The Insect Woman (1963) by Shohei Imamura

The film tells the story of Tome (Sachiko Hidari), a girl born to a poor farming community in 1918. Tome’s upbringing is unconventional and difficult as she finds it hard to break away from the same problems of her parent’s generation. The story then moves to the second world war which finds Tome working at a factory, having children as she tries to lead a normal life. Post-war Japan sees Tome finding work in the city at a brothel. Tome’s life is packed with misfortune as she sees the worst of Japanese society.

The film deals with many difficult issues such as incest and prostitution and we see a shift from rural to urban focus in society, as people move from the countryside to find work, though still with the same sins and desires permeating and driving the characters. The film is well-written and we get an insight into the protagonists life and outlook through Tome’s interactions with a variety of characters, from family to colleagues. Fantastic acting and engaging dialogue drive the story on. The music is ominous, reflecting the darkness of the character’s lives.

“The Insect Woman” does not shrink from portraying a dark vision of Japanese life. At its heart it is a film about sin and attempting to escape from it while trying to do your best in a harsh world. The strong female protagonist battles on despite being seemingly punished for her own and others indiscretions.

Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa

Escaping from a downpour, a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) takes shelter at Rashomon gate, where he meets a wood-cutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) who are discussing a recent trial they have witnessed. The wood-cutter tells the man that as he was walking through the forest a few days before, he came across a dead samurai. The priest had earlier seen the samurai (Masayuki Mori) leading his wife (Machiko Kyo) on a horse in that direction. Later a thief Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) was caught with the weapons from the samurai. Tajomaru is taken to trial and tells his version of events, claiming that he did kill the samurai. They also hear the story of the wife of the samurai, which is different in points to that of Tajomaru. We also get two different version of events, with no hints as to which is correct, and all seeming to take the blame for the death of the samurai.

Based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film has an interesting structure, one that would later influence many other works. Instead of being a straightforward narrative, we are instead presented, through flashbacks, with several versions of the same event, and asked to choose which one we believe or trust. This makes the film engaging, especially when you reach the third and fourth versions, as you attempt to puzzle out why they would be lying about certain things, whether you can trust the witnesses, and what the true circumstances of the murder were. Unlike other historical films, this is focussed heavily on the telling of stories, and dialogue between the major players, rather than action sequences. All the actors do a great job, particularly the three involved in the crime, as they act out the various interpretations of the scenes. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is fantastic, with the use of static cameras during the trial scenes putting you in the role of an unbiased judge as each story is told, and use of framing and movement in the flashback sequences showing you exactly what you need to see. Both the story and direction work together to create a compelling narrative, that keeps you wanting to learn more about what really happened.

The film asks some difficult questions about the nature of truth and reality, and also includes some very dark themes of murder and rape, although never graphic, and nasty characters. At the beginning of the film we see the crumbling Rashomon gate amidst a rainstorm, which acts as a perfect visual metaphor for the chaotic reality of life, and the forces of nature that act to destroy what civilisation attempts to construct. The lack of order symbolised by the gates destruction is explained as the characters tear firewood from the building, further emphasizing the necessary selfishness of humanity). A deserved classic, this film is a must watch for fans of cinema, as it inspired the way many future stories were told.

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) by Toshio Matsumoto

Eddie (Peter) is a transgender woman working at a gay nightclub in Tokyo. Things become complicated with drug deals being conducted at the club; and Eddie must come to terms with her childhood trauma. “Funeral Parade of Roses” is a curious film with an experimental, art-house aesthetic mixed with crime and psychological genres. The central plot, such as it is, is interspersed with flashbacks and loops back on itself continually in a mesmerising spiral as things slip out of Eddie’s control. The film breaks the fourth wall, featuring interview segments with members of the cast, to the point where the line is blurred between characters and actors. This sense of alienation from the drama is heightened with the flashes of countdowns and title cards that appear randomly. Eddie’s friends are the counter-cultural youth, whose rebellious attitudes to drugs and sexuality in a largely conservative and conformist society are something of a manifesto for the film itself. They state that there are no more boundaries to cross in film and their own films are an attempt to break through with something truly unique and revolutionary.

“Funeral Parade of Roses” was the first feature-length film of writer and director Toshio Matsumoto, who had previously worked on experimental films and short documentaries. It is an important work for its portrayal of transgender issues. The interviews with the cast/characters offer an insight into their lives and the subjects of homosexuality and transgenderism. The interviews are combative, establishing these individuals as transgressive or different, asking them their sexual preferences, whether they are truly happy, or whether they will ever return to being a ‘man’. These are representative of common views around the issues at the time, and it is interesting to see such a direct confrontation of them. This was also Peter’s first film role who gives an incredible performance as Eddie, capturing the joy of self-expression alongside their various internal struggles. Peter (stage name of Shinnosuke Ikehata) was only 17 at the time the film was released, making this performance even more incredible.

The film is loosely based on Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex”, references to which are found in Eddie’s story, parental relationships, and the tragic denouement. However, the film delights in attempting to subvert the typical in favour of something more transgressive, perhaps even transcendental. Drug use is shown and plays a major part in the plot. We see the group of young wannabee revolutionaries in a drug-fuelled party, and hear about their experiences on marijuana. It is a film about rebellious youth that retains its power through the bizarre quick cut and achronological editing, creating a work that has its own internal logic, but drifts from conventional plot to chaotic fever dream without skipping a beat.

“Funeral Parade of Roses” is an important work for several reasons, amongst them the portrayal of counter-cultural youth in 1960’s Tokyo, the prominence of transgenderism as a theme, and the influential style that has echoes through the following decades of transgressive film. The chaotic editing, slipping from sensuous and tender scenes of love making to frenetic drug-fuelled trips, gives the sense of a film that is attempting to do something different with the art form, while being confident enough to play with the styles and genre tropes of other films. An absolute must watch for fans of film history, youth and gender issues and counter-culture. “Funeral Parade of Roses” has aged exceptionally well due to its wild energy and forward-thinking stance on many issues.

Flesh Pier (1958) by Teruo Ishii

Hidden behind the glamourous streets and bright lights of Tokyo’s Ginza is a seedy underbelly of sex and criminality. With prostitution outlawed, gangs run “call girl” businesses fronted as legitimate enterprises. One such operation is being run out of the “Arizona” nightclub. Detective Yoshioka (Ken Utsui) is an undercover cop from Osaka working with the Tokyo police to unravel the various criminal connections which link Japan to international groups. He soon meets an old flame Rose Rumi (Yoko Mihara), a dancer at “Arizona” and part of the criminal conspiracy, and Haruko (Akemi Tsukushi), a reporter who has followed him on the lookout for a big scoop.

Directed by Teruo Ishii and written by Ishii and Akira Sawada, “Flesh Pier” is a crime thriller centred on the world of sex work and prostitution. The film shies away from titillation, with sexualised scenes being confined to the nightclub “Arizona” and their scantily clad dancers. Utsui is a charismatic lead, the slick noir detective playing double-agent in the dangerous Tokyo underworld. Mihara gives a great performance as Rose Rumi, a woman who has made mistakes but is intent to put them right, bringing sensuality, heart and toughness to the role. The film is well-written with a number of characters all of whom have their own personal stories going on but which pull together in a thrilling showdown. There are twists and turns as characters are threatened with being uncovered. The dialogue is snappy, with the sparse, noir style delivered stylishly by the actors. The music moves from the jazz of the nightclub to a sinuous orchestral score that envelops the drama.

“Flesh Pier” is a film about a city and a country going through major changes. One of the major changes is a more outward looking Japan than may have been common pre-war. We see the police dealing with international crime syndicates trafficking women. English newspapers are seen, American characters feature, and the Japanese characters are well-travelled and familiar with other cultures. The foreign influence extends to the smart suits, casino roulette wheels, and cabaret clubs, and other cultural imports. The foreign characters are the villains in the film, but the film does not shy away from showing the darker side of Japanese society either. The film’s portrayal of women is equally balanced. It shows the objectification of women in nude photoshoots and cabaret clubs. But also has two strong female characters. Rumi and Haruko are both fearless and forthright, a sign of the changing times in a typically male-dominated society. We see the shame associated with prostitution and how it is something typically levelled at women. The film seems to be dealing with many of these themes just at the point they were reaching the public consciousness or able to be discussed openly. It does a perfect job of capturing a period in time with a thrilling narrative and a director with a great sense of style.

Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (1955) by Tomu Uchida

Genpachi (Chiezo Kataoka) and Genta (Daisuke Kato) are retainers to samurai Sakawa Kojuro (Teruo Shimada), on their way to Edo. Along the road they meet various fellow travellers. A young boy interested in becoming a spear-carrier like Genpachi, a shamisen player (Chizuru Kitagawa) and her daughter, a policeman on the trail of a thief, among others. The fates of everyone on the road become intertwined with both humorous and tragic results.

“Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji” is directed by Tomu Uchida from a script by Shintaro Mimura and Fuji Yahiro. It is an interesting story with both comedic elements and more serious social themes explored through the various characters. The humour may be a little outdated and slapstick but the two servants Genpachi and Genta are likeable and relatable enough, carrying the burden of supporting their master on his journey. In the later half of the film the tone shifts and is much more downbeat and pessimistic. The cinematography is well-done and in particular the staging and framing of every shot shows a masterful understanding of technique, utilising theatrical staging with more modern techniques such as overhead shots.

The film has a strong social message regarding the class system that is as strikingly relevant today as it was at the time of release, and even during the period when the film is set. Our attention is drawn early to the various professions of the travellers on the road, in particular the difference between the status of Genpachi and Genta and their master Kojuro. The turning point of the film comes when Kojuro receives the praise for the actions of Genpachi and we realise that respect is something that is inherited rather than earned. The film augments this central theme with the characters of the mother whose daughter is to be sold into prostitution. Also, with the arrogance of the samurai whom Kojuro meets later in the film. It is a passionate appeal that a person’s worth not be judged by their social standing, but by their actions. At the end of the film, Genpachi warns the boy not to become a spear-carrier. This may be a plea to the audience that they should never be bound by the disputes of others, or a more pessimistic acknowledgement of an unavoidable fate. One of the characters earlier in the film makes reference to the fact they everyone has a master, “But who is the lord’s master?” he asks. A deity? Are we doomed from birth to walk a particular path. And does it always end in violence?