36 chowringhee

„She wanted to warm herself,“ the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year. (The Girl with the Matches by Hans Christian Andersen)

The aging Anglo-Indian Violet Stoneham is a teacher for literature. Her relatives and fiends have passed away or have moved to another country like her niece Rosemary. During the film, her brother will die too. The administration of the school where Stoneham works, demoted her. They say it is because of her age but some colleagues suppose it has to do with her ethnic belonging.

Her monotonous and lonely life she shares with her cat Sir Toby. A young couple brings for some time more diversion into her life. The young woman was once a student of Violet Stoneham. The young man pretends to be a writer who looks for a quiet place to write. While Violet Stoneham is working, the young couple occupies her little apartment. While the spectator soon questions the intention of the young couple (which seems to be rather on the search for a love nest), this constellation becomes soon a replacement for Stoneham´s family which does not exist anymore.

Later, when the young couple has married and has made a career, they hardly contact the old lady anymore. Once she shows up at their place unannounced and they try to get rid of her as soon as possible. They say they are just on the way to an appointment. After a sudden inspiration, Violet Stoneham prepares her much vaunted Christmas cake. She intends to put the cake as a surprise in front of the couple´s door because they are supposed to be not at home during holidays. The sceptic spectator begins gradually to be worried about the lonely lady. These two aspects of the the dreamy poetic and than a sober scepticism which we can feel in many films by Aparna Sen.

On this very day, Violet Stoneham reaches with her cake at the house of the young couple. A single close up of her face suggests that she has something seen which upsets her. This close up is followed by a slow camera movement towards the big window of the house. It is the window of the living room. The window is fogged up but the room is lighted. Many people are celebrating, singing or dancing. With one hand, Stoneham wipes a peephole on the foggy big window. And suddenly the peephole becomes a big screen. What the screen reveals appears as a projection of Violet Stoneham´s dreams, a party with friends, the opposite of her isolation and loneliness. But the party takes place without her and no one seems to miss her. There is the old phonograph, she gave to the young couple as a wedding gift. If she has noticed that a young man is mocking about the phonograph and the old fashioned records, I do not know. She stands like she is rooted to the spot.

Than the camera moves backwards and the big screen becomes again a small peephole of the fogged up window. This scene is hard to bear. It is on one hand a high concentrated example of pure cinema on the other hand we witness how the longings of a very lonely woman suffer the cold death. The dreamy view into a festive lighted room changes into into the disenchanted insight of loneliness how I know only from very few films. This setback from a great moment of cinematic poetry through two seemingly simple camera movements to grim loneliness gives the film a long echo which burns into the memory.

Now she is walking alone through the deserted nocturnal big city. A straying little dog (who must have smelled the cake which Miss Stoneham has still with her) follows her. She cites a bit from Shakespeare´s King Lear and than we hear her voice over citing a letter to her niece Rosemary. For the first time in her life, Violet Stoneham thinks about to leave her country India for good.

This concourse of poetry and realism reminds me in the deeply sad fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen “The Girl with the Matches” The joy of the girls at the images induced by the light of her matches fascinated me as a child. With the first match she just wanted to warm herself up. But than she creates for herself everything what she is missing with the matches. She struck another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and when the light fell upon the wall it became transparent like a thin veil, and she could see through it into a room.” (The Girl with the Matches, Hans Christian Andersen).At first she sees in her own visions a splendid decorated Christmas room but when her recently deceased grandmother appears, she wanted to see her again and sacrifices her last match to walk with her into the light. The harsh contrast between this wonderful vision and the next morning, the lack of comprehension of the people at the sight of the girl who has frozen to death unsettled me a lot when I was a child.

Rüdiger Tomczak

This is the english version of a german text published in shomingeki No. 27 in homage to Aparna Sen in four parts.


by Andrea Grunert

Some time ago, cinematographer Takahashi Tetsuya suggested that I should explore the work of filmmaker Shichiri Kei, with whom he has often worked (1). Films such as Once Upon a Dream (2007/2016) and Necktie (2019) immediately fascinated me. I am therefore very happy that I have had an opportunity to watch the new short film by Shichiri-san, Explore Your Story, Speak Your Heart (Japan, 2021). An image film produced by the Waseda International House of Literature (WIHL), informally known as The Haruki Murakami Library (2), it is a real pearl and goes far beyond the mere self-presentation of a prestigious institution. Taking as its title the motto of the WIHL’s Opening International Symposium to be held on 20 November 2021, Explore Your Story, Speak Your Heart is a quest for the very essence, the heart so to speak, of the reading experience and establishes close links with the work of the famous Japanese author.
The film starts with shots taken outside the Haruki Murakami Library, with the focus on the sinuous framework wrapped around part of the building’s otherwise sober architecture. Rapid piano music accompanies shots of its undulating pattern before the interior of the library is revealed via a series of dissolves. The music that follows is softer and more reflective and a grand piano appears in the image, as if connecting image and sound. A young woman seems intrigued by several small white statuettes representing people reading a book and positioned on bookshelves.
Suddenly the lights go off, inviting the viewer to follow the camera into a realm of fantasy, where images of geometrical forms – empty shelves and the library’s staircase – appear and are invaded by shadows. Repeating the undulating pattern of the construction outside the building, they form part of their own mysterious space. The subtle interplay of light and shade creates a dense, unsettling atmosphere that challenges the first shots, filmed in broad daylight. A young man, who was earlier sitting at the foot of the staircase reading a book, is now a mere silhouette taking on the various poses of the statuettes, while the shadow of a woman appears in the dimly lit room. Piano music underscores the flow of the images, their smooth movements heightened by dissolves. The slow and graceful movements performed by the woman, who is no more than a phantom-like projection, a shadow cast on the walls and the shelves, contribute to the elegance of the floating, dreamlike movements created by the camera and the editing.
This crucial sequence, roughly in the middle of a film lasting barely three minutes, is its core and a reference to the experience of reading as an experience giving access to a different reality. The young man, still a mere silhouette, has now fallen asleep, thus linking the images to a dream situation and to an imaginary and secretive world about which Shichiri gives no further clues. His film is highly evocative and atmospheric and as mysterious as Murakami Haruki’s novels and short stories.
Explore Your Story, Speak Your heart reminded me of Murakami’s novella for children “The Strange Library” (1983), in which a boy is imprisoned in a nightmarish library where he encounters a number of strange people, including a voiceless girl. In the film however, the library at night does not seem particularly frightening. At one point, the young man has fallen down the stairs after being touched by the female silhouette. Looking at him, the woman makes a gesture that suggests grief, a brief emotion expressed when she covers her face with her hands. This relatively long sequence recreates via images something that Murakami wrote in his story: “Beyond the inner door was a shadowy corridor lit by a single flickering bulb.” This is where in the story the door opens into the realm of imagination, and in the film, the transition from the real to the imaginary world is revealed by the library itself, which seems to take on a life of its own. Shichiri visualizes moments of inner life, and Murakami addresses such moments throughout his work, with dreams and mystery playing an important role.
Shichiri-san told me that he was also inspired by Murakami’s letter of acceptance for the Hans Christian Andersen Prize, which he received in 2020, a letter in which he refers to Andersen’s fairy tale “The Shadow”, about a man who loses his shadow, which then becomes independent and falls in love with a princess… This is just one of what are certainly many sources of inspiration that could be identified for the film. Far more important is that Shichiri invites us to explore the unknown with him, experiencing it not only with our minds but with all our senses.
At the end of the film, Shichiri returns to the busy library in daylight – the reading room, the shelves, the piano (another hint to Murakami, in whose work music plays a vital role), the exterior of the building. This building is a place where different realities converge, and it is Shichiri who reveals them through image and sound. Not unlike Murakami’s writing, Shichiri’s filming mediates between dreams and thoughts – thoughts that his unconventional approach tries to encourage in the viewer. Both Shichiri and Murakami challenge the boundaries between interior and exterior reality, between the mind and the material world. And both the writer and the filmmaker imply that the distinction between what is real and what is not might be a question that simply does not matter.

1.Takahashi Tetsuya is also the cinematographer of Explore Your Story, Speak Your Heart.
2.The Waseda International House of Literature, established on the campus of Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University, was opened to the public on 1 October 2021. Architect Kuma Kengo remodelled an existing university building into one that reflects the visions of Murakami Haruki, to whose work the library is dedicated. It contains 3000 of Murakami’s books translated into 50 different languages and also archive material donated by the writer.


by Andrea Grunert

Tanaka Kinuyo’s The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare) was released one year after Nakajō Fumiko’s premature death in August 1954 at the age of thirty-one (1). Based on Wakatsuki Akira’s eponymous book (2), the film deals with the life of this well-known tanka poet (3) and mainly with the last weeks before her death from cancer. The Eternal Breasts is the third of six films directed by the famous actress Tanaka. Following her screen debut in 1924, she very quickly became one of the great female stars in Japan, working with Gosho Heinosuke, Shimizu Hiroshi, Naruse Mikio, Kinoshita Keisuke, Ozu Yasujirō, Mizoguchi Kenji (4) and many other Japanese directors. In her directorial debut Love Letter (Koibumi, 1953) as well as in Girls of the Night (Onna bakari no yoru, 1961; 5) she addresses the issue of prostitution and the difficulties faced by former prostitutes who tried to reintegrate into mainstream society. Tsuki wa noborinu (1955) portrays the lives of three sisters and their marriage projects. The Wandering Princess (Ruten no ōhi, 1960) is based on the biography of the Japanese noblewoman Saga Hiro, who was married to Pujie, the younger brother of Puyi, China’s last emperor and from 1934 emperor of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo (6). The emphasis in this film is on the years after the protagonist’s marriage in 1937, on her life in Manchuria, and on the hardship she had to endure following the defeat of Japan in 1945. Ogin, the main character in Love Under the Crucifix (Ogin-sama, 1962), is the adopted daughter of the famous tea master Sen no Rikyū (7). In the late sixteenth century, she fights for her love for a Christian lord and, after her refusal to become a mistress of Hideyoshi, Japan’s ruler at that time, commits suicide to preserve her honour and save her family from Hideyoshi’s wrath.

A woman’s predicament
The Eternal Breasts deals with a woman’s desire to live her own life and with the way illness can be a social stigma. The film starts with scenes of Fumiko (Tsukioka Yumeji) and her husband, who, without work and addicted to alcohol and drugs, gives vent to his frustration through outbursts of aggression. For Fumiko, writing poetry is an outlet that enables the heroine to describe her sorrows and her longings. When she presents some of her work to a group of amateur poets on the island of Hokkaido where she lives, it does not meet with the approval of her fellow writers, who find the descriptions of her unfulfilled married life exaggerated and disqualify it as “a woman’s truth”. Her friend Hori (Mori Masayuki) is the only one who supports her, and he sends her poems to a publisher in Tokyo. After her divorce, Fumiko is desperate because her former husband is given custody of their young son, one of their two children. She is also tormented by her love for Hori, who is married to her best friend Kinuko (Sugi Yōko), and she is devastated by his sudden death.
Fumiko’s marriage was arranged. However, she is not a submissive wife. She is the one who asks for a divorce – when she discovers that her husband is unfaithful – and she later refuses another marriage proposal arranged by her mother. She insists on her right to make her own decisions: “When I die, I want to be who I am. I do not want God to help me to be a good woman. There is no God.” After her double mastectomy and with metastases in both lungs, she has to spend most of her time in hospital, but she refuses to be pitied. “She has tremendous willpower,” says one of the film’s characters. Moreover, she is depicted as perfectly lucid and only reluctantly accepts her newly-acquired fame (8), suspecting the journalist Ōtsuki (Hayama Ryōji), who has come all the way from Tokyo, of being more interested in her imminent death than in her poems. One early sequence in the film reveals how close happiness and tragedy can be. While the heroine is enjoying a few moments with her son who has come to visit her, she receives the news that a Tokyo-based magazine is interested in her poems. This jubilant sequence is interrupted by several shots of reflections in a mirror that show her hand feeling and examining her naked breasts. These are images which bode ill for the protagonist’s future.

A woman of her time
Despite her determination and courage, Fumiko is a woman of her time, torn between her wish for self-fulfilment and moral bondage. “I’m going to die. Poems don’t help. I lost my breasts. What can I write? I’m just a woman,” she states tearfully. She falls in love with Ōtsuki and, when she finally has to face death, this young journalist is the one whose tender feelings give her moments of happiness. Enjoying this last love in her life, she wonders whether she is a bad person. Internalization of moral standards leads to a self-destructive mood, for example in the sequence in which Fumiko takes a bath at Kinuko’s home. When Kinuko opens the door of the small room containing the bathtub, she almost jumps backwards, unable to hide her horror at the sight of her friend’s mutilated body. While Kinuko tries to compose herself, Fumiko explains why she had asked to use the bath in this room, where she had once seen Hori taking a bath. “I wanted to have a bath where your husband took his. Cancer is my punishment. I loved him.” Her almost hysterical confession reveals her inner torment rather than being an act of revenge on her friend.
The film contains numerous emotionally powerful sequences, some of which could even be called daring – for example the shot of Fumiko’s naked breasts being prepared for the operation. This is followed by images of surgical apparatus and transfusion tubes, the coldness of the technical instruments contrasting sharply with the warmth of human flesh. These shots hint at the transitoriness of life, also expressed in the first lines of one of Fumiko’s poems: “Like a weed floating in water / I am swaying in the ocean of life…”. This poem was written during a brief moment of inner peace when Fumiko, having left the hospital to avoid a first meeting with the journalist from Tokyo, enjoys sitting in the sun near a stream. A melancholic tune accompanies shots of nature which, however, like many others in the film, are not without an element of sadness. Before reaching the spot where she writes her poem, Fumiko walks along a tree-lined path. Framed in a general shot, she is only a tiny figure surrounded by dark trees, and this fragility of human existence is also evoked by the reflection in the mirror in the farewell sequence between Fumiko and Ōtsuki. The young man, about to leave and already at the door, turns once again towards Fumiko, who is holding a mirror that shows a reflection of her lover’s face. The image in the mirror – a kind of doppelganger motif – is a poignant expression of fragility and loss, and in the very next shot, the sign “No visitors” outside Fumiko’s room informs the viewer that she is close to death.

The aesthetics of imprisonment
The film starts with shots of the wide open spaces on Hokkaido but very quickly becomes dominated by fragmentation and visual closures as symbols of the heroine’s situation – imprisoned by her sex and her illness, her feeling of guilt and her body. Her imprisonment is supported by frequent shots of bars, for example in the sequence in which Fumiko watches Ōtsuki leave the hospital from behind the barred window of her room. The profound feeling of hopelessness is perfectly expressed in two sequences in which this same visual motif recurs. One night, Fumiko, as if in a trance, follows a group of nurses who are taking a patient who has died to the morgue. Gripping tightly the bars of the door leading to the morgue, she collapses. Enhanced in its effect by Tsukioka’s marvellous acting, this sequence also emphasizes how strongly Fumiko clings to life. At the end of the film, her two young children follow the nurses taking their dead mother to the morgue until the same barred door blocks their way. The camera frames the two small figures standing behind the black bars of the door with darkness surrounding them.
Frequent use of frames within frames is a further powerful cinematic device creating a feeling of imprisonment, for example in the bath sequence with Fumiko and Kinuko in which Fumiko is filmed through a glass panel in the door of the bathroom. Elaborate use of light and shade, fragmenting bodies, objects and space, contributes to the atmosphere of a menacing closure.
The Eternal Breasts ends with images in which once again despair and hope co-exist. Fumiko’s children and Ōtsuki throw flowers into Lake Tōya, a place that Fumiko would have loved to visit together with Hori but was prevented by her illness. The words “Children, accept my death. The only thing I bequeath to you!” appear on the shot of the lake. Fumiko’s acceptance of her fate is linked to an expression hope, with the images of the children and the water suggesting renewal and the idea that life will go on.

(1) Nakajō Fumiko, whose real name was Noe Fumiko, was born on 25 November 1922 and died on 3 August 1954.

(2) The title of the book and the film could be translated as Let Breasts Be Eternal. The screenplay was written by Tanaka Sumie.

(3) In Japan, Nakajō, a writer of tanka poems (tanka: a genre of classical Japanese poetry), is considered one of the best-known female poets of the twentieth century alongside Yosano Akiko and Tawara Machi. See for further information about her life and work Kawamura Hatsue and Jane Reichhold, Breasts of Snow: Fumiko Nakajō – Her Tanka and Her Life, Tokyo, The Japan Times, 2004.

(4) Tanaka is best known in the West for her collaboration with Mizoguchi in films such as The Love of Sumako the Actress (Joyū Sumako no koi, 1947) and The Life of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna, 1952).

(5) The English title is reminiscent of Mizoguchi Kenji’s Women of the Night (Yaru no onnatachi, 1948), a film dealing with prostitution in post-war Japan in which Tanaka is cast in one of the leading roles.

(6) Puyi, who became Emperor of China at the age of two in 1906, was forced to abdicate six years later. In 1932, he was installed as Chief Executive of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo. Two years later, he was crowned Emperor of Manchukuo, a title he held until Japan was defeated in 1945.

(7) The film is an adaptation of Kon Toko’s eponymous novel published in 1956. Very little is known about the private life and family of Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), one of the important and highly influential tea masters from the city and seaport Sakai. Ogin is a mainly fictitious figure.

(8) Nakajō’s first book of poems, published when she was already very ill, immediately became a bestseller. However, as the film shows, press coverage of her focused on the fact that she was dying. See Kawamura and Reichhold, op. cit. for further details.

eternal breats