Sōmai Shinji, the Forgotten Master of Long Take and Coming-of-Age Cinema

by Tim Deschaumes Volume 26, Issue 9-10-11 / November 2022 43 minutes (10750 words)

On a hot summer night, a group of teenagers sneak into the school grounds to enjoy the swimming pool. Exuberant, swimsuit-clad girls scream under ice-cold showers and start dancing to the Japanese rock song “Dance in the Dark”. A mobile camera moves among them, making their joy and carefreeness palpable. A boy, floating in the scarcely lit swimming pool, watches the tantalizing spectacle. The third line of action has two similarly dressed boys run to the school, where a drama seems to have taken place. The duo is met by one of the girls, also running. A flashback shows that the girls, after stripping the boy’s swim trunks off, accidentally almost drowned him — a case of cheerful teasing gone awry. When eventually the teacher arrives, the children have already resuscitated the unfortunate swimmer.

Typhoon Club (Resuscitation of Akira)

The opening scenes of Sōmai Shinji’s masterpiece Typhoon Club (1985) present themselves as a concise synthesis of themes and styles typical of his oeuvre: the focus on children and teenagers, the absence or inadequacy of adults, the human body in motion (swimming, dancing, running), the contagious joi de vivre that can suddenly shift to gloomier moods, the predilection for static and mobile long takes, as well as for carefully lit dark spaces and images that distil their uncanniness from everyday reality. Before I attended the Japanese Film Festival Nippon Connection in 2015, Typhoon Club was the only Sōmai title that sounded familiar. The Nippon Retro section in Frankfurt’s “Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum” generously offered nine of the thirteen films that Sōmai made between 1981 and 2001, the year of his premature death. [[Luminous and Vibrant. The Cinema of Sōmai Shinji: https://2015.nipponconnection.com/retro.html His oeuvre proved to be very eclectic and yet homogeneous. He made coming-of-age films (The Terrible Couple, Typhoon Club, Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion, Moving, The Friends), yakuza parodies (Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, P.P. Rider), family dramas (The Catch, Moving, Wait and See) and love stories (Love Hotel, Tokyo Heaven, Kaza-hana). In 1990 the readers of Japan’s influential film magazine Kinema Junpo chose Sōmai Shinji as the best Japanese director of the 1980s. Critics and cinephiles shared their enthusiasm for the man with, as Yomota Inuhiko puts it, ‘the most aggressive and radical style of any of the new directors’ (Yomota, 2019):

Japanese cinephiles believed that these films, with such violently anarchic techniques, embodied new principles that went beyond André Bazin’s thesis of ‘découpage through spatial depth’ from thirty years ago, and to them, this gave Sōmai a sublime cult-like status. (Yomota, 2019)

Aaron Gerow underscores this viewpoint when he describes Sōmai as the rightful long-take heir of Mizoguchi:

Sōmai was Japan’s next master of the long take, after Mizoguchi Kenji, but since he worked a lot in youth film, a neglected genre, his work was not picked up by the arbiters of taste introducing Japanese film abroad in the 1980s. I personally think Typhoon Club, his brilliant evocation of youthful anxiety and death, is one of the greatest Japanese films ever made, but no one has ever tried to release it abroad with English subtitles (Aaron Gerow).

Why has Sōmai remained ‘the odd one out’, as Luk Van Haute called him in one of the few English articles devoted to his oeuvre (Van Haute, 2005)? Gerow’s reference to Sōmai’s focus on popular genres is a good starting point. Almost half of his films could be categorized as youth or coming-of-age films. He didn’t shy away from commercial projects, like Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1980), a Kadokawa-backed yakuza parody with a pop idol as the starlet. Like so many directors who started working in the seventies, Sōmai felt comfortable helming a Roman Porno film, Love Hotel (1985), not exactly a genre choice one associates with the work of an auteur. Although I’ll try to show that Sōmai’s body of work has many auteurist qualities, Sōmai himself couldn’t care less about this epithet. Most of his films were made with different production companies and distributors. In constantly varying working conditions, it is harder to sustain your stylistic and thematic concerns. While Shochiku produced almost all of Ozu’s postwar films, nearly all of Sōmai’s films had different producers and distributors. He worked with commercial production companies such as Kadokawa and several TV stations and independent producers such as The Directors Company and the alternative Art Theatre Guild (ATG), the opposite of a commercial enterprise. This patchwork of right holders explains why it is so difficult to publish and view Sōmai’s films on Blu-ray or DVD, even in Japan. 1

To provide an insight into the challenging circumstances in which Sōmai and his contemporaries 2 had to work, I will briefly sketch the consequences of the decline of the studio system and the alternative practices developed in the 1970s and the shaky 1980s. Subsequently, I’ll make a case for Sōmai as an auteur in the sense that in each of his films he develops and explores recurring themes, motifs and stylistic penchants, irrespective of producer or genre.

Beyond the studio system: Roman Porno’s artistic freedom

During the heydays of the second Golden Age in Japanese film history, Japan was a film nirvana in which young and old alike flocked to the cinema theatres. From 1957 till 1960, each year more than a billion tickets were sold. In this period, the Big Six studios produced roughly 500 films per year. In 1980, the year of Sōmai’s feature film debut, only 149 million tickets went over the counter. The golden days were over and would never return. [[These relatively low attendance numbers have remained surprisingly stable from 1981 till 2018, varying between 119 and 193 million. See the website of the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan: http://www.eiren.org/statistics_e. Like in many western countries, television had become a fierce competitor for cinema. Whereas studio heads had taken several initiatives to make cinema more attractive, including the use of colour (Carmen Comes Home, 1951), the effort to cater younger audiences with bold new wave films (Crazed Fruit, 1956) and the introduction of widescreen (The Bride of Otori Castle, 1957), they delayed the decline of the studio system and film attendance only for a short time. From the end of the sixties on, the majors ceased to be vertically integrated, the star system collapsed, and the number of pink films rose spectacularly. Pinku eiga started modestly in 1962, but nine years later, it was responsible for a whopping 40% of the domestic production. Nikkatsu, one of the defunct majors, tried to reinvent itself by developing a respectable version of the successful sixties pink films launching its Roman Porno line. This is the environment where Sōmai Shinji started his film career.

In 1958, the most successful year in Japanese film history, the 10-year-old Sugita Jiro (Sōmai Shinji is a pseudonym) was intrigued by Uchida Tomu’s crew shooting The Outsiders, a film on the difficulties of preserving the culture of the Ainu, an oppressed indigenous people of Hokkaido. The shooting took place near his hometown, and the young boy was fascinated by actress Ineko Arima, who had just played the leading role in Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight. Purportedly, he followed her around the set, taking notes. From that time on, Jiro considered himself an eiga seinen (film youth). Seven years later he made his first 8 mm film, Hibi no hate ni (To the End of Our Days, 1965), which is lost. He started Law Studies at the prestigious Chuo University in Tokyo. His affinity with Uchida’s social and leftist sympathies emerged as he participated in the Sanrizuka Struggle, a protest movement organized by the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party against the construction of Narita Airport. But then the activist law student decided to follow his cinephile destiny. He quit university and joined Nikkatsu. In the classical studio system, aspiring directors had to go through a long period of apprenticeship. After ten or fifteen years, they could finally sit in the director’s chair, armed with a plethora of technical and production skills and years of practical experience. The dissolution of this learning environment was a major drawback of the collapse of the studio system. Surprisingly, Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno line offered young film apprentices a worthy alternative. They could learn from the craftsmanship of open-minded directors who had to shoot fast with a limited budget. Instead of working for one year on a film, they finished the job in roughly one week. The obligatory sex scenes aside, they enjoyed an enormous amount of artistic freedom and could experiment with style and content. Although budgets were tight, shooting in glorious 35 mm was standard practice.

Sōmai joined Nikkatsu in 1972 and learned the craft from Sone Chūsei, one of the prominent Roman Porno directors. He assisted Sone until 1976. During the second half of his formative years, he became assistant director of Hasegawa Kazuhiko, who assisted Imamura while shooting Profound Desire of the Gods (1968). Hasegawa recounts that the big studio appreciated his creative contributions more than the independent Imamura Productions. Not only did Hasegawa and his Nikkatsu colleagues cherish this level of artistic freedom, but once the public started going to the theatres en masse and the Roman Porno films showed up in Kinema Junpo’s 10-best-movies list, they felt proud of the films they made. They created cinematographic masterpieces, not sordid back-alley pulp. After Nikkatsu fired Hasegawa because of the anti-porn Worker’s Union pressure, he would only direct two more films. In both, Sōmai, who followed his friend in this new adventure, played an important role. He was the second assistant director for The Youth Killer (1976) and assistant director for The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979). The Youth Killer touches on the subject of ‘the exploding emotion of wanting to be free from parental control’ (Arai & Turner, 2011). Based on a true story of parenticide, this film may have been inspirational for Sōmai, whose films often deal with generational conflicts. The Man Who Stole the Sun was a high-profile anti-patriarchal endeavour, co-scripted by Hasegawa and Leonard Schrader, which deals with the Hiroshima trauma and the nihilism of postwar youth. Sōmai also ventured into avant-garde territory while assisting filmmaker, poet and playwright Terayama Shūji on Grass Labyrinth (1979), a mesmerizing short about a boy searching for the lyrics of a song his mother used to sing. After an apprenticeship of eight years, Sōmai was ready to direct his first films.

Kadokawa, Manga, and Pop Idols

The influential film theoretician Hasumi Shigehiko called Sōmai the missing link between the end of the studio system and the rise of independent filmmakers in Japan (Hasumi, 2002). While working for Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno line, Sōmai stood with one foot in the classical system’s remnants. When he started directing, the film business was in turmoil. Companies from outside the realm of film ventured into film production. For his early feature films The Terrible Couple (1980) and P.P. Rider (1983), Sōmai collaborated with Kitty Films, a music corporation turned anime studio. His box-office success Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981) was commissioned by Kadokawa, a publishing company that metamorphosed into a blockbuster-oriented film producer during the second half of the seventies. At the same time, Sōmai was one of the leading figures of the Directors Company, a new independent producer.

Kadokawa Haruki was a man with a mission. When he became the head of Kadokawa Publishing in 1975, he announced that, out of nowhere, he would start producing two films per year. He saw himself as ‘a visionary individualist, pitted against a fossilized, feudal system’ (Zahlten, 2017). He was a great believer in transmedia market strategies: offering a broad audience an eclectic package of music, books, a star, and an attractive narrative, promoted through television, radio, and paperbacks at once. The star was often a pop idol (aidoru), whose songs were boosted by her film performance and vice versa. Yakushimaru Hiroku was only fourteen when Kadokawa offered her an exclusive contract, including acting, singing and modelling. She appeared in Obayashi’s School in the Crosshairs (1981) fighting aliens. Shortly after, she was cast as one of the most unlikely yakuza bosses in film history in Sailor Suit and Machine Gun. The film tells the story of a schoolgirl that is offered this prestigious function because her father, the rightful heir of a deceased yakuza boss, has recently died. After some ethically inspired hesitations (yakuza actually kill people), she accepts her role. The narrative is convoluted and sometimes downright weird, but the pleasures the film offers are linked to its youthful energy, conspicuous cinematography and mise en scène. This ingenuity is no coincidence. Kadokawa recruited young and daring directors with pinku eiga or jishu eiga (self-made films) experience, hoping that their creativity would help sell his commercial fair. Sailor Suit was the only film Sōmai made for Kadokawa. The following years he opted for projects in which his friend Hasegawa was involved.

Directors Company: Spoiled Boy Sōmai

Like Kadokawa, Hasegawa sought new ways to create a biotope where young and creative filmmakers could flourish, but without Kadokawa’s focus on financial gain. He invited eight directors to join the Directors Company. The name implied the primacy of the directors, who would become producers and would retain all the property rights to their films. Every member had an annual income and alternately took up the director or producer’s role in different productions at once to spread the risks. Members came from Nikkatsu, the independent Pinku Eiga scene and the do-it-yourself jishu eiga crowd. This amateurish and experimental mode of production came to the fore in the 1970s, and it was the environment where Kurosawa Kyoshi, now known as one of the leading Japanese directors, started tinkering with celluloid. In the period between 1982 and 1992, the Directors Company produced nineteen films, two of which were directed by Sōmai: Typhoon Club (1985) and Love Hotel. Typhoon Club was the winner of a scriptwriting competition organized by the Directors Company and was very dear to Sōmai. Hasegawa shared his friend’s enthusiasm, but could not deny that his projects as a producer with the Directors Company were being jeopardized by ‘the cash haemorrhage induced by Sōmai’.

The worst director for constantly being in the red was Sōmai Shinji. There was nothing I could do with him, having a deficit of nearly JPY 0.2 billion for a project with a budget of JPY 0.2 billion! I seriously thought I would kill him one day (laughs). Sōmai was just like a spoiled boy everyone cared about. That kind of spoiled nature is a very important quality for a director, though. In the last days of the company, all the directors gathered and held an evaluation meeting about company losses, and finally at that moment, Sōmai said, “Gosh, did I do that bad?” his face blushing in embarrassment. So, he regretted what he did. All of us were like, “Too late!” and got mad at him (Arai & Turner, 2011).

So far, the risk-free philosophy of the Directors Company. But with its support, spoiled boy Sōmai created a grim and sensitive coming-of-age masterpiece. Who cares about deficits then? After he collaborated with Kitty Films, Kadokawa and the Directors Company, Sōmai changed producers for every film. 3

The Next Master of the Long Take

Although Sōmai, in all his modesty, did not consider himself an auteur, I’d like to explore the question put forward by Luk Van Haute: ‘Can we notice a Sōmai hand in the thirteen films between 1980 and 2001?’ Drawing on examples of most of his films, I’ll make a case for Sōmai as a stubborn stylist whose stylistic choices are bolstered by recurring themes and motifs. Most conspicuously, mobile and static long takes exemplify his signature style. Gerow’s description of Sōmai as ‘Japan’s next master of the long take’ might raise the eyebrows of viewers drawn to directors whose work is associated with this versatile device, since his name never pops up in lists of long-take directors. An unfair omission, since many of his nagamawashi (the Japanese term for long take) are as exhilarating as those of Kalatozov, Jancsó, Tarkovsky or Mizoguchi. Sōmai breathes long takes. A meticulous analysis by Ando Naomi shows that he used merely 1770 shots for his entire oeuvre (Ando et al., 2019). The average shot length of his thirteen films is sixty-one seconds. That makes him an even more radical long-take director than Mizoguchi. 4 This propensity for long takes undoubtedly holds for the first half of his career. Sōmai started exploring the long take with his debut feature The Terrible Couple, but used the device more intensely in his six following films, from Sailor Suit and Machine Gun to Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (1985). Later films such as Moving (1993), The Friends (1994) and Kaza-hana (2001) still creatively explore the possibilities of the long take, but the number of shorter shots increases.

To show that Sōmai uses the long take as a solution for disparate challenges, I distinguish character-driven, space-driven and time-driven long takes. 5 In all these cases, Sōmai’s camera can be static or mobile or switch between both during the shot. With character-driven long takes, I refer to extended shots in which the actors’ performance is central. Sōmai, being offered scripts dealing with adolescence and coming-of-age, was looking for the best approach to direct his young actors. According to his friend and assistant-director-for-life Enokido Kōji, Sōmai’s initial choice for long takes was pragmatic (Festival des 3 Continents). He surmised he could elicit his actors’ best performances by letting them build up their emotions without interruptions. Let the camera roll, and the teenagers will concentrate on the task at hand. Enokido refers to Sōmai’s feeling with the actors, but the viewer also reaps the benefits of these prolonged performances. Enokido’s comment reminds us of Mizoguchi’s concern that the ‘psychological weight’ and the ‘hypnotic power’ of scenes shouldn’t be impaired by superfluous cutting. When an actor evokes psychological sympathy, Mizoguchi cannot cut into this without regret’ (Bordwell, 2005).

Most typical of Sōmai is the space-driven long take. He’s fond of letting the camera wander through adjacent rooms or the neighbouring areas of exterior settings. These places are always populated with at least one or, often, many characters. Their spontaneous behaviour and emotions are always on top of Sōmai’s mind. But his space-driven long takes tend to become virtuoso shots that celebrate cinema’s capacity to depict the complex interactions of several moving characters in diverse surroundings in one unbroken movement. During these long takes, Sōmai’s camera switches between moments of stasis and mobility, the latter acquired with pans, tracking shots and crane shots. In some instances, his long take aestheticizes space, when he opens all registers of aperture framing, staging in depth, chiaroscuro lighting and the subtle blocking of characters.

Typhoon Club (aperture framing and long take)

Time-driven long takes make the viewer feel the weight of time. This type of long take is typical of directors associated with slow cinema. There are a few examples of this preoccupation with duration in Sōmai’s oeuvre, but they remain exceptions. Sōmai’s cinema is vibrant, effervescent. He doesn’t empty out or dedramatize his stories. Once in a while, he pauses to contemplate an event that, in all its intensity, demands slowness and the awareness of time passing.

Typical of all these long-take types is that Sōmai keeps his distance. Although his cinema is character-driven, he prefers the long shot to the close-up. A medium close-up is usually as close as the camera gets. Part of the explanation is that his teenagers, parents or teachers express their emotions not only with their faces but also, to a conspicuous extent, with their bodies. Sōmai’s characters tend to show their feelings non-verbally, by suddenly changing their behaviour from walking to running, or from sitting to jumping or crawling on the floor. This change in bodily movement corresponds with emotional turmoil and benefits from continuous representation. As Hasumi Shigehiko writes:

Sōmai chose to harmonize his young protagonists’ presence with that of their surroundings and observe their transformation over time within that context. As a result, he avoided brief close-ups and cutaways, grounding his style instead in long takes and tracking shots. And while it never had the fluid movement of Mizoguchi or Ophuls, Sōmai’s camera persevered, risking the appearance of clumsiness, nestling against his characters’ unpredictable behaviour, now hesitant, now abruptly decisive (Hasumi, 2002).

Sōmai’s camera is as wandering and inquisitive as that of Mizoguchi or Ophüls, but its movement is as whimsical and shaky as the characters it lovingly depicts. His avoidance of close-ups holds for the first half of his career, but in films like Moving both bodily movements and extended close-ups can cue emotions.

Establishing a Long Take Style

Sōmai’s directorial debut The Terrible Couple is based on the eponymous manga series by Yanagisawa Kimio, published between 1978 and 1981. The anime production company Kitty Films produced the film. Pop idol Yakushimaru Hiroko, the tomboyish Kadokawa actress, played the female lead. Although Sōmai started his career with a commercial project, he found a way to integrate his stylistic preferences. The film focuses on the adversarial relationship between the teenagers Kei and Yusuke, caused by feelings of attraction, jealousy and faked indifference. To both Yusuke’s dismay and excitement, his new classmate Kei has rented a room in his uncle’s house, where he lives. After Kei has moved in, Sōmai depicts their developing relationship in a scene consisting of three long takes. These three shots are more pragmatic than spectacular. Kei and Yusuke can immerse themselves in vivacious, uninterrupted acting. Sōmai uses the mise en scène of gestures, movements, and props to express the teenagers’ growing animosity. These shots show that, from the beginning, Sōmai did not hesitate to shoot one or two-minute takes. Sōmai would direct Yakushimaru again in his next film, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, which fully exploited her commercial potential. Hasumi suggests that this box-office oriented project, produced by Kadokawa and Kitty Films, may have stereotyped Sōmai as ‘a skilled craftsman devoid of genuine creative ambition’ (Hasumi, 2002). If so, it is to Sōmai’s credit that he raised the bar and further explored the myriad applications of the long-take approach. He only used ninety-one shots for his yakuza parody and felt ready to shoot his first complex Mizoguchi-like ‘one-scene, one-take’. Because of her dead father’s connections to the yakuza and the lack of a male heir, Izumi (Yakushimaru) is urged to become the Medaka gang’s boss. The four remaining members claim that ‘age and gender are not an issue’. In a shot that clocks just under six minutes, we see how the sailor suited girl gets acquainted with an all-male community of hitmen and bikers. The camera pans from drunken and dancing yakuza to the bottom of a Buddha statue. A backward dolly reveals the whole of the giant Buddha. Izumi sits between his legs, imitating his posture and hand gesture. After she has descended the statue, a new pan and dolly out show her and a yakuza in medium shot. The backward movement continues and develops into a long shot of a gang of bikers. The boss wants to wash her troubles away with a ride on a motorbike. The sound of growling engines, zigzagging bikers, bright headlights, and cheerful honking expresses the feeling of getting wild. As in a rehearsed choreography, the bikers disappear together with the diegetic sounds and non-diegetic music sets in. Due to both the camera and the characters’ movement, Sōmai continuously shifts between long shots, medium shots, and medium close-ups. The long take ends with an intimate moment wherein Izumi and the yakuza share their joy of riding in the wind when the rain has stopped. This virtuoso long take is space and character-driven. The camera enjoys the trip, away from the Buddha statue to the carefree ride through the night. But it lacks or eschews the technical perfection or the smoothness of Mizoguchi. Throughout the take and certainly near the end, the image is rough and shaky, like the wild characters it portrays. Their wildness is captured in an influential scene, where Izumi empties a machine gun on the members of a competing yakuza gang, shouting “Kaikan!“ (“What a pleasant feeling!”) from the top of her lungs.

Sailor Suit (Buddha Scene)

Sailor Suit (Buddha Scene)

Lost in Logs

Sōmai got the taste of it. In P.P. Rider, another teenager yakuza parody, based on a script by Leonard and Chieko Schrader, he included several intricate space-driven long takes. Deguchi is mistakenly kidnapped under the eyes of his schoolmates. Three of them undertake an eventful journey to rescue the boy while battling corrupt police officers and apathetic teachers. Sōmai’s final cut was four hours long, but because his film was programmed as a double bill, he had to cut two hours. He wouldn’t touch his sequence shots, but the drastic pruning of his shorter takes didn’t help the accessibility of the storyline. The film begins with a seven-minute long take, introducing the protagonists and showing several adjoining areas of a schoolyard. A yakuza asks a boy whether his name is Deguchi, while the camera moves over the school wall and offers a view of a swimming pool full of excited boys and girls. It follows local bully Deguchi and his cronies in search of fresh victims. When the camera takes its second hurdle, a fence and foliage separating the swimming pool and the playground, Hoshi Katsu’s non-diegetic music sets in, mixed with the sound of motorbikes and a teacher’s voice yelling at the trespassing rascals. The teacher is running across the playground to chase them away, but her words fall on deaf ears. The camera pans to the school’s driveway to show more fighting and quarrelling. When the teacher, who seems to flee the school in a hurry, appeals to them on their behaviour, a blunt “Just go home, lady!” is her share. During the mayhem, the yakuza reappear and try to kidnap Deguchi, but in a rare case of ‘kidnap overlap’, they are outclassed by an amateur gangster duo.

Rider (Opening Scene)

Rider (Opening Scene)

Because Deguchi bullied them, three friends want to ‘save’ him from his kidnappers so that they can take revenge. One of the climaxes of their pursuit unfolds on a pond covered with logs. The kids, joined by a helpful teacher and a yakuza, chase down the kidnappers. The gangsters try to make their escape by running over the floating logs. Like Oshima in Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Sōmai was triggered by a log pond’s compositional and staging opportunities. This long take primarily consists of a three-minute lateral tracking shot discretely observing eight characters’ antics lost in logs. They perform a clumsy choreography in which they walk, run, lose their balance, climb out of the water or start swimming. Guns are fired, knives are waved, and people seem to get lethally wounded. A next shot shows that, astonishingly, everybody survived the shootout.

Rider (Logs scene)

Rider (Logs scene)

Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader’s brother, wrote the seminal essay Yakuza-Eiga (1974), in which he describes the emergence of the new genre. He limits himself to the analysis of Toei’s ninkyo eiga (chivalry films) and jitsuroku (true account films), whereas Nikkatsu played an essential part in developing the genre, with its Borderless Action, Mood Action and New Action films. These Nikkatsu genres paint different portraits of the yakuza: from a stylish hero who flourishes in urban milieus, is knowledgeable about high-tech rifles and fulfils his duty (giri) with exceptional efficiency, to a troubled killer-criminal who dwells in the gritty and chaotic world of postwar black market Japan, struggling with the balance between duty and humanity (ninjō). Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973-1974) is as gritty as it gets, and both giri and ninjō are victims of the greediness of the yakuza bosses (oyabun). All they care about is money. The yakuza in Sailor Suit and Machine Gun are loyal to their ethically inclined teenage oyabun, but the underboss identifies himself as ‘rotten to the core’. He laments that people get killed because of the lack of yakuza code and the subjugation to capitalism. Sōmai’s film shares Fukasaku’s theme of the loss of yakuza values. Unlike Fukasaku’s true account yakuza eiga, Sōmai’s take on the yakuza genre feels more like a postmodern pastiche. Sailor Suit’s evil oyabun who has Izumi kidnapped is a grotesque psychopath. The film offers an eclectic mix of mangaesque violence, moments of real pain, and comedy. The kaikan scene shows over-the-top violence by a young girl who has discovered exciting ways to express her rebelliousness. In P.P. Rider greediness is again the yakuza’s driving force, who turn a botched abduction into a business opportunity. Scenes of professional hitmen make way for scenes of blundering amateurs and long takes that aestheticize collective clumsiness. Both these films paint an unflattering picture of yakuza, nonetheless detecting traces of loyalty and humanity in some maverick mobsters. Sōmai pits the younger generation’s relative pureness against the older generation’s depravity.

Long Takes and Perturbed Teenagers

The subject matter of adolescent life was handed to Sōmai in his first three films, but in Typhoon Club, he made the subject his own. Since the Directors Company and ATG produced the film, he enjoyed more artistic freedom and wouldn’t let his meagre budget hamper his creativity. The film title refers to a group of boys and girls trapped inside the school building because of a raging typhoon. They’re dealing with typical adolescent issues like unrequited love or a tense relationship with their parents, but also with weighty matters like sexual assault and existential angst. Michiko stayed after class, but she and five other kids are left behind due to a misunderstanding. She suddenly finds herself in the deserted corridors with a troubled boy who craves her affection. Sōmai constructs an assault sequence with six intricately staged mobile long takes. The camera follows both characters through corridors, up and down the stairs. The howling wind and gushing rain underscore the rising tension. Michiko puts up a hell of a fight, struggling and wrestling, and finally finds shelter behind a door. The boy slowly approaches Michiko’s hiding place and starts to kick the wooden door with his foot. Michiko is shaking with each pounding as if she is already suffering the rape that might await her. Then the camera, showing us Michiko’s fear, makes an unexpected move. It takes advantage of a recently emerged hole in the door and glides into the corridor to register the boy’s frantic hits and his weird, repetitive phrase “I’m home. Welcome back”. In the final long take of this sequence, the boy succeeds in grabbing the girl and tearing her shirt, but suddenly he seems to realize the hideousness of his actions. He interrupts his attack, directing his aggression at himself.

The long takes in this sequence are both space and time-driven. Sōmai shows how the school’s functional architecture and furniture are suddenly changed into a maze, with rooms and furniture as hiding places or traps. For the first time, Sōmai uses the long take to induce suspense. We fear for what might happen to Michiko. The prolonged representation of pursuits, fights and flights stress the passing of time. Near the end of the film, static long takes show another boy building a strange contraption with chairs and desks. In real-time, we witness how he calmly and carefully arranges the furniture, seemingly following instructions only he can fathom. A shot with his ominous reflection on a sprinkled window that precedes these long takes suggest dark motivations. Sōmai’s visceral cinema is in many ways the opposite of slow cinema, but these takes focus on duration, slow-paced or postponed actions, and obscure existential musings to evoke a feeling of imminent loss.

The Ethics of Catching a Giant Tuna

In his earlier film The Catch (1983), Sōmai already used time-driven long takes to convey authentic craftsmanship and elicit the viewer’s moral judgment. The film tells the story of Fusajiro (Ogata Ken), a rough and taciturn tuna fisher, and his daughter Tokiko. Years ago, his wife eloped with another man. His close relationship with his daughter is put under strain when she introduces her boyfriend. He’s a city boy. The young man convinces the fisherman to offer him a chance to prove himself, but their boat trip ends in tragedy. The boy gets entangled in the razor-sharp tuna line, leading to bloody lacerations all over his face. Fusajiro calls for backup, but when he realizes that the tuna fish is still pulling the line, he forgets about the wounded boy. The original, more poetic title of the film, Gyoei no mure, literally reads ‘School of fish shadows’. When Fusajiro pulls his catch closer, the shadow of a majestic tuna appears. Sōmai’s static long take shows the battle between craftsman and sea creature in minute detail. The fisherman skillfully manipulates the line, two metal hooks, and a rope to kill the tuna and tie it to the boat. The procedure is slow and horrendous. Blood flows out of the tuna’s gills. Red is the dominant colour. Fusajiro’s sweater and bandana are red. His gloves are red with the boy’s blood. One zone of the image hints at the accident. It shows a foot of the boy lying on the deck. The foot is only clearly visible at the beginning of the take. Soon, this zone is blocked by Fusajori battling the giant fish. His focus is entirely on his job and craft. The victim has vanished from his mind as well as from the frame. After Fusajiro has tied the tuna to the boat, he sees the unconscious boy lying down in a puddle of blood and realizes that his ship is transformed into a slaughterhouse. Later, Fusajiro’s ex-wife throws at him that he is a callous, inhumane creature: “You can’t tell people from fish. You just hook them and pull.” His immoral behaviour causes the fissure between him and his daughter to deepen. One of the functions of these time-driven long takes is documentary. They show the harshness of handline tuna fishing in real-time, the strength and dexterity needed, and the authenticity of the craftsmanship. Simultaneously, the camera’s singular viewpoint and the blocking of crucial information causes us to reflect on the morality of Fusajiro’s behaviour. The longer the fisherman is involved with the catch, the more dire the consequences for the boy. In this case, focus on duration invites feelings of indignation with the fisherman’s gross negligence and evokes empathy with his victim.

The Catch (Tuna scene)

The Catch (Tuna scene)

Running Through the Streets, Writhing on the Floor

Sōmai has a penchant for motives like intense bodily movement, pouring rain, and characters walking on the edge of a precipice. Most arresting is his fascination for the human body in motion. One of Alexandre Astruc’s admittedly broad definitions of mise en scène is ‘a way of extending states of mind into movements of the body’. Sōmai characters tend to express their emotions and moods with their bodies. His characters are often running, dancing, swimming, jumping, crawling on the floor, or performing awkward gymnastics. Sometimes they use vehicles like motorbikes, bicycles, or skates to amplify their movement or emotions. Moving is the literal translation of the original title Ohikkoshi and refers to Renko’s father leaving the family and moving to another residence. Renko can be a talkative girl, but she resorts to running in moments of anger and happiness. Sōmai shows Renko’s running with extended long takes. He needs to represent such exhausting runs from beginning to end, to convey the emotion as authentically as possible. She runs through the streets, chased by her furious mother because she set the classroom on fire. She runs in the house, again pursued by her mother, upset by her parents’ separation and wondering why they put her into this world. When Iori (Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion) awaits her stepfather at the airport and sees him with a woman, she doesn’t approach him but runs away. Running is not necessarily linked to negative emotions. Renko sometimes runs towards her father to avoid separation. The boys in Typhoon Club run to the swimming pool to help the boy who nearly drowned. Sōmai is not only interested in bodily movement as an emotion cue, but his camera also registers it for its purely rhythmical qualities. The boys are running strangely in sync – reminiscent of the twin brothers in Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts –and keep running on the spot while waiting at the school gate.

The teenagers in Typhoon Club want to be free from the oppressive world of adults. Dancing in the school premises at forbidden hours is the ultimate act of rebellion. The girls are not only thrilled by J-rock. While the typhoon rages, the teenagers perform a striptease on the school stage to Japanese reggae. For Iori, dancing is also a way to fight her frustrations. After a conversation with her stepfather’s fiancée, who tells her to leave him alone, she goes home to dance uninhibitedly. Earlier on, Iori was intrigued by her stepsister’s performance, who she despises, but whose erotic dance to the mesmerizing sounds of The Light House Project revealed a world of hitherto unknown possibilities.

Kei and Yusuke (The Terrible Couple) have sparkling personalities. They are talkative and always on the move. Both like to skate, not only in the streets but also inside the house. She wants to dance, and he follows boxing lessons. When she tries to give him a dancing lesson, he refuses and tries a cobra twist (a wrestling hold) on her. They end up on the floor, semi-wrestling and semi-lovemaking, failing in both. This scene is the first example of this kind of typical behaviour in Sōmai films: characters crawling or writhing on the floor. It usually occurs in the personal space of the living room, when the character is alone or in the company of a trusted other. Being drunk facilitates the behaviour. Granted, life on the tatami invites bodily movement, but with Sōmai, crawling is yet another way to express oneself without reservations, oblivious of social conventions. We cannot imagine Hara Setsuko’s Noriko writhing on the floor after a troubling conversation with her father. As Hasumi pointed out, Ozu’s women tend to express their anger by subtle’ gestures of indignation’ like tossing away a towel or a neckerchief, while avoiding facial expression (Hasumi, 2004). Sōmai’s characters are rougher and more tempestuous. Having held the divorce papers in her hand, the drunk and vociferous mother (Moving) crawls to the shrine of her mother-in-law, lamenting that everything went wrong when she passed away. Unlike her mother, Renko is worried about the neighbours. The kids in P.P. Rider interrupt a meeting of schoolteachers to ask the only supportive teacher for advice. When the other teachers condemn their inappropriate conduct, they start growling like animals and crawl on the ground towards their favourite teacher. Their behaviour is successful since afterwards, the teacher joins them in their search for the kidnapped boy. The crawling/writhing behaviour often expresses a feeling of utter frustration. In Typhoon Club’s assault scene, when Ken tears off Michiko’s shirt, he sees the scar on her back, caused by a cruel chemistry class prank. He abruptly ceases his attack, silently touches her back and then throws himself on a desk, his body writhing uncontrollably, fighting invisible demons. In various lovemaking scenes in Sōmai’s oeuvre, similar writhing/struggling on the floor behaviour is performed to express clumsiness (a young yakuza fancying Izumi), frustration (the young tuna fisher assaulting his girlfriend in The Catch, the couple in Love Hotel) or casual and happy tenderness (the teacher and his girlfriend in Typhoon Club).

Moving (Crawling)

Moving (Crawling)

Typhoons and Pouring Rains

In his essay ‘Sunny Skies’, Hasumi Shigehiko depicts Ozu as a broad-daylight director: ‘A drop of rain rarely falls from his cloudless blue sky’ (Hasumi, 1997). His characters regularly refer to the beautiful weather or high temperatures. Sōmai thrives in the opposite meteorological conditions: heavy rains, sometimes culminating in storms. In many of Sōmai’s films, at least one central scene has characters converse, run or dance in the pouring rain. In The Catch, Typhoon Club and Moving, showers or storm are dominant motifs. Sōmai’s rainy weather occurs abruptly, like an overwhelming emotion, or builds up slowly, like an overpowering mood.

Unsurprisingly, rainy scenes depict and evoke negative emotions. When a yakuza and Izumi have a private conversation in the rain, he confesses he is ‘rotten to the core’ and ‘wants to howl like a wolf’. Moving starts with a shot of a dreary evening, seen from a dark room where the father will ponder the breakup with his wife. His daughter Renko wishes the rainy season were over: ‘I hate rain so much’. When she and her classmate Sally with difficulty climb a slope, Sally talks about her parents’ divorce. When they reach the top of the hill, she mentions her father’s new girlfriend’s pregnancy. This confrontational information simultaneously upsets Renko and the skies. The girl leaves her friend, running down the hill in splashing rain. The Catch associates rain with the revival of the passionate relationship of Fusajiro with his ex-wife. When he is squatting on the tatami floor of his hotel, it suddenly starts raining. He sees a woman approaching, the sound of her geta drowning out the sound of rain. The camera focuses on her wet feet and red-polished nails before panning to her face. This eroticized image triggers a pursuit in gushing rain. In Love Hotel rain is associated with Muraki’s suicidal thoughts. An encounter with a prostitute, resulting in kinky sex, saves his life. Years later, the two meet again and eventually fall in love. During a storm, they try to recreate the passion they felt in the love hotel. Rain and writhing bodies signify failure. Muraki isn’t capable of making love to her with the same uninhibited roughness. Since that is what she desires, their encounter ends in disappointment.

In Typhoon Club the rain motive is more versatile. From the beginning, we know that a typhoon is approaching. The sound of heavy wind intensifies and reaches its peak when Ken tries to rape Michiko. Sōmai crosscuts between the story of the six teenagers in the school and the nightly adventures of Rie, who ran away from home. The storm sounds like a sci-fi score in her storyline, as if she’s entering an alien but fascinating world. In her case, both rain and running evoke freedom and the urge to change. In the meantime the members of the Typhoon Club are singing and dancing outside in the rain, undressing till they are naked. Together with the adults, all restrictive conventions have vanished. In Ozu’s world, Japan is a nation without a rainy season. Sōmai embraces this period of the year. Ironically, he filmed Typhoon Club during a hot and dry Ozu-like summer and was obliged to use rain canons and ventilators to imitate the storm (de Mesnildot, 2012).

Tonda Couple (Rain Running)
Love Hotel (Rain)

Last Chapter of Snow (Rain)
The Friends (Rain)

Absent Parents: “I am home. Welcome back!”

Japanese cinema has a long tradition of depicting the disintegration of the ie or the traditional extended family. Through Western influences, this patriarchal ideal was already challenged in the 1930s, when films with weak fathers, strong mothers and insurgent children were popular. This approach was typical of Shochiku’s woman-oriented melodramas. During and after the Second World War, directors like Ozu (Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, 1941; Tokyo Story, 1953) and Kinoshita (A Japanese Tragedy, 1953) zoomed in on the troubled relationship between parents and children or portrayed the dwindling influence of the father. Nikkatsu’s Sun Tribe films and Shochiku’s New Wave films opposed the classical masters, whose cinema they considered too polished or even reactionary, and delved into the world of alienated teenagers adrift in chaotic Japan. When Sōmai explores the dissolution of the Japanese family in the eighties and nineties, he works in line with his predecessors and with some of his contemporaries. As mentioned earlier, Hasegawa’s The Youth Killer deals with the explosive desire to be free from parental control. Jun’s parents speak disparagingly of his girlfriend. In a conversation with his father, Jun freaks out and stabs him with a kitchen knife. Hasegawa paints a world where everybody – including the married woman who wants to flee with potential lover Jun – lives in a moral vacuum. Equally violent and morally void are the parents in Nomura’s The Demon (1978), a story about an extreme child abuse case, ending in violent death. In The Family Game (1983) Morita brings a caricature of the Japanese family. To not have to deal with his son’s lousy school results, the father hires a tutor who acts like an emotionally involved, surrogate father.

Sōmai takes a different approach to criticize the conjugal family. As Hasumi puts it: ‘During the years he was making The Hip Couple and P.P. Rider, Sōmai was in fact setting a time bomb that would one day explode. In both films, teenagers wander aimlessly through a world in which parents and families have seemingly vanished, and the few discernable adults are unable to guide the young in any clear direction. 6 At the beginning of his career, Sōmai describes the generational divide by keeping most adults out of sight. The two teenagers in The Terrible Couple seem to perform a parody of a couple married too long, with their constant quarrels and desire to find sex elsewhere. Adults are absent or only audible as an angry voice on the phone. The three youngsters chasing the yakuza in P.P. Rider have to take matters into their own hands as well because the police are compromised, and most of the teachers are aloof empty-heads. Since Izumi’s father (Sailor Suit) is dead and her mother long gone, she has to construct her own outlandish yakuza family. Sōmai’s psychological acuity comes to the fore in Typhoon Club. Again, a group of children are left to their own devices, in this case with fatal consequences. Parents are referred to but are virtually absent from the teenagers’ lives. In a short, enigmatic scene at the beginning of the film, Ken opens the door of a house saying “I’m home”. He immediately returns uttering the words “Welcome back”. We see a static long take in which Ken repeats this strange behaviour several times. He repeats the phrases when he assaults Michiko. Ken lives with his father, who we discern as a gloomy shadow disappearing in the distance, in ramshackle barracks. Without caring parents to welcome him, Ken has to dream up a happy homecoming. His favourite phrase symbolizes his loneliness and social maladjustment. In a similar scene, Sōmai expresses the loneliness of Rie. She usually walks to school with Mikami but oversleeps. She calls in vain for her mother, who was supposed to wake her. The camera registers Rie’s authentic clumsy gestures, at once funny and sad. The girl crawls into her mother’s bed, clutching her duvet, trying to feel and smell her. Unlike Ken, she doesn’t inflict her pain on others but runs away from home in search of comforting company. The motif of absent parents returns in Sōmai’s The Friends, his adaptation of Yumoto Kazumi’s novel of the same name. It tells the story of three boys who befriend a lonely old man. They help him renovate his unkempt garden, earn his trust and learn how a traumatic war experience precluded a return to his wife. The old man becomes a surrogate father, especially for one of the boys whose father has vanished. The kid cannot cope with this and makes up stories about his father, identifying him alternately as a detective, a pilot, and an Antarctica explorer. But he and his friends also act as surrogate children, whose growing affection for the old man incites them to start searching for his long-lost wife.

Alternative Families in Gap Society

When Sōmai opts for stories where parents play an important role, unlike Hasegawa and Nomura, he doesn’t depict extreme cases of dysfunctional families. The daily life of well-meaning but flawed people, like the family in Moving, is more attractive to him. The Urushiba’s have reached a breaking point. The parents have agreed on separation, but their daughter Renko refuses to accept their decision. In a climactic confrontation, a furious Renko hides in the bathroom. Her parents, accompanied by a younger couple, try to reason with her, but the girl refuses to speak. Sōmai presents this scene with a distant long take of the corridor, a place way too narrow for bickering couples to share. The younger couple tries to neutralize the offensive gestures and verbal attacks of the parents. Through stylistic devices as blocking and revealing, Sōmai turns this scene into a claustrophobic choreography of four adults in despair. After a dramatic climax, the characters retreat in separate, scarcely lit rooms. Moving intertwines architecture with psychology. The film brings a story of good people losing track of things, unable to pinpoint what exactly went wrong.

Moving (Conflict)

Moving (Conflict)

In Wait and See (1998), another film about an average middle-class family, Sōmai specifies the causes of the Nirasaki family’s problems. The father is a well-to-do salaryman who works for a financial company. His colleague and friend warns him about their firm’s imminent bankruptcy, but Hiroshi is too lethargic to take action. The film refers to Japan’s Lost Decade, following the bubble economy that ended at the beginning of the 1990s and resulted in an unemployment upsurge. It draws attention to Japan’s social stratification in its allusion to Hiroshi’s wealthy family-in-law, his rural background and the despised class of vagabonds. The marriage of Hiroshi and Mizuho is not only threatened by financial concerns. The arrival of Sasaichi, an old man who claims to be Hiroshi’s father, puts the cohesion of the Narasaki’s under pressure. The man lives with the family for a while, to their enthusiasm as well as their distress. He is not only helpful and funny but also a rough-mannered sake lover and peeping tom. Hiroshi’s mother confirms that she had a relationship with Sasaichi but confesses that he is not Hiroshi’s biological father. The flabbergasted man leaves the comfort of the house and rejoins his vagabond buddies. In Wait and See Sōmai pits the value of biological ties against non-biological ones. When Mizuho realizes that Sasaichi is living on the street, she wants to take care of him, irrespective of blood relationship. She comes across as a fragile woman but develops into the moral centre of the film. In Lost Chapter of Snow, the orphan Iori was adopted and raised in an upper-class family, where she endured many humiliations. She is readopted by Yuichi, the first person who takes a genuine interest in her. When Iori comes of age, her daughterly affection transforms into an unspoken romantic love for her stepfather. The film doesn’t shy away from suggesting that such a taboo relationship may be ethically sound and psychologically benevolent. In Kaza-hana, a mother tells her daughter whose child she’s rearing, that ‘bearing a child doesn’t make you a mother’.

Sōmai’s ideas on the relative value of consanguinity and the virtues of alternative families are shared by Kore-eda Hirokazu, a staunch admirer of Sōmai’s work. Kore-eda shows how a young boy replaces his mother and takes care of his siblings (Nobody Knows, 2004), how a family broken by sadness can heal into a blended family (Maboroshi, 1995) and how people lacking a blood relationship can form precious bonds (Like Father, Like Son, 2013; Shoplifters, 2018). Sōmai’s description of Japan’s social stratification in Wait and See is further explored by Kurosawa Kiyoshi, who knew Sōmai from the Directors Company days. In Tokyo Sonata (2008) Ryuhei is fired because his department is outsourced to China, where the wages are much lower. He is too ashamed to inform his family, so during the day he lives on the street. Both films deal with debunked myths of Japanese society: the myth of the company that rewards its employees with lifelong security and the myth of Japan as a homogeneous middle-class society. In the decade between the making of both films, the gap between the haves and the have-nots widened and is referred to as kakusa shakai (Rosenbaum, 2010). Kore-eda paints this ‘gap society’ in a disturbing way in Shoplifters, a film about a family constructed with ‘invisible people’ as building blocks, such as abused children, thieves and a lonely grandmother. Sōmai would have loved it.

Gloom and Butterflies

With themes such as teenage alienation and dissolving families, Sōmai may come across as a gloomy director, especially when we add his characters’ preoccupation with death to this list. One of the boys in The Friends gives a detailed description of the remains of his grandmother’s body after her cremation: ‘Nothing but white, brittle bones’. The story resonates with his friends, who start contemplating the meaning of death. Taking care of the old man and his garden is also a way of confronting death. He entrusts them, moreover, with his traumatic wartime experiences in the Philippine jungle. Various Sōmai characters are suicidal, like Mikami (Typhoon Club), Muraki (Love Hotel) and Yuriko (Kaza-hana). Mikami’s fascination with death becomes clear in an exquisitely staged static scene in which he develops a bizarre theory of death, based on a faulty interpretation of Darwin’s work, blending natural selection with reincarnation. He concludes that, for others to live a dignified life, he has to die. Still, although Sōmai has a dark side, his cinema is surprisingly hopeful. Typhoon Club doesn’t end with Mikami’s storyline but with Rie’s journey. Her nightly adventure has reinvigorated her. When she sees the grey and flooded school building, she happily compares it to the Golden Pavilion. Yuriko, the adrift escort in Kaza-hana looking for a place to die ‘face down in the snow’ is saved by her lover. Although the sixteen-year-old idol Yu dies in a car accident (Tokyo Heaven, 1990), she’s given the opportunity of resurrection, enabling her to live the joys of life more fully. The kid detectives of The Friends succeed in tracking down the old man’s wife. She experiences her husband’s death as a reunification rather than a tragic twist of fate. After the ceremony, the boys find a dead butterfly in the old man’s garden. They take care of its funeral by dropping it in the well. There, it magically transforms into a cloud of butterflies, fireflies and dragonflies. After death, new life flourishes. The last quarter of Moving shows Renko’s coming-of-age, compressed in one memorable event. During the Senko-sai festival, the girl starts a quest in the midst of nature to join the people who lit bonfires on the mountainside. She passes bamboo groves and rivers, tumbles down and climbs up again. She passes men swinging burning haystacks like hammer throwers. Eventually, the beauty of the fiery vistas and the grandeur of nature gives her the strength to overcome the loss of her old life and cherish the future.

The Friends (Butterfly)

In Sōmai’s universe, contradictory emotions and preoccupations (life and death, sadness and joy, anger and forgiveness) can easily coexist. He sometimes represents life as a balancing act, as illustrated by the motif of the precipice. In The Friends Kawabe walks on the top of a wall, contemplating the meaning of death. Lost Chapter of Snow develops this motif most thoroughly. When Iori crosses a snow-covered suspension bridge, a concerned man calls her a circus girl and makes sure her balancing act ends well. Although they both slip, he succeeds in rescuing her. The camera moves down and shows a mechanical doll hanging under the bridge. This graceful puppet, with an attached globe to exercise its balance, recurs regularly in the film. It is associated with ‘circus girl’ Iori, who eagerly tries to find balance in life and ends up giving balance to others.

Sōmai’s ‘violently anarchic techniques’

What did Yomota mean when he stated that Sōmai’s ‘violently anarchic techniques embodied new principles that went beyond André Bazin’s thesis of découpage through spatial depth’? While analyzing several sequences, I tried to show that Sōmai firmly believed in representing reality continuously. Mizoguchi evolved to a long-take aesthetic in the mid-thirties because he perceived a link between the length of a shot and its emotional weight (Sato, 2008: 146). Similarly, Sōmai felt that extended shots supported his actors in realizing an emotionally true performance. He usually shot his long takes in deep focus, like the neorealist films admired by Bazin. The tuna scene in The Catch has a neorealist flair, with its patient observation of the fisherman’s skills and implicit reference to the tuna catching sequence in Stromboli. Like Mizoguchi, he used complex crane shots to connect several adjoining areas in one flowing movement. His camera roams and pauses, but usually not for long, since there’s always some fresh action to follow. He offers the viewer multiple and moving centres of attention by introducing characters simultaneously or in quick succession. To be sure, there are apparent differences between both directors. Sōmai’s camera tends to exchange Mizoguchi’s slow smoothness for rough shakiness. Although his work shows inventive instances of aperture framing and blocking, Sōmai did not as thoroughly as Mizo-san explore the possibilities of subtle staging (Bordwell, 2005).

So, with which ‘violent techniques’ did Sōmai go beyond Bazin’s preferred style to represent reality? Like other directors in the seventies and eighties, he redefined the long take by regularly filming shots of more than three minutes. Sequences like these are usually very complex and tend to focus on the technique rather than make it invisible. Typical of Sōmai is that he approached the long-take style to acquire various goals, besides intense emotional interaction and the representation of an authentic world. To evoke suspense, he evaded fast-cut scenes with many shots and instead built sequences of intricately cut long takes. He sometimes dropped the realistic potential of the long take altogether. Lost Chapter of Snow starts with a thirteen-minute long take. The camera glides from Iori’s footsteps in the snow, up to the windows of a house, witnessing the girl’s stepfamily complaining about their ‘ungrateful orphan’. 7 This is the beginning of a long take that not only explores different areas; it has the power to transcend space and time. While Yuichi walks in an icy village with the girl he wants to adopt, he talks to his financée on the phone. Although she lives in Tokyo, Sōmai shows her next to the snowy path where Iori and Yuichi are walking. The camera plays with time as well. During the long take, it makes several leaps in time as it traces the early life of Iori, from unwelcome orphan maltreated in a bourgeois family, to an adoptee of the caring Yuichi. Sōmai’s realist world has become a dreamlike space that nevertheless strives to express emotional authenticity. Even when the end credits are rolling in Moving, Sōmai conjures up a three-minute long take that shows how Renko, purified by her walk in the forest, happily tackles life’s new challenges. Again, the tracking and panning camera makes inconspicuous time leaps. Every time the girl walks behind a tree, she reappears in different clothes and new moments in her life. Sōmai has always been drawn to the surreal in everyday life. It comes as no surprise that, in a later phase in his career, he turned the long take to his will and used it to cue more intense emotions, downplaying the importance of a realistic representation of space and time and going ‘beyond Bazin’.

There is definitely a Sōmai hand in the thirteen films he made between 1980 and 2001. His sparkling and stylistically challenging cinema deserves a larger audience. Thanks to several retrospectives during the last decade, his craft was reintroduced to Western cinephiles. Hopefully sometime soon a distributor will overcome existing hurdles and release an exquisite Sōmai Blu-ray box.


Ando, N., Taneda, M., Ishii, S., & Yamahata, N. (2019). “Composition and Deconstruction of Spaces Depicted in Sōmai Shinji’s Films.” In L. Cocchiarella (Ed.), ICGG 2018—Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Geometry and Graphics (Vol. 809, pp. 129–146). Springer International Publishing.

Arai, K., & Turner, J. (2011). “Interview with Kazuhiko Hasegawa.” http://eigagogo.free.fr/en/interview-kazuhiko-hasegawa.php

Bordwell, D. (2005). Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging. University of California Press.

de Mesnildot, S. (2012). Festival des 3 continents “Entretien avec Koji Enokido, assistant réalisateur de Shinji Sōmai.” https://www.3continents.com/fr/entretien-avec-koji-enokido-assistant-realisateur-de-shinji-somai

Ehrlich, L. (2020). The Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu: An Elemental Cinema. Springer Nature.

Fujii, J. (2012). Intégrale Shinji Sômai. Le vagabond de l’ère post-studio Japonaise. Festival de 3 Continents.

Gerow, Aaron. Tangemani http://www.aarongerow.com/news/reviving-somai-shinji.html

Gibbs, J., & Pye, D. (Eds.). (2017). The Long Take. Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Hanley, D. (2011). “Tradition and Modernity in Japanese Yakuza Films of the 1960s and 70s.” Offscreen 15(1). https://offscreen.com/view/japanese_yakuza_films

Hasumi, S. (1997). “Sunny Skies.” In D. Desser (Ed.), Ozu’s Tokyo Story (pp. 118–129). Cambridge University Press.

Hasumi, S. (2002). “Missing Link.” Film Comment, 38(1), 41–42. JSTOR.

Hasumi, S. (2004). “Ozu’s Angry Women.” Rouge. http://www.rouge.com.au/4/ozu_women.html

Henderson, B. (1970). “Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style.” Film Quarterly, 24(2), 2–14.

Husby, M. L. (2017). Mori Atsushi’s the Transformation of Meaning (Imi No Henyō 意味の変容): A Translation and Critical Introduction. [University of Montana].

Iles, T. (2008). “Families, Fathers, Film: Changing Images from Japanese Cinema.” Japanstudien, 19(1), 189–206.

McDonald, K. (1992). “The Yakuza Film: An Introduction.” In A. Nolletti & D. Desser (Eds.), Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History (pp. 165). Indiana University Press.

Rosenbaum, R. (2010). “From the Traditions of J-horror to the Representation of kakusa shakai in Kurosawa’s Film Tokyo Sonata.” Contemporary Japan, 22(1–2), 115–136.

Satō, T., Vasudev, A., & Padgaonkar, L. (2008). Kenji Mizoguchi and the art of Japanese cinema. Berg.

Schilling, M. (2008). No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema. FAB Press.

Schrader, P. (1974). “Yakuza-Eiga.” Film Comment, Januari-Februari, 8–17.

Sharp, J. (2008). Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema. FAB Press.

Van Haute, L. (2005). “Sōmai Shinji Odd One Out.” Film International, 3(4), 32–37.

Yomota, I. (2019). What is Japanese Cinema? A History. Columbia University Press.

Zahlten, A. (2017). The End of Japanese Cinema: Industrial Genres, National Times, and Media Ecologies. Duke University


  1. (Fujii, 2012). Jinshi Fujii is one of the editors of the only anthology on Sōmai, entitled Yomigaeru Sōmai Shinji, and includes essays by director and Sōmai fan Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Sōmai’s assistant director Enokido Kōji and some writings of Sōmai himself. Frustratingly, the book is only available in Japanese. ‘Yomigaeru’ can be translated as ‘reviving’. Although Sōmai is better known in Japan than in the West, even in his country of birth his work is too unfamiliar
  2. I’m referring to directors like Hasegawa Kazuhiko, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Fukasaku Kinji, and Ōbayashi Nobuhiko.
  3. Sōmai worked with Shochiku-Fuji, Toho, Daiei Studios, Bandai Entertainment, Argo Pictures, Yomiuri Television, Eisei Gekijo, Be-Wild and Cinequanon.
  4. David Bordwell points out that the average shot length of Mizoguchi’s films in the period of 1935 till the end of his career ranged from fifteen to ninety seconds (Bordwell, 2005:94).
  5. These types regularly overlap, but I’m concerned with the dominant function of Sōmai’s multifunctional long takes.
  6. (Hasumi, 2002). The Hip Couple is alternatively called The Terrible Couple, Tonda Couple and Dreamy Fifteen
  7. This impressive long take probably consist of three long takes with hidden cuts.

Sōmai Shinji, the Forgotten Master of Long Take and Coming-of-Age Cinema

Tim Deschaumes received his MA in philology and English literature from The University of Antwerp and his MA in Communication Science from the University of Ghent. He taught film aesthetics at the Flemish Service for Film Culture. His interests include Japanese cinema, new wave cinemas, film style and film emotion. He is very passionate about Yasujirō Ozu. Tim’s work appeared on Photogénie, Cinea and in De Geus. Together with Ive Verdoodt he’s building Cafelumière.be, a website born out of the urge to celebrate eminently cinematic moments. The title refers to Hou-hsiao Hsien’s homage to Ozu.

Volume 26, Issue 9-10-11 / November 2022 Essays   japanese cinema   japanese new wave   long take style   sōmai shinji