If you’re feeling down, watch a movie. It really helps, especially when the movie itself is incredibly sad. You will think yourself the happiest person in the world after watching. The following Japanese movies have moved an Ice Queen like me to tears.
THE LIFE OF OHARU (saikaku ichidai onna 西鶴一代女) * Mizoguchi Kenji * 1952
This black-and-white film is based on the novel “The Life of an Amorous Woman” (kōshokuichidai onna 好色一代女) by Saikaku Ihara. The title in Japanese a combination of the author and the three kanji of the title’s book. In English, the movie’s called after the main character, Oharu. This girl isn’t very lucky. And that’s an understatement: her life is really miserable. The trouble starts when she is caught on having an affair with a lower ranked page. The young man is beheaded and Oharu’s family is sent away (if you were wondering: the movie is set in the Edo-period 1603-1868, and that’s the way it happened then). From that time on, things only get worse. She tries very hard, but somehow she always fails in living a happy life. Director Mizoguchi is known for his feminist engagement. He wanted to expose the hard circumstances for women, being more an object for men than a real autonomous person.
This movie reminds me of Ozu Yasujirō’s work. I have no intention of stereotyping Japanese cinema, but that’s my image of a good, old, Japanese film: black-and-white, low tempo, few talking and powerful shots. Less is more, and there can be so much more said in one slowly moving picture than in a lively dialogue. If you’re not very keen of this kind of movies, or perhaps you prefer colors, I can recommend the following ones.
DODESUKADEN (どですかでん) * Kurosawa Akira * 1970
Kurosawa himself said “I must shoot this one in color, otherwise it would be too sad for words.” He was right. The story is based on the novel “The Town without Seasons” (kisetsu no nai machi 季節のない町) by Yamamoto Shūgorō. “Dodesukaden” is the onomatopoeia of a train. The departure station of this train is located in a rubbish dump, transformed into some kind of slum, where people try to survive in extremely harsh conditions. The conductor of the train is a mentally disabled boy. The truth is, the train doesn’t exist but in his imagination. The scene where he actually prepares the fictional vehicle for a ride isn’t amusing at all, it is bitter and wry. And so is the rest of the movie. All “residents” have their own miserable story, from the intellectual, dreamy tramp to the sexually abused girl. I recall two powerful scenes. The first one is the dead of the bum boy. Now the tramp is left alone with his impossible dreams, his last grip on reality has died with the child. The second one is the moment when a fine lady visits the shabby hut of a man who is silent during the whole movie. The man ignores her pleas, behaving more and more like a madman. He obstinately bears with him the burden of her adultery. You will think twice after watching this. How perverse can life be for human beings? All social issues make their appearance.
“Dodesukaden” is completely different from Kurosawa’s other filming. The contrast with pictures like “Seven Samurai” is huge. I was quite surprised; this could only be directed by someone who himself had to contend with mental struggle, even depression. The movie was a commercial failure. A year after the release, Kurosawa attempted suicide, but survived. It was not until 1975 that he directed another film. If you’re too weak harted for hardcore stuff like “Dodesukaden”, here’s a final suggestion.
SKY OF LOVE (koizora 恋空) * Imai Natsuki * 2007
“Koizora” was born on a cellphone. Mika posted her autobiographical story on a cell phone site, where it grew immensely popular, resulting in a manga, film and drama adaption. I watched the drama, but you can go for the film too, which is shorter (and cost less tissues). At the beginning I had promised not to shed a tear. With great efforts I succeeded in the first 5 episodes, but in the final one I couldn’t hold it anymore. Mika is the Oharu of today. I’m rather suspicious about the real-life aspect, how can someone’s life contain so much bad luck?
“Koizora” is the love story of high-schoolers Mika and Hiro. At first, Hiro is more like a bad boy, but he turns out to be very gentle and for ever dedicated to Mika. They experience a rather difficult relationship: bullying, pregnancy, disease, you name it. I cannot spoil the ending, you should watch for yourself. I challenge you.
Facts for Fun
– Japan has produced movies since 1897. That was almost immediately after introducing the Lumière Brothers’ Cinematograph in Tokyo.
– My favourite Belgian director is Jaco Van Dormael. Most of his films are in French, but the one I can watch again and again, “Mr. Nobody”, is English spoken. Besides, the cast is fantastic: Jared Leto, Diane Kruger…
– The animation movies of Miyazaki Hayao has become very popular in the West. And quite deserved, they are terrific. “Howl’s Moving Castle” has won my heart five years ago.
– watch the trailer of Dodesukaden (no subs)
– watch Koizora (movie, English subs)
– watch Koizora (drama, English subs)