Sometimes, there is nothing scarier than family.
The movie starts out as if there were a scene missing, but don’t worry, there will be plenty of backstory provided later on. In fact, the movie is almost all backstory.
Sakurada Masuo is on the phone with…someone. A very stressful phone call, it seems, involving the need to proofread an obituary of a person whom Masuo states is more important to him than his grandfather. Who could that person be?
Masuo ends the phone call and meets up with Ritsuko. She tells him that she could have gone to check on Terumichi herself. I guess that Terumichi was the subject of that phone call. Masuo disagrees; the telegram had been sent to him, and only he knew where Terumichi was.
Masuo asks Ritsuko what they were to each other. Not necessarily the two of them…he doesn’t elaborate and she doesn’t answer. When Masuo starts to suggests that Temurichi’s telegram may have been a prank, Ritsuko insists that Terumichi would not lie. If it is true, then only Masuo and Ritsuko are left. Masuo asks again, what are the two of them to each other? Relatives, says Ritsuko. They only see each other at weddings and funerals. Masuo asks if Ritsuko could say the same to Terumichi. And then in voiceover, Masuo states that he has loved Ritsuko ever since they met as children, and it was only Terumichi who had prevented turning that feeling into reality.
Oh…so, it is going to be this type of movie? Strap in everyone: it’s Ōshima Nagisa time again.
Flashback Number 1
Masuo was born in Manchuria, China, but it had been the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo then. After the Second World War, Masuo and his mother, Kiku were repatriated to Japan in late 1946. They were going to go reunite with Masuo’s father, Kanichiro, only to hear that he had died pretty much exactly a year earlier. The two of them turned around to leave, but their extended family chased them down. As Masuo recounts, he and his mother had escaped the Russians, Manchurians, and Koreans, only to get captured by their fellow Japanese. And it was Terumichi, barely older than Masuo, who had caught him.
Masuo and Kiku are brought to his grandfather, who asks her if the Russians, Manchurians, or Koreans used her for sex. She denies it, and claims that she ran from her father-in-law only because she wanted to live without having to rely on him for help. The grandfather, Kazuomi berates her, saying that Masuo is irreplaceable.
During a ceremony commemorating Kanichiro, Kazuomi asks what happened to Masuo’s younger brother. Kiku can barely get the words out, but it is clear that the baby had died. Kazuomi is…less angry about this than before, but tells Masuo that he will have to live for his brother as well. Masuo cannot look at the photograph of his father, as it would not reveal why he died. He was told that his father had committed suicide just after New Year’s Day in 1946, but he did not press for more information. In 1947, people try to avoid talking about the war, soldiers, or the war dead.
Masuo is bathing when his aunt Setsuko comes in. Masuo asserts that he can bathe himself, but Setsuko gleefully dismisses his weakening protestations. After all, they are family, regardless of how long it has been since they have seen each other.
Ritsuko and another young cousin, Tadachi, look on from outside. Ritsuko complains that Setsuko never bathes her, despite being her own mother. Tadachi calls out to Masuo, calling him the boy from Manchuria and a street urchin. In the same breath, though, Tadachi openly states that his own father is a war criminal. Terumichi chases the two away, scolding them for spying.
A war criminal? Apparently, Tadachi’s father, Susumu, is still being held in China, even though his crimes are minor. And what of Grandfather Kazuomi? Terumichi would later tell Masuo that their grandfather belonged in Sugamo Prison along with Tojo and the others. Masuo looks at the other men in his family, his uncle Mamoru, the communist uncle Isamu, even his late father, and sees war criminals.
The women of the household discuss Kiku failing health, and suggest that he should stay here in the country with his grandmother instead of going to Tokyo. Kazuomi yells at them, stating that he is taking Masuo to Tokyo and will raise him in place of his father.
Communist uncle Isamu asks…isn’t Masuo actually Kazuomi’s own son?
Kazuomi feigns ignorance, but Isamu claims that Kazuomi had recognized both him and Susumu as his sons even though they had been born to mistresses. Meanwhile, Terumichi is almost certainly his son and not Mamoru’s, while the father of Ritsuko and as for Tadashi…Kazuomi laughs this off. The women try to turn the subject back to Masuo’s mother…and the Russians?
Then Terumichi comes in and fumigates everyone…dude, they were eating. It doesn’t matter. He says that Japan must be fumigated so that it can begin anew. He then pours Kazuomi some sake and asks for some himself. He then pours some for Masuo. It being his first experience with sake, Masuo falls over immediately. It could also could have been due to the bug spray.
The next morning, Masuo goes outside and…puts his ear to the ground. Several parts of the ground. The other kids appear and ask him what he is listening for. It takes a while for him to answer, but he eventually reveals that they buried his baby brother while on a forced march. Masuo was certain that he was still breathing, and he could still hear him crying after he was buried. His mother yanked him away and got him back in the column. Tadashi starts singing the story, but Terumichi slaps him, and tells him to keep it a secret. Ritsuko volunteers to keep it a secret as well, and Terumichi tells Masuo to tell his mother to also keep it a secret.
The four kids play baseball out in the field. It is there that Masuo starts to feel any affection for Terumichi. Before then, all he had had was the faint notion that Terumichi’s mother had been intended for Masuo’s father (being the only son of Masuo’s grandmother) before she died, locking the two boys in a strange sort of rivalry up until…well…
End of Flashback Number 1
Masuo and Ritsuko are on a train. For some reason, Masuo had been sleeping right by the door, perhaps to let Ritsuko sleep in private. But she goes over to him and suggests that they change places. Bad dreams? He says that she can go back to sleep, as he still has things to think about. Isn’t it better, Ritsuko asks, to not think too much? He reminds her of the baseball game that they played after the memorial. But she tells him that they didn’t play baseball; Masuo played alone. He insists that the four kids were playing. Setsuko was the umpire, and praised his pitching. Ritsuko asks if he means that her mother made him the way he is now. He doesn’t answer, but…
Flashback Number 2
It is 1952, and Masuo has gone to the 34th National High School Baseball Championship, representing Tokyo. He had learned that his mother was gravely ill, but still played a game. It was most likely during the game that his mother died.
Masuo doesn’t even take the time to change out of his dirty baseball uniform as he rushes back to the family estate. His mother is dead, and he was not there during her last moments. He goes to her casket and cries out that he will quit baseball. He can brace for the judgment of his family that he had not been there. Yet, Kazuomi says that it is like karma; Kiku was not there when her husband died, and so it is only fitting that her son was not there when she died.
Masuo starts to float the idea of sending her body back to Manchuria, but his grandmother insists that she will be interred in the Sakurada family tomb, a privilege that was not granted to Terumichi’s mother. Terumichi wonders if that is actually fortunate to be in the Sakurada family tomb. Kazuomi says that it doesn’t matter where a woman is interred; it does matter to men like Terumichi and Masuo. He says that the two of them must course correct the nation, which has been derailed by defeat. Communist Uncle Isamu laughs at this statement, saying that neither of them should ever follow in the footsteps of their grandfather or Masuo’s father. This makes Setsuko laugh, and she jokes when the Molotov cocktails will start flying, which makes Terumichi laugh.
After some more chit chat about Isamu getting married or not, Mamoru asks Ritsuko whether she will marry Masuo or Terumichi. This goddamn family. The grandmother says that such thing is out of the question; the family has not one happy couple, only perverse discussions like this. Kazuomi says that she and him are a happy couple, causing more laughter, and the grandmother reminds him that they have lived apart for nine years. Kazuomi says that she can return to the house starting today, overruling her wanting to maintain the status quo for Terumichi’s education.
At one point, Ritsuko stands up and asks the grandmother if such a marriage that she said was out of the question would really be that terrible. Mamoru asks if she is in love with one of her cousins and starts laughing, causing her to run off. Setsuko calmly gets up and walks after her daughter. Whatever they talk about after that, the result is that Setsuko sends Ritsuko back home.
Masuo is burning all of his baseball equipment when Setsuko arrives. She asks for the baseball glove, promising something nice. Something nice? Setsuko seems surprised at how easily he is willing to give up baseball, but Masuo says that he actually hated baseball from the beginning. So, why did he keep at it? Because his father played it? Because Setsuko said that she cheered on his father…and praised him as well? Setsuko says that baseball was the only thing that he could hold onto until now. When he implies that there may be something else, she says that she cannot be that thing for him. Oh, so she knows that Masuo has the hots for her, huh. She does give him his father’s last will.
Kazuomi arrives and scolds Setsuko for keeping the will hidden from him for six years. Setsuko claims that Kanichiro had asked her to hand it directly to Masuo. Kazuomi seems to resent that he did not receive a will, and states that he has a right to know his son’s thoughts before he died. Setsuko argues that she had no say in the decision. Kazuomi scolds her further, accusing her and Kanichiro of having committed an immoral loathsome act before he died. Setsuko counters that nothing about this situation was ever moral. She accuses Kazuomi of driving a wedge between his son and the woman whom he loved in order to possess her for himself. Kazuomi tells Masuo to leave before Setsuko can continue, but he hangs around to eavesdrop.
Setsuko says that she was the illegitimate child of Kazuomi’s half-sister and an unknown man. That would perhaps be enough reason for Kazuomi to disapprove a marriage between Setsuko and Kanichiro…except that, when Setsuko went to Kazuomi to beg for his approval, Kazuomi forced himself upon her. And while Kazuomi adopted her as a daughter and married her off to a pro-Japanese figure in China, she would meet with Kanichiro frequently, though they never touched. But then they met one last time, before he killed himself.
Kazuomi suggests that he and Setsuko reach some kind of conclusion. How so, he doesn’t say, but it is perfectly obvious. So, she goes over to him and lies on her back. While Masuo is too afraid to do anything, Terumichi goes in and…erm…asks to observe as part of his so important education. Kazuomi starts to undress her, but stops. As she picks up where Kazuomi left off, he says that they have reached the conclusion, and he walks off. Setsuko stays lying down and Terumichi approaches her. He asks Setsuko to be his first teacher and she…obliges. This frigging movie. Well, at least she was sort of consenting…sort of.
I swear that I did not time this to coincide with the House of Dragons finale.
Masuo goes back to the fire and his baseball glove. Ritsuko sneaks up behind him and startles him. She returned. How long was she gone? In any case, Ritsuko says that interesting things happen at weddings and funerals, and it would be a shame to miss any of it. Masuo asks her who her father is. Did his father ever visit her when she lived in Manchukuo? Three or four times, she says. She picks up that he thinks that they have the same father…but…is that so bad? That would make them siblings. She seems rather happy at the thought, and asks him to say something brotherly to her. Masuo is not quite as enthused. Look man, this whole thing is screwed up all the way down.
Okay, so no brotherly statements. Then how about a kiss? A what? Well, whatever. Masuo leans in and…oh, Ritsuko meant on the forehead. Siblings kiss on the forehead. Well, Masuo kisses her right on the mouth. Ritsuko…uh…tells him not to do that, as they would not be siblings anymore. She seems more concerned about that than anything else.
Kiku’s funeral is so lavish that people will say that it is as if Kazuomi held a living funeral for himself. Kanichiro had predicted in his will that Japan will have fallen into chaos under a communist regime by the time his son reached adulthood and, yet, Kazuomi has gotten depurged, receiving a government post as president of public corporation. Masuo notices that Setsuko cries over Kiku’s coffin for a long time, and he wonders who those tears are really for.
End of Flashback Number 2
There is a 24-hour ship ride to get to Terumichi. Once Masuo and Ritsuko get on that ship, there is no turning back. Masuo says that people often don’t turn back when they should and end up regretting it later. Ritsuko asks if he is speaking of himself. Well, does Ritsuko have no regrets? Perhaps when she kissed him. Eeesh.
Masuo buys some for Ritsuko to use for seasickness. It’s a 24-hour trip. But she says that she didn’t get seasick during the repatriation ship ride from China, which took much longer. He says that that was a long time ago, but Ritsuko remembers it as if it were yesterday.
The two get to the harbor and Masuo buys tickets. Ritsuko notes that they are round-trip. Wait, how is that strange? Is Ritsuko not planning on coming back? If Terumichi is actually still alive, she says, then she will stay with him. Oh…well…erm…fine. Masuo asks if this will be her last stop in a life without regrets or turning back. Ritsuko says that their lives since repatriation have been one long turning back.
Silently, Masuo has to agree. If repatriation showed the Japanese Empire’s regret, then Masuo and Ritsuko are children born of that regret. That is true of others as well. Setsuko. And Tadashi, child of a war criminal. And just as Ritsuko says that their lives are just one long turning back, the movie goes to the third flashback.
So…yeah, Ōshima is Ōshima. I have talked about him twice before and, so this is not surprising. This movie is less surreal than those in terms of form or story, and it has little intentional or unintentional humor to offset the sad, angry, or unsettling elements. So, all that is left is a sad, angry, and unsettling film.
Like with other films by Ōshima, and a lot of Japanese New Wave Cinema, this movie is drenched in symbolism, more than I can pick up. He had been quite an artistic bomb-thrower for revolution in the 1960s. By the 1970s, he has become more pessimistic, disillusioned by the failure of the revolutionaries and by his own complicity in its failure. This movie represents that pessimism towards the prospects of Japan changing for the better. That was back in 1971. Fifty years later and…
The Sakurada family is, I suppose, meant to represent Japanese society. The name Sakurada means cherry blossom field. What is more Japanese than that? The family is high ranking and powerful, a shining example of Japan’s past and future. Or so it seems. In fact, the family is rotten. It has been rotting for decades and continues to rot. Rotting seems to be entrenched into its very being and the chances of stopping that rot in the future is rather slim. If that family represents Japan, then Ōshima is saying that Japan is based upon rot.
If the Sakurada family represents Japan, then what is Kazuomi? The emperor? The ideals of Japan? That I don’t know. I do feel that he is an interesting character and force. Of course, he starts out seeming like the all-powerful patriarch, and that remains true throughout the movie, but the truth of that power is revealed to be different from how he presents himself. First off, let’s get to the biggie: pretty much all of the children are his. He impregnated the wives of his sons. The chances are pretty high that he got the daughter of his half-sister pregnant. And there is a non-zero chance that he is the father of both his half-sister’s daughter and his half-sister. Why does he do this? Perhaps for him, sex is power, and paternity is power. He is exercising his dominance. Whenever he does not exercise his dominance over women, they are of no importance to him. They might as well not exist. He cannot relinquish that, even to his own progeny. Everything has to be his. That is why he was so interested in whether Kiku had been taken by Russian soldiers and less interested in Masuo’s brother. Anything that is not his, he doesn’t care for.
At the same time, Kazuomi does not admit to anything. I did not notice this until second viewing, but he does not even acknowledge the possibility of any wrongdoing, let alone admit to it. He does not even verbalize what he is about to do to Setsuko during…that scene. It is unclear if he stopped because he is too old to follow through with his…conclusion…or because he does not want to confirm his transgression in front if Terumichi…or because he sees that Terumichi would continue the tradition of incest. I don’t know; it probably doesn’t matter. What is more important is that Terumichi does not verbalize explicitly what is going on. I am guessing that Kazuomi loves that. Other family members can so casually and happily bring up all of the incest and other things that would make the family look bad, even during solemn occasions. Kazuomi often tells others to shut up, but has trouble cutting off these conversations, because that would be an acknowledgement of the subject matter. Instead, he recontextualizes what they are talking about, just talks about something else, or stoically lets it continue until someone else tries to change the subject. That implies a gap in Kazuomi’s dominance. And yet, none of that information is discussed outside of the family. He retains his status within his family and within the wider community. We don’t even really learn about his brief fall from political power until he is reinstated. It is as if he had never left. He is unreflective and unrepentant.
Ultimately, it does not matter to Kazuomi what his family members say in the privacy of family gatherings. Whatever they think and believe is of no importance. What is important is that they fall in line. What is important is that everyone else fall in line. And, for the most part, everyone does. Setsuko may or may not have given up Kanichiro’s will had Kazuomi had asked, but after she recounts how he had forced himself upon her instead of accepting marriage between her and his son, she submits to his unstated demand for sex. She gives the impression that she is willing, but she does not really have a choice anyways; she is under his dominance regardless. All of them are. And as long as they play along with this charade, their words said in private don’t matter. And they do play along for the most part, even to a humiliating extreme. It is only during the rare times when they stop playing along that he gets angry. It is the rare times when they stop playing along that the limits of his power become apparent, and then he becomes angry…but the status quo is eventually restored. He is powerful only as long as everyone else lets him be. They don’t have to, but they do. So, he remains.
What about the kids? I’ll start with Tadachi. As a child, he is rather cheerful and cheery. He knows that his father is a war criminal, but might not understand what that means. He might still not understand what that means when he gets older, but he is less cheery, more haunted…angrier and much more volatile. He is the one who is the least under Kazuomi’s thumb in the movie. Does that make him the hero of the movie? Absolutely not.
And Ritsuko. In personality, in narrative, and in Masuo’s heart, she is like a substitute for her mother, Setsuko. She is…happy…? Is she happy or is that smile and laugh a coping mechanism? Ritsuko wants to be a true part of the family and willingly offers up her submission to Kazuomi even when he could not be bothered to even consider her, as she is a girl…and also perhaps not his child. The possibility that she and Masuo could be half-siblings makes her feel happy, as it gives her a stronger familial connection to someone…nevermind that his father is probably Kazuomi. Her main objection to Masuo having romantic feelings for her is the violation of this connection that she made up in her mind. At the same time, she has little qualms about having feelings towards Terumichi.
So, what of Terumichi and Masuo? It seems to me that they are two sides of the same coin. But Terumichi seems to be more active and more sure of himself than Masuo is. Masuo is, on the other hand, cowardly and passive. Terumichi’s masculine stoicism contrasts with Masuo’s cowed impotence and sad longing. It is not necessarily surprising that a conventional woman would be more drawn towards Terumichi than towards Masuo. Yet, they seem to pretty much be on the same trajectory: continuing the rot of the Sakurada name. They just do it in their own ways.
Terumichi overtly opts into the tradition, saying the right things and negotiating his position with Kazuomi. When Masuo tells the story of his dead brother, Terumichi tells him and the other kids to keep it a secret. That is a shameful story that shows the crack in the family’s stature.
I feel some sympathy for Masuo, at least more than other protagonists in Ōshima movies. I am not sure if that is deliberate or just me bringing my own baggage. Masuo is a constant disappointment; not because he acts out like Tadachi, but through petrified inaction. He is pathetic. He would conform if he could, and he tries…it is just never quite enough. Yet, Kazuomi is fine with making excuses for him, because he tries, he cannot be shamed into doing better, and presenting Masuo’s failures as good enough is preferable to yelling at him. Masuo’s mind is a haunted one, full of anger like Tadachi, but one unable to take action. As long as Masuo can pretend in public that all is fine, then Kazuomi can as well. And as long as one of them gets with Ritsuko, then it is fine with the family…which is Kazuomi. When we first see Kazuomi, he is old. In later flashbacks, he is even older. Terumichi and Masuo could easily take him on individually. But they don’t. In fact, it seems like they will carry on his unstated debauchery, imposing his will even when he no longer can, as if he himself still can.
What is with all the incest? My goofhead self had to do some supplementary reading to get it. It is supposedly supposed to be symbolic of Japan’s racism and insularity taken to an extreme. Kazuomi was concerned with foreign soldiers forcing themselves upon Kiku not for her own sake, but for the sake of the bloodline. For sure, Kazuomi’s racism and misogyny are so casually accepted, but like war crimes are not to be discussed, neither is the incest. Now, most of that is due to Kazuomi imposing himself on the women of the family. But we see that at least Ritsuko and Masuo are willing to continue the tradition; due to their own hearts, not because Kazuomi wants them to. Ritsuko pines for Terumichi beyond her own life. Masuo had once pined for Setsuko, but then transferred those feelings to Ritsuko. They seem largely unconcerned with the morality or ethics of such feelings, at most there is concerned about the traditional order of things, but that is it. Masuo is perpetually uneasy, but he would if he could. If the family collapses, it is not because they strayed from the path, but because they stayed on the self-destructive path. The rot continues not just because of fear, but because it is in their hearts.
That whole metaphor passed me by on first glance and, even reading it later, I was tempted to try to work out how it worked within the rules of the movie. Eventually, I had to tell myself that I could overlook the technical questions in Snowpiercer and The Boys for the sake of the allegory, then I could do it here. Actually, there is another metaphor that I missed later on in the movie. A character, described as a shining example of Japanese purity, does not show up when supposed to. From a purely technical standpoint, one could argue that the description of that person’s purity is a lie. And the decision to continue with things as normal is an Emperor’s New Clothes scenario. From a symbolic standpoint, the movie may be saying that such a shining example of Japanese purity does not exist at all. This is all a lie. And everyone is pretending like it is normal to the point of humiliation. They are willing a narrative that runs counter to reality. And they will continue into self-destruction if no one helps them.
Now, why is so much of this movie told in flashbacks? That is, perhaps, a metacommentary on how the characters are always turning back. Masuo is haunted by his past, yet he is nothing but relitigating it in his mind during this trip to Terumichi. And all of those flashbacks are of his trip to visit his extended family. There is nothing else. And in all of his voiceovers, he is not talking to the viewer, but he is addressing his relatives. Ritsuko, Terumichi, Setsuko, Tadachi. He is not talking to them, for they are not around and a few of them are no longer alive. Even with Ritsuko there, he can only halfway unload his heart as if he wants to. He leaves most of his thoughts to his head. These are things that he perhaps wanted to say, but couldn’t bring himself to. So, he is perhaps psychically reaching out to their ghosts. He is stuck in the past. He cannot escape. He has no notion of escaping. And it does not matter if he lives longer than his grandfather did. He keeps turning away from the future. He could live forever, but will have no future.
I am not…entirely sure, what is the significance of China in this movie, aside from a reminder of Japan’s war crimes that no one talks about. Russia’s war crimes? Maybe an inference. Japan’s war crimes? Nothing. Yet, Ritsuko and Masuo are from Japan-occupied China and the puppet government of Manchukuo. There are few memories of that time, but no flashbacks to that time. Perhaps their being from China and repatriation shows both the unremarked diminishing glory of Japan and the inability for the characters to escape their rotting roots. I don’t know. I could probably have done some extra reading to find out, but I didn’t. There is probably a bunch of other stuff, but I have been babbling enough.
This movie is messed up. It’s Ōshima, though, so I knew that going in. And now you know as well.
WTF ASIA 237: Project Gutenberg (Hong Kong: 2018, approx. 125 minutes)
WTF ASIA 238: 1987 – When the Day Comes (South Korea: 2017, approx. 129 minutes)