime,” at which point he explains his actions and why he had no choice in the matter. In the Imperial Army, disobedience to a superior officer was equivalent to disobedience to Emperor Hirohito himself and, thus, punishable by death. Here we have a man whose rapturous love for the military has already been proven naïve, who was berated and disrespected by his higher-ups, who wanted nothing to do with the barbaric act he’s on trial for, and who only did so because of the consequences of failing to follow orders. And though he was one of two soldiers convicted for the dual “executions” of that day, only Shimizu receives the death sentence (his former comrade gets twenty-five years’ imprisonment). The implication is the Americans are looking for someone to take the fall, especially since the captain who gave the order in the first place committed suicide.
Given that the film channels a negative connotation in its portrayal of both Japanese wartime figures and postwar western authorities, it’s perhaps not unreasonable to suspect an anti-authority undercurrent in common with what’s been perceived in some of Hashimoto’s other work. I imagine the screenwriter would’ve dismissed such an allegation; he probably viewed I Want to Be a Shellfish as nothing more than the story of an ordinary man thrown into an extraordinary circumstance under the universally despised canopy of war. But, intended or not, it’s fun to speculate in context with the rest of his career, and it’s certainly food for thought. If it exists at all, however, it plays second fiddle to the picture’s blatantly stated, domineering antiwar theme, which sounds unambiguously in the conclusion. Shimizu, hours away from his execution, pens his wish that, should he be reincarnated, he return not as a person or an ox or a horse but, rather, as a shellfish at the bottom of the sea, away from war and poverty and the other miseries of human existence. Hashimoto would return to this narrative a third time, writing the script for Katsuo Fuzukawa’s 2008 adaptation. It also marked the closing film assignment in his long, prodigious career.
When film historian Stuart Galbraith IV interviewed Hashimoto in 1999, the screenwriter’s health was, in a word, ghastly. “He was so frail then,” Galbraith recalled. “Drool kept running down the sides of his mouth, his black shoe polish-dyed hair was stringy and half grown back to white, and he was wrapped in about five blankets. My interpreter, Yukari Fujii, and I kept trying to cut it short, given his condition, but he insisted we do the full interview, which lasted maybe four hours.” For Hashimoto, the stories of his experiences working with Kurosawa were worth telling, health and comfort be damned. “On the cab ride back to the station,” Galbraith continued, “I told Yukari how glad I was that we caught him in time, that he surely wouldn’t last another month. Instead, he outlived virtually all of his contemporaries, nearly twenty years after that interview, and was productive during some of that time.” If that isn’t an account of an admirable person, I don’t know what is. An intelligent storyteller as well as a man with an interesting (if somewhat unenviable) life, Shinobu Hashimoto was one of the truly great film artists of his day; and when he passed away at age 100 last month, what little remains of the Golden Age of Japanese cinema suffered yet another crushing loss.General // August 16, 2018
At her interview at this year’s G-Fest, actress Megumi Odaka was presented with a question which always seems to turn up whenever a former kaiju eiga performer speaks before a live audience: Would you ever want to be in another Godzilla movie? And, in what also seems to be tradition with such Q&As, Odaka answered by turning toward the audience and exclaiming—in English—two words: “Of course!” The response throughout the ballroom was unanimous applause, and I was right there with the audience, pounding the palms of my hands together with great vigor. Though I get the feeling my enthusiasm was unlike most everyone else’s in that it was tinted with bittersweet hope. Hope this formerly omnipresent actress would one day be blessed with an opportunity to show fans what she can really do. An opportunity she never had working in the Godzilla series.
As a Godzilla fan growing up in the early 2000s, Megumi Odaka and her character of the psychic girl Miki Saegusa were ubiquitous elements in my movie-going youth; and to this day, she remains one of the faces I immediately think of when contemplating post-Showa talent in this long-running franchise. I’m certainly more inclined to salute her over the vast majority of her contemporaries. Looking back on the problematic Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), Odaka is pretty much the only cast member under the age of 40 in that film who leaves any impression on me whatsoever. While her early performances tended to be nondescript and even wooden at times, she became increasingly expressive as she neared the end of her film career, more comfortable and natural before the camera; and by the time we reached her 1995 swan song, she was genuinely good. (Here was an actress who grew as she went.)
On the other hand, good performances frequently appear in movies unworthy of them. And just as my feelings for most of the Heisei movies have diminished a bit over the years, so has my enthusiasm for the character this actress is associated with. I like Megumi Odaka, but with all due respect, it’s probably not unfair to speculate the reason she remains a name with fans all these years later is simply because she played the same character six times in a row—and not because of anything said character accomplished in any of those movies. In describing Miki Saegusa, I’m tempted to conjure up two words: lost potential.
After introducing Miki Saegusa in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), writer/director Kazuki Omori charged his new character with the task of alerting everyone (including the audience) when something eerie was afoot: when a spiritual voice was in the “air,” when a voracious plant-monster hybrid was in the process of materializing, when Godzilla was about to poke his head out of the ocean.
Though it would develop into a problem later on, this simplistic approach wasn’t a major issue in the beginning. By initially presenting limited insight into Miki and what she’s capable of, Omori adds an extra layer of mystery and unpredictability to his film—which is fine, as the narrative’s told primarily from the perspective of the non-psychic characters who, very often, have to try and guess what the young woman might be thinking and, more importantly, what she might be sensing. This comes through especially well in scenes such as: Miki stepping out into the night after a heavy rainstorm, clearly troubled by something beyond our perception, not uttering a word as she races toward the coast; the other characters, completely unaware of what’s about to happen, follow; Miki comes to a stop in a grassy field, glances upward, and the audience joins the cast in watching Biollante’s particles come down from the heavens. There are other captivating bits heavy on visuals, such as Miki using her ESP in an attempt to delay Godzilla’s next attack, only to collapse from exhaustion, the monster’s advance unhalted. Little moments like these go a long way, and though Miki never alters the film’s outcome, she contributes to the eerie atmosphere imbuing this picture. Omori certainly could’ve gone the distance and rendered a more three-dimensional person, but his use of the psychic girl works well enough the first time around and does not detract from the experience of watching the movie.
In Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), also written and directed by Omori, the mystery element is de-emphasized, and Miki becomes a loquacious, communicable team member…and in the process starts exhibiting the very plethora of problems that will ultimately diminish her from here on out. In bringing back a character whose initial appeal revolved around behavior and ability, it was pretty much essential on the part of the filmmakers to take the next step. Regardless of whether Miki remains abstruse or becomes more “sociable,” the ideal script would provide her with new challenges, expand on what she’s capable of, and thereby make her more interesting. Alas, that is not what happens in this film. Instead, Omori channels most of his energy into his jarring mess of a plot and his admittedly colorful new characters, all while relegating Miki to her previous assignment of simply voicing an alarm now and then. Even though she joins the mission to remove Godzilla from history, her participation amounts to merely going along for the ride. Her ESP, her one quality distinguishing her from everyone else, doesn’t even come into play outside of a throwaway line confirming the Lagos Island dinosaur will one day become Godzilla. (As if anyone needed her to deduce that….)
Omori abdicated the director’s chair for Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), staying on only as screenwriter, and proceeded to render his original creation even more superfluous. Minus a tiny iota of a scene of Miki helping locate the Cosmos in Tokyo, the character maintains her status as a one-tricky pony. “Godzilla’s coming.” Cut to Godzilla stomping out of Mt. Fuji. Of all Miki Saegusa’s appearances, this is the most vapid and unimpressionable.
The Not-So-Dramatic Turn
Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (1993), penned by new screenwriter Wataru Mimura, marks a transition point and briefly hints that Miki might be destined for better things. The first half of the picture showcases nothing especially new. In terms of of characterization and behavior, we get more of the same: a look of concern crosses her face, the camera gets up close, she announces Godzilla’s arrival. Rinse and repeat.
In the picture’s second half, however, Miki begins experiencing a change of heart on whether man should continue to wage war with Godzilla. From here we get the first glimpses of her sympathizing with the monsters, which will ultimately define her character from this point forward. The reason for her change of heart we are told—rather than shown—is Baby Godzilla: an herbivorous relative of the King of the Monsters whose egg was discovered on the remote Adonoa Island and flown back to Japan. When the egg hatches in an observation laboratory, the young dinosaur mistakenly identifies the first creature it came in contact with (in this case, a human whose voice it’d previously heard) for its mother, thereby opening an emotional bridge between the monsters and humankind. Also to Mimura’s credit, he incorporates Miki into the plot in a much more proactive way than anything Omori had ever thought of. This time, the psychic girl’s presence actually has some moderate influence on the story. She plays a crucial role in the mission of destroying Godzilla’s second brain and without Miki, Baby Godzilla wouldn’t have gone into the sea with Godzilla after the final battle. So on that level, Mimura should be applauded for taking a character who’d previously been relegated to just standing around and giving her some small role in the way the story unfolds.
On the debit side, these admittedly clever ideas nevertheless come up short, failing to manifest on the screen in a particularly engaging manner. The big mistake, especially with context kept in mind, was preserving Miki’s stature as a secondary character rather than more logically advancing her to the role of female lead. Considering this is the film where she starts sympathizing with the monsters and considering Baby Godzilla serves as the pivot upon which the story turns, it would’ve only made sense for Miki to assume the dramatic lead. Have Miki travel to Adonoa Island and discover the egg. Write the script so that Miki’s voice is the voice Baby Godzilla hears. Structure it so Miki is present when the egg breaks open. Allow Miki to develop parental feelings for the infant reptile. Show an on-screen bondage developing between Miki and Baby Godzilla. All of this would’ve resulted in a more emotional denouement when Miki sends Baby away.
But, no. Instead, Baby becomes attached to a scientist’s assistant named Azusa (Ryoko Sano), someone who never turns up again in the remainder of the Heisei series; and when Miki uses her telepathy to convince Baby to leave with Godzilla, it’s at the request of Azusa, not her own discretion.
In a scene deleted from the final cut, Miki visited Baby Godzilla’s pen, the dinosaur playfully using its tail to dishevel her hair. I imagine the scene was removed for the sake of pacing, but even had it remained, it would’ve been too little too late in making us care about the “relationship” between these two. As with many things in Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II, there’s something wonderful struggling to claw its way out of some rough ideas here, but the character of Miki Saegusa, four movies in, remains clenched in the fists of unrealized potential.
In 1994’s Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, written by Hiroshi Kashiwabara, Miki’s finally promoted to lead, with mixed results. To begin on a positive note, Kashiwabara starts the film off by placing Miki appropriately at center stage. As the picture opens, Miki’s approached by members of G-Force who have developed a strategy with the potential of controlling Godzilla’s mind (implanting a special transmitting into the back of the monster’s neck and feeding him commands via telepathy). None of the other psychics are strong enough to even attempt the mission; Miki’s the only one who might be able to pull it off; but she’s leery about doing so, given the events of the last film. However, most people in Japan still want to see Godzilla dead, and unless the King of the Monsters can be contained, G-Force will continue developing new weapons and, just maybe, succeed in killing him. On top of that, if Miki refuses to take part in the telepathy mission, the team will resort to recruiting one of the other psychics, unprepared as they are. If she abstains, someone—human or monster—will suffer. Right from the start, Miki’s placed in a dramatic position, pressed with making a tough choice.
This thread continues when the Cosmos inform Miki a violent space monster is en route to Earth and that nothing will be able to stop it if Godzilla’s killed. (Which might happen if she doesn’t go along with G-Force’s plan.) Now the existence of the planet is in jeopardy. Backing into a metaphorical corner, Miki reluctantly decides between the lesser of two evils, agreeing to attempt to control the creature she’s come to respect. For all the awkward things that exist within the screenplay of Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, Kashiwabara scores a right note in finding a role for for the picture’s lead that 1) makes sense given her history 2) catapults her to the core of the narrative.
That is, until the subplot of telepathically manipulating Godzilla abruptly vanishes halfway in.
The filmmakers make up for this somewhat by expanding on Miki’s powers. In this case, she discovers how to use telekinesis to levitate objects, which comes in handy when aiding her human companions at two points in the film. (A nice change of pace from simply touching her temple and declaring a monster’s on its way.) Also added is a romance between Miki and a G-Force soldier (Jun Hashizume) which doesn’t so much influence the plot as it feeds into the picture’s peculiar Make Love, Not War theme. But for all the positives implemented here, so much more still could’ve been done to flesh out Miki and her role within the Heisei universe. Dropping her key narrative purpose halfway in also delivers a heavy blow to the story.
Failing to follow up on that also opens the window for one of the most baffling lines of dialogue in the history of the franchise. After SpaceGodzilla has been defeated (thanks to the efforts of Godzilla and the MOGUERA crew), the Cosmos reappear before Miki and thank her for “saving the planet,” even though her participation in the climax consisted entirely of watching from a distance and using telekinesis to free Yuki (Akira Emoto) from a hatch door closed around his foot. Since she herself faced no peril whatsoever, even the most undiscerning audience member is bound to scratch their head at this line and beg the obvious question: How did she save the planet?
Swinging back to the positive side of things, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla is a step up in the sense that it features the first truly energized performance Megumi Odaka has given thus far. I know not what changed between movies, but I suspect it might have something to do with her collaborators. Kazuki Omori and Takao Okawara (director Godzilla vs. Mothra and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II) are hit-and-miss when it comes to directing actors; so in regards to the 1994 film, it might’ve been that the less experienced Kensho Yamashita was nonetheless more conscious of what it takes to evoke a strong performance from his cast. At the aforementioned G-Fest panel, Odaka revealed that while filming the sunset-staged quarrel in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, she and co-star Jun Hashizume were continually failing to deliver a mood that matched the director’s expectations. To solve the problem, Yamashita brought in a large speaker and played a fight song to rev up the tension until the performers reached an intensity he was satisfied with. Perhaps that cleverness filtered throughout the entire production; some directors know how to work with actors better than others. Perhaps there were other factors involved: Odaka might’ve garnered some tips from co-star Akira Emoto, one of Japan’s finest acting talents. But whatever the reason, Odaka is in much finer form here than she had been previous; and moving forward, she would only get better.
The Disappointing Sendoff
Odaka cites Godzilla vs. Destoroyah as the film containing her best genre performance, and she is absolutely correct in doing so. Of her six times playing Miki Saegusa, this exhibits the most convincing and well-rounded piece of acting by her. She’s up to the task, even if the people behind the typewriter are not.
Returning screenwriter Kazuki Omori spits up a number of interesting ideas and does little to nothing with most of them. Godzilla Junior has apparently turned into a killer, slaughtering whales by the dozen and leaving their bloodied carcasses in his wake. The cute plant-eating critter which helped Miki realize humanity can co-exist with the monsters is now dangerous. Or so we’re told in a very brief throwaway scene that could’ve easily been axed with no indication it had even been there in the first place. Once again, we’re treated to an admittedly clever idea that just never fleshes out into a satisfying subplot: there are no scenes of Miki trying to justify keeping the (apparently) dangerous Junior alive, for instance. What if the military saw the results of Junior’s handiwork, leaped to the assumption that he would target humans next, and set out to destroy him? How would Miki dissuade them? How would her personal history with the creature be interwoven into the story?
Alas, Junior’s mean streak vanishes as quickly as it appeared and the next time we see him, he’s as harmless and peaceful as ever, strolling past a beach full of people, on his way back to Adonoa Island. What could’ve been genuinely intense drama actively utilizing the past history of two recurring characters is instead swept under the proverbial rug.
But the criminal mistake—the most egregious bit of missed potential in this character’s entire six-part spectrum—is, without a doubt: introducing the concept of the psychic girl losing her powers and squandering it on a couple lines of dialogue. Miki’s steadily being deprived of what was, frankly, her only standout trait from the beginning; and the filmmakers startlingly, infuriatingly, do nothing with it. Did it ever occur to Omori to write a scenario in which we see Miki’s slackening extrasensory abilities? Not just one or two moments where she’s flying in a helicopter, touching her forehead, and Junior fails to appear and a casual remark to a colleague that she feels her powers have been fading away? How about a scene where she tries to do something with her mind, fails, and realizes, along with audience, that her gift’s gone forever? (Imagine what Megumi Odaka could’ve done enacting such a revelation!) How about comparing her situation to that of Meru Ozawa (Sayaka Osawa), a fellow psychic who actually wants to lose her powers and lead a normal life? Speaking of which, what has not leading a normal life meant to Miki after all these years? What has she lost? What has she gained? Ever since Miki’s induction, there have been other psychics (adults as well as children) in the background; what does it mean to them? All of these intriguing ideas present themselves and then vanish into the woodwork mere minutes later, and the film suffers as a result.
The one dramatically effective element to arise from all this is Miki’s diverting Junior’s course toward Destoroyah, resulting in the young monster’s demise. The same person who swore to protect the monsters has indirectly caused the death of one. If only this had been the consequence of some lengthy beforehand tension, as expounded on above. Megumi Odaka’s performance is solid from start to finish, but the actress is not helped along to true greatness due to the severe limitations of the script.
And with that, Miki Saegusa—ever promising, every tingling with potential—vanishes into the annals of the genre with a well-acted whimper.
Same Concept, Superior Execution
In examining the Heisei series, I am forced to conclude Miki Saegusa was a prime example of a missed opportunity: an admittedly likable character who was never utilized to a particularly compelling degree. And in comparing her part in the later Heisei movies to something similar from a superior product, I cannot help but salute Shusuke Kaneko‘s magnificent Gamera trilogy from 1995-1999. The qualitative difference is astonishing. Each film in this trio featured one or more characters with extrasensory powers as well as the concept of humans linked to monsters—except, unlike the makers of the ’90s Godzilla movies, Kaneko seized hold of the idea with both hands and ran with it.
I could examine the whole trilogy in making my point, but for the sake of discussion, let’s dissect just the first film, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995). Early on, we’re introduced to Asagi Kusanagi (wonderfully acted by Ayako Fujitani). In doing so, Kaneko inaugurates his psychic character in an infinitely more imaginative way than Omori ever did. Rather than introducing her within some kind of established universe (with voiceover narrative clarifying who and what she is), the director shows us a seemingly ordinary teenager with an ordinary life (we see fleeting glimpses of her at home and with friends; nothing bizarre or peculiar in her day-to-day life). Things take a turn for the extraordinary when her scientist father investigates a drifting atoll (which later turns out to be Gamera); this leads to her obtaining one of the comma-shaped beads littered on the rock’s surface; this leads to the deduction that the beads are made of material produced by a long-gone civilization; this leads to Asagi becoming psychically linked to Gamera, The audience learns, right alongside the character herself, that a seemingly normal teenager is destined for something special. An infinitely more intoxicating chain of events than the Toho method of: This is Miki, she has ESP.
In a somewhat similar vein to Miki, Asagai follows Gamera around. But her following him amounts to more than determining his destination. (The scenes of her doing so also stand superior entertainment-wise, as she often has to improvise on how to keep up with him; it’s not until the very end that she’s granted one of those JSDF helicopters Miki had at her disposal.) During the Mt. Fuji scene, Gamera’s arm is sliced wide open by Gyaos’ beam—and blood simultaneously pours down Asagi’s arm. Previously, we’d seen signs of wounds on Asagi’s wrists (following Gamera suffering a similar injury), and now we have an explanation. The filmmakers deliver this on a purely visual level, which makes it all the more fun. And to render an already interesting dynamic even more interesting, they introduce Asagi’s ability to channel some of her own energy to Gamera, allowing him to escape. Asagai doesn’t simply stand off to the side during the action; her being there influences the outcome! How many times can such a compliment be paid to Miki? Remove Miki Saegusa from her movies and almost none of them change. Remove Asagi Kusanagi from Gamera: Guardian of the Universe and the story turns out drastically different.
Again, one could discuss the subsequent two chapters in the trilogy, but that first movie, by itself, even when examining one particular element, perfectly demonstrates how much better the Gamera pictures of the 1990s were compared to their Godzilla counterparts. Shusuke Kaneko and screenwriter Kazunori Ito took the same idea—a psychic person who can feel the monsters—and went much further with it in one movie than Toho managed six times out.
The moment in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah that made me realize just how much Megumi Odaka had grown as an actress was her reaction to being told Junior’s course would be changed with or without her assistance. In one of their better visual choices, Takao Okawara and cinematographer Yoshinori Sekiguchi maintain a long shot on Miki as Meru vanishes through a door in the background. The shot remains locked down as Miki silently decides what to do, the wheels in her head visibly turning, making another “lesser of two evils” decision, before quickly wheeling around and following her companion. Her expression reads a consummate blend of frustration and regret. This was the final film in Odaka’s acting career (though she did continue to perform on the stage, later transitioning into an assortment of other jobs in other industries) and it’s somewhat saddening to think her time in movies stopped just when she seemed to be getting a firm grip on her craft. I hope someone involved in the Godzilla franchise is at least aware of her willingness to participate in future entries. With good fortune, should her wish to return to the silver screen manifest into reality, the studio will uphold their end of the bargain by providing her with a script worthy of her talent.
Despite all the dramatic shortcomings and missed opportunities, would I be interested in seeing the return of Miki Saegusa?
To quote Miss Odaka: “Of course!”General // August 6, 2018
In the late 1950s, Ishiro Honda directed Inao: Story of an Iron Arm (1959), a biographical film about famed baseball player Kazuhisa Inao. One of the director’s non-genre efforts, this 106-minute picture was subjected to a number of post-production excisions, in which some now-reputable cast members had their screen time mercilessly trimmed or entirely eradicated. Among those to suffer the wrath of the editor’s scissors was a newcomer named Yuriko Hoshi. As revealed in the recent biography Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, Hoshi had been sequestered on location in Kyushu for an entire month during the shoot, the vast majority of her time spent waiting for the crew to get around to filming her scene; and when the finished product hit theaters in March of that year, the future star’s image was nowhere to be found. Presumably for the sake of pacing—and despite the fact that her name still appears in the credits—Hoshi’s scene had been cut.
Five years later, Hoshi, now one of Toho’s most popular actresses, reunited with her Inao director for the production of 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla. At one point, Honda approached his leading lady and apologized for the interminable wait she endured on their 1959 collaboration. (“I was surprised he even remembered,” Hoshi recalled in a 1996 interview with Stuart Galbraith IV.) And, consciously or unconsciously, Honda made it up to the young actress by granting her one of the new film’s most dramatic and powerful scenes, in which the female lead appeals to the humanity of the Infant Islanders, begging them to think of the scores of people falling victim to Godzilla’s wrath. “[E]ven as we speak, many people are losing their lives to Godzilla. There are many good people among them, but even the bad ones have the right to live.” This scene, and many others, flooded into my mind when I learned of Hoshi’s passing a few days ago.
Yuriko Hoshi, who died from lung cancer on May 16th (age 74), commanded a number of memorable parts in the course of her long, productive career. For international audiences, she’ll most likely be remembered for her science fiction pictures with Honda—the earlier mentioned Mothra vs. Godzilla, and Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster (1964)—and as the elder scientist in Masaaki Tezuka’s Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000). In addition to those performances, I’ll always have great affinity for her non-genre work. One that comes to mind as I write this is Shue Matsubayashi’s apocalyptic drama The Last War (1961). An extremely problematic film which draws most of its strength from individual scenes as opposed to its complete narrative, one of the The Last War’s bravura qualities is its collection of standout performances from its Japanese cast. Hoshi plays a young bride fated to perish in a global nuclear war mere days after wedding the man of her dreams; and the dialogue-free sadness she evokes while saying goodbye to her husband through Morse code I sincerely rank with the most moving performances I’ve ever seen in a motion picture. The actress took what was, at script-level, a fairly simple part and created a believable person before the eyes of the audience.
Other roles of note. Hoshi joining Yuzo Kayama in singing his iconic Kimi to itsumademo in 1965’s Campus A-Go-Go, one of many times she played love interest to Kayama in the long-running Wakadaisho (Young Guy) series. The passionate women she played in the films of Kihachi Okamoto, including Kill! (1968) and, most notably, as the sword-wielding bakashu in Warring Clans (1963). The last two performances, conducted a half-decade apart, brilliantly demonstrate Hoshi’s true range as an actress, as they show her playing two very different parts and playing both effectively. In the former, she’s a fairly regular woman aggressively devoted to her fiancé; in the latter, she retaliates to the unwanted advances of men by striking their heads with shafts of wood or slicing their hands with the edge of a blade. Of course, in listing the titles mentioned thus far in this article, I’m merely chipping the tip of a very large and fairly robust iceberg, as Hoshi acted in well over one hundred film and television projects (and that is to say nothing of her stage career). But in wrapping up, I would like to salute one more screen performance, this one coming from a motion picture I saw on the day of her passing..
In the 1963 Mikio Naruse film A Woman’s Life, Yuriko Hoshi plays a cabaret girl whose husband is killed in an automobile accident. It’s a very small part, limited to a couple of minutes of screen time, but exceedingly well-written and beautifully performed. In the picture’s finale, the widow, who is expecting a child, visits her mother-in-law (Hideko Takamine) for the first time, only to be ardently denounced and turned away. Takamine had objected to her son’s matrimony from the get-go, declaring the bride a “slut” based solely on the girl’s profession; and now she unfairly pins blame for her son’s death on his widow. Eventually, she comes to realize she was wrong in prejudging her daughter-in-law and that they, as it happens, have much in common: Takamine, once a single parent herself, underwent many of the struggles Hoshi’s character will soon endure. What follows is a genuinely moving sequence as the two women converse in the rain. Hoshi initially shrugs off all pleas for forgiveness but softens upon watching her mother-in-law sulking in the downpour. And then, in a move displaying her true compassionate colors, Hoshi invites Takamine to come up to her apartment, to get out of the rain. They leave together. A new bond has been forged and we join Takamine in realizing this young woman will make a wonderful mother. The emotional patterns demanded of the supporting actress—cautionary friendliness, defiance, reluctance to forgive, eventual exoneration—are delivered without a single false note.
Rest In Peace, Yuriko Hoshi. On May 16th, we lost one of the greats.General // May 23, 2018
One of the benefits of being an Akira Kurosawa fan in the 21st century is that the vast majority of the cinematic endeavors by this fine artist are, these days, easily accessible. Of the thirty motion pictures Kurosawa considered part of his official filmography, not one has been refused a bona fide Blu-ray or DVD release and not one has gone undistributed in the stateside market (appropriately subtitled). Film fans who are just now getting into Kurosawa’s work are quite fortunate. No longer must we hunt down old VHS tapes or the books of Donald Richie to, say, get an idea of what his four wartime movies were like; nowadays, it’s a simple matter of picking up the Eclipse boxset put out by Criterion. What’s more, the director’s non-“canon” projects are steadily making their way into our hands. His 1971 television documentary Song of the Horse can be located with some resourceful searching. A few films he wrote but did not direct are available on DVD in Japan. Scripts he never had the chance to shoot have since been realized by other movie makers (and these films have been distributed in the United States as well).
There is, however, one particular film in Kurosawa’s oeuvre which remains persistently elusive; and the circumstances under which it was made and subsequently faded into obscurity are interesting, to say the least. Many sources—including the director’s own autobiography—insist his first movie after World War II was the liberal drama No Regrets for Our Youth (1946). The film in which actress Setsuko Hara completed her transformation from a poster girl for wartime nationalism into a symbol for occupation-approved democratic values is often credited as Kurosawa’s first step into postwar cinema. But in reality, it was his second. Released six months earlier in that same year, under the domineering influence and scrutiny of the Allied occupation, was a picture he co-directed with two other people, completely disowned, and rarely discussed in interviews. A picture which has reputedly never been shown outside its native country, never re-released in Japanese theaters, and never distributed on any home media platform anywhere in the world. Due to some scant but awfully persuasive tidbits of evidence indicating a copy still exists somewhere, I wouldn’t feel comfortable labeling this a lost film. But for all intents and purposes, we can probably slap the adjective “missing” on this incredibly obscure motion picture. The name of the film: Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946).
Like pretty much every non-Japanese moviegoer born after 1946, I have not seen the movie under discussion and thus have no informed opinion on it. I cannot testify as to the elegance of its artistry, the efficiency of its dramatic content, the believability of its performances, etc. I cannot offer any first-hand insight, nor shall I pretend to. But what I can and shall do is present information I’ve collected on the subject and hopefully generate some interest in what it was about and why it was made. Primarily, this article is my means of passing along research on an Akira Kurosawa film we cannot see and may never see. Given Kurosawa’s tremendous importance in the history of cinema, I feel this is only right.
One more disclaimer. In writing this article, I’m relying heavily on the work of film historians Donald Richie, Stuart Galbraith IV, and in particular, Kyoko Hirano, whose extraordinary book Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the Occupation provides so much detail on the film and the greater context surrounding it that I might not have attempted such an undertaking otherwise.
In telling the story of Kurosawa’s missing film, one must turn back the clock to about a year before its release: August 27, 1945, the day the Allied Forces set foot on Japanese soil for the first time. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had occurred mere weeks earlier; the second world war was, for all practical purposes, over, with Japan on the losing end. Now the Land of the Rising Sun was subjected to a temporary spell of control from the west. General Douglas MacArthur would not arrive for another three days and the official surrender wouldn’t be penned until September 2, but the occupation (run primarily by the Americans) was not willing to wait for signatures from the imperial government to start implementing their plans for the defeated country. According to then-contemporary United States politicians, extreme nationalism and militarism had been the root causes of Japan’s wartime aggression; it was MacArthur’s task as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers to weed out these social systems via “westernization” and replace them with democratic values. And part of his strategy in doing so was to seize control of the media—everything from newspapers to literature to movies—and dictate what could or could not be published/filmed in Japan.
The Americans were well aware of the potential influence entertainment-oriented mass communication had on the public, having produced a number of successful propaganda pictures on their own turf. (A 1942 study indicated the Why We Fight documentary series proved a more persuasive tool for inspiring soldiers than mere lectures.) They were similarly aware of how the Japanese wartime authorities restricted the content of movies and how fiscally successful some of their respective propaganda movies had been. So, the occupation authorities reasoned, the media could ideally be used to help convert Japan into a pacifistic, non-aggressive state. With MacArthur’s authorization, the first wave of Allied personnel to occupy Japan established an office for exactly that purpose, called the Information Dissemination Section. Going into power on that same aforementioned August day, this branch of the occupying government immediately set out to “re-educate” the public through their strict supervision and complete control.
Twenty days after the official surrender, the Information Dissemination Section was rebranded as the CI&E (Civil Information & Education) section and later on, a subdivision called the Motion Picture and Theatrical Branch was established within its ranks. In addition to banning wartime propaganda films and kabuki theater (which the occupation perceived as a celebration of feudalistic loyalty), CI&E wrapped its fingers tautly around the preproduction stages in the Japanese film industry. For the next four years, until 1949, studios were required to provide fully translated copies of all scripts to the Americans before shooting began. If the U.S. censors caught anything adjudged nationalistic, militaristic, etc., changes had to be made. And there was no turning back, no reverting to a previous draft, for censorship extended to the post-production phase as well. Up until the official end of the occupation in 1952, no Japanese film could go to theaters without being screened for both CI&E and another government branch, CCD (Civil Censorship Detachment). So even though there were plenty of Japanese film employees who did not particularly take to the politics being forced upon them, they had no choice but to go along with the new rules and guidelines: making a nationalistic film in 1945-1952 Japan was virtually impossible.
It was not the goal of either occupation sector to wreck the Japanese film industry. On the contrary, the American forces wanted very much for Japanese movies to prosper, albeit by telling the sort of stories that presented/championed behaviors and ideologies they deemed suitable for the Japanese people. To encourage productivity early on, CI&E summoned representatives from each of the major film studios in Japan and laid out for them lists of recommended subjects. And one of the encouraged directions for Japanese artists to take was making films which promoted “the peaceful and constructive organization of labor unions.”
In the early years of the occupation, labor unions were viewed as a metaphorical spit in the face to the allegiance-demanded beliefs prevalent in the war. With them came the notion that it was acceptable for blue-collar and white-collar people to toss aside steadfast loyalty to their superiors, defy the obligation to best serve those above them, and seek improved working conditions, higher monetary compensation, and better futures for themselves. In other words, labor unions represented individual rights: something the occupation forces very much wanted to push. To make movies about organized labor and the rights of workers to look out for their own well-being was to seize opportunity of the moment. It was also hoped that initializing a postwar movement within the film industry and promoting it through their art would encourage businesses to follow suit in real life. And so, with the blessing of David Conde, the anti-capitalist chief of CI&E’s Motion Picture Unit, the studios started forming unions of their own.
And in spring of 1946, the labor union at Toho announced production of what was essentially a propaganda movie about its own politics. Those Who Make Tomorrow was underway.
The timing could not have been better. On March 20, 1946, less than two months prior to the film’s release, Toho’s labor union went on a fifteen-day strike. Having been denied improved pay and working conditions, the union—which consisted of 5,600 employees—ceased productivity, returning to work only upon being granted the following: a minimum monthly salary of six hundred yen (plus overtime) for all studio employees; and the right to form a production administration committee which could actively participate in the hiring of new talent and the selection of future projects to pursue. Scripts chosen by the union, of course, still had to meet occupation standards; but unionized employees surely would’ve found it tempting to make a propaganda piece about their own agendas, considering their recent victory against the company and that they now had some say in what could be shot. Most encouraging of all, however, was that CI&E chief David Conde had been the one to suggest Toho make such a film in the first place. Thus there was little chance of the Americans finding qualms with the project.
A U.S. citizen born in Canada, Conde attained his position at CI&E having participated in psychological warfare operations for the American government. And though his reign as CI&E chief lasted a mere couple of months, during that time, he effectively cemented his reputation as a hyperactive, quick-tempered man bursting with passion for reforming the Japanese film industry. (He was known to yell and bang his fists on tables during meetings, an attitude which no doubt intimidated the studio representatives.) Conde was widely suspected to have been a communist or communist sympathizer, as he was quite critical of capitalism (beliefs which just might’ve gotten him in trouble later on); but these revisionist attitudes of his perfectly complemented what the occupation was seeking in late 1945 and early 1946. And as one of the more domineering figures to help initiate the postwar organized labor movement in Japan, he was all too enthusiastic for Toho (who possessed the most powerful union among the film studios) to move ahead with the production of Those Who Make Tomorrow. There doesn’t seem to be much, if any, information on whether or not he actively participated in the story creation, but the film could very well be described as a pet project shared between him and the unionists. It was certainly not a “director’s film.”
Even though the film consisted of a singular linear narrative, the union, possibly for the sake of time, opted to hire three directors, each man placed in charge of filming one-third of the screenplay. In addition to Kurosawa, the directors were: his mentor, veteran craftsman Kajiro Yamamoto; and Hideo Sekigawa, whom Donald Richie claims would go on to make an array of films heavy in anti-American sentiment as soon as the occupation authorities and their censorship programs vacated in 1952. According to Kurosawa’s testimony, his own portion of the film was shot in a week’s time, therefore making it reasonable to assume Yamamoto and Sekigawa completed their respective parts according to a similarly brief schedule.
A great deal of the following synopsis is paraphrased from the one found in Kyoko Hirano’s book Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo. So detailed is her recounting of individual scenes—right down to lines of dialogue and choices of composition—one can deduce she scored a screening of the picture during her years of research. (How and where she managed to do so, if she managed to do so, would be the first of many questions to come forward should I ever cross paths with her.) But, I digress. Onto the story.
After an opening credits sequence laden with a song championing the unity of the common people, we are introduced to our protagonists. The film revolves around a working class family, the Okamotos. The father, Gintaro (Kenji Susukida), is an anti-unionist employed in an iron-manufacturing company. His unmarried daughters, Aiko (Mitsue Tachibana) and Yoshiko (Chieko Nakakita), work in a revue dance troupe and as a script girl for a local film studio, respectively. These are the early years of the occupation and organized labor is becoming something of a trend in modern-day Japan, much to Gintaro’s disdain. And little does he suspect an outcropping of this new, anti-traditionalist movement is brewing in his midst, from the family renting the second floor of his house. The tenants are headed by a railway engineer named Hori (Masayuki Mori), whose co-workers at the factory are currently on strike. Hori wants to join them but he feels he shouldn’t; his son is gravely ill. But with his wife’s encouragement, the engineer leaves the house and joins his comrades, who are singing and displaying banners in protesting current labor conditions.
Meantime, at the movie studio where Yoshiko works, business continues as usual, albeit with an undercurrent of disaffection. While shooting a scene featuring a movie star named Fujita (played by real-life Toho star Susumu Fujita), some lighting technicians perched in the rafters above the set complain about their financial circumstances. “Only the company is making money,” one of them gripes. Another chimes in: “We are happy to work on this excellent project, but we need economic security.” Down below, Fujita is joined by an actress named Takamine (again, played by a real contract player, Hideko Takamine), who states: “We can never make ‘rich’ films under such conditions.” At this point, we jump to Aiko’s workplace. One of the girls in the troupe has been out sick due to strenuous overwork; and her colleagues are none too pleased with the rough conditions being thrust upon them, either.
Back at the studio, an update arrives on the railway station strike: management has been overtaken by labor. An inspired Yoshiko then suggests she and her fellow employees follow their example in demanding a better future.
At first, Gintaro is disgusted that one of his daughters has fallen under the anti-traditionalist influence spreading through the community and suggests Hori, living in their household, is the root cause for it. He stubbornly persists in believing that unions are for the wrongheaded, that companies would never sink to the point of firing their employees, that sticking with the old-fashioned sense of die-hard obligation is the right and noble thing to do. He is, of course, all the more upset when unionization comes to his company and when he himself is let go in a massive company-wide layoff. So much for his earlier claim that “Our company president would never do something so inhuman.” Starting to realize his beliefs were in error and that he was wrong to judge Hori, Gintaro himself becomes inspired to take part in the organized labor movement when Hori’s ailing son passes away and yet the railway engineer persists in taking a stand at the factory.
Trouble hits big time at the theater. A vicious stage manager (Takashi Shimura) fires one of the girls for being out sick—even though it was the harsh working conditions implemented by him which spawned her condition. As a result, the remaining dancers organize a strike. Outside, a group of similarly wronged people march down the street, singing and displaying banners. Among them is Gintaro, who in “a close-up from a low angle,” joins in song. The strikes continue with everyone banding together against their respective companies, and on that note of uplifting unity, the film ends.
Parallels to Toho
Based on what can be ascertained from historical context and available evidence, Those Who Make Tomorrow appears to have been not only a movie about the politics of Toho’s union, but a movie, essentially, about Toho itself. As Stuart Galbraith IV pontificates in his book The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, even though the studio in the picture goes unnamed, it is likely supposed to be Toho. As mentioned earlier, two major stars under contract at the time, Susumu Fujita and Hideko Takamine, appear in the movie literally as themselves. Galbraith further notes that elsewhere in the story, another star, Seizaburo Kawazu, makes an identically named cameo. If that blatant casting gimmick is not enough, the fact that the movie is about studio employees joining hands with counterparts in railway companies and dance troupes all too clearly connects the dots.
For those who haven’t done their homework: Toho was formed as a conglomerate of various smaller companies. The merge came under the supervision of railway tycoon Ichizo Kobayashi, who got into movies by building theaters near his train stations and purchasing small film companies to produce original material to exhibit in them. Before his cinematic foray, Kobayashi established the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater (which featured an all-girl revue); and at the time of Those Who Make Tomorrow, Toho was still latched onto its theatrical division. So the three companies in the film whose personnel take on protesting—the movie studio, the dance theater, the railway—all too clearly represent Toho’s background.
As for the character of Gintaro, employed in an iron-manufacturing company? He might be the one completely fictionalized add-on, as I’m not aware of any professional associations between said industry and Toho at the time.
Release and reception
In promoting the film, Toho publicity department employee Shigemi Hijikata drew up a poster showcasing the film’s theme of the common people banding together. In it, workers are presented holding red flags and signs, and the poster did not feature elaborate portraits of the film’s stars. (Note: I was unable to locate this particular poster, though I did find one similar, which can be seen above.) David Conde, who had more or less spearheaded the project, was smitten with Hijikata’s poster and requested the original from the studio, which Toho bestowed upon him in early May. Conde was similarly enchanted with the film itself, giving it his complete endorsement that spring. General release of the film was clearly calculated. Those Who Make Tomorrow went to theaters on May 2, one day after the first May Day celebration permitted in Japan in many years. (The holiday, recognized abroad as a celebration of laborers, had been basically suppressed by the country’s wartime authorities.)
But for co-director Akira Kurosawa, there was nothing special at all about Those Who Make Tomorrow. In fact, if you read his autobiography, he completely skips over the film, refusing to even acknowledge its existence. Despite the presence of three directors working on three separate parts, Kurosawa felt no one had ample space to inject a personal touch into the final product. “In sum, it is a film made by [a] committee and it is a good example of how uninteresting such films can be,” he told Kinema Jumpo in 1970. “[E]ven now, when I hear [the May Day songs], it reminds me of this film and makes me sleepy.”
Now, Kurosawa was no stranger to propaganda movies by this point in his career. Just two years earlier, he’d finished his second feature, The Most Beautiful (1944), about workers in a war factory valiantly struggling to make their quota despite the physical and mental odds stacked against them. It was a product clearly made with the purpose of inspiring the public to play their part in the war effort, even though it was very clear by 1944 that Japan was on the losing end. Not only that, The Most Beautiful was a picture Kurosawa looked back on years later and admitted to having very fond feelings for. He never explicitly states why this was in his autobiography, though he did seem interested in the semi-documentary approach in which he directed it; and the fact that he met his wife, actress Yoko Yaguchi, on the set might’ve tugged at his heart’s most sentimental strings. Flashing forward to 1945, Sanshiro Sugata: Part II was even more blatant in its politics—specifically anti-west politics—presenting not one but two sequences in which subhuman American characters went about bullying people until the pure-hearted hero stepped in and put them in their place. By Kurosawa’s own confession, it was a film made at the behest of the studio; he himself was less interested in the overall concept and more keen on a subplot regarding a supporting character.
So in a sense, it is interesting that despite having worked on two propaganda pictures during the war that Kurosawa would turn around and disown something cut from a differently colored but similarly plain piece of cloth. On the other hand, in those earlier pictures, Kurosawa had a chance to inject some of himself into the story. He contributed to or completely wrote the scripts, he directed both films in their entirety, he spliced the shots together, and there were, at the very least, elements about them which commanded his interest; whether or not he’d wanted to make them in the first place, these were his films. By contrast, he didn’t write a single word in Those Who Make Tomorrow, he concocted none of the story elements, he didn’t even have a chance to utilize his world-renowned editing instincts in post-production. Everything had been decided ahead of time for him, and everything that came afterward was apparently put together in his absence as well. The one compliment he did pay the picture was that the portion he shot wasn’t too bad for something made in a week.
Kurosawa wasn’t the only one to walk away dissatisfied. Kyuichi Tokuda, secretary of the Japan Communist Party, denounced the film for being “too unintellectualized and uninteresting.” From what Kyoko Hirano describes in her book, the film depended heavily on close-ups of “strikers singing militant songs” as a means of ramming its point home instead of “effectively dramatizing the unionists’ struggle.” Donald Richie, writing in the third edition of his The Films of Akira Kurosawa, similarly put down the production: “The togetherness […] is little short of suffocating—and scenes of everyone working happily together, scenes of emotional community action, scenes of masses of workers rushing to make tomorrow are so frequent that they seriously interfere with the plot.”
Although she doesn’t list any actual figures in her book, Hirano notes the picture failed to leave much of a commercial impact. David Conde might’ve been infatuated with it, but Those Who Make Tomorrow really seems to have been a picture made in the heat of the moment and quickly forgotten soon after. And it certainly didn’t appear to inspire many cinematic imitators. Part of this might’ve been due to artistic shortcomings, but the chief reason would’ve undoubtedly been the rapidly changing political views within the occupation and the United States’ foreign policy. As tensions rose between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (giving birth to the Cold War), anticommunism quickly spread throughout all levels of the American government; and the last thing the occupation wanted was Japan adopting social systems even remotely similar to those held by the Russians. As Hirano writes, film censors were instructed not to permit scenes which glorified organized labor or portrayed capitalists in a negative light. Anything which could possibly attract the Japanese to what was going on in the Soviet Union was off limits. General MacArthur himself banned a nationwide labor strike set for February 1, 1947, claiming it would negatively impact Japan’s economy, though his decision’s been perceived by many simply as a direct accommodation of the aforementioned changes.
Government personnel deemed questionable (i.e. communistic) were drained from the proverbial swamp. By July 1946, David Conde, an instrumental figure in the postwar Japanese organized labor movement, was no longer in a position of power. It remains unclear to this day whether he willingly departed as chief of the Motion Picture Unit at CI&E or if he was forcibly coerced into resignation; but it’s generally agreed upon that his participating in the anti-capitalist documentary The Japanese Tragedy (1946) set him at odds with the sudden wave of conservative sentiment filtering through the U.S. government. (The Japanese Tragedy was a unique case of a Japanese picture signed off on and released by the Americans and then pulled from circulation by the same organization shortly thereafter—a testament to just how swiftly agendas changed in those early years of the occupation.) Conde remained in Japan for about a year after his departure, writing for the International News Service and Reuters until an article of his appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in which he lambasted MacArthur’s censorship programs. His visa was denied renewal, and Conde was deported in 1947.
Conde wasn’t the only CI&E employee to be sent home. The military head of CI&E’s entire operations, Brigadier General Kermit Dyke, who had been labeled a “commie” by conservatives, was replaced by the right-wing Lieutenant Colonel Donald Nugent. As for Toho’s labor union, they would undertake two more strikes, the third and final one occurring in 1948. Except, these strikes did not resolve as smoothly as the first. In the course of just a few years, Toho lost several of its top-name stars (hence the numerous New Face actors starring in many of the late ‘40s films); alternate unions and the short-lived Shin-Toho were formed; an anticommunist president assumed control of the company for a spell—leading to the cancellation of several union-started projects; and one strike proved so tumultuous that American troops were ultimately summoned to help bring an end to it. When it was over, the union maintained its right to represent workers at the cost of relinquishing all influence in the management.
And, in the midst of and long after this roaring chaos, Akira Kurosawa became one of the most distinguished and internationally celebrated artists in the history of cinema.
Thus, it is a genuine shame that one of his films (even one he saw precious little merit in) may never again be put before the masses. No matter how good or poor Those Who Make Tomorrow may have been, it is nonetheless part of the director’s cinematic spectrum and, on that level, at the very least, deserves to be seen and scrutinized. I was appalled by the earlier mentioned Song of the Horse (a truly terrible documentary in every sense of the word), but at the same time, I was happy to have had the opportunity to see it—for the same reasons I hope Those Who Make Tomorrow will someday garner a public release in some form. I have no idea if a print still exists; it’s possible every frame has been lost to the ravages of time—especially since there’s apparently been no public demand for this film in the last seventy-two years. But I like to think that somewhere, perhaps in the constantly dwindling lot at Toho, there’s a surviving copy and one day, Akira Kurosawa aficionados will be able to see it. Only then can we decide for ourselves whether or not this truly was a film which defined how “uninteresting” a film “made by committee” can be.General // April 24, 2018
About this time a year ago, I published an article here on Toho Kingdom called They Weren’t Fans: Godzilla Directors, in which I examined two film artists who did not hold Godzilla especially dear to their hearts but who nonetheless turned out some of the best, most memorable entries in this series. It was a subject I felt had been in dire need of attention for quite some time. Ever since the release of the Tristar GODZILLA (1998) twenty years ago, it has become incredibly common within the fanbase to leap to the (rash) assumption that a non-fan director coming within ten miles of our beloved franchise will ipso facto result in a product which disgraces the character and completely fails to capture even a little bit of what made it interesting to begin with. I still vividly recall when news came out a few years ago that Gareth Edwards, the director of Godzilla (2014), was no longer attached to the Legendary film’s upcoming sequel and how quickly fans on social media were to proclaim their hope that his successor would also be an enthusiast, for fear that the King of the Monsters would otherwise return to fleeing from rockets and being shot dead on the pavement by the military. In short, Roland Emmerich has become something of a standard example for a lot of people when they think of a non-fan director—even though there have been plenty of Japanese contributors who didn’t think Godzilla movies were anything great, either. My main point in writing They Weren’t Fans was to argue that talent, resourcefulness, and having strong collaborators are the true determinants in whether or not a film will turn out any good; that mere enthusiasm, or lack thereof, is not in and of itself a guarantee of anything. In the words of the great special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano: “Whether or not we like something has nothing to do with making a great movie.”
Anyway, I received a message from a reader a mere couple of hours after publishing that article. It came with a suggestion: that I update the piece to include a section honoring director Takao Okawara, best known for his work on the Heisei series and for Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999). I honestly wasn’t surprised to receive a communique of this nature, given the immense popularity of the ‘90s Godzilla movies and the fact that I, myself, once thought highly of them as well. Alas, it was my sad duty to reply that in my current view, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the bulk of Okawara’s films ranged between middling and downright atrocious…ergo his absence on the list.
Once again, a director’s outlook on a property he’s adapting has precious little to do with whether or not he can fashion something worthwhile with his camera. And my goal with They Weren’t Fans was to salute the non-fan directors who delivered excellent contributions to the franchise. Even though Okawara has expressed limited enthusiasm for the Godzilla series (though he admits to admiring the first three made by Ishiro Honda), the up-and-down spectrum of his contributions prevents me from ranking him favorably in the company of other, more prominent kaiju eiga directors.
Now, to be fair, Okawara does have a noteworthy place in this franchise from a historical perspective. His Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) was a tremendous box office success, selling well over four million tickets and becoming the highest-grossing domestic Japanese feature of the 1993 movie year. His two Heisei follow-ups, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (1993) and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), also garnered respectable returns. And Godzilla 2000: Millennium, his final assignment as a movie director, is often credited for sweeping up the “mess” left behind by the Tristar film as well as spawning the Millennium series.
However, at the end of the day, box office statistics really don’t mean much when it comes to critical evaluation. (Films make—and lose—money for a variety of reasons.) All of Okawara’s Godzilla pictures were perfectly serviceable for my younger self, but a sizable portion of them strike me, these days, as drastically uneven and problematic. Furthermore, I do think it’s fair to say his induction as series director played an instrumental part in the noticeable qualitative drop that befell the once-excellent Heisei saga. The first three films in this era had a number of fresh ideas and even, in some cases, genuine artistry to their credit, and they were worthy successors to the original classics; but as soon as Kazuki Omori abdicated the director’s chair and Okawara took over, something of great importance seems to have been lost. He wasn’t the only negative factor involved, to be sure, but as the man supervising the scenarios, the actors, the pacing, etc., a great deal of the blame must reside on his shoulders.
Still, as one of the more ubiquitous directors to contribute to Godzilla, Takao Okawara is someone worthy of contemplation. In the course of this essay, I’ll be examining his entire output (including his three non-Godzilla films), articulating his recurring weaknesses as well as championing a select period in his career that, had it gone on longer, might’ve validated him as one of the more interesting post-Showa directors.
Not Taking Things Serious
Okawara’s first professional encounter with the King of the Monsters occurred in 1984, when he served as an assistant on Koji Hashimoto’s The Return of Godzilla. How fitting, in hindsight, that the most fiscally successful director of the Heisei series began his association with the very film which gave birth to the Heisei series. At the same time, though, working on this particular motion picture wasn’t exactly a defining moment. The Return of Godzilla was a serious, grounded film which bore precious few similarities to those Okawara would later direct; and if the production left any lingering influence on him at all, it was the assertion, offered in hindsight, that “everyone took it way too seriously” and that the final product would’ve been better had they “concentrated on making it a more entertaining movie.” To him, monster movies weren’t something to be treated with a no-nonsense approach.
This mindset is more than evident in the man’s work. While the monsters are, for the most part, played straight, the human scenes in Okawara’s pictures are frequently littered with little moments of character interplay clearly intended as humor. As an example, let’s consider the first act of Godzilla vs. Mothra. Following a silly Indiana Jones-esque sequence staged in an ancient temple, the film’s three main characters venture to the remote Infant Island in search of what turns out to be Mothra’s egg. Upon reaching terra firma, they set out on foot and proceed to comically bungle their way through the forest. After venturing inland a ways, they attempt to cross a rickety old bridge, only to have it shatter beneath their weight. (As they hang from the debris, two of the adventurers—a divorced couple—chastise one another.) In the end, they jump into the river and swim ashore, where their designated leader pulls out a map and makes a discovery: they can reach their destination quicker if they travel by water; the incident on the bridge was a blessing in disguise. At that moment, his two companions rise into frame and simultaneously pour the water from their shoes. An intentionally funny sequence that actually pays off rather well, exhibiting some of the better directing in Okawara’s early career.
Masahiro Takashima’s protagonist in Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II is similarly prone to slapstick: thrown about the room while practicing martial arts; falling asleep in the middle of lectures; building a pteranodon-shaped hovercraft and crashing after it malfunctions midair. (The sort of character Akira Kubo might’ve played had the film been produced thirty years earlier.) And, flashing forward to the Millennium series, Godzilla 2000: Millennium features amusing little moments such as a guy getting repeatedly bonked in the head with a pole and a night watchman screaming in peril as the wreckage of an electrical tower very conveniently lands around instead of on top of him. As indicated in everything I’ve just described, these are not especially serious pictures, correlating with the following statement from the director: “I think that the tone of many Japanese films is too serious. I regard Godzilla films purely as entertainment.” The monsters provide spectacle, and the humans behave/react in ways that alleviate some of the edge. The sole exception in Okawara’s directorial association with the character is the closing Heisei picture, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, which treats its apocalyptic scenario with a grim, solemn demeanor—though it, too, wasn’t exactly afraid to grab for a joke once in a while.
If one were to gauge the feel of Takao Okawara’s kaiju eiga efforts, the conclusion would probably fall somewhere between the straight-faced early efforts of Ishiro Honda and the campy, feel-good movies of Jun Fukuda. But that is merely a description of the man’s aesthetic, not a condemnation of it. For intent was never the problem with Okawara’s films; it was in the actual execution that the movies started running into trouble.
The Promising Start
Takao Okawara joined Toho in 1972, at a time when the studio had long-since abandoned its assistant director’s program; assistants were no longer actively groomed to become full-fledged directors and pretty much had to depend on watching their seniors in action to learn the craft of filmmaking—and then hope someone would see fit to promote them. A major change from Honda’s generation, when assistant directors at Toho learned how to make movies not through observing but through experience, their seniors taking them under their wings and teaching them everything from laboratory work to screenwriting to editing. As Akira Kurosawa recalled in his autobiography, “Management theory at P.C.L. [Photo Chemical Laboratory, the antecedent of Toho, where Honda and Kurosawa spent their assistant director days] regarded the assistant directors as cadets who would later become managers and directors. They were therefore required to gain a thorough mastery of every field necessary to the production of a film.”
However, by the time Okawara shows up on the Toho lot, the job description has changed, and assistant directors have become—quite literally—just assistants, with far fewer options for in-house training and promotion. So he didn’t exactly have the most prestigious background or the longest directing résumé by the time he got charged with making Godzilla vs. Mothra in 1992. He’d spent nearly two decades on various film sets (again, just helping out and observing) and made one picture on his own—and even getting permission to do that was a journey in and of itself, due to the inner workings of the studio. As the director recounted in his 2000 interview with Norman England, “[E]veryone has a script they want to sell. Even if you come up with a novel idea, the company usually just offers a little comment like ‘Good work’ and then goes back to business as usual, working with established writers and directors.” To get his foot in the door, Okawara wrote a story aimed at the adolescent audience and submitted it to the Kido Awards, where it won second place and received approval to be adapted into a feature. All too eager to start directing on his own, Okawara accepted the company’s offer to adapt his story and completed his first movie in 1991. And it was this very picture that set him down the path to directing the King of the Monsters.
Even though Reiko, the Psyche Resurrected, a fantasy about teenagers attempting to solve paranormal events occurring in their school building, underperformed at the box office, it made a very good impression within the walls of the studio. In particular, producer Shogo Tomiyama was greatly pleased with the film, recognizing it as a well-crafted piece of entertainment, and started talking up its creator to the big brass. “He was very enthusiastic about having me direct Godzilla,” Okawara recalled, “and it was his heavy lobbying that landed me the job.”
The producer’s enthusiasm is understandable. Reiko, the Psyche Resurrected is a handsome film, a great deal more polished than much of what its director would turn out in the remainder of his career. The fact that Okawara took charge of both the live-action and special effects crews is admirable in and of itself; and the movie, from start to finish, triumphs as a visual feast. In addition to the clever levitation effects, Reiko exudes cinematic tricks such as racking focus and dynamic backlighting. The art direction for the school is nicely detailed, and very often the camera assumes positions and movements that creatively utilize its surroundings: e.g., a series of shots where a student on a motorcycle sees her reflection in the windows of passing buildings and notices an apparition sporadically appearing and disappearing on the seat behind her. On a raw technical level, Reiko excels and one can easily see why Tomiyama was so impressed with it. But, strangely enough, that compliment, itself, adds to a greater disappointment when one regards the film in context. Because Okawara’s debut turned out so well and was so beautifully put together, it is therefore all the more dismaying that the majority of his remaining films, made just a few years later and for umpteen times the budget, retained very few of their predecessor’s positive attributes.
On a positive note, Okawara’s Godzilla-directing spree did begin with success, for the most part. Despite its many faults, Godzilla vs. Mothra manages to get by as a decent piece of entertainment, the opening act being the most consistent and enjoyable section of the entire picture. As touched on earlier, the director does a wonderful job depicting humorous situations with its three leads exploring the jungles of Infant Island. The pacing in this segment is exquisite, each scene permitted to last no longer than necessary and contributing to very smooth momentum in the narrative. It is also here that the live-action footage achieves its visual zenith. Assisted by cinematographer Masahiro Kishimoto, Okawara successfully captures the scale and physical beauty present in this unique setting. Very often, the camera wanders across unique stretches of terrain or up the heights of waterfalls, or begins a shot on a subject before zooming out to show the sheer size of the surrounding landscape.
Unfortunately, once the characters leave the island and the action returns to Japan, Godzilla vs. Mothra begins to exhibit some serious issues. To be fair, this is primarily the fault of screenwriter Kazuki Omori, who unwisely gives up on all the human drama by the middle of the second act. And to Okawara’s credit, he does manage to keep things moving at a reasonably brisk tempo and there are some wonderful director-based moments. One particularly nice shot is a close-up fixated on a fish tank as the Cosmos stare in from the other side, their miniscule stature contrasted against the fish swimming between them and the camera. Another favorite moment of mine is when the National Environment Planning Bureau opens its “Main Screen” and the turntable in the center of the room, on which Akira Takarada and Akiji Kobayashi are standing, begins to rotate. As this happens, Okawara toggles between a variety of camera setups (including one set on the turntable), effectively showcasing the action in a stimulating manner. (It doesn’t make much practical sense that the room would adjust that much for the mere opening of a big monitor, but it’s fun to look at.)
Alas, by the time of the third act’s arrival, the film more or less devolves into a special effects reel, with the characters spending all their screen time standing off to the side and watching the monsters battle. While the final fight is entertaining enough, it’s not as viscerally charged as it might have been had the characters been proactive and involved. Not to mention the movie loses some of its dramatic thunder by throwing in a human villain (a rather bland one—a poor man’s Clark Nelson) to serve as antagonist until the monsters return and then, just when tension seems to be mounting, denies us the pleasure of seeing him receive any comeuppance. Again, this is primarily a mistake on Omori’s part, but as the director, Okawara should’ve realized the importance of including such a scene and rounding out this secondary plot line to satisfying effect.
So, what changed between films? I imagine there are a couple of factors at play here—one being the abrupt transition from a small-scale project to large-scale one. Just as Sam Peckinpah got in over his head jumping from the low-budget Ride the High Country to the expensive, star-studded Major Dundee, perhaps Okawara wasn’t quite ready at this point in his career to tackle a big-budget studio movie. Perhaps the limited amount of money available to him when shooting Reiko forced him to use his ingenuity and make every scene, every frame, count; and the vaster resources sudden thrust into his lap with the Godzilla picture left him befuddled, unsure what to do and how best to handle it. I have no way of knowing for sure, but it wouldn’t have been the first time such circumstances befell a fledgling director.
One more note regarding visuals, which will be a recurring subject in this retrospective. Reiko, the Psyche Resurrected was photographed by a man named Kenichi Yamada, with whom Okawara never worked again and whose style was never quite replicated in the director’s subsequent years. In fact, the look of Okawara’s movies would sometimes drastically change from project to project, oftentimes correlating with new technical staff members. Based on this evidence, it’s perhaps not unreasonable to assume Okawara’s one of those directors who predominately designated visual responsibilities to his subordinates. If so, he’s not the only Godzilla director to adopt this approach. (Ishiro Honda wasn’t primarily a visual filmmaker, either, and he generally let his cinematographers worry about things such as framing and lighting.)
Okawara seemed dependent in the beginning on his cinematographers to define an overall look for his films. Thankfully, one of those who gave him impressive results was Godzilla vs. Mothra cinematographer Masahiro Kishimoto, who would deliver some lush eye candy in Kensho Yamashita’s Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) two years later and whose work in the 1992 film exhibits some of the grandeur to come and is a mostly solid effort.
The Dry Spell
After the fiscal success of Godzilla vs. Mothra, it wasn’t surprising that Toho would approach Okawara to helm a follow-up, a film originally intended as the concluding entry in the Heisei series. An interesting side note before we continue. Over the years, rumors have spasmodically popped up that Ishiro Honda was asked to direct this 1993 film and had actually signed on but passed away before production could begin. However, as revealed in my 2017 interview with Honda biographer Steve Ryfle, these stories, lacking corroboration, are apocryphal at best. Furthermore, Okawara himself admitted in a 1993 interview with David Milner: “As far as I know, Mr. Honda was never going to be involved with the project.” As history demonstrates, the 1993 movie did not, in fact, wrap up the Heisei series, which would continue the very next year; but it did perform respectably at the box office.
In some ways, Okawara’s second Heisei entry, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II, is an improvement over his first. Recognizing the diminished character drama in his Mothra picture as a mistake, he sagaciously instructed new screenwriter Wataru Mimura to keep the human characters active and involved throughout the entire story. “In [my first Godzilla movie], the actors stood on the sidelines, yapping too much. I wanted to correct this, so I placed a human crew inside MechaGodzilla.” Even though the end results are nowhere near as involving as he intended, the fact that Okawara observed a deficiency in his previous effort and actively sought to rectify it indicates he was growing as a filmmaker, as a storyteller.
On the wholly negative side of the equation, however, the final script, despite containing some potentially interesting ideas and thought-out plot mechanics, actually proves to be one of the film’s major shortcomings. Whereas the final two acts of Godzilla vs. Mothra were hampered by failure to use interesting characters to satisfying extent, the entirety of Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II is populated with an excess of dry stick figures who feel barely more alive than the soulless robotic monster of the title. None of them are especially engaging. (Our protagonist may be a goof, but he’s a boring goof. And the acting is quite bland, compounding the problem.) Okawara was onto the right idea with his dramatic structuring here, but he should’ve mandated Mimura give those characters some memorable traits while ensuring their proactivity.
When Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II entered production, cinematographer Masahiro Kishimoto did not return and was replaced with Yoshinori Sekiguchi, the man responsible for the barren color palette in Kazuki Omori’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). What was a noticeable but hardly malignant qualm in the 1991 movie metastasizes here into something truly discomposing: the lighting is barebones and basic, resulting in what could very well be the most unattractive photography in the series since the depressing onslaught of beiges and grays that made Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) such a bore to look at twenty years earlier. And as far as pacing is concerned, the picture is crippled by a rather inorganic rhythm, awkwardly lumbering around to the point where even Koichi Kawakita’s colorful effects cannot replenish its steadily declining pulse. For all its clever ideas, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II isn’t nearly as exciting or dramatically involving as it would like to be and ultimately fares as something of a regrettable misfire.
But, frightening as it is to say, the worst was yet to come.
With two financially lucrative Godzilla movies under his belt, Okawara was understandably eager to try his hand at a different genre; and so, when the offer came from producer Tomiyama to helm the 1994 mythological fantasy Yamato Takeru, also known as Orochi the Eight-headed Dragon, he impulsively accepted. Strangely enough, though, outside of the antiquated setting, the director’s vision for this motion picture wasn’t too dissimilar from his Godzilla endeavors: “I treated it not as a period piece, but instead as a futuristic drama imagined by people living in the past.” Which begs the question: If he agreed to make this specific film in order to try something different from his Godzilla pictures, why not actually make it different from his Godzilla pictures? Certainly a period piece would’ve been completely unlike anything he’d done at this point in his career. As is, the one big stylistic change not pertaining to the setting is the musical score. Instead of tapping Akira Ifukube, he selected the less experienced Kiyoko Ogino, a decision which ultimately achieved little in the production’s favor. Aside from that and a few gimmicks (such as an evil sorcerer serving as a minor antagonist), the director’s 1994 feature more or less has the exact same tone and feel as his Heisei Godzilla pictures.
If Yamato Takeru has any real significant place in the history of Toho cinema, it is for this little trivia point: it presented Okawara a small opportunity to return to directing special effects. As usual, Koichi Kawakita supervised most of the effects sequences, but there was a fairly lengthy segment in the middle, of the heroes combatting the volcanic god Kumasogami, which Okawara presided over. “[Kumasogami] played against the actors, and, while it could have been done by the effects crew, I thought it would be better if I handled the scene. I worked out the camera angles, the look of the creature and did many detailed storyboards.” Unfortunately, the completed scene displays virtually none of the visual wit which made the effects scenes in Reiko, the Psyche Resurrected so much fun, and the oftentimes clunky execution doesn’t help in the slightest. In one cringe-inducing instance, Kumasogami, standing before the humans, swats a huge arm at one of the characters and completely misses him, and yet, somehow, the actor gets hurled through the air as though slammed by a two-ton truck. On top of that, the sequence just feels stagnant, sorely needing tension, and drags its leaden feet along until it finally ends. And in that we have a description of the whole picture, which is one of the dimmest, dullest, most painfully boring pieces of junk ever to emerge from the catacombs of Toho.
Even if one chooses to ignore the pathetic excuse of a script (by returning screenwriter Wataru Mimura), this is an enterprise in which very little seems to have gone right. Pretty much everything vexatious about the MechaGodzilla movie is present here, just amplified to the utmost aggravating degree. Making matters worse: even though Yamato Takeru’s art director, Fumio Ogawa, constructed several amazingly detailed sets for this production (and was subsequently nominated for a Japanese Academy Prize), all of the hard work that must’ve gone into his castle rooms, subterranean chambers, etc. is scarcely detectable on the screen thanks to the humdrum camerawork and relentlessly drab lighting. In this outing, Okawara and cinematographer Yoshinori Sekiguchi resort to a disturbing number of uninspired, poorly staged shots and link them together without rhythm or grace, rarely showing off just how richly textured and intricate the production design really is. Of all the pictures in Okawara’s directorial spectrum, this is the one which sinks itself straight into the bowels of Made-for-TV Land.
Originally envisioned as the inaugurating chapter of a trilogy, Yamato Takeru performed poorly at the 1994 box office and its two sequels went mercifully unmade. “To be honest, I didn’t care too much for the script,” Okawara admitted years later. “[And after reading the script for the sequel], I told Tomiyama it was just no good. It never got made and it seems that was that.”
Now, on a positive note, Okawara and Sekiguchi’s third collaboration, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, does exhibit marked improvement in terms of presentation: with richer colors and much more imaginative camerawork. For example, the early scene where Dr. Fukazawa attempts to recruit Kenichi Yamane for G-Force incorporates a non-intrusive long take and well-coordinated integration of the set into both the filming strategy and the actors’ blocking. In another effective moment, the director-cinematographer duo position their camera on a crane before diving down to street-level as a crowd of people gather in front of a tunnel. Considering this is the same team who shelled out two soullessly dull, ugly-looking corporate products in a row, I’m not sure who deserves more credit for the amelioration here, but I’m inclined to suggest Okawara. For Godzilla vs. Destoroyah does mark a sort of “transition” point: where his movies gradually started shifting much closer to the tier of excellence.
But, more on that later.
Before we continue with the historical analysis of Okawara’s career, I would like to diverge into a couple of general weaknesses/behind-the-scenes factoids relevant to films covered thus far. These will be used as means of contrasting Okawara’s early pictures with the ones he made later on.
After seeing Godzilla vs. Mothra in 1992, Ishiro Honda described to an interviewer his opinion that the film’s younger actors never seemed “thoroughly involved” in their parts, and that there didn’t seem to be among them anyone on the level of the actors he’d worked with in his day. (In Honda’s view, the generation starring in Toho’s special effects productions of the 1990s didn’t have their own equivalent of a Kumi Mizuno or a Kenji Sahara.) Honda may have only lived to see one of Okawara’s Godzilla pictures, but he no doubt would’ve maintained his criticism had he seen the remainder of the Heisei output: with precious few exceptions, the leading performances in the films from this decade were uninspired at best and unforgivably awful at worst, a major downgrade from the generation who had populated the science fiction films of the 1950s and ’60s. Some directors knew how to work around this, others not so much. And this points to another recurring issue with Okawara’s aesthetic: his apparent inability to work with actors.
In small fairness to the director, the core issue lies not with him but with the Japanese film industry as a whole. Just as Okawara never had the luxury of actively learning his craft through experience before being promoted, the people starring in Okawara’s movies came from a similarly dubious background. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, Toho regularly recruited—and honed—screen talent through their New Face program, hosting massive auditions and putting the winning applicants through six months of intensive training, teaching them not only the fundamentals of screen acting but also of dance and theatrical arts; and through this emerged many of the endearing stars of the original Godzilla films—not to mention even more internationally recognized super-stars such as Toshiro Mifune. However, as the Japanese film industry underwent its notorious decline in the 1960s-70s, the means through which many of the great talents of the past emerged gradually phased away and never returned.
And so, although Toho financially rebounded in the 1980s, the studio had nonetheless become a smaller place. By the time Okawara’s promoted to the director’s chair, the days in which Toho contracted hundreds of screen performers and actively trained them in their craft were long gone. Instead of sponsoring modern equivalents of the New Face program, the studio now culled most of its screen talent from J-pop groups and television. Times had changed, and not for the better. With all that context kept in mind, perhaps Okawara cannot be designated too much blame for the iffy-to-abhorrent acting in his Heisei pictures.
On the other hand, he certainly comes across as helpless when it comes to working against this unfortunate defect. In fact, he seems perfectly content to just lay out his actors’ shortcomings in full display on the screen. Consider the would-be emotional finale of Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II, in which actress Ryoko Sano sobs into Baby Godzilla’s head and Okawara doesn’t even bother to adjust the blocking or switch to a different camera angle to hide her woefully unconvincing expressions; nor does he remind the actress she’s supposed to have just cried her eyes out when filming subsequent scenes, in which Sano is resolutely unemotional, dry-eyed, and blank-faced. In Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, Yoko Ishino, an appealing actress who is otherwise decent enough in this film, resorts to blank, completely disinterested stares when a voracious monster starts tearing apart a car, trying to get at her; and once again, the director just allows the scene to keep rolling and even permits close-ups of our plainly not-terrified heroine.
How about directing children? Under Okawara’s supervision in Godzilla vs. Mothra, child actress Shiori Yonezawa comes across as unctuous and unpleasant. In Honda’s All Monsters Attack (1969), however, Tomonori Yazaki is utterly natural and believable: a quintessential depiction of an ordinary kid with whom any young viewer can relate and empathize. In addition to having had the benefit of working with performers of a more prestigious background, Honda was very much an “actor’s director,” someone who took tremendous interest in his casts, who on occasion would step onto the set and demonstrate for them manners in which to perform; but Okawara’s limitations—both aesthetic and historical—resort him to simply hoping his actors are good enough to perform well on their own, without his guidance.
On occasion, he lucks out. Satomi Kobayashi and Takehiro Murata, both natural screen performers, fare pretty well in Godzilla vs. Mothra; Megumi Odaka, who grew as she went, manages a solid performance in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. But pretty much everyone else resides on the level of Masahiro Takashima, an actor who proved consistently bland and uninteresting in every single one of his science fiction roles (nowhere near as charming or funny as his actor-father, Tadao Takashima). Even the very entertaining Reiko, the Psyche Resurrected suffers in this regard, as the performances by the mostly teenage cast are almost universally humdrum.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen most of these Heisei actors in anything but their science fiction output, so I am bearing in mind the possibility that they’ve done good work elsewhere. After all, referring back to the Showa era, I once thought Ryo Ikebe to be the biggest wad of anti-charisma in the history of celluloid, until I started exploring his non-genre efforts, whereupon I quickly realized just how good an actor he could be. So I cannot comfortably outright dismiss any of the primary cast members in these ’90s movies without exploring other projects of theirs; maybe, just maybe, there’s a hidden gem out there, in which they had a good part and a more persuasive director. But as far as their contributions here are concerned, the stars in Okawara’s Heisei pictures leave much to be desired and then some.
As a matter of fact, most of the standouts in these pictures are veterans—trained professionals—such as Akira Takarada, Momoko Koichi, and Akira Nakao. These people, survivors from the bygone age when Japanese film stars knew their craft and knew it well, are experienced and intuitive enough that they don’t need a director’s coaching to figure out their parts and how best to play them. That Momoko Koichi appears for a mere couple of minutes in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah [despite reprising her Godzilla (1954) character] and still manages to leave an infinitely bigger impression than anyone she shares a scene with speaks volumes. In a 1995 conversation with David Milner, Okawara noted how well-trained Kochi was compared to the generation he was accustomed to working with. It was obvious to him, and to the audience, it’s obvious as well.
Again, part of the problem ties into phenomena that was plaguing the Japanese film industry at the time—and still does to this day—but Okawara certainly did his stars no favors in just allowing them to meander through their roles without proper guidance. As a result, those would-be funny, would-be touching scenes intended to provide relief between monster attacks rarely paid off.
Uneasy Alliance with Kawakita
Though I myself haven’t come across any anecdotes confirming genuine hostility, over the years there’ve been occasional tidbits in interviews suggesting Okawara and special effects director Koichi Kawakita didn’t exactly have the best working relationship. In fact, the two seemed guardedly critical of one another at times. Okawara described his frequent collaborator as a “Don’t say a thing about my work” type of person and furthermore admitted they spent “very little time in discussion” on any given project. And while Kawakita was courteous enough in interviews (“He knows how to make films.”), other sources indicate he actually harbored less enthusiastic sentiments behind the scenes. Perhaps most insightful is a horror story recalled by then-assistant director Masaaki Tezuka. One day, during the shoot of one of the Heisei pictures, Tezuka was instructed to deliver some storyboards to the special effects crew. Upon seeing the drawings, Kawakita huffed his displeasure, denouncing the “terrible” compositions, and flat-out refused to film them. (In the same interview, Tezuka further commented: “We had that situation quite a lot.”)
In looking back on the Okawara-Kawakita years, the real highlights, for the most part, were the special effects scenes, which is all the more a testament to the latter’s artistry and craftsmanship. For all his shortcomings, Kawakita regularly managed to breathe some momentary life into these otherwise stale, clunky pictures. Godzilla vs. Mothra has some engaging character drama to enjoy in the first act, but the real highlights consist of scenes such as Mothra’s larvae form plowing her way through Tokyo and spinning a cocoon at the Diet Building; Godzilla stomping out of Mt. Fuji in a spectacular display of light and pyrotechnics; Battra’s brief but optically stunning transformation. Even the sickeningly bad Yamato Takeru garnered some bursts of effects-oriented excitement, such as when the eight-headed Orochi was exhaling huge gouts of flame, or when the sea monster Kaijin Muba plucked Masahiro Takashima off a cliff and took him underwater.
And so, very often, the experience of watching an early-career Okawara film boiled down to impatiently waiting for the monsters to show up. (That’s certainly my domineering reaction in the rare event I revisit one of these films nowadays.) Despite the promise evident in his debut, the man’s career seemed to be leading nowhere special. But, as touched on earlier, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah hinted better times were ahead. While not quite reaching the tier of greatness, the concluding Heisei picture had a few things going for it the director’s preceding efforts did not, such as tone and atmosphere, and the visuals have some moments of genuine excellence. It’s still a mixed bag in many ways—namely due to the abundance of plot threads which go absolutely nowhere—but of all the monster movies Okawara cranked out in this era, this one exhibits the strongest directorial hand.
And, moving forward, the quality of his pictures would only improve.
Ending on a High Note
The opening of Abduction (1997) signals the arrival of mature filmmaking. The first shot is a birds-eye view of Tokyo, staring straight down from a vertigo-triggering height at a cluster of helicopters moving above the skyscrapers, an eerie Takayuki Hattori musical cue tingling on the soundtrack. After holding on this vista for a while, the camera cuts to a grounded shot and slowly zooms upward at the helicopters as they continue their bundled traverse over the metropolis. From this point, we cut to another aerial shot—this one much lower than the first—as a suit-clad man lugging three silver cases staggers through the streets, a ring of camera-armed reporters perpetually surrounding him, shifting with his every move. The man stumbles, taking a while to regain his footing. At this point, the camera makes a wise move in delivering the first close-up: of the man (middle-aged, clearly exhausted), gasping for breath as he continues to lurch forward, that mob of reporters refusing to abandon him for a second. The sequence continues to build, cutting inside news stations and to a TV journalist reporting live from one of the helicopters (door open, the other aircraft visible in the space past him—a marvelous composition). The man with the cases continues to move as fast as he can toward a destination we haven’t seen. The movie is only two minutes old and already director Takao Okawara has drawn us into his story, leaving us with a gnawing hunger to find out what happens next. And in doing so, he completely blows all his previous efforts—including Reiko, the Psyche Resurrected—out of the water.
Okawara considers Abduction, his one non-special effects picture, the most polished effort in his directorial spectrum, and it’s no mystery why. This is a thoroughly engrossing film with slick images and an atmosphere rich with tension. The story is, seemingly, quite simple. An automobile is stopped by two other motorists while driving down a country road, and one of the occupants is taken hostage. The kidnapper subsequently taunts the Metropolitan Police Department as well as the executives of a major business corporation through mysterious phone calls, demanding a ransom of 300,000,000 yen. Per his demands, the money must be transported by foot, the deliverer (whom he also chooses) required to race from phone booth to phone booth to receive further instructions. (The script came from a first-place winning story at another Kido Awards contest, and I cannot help but speculate if the author was inspired by Hollywood thrillers such as Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry.) As it turns out, there’s more to the titular abduction than meets the eye, which comes together in a beautifully executed narrative, confidently guided by the hand of its director.
The whole film could be submitted as an example, but for the sake of discussion, let’s articulate the highlight: a nerve-wracking seventeen-minute sequence in which a bag of ransom money is lugged across Tokyo, first by an elderly business executive until he drops from exhaustion; then by a police official until he drops from exhaustion; then by a younger officer, who continues the delivery on foot a ways, then hops on a bicycle before borrowing a civilian’s car to transport the ransom to its drop-off point. Okawara and his technicians do a marvelous job timing the suspense, with each twist occurring at just the right moment to keep the momentum going. And with assistance from cinematographer Daisaku Kimura, he channels a number of impressive handheld shots and constantly employs the surroundings to breathtaking effect as the characters move from streets to buildings to alleyways. A favorite moment of mine occurs when the younger officer, carrying the bag, dashes into a store (soft-focused vegetation visible in the foreground) to find a shortcut: once inside, he continues running, the camera tracking after him but unable to keep pace, the reporters weaving into the shot a few seconds before it ends.
Also impressive is the lakeshore-set resolution: of two characters confronting one another, flashback clips interspersed into their conversation. What could’ve been a drawn-out, talky coda instead becomes genuinely absorbing thanks to grand cinematography, strong actors (headed by Tokyo Drifter’s Tetsuya Watari), and consummately timed editing, as little bits and pieces of the prevenient narrative come together. Abduction exhibits the mark of pure cinema: turn off the sound and you can still understand what’s happening. Even with the language barrier that will exist for some, Okawara’s penultimate film is tremendously enjoyable. If tenth-power lists still mean anything to anyone, this just might’ve been worthy of its ranking by Kinema Jumpo as one of the ten best Japanese features of 1997.
Two years later, Okawara returned to kaiju eiga with what he proclaimed would be his final effort in the genre, Godzilla 2000: Millennium, and he certainly saved the best for last: the finest entry in the series since Omori’s Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) ten years earlier. Though still far from perfect, the inaugurating Millennium film excels in the areas it really needs to, beginning with the script. Once again, Wataru Mimura is brought onboard; except this time, he’s helped along to better results from both Okawara (whom Mimura claims instilled tremendous input on the final scenario) and Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla’s Hiroshi Kashiwabara. Together, they turn out an appealingly subtle plot with memorable characters, an intoxicating sense of reverence for Godzilla, and a refreshing take on the age-old alien invasion trope. These qualities go a long way in helping make this the most splendid, satisfying Godzilla film in quite a spell.
The script is rendered even better via strong technical execution. There are several non-intrusive (i.e. they don’t draw attention to themselves) long takes and a broader variety of compositions, the camera often placed in interesting spots that add to the visual flair. In one such instance, a government official and some military men march through a building, discussing their plans to bomb a UFO perched atop Tokyo’s City Tower—and the filmmakers position their camera low on the ground, pointing it upwards at the actors, and track backwards to keep the men in frame as they walk. Sometimes individual shots and/or scenes run too long for their own good or simply serve no purpose at all (indeed, the run time is the film’s biggest issue), but the movie is so well-crafted and the story and characters so appealing that the monotony never reaches a detrimental degree. In addition to Okawara’s improved sensibilities, I imagine the technical upswing in this picture comes from the presence of a new cameraman: Godzilla vs. Biollante cinematographer Katsuhiro Kata.
Also beneficial: the change in special effects directors. Whereas the professional relationship between Okawara and Kawakita, as expounded earlier, wasn’t exactly smooth and easygoing, the director had nothing but good things to say about his new associate, Kenji Suzuki. “[H]e understands the balance between the effects and human scenes. Suzuki also takes an active part in story creation, which allowed me to introduce my own ideas into the [effects] process.” Having said that, it’s no wonder Godzilla 2000: Millennium features so many wonderful moments of the humans interacting directly with the monsters—Hiroshi Abe’s justifiably memorable death scene, for one. Even the film’s climax (which rehashes the pattern of the humans merely watching the monsters duke it out) seems more “involved” than in other entries: the characters frequently react to what’s happening, and at times, the fight directly affects them, such as when a chunk of flaming debris comes hurling from the battlefield.
Godzilla 2000: Millennium also excels thanks to the first all-out decent cast in the director’s sci-fi repertoire. In addition to Takehiro Murata (promoted to lead), the film benefits from the presence of people such as Naomi Nishida, Hiroshi Abe, and Shiro Sano. These (regularly impressive) actors bring a great deal of charisma and gravitas to their roles in ways the director’s previous casts did not. The sequence of Murata and Sano discovering Organizer G-1 displays an interesting relationship between the two scientists as we see them hungrily devouring the biological wonder at their fingertips, showing little traces of a since-ended partnership we’ve heard about but haven’t seen, until now. And the little moment in which Nishida and Murata bid one another farewell—silently, through glass—is downright wonderful: no dialogue, just facial expressions and gestures. Thanks in part to the leads, Godzilla 2000: Millennium manages, for the most part, to maintain interest even in the absence of special effects footage, something many of the film’s immediate predecessors struggled to do. Not to mention Mayu Suzuki gives what could be the most natural performance by a child in this franchise since All Monsters Attack three decades before. That this little girl never acted in another movie is truly unfortunate, as her father-daughter dynamic with Murata is completely believable.
Godzilla 2000: Millennium contains just about everything the last few Okawara-directed entries lacked: symbiosis between the live-action and visual effects elements, a solid script, excellent acting. And unlike many of his earlier projects, it perfectly demonstrates the values of teamwork and how far having good collaborators can go in terms of turning out something of merit. This is the “pure entertainment” Godzilla movie Okawara had been striving to create from the beginning. And had his previous three efforts with the character been up to the same level, he just might’ve qualified as one of the better post-Showa directors to tackle the King of the Monsters.
When asked about his future plans in 2000, Takao Okawara proclaimed he was done with Godzilla and would be moving on to suspenseful human dramas in the vein of Abduction. Sadly, none of those plans ever seemed to get off the ground, as the man hasn’t made a motion picture in almost twenty years. Alas, it would seem the vast majority of moviegoers in Japan didn’t share this writer’s enthusiasm for Godzilla 2000: Millennium, which enjoyed a very lucrative opening weekend, only to plunge in the box office charts immediately afterward, resulting in a merely passable intake of two million tickets (less than half of that accumulated by Godzilla vs. Mothra seven years prior). Critical reception was overwhelmingly negative, and many people within Toho—including some who had worked on the film—admitted to disliking the final product.
While I have no proof to verify it, the perceived failure of Godzilla 2000: Millennium both in and out of the studio just might explain why Okawara’s remained absent from the director’s chair all this time. It is a shame, for his career, despite an incredibly rocky middle portion, did exhibit promise at points; and by the end, he was getting good to the point where I remain genuinely curious as to what he might’ve accomplished had he kept going. Due to the middling-to-awful films he shelled out in early-to-mid ‘90s, I cannot rank him with the genre’s greats, but I would be lying if I said I had no interest in seeing him direct something, tokusatsu or not, in the future.General // April 13, 2018
GODZILLA (1998), the first big-budget Hollywood adaptation of the popular Japanese monster, has been on my mind a lot as of late, albeit not for the same reasons as most fans. (I critiqued the film back in 2014, in which I examined it predominately as a generic science-fiction action flick which just so happened to bear the name ‘Godzilla,’ and I stand by every word in that mixed but hardly venomous review.) Rather, I have been focusing my attention on a certain bias the movie imprinted on Godzilla fans in terms of who they want and do not want to see in the directors’ chairs for these films. Roland Emmerich, who made the 1998 film, never made an effort to hide his lack of enthusiasm for Godzilla or, for that matter, his wish to completely change the character once he agreed to direct the film. He certainly followed through in terms of that second regard: presenting a creature whose primary scenes involved weaving around high-rises, fleeing from rockets, and falling dead when a couple of commonplace missiles pounded into its ribs. The film remains, to this very day, for a good many Godzilla fans, the standard example of what happens when you turn over a beloved pop culture figure to someone who is not a major enthusiast. And Emmerich remains, to this very day, for a good many Godzilla fans, the standard example of a non-fan director: someone whose apathy results in a movie completely failing to translate the property’s recognizable characteristics in virtually every regard.
Hollywood eventually took a second stab at the monster, this time hiring a director who was a fan (Gareth Edwards), and the result was Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla (2014), a film which maintained most of the character’s iconic attributes (design, invulnerability, atomic breath, etc.) and was much better received overall. I reiterate recent history only because it ties into the bias I mentioned above. A little over a year ago, word came out that Edwards had dropped out of the 2014 film’s upcoming sequel—now titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters—and the general response from the fan community was precisely what I expected: domineering hope that Edwards’ successor would also be a Godzilla fan. (In other words, people remain worried that another Godzilla movie directed by a non-enthusiast would result in a repeat of 1998.) Those concerns simmered a bit when replacement director Michael Dougherty revealed his affection for the Big G. Concerns simmered further still when Adam Wingard, the man hired to direct Godzilla vs. Kong, hopped onto Twitter and began answering questions regarding his favorite things about the Japanese classics. The Legendary series has been placed in the hands of ambitious fans; thus, the torches and pitchforks remain lowered.
But I, for one, would be completely open to the idea of a new Godzilla movie directed by a non-fan, provided that the non-fan in question has some experience and the talent needed to make a good movie. And this is where I feel the general perception on the topic has been slanted. Let’s remember: personal fondness for a trademarked character is not in and of itself a guarantee of quality, or lack thereof. (This is, in no way, a dismissal of the gentlemen hired to direct the impending Legendary movies; I wish them nothing but luck. I am, however, suggesting we wait to see their finished films before we crown them with laurels.) Furthermore, when one considers historical context, GODZILLA (1998) was merely one example of a Godzilla movie made by someone who wasn’t big on the character. It was not the only example. Some of the classic Toho directors, whose movies we’ve come to adore, were simply carrying out a job; making a Godzilla film was not a lifelong commitment for every single one of them; and a few of these men, despite not holding Godzilla dear to their hearts, still managed to craft some of the most well-received entries in the entire series due to their aptitude and ingenuity as moviemakers.
I would now like to salute two such artists.
“I don’t think that any sequels to the first Godzilla movie should have been made.”
A highly talented craftsman who could bounce back and forth between various genres with genuine ease, Jun Fukuda was a loyal employee to Toho during the studio’s golden age of the 1960s—a time during which he, like Ishiro Honda, would be summoned on multiple occasions to direct monster movies even though both men, at various points in their respective careers, and for different reasons, might’ve preferred to be making something else. Except whereas Honda eventually became less enthused about directing science-fiction due to being pigeonholed in the genre, Fukuda directed all five of his Godzilla movies simply because he had a knack for it and the studio kept approaching him to make more. In his perfect world, though, Godzilla’s career would have consisted of a single film—the first one—with no follow-ups tied to him.
The quote above comes from Fukuda’s 1994 interview with David Milner in the magazine Cult Movies, in which the veteran director expressed limited affection for the Godzilla series and looked back on his own contributions with an attitude that can only be described as sheer resentment. When asked to name a few favorite monster movies that he made, Fukuda’s reply was a simple “None of them.” When recalling the time Toho sent him a copy of Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966), he compared receiving the tape to “opening up an old wound.” When asked if he’d seen any of the Heisei Godzilla movies, his answer was a simple “No.” And when film historian Stuart Galbraith IV contacted Fukuda to request an interview for his book Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!, the response he received was something to the effect of: “I think my movies are all terrible, but if you really want to talk about them with me…well, I guess I would be happy to talk about them.”
On a more positive note, some literature suggests Fukuda held the original 1954 classic with a certain degree of respect. In Galbraith’s book, Fukuda is quoted saying: “Godzilla was born of nuclear power, and in that social environment Godzilla (1954) appeared. Originally, Godzilla didn’t have emotions—he shouldn’t have any emotions at all. […] [N]o other film can beat the original Godzilla.”
Before we move on to the meat of this section, I want to cite one more anecdote, this one coming from author Steve Ryfle’s interview with special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano. When asked about Fukuda’s attitude toward the monster movie genre, Nakano noted his assumption that the director didn’t care too much for kaiju eiga and then made one of the wisest and most truthful comments I’ve ever read regarding the art of film production: “I think sometimes the greatest movies we make are ones we don’t necessarily like. Whether or not we like something has nothing to do with making a great movie.” These words apply across the board when it comes to cinema—it’s hardly limited to Japanese monster movies—and they most certainly apply to the man who directed such classics as Son of Godzilla (1967) and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1974).
As I mentioned before, Fukuda made his series debut during the mid-1960s, around the time Toho began to noticeably transition Godzilla from a voracious engine of destruction into an anthropomorphized anti-hero. The timing could not have been better. Whereas Ishiro Honda preferred monster pictures to be played straight and relatively serious, Jun Fukuda specialized in humorous, fast-paced action movies. His pictures are characterized by vibrant photography, colorful characters, chase scenes, and a fine dash of comedy. And it is this amalgamation, I would argue, that made Fukuda distinctive and, to a degree, recognizable. His movies, by and large, have a unique feel. His first Godzilla movie was the earlier mentioned camp classic Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966), which bears a few similarities to his previous movie, the delightfully entertaining spy spoof Iron Finger, made the year before. When one watches the two films back to back, one will notice: many of the same cast members (with Akira Takarada helming the lead); tropical settings; characters who use quick thinking to escape from perilous situations; abundant humor; and antagonists who appear in the form of power-hungry terrorists staked out on islands.
Themes in Fukuda-directed Godzilla films, if at all present, were either minimalized to lip service—the anti-pollution stance present in Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)—or articulated through the mechanics of the plot. Son of Godzilla, for instance, has a rather ambivalent outlook on advancing scientific technology. In the course of the narrative, the weather control system, designed to help end world hunger, produces both good and bad results. In its first test, it creates a radioactive thunderstorm, resulting in gigantic praying mantises. And later on, the same apparatus is used to generate a snowstorm and freeze over the island, thus allowing the stranded heroes to escape. There is also some chatter early on about how the weather control system could potentially be used as a terroristic weapon, but it never goes on for too long and serves mostly as a reason for the film’s confined setting. For Son of Godzilla recognizes it is, at its core, a simple entertainment film. Too many longwinded speeches would’ve just bogged things down.
In addition to incorporating his own style, Fukuda further distinguished himself from other Godzilla directors with help from his recurring collaborators. All but two of his contributions to this franchise were written by the exuberant screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa—the exceptions being Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1974), for which Sekizawa merely provided story outlines. A fitting team, as Fukuda’s preference for fast-paced action and zany characters might’ve clashed with the brooding, pessimistic Takeshi Kimura, Toho’s other go-to science-fiction writer at the time. In addition, upon accepting the assignment to direct Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, Fukuda recruited his friend Masaru Sato to write the original score. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka wasn’t ecstatic about this decision, preferring series regular Akira Ifukube be given the job, but Fukuda insisted on Sato. “I asked him to compose the music for those movies because I wanted them to have a different feel than Mr. Honda’s Godzilla films,” he explained. The combination of Fukuda’s deft hand at action-comedy, Sekizawa’s consciously campy scripts, and Sato’s energetic music established an overall tone that, more often than not, produced sheer cinematic joy.
Fukuda was also a natural when it came to producing beautiful-looking images; this is especially evident in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla, which make the most of their tropical island settings. (The change of locations was a cost-saving measure that oddly enough added some welcome visual variety of the series: now the monster action could take place somewhere other than a vast cityscape or the hilly countryside.) One can also recognize the recurring use of canted camera angles in suspense scenes—something also on display in Fukuda’s non-Godzilla pictures. And when it came to violence in these 1960s films, bloodshed was kept to an absolute minimum.
In a way, even Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon, widely considered the low points in Fukuda’s spectrum, are further examples of their maker’s skill. Now, critical defenses of these two pictures are somewhat limited: while both have redeeming qualities, all the viewer can really do at the end of the day is acknowledge whether or not they had fun with them, as their scattershot scripts and so-so acting cannot compare to the majority of what was being done in the previous decade. However, it is important to consider historical context when gauging how these films fit not only in terms of the Godzilla series but also in the history of the Japanese filmmaking industry as a whole. In the early 1970s, the industry was on the verge of collapse. Daiei had gone bankrupt, Nikkatsu had refocused to producing softcore roman porno, and Toho wasn’t in the best of shape, either. In 1973, the year of Godzilla vs. Megalon’s release, the studio released a mere thirty-six features: a sharp reduction from the seventy-eight produced just thirteen years earlier. And while Toho was occasionally still willing to crank out a lucrative budget for a disaster epic like Submersion of Japan (1973) or Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974)—for this was the sort of film luring in mainstream audiences at the time—Godzilla had largely devolved to a collection of made-on-the-cheap kiddie matinees. In short, the budgets and production schedules permitted to Fukuda at this time were anything but favorable. But as a trustworthy employee of the studio, he nevertheless made the best of what he had at his disposal.
And with that said, there are some director-based bright spots to be found within these two films. Godzilla vs. Megalon features some impressive widescreen shots—such as a vista of the main characters standing before a drained lake—as well as a bouncy mid-movie car chase perfectly suited for anyone in touch with their inner-child. And for all its faults, Godzilla vs. Gigan makes for a captivating visual experience with its lush cinematography (arguably the most colorful in all of Fukuda’s Godzilla movies), occasional lens tricks, and Fukuda’s usual striking compositions. The scene where the film’s villains—extra-terrestrial arthropods disguising themselves as humans—reveal their true identities is very effective in its use of imagery, with Fukuda relying upon dynamic lighting, shadows, and camera movement to deliver the twist. (Much more imaginative than if one of them had just said, “We’re space cockroaches.”) Critical landmarks? No. But products which nevertheless show a talented filmmaker doing what he could under less-than-ideal circumstances? You bet.
And the next 70s Godzilla film—what would turn out to be Fukuda’s swan song in the series—was none other than Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1974), which remains for me (and quite a few people I’ve spoken to over the years) a go-to pick when hungering for a Godzilla movie that is not necessarily searing with depth but is just plain good fun to watch.
Jun Fukuda might not have been the world’s biggest Godzilla fan, but his general lack of affection for the King of the Monsters didn’t negate his crafting some of the most delightfully entertaining entries in the series. And, as fans, we can take some small comfort in that, toward the end of his life, the man did come to understand just how much of an impact his films had had and that they were cherished by so many people. “I had hated watching or hearing about [Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon],” Fukuda said, “but later I realized that they really are popular among children. When I was interviewed by the BBC, too, the staff told me how much they liked them. I just don’t get it. Recently, I was watching a TV documentary on Godzilla, and there was my film, in the U.S. video rental shops, under the title Son of Godzilla. Kids over there apparently watch Godzilla on TV. […] Godzilla’s popularity is pretty amazing.”
“I’m not such an enthusiastic fan. Although movies are, more or less, in some ways unreal or complete fabrication, Godzilla seems like the biggest fabrication of them all.”
I think it’s fair to say every fan base has had its share of Kazuki Omoris: those who were fond of some pop culture element in youth and eventually outgrew their enthusiasm. In his essay How I Suppressed My Fears and Became the Director of a Godzilla Movie, Omori admitted to having been an avid Godzilla fan up through junior high school, around the time Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) and Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster (1964) were making their initial runs in Japanese theaters. But his boyhood fascination came to a close after those two pictures. “I don’t know if the word ‘graduation’ is proper or not,” he continued, “but I started going to theaters showing 007, The Great Escape, or The Sound of Music.” Western entertainment started to leave an infinitely bigger impression on him, and giant monsters devolved, in his mind, to campy nostalgia.
Jumping forward to the mid-1980s. The original creators of Godzilla have either passed on or entered semi-retirement, and a new generation of moviemakers is being sought to continue the franchise. Following the profitable but still somewhat disappointing ticket sales for The Return of Godzilla (1984), Toho began contemplating why their film had performed lower than expected. One explanation offered was that the 1984 reboot had been too old-fashioned, too much of a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear, and that contemporary Japanese audiences were in the mood for something new. In response, Toho set its sights on picking out a younger director—someone with a fresh aesthetic—who could appeal to the modern generation’s sensibilities. Kazuki Omori, meantime, had made a number of (monster-free) films, many of them featuring singing idols and proving popular with young audiences. Undeterred by the man’s personal lack of enthusiasm for Godzilla and with a recommendation from a group of Osaka-based fans, Tomoyuki Tanaka sought Omori for the job. It took many years to get a film off the ground, and the end result, Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), made even less money than its predecessor, but Toho had found a talent they trusted and were comfortable with—as evident by the fact that they kept Omori onboard, in one position or another, for a good many years afterward. After writing and directing a second entry, Omori penned the screenplays for two of Takao Okawara’s films: Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995).
And oddly enough, the man’s very indifference for kaiju eiga just might be what made him a valuable asset to the series, at least in the beginning. By contemplating new ways to make a monster movie—by seeking a compromise between his mainstream sensibilities and what the fans enjoy—he incorporated fresh ideas and a burst of creativity which, for a little while, gave the Heisei series something genuinely new to distinguish itself with.
Godzilla vs. Biollante tackles the dangers and ethical quandaries of bioengineering technology, along with the political backdrop through which science can be manipulated. (It’s worth mentioning the film was the brainchild of two scientific minds. The original idea came from Shinichiro Kobayashi, a dentist and part-time screenwriter. And Omori, in addition to being a successful filmmaker, is also a licensed doctor. He even developed an award-winning career in movies while attending medical school! How he found time to succeed at both simultaneously, I can’t imagine.) One of the film’s central plot points is Godzilla’s cells being a source of untapped genetic technology; from this spawns a fierce international race to weaponize and commercialize said potential. The Self-Defense Forces wish to use the cells to develop a bacteria capable of cleaning up nuclear waste—there’s a nice counterpoint brought up that immunization from nuclear fallout would render all atomic weapons nugatory and thus disrupt the balance of global power; Dr. Shiragami sees the immortality of the cells as a means of preserving the spirit of his deceased daughter; the Saradia Oil Corporation seeks to develop a super-crop (and thus one-up the United States as the world’s top exporter); the American conglomerate Bio-Major wants to acquire the cells for their own shady purposes. With a complex web of debates, shootouts, and terroristic ultimatums, Omori cynically depicts scientific advancement as a ballfield for competing powerhouses. In a sense, this is a manifestation of what Dr. Serizawa in the original Godzilla (1954) predicted would happen should the world find out about his Oxygen Destroyer— a material waiting to be turned into a weapon, garnering multinational attention, with everyone determined to get their hands on it first.
Even though it’s a weaker film overall, Omori’s second monster film, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), is in some ways even more fascinating. Ever since its release, this film has been (wrongly) accused of anti-Americanism due to 1) its depiction of Caucasian time-travelers seeking to destroy and subjugate Japan, and 2) the World War II sequence in which a huge dinosaur (destined to become Godzilla) savagely crushes a platoon of American soldiers. Admittedly, the western characters aren’t portrayed in the most flattering light (though it’s hard to make a credible anti-U.S. claim when one of the time-travelers is quite plainly a Russian); however, when examined closely, what Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah has to say about Japan isn’t overly sweet, either.
To put the movie in some long-forgotten context: Japan experienced what’s known as an economic bubble in the 1980s, which resulted in a surge in stock and real estate prices as well as the acquirement of notable American institutes by Japanese companies. In 1987, CBS sold its records division to Sony Corporation. In late 1989—the year the Nikkei stock average hit its still-unsurpassed high—Sony acquired Columbia Pictures. A month later, the Rockefeller Group sold company control to the Mitsubishi Estate Company of Tokyo. And in 1990, following the obtainment of Music Corporation of America by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., USA Todayreportedly ran a front-page story begging the question: “Will Japan end up buying it all?” These recent acquisitions, in addition to the more famous Japanese postwar economic miracle—which resulted in Japan possessing the second biggest economy on the planet by 1968—left a good many commentators wondering if Japan, despite losing the Second World War, had triumphed in the long run with a superior financial system and if it was on its way to producing a negative global effect. It might have been tempting for Omori to crassly endorse the foundation of these concerns in the 1991 Godzilla film and make a movie which championed his country as the rightful leading world power; but he chose to question its virtues instead. In one important scene from Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah often glanced over, Emmy Kano, a woman from the future, explains to her ancestor that Japan is destined to become a supreme economic force in the 21st and 22nd centuries—swelling with riches to the point where it buys up other countries and essentially controls the entire planet. The nation expands its interests beyond picking up foreign businesses and industries and instead goes after entire continents. In the future, Japan is the villain!
When Emmy goes back to her time in hopes of salvaging a means to save her country from Godzilla’s wrath, her superior questions whether a nation prone to vain prosperity deserves assistance in the first place; in the end, she appeals to his humanity and begs for the Japanese people to be given a second chance. Omori’s admittedly shambolic screenwriting rushes through a few points too quickly and the villains could’ve been a bit subtler in their portrayal (not to mention more could have been said regarding the consequences of Japan’s future economic supremacy), but the movie’s underlying theme is a rather two-sided outlook on Japanese nationalism. The film endorses Japan’s right to protect itself from outside influences while, at the same time, suggesting that one nation possessing too much power could be a very bad thing.
This is especially prevalent, and poignantly handled, in the famous scene between Godzilla and Mr. Shindo, played by that wonderful actor Yoshio Tsuchiya. Shindo, a former soldier unintentionally saved by Godzilla during World War II, essentially represents Japan’s postwar economic miracle. He, like Japan, survived the war. He, like Japan, went on to achieve incredible wealth and power in the decades afterward (economically resurrecting his pulverized country). And, as explained earlier in the film, his corporation was destined to become the wealthiest organization on the planet. In what can be read as a condemnation of unchecked capitalism, Shindo uses his company’s affluence to commit a quasi-violation of Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles: privately purchasing an atomic submarine—and docking it outside Japanese waters to avoid legal consequence—for defense of the nation. And then, when a situation arises, Shindo dispatches his nuclear technology to resurrect Godzilla in hopes that the monster would defend his people. Little does Shindo realize that a nuclear submarine wrecked in the Bering Sea in 1977 has already resulted in Godzilla’s rebirth.
Godzilla, ever-hungry for atomic energy, proceeds to attack Shindo’s submarine, absorbs its stockpiles, and reaches a new destructive state. Just as American nuclear technology once created Godzilla in the 1950s, and revitalized it in the 1970s, Japanese nuclear power has now made the beast more deadly than ever. And after disposing of the time-travelers, the monster set its sights on Japan. Shindo’s misguided belief that Godzilla deliberately protected his garrison during World War II (if anything, the Japanese soldiers were just fortunate enough not to be sighted by the dinosaur during its attack on the American troops) has resulted in a voracious behemoth intent on razing Japan anew. Godzilla eventually makes its way to Tokyo, where Shindo’s headquarters are located. The businessman, fully aware of what will happen, stands at the window of his tower—a symbol for all he’s accomplished—at a vantage point where he reaches the monster’s eye line. His imprudent wealth and rash jingoistic decisions have effectively undone everything he and his fellow veterans worked for, and he accepts his fate at the hands of the creature he once thought to be his protector. The scene is quite moving and one which Omori himself considers his favorite moment in the entire Godzilla series.
In the film’s climax, the King of the Monsters makes his way to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (the “Tax Tower,” as it’s sometimes known by the Japanese public), blasts its top off with his atomic ray, and the remainder of the building is shredded in an ensuing battle between Godzilla and Mecha King Ghidorah. In the end, Godzilla is temporarily defeated, but Tokyo has been ripped apart, and many of the symbols for Japan’s late 20th century riches have been wiped off the face of the earth. And to apply some further context to the sequence: the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building was, at the time of this film’s release, barely a year old, having been completed in December 1990; Omori annihilated a brand new symbol for Japan’s wealth before the eyes of the audience.
I do not place Omori’s scripts for Godzilla vs. Mothra and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah on the same pedestal as his directorial efforts. The former served as groundwork for an entertaining spectacle but didn’t say anything about man’s relationship to the environment that hadn’t already been sufficiently tackled in previous entries. And the latter, despite its overarching doomsday scenario, provided virtually nothing in terms of social commentary: the entire planet is threatened by Godzilla’s meltdown, and there’s barely any international response whatsoever. But the two films Omori helmed as both writer and director are easily the last truly special accomplishments in the Heisei series. What the man really needed was, perhaps, a second screenwriter to come in and polish up his scripts—hone down the finer points, expand on the ideas in need of further exposition, axing the more obvious bits of Hollywood imitation, making a lot more sense of the time travel logistics in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, etc. But, at the end of the day, the good Omori brought to the table outweighs the bad and validates him as one of the more interesting recent Godzilla directors. In spite of the fact that, again, he wasn’t a big Godzilla fan.General // June 14, 2017
The recent passing of Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) director Yoshimitsu Banno and the expected refocus on his limited involvement in Toho’s iconic monster movie franchise brought to mind two things regarding this series and the way fans react to it. The first concerns the making-of stories surrounding these movies and how they are, so very often, swamped in a messy bog of truths and half-truths. In regards to how the front office at Toho reacted to Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the legend reiterated to most people depicts an ambitious young filmmaker teeming with fresh ideas, whose career was mercilessly cut down by a narrow-minded tyrant just when it seemed to be getting started and whose only crimes were exerting his imagination and daring to stray from the norm. It’s become one of the most popular tales in Godzilla lore, and just about every fan in the last few decades has heard it.
Alas, I must put a spin on that classic adage: this half-truth has gone around the globe twice, and the truth is still in the process of putting its shoes on.
History, indeed, demonstrates that Yoshimitsu Banno never took charge of a Godzilla film after his 1971 foray, though he did acquire the rights to the character in the early 2000s (for an unrealized short IMAX movie) which eventually led to him receiving credit as executive producer for the feature-length 2014 Godzilla film by Legendary Pictures. It is similarly true, regarding Godzilla vs. Hedorah, that producer Tomoyuki Tanaka (who had been hospitalized in the middle of production) was anything but enthusiastic when he eventually saw the completed film. No one has ever claimed he liked the picture. (It should be noted, however, that Tanaka at least had some idea of what to expect. By Banno’s own admission, the producer had visited the set during the shoot of the infamous nightclub sequence, in which Toshio Shiba hallucinated to see all the people around him topped with fish heads. As the director recalled, Tanaka merely stood off the side and didn’t speak to anyone before silently leaving the set. But even in the aftermath of this, production was not shut down and Banno was not replaced. Tanaka had seen, first-hand, what sort of film was being made and nonetheless allowed shooting to continue.)
Now, accounts vary as to how the producer reacted after screening the finished product. Special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano reported the now-famous “You’ve ruined Godzilla!” quote; Banno himself recalled anger-free acceptance that the film couldn’t be changed. Regardless, either way, Banno was never again given directorial control of a Godzilla movie: a fact which only seems to support the notion of his career being ended overnight. Then again, in the face of the actual evidence, these claims, memorable as they are, have been exaggerated, to say the least.
For a man supposedly shut out of the movie-making business, Banno maintained quite an active output post-1971. Among the (numerous) documentaries he worked on throughout the remainder of the decade was Cruel Famine Continent, about drought-ridden Africa, which saw a theatrical release in 1972, one year after his “banishment.” In the 1980s, following a stint of producing animated features for Toho, he developed a new IMAX format called JAPAX; and in 2000, he founded his own company for the purpose of making JAPAX films, selling projection equipment, creating festival exhibits, and other similar ventures.
But more revealing is the backstory behind his involvement in the 1974 anti-pollution disaster epic Prophecies of Nostradamus. During pre-production, Tomoyuki Tanaka cited the film’s message and remembered Banno’s passion for the environment, and then approached the man he “banned,” requesting and recruiting his services as co-screenwriter and assistant director. An important note: Prophecies of Nostradamus wasn’t exactly a throwaway enterprise cranked out by the studio to make a little dough in the interim. The film was based on a popular book and made in hopes of mimicking the immense box office success of Shiro Moritani’s Submersion of Japan (1973). Not only was Banno handpicked to work on another special effects production, he was selected to help out with a project that, it was hoped, would top box office charts in Japan.
And, sure enough, those hopes became reality when Prophecies of Nostradamus, despite some notorious controversy and subsequent re-editing during its theatrical release, became the highest-grossing Toho-produced feature of 1974. To put it briefly: Tanaka might not have been the world’s biggest fan of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, but clearly he recognized Banno’s virtues. What’s more, in watching Prophecies of Nostradamus, one can sense its writer’s presence in the story.
And this brings me to my second, more interesting point: whatever one thinks of his monster movie, Yoshimitsu Banno was, without question, one of the more distinctive talents ever to emerge from Toho. He had a flavor that was uniquely his and instantly recognizable to anyone even remotely familiar with his career. And even though the recurring anti-pollution theme is noteworthy, I would argue it’s merely the base for what made Banno sui generis. (Other filmmakers have made statements against pollution before and since 1971, after all.) The key factor, I feel, is the creativity, intelligence, and natural craftsmanship he used to articulate his message.
Let’s consider the first few minutes of Godzilla vs. Hedorah. The main credits appear over a montage consisting of psychedelic images and sheets of garbage drifting across the ocean surface—complemented by a lively rendition of the film’s song Give Back the Sun! A creative opening, but then again, didn’t Ishiro Honda do something similar in All Monsters Attack (1969) two years earlier, with a song playing over images of a heavily polluted industrial environment? That said, let’s contemplate the method through which Banno films the pollution in this intro.
In addition to muck and dead fish, we see the gnarled figure of a doll drifting in the sludge. It’s not too dissimilar from the gnarled human corpses seen later in the film as Hedorah—a monster thriving off pollution—wreaks havoc on civilization. And as the song comes to a close, Banno presents us with another item in the swamp-like water: a clock, obviously dysfunctional but nonetheless accompanied by ticks and chimes on the soundtrack, as though signaling man’s time is running out. And then, in a stroke of editorial genius, the film promptly cuts to a close-up of some vibrant, healthy flowers. This in turn is followed by shots of (unbroken) toys near the garden and (living) fish in an aquarium. We have been introduced to the house of Dr. Yano and his family, where a good deal of the human drama takes place. In doing so, the director establishes a new environment while simultaneously providing contrast against the depressing drabness seen previous. And when the director shows us these refreshingly pleasant images, he knows he will have use for them later. When Hedorah passes the house later in the film, those same flowers wilt in the toxic fumes, those same toys are pulverized by acidic sludge, those same fish are quenched of life.
In addition to revolting imagery, Banno used his anti-pollution theme as a means of commenting on then-contemporary social issues. In one notable scene, Hedorah, having recently garnered the ability to fly, passes over a school yard, where a teacher and her students are practicing calisthenics. The vapors spewing from the smog monster’s body send the girls reeling to the ground, clutching at their throats: a direct reference to a then-recent headline, in which a group of schoolgirls in July 1970 fainted in the exercise yard due to the heavily polluted air hanging over them. A little later, in one of the film’s animated segments, we see the market has opened on “anti-Hedorah oxygen masks” to protect citizens from the creature’s poisonous mist. At the time of the film’s release, it wasn’t uncommon for cities to establish oxygen stations on public streets in case pedestrians found themselves short of breath. (The pollution in Japan was that bad!) The use of seemingly random bits such as these animation scenes have contributed to Godzilla vs. Hedorah’s reputation as a ‘trip movie,’ but these elements are not strange for the sake of being strange—not different for the sake of being different. Unusual as they are, they nevertheless embody a means through which Banno enhances his message and social commentary.
At this point, I would like to start drawing comparisons to other projects Banno worked on, namely Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974). With assistance from director Toshio Masuda and some basic inspiration from Toshio Yasumi’s script for The Last War (1961), Banno metastasized his theme to an apocalyptic scale. In this film, unrestrained pollution results in: giant mutated animals; widening holes in the ozone layer; entire portions of Japan scalded by intense heat; worldwide flooding; a shortage of supplies and—by extension—riots, mass suicide, and a steadily growing possibility of global nuclear war. The world going up in atomic fire is where the film derives the most from Yasumi’s script for The Last War, but it takes the gruesome detail to an extreme that its 1961 counterpart never dreamed of.
Prophecies of Nostradamus ends with a hypothetical horror show: after civilization has blown itself to smithereens, we flash forward to see the future “residents” of Tokyo, itself now a barren desert. Here it is heavily implied that humankind has devolved into “strange creatures”—physically deformed, dwelling in subterranean caverns, gnawing on snakes for nourishment, wrestling with each other over the puniest of meals. And let’s not forget the other highly controversial sequence of the film: the Papua New Guinea sequence. (The setup concerns a massive amount of radiation descending upon the island country.) For this mid-movie section, assistant director Banno was given complete control, taking the cast and crew on-location to film a grisly sequence in which a scientific rescue team encounters giant carnivorous flora, mutated bats, oversized leaches, and savage cannibalistic natives. The local people in the jungle have developed resistance to the radiation, but seemingly at the cost of their humanity.
And it doesn’t stop there. This time, no one, not even children, are spared the morbid consequences brought about by man’s follies. In fact, children are sometimes presented as the ones who suffer the most, even paying with their lives. We see youngsters being supplied with protective masks, as the smog cloaking their city has become thick to the point of posing a safety hazard to their still-developing lungs—another real-life parallel. Ostensibly healthy parents (who are expecting) breathe in polluted air and consume contaminated goods, resulting in infants with abhorrent deformations. Other children ingest contaminated water and develop extraordinary physical and mental abilities…only to die from complications. I have no way of knowing or sure, but these sequences—despite the exaggerated science fiction elements—regarding contaminated environments and their effects on local populaces continually reminded me of the Four Big Pollution Diseases of Japan, three of which had experienced major outbreaks within twenty years of the picture’s release, all of which were spawned by reckless disposal of pollutants.
Jumping eight years into the future, one can sense Banno’s presence in the main credits sequence of Techno Police 21C, an anime he produced in 1982. Our protagonist is commuting to a dense, crime-ridden metropolis; while en route, he drives down a stretch of road bordered on both sides by massive heaps of junk. In true Banno fashion, the protagonist regards the surrounding garbage piles with utter disgust.
Banno shares his Godzilla vs. Hedorah screenwriting credit with Takeshi Kimura—at this point using his pseudonym Kaoru Mabuchi—who might have had some small influence on the director’s recurring scrutiny of authority figures. (I use the word ‘might’ because Banno, in a 2005 interview, confessed to having been dismayed with Kimura’s screenplay for the film and proceeded to rewrite the entire thing himself. In the same interview, he admits Kimura gradually became more enthusiastic with the project, but just how much of the final script is his, I cannot say.) In any event, Kimura, who liked to portray policemen in a vacuous light, must have approved of their representation here. When the smog monster ventures ashore for the first time, the landing is reported to the local police station. And the officer answering the phone foolishly scoffs: “Knock it off! Hedorah is a sea monster!”
Upper-tier authority figures come off just as bad or even worse. The city authorities in the film leap to the assumption that because Hedorah attacked after sunset, he must therefore be a nocturnal creature—only to witness the monster come ashore again on a bright, sunny day. And then there’s the Self Defense Forces, here portrayed as bungling incompetents whose inability to successfully wire their own electrodes sends Godzilla shaking his head in frustrated disbelief before he activates their devices for them.
Having described all that, it’s oddly poetic (though more than likely just coincidence) that Banno would go on to produce a fairly purist adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This animated feature maintains the book’s portrayal of its eponymous wizard as a charlatan quick to send his visitors into peril rather than admit to what he is—and who ends up being whisked away to who-knows-where due to his inability to handle his own hot air balloon.
Police, government officials, and soldiers were not the only groups to be skewered in a Banno production. Another noticeable similarity between Godzilla vs. Hedorah and Prophecies of Nostradamus is a condemnation of counterculture youth. The depiction of young people in the 1971 Godzilla movie is particularly cynical: the twenty-somethings in this film are presented as self-destructive do-nothings who would rather party than take an active role in changing the world. In the wake of Hedorah’s second attack, they arrange for a huge gala atop Japan’s famous volcano, Mt. Fuji. The pretense is a Woodstock-esque movement for a better world but comes across, instead, as a deliberately suicidal last hurrah. These people are aware of the prediction that Hedorah will climb Mt. Fuji, and yet they stage their party in that very locale. They know the government has put limitations on automobile travel (because tailpipe fumes are a source of pollution), and yet they use their vehicles to reach their destination, leaving a convenient trail of exhaust up the mountainside. Not to mention the guy who organized this whole counterproductive soirée knows from experience that Hedorah’s attracted to exhaust fumes, as he nearly became a victim when the monster swallowed up a highway’s worth of cars during a previous attack; and yet, not once does he offer a word of warning to anyone.
After some initial disappointment that more people didn’t show up, the young people on Mt. Fuji construct a huge bonfire (producing a plainly visible source of light as well as atmosphere-wrecking carbon dioxide). And when Hedorah eventually touches down on Mt. Fuji, they pick up torches, foolishly hurl these comically ineffective weapons at the advancing creature, and are quickly slain in a wave of corrosive sludge. Their whole charade accomplished nothing and brought on exactly what they had coming.
Early in this sequence, as the young people are partying, the camera abruptly cuts to a group of ghostly, older men watching from a distance. Just who they are, the film never specifies, and this touches on something else I appreciated about Banno as a director. Instead of spelling out the answer to every tiny detail in the film, he would sometimes simply present a perplexing image and leave the audience to come to their own conclusions. (I, for one, view these specter-like figures as a metaphor of Japan’s older self, saddened but powerless to stop the modern generation from destroying itself.)
This unflattering look at counterculture can be seen again in Prophecies of Nostradamus: large groups of young people, in the face of a global apocalypse, rather than confront the issue, opt for mass suicide.
In wrapping things up, I want to make a few more observations regarding Banno’s place in the tokusatsu genre. Although the director was never given charge of another Godzilla movie, I do feel his influence remains prevalent in kaiju eiga, even to this day. The anti-pollution message has arguably become even more popular since 1971; and the concept of pollution-eating kaiju has occasionally reappeared as well, the monster Dagahra in Kunio Miyoshi’s Rebirth of Mothra II (1997) being one such example. And when I watched Godzilla Resurgence (2016) last year, I felt a much stronger influence of Yoshimitsu Banno than I did of Ishiro Honda. The constantly evolving monster in that film brought back more memories, for me, of Godzilla vs. Hedorah than it did of Godzilla (1954), as did the relentless mockery of authority figures.
And then there’s the response from the audience. I doubt there will ever be a general consensus regarding Godzilla vs. Hedorah, except in that it makes for an unforgettable experience. Fans remain split in terms of whether they enjoy the infamous flying sequence, or the psychedelic imagery, or the regular animated interludes—or, to address a larger issue, the superhero Godzilla phase, the dawn of which this film marked. But the film does leave its viewers with a lasting impression. And it speaks volumes to Banno’s uniqueness as a director that his sole entry in the Godzilla franchise would remain, forty-six years after its release, among the most intensely discussed, debated, critiqued, and analyzed films in the series.General // May 28, 2017
I have been an appreciator of film scores for as long as I can remember. In fact, when asked to name my favorite musical artists, I tend to cite—in addition to composers of classical music—the men and women whose recorded notes complement the images when we watch a film. And as the title of this article would suggest, quite a few of the scores in the Godzilla series spring to mind when naming my favorites. Hence why I could not settle for the customary numerical figure of ten when compiling this list!
I have decided to rank these albums according to criteria largely divorced from the movies themselves. (After all, even a lousy movie can be blessed with a good soundtrack—ergo, endorsement of a soundtrack is not necessarily endorsement of the film it derives from.) I am also judging these scores mostly as standalone experiences and not so much in terms of how they relate or fail to relate to their respective films: so soundtracks which function effectively in context but not so much on their own—à la Alexandre Desplat’s score for Godzilla (2014)—will not make the cut. And scores that sometimes feel mismatched to their given project have the potential to land a spot due to functioning brilliantly on their own.
Criteria now stated, let’s begin.
#15. Son of Godzilla
As with the motion picture it derives from, Masaru Sato’s score for Son of Godzilla (1967) immediately springs to mind when considering the most unfairly dismissed accomplishments in the series. The Main Title theme, which reappears at various lengths throughout the remainder of the soundtrack, captures a playful and energetic mood befitting a tropical environment. And yet the score as a whole is not entirely upbeat; it does have some dark edges to it. The track Kumonga Appears, cued for the arrival of the antagonist monster, is a suitably creepy piece of music but not to the point where it feels like it belongs in a different album altogether.
In another instance—one which quintessentially demonstrates Sato’s range—the composer deftly transitions between whimsy and dread: Saeko and Minilla, perhaps my favorite track in the entire score. It starts on an empathy-stirring note (recalling the scene where newborn Minya whimpered haplessly as Godzilla stomped away, apparently abandoning the infant reptile to a fate alone in the wilderness) before assuming a rendition of the Main Title motif and then unleashing an eruption of fearsome notes; and then the composer repeats the last two steps; I very much enjoyed how the second iteration of the menacing segment paces itself at a slower tempo than the first.
A fantastic listen—both in and out of the film.
My next selection is a prime example of something I mentioned before: the occasional appearance of a great soundtrack in a rather lackluster movie. Like most people, I do not hold the 1998 film GODZILLA with particularly high regard. And, again like most people, I most certainly consider the 2014 reboot directed by Gareth Edwards a largely superior effort. However, there is one area in which I feel the Roland Emmerich film outclasses the Edwards film…by a long shot! To reiterate: Desplat’s score for the 2014 picture served its purpose to satisfying effect when attached to the film; but when isolated and left to fend for itself, the soundtrack grew a tad dull with a succession of mostly unmemorable tracks. (Some exceptions: the main title Godzilla! and Golden Gate Chaos.)
By contrast, the score for the 1998 film, composed by the underrated David Arnold, is a thoroughly enjoyable listen packed with exhilarating action cues, catchy themes for character moments, and the employment of a choir rightfully described by David Hirsch in the Ultimate EditionCD pamphlet as “angelic.” (This is particularly true of the conclusion of Big G Goes to Monster Heaven.) I am also very fond of Joe Gets a Bite / Godzilla Arrives: the turbulent notes Arnold employs when Godzilla’s tail and dorsal spines rise into view over a highway coupled with a preceding tone of suspense never fails to dazzle me. Let it also be said that Arnold put together a soothing leitmotif for the character of Audrey and finds just the right moments to incorporate it so that it does not grow tiresome when experiencing the soundtrack by itself—now if only Emmerich and Devlin had upheld their end of the bargain and provided a character who wasn’t, to put it gently, one of the most exasperating female leads in the history of cinema.
But I digress.
It is a shame Arnold’s score has been disregarded over the years due to its association with a much-maligned movie. But he must be credited for delivering one of the few thoroughly commendable qualities in the aforementioned production. I have no shame in citing his soundtrack for GODZILLA as a huge personal favorite.
Onto another entry embodying the criteria I previously described, though this particular choice addresses how a great score can sometimes fail to relate—or not relate as well as it might have—to its chosen film. As has been reported, Koichi Sugiyama wasn’t exactly thrown into the best possible circumstances when scoring Kazuki Omori’s Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989). Sugiyama, whose closest experience to scoring a monster movie was the theme song for Return of Ultraman, was challenged with providing a lush soundtrack without seeing any footage; so the composer wrote a number of suites, centered around various themes and emotions, and it was up to the filmmakers to cut, edit, and assemble them for use in the movie. Hence why, when you watch the film, you will often hear the exact same track—the exact same recording—being used again and again and again. (It’s also worth mentioning that Sugiyama did not conduct or record the actual soundtrack; said task befell David Howell, the arranger, who similarly carried out his assignment without screening the film.)
Sugiyama’s score has also been criticized for being too derivative of non-Japanese soundtracks—namely the work of John Williams—and rightfully so. The rapid rhythmic thumping in the Godzilla 1989 suite is all too clearly inspired by the shark’s theme in Jaws (1975); and when listening to the Super-X2 suite, one cannot help but picture Christopher Reeve soaring to the rescue in Superman: The Movie (1978).
Two paragraphs to exemplify some earlier mentioned criteria. Now onto the meat of this selection. Derivativeness and in-context redundancy aside, Sugiyama’s score for Godzilla vs. Biollante, I feel, emerges as an excellent and delightfully unique musical addition to the franchise! Especially when one regards the suites in their entirety as opposed to the snippets that appeared in the movie. It saddens me to this day that we didn’t get to hear more of the sweeping Love Theme in the film, for the track rises from a solid beginning—what ended up being used—to a truly amazing finish as it goes along. It is a piece of music worthy of any grand romantic spectacle. Sugiyama’s Biollante suite is also beautiful—integrating wonder, mystery, suspense, shock, and empathy into a single six-plus-minute stretch. Requiem, when examined in its entirety, makes for a very lovely and listenable piece of music. Same goes for Asuka.
And, imitative as it is, I love the Super-X2’s theme!
The soundtrack also recycles some cues from Ostinato: a collection of re-recorded Akira Ifukube tracks conducted in the mid-80s to accompany an outtake video before landing a commercial release in 1986. The fact that the recycled cues boast a noticeably different style from Sugiyama’s music and were all too obviously recorded under different circumstances (conduction by Hiroshi Kumagai) does stand out a bit, but not enough to take away from the enjoyment factor.
Oh, I forgot to mention Bio-Wars. Yes, the notorious cue which reworked the classic Godzilla theme into a piece of rock music. I confess I sort of have a soft spot for this suite, though I’m grateful it was only used once in the film.
Of course, we can debate whether the Ostinato cues and/or Bio-Wars work in context, but believe it or not, these tracks are due partial credit for Ifukube’s subsequent return to the franchise. From the composer’s interview with Steve Ryfle: “I did not accept the assignment for Godzilla vs. Biollante, but after the film was released, my daughter pointed out they had used some of my music in the film. Also, they had made some of my music into a rock theme, and I did not like that! So, my daughter encouraged me to accept the next Godzilla movie so I would have some control over how my music was used.”
So in a sense, even detractors owe the soundtrack for Godzilla vs. Biollante a certain level of grudging respect. Without this album, we might not have received any of the maestro’s highly celebrated film scores from the 1990s.
Growing up watching the heavily edited American cut of King Kong vs. Godzilla, I always thought the stock western music in that particular version felt perplexing and out of its element. Even as a kid, I could tell the score, as well as the film as a whole, had been tampered with to extremely ill effect. Then I purchased the La-La Land Records release of the original Japanese score, and it quickly became one of my favorite Godzilla soundtracks. And remains so to this day.
While the themes centered around Kong—Main Title, The Sleeping Devil, The Invincible King Kong, among others—are gems, this soundtrack is rich with plenty of other standout pieces. It was here that the menacing Godzilla march was applied to the character. (Although this terrifying cue is a modification of the beast’s attack leitmotif in the original 1954 classic, it was with the 1962 score that it reached its more common, identifiable form). Some of my all-time favorite variations are contained here: Godzilla’s Resurrection and its later renditions The Terror of Godzilla and Operation “One Million Volts” I. Pitched at various tempos, the march consistently delivers in conveying an atmosphere of ensuing danger. But perhaps my favorite use of it occurs at the tail-end of The Seahawk’s S.O.S. The bulk of this track is very suspenseful and then the first part of Godzilla’s march erupts forth, accompanied by an eerie, almost otherworldly background noise that sounds as though it were written for a UFO instead of a giant reptile. It works, oddly enough.
Also: some of the best military marches in Ifukube’s career.
The soundtrack for King Kong vs. Godzilla includes two stock cues composed by none other than Ifukube’s former student Sei Ikeno, my favorite being the very catchy Great News Gathering Team Departure. It’s a real treat to be able to hear this track (originally from the 1959 film Use the Handcuff) in its entirety.
Another slam-dunk from the greatest Godzilla composer to date, his third effort in the Heisei series, and the penultimate album in his film scoring career. After the merely efficient score for Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) and the majestic score for Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), Ifukube catapulted himself back into the realm of greatness for the return of Godzilla’s mechanical doppelganger. In addition to a lofty, percussion-heavy new theme for MechaGodzilla, this album’s rendition of both Godzilla themes demonstrate vast improvement over their somewhat hollow-sounding 1992 counterparts. And even though the Godzilla vs. Mothra album featured a number of mesmerizing choir-enhanced cues, the songs in this album (lyrics written in the Ainu language), go even further in creating awe-inspiring aural beauty. As with several other scores by this composer, this soundtrack tends to be repetitive; but Ifukube, as always, is so good that he afford to rehash his own work; not to mention, unlike the Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah music, a good bulk of the reiterated themes are brand-new, so the repetition hardly matters in the long run.
One of the most difficult choices in making this top 15 list was deciding which Michiru Oshima-composed MechaGodzilla soundtrack I liked best. (For disclosure: I also hold her Godzilla vs. Megaguirus music with extremely high regard. Consider it an honorable mention, if you will.) Her work in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. stands out as arguably her most diverse of the three: incorporating her highly memorable Godzilla theme, the awe-inspiring leitmotif for Kiryu, and a gorgeous new theme for Mothra, along with the stellar remainder of this soundtrack. Oshima manages to juggle between her primary themes, sometimes within the same individual tracks, with a gracefulness that rivals Ifukube. I also enjoyed how, in this entry, Oshima sometimes spaced out the clusters of percussion notes for Godzilla’s theme, drawing out suspense—such as for the scene where the King of the Monsters rises from the sea before a stunned military defense line. Familiar material, yes, but with an occasional (and appreciated) change in delivery. The battle themes are extraordinary, with Imago Mothra x Godzilla taking the lead in creating a sense of frenetic tension.
And special mention must be made of End Credits. I can listen to this final cue on a loop, but its denouement, in particular, really stands out to me, featuring some of the most resplendent chorus work I’ve heard in a film score (period!).
In a sense, Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. marks Oshima’s most accomplished work in the series. Why then, you might ask, do I rank this score ever so slightly beneath the score for Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla (2002)?
The number seven selection marks a point where my opinion will markedly split from the general consensus. Takayuki Hattori is widely deemed one of the weaker composers to work in the Godzilla franchise, derided by many as having been woefully mismatched to the genre. I, however, am a huge enthusiast of this man’s work and, as such, have always had tremendous affection for both of his Godzilla scores. One criticism I will consent to: he sometimes had a tendency, in his two kaiju albums, to write music that sounded out of place in the movie it was written for. (There were moments where the scores felt as though they belonged in different projects altogether.) But this has never detracted from my overall admiration for his talent; keep in mind my preference to judge these scores predominately on their own terms, separate from the films; and I personally feel the divergences, in both albums, were few and far between. By and large, I thought his music worked excellently. Thus, the first score of his to appear on this list—the one for Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla(1994)—holds a special place in my heart.
Accounts vary as to why Ifukube did not score the film—the composer expressed disinterest in the script in interviews; director Kensho Yamashita cited a scheduling conflict as the cause—but, whatever the reason, it might have been for the better. Hattori’s score is a perfect fit, as far I am concerned. SpaceGodzilla’s primary theme utilizes an impressive combination of strings, cymbals, and horns to generate a unsettling vibe necessary for the antagonist monster. The new G-Force theme is suitably heroic and—dare I say it!—a tad more memorable than Ifukube’s still-excellent military themes from Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II.
Moving on—and further widening the gap between myself and the rest of the fandom—I am a huge, huge enthusiast for Hattori’s rousing Godzilla march. Fast-paced with quick percussion beats, it quintessentially conveys a sense of majesty and determination—an essential combination for when Godzilla is marching across Fukuoka to clash with his extra-terrestrial foe.
As both admirers and detractors will agree, Hattori’s greatest strength lies in his flair for subtlety, and it is in the gentler tracks that the soundtrack for Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla reaches its pinnacle! The romantic cues, especially the one cued for when Miki and Shinjo speak with each other before the sunset, are wonderful to listen to; the mixture of strings and softly performed woodwinds works to soothing effect. The (clearly John Barry-inspired) Birth Island I track is another earworm piece. Requiem, for the immediate aftermath of SpaceGodzilla’s defeat: gentle, a tad melancholy, and still carrying across a feeling of genuine accomplishment. I am also rather keen on the frolicsome, Sato-esque theme for Little Godzilla.
The soundtrack for Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla uses some non-Hattori music as well. First: a few stock tracks from Ifukube’s Godzilla vs. Mothra and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II albums. Second: the track M25, by Isao Shigeto, which perfectly blends with the tone of Hattori’s music, composed for the film’s closing scene. Third: the song Echoes of Love, performed by Date of Birth, makes for a pleasant, bliss-stirring listen.
#06. Mothra vs. Godzilla
Now we’re getting to the really good stuff! From the very beginning of the main title sequence, complete with sounds that feel more mechanical than musical, later punched up with an explosive rendition of the Godzilla march and the instantly memorable battle theme, Ifukube’s score for the 1964 classic Mothra vs. Godzilla defines itself as a milestone in the composer’s career. As with its companion film, this soundtrack contains just about everything you could ask for: terror, suspense, gentleness, majesty, heart-pounding combat themes, reverence. The soundtrack contains a good many themes present elsewhere in the franchise, but in terms of conduction and the raw experience of listening to these iconic cues, the soundtrack for Mothra vs. Godzilla remains virtually unsurpassed.
The intimidating Godzilla march, for instance, has never sounded better! After Attack on the Industrial Compound, my favorite use of the march is Godzilla Appears, for that iconic scene in which the King of the Monsters rises out of the ground, bellowing in defiance. What I find appealing about this track is, first, the conduction. The heart-starting notes that open this rendition of the march and signal Godzilla’s arrival never fail to erect the hair on my arms. And secondly, I love the ponderous, atmospheric delivery of the latter part of this particular cue and the way it slowly tails into silence. As a whole, it perfectly encapsulates the impression of a gigantic, terrifying force of nature slowly pressing onward, unstoppable, its destination unknown, the fate of its victims chosen. And no matter how many times Ifukube repeats the theme throughout the album, it never loses its luster. This is partially due to Ifukube’s sagacious decision to occasionally mix the march with other riveting tracks, such as in the two-cue Electrical Discharge Strike set.
While I do maintain my stance that the original Yuji Koseki Mothra song, performed by the Ito sisters, hasn’t been matched since its induction in the 1961 Mothra soundtrack, the performance of the song in this album fares very well. Also splendid are Ifukube’s new songs for the Shobijin, with lyrics written in Tagalog. I’m also very much a fan of Reflection of the Little Beauties—starting off with its touching theme for the Shobijin and its segue into a purely musical rendition of the Sacred Springssong, and then a variation of the sinister The Dome is Activated, before culminating with a return to its prefatory tranquility. It’s one of the most enamoring pieces of film music I’ve ever heard.
A genuine winner in Ifukube’s film score repertoire.
As is the case with a great many works of art, Ifukube’s score for the original Godzilla (1954) may have never become a reality had it not been for the composer’s steadfast affection for the project. Undeterred by his colleagues’ warnings that working on a monster film could bring an end to his career, Ifukube undertook the challenge of creating music—and some sound effects—for one of the most important and well-remembered films in the history of Japanese cinema. Although the composer would go on to write other foreboding, ominous scores, his soundtrack for Godzilla pushes the dark elements to a truly despairing, almost gothic level.
It is also a major favorite of mine because of how different it is when compared to other entries in Ifukube’s career. Notable moments of the score consist of “musical sound effects”—some to emphasize a visual action, others used, literally, as Foley. As many know by now, Ifukube holds claim to the creation of the explosion-like footsteps we hear over the opening credits, not to mention the monster’s original blood-chilling roar. The composer would go on to incorporate musical “blasts” in the tracks Eiko-Maru Sinking and Bingo-Maru Sinking, using piano and gong notes to create a resonant underpinning for when the two ships meet their grisly, flame-wrapped ends. Another ingenious contribution to the soundtrack: the creepy, mechanical-sounding noises at the beginnings of Horror in the Water Tank and Oxygen Destroyer for when Dr. Serizawa demonstrates the power of his superweapon. Growing up watching the film, I always assumed those disturbing noises had been created by the sound department. It was not until listening to the score on CD that I realized it was, in reality, clever use of instrumentation by the film’s composer. The result: a chilling sensation as audiences witness the one weapon capable of destroying Godzilla…and which could, if placed in the wrong hands, signal the end of the world.
For me, however, there is no greater embodiment of horror in this album than the attack theme for the scenes in which the behemoth mercilessly lays waste to Tokyo. Discarding almost all use of string instruments, Ifukube unleashes an assortment of brass and woodwinds to generate one of the most blood-chilling musical tracks in cinema history—befitting a monster director Ishiro Honda described as a living embodiment of the hydrogen bomb.
The score also works brilliantly in capturing Honda’s humanism. Ifukube wisely selected a large choir to perform the Prayer for Peace song, the multitude of voices emphasizing the widespread loss and despair following Godzilla’s attack. Tragic Sight at the Imperial Capital and Godzilla at the Ocean Floor are very much alike in composition, but the latter falls slightly more in my favor for its extended complexity and dramatic payoff. Just like the scene it was written for, this penultimate track does not strive for the adrenaline expected of most science-fiction climaxes, opting instead for a sense of melancholia as Godzilla—a victim of the H-bomb himself—is wiped from existence along with the creator of the weapon which has defeated him.
Before we move onto the final three selections, I wish to salute Erik Homenick, webmaster of akiraifukube.org, whose heavily researched biography chapter covering the 1954 soundtrackprovided much of the historical and technical information described above and does far greater justice to the score—and Ifukube, in general—than I ever could.
#03. Godzilla vs. Gigan
A far better example of a “Best of…” album than most music collections officially released under such a label, the soundtrack for Godzilla vs. Gigan is predominately composed of stock music: cues pulled from various projects Ifukube had created by that time, amassed into a makeshift score. This includes a few pieces he wrote for a multimedia exhibit featured at the Mitsubishi Pavilion Expo 1970as well as two non-tokusatsu films: The Big Boss, from 1959, and Will to Conquer, also from 1970. As I remind the reader once more of my decision to arrange these selections on a largely intuitive level, I express no guilt in announcing my view that the Godzilla vs. Gigan soundtrack is, in a way, the ultimate method of experiencing Ifukube’s work in science-fiction—up to that point, anyhow. It also avoids repetition found elsewhere and makes for a more immersive listening experience.
To discuss most of these tracks would practically open room to discussing the scores they derived from, but I wish to shine the spotlight on what came from the earlier mentioned expo. First, there’s a rousing theme utilized in Main Title and The Earth Monsters’ Counterattack. Second, The Tower Destruction Operation. It functions spectacularly as a gut-wrenching piece of music—and every time I listen to it as Godzilla is being blasted by the Godzilla Tower’s lasers, with Anguirus making a futile attempt to save his friend’s life, a dramatic chord is struck in my heart. It’s beautiful.
Oh: the end credits song, of which Ifukube had no association. It’s nice.
I recall a conversation with a fellow admirer of The Return of Godzilla (1984), who expressed a certain level of gratefulness toward Ifukube’s decision to turn down scoring Godzilla’s 30th anniversary comeback: said gentleman told me he felt the tone of the 1984 movie was so strong and defined that it demanded a totally different style in terms of the accompanying musical score, one which Ifukube might not have been able to provide. The more I think about our conversation, the more I tend to agree with his sentiment. Of course, Ifukube was no stranger to gothic music. But with this 1984 score, Reijiro Koroku outshines even the maestro in elevating dread.
The score, very western in style—very fitting for a Cold War picture—shares a core strength with the movie: it is extremely atmospheric. Compare, for instance, Godzilla’s theme in this picture to the themes associated with the character before. Ifukube’s marches for the King of the Monsters were largely energetic and primarily utilized when the monster was already on-screen; Koroku’s Godzilla’s theme, by contrast, strives mostly for suspense: placing emphasis on the buildup. The musical notes are, more often than not, brooding rather than bombastic, and spiced with ominous piano tingles—channeling a true sense of horror for when Godzilla is just seconds away from making his grand appearance. But Koroku’s brilliance does not end with suspense: he delivers and then some in terms of terror. The Main Title is particularly gothic and frightening, as is its faster-paced counterpart Godzilla’s Appearance, highlighting the monster’s battle with the air force in Tokyo Bay. The Destruction of the Nuclear Power Plant fares as one of the most unsettling pieces of music in the franchise. Also worth a mention: Super-X Mobilization. Minus two appearances of the Super-X’s rather upbeat theme, this cue is extremely moody and punched up with occasional blaring notes to heighten the spectacle of a giant monster marching through Tokyo. Godzilla’s rampage in the 1984 film is packed with awe-inspiring compositions; and this track ramps the spectacle to an even higher degree. Other atmospheric cues include News of Godzilla and Approach of the Missile, which are not particularly morbid but still convey the necessary vibe of trepidation.
Koroku’s talents also shine with the other emotions needed in the album. Your Brother Lives is a very pleasant piece of romantic music and makes for a nice recurring theme (like the romance in the film, it’s present enough to make itself known, but not to the point where it feels as though it is consuming the entire narrative); the military marches are memorably energetic and convey a sense of scale for the vast armadas dispatched to defend their homeland; Two People Left carries a genuinely ambiguous sense of sadness for its heroes who aren’t so sure if they will live long enough to see the next morning.
Of course, it would be impossible for me to discuss this soundtrack without saluting the final three Koroku-composed tracks heard in the motion picture: Godzilla to Oshima, Godzilla Lands on Oshima, and Godzilla Into Mihara. Never before or not since in the franchise has there been a more consummate assembly of tragic, melancholic cues. With all due respect to Akira Ifukube, I must confess I find the last track, played when Godzilla descends into the volcano, even more tear-jerking than Requiem from Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. It is so elegiac, so emotionally overwhelming in its use of strings. I only wish the Star Sisters pop song Goodbye Godzilla had been discarded for use in the film and Koroku’s unused Ending been chosen instead. Now I personally have a soft spot for the song (even though it does not fit whatsoever with the tone of what has preceded it); but the somber, piano-heavy cue Koroku originally wrote is so much more suiting. With perhaps a few reservations, I might even go so far as to cite it as my favorite track in the entire score—and therefore my favorite track in the entire Godzilla franchise.
Personal bias might play a factor in my placing Koroku’s score at the number one spot—I have never made a secret of the fact that The Return of Godzilla is my all-time favorite movie in the Godzilla franchise—but, sappy as it sounds, I cannot imagine my life without this score. I wouldn’t even know where to start in guessing how many times I have listened to it; it continues to dazzle me every single time I watch the movie; and it has regularly been a source of inspiration when I’ve been in a creative mood and seeking inspiration. And just as I continue to believe the series has not seen a better film since the 1984 classic, I remain convinced no composer has conjured a more memorable soundtrack for the franchise since Koroku raised the baton and scored The Return of Godzilla.General // February 14, 2017
I found out about the death of Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) director Kensho Yamashita about a month and a half after the actual day of his passing (heart failure claimed his life at the age of 72 on August 16, 2016), and the moment I realized he was no longer with us, a small part of me cried out with sorrow and regret. In the previous few years, I’d been harboring, in the most sentimental depths of my heart, a desire to meet Yamashita in person, shake his hand, and let him know how much his Godzilla movie has meant to me over the years.
I will review Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) for the site one of these days, so I’ll save most of my detailed thoughts until then, but Yamashita’s film is, in my sincere opinion, pretty close to the forefront of the most underrated films in the franchise. And more to the point of this article, it was one of my go-to sources of innocuous, feel-good entertainment when I was a kid. I will never forget recording Godzilla’s 40th anniversary film off the SyFy Channel in the early 2000s and subsequently watching and re-watching it to the point where, in hindsight, I’m shocked the VHS tape didn’t wear out.
In spite of its evidently rushed production, the movie continually won me over with its lighthearted atmosphere, memorable characters, sublime musical score, and picturesque cinematography. (The scene where Megumi Odaka and Jun Hashizumi stand before the sunset on Birth Island embodies pretty much all of the qualities that have endured with me since childhood.) And having re-watched Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) twice earlier this year, I can safely say the movie still works its magic on me. How rewarding it is to look back on something from one’s childhood and realize it still holds up on an emotional level.
Kensho Yamashita only directed three films—he primarily worked as an assistant director—and many have described him as, essentially, a gun-for-hire as far as the 1994 Godzilla film was concerned. To an extent, he could be considered the Motoyoshi Oda (director of Godzilla Raids Again) of the Heisei series: a man with some experience hired to quickly shell out a product for the studio. I do feel, however, that Yamashita demonstrated a little more of a personal touch in his monster movie than some have given him credit for. His background in directing in the teen idol movie genre is evident on the screen, with heavy emphasis on the bonding between male and female characters, and how love has the potential to mold and change a person’s outlook. This aspect alone distinguishes the film from most Godzilla movies, in which romance seems more obligatory and inconsequential, more ‘at-arms-length’ than anything else. Teaming up with screenwriter Hiroshi Kashiwabara, as well as reuniting with actors from previous projects of his, Yamashita was given the chance—and took the chance—to go beyond simply pointing a camera at the performers; in an issue of Fangoria magazine, he is quoted saying, “I just tried to express my own spirit the best I could.”
If there is a dominant theme in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla(1994), you could say it’s a twist on Make Love, Not War—with a nice dash of humor thrown in for good measure. One of the final shots stands out as a directorial thumbprint. Godzilla is in the distance, wading out to sea after the final battle; our heroes stand on a boardwalk in the foreground; one couple situates themselves on the right side of the screen; another couple is positioned on the left side; and the single guy of the group—the odd man out—comically stands between them. As film historian David Kalat points out in his book A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, the two soldiers who have found love are through fighting. Love has allowed them to forget desires of the past (in the case of one character, thirst for vengeance) and move on with what’s more important in their lives. (Meanwhile, the fifth wheel hollers after Godzilla, declaring they’ll battle again someday.)
Whether or not Yamashita’s efforts yielded good results depends on the individual tastes and perceptions of the viewer, but he did leave a signature on his one entry in a popular film franchise. And there is something to be said for that.
Rest In Peace, Kensho Yamashita. And thank you for all the wonderful, feel-good hours your Godzilla movie has given me, and will continue to give me in the years to come.General // September 30, 2016
In regards to one opinion on the late Japanese special effects director Koichi Kawakita there is no disagreement: he was a man of repetition. He started directing effects for television and feature-length motion pictures in the early-to-mid 1970s and following the departure of Teruyoshi Nakano about a decade later became Toho’s go-to man for visual effects. It did not take him long to adequately declare his style. A style that continues to draw a fair amount of criticism. Simply put: some feel Kawakita was too redundant in the way he would stage and dramatize effects sequences.
It’s a fair criticism. No matter my personal affection for the man’s work, I will not deny Kawakita liked to fall back on the same tricks again and again. The depiction of giant monsters who, for the most part, discarded physical combat in favor of constantly spraying animated rays at one another—beam wars—did feel superfluous toward the end of the Heisei series. And as much as it played into the fantasy element, one does wonder if the effects team was capable of dramatizing a film without one or more of the monsters changing shape and form: something that happened, without exception, in all six of Kawakita’s Godzilla movies as well as the first two Rebirth of Mothra films. (The trend continued in 1998’s Rebirth of Mothra III under the care of former assistant Kenji Suzuki.)
I will concede Kawakita was repetitive to a fault. However, there were instances in his films where I’d argue returning to familiar territory was not only welcome but, in a sense, justified. For Kawakita had the capacity to improve his technique with practice. Sometimes a second attempt at a particular effects trick or scenario would completely dominate and make up for a disappointing first try.
Sometimes being repetitive paid off.
1. Volcanic Eruptions
Godzilla’s grand appearance out of an erupting volcano in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) is a prime example. The pyrotechnics in this scene are efficient but could have done more. The eruption, which is supposed to have been set off by terrorist-planted explosives, produces little more than sparks and a couple localized columns of flame. (Teruyoshi Nakano would have insisted on more dynamic explosions and lighting.) As is, much of the scene’s effectiveness stems from the impressive appearance and filming of the monster costume in action, aided by the inclusion of Akira Ifukube‘s classic Godzilla theme on the soundtrack. It is a very good sequence overall, but one which probably should have upped the spectacle.
A great display of special effects, one that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Kawakita’s second chance came three years later with Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), and this time he did not disappoint. Seen on the above image on the right, the mid-movie eruption, with Godzilla emerging from the famous Mount Fuji, is a masterful tour de force of camerawork, lighting, and pyrotechnics. All coming together and forming a genuine highlight. By staging the scene at night (as opposed to its daytime counterpart in Godzilla vs. Biollante), Kawakita could take full advantage of dynamic, colorful lights. The crimson glow cast upon—sometimes silhouetting—Godzilla makes for sheer eye candy that would not have been possible under a sunny sky. Compositional tricks come into play as well. At key points, the camera shakes—not to distort the imagery but to enhance the illusion of the earth undergoing a tumultuous eruption. And the combination of explosions, smoke, and fountains of sparks outshine any previous volcano-set scene in the franchise; the brilliant touch of electrical disturbances (a phenomenon caused by volcanic activity in real life) makes the scene even more amazing to behold. There also comes a shot in which Kawakita succeeds where many other special effects directors have struggled: filming the Godzilla costume from a high angle without losing the sense of scale.
2. Godzilla’s Nuclear Pulse
This second point concerns not so much the physical (or optical) execution of special effects but rather the editing of them. Editing is an absolutely fundamental part of filmmaking, so I feel it is very much worth drawing attention to. Let’s consider another first attempt in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989). It is during the final battle of this film that we are introduced to Godzilla’s nuclear pulse: when the monster attempts to charge his atomic breath as something wraps around his neck or torso and he discharges all the energy outward from his body in the form of a shock wave, devastating anything within close proximity. It’s a brilliant concept and something new for the monster’s arsenal. It’s also plausible, in the parameters of this universe, that something preventing Godzilla from discharging his heat-ray would result in a chain reaction.
However, in Godzilla vs. Biollante, the editing of this special effect feels rushed and incomplete. All due to a single truncated shot. The key shot of one of Biollante’s tendrils constricting around Godzilla’s torso cuts off much too early for its own good. And the good of what happens next. Had the camera been allowed to linger long enough for us to see the tendril complete its motion and tighten its grip around Godzilla’s body (giving us some visual emphasis), the illusion would have been better sustained. But since the most important shot ends before it can really make its point, it all comes across more as a clumsy moment than a breathtaking battle technique.
But Kawakita learned from his mistake and made sure not to repeat it when he returned to the nuclear pulse in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). During the first battle sequence, a fallen King Ghidorah lunges up from the ground, collides head-on into a perplexed Godzilla, and coils his middle neck around the adversary’s neck like a giant golden python. Godzilla writhes his head about and futilely claws at Ghidorah in wide shots, unable to break free. A little later, foam starts bubbling from his maw, accompanied by agonized gurgles. The extended amount of time spent on this buildup and the brilliant use of Foley allows the audience to viscerally feel and understand that Godzilla is unable to breathe or use his heat ray.
What’s more: by drawing things out, Kawakita builds suspense. For the second time in the course of this battle, Godzilla appears to be on the losing end. And it is therefore all the more spectacular—and dramatic—when Godzilla’s body starts emitting patches of blue light and the shock wave casts outward, tearing King Ghidorah away and hurling the dragon-like monster onto its back with a thunderous crash. The payoff is heightened thanks to the tension.
In future entries, Kawakita employed the nuclear pulse mostly for aesthetics. (Godzilla used it without something cutting off his energy charge; although it could be argued the regular use of the nuclear pulse in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995) reflects his constantly increasing power.) Nonetheless, in Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, Kawakita makes sure the shock waves occur in well-paced and unobstructed wide shots so that the audience is not left scratching their heads, wondering what just happened.
Very much like the films they appeared in, Kawakita’s effects are often credited with eradicating monster anthropomorphization: no longer did the skyscraper-sized beasts toss rocks at each other, perform bounding dances of victory, homage Yuzo Kayama with nose-scratches, etc. Kawakita’s 90s effects helped prove Japanese monsters could be straight-forward again; they also proved, however, that improvements in technology did not always yield improvements in believability.
As certain effects in Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) vividly demonstrated.
The Mothra larvae in the 1992 box office smash leaves a lot to be desired. Despite retaining a segmented exoskeleton, the creature, when in motion, mostly slides across the ground rather than undulating the various parts of its body like a real caterpillar would. There is very little sense of it moving under its own power. (Too many close-ups revealing its completely inert legs only amplify the damage.) There is some mobility in the head while it “crawls,” but not enough to 1) maintain the illusion and 2) believably match the speed at which the model is moving. And this is a significant downgrade considering the degree of fluctuating movement Eiji Tsuburaya and Sadamasa Arikawa evoked from their Mothra larvae all through the 1960s. In spite of the resources, Kawakita’s attempt was a step down.
That is, until he took another stab at the character.
For the prop utilized in the first Rebirth of Mothra (1996) is not only a vast upgrade; it is arguably the best depiction of Mothra’s infant stage to date. Equipped with far superior capacities for movement, the prop undulates in a completely smooth and lifelike manner that surpasses even the work of Tsuburaya. A nice touch: as the larvae crawls, the rounded segments of its exoskeleton separate very slightly, organic tissue underneath.
Kawakita further redeems himself by pulling off other complicated tricks. At one point in the mid-movie battle with Desghidorah, the larvae is hurled against the ground, lands partially on its side, rights itself, and proceeds to crawl for cover. The performance is superb, conveying intelligence and survival instincts; and each movement—the fall, the regaining of balance, the escape—is carried out immaculately. Kawakita has once again proven his ability to improve with a second try.
The same can be said to a somewhat lesser degree about his adult Mothra puppetry. Kawakita never fully mastered winged monsters; although, to his credit, very few special effects directors since the Tsuburaya years have been able to pull off this illusion in a convincing manner; and the imago Mothra in Godzilla vs. Mothra suffered similar problems as its larval stage. Stiff movement. The wings rarely flapped enough to make the audience believe it could really fly, and until the end of the final battle, its six legs did nothing more than hang in a fixed position from the body. Another significant downgrade, performance-wise, from Eiji Tsuburaya’s absolutely masterful work several decades prior.
However, returning to Rebirth of Mothra, even though Kawakita still failed to match his former master, he did display some moments of personal growth. There are numerous shots of Mothra flying in which her legs are flexing—helping convey the impression this is, in fact, a living creature. Excellent close-ups of the head, antennae constantly twitching, enhance the realism even further. And even though the giant insect’s wings still move a little too stiffly, a boost in creativity shines in the wirework. In one beautifully composed wide shot, Mothra is hit by one of Desghidorah’s energy bolts, and the puppet visibly jitters, struggling to stay in the air. This too is an improvement over Kawakita’s previous adaptation of the character, who seemed to take every ray fired by Godzilla and Battra without much of a physical reaction.
And then comes one of the milestones in Kawakita’s career—in which his best Mothra larvae prop and his best Mothra imago prop were both used to their utmost potential.
Unable to defeat Desghidorah, the dying adult Mothra plucks her offspring from the ground and carries it to safety out in the middle of the ocean before losing her stamina and crashing into the water, where she eventually drowns. The special effects director’s ability to generate a performance out of inanimate objects comes through in this highly emotional sequence. As she gradually loses her ability to stay airborne, the adult Mothra reels back and forth. She allows her child to land in the water, knowing it can swim, and tries again to keep herself in the air—to no avail. After its mother crashes into the sea, the larvae rushes to her aid. Mothra tries again and again to rise up, the water weighing her down and plunging her deeper; the larvae frantically tries to support her. Eventually, Mothra’s exhaustion, old age, and injuries prove too much; and her lifeless form sounds into the depths. The devastating emotional impact triumphs due to the sublime coordination and performance of the special effects. Kawakita improved his technique and, more importantly, he instilled his creations with personality, with life, with feeling, and evoked an empathetic reaction from the audience.
And that in and of itself is a true accomplishment.General // August 1, 2016
I started introducing myself to the films of Akira Kurosawa in middle school, when I happened upon a chance to see his much-acclaimed 1950 motion picture Rashomon: a film which is credited alongside Teinosuke Kinugasa’s excellent Gate of Hell (1953) for creating western interest in Japanese cinema. In the years before this prefatory screening, I’d read a good deal about the film’s director, namely his reputation as one of the major film artists of the 20th century; so personal expectations for my first Kurosawa film were extremely high. And, as you can imagine—or maybe even relate—I was absolutely delighted when those soaring expectations of mine were quickly met and surpassed by eighty-eight minutes of crisp, poetic storytelling. I promptly labeled the film a masterpiece (a statement I stand by to this day) and kept my eyes open for other pictures by this remarkably gifted director.
Between that first screening of Rashomon and a little over a month ago, I jumped at every opportunity to see a Kurosawa film, and now I can happily proclaim that I have seen—and own—all thirty of his feature-length productions. To address the rhetorical question, I most certainly agree with the prevailing opinion that this Japanese filmmaker was one of the towering geniuses of his profession; so many of his films, such as Seven Samurai (1954) and High and Low (1963), not only capture and maintain my interest but leave me flooded with that wonderful and uplifting sensation that only the experience of seeing a truly great film can provide. Now, was every Kurosawa film on the level of a groundbreaking masterpiece? No. Did the man direct any duds in his time? A few, yes. But I would argue the vast majority of Kurosawa’s films ranged between very good and excellent, with heavy emphasis on the latter. The man was a genuine visionary, and I have no shame in calling him one of my favorite directors.
And since his entire career is so fresh in my mind at the moment, I feel now would be as good enough a time as any to do an analytical retrospective. In the course of this article, I’ll be articulating the style and subject matter of Kurosawa’s films and hopefully provide some insight as to why they have meant so much to me over the years.
The Visual Virtuoso
In starting off this essay, I would like to draw some attention to an interesting—even revealing—bit of trivia about the director under discussion: before he entered the film making industry, Kurosawa trained to be a painter. Why do I make mention of this, and what relevance does it have to the man’s eventual long-term career?
First: due to the nature of the mediums, it is practically impossible to discuss either a filmmaker or a painter without drawing at least some level of attention to their visual style. Films may make use of other mediums such as music and of course a good screenplay is a must-have, but predominately, a director is defined by what he does with his camera.
Second: Kurosawa’s method of composing shots vividly reflects his background as a painter; his shots are very much like paintings given mobile life. (And, in a sense, they are: when story boarding, Kurosawa preferred to create full-fledged paintings as opposed to sketches.) When studying a Kurosawa shot, one can see a deep interest in maintaining visual interest within multiple dimensions: the foreground, the background, the physical features of the set, and so on.
Hundreds of shots could be offered as examples, but let’s just consider a handful of images photographed at different points in the man’s career.
This still shot, taken from the opening of Kagemusha (1980), could pass for a painting. There is very little in terms of physical action: three seemingly identical men are seated; two of them are scrutinizing the other; the third man, swelling with aggravation, refuses to meet their gaze; the man in the center is situated on a podium and beneath an emblem, indicating his status. Also note the symbolism. The man in the middle is a warlord and has three shadows, so to speak: his own, projected on the wall, and the two lookalikes around him. Even with the absence of dialogue, there is enough visual information in this shot to give the audience an idea of what is happening, the subtext is rich, and the vibrant use of color makes it simply enamoring to look at.
In this shot, from the underrated The Quiet Duel, produced by Daiei in 1949, we see the director utilizing movement in both the foreground and the background for heightened tension. The surgeon and his assistants are busily moving in the background as they attempt to save the life of a wounded soldier; and in the foreground, there is a ceaseless downpour of rain which not only keeps the frame lively but also adds to the somber nature of the scene. The environment (remember what I said earlier about Kurosawa employing interest in various dimensions of a single composition?) adds to the emotions the characters are going through.
Here’s another instance—this one from that great masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954)—where Kurosawa invigorates a shot in which not much physical activity seems to be occurring. Notice the dirt visibly stirred up by the wind. But like the warlord’s shadow in the Kagemusha shot from earlier, the plumes of dirt are not merely something interesting to look at; it fits thematically with what is happening in the story. The characters are mourning for the death of one of the eponymous samurai, who lost his life not to a sword, not to an arrow, not to a spear—not to any kind of weapon samurai are accustomed to dealing with—but to a musket. A firearm. A new breed of weapon gradually replacing the old. Like the plumes of dirt blowing across the hill, the samurai and his ways have been swept away by the proverbial winds of time.
Kurosawa possessed an instinct for creating great images, but if I were to salute another, perhaps more domineering reason why I adore his style, it would be this: he invites me into the creative process of visual storytelling. In making this point, I would like to go back to the beginning. The literal beginning: the very first shot in his debut, Sanshiro Sugata (1943). As the film opens, the camera is pointed into the heavens, a few rooftops just barely visible toward the bottom of the composition; the camera starts tracking forward, tilting down as it goes, those buildings rising higher into view, and suddenly we’re in the midst of a small 19th century community. A short while later, the camera turns left into an alleyway. Up ahead is a cluster of chattering women. Then, at the sound of an off-screen voice, the women turn toward us. (The shot ends with the camera still in motion.) But the fourth wall has not been broken; for at that moment, Kurosawa cuts to a reverse angle, revealing that the long opening shot was, in fact, the point of view of our wandering protagonist. (To cement this impression, Kurosawa begins the second shot with the character taking a few final steps forward.) It’s the very beginning of the film, and already the director has invited the viewer into sharing his creative process.
Kurosawa edited his own films, and sometimes a sequence can be identified as his by its editing style. His habit of shooting with multiple cameras allowed him to capture every essential detail and action—no matter the size or placement within the set—in numerous shots and strip them together in a stimulating manner. In keeping the sense of relation from one composition to the next, Kurosawa would oftentimes cut on a physical action. So if a character starts running in one shot, the cut occurs mid-stride and we see the movement finish at the beginning of the next shot. (Cutting on motion may be the only major visual technique Kurosawa shared with Yasujiro Ozu.)
Kurosawa is frequently credited with popularizing the “wipe” transition, which he utilized constantly in his black-and-white career and, for reasons unknown to me, seemed to abandon by the time he started shooting in color. Much could be theorized (and undoubtedly has been) about why Kurosawa used the wipe so much, but one thing is for certain: the effect does kept the pace going while simultaneously moving from scene to scene in a unique manner. Though he often used it to shift between scenes and settings, Kurosawa would sometimes use the wipe to divide up individual sequences and the result could be even humorous. (A scene in Ikiru (1952), where a group of women unsuccessfully try to appeal to a slew of bureaucrats—the wipe serving as transition from one unenthusiastic or mawkish face to the next—springs to mind.)
When it comes to dramatic moments, a good many directors like to have their camera zoom or track in upon a subject; and indeed, Kurosawa was no stranger to this himself—he made especially good use of forward motion in the musical climax of his second postwar film One Wonderful Sunday (1947) where the camera dashed in upon actress Chieko Nakakita in correlation to Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.
However, even though he made use of this more familiar method, Kurosawa generally preferred to heighten a dramatic moment not with physical camera movement—but rather, movement enacted by editing. This was accomplished with axial cuts: stationary shots divided by jump cuts with each edit placing the camera closer to the subject. In Sanshiro Sugata (1943), our hero kills an opponent in a match, and Kurosawa uses the axial cut to emphasize the reaction of a woman in the audience (the defeated man’s daughter). The shock of seeing her father slain and the thirst for revenge swelling in her eyes remains the same for her but feels more and more impactful for the audience each time the camera cuts a few meters forward. While a tracking shot would’ve been efficient, Kurosawa’s axial cuts convey all feelings needed and present the scene in a distinctive way. This sequence can be seen to the right.
Another technique in editing is deciding when to let a scene or a significant part of a scene run on in a single shot. Sometimes Kurosawa’s one-shots moved around: forming different kinds of compositions, finding new angles to explore without making any actual cuts in the film. But in other instances, the camera would remain completely stationary for long, long stretches of time.
Compare these two frames from the 1944 film The Most Beautiful and Ikiru (1952). In terms of composition and subject matter, they are very much alike: the camera is completely stationary and situated extremely close to a single character, and both shots focus upon a sad and lonely person struggling to hold back their tears in the wake of a devastating realization. The two shots are also similar in that they continue for a long time and allow the emotional power to resonate from the performance. (An irony: in both films, the character who receives this long unbroken close-up is named Watanabe.)
Connecting Images to Themes and Emotions
When analyzing those previously cited shots from Kagemusha (1980) and Seven Samurai (1954), I found myself inevitably describing examples of Kurosawa’s visual symbolism: compositions that are fun to look at and fun to think about in terms of what they mean. Here are a few more examples. After the final battle in Seven Samurai, that sword-decorated burial mound from earlier is joined by three others; and, just like before, wind lashes at the terrain, stirring dirt into the air as a symbol for the changing times. The screenplay provides some to-the-point dialogue (one of the surviving ronin proclaims that the villagers are the true victors and the samurai, even those left alive, have suffered defeat) and lets the emotion and the theme resonate from the images.
In a scene from No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), a young salary man moonlighting as a political activist enunciates a long speech about the dangers of leading a double life; as he goes into his monologue, he gradually steps out of the shot and positions himself so that his shadow (a symbol for his double life) is blatantly cast on the wall.
Two films later in Kurosawa’s career. One of the most frequently visited images in Drunken Angel (1948) is that of a pollutant-infested sump in a postwar suburb. The sump has real-life relevance, but artistically, Kurosawa is using it to represent the physical and moral decline of the individual (or many individuals). At one point, a tubercular yakuza (Toshiro Mifune—his first role in a Kurosawa film) stands next to the swamp-like water, fully aware that if he continues to embellish in his current lifestyle (drinking, smoking, visiting the brothels—side-effects of his involvement in organized crime), he will only push himself into an early grave. As he contemplates his own mortality, he holds a flower: a symbol for a chance at a new life. A little later, in one of the most saddening scenes in the film, the yakuza tosses the flower—and what it represents—into the sump. Kurosawa had once before used a flower for symbolizing rebirth, except in the case of Sanshiro Sugata (1943), the character made a wiser choice. A reckless judo student, chastised for using his strength and training as a means of bullying people, throws himself into a pond and remains there until nightfall. The moment of him discovering his humility occurs when he watches a lotus flower bloom in the glow of the full moon. The student, calling for his instructor, scrambles out of the water—a new man.
And how about this scene from Ikiru (1952)? Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a bureaucrat dying of gastric cancer, and Toyo Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), a lower-class woman employed in a toy factory, are seated on a balcony opposite some upper-class twenty-somethings; the latter are preparing a birthday party for a friend who has not yet arrived. Note the differences in attire—part of what distinguishes class—between Toyo and the people on the other side. (Their being situated on opposite balconies further emphasizes their different places in society.) This is fascinating and relevant material, but it’s not the primary drama of the scene.
The mortally ill Watanabe is desperate to live—to accomplish something meaningful and enduring before his early demise. He’s been captivated by Toyo’s vigorous love for life and wants to learn to be like her—to live like her—if only once. Toyo shows him a toy rabbit she made at her job; Watanabe becomes filled with inspiration; he takes the small toy in his hands and hustles off. Then comes the scene’s highlight and some of the most emotional material I’ve ever seen, from any director. Watanabe starts rushing down the stairs just as the upper-class kids rush to the balcony edge and start singing, “Happy birthday to you!” Kurosawa holds his camera in place long enough for Watanabe, gleaming with ambition, to step out of frame and the song’s true dedicatee (the just-arriving friend) to enter view and run up the stairs. Of course, the plot’s excuse is that the kids are singing for their friend, but we the audience know that, metaphorically, the song represents Watanabe’s rebirth—his chance at a new life. After nearly an hour and a half of watching our protagonist moping over his oncoming death and lack of past accomplishment, seeing the same man suddenly inspired is truly uplifting.
But Kurosawa hasn’t forgotten about Toyo. He returns to a shot with the young lower-class woman in the foreground and the celebrating kids in the background: reminding us of their separate social statuses one more time before the fade to black. Brilliantly emotional material, rich with symbolism, handled with flawless execution.
And while we’re on visual metaphors, we might as well address Kurosawa’s frequent use of weather and elements of the set for heightening an emotion. Here are just a few.
Sanshiro Sugata (1943): The final duel takes place in a windstorm. It’s visually striking, but the director’s underlying intent is to represent the confusion and turmoil our characters are going through via the environment.
Seven Samurai (1954): The final battle sequence takes place in a torrential downpour. In scenes previous, several characters have already perished; others have lost friends and family members; the relationship between a father and his daughter has been shattered; and everyone realizes they too just might meet their end in the oncoming fight. The climax of this revolutionary epic is not a giddy, feel-good action extravaganza; it’s rather sad, and Kurosawa’s use of the rain makes it all the more sorrowful.
Rashomon (1950): Much of this moody story, in which characters recall the death of a man and the possible rape of his wife, takes place in a rainstorm. But when the optimistic ending arrives, the clouds (literally) clear, and the sun shines once more.
Awareness of Society and the Human Condition
I could go on and on about visual symbolism, but now I’d like to examine yet another one of Kurosawa’s admirable qualities as an artist: his humanism.
Let’s begin with his cynical outlook on violence. Kurosawa directed a good many violent films in his career, but only on occasion would he present bloodshed in a way that was glorious or giddy. The duel presented at end of Rashomon (1950) features its contestants frantically waving their swords around—mostly in an effort to keep their opponent at bay—fearing death and injury at every second. (This finale is a total opposite of the more honorable depiction of the fight—in which both parties fought bravely and vigorously to the end—presented earlier, from the point of view of its boastful survivor.) The Hidden Fortress (1958) functions mostly as a fun—and funny—adventure saga but it also manages to tackle consequences of war such as poverty, not to mention it presents the bondage between respectable leaders and their subjects. And in pictures such as Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963), crime leaves a lingering impact on individual characters and later filters out to affect entire societies.
Of course, there were instances where Kurosawa presented bloodshed in a manner that was light and even comical, best exemplified by Yojimbo (1961), in which Toshiro Mifune‘s laconic ronin spends most of the movie slicing up villains without remorse, sometimes murmuring an ironic joke in the wake of a kill. None of the ronin’s opponents are made out to be sympathetic, and the film does little in the way of exposing the consequences of violence. It’s riveting and entertaining, but it doesn’t send the audience out mulling over real life. This lightweight outlook didn’t last too terribly long, though; not even for Mifune’s character. In the sequel, Sanjuro(1962), the ronin comes to lament his ways and becomes overwhelmed with anger whenever he is forced to draw his sword on another man.
The director’s pessimistic outlook on violence points to a question he asked throughout his career: Why must human beings continually kill each other and bring about their own demise year after year, generation after generation? And the older Kurosawa became—the more he asked this question—the more layers he brought to it in his art. Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) feature third-act battle sequences in which charging men armed with swords and spears are cut down in hordes by musket fire. No hand-to-hand combat. New breeds of technology have become the preferred tool of war. Of course, both Kagemusha and Ran are period pieces, but the use of firearms in the context of their stories can be read as a reflection of man’s ongoing persistence in finding even more efficient means of killing each other—something everyone in the world was keenly aware of in the last months of World War II. (How fitting that a Japanese director chose to comment on this.)
In the early chapters of his career, Kurosawa would oftentimes end a sad and tragic story with a glimmer of hope. In Drunken Angel (1948), the tubercular yakuza’s pride ultimately brings about his own undoing; but at the end of the movie, the dead man’s doctor is treating a younger tuberculosis patient (who is showing great signs of recovery) to ice cream in postwar Tokyo. In 1950’s Rashomon, an abandoned baby is discovered inside a temple, and an impoverished woodcutter (who is guilty of not reporting his having witnessed a killing to the authorities as well as taking the dead man’s dagger for profit) offers to adopt the abandoned child. Lesser-known postwar Kurosawa films presented similar attitudes. No Regrets for Our Youth (1946): the middle-class heroine has lost her husband but continues to stand for his cause and helps out her in-laws on their farm. One Wonderful Sunday (1947): a young married couple end up broke but still hold out hope for future success. The Quiet Duel (1949): a doctor sick with syphilis has forced himself to give up his fiancée but refuses to stop serving those in need.
In all of these films, the director is willing to hold out hope that, in spite of all that has transpired, good things might be waiting for humankind in the future. (Bear in mind: this era in Kurosawa’s career took place when Japan was still reeling from the aftermath of World War II, when disparity was amok and optimism would’ve been much-needed. Even though Kurosawa originally intended a darker ending for The Quiet Duel, the film’s bittersweet but still fairly positive resolution is another example of the director ending his story with a wish for the best out of humanity.)
Kurosawa didn’t remain so optimistic, though. His three Shakespearian films—Throne of Blood (1957), an adaptation of Macbeth; The Bad Sleep Well (1960), inspired by Hamlet; and Ran (1985), based in part on King Lear—all end on a downbeat and depressing note. No one comes out of these stories satisfied, except sometimes the villains, and the films’ protagonists, such as they are, meet undignified ends. Ran is perhaps the defining example. The majority of the characters in this 2 hour 42 minute samurai epic have dark shades to them, but there are two youthful characters (a blinded heir to a kingdom and his devotedly religious sister) clearly representing glimmers of humanity in a dark and sinister world. And, unexpectedly, at the end, the sister is beheaded and her sibling left to stand on a precipice. Had this film been made in the late 40s or early 50s, I feel Kurosawa might have permitted these two characters at least a hopeful ending. I don’t claim to know why he chose to sacrifice them as well, but if I were to venture a guess, it would be that Kurosawa, whose life was filled with plenty of hardships (including a suicide attempt), came to the belief that to truly resonate a message of man’s dark side was to tell a story in which no one, not even the innocent, comes out with a happy ending. The only character to achieve any real success is Lade Kaede (Mieko Harada). At the end of the film, this cold and calculating femme fatale dies comforted in the knowledge that the castle of the man who murdered her family will be soon burned to the ground.
Kurosawa wasn’t ignorant to the problems of society as a whole, either. Consider the ending of Ikiru (1952). Watanabe has succumbed to his cancer after spurring a movement to convert a cesspool into a playground for children (and thus achieving something important in his life). But credit for Watanabe’s accomplishment has been taken by a deputy mayor, and despite a (drunken) vow to follow their dead section chief’s example, his subordinates return to the same monotonous, anti-accomplishment work they’d been performing beforehand; even the most passionate of the group is too overwhelmed to do anything about it. Ikiru is an uplifting story, but at the same time, it’s not a total fairy tale with eyes closed to the imperfections of society. Another example: the 1963 masterpiece High and Low. In that film, a wealthy businessman is forced to give up his fortune to save the life of another man’s child; for his personal sacrifice, he is subsequently supported with open arms by the general public; but just when things seem to get better—when the kidnapper is taken into custody—we are reminded that if it wasn’t for social separation—and poverty—the kidnapper might’ve never become who he is, and none of these tragedies would’ve occurred. In that extraordinary film, which is one of the best crime films I’ve ever seen, Kurosawa showed us both sides of the coin.
Despite being a Japanese filmmaker, Kurosawa only explicitly dealt with the atom bomb on a handful of occasions: namely I Live in Fear (1955), Dreams (1990), and Rhapsody in August (1991). The first dealt with the paranoia of the nuclear arms race; the second created a horrific fantasy of what might happen if man continues to mess around with nuclear technology; the third examined how different generations reflected on the bombing of Hiroshima decades later. All three are appreciative in the sense that they don’t take mindless jabs at Japan’s wartime opponents.
In fact, ignoring the atrocious Sanshiro Sugata: Part II (1945), which contained a ‘highlight’ (meaning it merely stood out) of a judo student defeating a brutish American boxer in a match, Kurosawa generally refused to take swipes at the western world. Sometimes he would be critical of western advances (such as the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union—the patriarch in I Live in Fear is driven to anxiety-induced madness over the possibility of nuclear war erupting and the devastation eventually reaching Japan) but rarely would he paint foreigners with broad strokes. And obviously he bore the western world few grudges: he spent over a year making Dersu Uzala (1975) in and for Russia; he directed Richard Gere in Rhapsody in August (1991); and he cast Martin Scorsese in the role of Vincent Van Gogh for Dreams (1990).
Also, consider the political restraint of his second film, The Most Beautiful (1944). This picture, a propaganda piece he was coerced to make by the studio after funding for a fighter pilot story fell through, tells the tale of workers in a war factory. Wartime propaganda, by its nature, presents an opportunity for mocking or dehumanizing another nation. But, save for a single scene of the characters giving a morning pledge (in which they vow to do their part in helping destroy America and Great Britain), the propaganda focuses on boosting morale, not pointing fingers at the enemy. In a key scene, the heroine played by Yoko Yaguchi (whom Kurosawa married in real life) returns to work after-hours in search of a faulty rifle lens. But as the character clarifies, her concern—the reason why she insists on slaving away through all hours of the night—is not over the possibility that Japan’s kill count might go down a few notches; she’s distressed that, due to her mistake, one of her own countrymen might lose his life in combat. There’s a nice touch of humanism here. (And to answer an oncoming question: yes, I’m one of precious few individuals on this planet who defends The Most Beautiful as a decent little movie.)
And in No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), Kurosawa spends 110 minutes articulating and criticizing Japan’s political mentality leading into World War II. In particular, he’s looking down on the Japanese government’s former habit of silencing anyone who spoke out against the wartime effort. The characters aren’t afraid of the western world; they’re opposing the condemnation of academic freedom. In the course of this film, not once is Hiroshima and Nagasaki mentioned or shown. For the director is not discussing what other countries did to Japan during the war; he’s pointing out something Japan did to itself. And, unique for Kurosawa, it is a female protagonist who reflects on this poignant, overlooked subject.
Women in Kurosawa Films
While we’re on the subject of women in Kurosawa films, I would like to address a topic in which I must strongly—and vigorously—disagree with a popular critical consensus. The consensus being that Kurosawa was indifferent and borderline-misogynistic when it came to women in his films. Granted: the stories he told were predominately male-driven sagas. (Masters and apprentices was a favorite topic of his.) And there were some truly unsympathetic female characters in his films such as the wife in Rashomon (1950) and, for that matter, all three of Isuzu Yamada’s collaborations with Kurosawa. But I would still argue that, in total, Kurosawa gave women more attention and empathy than some critics like to admit. The earlier mentioned No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) stars Setsuko Hara, one of the greatest actresses in the history of Japanese cinema, as a young middle-class woman caught between two suitors and their opposing political viewpoints: the one who stands for freedom of speech and the one who conforms to the system in favor of personal security. By using a love triangle—with a strong female character at the center—Kurosawa could represent Japan’s divided pre-war attitude and ultimately, via the heroine’s decision, stand for the ideology he personally supported. A woman embodies the theme of the story, and the film is, in my sincere opinion, the first truly special motion picture Kurosawa made.
For the second and unfortunately final time Hara acted under Kurosawa’s direction, the renowned actress was cast completely against type. In The Idiot(1951), Hara, who is well-known to this day for playing charming characters and who was absolutely adorable in No Regrets for Our Youth, took on the role of a misanthropic and hateful mistress. A person who, in the course of her life, had been handed from man to man, traded like a piece of furniture, who never had a real friend, who grew up believing the world to be a dark and unforgiving place devoid of human kindness. Dressed entirely in black and rarely showing off that heart-warming smile of hers, Hara is almost unrecognizable in this film and looks rather sinister. But the character is not evil incarnate. Rather, she’s a product of her environment. (Like Lady Kaede in Ran, she didn’t ask to be turned into what she is.) We hear tremendous detail of her disdain and distrust for the world and the people in it. And yet, Hara’s character is not incapable of showing her human side. Look at the film’s ‘birthday party’ scene. Having finally met someone who doesn’t hold her past against her, who regards her as a lovely individual tarnished by a cruel world, the character breaks down in tears, crying out her thankfulness for finally being accepted. Hara’s character may be bizarre, but she’s still sympathetic from a certain point of view.
Other instances of appealing female characters in Kurosawa films: the wife in One Wonderful Sunday (1947) exhibits optimism while her husband prefers to sulk around; Lady Sué in Ran (1985) presents faith and purity in a dark and sinister world; the fiancée in The Quiet Duel (1949) is forced to give up the love of her life in favor of what her family—and society, again—demands of her; the female clinic workers come to accept and protect a prostitute-turned-nurse in Red Beard (1965)—the way said nurse bonds with and looks after a young doctor at the clinic; the village girl in Seven Samurai (1954) who falls in love with one of the hired protectors but cannot be with him due to class separation.
Again, I consent that Kurosawa’s movies were predominately male-driven and that he didn’t regularly sympathize with women to the same degree or in the same way as Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu, or Kenji Mizoguchi. Still, I cannot help but regard the criticisms of him marginalizing and mistreating female characters in his films as exaggerated and truly undeserving. There’s more humanism here, I feel, than some people take note of.
Career as a Personal Saga
As he reached the later years of his life, Kurosawa started gravitating toward elderly characters, especially ones coming to terms with their own mortality. The eponymous trapper in Dersu Uzala (1975) temporarily flees the wilderness and lives with his civilized friend when his health starts deteriorating. Ran (1985) is, among other things, the portrait of an old man acknowledging the faults of his past; he’s not initially aware of it, but death is creeping toward him.
And in the finale of Kurosawa’s swan song, Madadayo (1993), a retired professor passes out from exhaustion while attending a social gathering dedicated to him. He is rushed home and put to bed, his wife and former students sitting nervously outdoor his bedroom door. (A doctor informs them he is not at death’s door just yet; but the professor is, without question, in the twilight years of his life.) Kurosawa’s camera finds itself inside the old man’s room as he sleeps and then we dissolve to a fantasy: the professor as a child, playing with other children in a hayfield. The child becomes aware of a deep crimson light fanning across the field, stands up, and turns to face it. Then, in one of the most heart-rending pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen, Kurosawa’s camera proceeds to wander across the sky, which becomes a fantastic painting (illustrated by the director himself). All of this happens in the mind of the sleeping professor. The character, like the storyteller, may be nearing the end of his time, but he’s not prepared to quit. I personally do not consider Madadayo to be one of Kurosawa’s absolute best pictures, but I cannot think of a more perfect way for the director to end not only this story but his career in motion pictures as well. For his career is not merely a group of stories meant to pass the time; they are the saga of an artist exploring his own ideas and feelings, showing how they changed from youth to old age.
And so, Akira Kurosawa was a great many things: a superb craftsman, a poetic storyteller, and a humanist wishing for the best out of mankind. Plus, he was a man who knew how to channel all of these elements into a fine work of art. Having watched all thirty of his motion pictures in chronological order and then sitting down to write this essay, I am more keenly aware of this than ever before.
Just writing about Kurosawa’s films makes me think—about the films, about what went into making the films, about society, about life, about Kurosawa himself. Much more than an elegant impresario, Akira Kurosawa was one of the true masters of the cinema; and he left an enduring legacy for us to experience, re-experience, scrutinize, and discuss. It took quite some time for me to track down and see all of his films, but in hindsight, it was well worth the effort.
A fun note for the readership: my first draft for this essay was about a thousand words shorter than the one you are reading now; as I went over that shorter version, I found myself simply dissatisfied, eager to cover more points, to expand on ideas, to further communicate my love and appreciation for these many, many films.
In wrapping up this retrospective, I suppose a personal top ten is in order.
1. Seven Samurai (1954)
2. Rashomon (1950)
3. High and Low (1963)
4. Yojimbo (1961)
5. Ran (1985)
6. Kagemusha (1980)
7. Stray Dog (1949)
8. The Quiet Duel (1949)
9. The Idiot (1951)
10. No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)General // September 10, 2015
A little more than a year has passed since Gareth Edwards’ long-anticipated Godzilla (2014) arrived in multiplexes and was greeted with healthy box office receipts, a favorable reaction from Toho, and a generally positive response from the audience—not to mention a stream of laurels bestowed upon the film by the Godzilla fan community. Since then, there’s been a good deal of talk regarding how fans interpret the film and, even more so, what they expect—and hope—to see in the next entry in the series from Legendary Pictures. In spite of the favorable notices, there were some common criticisms even amongst the enthusiasts: the eponymous monster’s surprising lack of screen time; the sudden replacement of Bryan Cranston as the film’s primary protagonist and emotional core; the frequent cutting away at the start of what appeared to be a big action sequence; and a few other minor gripes that didn’t seem to totally wreck anyone’s enjoyment of the film.
As for my perspective in this Godzilla 2014: a year retrospective well… my feelings for the picture have changed somewhat since last year, but I still stand by my assertion that it’s an overall satisfying film experience which makes up for its lack of interesting human characters with a trio of personality-packed monsters who never flag in interest whenever they appear on-screen. Although I would have preferred Godzilla himself to have more of an impact on the narrative (especially in the first act), every single second devoted to his presence is just awe-inspiring. His opponents, the MUTOs, with their menacing appearances and apparent allegory for nuclear disarmament (they consume nuclear warheads) are a welcome addition to the franchise as far as I am concerned. And the final battle between the three of them was genuinely thrilling. Edwards and his team succeeded in regard to the monsters.
Still, there are some things in the film which I felt should have been done much better; and, ironically enough, one of my biggest criticisms ties directly into what I would like to see in the sequel. It concerns the last few minutes of the picture.
Godzilla (2014) features a double climax with the three monsters combating in San Francisco while a small team of soldiers attempts to locate a nuclear warhead (which was captured by the MUTOs after initially being used to bait them) and remove it from the city limits before it detonates. Godzilla eventually defeats the MUTOs; the warhead is loaded onto a boat and propelled out to sea. The warhead goes off in the distance. The next morning, Godzilla suddenly awakens from an exhaustion-induced slumber and starts lumbering toward the coast. People cheer and smile at him as he goes. Having achieved victory, the monster bellows into the heavens, plunges into the sea, and returns to his underwater domain. Roll credits.
What bothers me the most about this ending is the way it clumsily abandons the film’s most opportune moment to make an anti-nuke statement. Especially since, up to that point, the picture had been wagging its finger at the mushroom cloud. True, Godzilla (2014) isn’t trying to communicate its message on the same level—or in the same way—as the original Godzilla (1954) by Ishiro Honda, but it is clearly taking note of a theme common to the series: when faced with a major crisis, man turns to nuclear weapons, and it often backfires, solving nothing and making the situation worse. And again, the movie makes an admirable attempt to do this most of the way through. It’s because of manmade atomic energy that the monsters awaken; without it, the Mutos would’ve remained in hibernation, and Godzilla would’ve lingered in the deep sea. That’s good. And the movie hints that it will use that nuclear warhead in San Francisco as a means of making the grand statement. (We’ve been warned of the consequences, and soon we shall see them.) But it really doesn’t. In the wake of the explosion, we don’t see any aftermath. No radiation poisoning. No fallout. The bomb went off without, apparently, doing anything bad. For all the build-up and the chatter about its devastating power (as well as a scene hinting that San Francisco could become the next Hiroshima), the payoff is little more than a white light on the horizon which our hero can shut his eyes to. Granted, Edwards does make up for it a bit by showing the results of the monster battle: civilians being pulled out of rubble; families trying to find each other. And it could be argued that the destruction is an allegory for man’s reckless use of the bomb. Still, the movie gave itself a chance to cement its message in a way that was viscerally effective, and it elected not to.
It’s also a lapse in terms of the MUTOs. Had the film shown more in terms of the nuclear consequence, it would have made their allegory for disarmament—and their tragedy in that they were, in a sense, doing the world some good by wiping out man’s atomic arsenal—even more meaningful. But alas, the movie doesn’t take advantage of this opportunity either.
As an example of how such a climax could have been better-handled, let’s examine another film in the franchise: Koji Hashimoto‘s The Return of Godzilla from 1984. Both films feature a sequence involving an atomic weapon threatening to destroy an entire city and the military making an effort to stop it in time. In Hashimoto’s film, a nuclear missile is accidentally launched toward Tokyo. (Godzilla, meanwhile, has been knocked into submission by the Super-X’s cadmium shells.) Similar to what happens in the Edwards film, the military succeeds in stopping the missile in time: another missile is fired to meet it in the atmosphere. Also similar to the 2014 film: the explosion is far enough away that it causes no direct physical damage whatsoever to the city.
But the similarities end there. When the warhead goes off in The Return of Godzilla, we see actual consequences: the explosion disrupts communication; the fallout causes the Super-X to temporarily malfunction; and, most important of all, the radiation produces a nuclear thunderstorm which revives the fallen Godzilla. History has repeated itself. Godzilla has once more been awakened by an atomic explosion. One disaster has led to another. The Return of Godzilla presented itself with an opportunity to make a statement, and it took full advantage of it.
So how could the Gareth Edwards film have followed this example? Perhaps the best and meaningful thing to do would’ve been to show fallout descending upon San Francisco and showing us what it will do to the populace. Radiation poisoning, homes which must now be abandoned due to contamination, etc. The movie didn’t even necessarily need to go into tremendous depth with this, merely remind us that, due to our reckless use of the atomic bomb, things will not be improving for the citizens of San Francisco. It would also function better in the story in regards to Godzilla’s sudden awakening; instead of the monster just sleeping off his exhaustion, why not have the radiation replenish his strength? Or some other way of connecting him to what just happened? (And, on a side note, I would also have axed that cheesy sequence of the people in the stadium cheering in favor of a more ambiguous reaction with everyone not being sure what to make of this giant animal. The Godzilla in this film is, after all, classified an anti-hero, not a superhero. So directly connecting the explosion to this giant monster still running loose in the world would have added even more to the story and the characterization.)
So now how does all of this tie into what I would like to see explored in the sequel? Edwards and his team could easily make up for their missed opportunity in the 2014 film by detailing what the nuclear explosion did to San Francisco. This could consist of anything from the irradiated effect on marine life (maybe, calling back to the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident that inspired Honda’s original movie, the fish market is boycotted due to the fallout at sea) to the discovery that fallout had, unbeknown to us, descended over San Francisco during the night; that our characters underestimated the true range and power of their own creation; maybe civilians or some of our primary characters have become sick with radiation poisoning. These are just a few suggestions; there’s still a chance for the filmmakers to redeem themselves for this allegorical lapse, and I hope they take advantage of it next time. And if they don’t, hopefully there’ll be more of an attempt to follow through on the nuclear theme—or whatever theme they’ll be exploring next—when Godzilla 2 arrives in 2018.General // August 17, 2015