by Andrea Grunert

Miike Takashi’s (1) 13 Assassins (Jūsan-nin no shikaku, Japan, 2010) is a remake of the eponymous film by Kudo Eiichi released in 1963. When I first watched it, I was struck by the number and variety of references to film history. Having stated that and to prevent possible misunderstandings, let me emphasize that Miike’s film is an important work in its own right in which the director develops a clear perspective on loyalty, social justice and individual choice. Moreover, the film’s intertextual dimension – an aspect absent in Kudo’s film as well as in an earlier remake for Fuji Television by Tominaga Takuji in 1990 – contributes to its rich signification. Adding another layer of meaning, it reinforces the director’s critical approach to misinterpretations of bushidō – the way of the warrior – and the values that are commonly associated with it, especially loyalty and honour.
One of the most obvious references to masterpieces of Japanese cinema is established by the figure Kiga Koyata, who shares numerous character traits with Kikuchiyo, the would-be samurai in Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954). This article focuses on Koyata in Miike’s 13 Assassins and explores the similarities and differences between Koyata and Kikuchiyo, referring also to the performances by the actors who play Koyata and Kikuchiyo: namely Iseya Yūsuke and Mifune Toshirō respectively.

Rebellious characters
The action of 13 Assassins is set in 1844, twenty-four years before the end of the shogunate and the rule of the samurai. A group of samurai, led by Shimada Shinzaemon (Yakusho Kōji), is entrusted with a mission to kill the sadistic Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (Inagaki Gorō) in order to prevent his appointment to the Council of Elders (2), which would make him one of the most powerful men in Japan after the shogun. The ruthless Naritsugu, portrayed as the embodiment of evil, is protected by law and must therefore be eliminated in a clandestine operation. In a small village that they have transformed into a killing field, Shinzaemon and twelve comrades-in-arms face Naritsugu and his escort of 200 samurai (3). Eleven of the men who have joined Shinzaemon’s fight for social justice are samurai or ronin (masterless samurai). When they lose their way in the mountains, they meet the hunter Koyata, who becomes the 13st assassin.
The plot, many of the characters and numerous details in Miike’s 13 Assassins – with a filmscript written by Tengan Daisuke – scrupulously follow Kudo’s original, a film based on a screenplay by Ikegami Kaneo, who was also the scriptwriter for Tominaga’s television film. All three 13 Assassins films start with the seppuku (suicide by disembowelment) of one of Naritsugu’s retainers, and some of the shots in this opening sequence of Miike’s film are almost identical with the first shots in Kudo’s 13 Assassins. The lighting is particularly exquisite in both films, with Miike exploring the contrast between light and shade in a colour film rather than Kudo’s black and white original. Miike’s approach to violence is more realistic, and in the long, final battle scene, the combatants are covered in blood and mud, limbs are cut off, and the burning village is strewn with the dead bodies of men and horses (4).
One main difference between the three films is in the character Kiga Koyata. In Kudo’s film, his first appearance is when Shinzaemon’s nephew meets him in the village in which the fight against Naritsugu is going to take place. Koyata (Yamashiro Shingo) calls himself a “peasant samurai“, a samurai of peasant stock, but the village headman expresses doubts about his samurai ancestry. Koyata has only a minor role in this film, mainly two dialogue sequences, during the second of which he is admitted to Shinzaemon’s group of samurai. In the television film from 1990, Koyata has an even smaller role as a samurai who joins Shinzaemon’s “band of assassins” before their departure from Edo (present-day Tokyo) to the village in the mountains. In this minor supporting role, he has hardly any individual features.
In Miike’s film, Kiga Koyata is a much more complex and even mysterious character and, a key figure in the film’s treatment of individual action. Koyata is a hunter but claims to be the descendant of samurai, which explains why he has a surname. In the strict class system of Japanese society ruled by samurai, only the members of this warrior class had the right to a family name. In Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai however, Kikuchiyo, the seventh samurai, is a peasant who pretends to be a samurai. He stubbornly follows Kanbei, an elderly samurai (Shimura Takashi) who is recruiting fellow samurai to protect a village from a group of bandits. At first rejected by Kanbei, Kikuchiyo is ultimately accepted as a member of the group. Similarly, in Miike’s film Koyata is initially not permitted to join Shinzaemon and his samurai. Shinzaemon’s nephew Shinrokurō (Yamada Takeyuki) in particular continues to treat Koyata as an outcast, advising him to return to the mountains because he does not belong to the warrior class.
Miike and also Kurosawa in Seven Samurai frequently highlight the topic of social class difference. In Seven Samurai, Kikuchiyo catches a fish with his bare hands and shows his catch triumphantly to Kanbei and the six samurai, who watch him from up on a rock. However, he does not join the others, and he eats his fish alone. In Miike’s film, Koyata kills a rabbit with his weapon, which is a kind of sling. Even though they are exhausted after their trek through the unknown and hostile mountain region, the samurai turn up their noses at the food, saying that they have more important things to do than to eat. Koyata’s reply “Is there anything more important?” reveals that he does not understand their attitude, which is based on the samurai ethic of frugality. These samurai are no longer warriors but live as bureaucrats in Edo (5), whereas the young hunter leads a life fraught with danger, as is revealed by the many scars on his body and the fact that one of his ears has been half ripped off by a bear.
Both Kikuchiyo and Koyata are depicted as rather unsophisticated characters and closer to nature than the samurai, who are prisoners of their social class. Kikuchiyo understands the mentality of his fellow peasants and succeeds in persuading them to leave their houses, where they are hiding in fear of Kanbei and the other samurai and unaware that they are not bandits. He also gives a helping hand during the harvest while the samurai, not used to such manual work, are just bystanders. Koyata is familiar with the forest in which Shinzaemon and his men lose their way and is quite at home in such terrain, but the samurai are disgusted by the leeches that cling to their skin and are soon exhausted by their trek through the dense and humid forest of the mountain region.
The unsophisticated aspect of the two characters is also suggested by their undisguised sexuality. Kikuchiyo expresses carnal desire while observing the village’s women arriving for the wheat harvest (“Where the hell have you been hiding these girls?”), his body language clearly revealing his excitement. Kudo’s 13 Assassins has a romantic love element with Koyata eager to join Shinzaemon’s men to prove his manhood and courage in order to win the hand of the village headman’s daughter (6). In Miike’s film, the twelve samurai find Koyata suspended from a tree in a net, put there as punishment for having coveted his boss’s wife. Moreover, Koyata is obsessed by Upashi, the woman he loves. Later in the film, he talks repeatedly about Upashi, in a daydream he has a vision of her, and at the end of the film, his only wish is to be reunited with this woman of his dreams.
Rebelliousness is a key characteristic of both Kikuchiyo and Koyata, and Koyata in Miike’s 13 Assassins is as untamed and rebellious as Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai. In one scene, Koyata provokes one of the samurai by putting a live insect in his mouth, and although Kikuchiyo has ambitions of becoming a samurai, in one long monologue scene he accuses the warrior class of exploiting the peasantry. Koyata refers to his samurai ancestry, but he nevertheless criticizes the warrior class, calling the samurai arrogant and inefficient. When Naritsugu’s swordsman Kitō Hanbei (Ichimura Masachika) says to him: “You are not a samurai”, Koyata replies that this fight is a fight between good-for-nothings, adding: “Samurai or not. Good-for-nothings stay good-for-nothings.” (7)

Flamboyant characters and extravagant acting style
Koyata and Kikuchiyo are both flamboyant figures, a character trait reinforced by Mifune’s and Iseya’s strong performances. Their acting is highly expressive and entirely appropriate to the rather wild and adventurous characters they play. Mifune’s energetic style contributes significantly to the portrayal of a character who, unlike the samurai, does not hide his emotions. Kikuchiyo’s exuberant gesturing and jumping, and his roaring laughter “present him as a true force of nature displaying life’s most elemental features.” (8). Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke, who explore the potential relationship between Seven Samurai and Japanese theatrical traditions, especially Nō theatre, write: “Kikuchiyo’s performance when interacting with the villagers reminds of a kyōgen figure who belongs to a realm of ‚humorous, stylized, theatrical representation‘ that illuminates ‚truth under the veil of the joke’” (9). Kikuchiyo has sounded the alarm to lure the villagers out of their houses, where they are hiding instead of welcoming the group of samurai who have come to protect them. The panic that his ruse creates delights the would-be samurai, who struts like a peacock, laughing, pulling faces and mimicking the peasants’ fear. His whole body is involved, creating a stark contrast to the restrained behaviour of the samurai.
Koyata, who hops rather than walks, in Miike’s 13 Assassins, gives a performance reminiscent of Mifune’s extravagant acting in Seven Samurai, Iseya’s acting style being an example of the intertext that Miike creates between his film and Kurosawa’s (10). Rather like Mifune’s, Iseya’s acting style is marked by movement. Wild gesturing and loud screaming emphasize that Koyata is a very emotional character, and parallel editing shows Shinzaemon and his eleven comrades discussing their strategy while Koyata moves around restlessly next door, then lies down on a bundle of straw, the expression on his face betraying the inner turmoil stirred up by his wish to join the samurai.
As with Kikuchiyo, Koyata’s body and his body language are constant markers of social class difference. Living in the forest and fighting wild animals, Koyata is presented almost as a savage, even if he is outraged when treated as one. His body is not only covered in scars, his face and chest are also blackened with dirt, making his eyes look even wilder. Make-up and also the way Iseya uses his gaze and his whole body to express feelings contribute to his portrayal of a multifaceted character. Face and body express his concentration – his keen eyes are those of an intelligent man who is curious about the world. In one sequence in the woods, Koyata, sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree, communicates only with his eyes and his body. His face and body language express his disdain for the samurai who, at the end of their tether, are simply unable to see the path in the forest, even though it is right in front of them.
Kikuchiyo develops from a braggart looking for glory and adventure to a valid member of the group of samurai and a man prepared to fight for social justice. He inspires his fellow combatants and the villagers to continue their fight after the death of the first of the “seven samurai”. In the sequence in which he saves a baby, he reveals his own traumatic past. Bursting into tears, he stammers: “This baby. This is me. This is what happened to me.” When he arrives in the village, this peasant turned samurai states: “No way I’m gonna die in that dung heap.” However, it is there that he dies, face down in the mud, a wretched end for this man so full of life.
Kikuchiyo achieves what Kurosawa considered the highest samurai ideal – selflessness. However, Koyata, who like Kikuchiyo is eager to live out an adventure to the full, does not undergo any change. His only wish at the end of the film is to return to his beloved Upashi. The destruction around him – the village in ruins, dead bodies scattered everywhere in the smoking debris – does not affect him at all. He joins Shinzaemon’s group for his own sake, stating with sparkling eyes during the fierce battle: “I did not know that playing samurai is so enjoyable.” When Hanbei tells him a little later that the battle is over, Koyata replies: “How boring”, a sentiment underlined by the sullen look on his face.

Koyata, a superhuman being
Iseya plays Koyata as a carefree young man who enjoys the horrors of the battle. The fact that he does not undergo any emotional change can be explained by his ambivalent narrative status, his closeness to nature implying some kind of connection with the supernatural. On his first screen appearance, the samurai ask Koyata: “Are you a savage or a ghost?”, assumptions that Koyata angrily denies. However, his prowess with the sling he uses rather than a sword is extraordinary (11). Stabbed by Hanbei during the battle and his neck pierced by Naritsugu’s sword, Koyata is apparently dead. However, he reappears after the battle as if nothing has happened, jumping about joyfully in the ruins. “Are you immortal?” asks the surprised Shinrokurō.
The samurai’s journey through the mountains figures neither in Kudo’s nor in Tominaga’s film. The forest, filmed in bird’s-eye shots, is presented as an almost impenetrable natural environment. In other shots, the shroud of mist on the mountain landscape creates a feeling of mystery, and the mountains themselves are described as “full of gifts” for mankind but also as a threatening, haunted place that evokes fears of dangers and gives rise to superstitions about ghosts and demons. The eerie atmosphere makes nature seem like a more-than-human world, a liminal space in which the impish Koyata, his face smeared with dirt, might well be a ghost. His sudden reappearance after the battle implies some kind of reincarnation, supporting the idea that he is not simply human, and this link to a supernatural world is also suggested in a daydream he has about his beloved Upashi in which she is eating a fleshy and bloody substance she has taken out of her body and which could be a foetus.
Koyata’s miraculous reappearance, however, is not devoid of irony and can be seen as a reference to the larger-than-life figure Mifune plays in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (Yōjinbō, 1961) and to that protagonist’s mock resurrection. Seriously injured, the yojimbo hides in a coffin to escape from his enemies and he is considered dead. However, he heals his wounds and returns to purge the village of crime and corruption. In both films, this resurrection motif is used in an ironic rather than mystical way but in the framework of a realistic tale (12).

The importance of individual choice
In many ways, Koyata is the opposite of the devilish Naritsugu. The contrast is established by their dress and appearance – the lord wearing white or cream-coloured elegant garments, the hunter clad in black rags. Naritsugu is well-groomed, the hunter covered in dirt, and Koyata’s carefree attitude contrasts with the lord’s emotionless behaviour. Both enjoy violence – although in a very different way. Rather like a child, the hunter is looking for adventure, but the samurai kills for some dark pleasure and considers his lethal deeds a privilege of his class and a demonstration of his power. Koyata may perhaps be a demon, but he joins the good cause to destroy evil, his battle skills contributing to the restoration of order.
Koyata is also an important figure in the discourse on individuality in Miike’s film. In Seven Samurai, the conflict between individual and group and between different social classes is represented by Kikuchiyo (13). Kanbei lectures Kikuchiyo on the importance of solidarity after one of his solo actions has failed, and Kikuchiyo inspires the other samurai and the villagers with his courage, but he does not belong to either of these social classes. Only in death does he seem to become a samurai – his burial alongside the three samurai in the group who also died while protecting the village makes him a legitimate member of the group and combines the celebration of action with a strong sense of individual responsibility.
In all three versions of 13 Assassins, the conflict between giri (loyalty) and ninjō (human feeling) is expressed by Shinzaemon and Hanbei, who have been rivals since their youth (14). Hanbei defends the orthodox position, strongly supported by his lord (Naritsugu), that a samurai’s (15) duty is to serve his lord and that he should never question his lord’s intentions. Shinzaemon has chosen a different path, taking action against a lord whose sadistic impulses put human beings in danger and are a threat to society as a whole. Miike emphasizes the theme of individual action by challenging the authoritarian and militaristic interpretation of the concept of bushidō that was advocated by the Japanese military regime in the late 1930s and during World War II. Naritsugu’s vision of bushidō, requiring the blind obedience of his retainers, is close to this perverted bushidō concept of the war years. The psychopath Naritsugu is eager to use his power for warfare (16) and to establish despotic rule. Individuals like Shinzaemon and also Doi Toshitsura (Hira Mikijirō), who devises the assassination scheme in Miike’s film, pursue the idea of loyalty better than Hanbei as they fight for social justice and show that bushidō is a flexible code allowing room for individual choice (17).
Kudo’s and Tominaga’s films both end with a voice-over narration explaining that individuals, in this case Shinzaemon and his men, are excluded from the official records of the shogunate, which do not mention the battle but state that Lord Naritsugu died of illness (18). In the final sequence of Miike’s 13 Assassins, Shinrokurō and Koyata, the only survivors of the horrendous battle, meet in the smoking ruins of the village. Disgusted by the violence to which he contributed, Shinrokurō, now an outcast, is freed from the constraints of his social class that have imprisoned his uncle, who could only be free in death. Eager to choose his own lifestyle, Shinrokurō considers leaving the samurai and becoming a major criminal in America, where he would make love to a woman. In this sequence, the focus is on the young samurai who teamed up with his uncle Shinzaemon in order to leave a life of idleness behind and find a purpose in life. Koyata’s presence at this point in the film is important for Miike’s discourse on individuality. Koyata is both complementary to and the opposite of Shinrokurū. At the beginning of the film, Shinrokurū is as immature as Koyata, whose exuberant movements underline his youthful joy in killing and who seems unconcerned by the chaos around him. This hunter, who could be a yokai – a supernatural being that appears in very different shapes – represents liminality, and this is suggested by his unclear status between human reality and a different world. Despite his obsession with Upashi, he opposes stable codes as represented by Hanbei’s orthodoxy, and is more like a personification of Shinrokurō’s hidden but unfulfilled desires, thereby pointing to the complexity of modern society with its emphasis on a right to individuality.

(1) Japanese names are written according to the Japanese custom, the family name preceding the given name.
(2) The Elders (rōju) were among the highest-ranking government officers during the Tokugawa era (1603-1868).
(3) Only about 70 samurai are confronting Shinzaemon and his men in the original film and in the 1990 remake. However, the discrepancy in numbers between Shinzaemon’s men and Naritsugu’s escort is made very obvious in these two films too.

(4) This does not mean that Kudo’s mise en scène of the battle is – in cinematic terms – less effective than Miike’s. In the 1963 film, the brutality of the battle scene is very evident at every moment.

(5) The Tokugawa period is known as a peaceful era in Japanese history during which the samurai, the members of the ruling warrior class, were turned into bureaucrats. Miike’s film frequently refers to the fact that the samurai lack fighting experience.

(6) In Kudo’s film, the more romantic love element is also represented by the hedonistic Shinrokurō, who has left his beloved in Edo. This young man shows great understanding for Koyata and the daughter of the village headman, a feeling that amuses his uncle, who regards it as an expression of immature romanticism.

(7) Mifune Toshirō played rebels throughout his long career, starting with his screen debut in Snow Trail (Ginrei no hate, 1947, Taniguchi Senkichi). Iseya Yūsuke often plays young men in contemporary Japan who are deviant or rebellious characters – as in After Life (Wandafaru raifu, 1998, Kore-Eda Hirokazu), but also historical figures such as Yoshida Shōin in Burning Flower (Hana moyu, 2015), a taiga drama produced by the public television company NHK that was broadcast in weekly episodes for a whole year.

(8) Andrea Grunert, Kikuchiyo, the seventh samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954)”, The Big Picture Magazine (17 September 2017).

(9) Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke, Reframing Screen Performance. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 2008, p. 148. Kyōgen is a form of traditional Japanese comic theatre. Kyōgen plays are often performed as an interlude between Nō acts.

(10) In the television miniseries Lady Nobunaga (Nobunaga onna, 2013, Takeuchi Hideki), Iseya plays Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) who has risen from a low-ranking peasant-samurai to Japan’s powerful ruler. His acting in this series – lively facial expressions and exuberant gestures – also evokes Mifune’s performance in Seven Samurai.

(11) Koyata’s almost superhuman capacities extend to his sexual prowess as shown in a deleted scene. The village headman spies on Koyata making love to his daughter. A following shot shows the young woman leaving the hut in which the sexual act took place. She is completely exhausted by the lovemaking while three other women of the village, to whom Koyata has supposedly made love on previous occasions, are agonizing in front of the hut. However, Koyata’s sexual desire has not been satisfied, and when the village headman sees Koyata’s very impressive penis and wants to spare the women, he offers his services to quench the young hunter’s apparently insatiable lust.

(12) Just like Mifune’s ronin in Yojimbo, Koyata observes the village from a bell tower.

(13) The difference between the would-be samurai and the six others is supported by Mifune’s acting as well as by the music. A mambo-like tune is associated with Kikuchiyo and is heard when he acts of his own accord. For the use of music with regard to individualization and group association in Seven Samurai, see my article “The Music of Seven Samurai”, The Big Picture Magazine, 23 May 2020. 

(14) In the two other 13 Assassins-films, Shinzaemon and Hanbei are friends but also rival swordmen.

(15) Samurai derives from saburai, the nominal form of the verb saburau, which can roughly be translated as “to be in attendance” or “to serve”.

(16) Excited by bloodshed, Naritsugu dreams of a return to the age of civil war in the 15th and 16th centuries. He states that he intends to use his power to reintroduce war in Japan.

(17) Bushidō is a rather flexible concept as shown by its many interpretations over the last 120 years. The concept originated in the intellectual discourse of the 1880s after the end of the samurai reign and was based on ideas about samurai values and behaviour. Nitobe Inazō’s Bushidō: The Soul of Japan, first published in 1899 in English, is probably the best-known book on bushidō. See Oleg Benesch, Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism and Bushidō in Modern Japan, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.

(18) In Kudo’s film, the voice-over accompanies a shot of the setting sun. In the television production from 1990, the final shots show Doi (played by Tanba Tetsurō, who had also been cast in this role in the 1963 film), the man who devised the plot to murder Naritsugu because it was not possible to take legal action against him for the crimes he had committed.


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