by Andrea Grunert

Kikyō (Kikyo – The Return, 2019, a television film) is a film about the homecoming of an old gambler, Unokichi, called “Funeral Uno” and played by Nakadai Tatsuya. It is Nakadai’s third collaboration with director Sugita Shigemichi, the two others being Yūshun (1988) and Hatashiai (A Duel Tale, 2015, a television film). Kikyō is a jidai-geki set in the yakuza milieu in a provincial town in the first half of the 19th century. The rather slow pace is appropriate to the film’s contemplative narrative of an inner journey, which is supported by carefully framed landscape shots, beautifully lit interiors and close-ups of faces that reveal a wide range of human emotions. Frequent shots of the moon or of the mountains connect the world of human being with nature and with its aura of majesty and eternity. This spiritual dimension of the film is also conveyed in the gentle piano music composed by Kako Takashi.

Kikyō is a film about death as well as about life and how a man can live a decent life. In the first shots, an old man is spitting blood. Addressing the reflection of his face in a receptacle filled with water, he says: “Funeral Uno is dying. You are dying.” This aging yakuza has returned to his hometown Kiso-Fukushima (1), where he learns that he has a daughter, born a few months after his departure thirty years ago. Flashbacks to Unokichi’s painful past, which continues to haunt him, interrupt the linearity of the narrative. Memory is reconstructed in fragments and only gradually reveals the old man’s trauma. In a recurrent nightmare he relives a night in a dilapidated temple where he and his mistress had once found shelter. Every time he awakes from this horrible dream, his hands are outstretched, and the significance of this gesture does not become clear until the end of a series of flashbacks that reconstruct little by little what happened in the temple that night. A different flashback reveals that Unokichi and the woman ran away together after Unokichi had killed her enraged husband – a friend of his – in a fight that ensued when the friend discovered his wife’s adulterous relationship.

There are several fight sequences in the film, showing that Nakadai – born in 1932 – is still in great physical shape. The gush of blood in the scene when the boss (Nakamura Atsuo) of the Kyuzo family is killed creates an intertextual link in Nakadai’s acting career. It has been a standard feature of jidai-geki and chanbara since Kurosawa Akira’s Tsubaki Sanjurō (Sanjuro, 1962), in which blood spurts from Hanbei’s (Nakadai’s) breast in his final duel with Sanjurō (Mifune Toshirō).

Unokichi’s confrontation with his past is also a confrontation with the present, in which the past still lingers. He learns that Oaki, the woman he had wanted to marry, died heartbroken many years ago. Obeying the orders of his clan, Unokichi went to Edo (today’s Tokyo) as a young man, but instead of returning home after three years as planned, he became a drifter after he had killed his mistress’s husband. Thirty years later, the discovery that he has a daughter – Okuni (Tokiwa Takako) – brings back a wave of memories. Kikyō portrays the difficult relationship between a man and his daughter who has grown up with hatred for her absent father. In a long sequence, Okuni vents her anger and her despair, but finally she takes on the task of caring for the old man.

The topic of the dysfunctional family is also central in other films in which Nakadai has been cast during the last decade – Haru to no tabi (Haru’s Journey, 2010), Hatashiai and Umibe no Ria (Lear at the Shore, 2017). Kobayashi Masahiro, who directed two of these (Haru to no tabi and Umibe no Ria), wrote the script for the third (the jidai-geki Hatashiai) and is also the co-scriptwriter of Kikyō. In Haru to no tabi, Hatashiai and Kikyō, all connected by the motif of a journey, the elderly protagonists have to come to terms with misdeeds and bad decisions in their lives for which they desperately seek reconciliation. At the end of his life, Unokichi takes on responsibility for others, not unlike the haya-zumi (freeloader) Sanosuke in Hatashiai, who sacrifices his life for the freedom and happiness of a young couple. In Kikyō, Unokichi is determined to prevent Okuni’s husband Genta (Ogata Naoto) from being killed by his (Unokichi’s) old rival, the boss of the Kyūzō clan, who not only wants to take control of the territory of Unokichi’s former clan but also tries to seduce Okuni and wants her as his mistress. Both Unokichi and Sanosuke fight their old enemies, who represent a menace to the younger generation. Unokichi is determined to kill the yakuza boss in a duel and insists on doing so alone. He says to Genta, who planned to kill Kyūzō himself: “Don’t waste your life. Life should be used for people.” This advice, repeated at the end of the film, emphasizes the importance attached to individual responsibility, a topic that is at the core of many films with Nakadai, including those directed by Kobayashi Masaki, Kurosawa Akira and Gosha Hideo. Nakadai himself continues to take on roles in films which offer critical statements on social and humanitarian issues, addressing social injustice and celebrating human feelings.

Both Hatashiai and Kikyō are set in a social environment determined by rigid codes of behaviour – the world of the samurai (Hatashiai) and that of the yakuza are similar with regard to questions of honour and obedience. Moreover, Kikyō and also the three other films with Nakadai that are mentioned above deal with universal themes such as guilt, remorse and the desire for redemption. Unokichi says that since the killing in Edo he has lived “a dead life” and that he and his mistress have travelled on “a hellish road”. The protagonist’s inner torment is conjured up in the recurring nightmare sequences in which two things figure – a painting that represents a Buddhist vision of hell and a candle suddenly extinguished by a draught. At the end of the film, Unokichi is ready to face his past. A flashback reveals exactly what happened in the temple. Past and present are connected via the editing. The final shot in this flashback shows not young Unokichi whose hands have killed once again, but Unokichi as an old man. In the next shot, twenty-eight years later, Unokichi, is looking at his outstretched hands, those of a strangler, before folding them in praise of Amida Buddha.

Despite the advanced stage of his illness, Unokichi is still strong in body and mind, repudiating the claim by one of the gamblers who, with no respect for the elderly, says that an old man will not be of any use in a battle between the two yakuza clans. Unokichi demonstrates his swordfighting skill on several occasions in the film. His strength and quickfire reactions are almost superhuman when he fights a man who has molested Okuni. In his accomplished acting, Nakadai shows what people of his age are still capable of. His presence and performance – as always outstanding and very personal – contribute greatly to this film’s multifaceted portrait of its aging protagonist, infusing Kikyō with a particular charm and forcefulness. Close-ups of his face reveal the intensity of the protagonist’s emotions. He beams when he sees Okuni for the first time, unaware at that moment that she is his daughter but surprised by her resemblance to the woman he once wanted to marry, and then, when he learns that he has a daughter, his face becomes expressionless as if he has put on a mask. There are several monologues delivered by Unokichi – some of them off-screen – which highlight Nakadai’s complex skill with his voice, a voice that is sometimes sharp and commanding in tone and sometimes sad and bleating, for example when after killing his old nemesis, Unokichi says to himself: “Bastard Kyūzō. Everyone is dead. How lonely …”.

Not unlike the yakuza Nakadai played in Gosha Hideo’s Kagerō (Heatwave, 1990), who is tormented by his inner demons after murdering a fellow gambler in full view of the man’s little daughter, Unokichi is consumed with guilt, a guilt that only his death can atone for. When he leaves his hometown for a second time, Unokichi’s smile is that of a man in harmony with himself who has accomplished his task, calmed the spirits of the dead, and can now die peacefully. The final shots are those of the old yakuza disappearing into the landscape while chorale-like Western style music is heard and the sun’s rays seem almost otherworldly, reminiscent of religious images in both Asian (Buddhist) and European (Christian) traditions. The strong suggestion of redemption is supported acoustically (by the music) and visually (by the photography) conveying a message of redemption that is universal.

Kikyō – The Return. Japan, 2019. Director: Sugita Shigemichi. Screenplay: Sugita Shigemichi and Kobayashi Masahiro, based on the novel Kikyō by Fujisawa Shuhei. Actors: Nakadai Tatsuya, Tokiwa Takako, Kitamura Kazuki, Ogata Naoto, Nakamura Atsuo, Tanida Ayumi, Satō Jirō, Hashizune Isao, Tanaka Misato, Maeda Aki, Mita Yoshiko and others. Produced by Jidai-geki Senmon Channel/TBA

1.Kiso-Fukushima, located in today’s Nagano Prefecture, is an ancient post town on the Nakasendo Highway, which connected Edo with Kyōto.