Category: Japanese Cinema

Asako I & II (Netemo sametemo, Japan-France 2018)

Baku and Asako

Asako I & II is the second of the four features which announced Hamaguchi Ryusuke as a writer-director on the world stage after an earlier career mainly concerned with student film projects and documentaries. I watched it before a screening and discussion of Drive My Car. Already on this blog are Happy Hour (Japan 2015) which Nick Lacey reviewed and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) which I wrote about after its London Film Festival screening. I did also manage to watch a small part of Happy Hour before it disappeared from MUBI. I mention this simply because I now realise how much Hamaguchi seems to be teasing away at some of the same or similar narrative ideas across the four films.

Asako is quiet and thoughtful

Asako is a shy and retiring young woman who also happens to be very attractive in a quiet way. We first meet her going to a photographic exhibition in her home city of Osaka and becoming intrigued by a tall young man with wild hair who doesn’t appear to be her type. Nevertheless she follows him out of the exhibition and they tentatively begin a relationship. He tells her his name is ‘Baku’. Asako is clearly smitten and then she meets his friend Okazaki. It turns out that Asako’s best friend Haruyo knows Okazaki and she warns Asako (in front of the two young men) that Baku looks like ‘bad news’. I think I missed something during this meeting of the four characters. Haruyo makes a comment about Okazaki’s name and Asako later explains to Haruyo that she likes the name Baku because the kanji symbol for Baku means ‘Wheat’. These early sequences (including a clubbing scene and a motorcycle ride, both accompanied by the music of Tofubeats (the singer, producer, DJ, Kawai Yusuke)), suggest that we are watching a conventional romcom. But then Baku does his disappearing trick, going out on a simple shopping trip but never returning. All of the film so far is a pre-title credit sequence, a device Hamaguchi will extend in Drive My Car.

A little over two years later, Asako has left university and is now in Tokyo, working in a coffee shop. Close by are the offices of a sake brewing company where she delivers coffee for a meeting and, shocked, comes across a young salaryman who looks just like Baku apart from wearing a suit and sporting a more conservative haircut. This is a second ‘meet cute’ in the language of modern genre romance. But this isn’t Baku, it’s Ryohei, someone who looks just Baku. Asako will fall in love all over again. She has a new friend in Tokyo, Maya, and Ryohei has a young colleague Kushihashi. The quartet this time are more conventional and become involved in more grown-up and sophisticated activities. Maya is an aspiring actor and one intriguing scene involves a discussion of acting in a Chekhov adaptation. I won’t reveal any more of the plot details but, as you are wondering, yes, Baku does re-appear later on and Asako will make a number of startling decisions.

Asako and Ryohei in Tokyo

As the title suggests, Asako I & II, is about the question of Asako’s reactions to events, rather than the differences between Baku and Ryohei. The film was adapted by Hamaguchi and Tanaka Sachiko from Netemo Sametemo, a novel by Shibasaki Tomoka. Hamaguchi tells us he followed the book quite closely but he has made one significant addition to the narrative in the form of the Tohuku earthquake of 2011. The novel was published in 2010. Hamaguchi explains that Shibasaki’s novels deal with the everyday but that they also contain social commentaries. The 2011 event was so important it had an impact on everyone’s lives. Its introduction in the film produces some remarkable cinema and its aftermath is cleverly woven into the narrative. Hamaguchi also tells us that he partially defined the two versions of his central male character by their speech and Baku the more ‘closed’ character speaks a standard Tokyo dialect while Ryohei speaks with a Kansai (Osaka region) dialect – common to many of the characters in Shibasaki’s novels.

Asako with both her friends after Haruyo (Itô Sairi) moves to Tokyo. Maya (Yamashita Rio) is in the centre

The casting of the film sees a well-known young actor, Higashide Masahiro, as Baku/Ryohei. Although barely 30 when he made the film, Higashide had more than 40 credits to his name. Karata Erika as Asako had much less experience, mostly in TV and none of the others had quite the profile of Higashide (who Hamaguchi knew partly because the young man had appeared in a Kurosawa Kiyoshi film). As in his previous film Happy Hour, Hamaguchi used a rehearsal method inspired by Jean Renoir and the results are impressive. The film looks good as photographed by Sasaki Yasuyuki, but I’m not sure why it is presented in a 1.66 : 1 ratio – perhaps it is the French connection since that screen shape remains a choice for some French auteurs.

I enjoyed the film which I found intriguing. As Hamaguchi predicted in his press notes, I found the final section startling. I now feel (after also watching Drive My Car, post to follow) that although the four films are structurally different, I am getting a feel for Hamaguchi’s narratives and his ideas. I’m very much looking forward to what he does next. IMDb carries a teasing suggestion that he is currently planning or making  something in Paris. With Kore-eda Hirokazu now taking Netflix’s shilling, I hope we get something new from Hamaguchi. Asako I & II is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK but I don’t know of any planned UK cinema or DVD release.

Godzilla (Gojira, Japan 1954)

Paleontologist Dr. Yamane Kyohei (Shimura Takashi) and his daughter Emiko (Kochi Momoko). © Toho Co. Ltd. Dr. Yamane wants to study Godzilla, but is that too dangerous in the face of the death and destruction it can cause?

The original 1954 Godzilla has been touring again as part of the ‘BFI Japan 2021: A Hundred Years of Japanese Cinema’ season which runs until December. The programme has been less accessible than other large scale events because of the pandemic, but screenings on BFI Player have been possible if like me, people yet haven’t got back into cinemas. These seasons have proved to be something of a mixed blessing I think. On the one hand they have certainly introduced new audiences to classic films. I’m exhilarated by the happy tweets of younger cinephiles seeing Seven Samurai for the first time. But there is also some regret that the opportunity to really explore a great national film culture has been limited.

The BFI has distribution rights to both a 35mm film print and a DVD of Godzilla. It has been on BFI Player, I think, but is currently not available. Keith posted something on the screening of the 35mm print in 2018 (find it here). I don’t need to repeat Keith’s analysis but I watched the film recently and noted a number of aspects that surprised me, especially in the reception of the film at the time.

Wikipedia tells me that since the 1954 film there have been 31 Toho Godzilla films as well as four Hollywood films, the latest in 2021. I wrote about the 2014 Hollywood version that claimed to be the closest to the original. However, my knowledge of ‘monster movies’ is limited to the original King Kong (1933) and these two Godzilla films. I’m not so interested in the genre as such or the franchise so here it is the ‘moment’ of 1954 which intrigues me and which has not been much discussed. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that in 1954 Toho released 68 films, including the three biggest-budget Japanese films up that date – Seven Samurai, Godzilla and Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto.(Thanks to the ‘Toho Kingdom’ website for details on this.) This shows the amazing resilience of the Japanese film industry and its biggest studio in recovering from the wartime period and the post-war ‘re-adjustment’. Japan had the world’s biggest industry in the 1930s and again in the 1950s.

What is also important to realise is that control over scripts in Japan had only just ended in 1952 with the withdrawal of the Allied (i.e. American) Occupation forces. This is particularly relevant for Godzilla. In 1955 Toho sold the rights to create an American version of the film to Edmund Goldman and later Joseph E. Levine of Embassy Pictures would become involved. (Levine would later buy the rights Hercules from Italy in 1959 in a similar profitable move.) The US version cut the original film quite savagely, dubbed much of the Japanese into English and inserted a new angle in which Raymond Burr (who appeared in Hitchcock’s Rear Window in 1954) is an American journalist reporting on the monster’s rampage in Tokyo. The deletions seemingly removed all references to nuclear war and its impact on the Japanese population, reducing the film to a monster pic and not much more. The revised film, titled Godzilla, King of Monsters (1956) then moved into first North American and then international distribution. The original film wasn’t seen outside Japan until 2004. The obvious point to make is that the inference in the film that Godzilla is in some way a beast re-activated by radiation and that its formidable weapon is the ‘atomic breath’ it creates from nuclear energy, is a direct anti-American statement. But I think it goes much further than that.

The American poster for the dubbed and recut version in 1956

The beginning of the 1954 Godzilla sees a ship sunk by what at first appears as some kind of underwater explosion with sailors blinded by a giant flash. It was seen by Japanese audiences as a reference to a Japanese fishing vessel which was contaminated by radiation from an American nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in March 1954. I note too that when the handsome young salvage ship captain Ogata is summoned to the Maritime Safety Bureau, he must abandon his girlfriend Emiko and his ticket for a recital of the Budapest String Quartet – an interesting juxtaposition of war and culture. The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned directly in the dialogue of the film, but in a sense they aren’t needed since the scenes of chaos and destruction and the overcrowded hospitals and disorientated crowds after Godzilla’s attacks make the same point in visual images alone. These memories of just nine years earlier would be very fresh in the minds of audiences. It also strikes me that Japan has a history of disasters, both associated with fire and with danger from the sea. The great earthquake and subsequent fire in Tokyo in September 1923 killed more than 140,000 people and destroyed many buildings, including film facilities and archives. In recent times the tsunami and nuclear power station disaster at Fukushima in 2011 demonstrated that the vulnerability of Japan still exists. This underlying theme throughout Godzilla would have been problematic for any American film release with the continuing programme of nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. It’s also worth remembering that the UK began testing nuclear devices in the Pacific not far from the Americans in what is now Kiribati in 1957 and 1958. The American Godzilla arrived in the UK in December 1956 and was in general release by March 1957. I note that The Tatler carried a short review that identified Godzilla as a monster “which hydrogen-bomb experiments have driven from its sea-bed lair and made radio-active”. It seems that the American version didn’t totally remove the inferences.

The old man on Odo island repeats the local folklore

There are two other aspects of the film that interest me. The first is the early sequence on Odo Island (a fictional island) where a leading palaeontologist, Dr. Yamane Kyohei arrives on a mission to investigate sightings of Godzilla. Dr. Yamane is played by Shimura Takashi, who was also the leader of the Seven Samurai in 1954. His small team and its press entourage meet one of the old men of the island who tells the legend of Godzilla and suggests that the islanders need to sacrifice a young woman or else the fish will not return and the people will lose their only income. This is a familiar generic device in horror stories, raising folkloric traditions, but it also points to one of the features of this kind of Japanese film which brings together old and new, ancient and modern. If the man is in his seventies, he would have been born in the 1880s in the period when Japan was rapidly industrialising and modernising, but when remote fishing villages were still part of a culture that had changed little in the 250 years of the Tokugawa period.

Dr Yamane travels to Odo

The expectation might be that Dr. Yamane is to become the protagonist in the narrative, but fairly quickly he is sidelined as the younger characters come to the fore. Emiko is Yamane’s daughter and a few brief scenes see her interaction with her father which matches scenes in the family melodramas of Ozu Yasujiro and other directors of the period. This doesn’t develop but it links directly to the fate of the people displaced by Godzilla’s appearance and the disruption caused in the Tokyo Bay region. Emiko is in a relationship with Captain Ogata but she is also recovering from an earlier relationship with Dr. Serizawa Daisuke, the young scientist who is believed to have discovered a weapon that could stop Godzilla. Emiko finds herself caught between three men with different ideas about how to respond to the emergency. The script cleverly uses a set of family relationships and a romantic struggle for Emiko to drive the narrative forward to its conclusion with Ogata and Serizawa working together.

The four principal characters prepare for the finale. Dr Serizawa (Hirata Akihiko) is wearing the eye-patch

Emiko and Captain Ogata (Takarada Akira)

I was impressed by the script which manages to weave a serious discourse about scientific work, politics and international relations through the action narrative of evacuations, military mobilisation and media coverage. OK, the special effects are limited but the narrative still has power. Just like Seven Samurai, which remains one of the best action films ever made, Godzilla deserves its status as the classic monster movie. Director Honda Ishirô, co-writer Murata Takeo  and the whole cast and crew deserve to be celebrated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the future for Satako and Yusaku?

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

Ramen Shop (Singapore-Japan-France 2018)

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

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

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

Masato and Miki enjoying views of Singapore when he first arrives

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

Father as a young man with Lian Mei

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

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

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

Tanaka Kinuyo will not appear at Locarno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother (Okasan), Japan 1952

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, Japan 1954)

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

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

Festival Workshop on Tanaka Kinuyo