09 October 2015

Being Good (きみはいい子, 2015)

The port town of Otaru on Ishikari Bay is a popular tourist destination in Hokkaido because of its unique 1920s canal with its picturesque Victorian-style gaslights.  However, a stone’s throw away from the tourist traps are average communities of working and middle class people, many of whom commute into nearby Sapporo for work.  While we do get glimpses of Otaru’s famous port as the backdrop of Mipo Oh’s latest feature film Being Good (きみはいい子 / Kimi wa ii ko, 2015), the director focuses her camera intently on the lives of the common people of Otaru. 

Being Good is an adaptation of the bestselling book of the same by Hatsue Nakawai (中脇初枝, b. 1974).  The original book is a collection of five short stories set in the same town that are linked by the themes of abuse and people dealing with mental illness.  Oh has taken three of these stories, “Santa no konai ie” (The House that Santa does not Visit), “Beppin-san” (Pretty Girl), and “Konnichi wa, sayonara” (Hello, Good-bye) and interweaves them in one Otaru neighbourhood. It’s a familiar setting which really could be found in any town in Hokkaido. 

The “Santa no konai ie” thread tells the story of rookie elementary school teacher Tasuku Okano (Kengo Kora) who is struggling both to keep discipline in his rowdy classroom and to deal with difficult parents.  He soon starts to suspect that a troubled child in his class may be suffering neglect and even abuse at home.  His efforts to help the boy are consistently thwarted but he continues to look for a solution. 

Meanwhile, Masami (Machiko Ono) of the “Beppin-san” story is struggling to look after her 3-year-old daughter Ayane on her own because her husband is away on long business trips abroad.  Her isolation is compounded by the fact that she was abused as a child and her frustration erupts in violence towards Ayane.  She tries to hide her nasty secret from the mothers she meets with at the playground, but one of the moms (Chizuru Ikewaki) is more perceptive and understanding than she could ever imagine.

 Another lonely woman in the neighbourhood is the elderly home owner Kazumi (Michie Kita) who never married.  She is known locally as suffering from mild dementia, which sometimes leads her into difficult situations such as when a supermarket employee, Mrs. Sakurai (Yasuko Tomita), catches Kazumi unintentionally shoplifting.  One day Kazumi finds that an autistic boy (Amon Kabe) who always greets her with “Konnichi wa, sayonara” is in a panic because he has lost his house key.  Kazumi invites him into her home and he reminds her of the younger brother she lost during the firebombing of Tokyo.  By chance, his mother turns out to be the supermarket employee who is shocked to discover that this woman she thought was crazy actually is full of a wisdom and love beyond anything she has experienced from the “normal” members of her community.  She begins to realize that she has been focusing too strongly on her son’s tics instead of recognizing the goodness in him.

I saw the EU premiere of this film at Camera Japan 2015 in Rotterdam.  The film is not an easy one to watch, especially for people who have experienced or witnessed abuse in their own lives.  I gave a talk on Japanese Women Behind the Scenes immediately after this screening and found that many audience members were still reeling from the disturbing abuse depicted or suggested by the film.  I say “suggested” because Oh is careful not to show the worst of the abuse on screen by having the girl’s body blocked by her mother’s body shot from behind; however, this doesn’t not really lessen the emotional impact of the scenes.  The sound of the violence and of the child screaming are traumatic.  As are the evidence of bruises on her skin afterwards.   The performance of the children in this film are truly amazing to behold and if I ever have a chance to interview Mipo Oh I would ask her about how she worked with the child actors.  It must have taken a great deal of sensitivity in order to get these heartbreakingly realistic performances from them. 

There are no easy answers or real happy endings in this film.  In fact, many of the key issues remain frustratingly unresolved.  While many audience members that I chatted with said they felt deeply disturbed by the child abuse scenes, I believe that these were very realistically portrayed stories that need to be told.  Unfortunately abuse is much more common than we would like to believe and we need to educate ourselves and not try to sweep it under the carpet.  Being Good imparts the message that we should connect with our neighbours and communities so that people who need help know that there are people out there who do care.  As Okano’s sister tells him, we need to treat our children well, so that world peace can become a reality. 

Mipo Oh (also written as Mipo O / 美保, b. 1977) is third generation Korean-Japanese.  She grew up in Mie prefecture and graduated from Osaka University of Arts.  She began her career as a screenwriter to Nobuhiko Obayashi and went on to make commercials and short films before directing her first feature in 2005.  Her 2014 film The Light Only Shines There won her numerous awards at international film festivals and was Japan's entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.  Most recently, Being Good won the NETPAC Jury Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival 2015 for “being seeing, insightful and incredibly sincere.”  Learn more about Oh’s work at Japanese Women Behind the Scenes.

2015 Cathy Munroe Hotes

The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye (福壽草, 1935)

The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye: An Episode from the Tales of Flowers (1935)
乙女シリーズ その一 花物語 福壽草
Shōjo shiriizu sono hito - hana monogatari fukujusō

For their 10th anniversary, Camera Japan Festival in Rotterdam presented a benshi performance with piano accompaniment of the rarely seen silent film The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye: An Episode from the Tales of Flowers (乙女シリーズ その一 花物語 福壽草 / Shōjo shiriizu sono hito-hana monogatari fukujusō, 1935).  The revival of this film occurred in 2008/9 with screenings at the National Film Center in Tokyo (2008), who has a 35mm print of the film, and at the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (2009). Screenings of the film have featured benshi performances by either Midori Sawato or Ichiro Kataoka.  The film’s first international screening is believed to have been at the 2013 Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

The Story

The film is based on a story found in Tales of Flowers (花物語/Hana Monogatari, 1916-1924) by Nobuko Yoshiya (吉屋信子, 1896-1973).  The 52 stories of romantic female friendships in this collection were very popular with female students of the day.  Yoshiya was a prolific and commercially successful writer who is considered a pioneer in lesbian literature.  Her same-sex (dosei-ai) romances were considered acceptable because they depicted lesbianism as a phase on the road to a culturally acceptable heterosexual marriage. 

The “pheasant’s eye” of the title English common name of the flower fukujusō (フクジュソウ / Adonis ramosa).  In the original kanji it means luck (/fuku), long life (寿/ju), and herb(/).  It belongs to the family of flowers named after mythological figure Adonis.  In East Asia, the fukujusō is a rare yellow flower found mainly in central and northern Japan.  In the context of this story, the flower is a metaphor for the rare beauty of the young female protagonists.  This is made clear by the opening quote from Yoshiya herself: “I dedicate this to the lovely young flowers.”

The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye tells the story of a high school girl called Kaoru Sakamoto who falls in love with her sister-in-law Miyoko.  Her crush actually develops before she has even met her brother’s new wife.  It is an arranged marriage and the "sisters" only meet on the wedding day.  A romantic young girl, Kaoru and her friends are the kind of girls who would be likely to read Nobuko Yoshiya’s novels and fantasize about their ideal romantic partner.  As the friendship blossoms between Kaoru and Miyoko, Kaoru grows jealous of any affection Miyoko shows Kaoru’s brother.  Kaoru’s schoolmates and family act as foils for her moody behaviour.  The drama of any romance is kept light with comedic moments such as the slapstick scene where the two young ladies are being photographed together in nature and the photographer falls into the water.   The physical comedy in the film shows the influence of the American silent greats like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd.   The lesbian love affair is suggested via the female gaze and evocative mise-en-scène, but no direct dialogue.  Miyoko is equally flirtatious with her husband as she is with his sister, causing the latter to indulge in jealous temper tantrums. 

The Cast

Star billing is given to Naomi Egawa in the role of Kaoru Sakamoto.  She gives a melodramatic performance, putting on a hilarious “jealousy face” every time her sister-in-law shows her brother some affection.  The benshi, Kataoka-san, told me that Kaoru’s “jealousy face” had the audience at the 2009 Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in stitches.  Egawa’s film career seems to have just been in the 1930s.  In contrast to Egawa’s melodramatics, Matsue Hisamatsu puts in a more subtle performance as Miyoko, the object of Kaoru’s intense affections.  Hisamatsu’s film career was even briefer than that of Egawa.

The best actors in this film are Akira Kichōji (credited under his real name of Mitsuhiko Okazaki) as Kaoru’s brother Mitsuo, and Buman Kahara (also credited under his real name of Keiji Ōizumi) as her father. Both men went on to have long and varied careers as character actors.   Kichōji’s best known films are Seven Samurai (1954), where he played one of the farmers, and Japan’s Longest Day (1967), while appeared in films such as Shōhei Imamura’s My Second Brother (1960) and Pigs and Battleships (1961).  With his expressive face, Kichōji plays Mitsuo as a very charming man.  However, the show-stealing performance of the film is that of Kahara who opens the film with a hilarious slapstick bicycle ride which would have been right at home in a Buster Keaton film. 

The Cinematography

The real star of Scent of Pheasant’s Eye for me is the extremely innovative cinematography.  The film opens with a POV shot of Kaoru’s father, a town councillor, coming home by bicycle.  I am not sure how they shot it, but it does indeed look as though they mounted the camera on an actual bicycle.  At first, the councillor's form of transportation is unclear, we only know that it is a bumpy ride and get to enjoy, from his perspective, the bemused farmers’ greetings of this well-known local figure.  When we do finally get to see a shot of him, it is played for comic effect.  His way has been blocked and he berates whoever is blocking his way.  When the camera finally widens the shot, we see that he has been telling off a cow rather than a person.  Such visual gags are frequent in the film, giving us a welcome respite from Karou’s sometimes over-the-top melodrama. 

The unusual framings of dialogue and action seem fresh and innovative for the time.  By the mid-1930s in the USA, the classical Hollywood style had largely been standardized and this film would have broken all those rules.  It seems surprising that this film has remained hidden from international scholarship for decades.  The cinematographer is Asakazu Nakai (中井朝一, 1901-88), who went on to become a frequent collaborator of Akira Kurosawa.  The film gave me a thirst to see more of his early work, as I have only seen the films for which his cinematography is renowned, like Stray Dog (1949), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), High and Low (1963) and Ran (1985).  In total, he made over 130 films in his long and successful career, but his pre-war work has been little seen or written about.

The Director

Not a great deal is known about the director Jirō Kawate (川手二郎, b. 1904 – d. unknown).  He was born in Nagano Prefecture and it is said that his admiration for the renowned film and kabuki actor Bando Tsumasaburo (阪東妻三郎, 1901-53) inspired him to get into the film industry himself.  He first worked as an extra, then as an assistant director, before becoming a director in 1932 for Shinkō Kinema.  

In 1936 he moved to what is now Toho Studios, where he made several films of the genre Kulturfilm (文化映画 / Bunka eiga).  He then returned to his hometown to work in real estate, but nothing is known about his life since he retired from the film industry.

Jirō Kawate Complete Filmography:

1932父をたづねて三千里 / Chichi wo tazunete sanzen-ri
1933時雨ひととき/ Shigure Hito-toki
1933花嫁選手 / Hanayome Senshu
1933結婚快走記 / Kekkon Kaisōki
1934 誕生日/ Tanjyōbi
1934細君ネロ 家庭争議の巻 / Saikun Nero Kateisōgi no Kan
1935福寿草 / Fukujusō
1935釣鐘草 / Tsuriganisō
1935恋の浮島 / Koi no Ukishima
1936乙女橋 / Otomebashi
1936残月の歌 / Kingetsu no uta

The Screening with Benshi and Piano Performances

Ichiro Kataoka’s benshi performance was, as always, stellar.  He performed together with the Dutch silent film pianist Kevin Toma.  Toma and Kataoka met for the first time on the day.  They had a chance to talk to each other beforehand and did a sound check together, but they did not rehearse together.  One could liken their improvisational performance to jazz music.  Kataoka played off of the script that he wrote for the film in 2008.  Much of the film’s dialogue was preserved, but I noticed that he added his own interpretation to scenes.  I have seen him perform in Germany with projected subtitles of his script, but this film only had the NFC English subtitles of the title cards (done by the amazing husband and wife team Dean Shimauchi), so non-speakers of Japanese missed out on some of the poetic touches Kataoka brought to the film, such as his description of the changing seasons.  One moment that needed no translation was his hilarious interpretation of a scene in which two deaf old men play Go together but only have one ear trumpet to shout at each other through. 

The pianist, Toma, does not play silent movie standards.  He composes his own music, improvises, and often adds themes from some of his favourite composers.  During this performance he apparently used a melody from a piece by Toru Takemitsu.  The film was consisted of three 35mm reels that were on loan from the NFC but the cinema had only one projector, so Toma had to improvise during the long reel changes.  On the whole it was a lively performance much enjoyed by the audience.  

Incidentally after the performance I discovered that Kataoka is from Nerima (a ward in Tokyo).  This was a funny coincidence, I thought to myself, because Nerima is famous for its daikon radishes, and there is a memorable scene in The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye where Mitsuo flirts with Miyoko as she washes a long row of daikon in the river.  When I asked Kataoka about this, he laughed and told me that The Scent of Pheasant’s Eye was actually shot in Nerima and because of this, he would be doing a benshi performance of the film in Nerima next year.  Keep your eyes open for the event next year Tokyoites – it is worth watching!

Jirō KAWATE 川手二郎

Raizo HAGINO萩野頼三
Jirō KAWATE川手二郎
Nobuko YOSHIYA吉屋信子 (novel)

Asakazu NAKAI  中井朝一


Kaoru SAKAMOTO 坂本薫:Naomi EGAWA 江川なほみ
Miyoko (Kaoru’s sister-in-law) 薫の嫂美代子:Matsue HISAMATSU 久松美津枝
Kimiko (Kaoru’s classmate) 薫の学友春日公子:Ginko HANABUSA 花房銀子
Tsuyako (Kaoru’s classmate) 薫の学友阿部ツヤ子:Kimie HAYASHI 林喜美枝
Housemistress 舎監先生:Mineko KOMATSU 小松峰子
Governer’s wife 知事夫人:Junko KIMURA 木村潤子
Mitsuo (Kaoru’s Brother) 薫の兄満雄:Akira Kichōji吉頂寺 credited as Mitsuhiko OKAZAKI 岡崎光彦
Kaoru’s father 薫の父村長さん:Bumon KAHARA 加原 武門 credited as Keiji ŌIZUMI 大泉慶治
Photographer 写真屋:Kan UEDA上田寛
Go-playing old man 碁敵のおじさん:Eirō NIIMI  新見映郎
Old man 人のいいおじさん:Joe Ohara  ジョウ・オハラ
Masako KINOSHITA 木下政子:Ruriko HOSHI 星ルリ子
Schoolmaster 校長:Yōyō KOJIMA 小島洋々

2015 Cathy Munroe Hotes


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