A double snapshot of women in 1960s Japan
MADNESS RETURNS JUNE 18TH!
YOU may be able to tell that I’m taking some of my characteristic “double exposure” license with the first image accompanying this post…
I think you’ll be able to see the colorful vestiges of our MIDCENTURY MADNESS ‘22 poster as it has taken its place underneath the images of four striking women—four of the ten who will astonish you with their attitudes and their actions in the first of our two films that screen at the Roxie Theater on Saturday, June 18.
The title of this film, directed by Kon Ichikawa but (perhaps tellingly) written by his wife Natto Wada, is usually translated into English as TEN DARK WOMEN; even in the ferment of Japanese filmmaking that exploded into view in the 1960s, it is truly singular in its approach to gender relations.
(TEN DARK WOMEN is but one of four films we’ll screen at the Roxie over the June 18-19th weekend; I’ll be back with a look at the Sunday double bill—two early films from the mercurial anti-auteur Jean-Pierre Mocky—early next week.)
THE condition of women in Japanese society has long been a vital area of study for Japanese filmmakers: giants of the classic period such as Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse set the parameters for probing works that challenged the rigid patriarchal forms that continued to plague women. But those masters did not often choose to explore the impact of western-style capitalism as it transformed the economic landscape of Japan.
Though Ichikawa is famous for his anti-war films The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959), and lauded for his epic documentary on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, his works with Wada exploring various aspects of gender relations in Japanese society are arguably his most probing contributions. As scarce as TEN DARK WOMEN is, the Ichikawa-Wada films from the 1950s that are its precursors remain almost impossible to find—a situation that clearly needs to change.
SO what is the outrageous premise of TEN DARK WOMEN? Let’s permit TCM stalwart Jeff Stafford to set things up for us:
There are good cults and bad cults—and the “cult of Kaze” is a bit of both worlds. It is more accurately a group of ten women who unite in sisterhood over a common cause: their liberation from a certain Mr. Kaze, a handsome, successful executive in the Japanese television industry. There’s an ominous side to their solidarity, however: the women want Kaze to die and they aim to kill him. Why? Because nine of the women have had affairs with and been discarded by this man—and the tenth, Futaba Kaze, is his wife and has suffered from his philandering for years.
In short: black comedy meets feminist revenge meets noir, in a film that continually subverts its stereotypes. Canny character details are fleshed out with precision by Wada in a way that reveals fissures in the women’s resolve—which keeps the audience guessing as to whether they will really carry through with their plan.
There is a bracing, ever-shifting tonality in TEN DARK WOMEN that only a few films manage to achieve—and much of it is lodged in what Ishikawa sees as intractable barriers between the sexes. Yet he gives Wada significant latitude to craft feminist perspectives with a scorpion-like sting of truth, capturing the strong undercurrent of despair that washes over the patriarchy as it watches itself be overrun by the insatiable demands of a capitalism driven by mass media. Jeff Stafford identifies a key passage capturing this singular perspective as it’s expressed by a harried male TV producer whom we see only once—an admission that we might see today as meta-feminist:
“Childbirth confirms the power women already know they have. Men are tragic. We can’t give birth. We don’t know how to raise children. That’s why we drown ourselves in our work…it is hard to do this job and retain your humanity.”
TEN DARK WOMEN is a film that will leave many things lingering in your mind. Given how difficult it is to see it anywhere else, I hope you’ll take this rare opportunity to see it.
AFTER this bracing look at the fast-paced, modern-mediated world of the 1960s, we shift gears with ZERO FOCUS, made in the same year but looking backward into the shame and squalor of Japan’s post-WWII experience to show us the ongoing plight of women in a world turned upside down.
Director Yoshitaro Nomura, collaborating with noted crime novelist Seicho Matsumoto, fashions a missing-person mystery that morphs into a tale with greater range and depth as we follow the mousy Teiko Uhara (Yoshiko Kuga, at center in the image above) in her quest to locate her vanished husband.
The twists and turns in the tale have been described by some as Hitchcockian, but that’s too easy a comparison. As Teiko wanders further into the snowy, barrenly beautiful countryside, she finds out more details about her husband’s past, and agitated reckonings occur on cliffsides overlooking a sinister, restless sea. There is a melancholy, a kind of resignation toward the horrible truths that begin to emerge, that is captured throughout the film’s mise-en-scene.
No spoilers here for how our two other women figure in how the mystery plays out, but Nomura has retained the collision of past transgressions against women that might prompt some of those victimized in parlous times to seek revenge. As you’ll see, it’s what Teiko finds out beyond the details of her husband’s fate that provokes the look of horrified incredulity that Kuga displays on the Japanese poster art for ZERO FOCUS (above).
Japanese filmmakers have always been more engaged in a form of angry sympathy for the plight of women in a society where masculinity often seems pinned between the (sub-)mental states of yakuza and samurai. These two films push past the standard genres of Japanese cinema to provide us with perspectives on that situation that remain fresh and more than a bit harrowing. But, then again, this is what MIDCENTURY MADNESS is all about!