Shadow of Fire

Shadow of Fire (Hokage) (2023)

Shadow of Fire (Hokage) screened at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2024

In the still smouldering embers left by the end of the Pacific War, an unnamed woman (played with unhinged intensity by Shuri) lives alone in a tavern that is one of the only buildings in this black-market district left standing after the whole (similarly unnamed) city was fire-bombed. The tavern’s interior walls still bear the darkened stains of fire damage – literal shadows of fire – and the woman too, though displaying an elegant, well-dressed surface, is herself obviously damaged: dazed, vacant, a mere shadow of her former self. The woman offers first a drink and then herself to paying male customers, referred to her by a courteous older pimp (Go Riju) who, despite being otherwise considerate, also takes rough sexual advantage of her himself. Through this bleak existence, the woman survives – barely and for the most part in her own absence.

While the woman never goes out, others do come in – a young orphan boy (Ouga Tsukao) seeking refuge from the stall-owner (Tatsushi Ômori) whose vegetables he has just stolen and a polite, penniless ex-soldier (Hiroki Kono) looking for a little comfort from his own not inconsiderable troubles. Man and boy introduce life into this dead space, and for a while, these three form something of a happy family unit together – until their separate deep-seated traumas pull them apart again.

The first half of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Shadow of Fire (Hokage) may occasionally look out towards the world beyond, but like the woman, it never actually leaves the tavern’s confines, so that, for the viewer, the building’s dilapidated interiors, filled with suppressed memories, hidden, forbidden spaces and claustrophobic loss, come to merge with the woman’s equally scarred headspace. In one sequence, the ex-soldier leads all three of them on an imaginative excursion to exotic places while staying entirely within the home that they now share together; and a later, monochrome vista of a razed cityscape will turn out to be a mere scale model, whether real or imagined, laid out on the floor of an interior, with screen doors visible on the margins of the frame.

Here, even the external is internalised, and psychologised, with the woman’s own haunted ruin – as well as the soldier’s and the boy’s – inscribed in the very walls. Man and boy may come and go, but the woman stays because hers is a specifically domestic tragedy from which there can be no easy way out – while the other two, though likewise casualties of war, were broken elsewhere.

Once the woman’s new, parodic family, like her prior, real one, breaks apart and the orphan boy has been kicked out, the film switches from the woman’s to his perspective, and everything changes. Now interiors are replaced with constant exteriors, as the boy, homeless once again, joins another war veteran (Mirai Moriyama) on a mysterious mission outside the city – an outing which they both know is going to end with the use of a gun that the boy has in his bag. Meanwhile this veteran represents another change, given that he, alone of the film’s characters, announces his own name – Shuji Akimoto – and at one point recites the names of comrades whose innocence was also lost in war.

Shuji is as damaged as the others, and has indeed previously been institutionalised for his PTSD, but where everyone else in Shadow of Fire tries to keep the horrors of the past hidden or buried, he attempts to address them, confront them, avenge and redeem them – in short, to put a name to them. This kind of coming to terms – of calling a spade a spade – over not only immense historic grief and loss but also war crimes and atrocity, remains a difficult obstacle for a nation that has not always faced up to its past, and so struggles to move on from it.

Recently we have seen Japan’s immediate postwar trauma given monstrous form in Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One (2023). Released into Japanese cinemas in the same year, Shadow of Fire offers a kaiju-free account of a nation’s scarred psyche – but nonetheless, like Tsukamoto’s earlier Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 2014), similarly set around the end of the Pacific War, here it is the human characters who have been reduced by war to the ghosts, zombies and monsters of genre cinema.

Shot digitally by Tsukamoto (who serves as cinematographer and editor as well as writer/director/producer) with restless handheld camerawork and often stylised lighting that together capture the shell-shocked neurosis of these characters’ inner worlds, this is an intimate account of a nation’s continuing sickness and distress, even as the market every so gradually recovers and life returns. Meanwhile the film’s Japanese title, ほかげ, literally ‘shadows or forms moving in firelight’, denotes not only those left alive – or at least undead – in the wreckage of incendiary devastation, but also the mechanisms of cinema itself. For this very film, projecting cathartic light and shadow on Japan’s wartime sufferings and sins, is itself a part, however modest, of an ongoing national healing process.

strap: Shinya Tsukamoto’s harrowing postwar psychodrama exposes the burnt-in scarring, trauma and madness of late-Forties (and present-day) Japan, inside and out

© Anton Bitel