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Gambaku no ko, 1952
[Children of the Atom Bomb/Children of Hiroshima]

OtowaChildren of the Hiroshima opens to a shot of healthy children performing calisthenics in the schoolyard of an idyllic fishing village before being dismissed by their schoolteacher, Takako (Nobuko Otowa) for summer recess. Since the loss of her parents and sister four years earlier in the bombing of Hiroshima, Takako has remained on the island with her gentle and well-intentioned aunt, resigned in the belief that the memory of the fateful event is best left relegated to the past. With time on her hands, Takako decides to take an extended trip to her hometown to visit a former colleague and, near Kokutaiji temple, encounters her father's former assistant, Iwakichi (Osamu Takizawa) panhandling near a well-traveled bridge. Blinded and disfigured, Iwakichi is unable to find work to support his only surviving family, his grandson, Taro who has been sent away to live in an orphanage. Upon learning that three children from the kindergarten class had survived the immediate effects of the bomb, Takako decides to pay a visit to each of the students, and in the process, becomes a compassionate witness to its aftermath.

Filmed in 1952 shortly after the end of American occupation, Children of Hiroshima reflects the contemplative, often apocalyptic, testimonial cinema of the hibakusha - the survivors of the atomic bomb. By interweaving real-life accounts of actual survivors with the observations of a fictional protagonist, Kaneto Shindo creates a deeply personal, yet objective chronicle of the world's harrowing first encounter with the destructive potential of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945: the highly formalized montage of everyday life unfolding against the sound of a ticking clock that resolutely moves ever closer towards the appointed bombing time of 8:15 AM; the haunting, reenacted shot of an anonymous victim's "vaporized" charred outline on an outdoor staircase; the flashback image of children reciting nursery rhymes in circular formation that cuts to two broken, sequentially rotated shots of the former kindergarten teachers standing on a vacant lot of the former playground. Based on a collection of thoughtful poems and stories written by the young survivors of the Hiroshima bombing (compiled by Arata Osada), Children of Hiroshima is a pensive, compelling, and provocative account of the residual effects and incalculable human toll of the atomic bomb's tragic and indelible legacy.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Hadaka no shima, 1962
[Naked Island/The Island]

OtowaAt sunrise, the nearly indistinguishable silhouettes of a peasant man (Taiji Tonoyama) and woman (Nobuko Otowa) are observed on the horizon as they navigate their modest rowboat through the tranquil waters. Arriving on the main island, the couple disembark from their boat carrying large water barrels and walk along a footpath towards the freshwater reservoir of a village where they fill their water barrels to capacity, before rowing their boat home to a small island, and carry the oversized vessels through the steep and irregular trail along the hillside, balancing the cumbersome, shifting weight of the water across their shoulders through precariously yielding, long wooden poles. Observing their parents' approach from the sea, the children scamper to feed the animals, tend to the stove, and set the table so that the family meal is promptly served by the time that the adults reach the summit. After hurriedly consuming his breakfast, the older son (Shinji Tanaka) puts his bowl away inside the house, retrieves his school bag, and proceeds directly to the rowboat, where his mother soon follows carrying another set of water barrels for the next appointed excursion to the main island. And so the silent, existential ritual of the isolated family unfolds as the somber couple endlessly toil under the unforgiving sun throughout the day - alternately transporting water from the main island and cultivating the arid soil of their terraced, planting field along the side of the remote mountain island - eking out a meager existence from the barren and desolate land.

Kaneto Shindo creates a visually distilled, minimalist, and understated, yet compelling and profoundly expressive portrait of human struggle, perseverance, and survival in Naked Island. Crafting a remarkably fluid and tightly edited film that is entirely devoid of dialogue, Shindo effectively exploits the characters' silence in order to capture an organic rhythm that, in turn, reflects the cycle and ritual of human experience: the repetition of daily tasks that begin and end in darkness; the evocative, cross-cut shots of the father watering the wilting crops as the mother arduously transports water barrels; the cadence of displaced water from a rowing oar; the allusive depiction of seasonal change through images of harvested fields, village festivals, cherry blossoms, land tilling, and crop seeding. Recalling contemporary filmmaker Robert Bresson's presentation of impassive characters, extended silences, and ambient sound, Shindo similarly evokes a sense of transcendence from an oppressive existence through the performance of manual ritual. In the end, the silently suffering inhabitants of the austere island achieve their own poetic and natural state of grace, not through overt contemplation and spiritual enlightenment, but through the humble acknowledgement of a universal sense of place and the resilient acceptance for the unknown - and unknowable - travails of human existance.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Onibaba, 1964
[The Hole/The Demon]

Otowa/YoshimuraIn an open field of a remote village in ancient Japan, two disoriented, exhausted soldiers attempt to evade the pursuit of relentless horsemen from a rival samurai clan, collapsing amidst the tall, overgrown reeds of the prairie. After the threat of capture has seemingly subsided, the pair attempt to continue on their desperate flight, but are unexpectedly ambushed and fatally speared. The vicious, unseen assailants then emerge from the brush - an old peasant woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) - examining the victims to ensure death before removing their armor, then coldly disposing of their corpses into an ominous, deep opening in the ground known as The Hole. The women then pack their spoils into two wicker baskets and set off to see the opportunistic merchant, Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama) in order to barter for sacks of millet. One evening, a mercenary named Hachi (Kei Sato) returns to the village after deserting his legion and witnessing the death of his samurai overlord. Arriving at the old woman's hut, the boorish Hachi presumptuously demands food, knowing that she is eager to hear any news of her son, Kichi, and will not turn him away. Hachi immediately insinuates himself into the lives of the two women by becoming an accomplice in their barbaric enterprise, an unholy alliance that is soon threatened when Hachi attempts to seduce the lonely, repressed daughter-in-law.

Kaneto Shindo presents a harrowing and provocative examination of godlessness, amorality, and barbarism in Onibaba. Using spare, pantheistic landscapes, high contrast, chiaroscuro imagery, unnerving, environmental sounds, and frenetic tribal rhythms (composed by Hikari Hayashi) that evoke a sense of primitivism, Shindo illustrates the manifestation of the corruption of the human soul as a perversion of natural order: the ominous presence of The Hole that reflects the literal and figurative gateway to the underworld; the old woman's recounted story of crop frost in the summer that is further validated by Hachi's anecdote of the rising of a black sun in Kyoto; the echoed sounds of birds in flight as the daughter-in-law rushes through the ubiquitous, lacerating reeds in order to rendezvous with Hachi. An allegory for the underlying hypocrisy and absence of civilized behavior in the conduct of war, Onibaba exposes the man's innate propensity towards violence, narcissism, and inhumanity in the absence of moral and spiritual direction. In the end, the old woman's incessant, reaffirming pleas to the empty, forbidding darkness becomes an unreciprocated, desperate cry for validation and humanity.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Yabu no naka no kuroneko, 1968
[Black Cat from the Grove/Kuroneko]

Nakamura/TaichiIn the midst of a devastating civil war, a band of desperate, battle-fatigued mercenaries led by a ruthless and opportunistic warrior (Rokko Toura) chance upon an isolated hut on the rural outskirts of Kyoto and begin to ransack the property in search of food and water. Encountering a peasant woman named Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi) inside the house, the soldiers then commit a series of grievous and unconscionable acts, culminating in the violation and murder of the defenseless women before setting their home on fire. The scene then cuts to a shot of two stray black cats hovering over the charred remains of the victims as they subsequently make their home among the ruins. Months later, the ringleader - now a retainer who patrols the walled city gates on horseback - is approached by an alluring and mysterious noblewoman seeking to be escorted home through the ominous bamboo forest. Arriving at the edge of the grove, the samurai elicits an invitation to enter the home, and is offered sake and tea by the woman's mother-in-law who promptly retreats into a backroom in order to afford them some privacy. The young woman then begins her gradual seduction of the guest and, just as the evening progresses to a seeming moment of intimacy, violently attacks the unsuspecting samurai by biting him on the neck and draining his blood. The following morning, his corpse is found lying among the ashes of the burned hut. Soon, a rash of inexplicable samurai deaths - all found with contorted bodies ritualistically splayed among the charred ruins of the hut or left near the Rajomon Gate - begin to surface, prompting the mikado (Hideo Kanze) to issue a mandate to the head of security, Raiko (Kei Sato), for a swift resolution to the crisis. To this end, Raiko recruits a fearless warrior who calls himself Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) - the lone survivor of an entire regiment - after he arrives at the palace grounds to present the head of a formidable enemy named Kumasunehiko whom he had slain in battle. However, as Gintoki finds a disturbing connection between the enigmatic noblewomen and his former life as a humble farmer, his allegiance to the mikado and the samurai bushido (code of honor) are tested.

Loosely based on a Japanese folktale entitled The Cat's Revenge, Kuroneko is a spare, atmospheric, sensual, and acutely haunting portrait of love, duty, revenge, and inhumanity. Kaneto Shindo juxtaposes elemental and poetic natural imagery with the abstract, highly stylized expressionism of Noh theater to create an indelible aesthetic of visual dichotomy that exposes the underlying contradiction and hypocrisy of tolerated societal behavior. From the introductory presentation of the disheveled, unnamed rogue army leader who participates in the terrorization of the women, then subsequently re-emerges as a distinguished samurai who, nevertheless, is eager to exploit an opportunity to pursue a captivating and seemingly vulnerable young woman walking home alone, Shindo examines similar themes of innate primitivism, godlessness, and violence that exist beneath the veneer of civility as his earlier feature, Onibaba. Moreover, through pervasive ambiguity of character and interchangeability of identities - from the anonymous, brash samurai who was once a forcibly conscripted farmer that parallels Gintoki's own social evolution (his abandoned identity symbolized in his adoption of the name Gintoki in lieu of retaining his peasant name, Hachi) to the vicious bakeneko (cat monsters) that take on the form of noblewomen who are forbidden by the evil gods from revealing their true names - Shindo draws an implicit connection between Yone and Shige's sinister pact and the cruel legacy of the samurai bushido that further reflects on the human struggle between individuality and conformity, duty and conscience, personal will and hierarchical laws. By evocatively depicting the irreconcilable tragedy inherent in the unredemptive attainment of civilized order through warfare and social privilege through barbarism, Kuroneko serves as a horrifying and provocative indictment of man's vain, misguided, and inevitably ephemeral quest for wealth, power, pleasure, and immortality.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Rakuyoju, 1986
[Deciduous Tree/Tree Without Leaves]

Otowa A melancholic, nickelodeon arcade melody plays against the suffused, dreamlike image of a slow-circling merry-go-round, as a curious assortment of characters seated on the carousel gradually come into focus, then recede, before re-emerging again within the stationary frame. The nostalgic, surreal episode carries through to the voice-over narration of an aging author named Hatsu-rojin (Keiju Kobayashi) as he dispassionately - but longingly - recalls a fanciful childhood memory of throwing sandals into the air on an open field and imagining that the footwear had magically transformed into bats to be momentarily captured and then set free again and again, interrupted only by the sound of his mother's (Nobuko Otowa) voice calling the children home for dinner. At home, life in the rural province proves to be laborious, but often joyful and rewarding as the children help with the household chores, run errands in the nearby village, take turns in preparing food for the New Year's festivities, cultivate the land and, with the advent of warmer weather, participate in the annual crop plant ritual, an arduous task overseen by their aloof and stern father (Ichirô Zaitsu) who lords over the generations-old family farm (and his hard-working family) - while indulgently smoking his ubiquitous pipe - with the critical and proud complacency of a coddled, leisured aristocrat. Alternating between past and present, Hatsu-rojin traces his complex, unresolved relationship with his parents as the youngest child of an uncomplaining, overindulgent mother and a distant, seemingly callous father as the family struggles through financial hardship, personal sacrifice, and inevitable fracture. Now in the twilight of his career and the last surviving member of his family, the unmarried Hatsu-rojin searches for a way to pass on his fading, but deeply felt memories into a thoughtful commemoration of the simple life of his nurturing and resilient mother.

Rakuyoju is an elegantly composed, contemplative, and understatedly resonant meditation on mortality, devotion, and personal legacy. Using repeated imagery of everyday rituals and metaphorically unfolding against the constant changing of seasons, Kaneto Shindo reflects the transience and cyclicality of human existence: the opening carousel scene that collapses time by presenting the characters from different points in life into the same visual sequence; the father's impenetrable stoicism in the face of his family's unraveling way of life; the present-day Hatsu-rojin's integration into episodes from his childhood; the constant toil of the land. Filming in stark black and white and using sensual and allusive, stylized compositions (and character traits), Shindo further illustrates the temperance of memory with age - the perspective of introspection and nostalgia that subconsciously recalls only evocative, abstract imagery in the absence of objective detail and specificity. Inevitably, it is this imperfect, colored memory of a disintegrated family that betrays the fracture in Hatsu-rojin's own rootless and frustrated soul: the bittersweet, strange fruit of lost opportunity and inarticulable longing.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Bokuto Kidan, 1993
[A Strange Tale from East of the River/The Strange Tale of Oyuki]

Tsugawa/SumidaFaced with a bout of ill health, global traveller, western-educated novelist Kafu Nagai (1879-1959) began to chronicle sundry episodes in his life, as well as thoughts and observations of contemporary Japanese society, in a series of intimate journals that would eventually span the early half of 20th century. Based on A Strange Tale from East of the River, Nagai's semi-autobiographical novella, the events presented in The Strange Tale of Oyuki begin in 1920, as a middle-aged Nagai (Masahiko Tsugawa) having recently moved into a new residence in Ichibei in the Azabu district, attempts to impress his doting mother (Haruko Sugimura) - the only relative who accepts his excessive and disreputable lifestyle - by painting the house in time for her arrival. The anecdotal occasion proves to be an introductory glimpse into Nagai's often contradictory and seemingly irreconcilable attitude towards women. Flaunting his constant parade of 'pet' geishas and stories of sexual conquests to his mother even as he seeks her approval by rationalizing his self-indulgence as a consequence of his artistic temperament, Nagai's isolation - fueled in part by two failed brief marriages and estrangement from his brother - seems as equally borne of insecurity as it is self-imposed. From a pre-arranged rendezvous with a geisha named Yaeji at a resort in Hakone that led to his unintentional absence during his father's death, to an uncomfortably young, obliging geisha named Outa whom he sends away with a requisite severance pay, to an ingratiating barmaid named Ohisa who once rescued him from a taunting, drunken patron, the privileged Nagai inevitably embarks on several meaningless affairs with disenfranchised, and often kept, women. It is an emotional aimlessness that continues until one day when he encounters a young woman named Oyuki (Yuki Sumida) in the red light district of Tamanoi (coincidentally, while trying to find another prostitute with whom he had become briefly obsessed) during a rainstorm, and gradually becomes involved in the encumbered lives of the indentured prostitute and her protective madam (Nobuko Otowa) during the uncertain years of the Pacific War.

It is interesting to note that Nagai's complex and ambivalent relationship with commodified and marginalized women is a curiosity and preoccupation similarly shared by Kaneto Shindo's mentor (and Nagai's artistic contemporary) filmmaker
Kenji Mizoguchi who, perhaps uncoincidentally, became the biographical subject of Shindo's earlier documentary, Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director. Indeed, both artists exhibited a penchant for depicting aspects of the vanishing customs and cultural life of prewar Japan: Nagai, through his erotic portraits of tainted, exploited women and Mizoguchi, through his idealized, eternally sacrificing (and often 'fallen') jidai-geki heroines. However, while the period setting of Mizoguchi's cinema served as a basis for a critical re-evaluation of the history of gender and social inequity in Japanese culture, Nagai's perspective of pre-modernized Japan is more nostalgic - a reflection of the author's brooding sentiment of the nation's cultural erosion in the wake of modernization. Ironically, it is Nagai's melancholy for the transitory and disposable - not unlike his unreconciled personal relationships with women - that inspire the richly textured portraits of his sensual and profoundly elegiac literature.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Gogo no Yuigon-jo, 1995
[A Last Note]

A Last NoteOn a secluded cottage in the mountains, a retired carpenter and part-time groundskeeper named Rokubei assembles a humble coffin, carefully selects a properly weighted rock from the riverbed, and leaves a last note with the terse inscription "It's over" scribbled onto the back of a bargain sale flyer before committing suicide - the round rock presumably to be used for driving the nails into his coffin for burial. It is a mystifying and peculiarly pragmatic gesture that intrigues the famous actress, Yoko Morimoto (Haruko Sugimura), who has arrived at her rural summer retreat for a brief holiday and much needed rest before returning to Tokyo to perform in a new theatrical play. Accompanied by the devoted housekeeper, a local villager named Tokoyo (Nobuko Otowa) and Tokoyo's daughter, the three women take a leisurely stroll through the woods and return to a footbridge overlooking the river where Yoko decides to reserve her own burial stone and store for safekeeping in the house. However, Yoko is soon compelled to re-evaluate her abstract - if not romanticized and dramatic - notions of the process of growing old and death when a former colleague named Tomie (Kyoko Asagiri) pays a visit at the desperate request of Tomie's husband Tohachiro (Hideo Kanze) who had hoped that the reunion would improve his wife's diminished mental faculties resulting from the onset of senility.

Directed by a then-octogenarian filmmaker Kaneto Shindo and featuring a principal cast from classic Japanese cinema that includes frequent Ozu and Naruse character actress, Haruko Sugimura (whose distinguished career also includes roles in the films of Kinoshita, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi) and Shindo's perennial actress (and wife) Nobuko Otowa, A Last Note is an eccentric, humorous, and poignant tragicomic fable on aging, personal legacy, and mortality. Shindo references Anton Chekhov's plays both explicitly (in the actresses' recitation of passages) and implicitly (in Yoko's personal life mirroring episodes in The Seagull) in order to reinforce an underlying parallel to the author's idiosyncratically droll narrative tone: the agitated histrionics of a bumbling, escaped prisoner; the surreal interweaving of dreams and haunted memory; the carnivalesque parade that greets Tome and Tohachiro as they disembark from a taxi near a seaside hotel. Similarly, the seeming anachronism of a strangely erotic ancient village wedding ritual (alluding to the behavioral primitiveness of the 'other Japan' presented in Shohei Imamura's cinema) echoes Chekhov's recurring theme of the immutability of nature and the perpetuation of biological life cycles. By creating a playful, innately whimsical tone as a foil to the film's thoughtful and somber subject matter, Shindo presents a relevant and vital social indictment against the displacement and marginalization of the elderly - a sentiment reflected in the film's concluding scene as the image of the legendary actress mobbed by reporters is juxtaposed against a shot of a lone Tokoyo returning to the footbridge - a poetic expression of the determined women's own defiance against the inevitable.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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