by Kaori Shoji
Poop is the main thing that remains in the mind after watching Okiku And The World. Lots and lots of poop. Ninety-nine percent of the film was shot in black and white which alleviates much of the shock of witnessing poop in almost every scene but there’s no getting away from the frequency of its appearance and the sheer volume of its…portions. We see mounds of it up close. We see it flung about on a dirt road. We see it overflowing from a public toilet after a long spell of rain. Poop and more poop. Just deal with it, I guess.
Okiku’s World is director Junji Sakamoto’s 30th feature and as he said in an online interview, he wanted to “do something different” this time. He wasn’t kidding. Sakamoto’s first period film marks an occasion in which the protagonists are two young shit collectors and the dirt-poor daughter of an ex-samurai. The shit collectors swill poop out of public toilets (there are two in every alleyway), pay the landlord for the pile(s) and sell them to farmers who then use the poop to fertilize their vegetable crops. The daughter of the ex-samurai who has no marriage prospects, teaches young children to write at a nearby temple. Her father farts at dawn every morning, then goes out to the toilet to relieve his bowels. A few feet away, the daughter, who had been rudely awakened by the sounds emitted by her deadbeat dad, squats on the ground to wash her face in a basin of water. It’s a testament to Sakamoto’s filmmaking prowess that he somehow manages to make this scene aesthetic while gently emphasizing the awkwardness of their conversation (“Why do you always fart at dawn, father?” “I really don’t know.”)
There’s nothing remotely glossy about Okiku’s World, immediately setting it apart from most period films set in Japan. And despite deploying the biggest names in Japanese cinema, the most oft-repeated word in the dialogue is ‘kuso’ which means ‘shit.’
We see the internationally renowned Haru Kuroki who stars in the titular role of Okiku. There’s Okiku’s love object Kanichiro as newbie shit collector Chuji. His real-life father and multiple award winning actor Koichi Sato plays Okiku’s deadbeat dad Gembei. And then there’s Sota Ikematsu who plays Yasuke, a veteran shit swiller who shows Chuji the ropes of the job and likes to wax philosophical about poop and life and how it’s all connected.
Ikematsu is prized by Japanese auteurs for his willingness to be nitty-gritty, unpretty and uncouth. You may have seen him in another period movie called Killing (Zan) back in 2018, in which he played a cowardly samurai masturbating to the sight of a young woman bathing. In Okiku’s World he spends the entire movie swilling shit, cracking jokes about shit and occasionally getting shit dumped all over him.
I’m using ‘shit’ here as a direct translation of ‘kuso’ but Linda Hoaglund, who created the brilliant English subtitles, chooses ‘poop.’ It adds to the quaintness and comedy of Okiku’s World but also takes something away from the dismal darkness that permeated Japanese society in these times. The story is set in the late Edo Period around 1851, two years before the Black Ships came to Japanese shores and the Tokugawa Shogunate along with the entire samurai class, went through a string of anxiety attacks before finally opening up the country a decade or so later. Through it all and no matter what else was happening in government and society, someone had to swill out the shit and transport them to the farms.
In the Japanese business world, glorifying the Edo Period (1603-1868) has always been a trendy pastime, the notion being that Japan’s capitol city of Edo (now inner city Tokyo) was a thriving, prosperous and completely circular society that ran on a state-of-the-art recycling system with workable plumbing. Edo was supposedly an SDGs expert’s wet dream. There was zero trash and nothing was wasted, least of all human excrement which was an important commodity. In the film, people are constantly haggling with Yasuke and Chuji to pay them more for their feces because “we eat better stuff and our shit is worth more,” ignoring the labor of swilling it out and carrying it on their shoulders, in buckets balanced on either end of a long pole. Should Yasuke and Chuji trip, slip or otherwise lose their balance, the term ‘losing one’s shit’ or ‘caught in a shitstorm’ take on a whole other meaning.
This is Yasuke and Chuji’s whole life – swilling and carrying shit, every single day, until they die. They were absolutely essential in a society ruled by a samurai class who for the most part, weren’t essential at all. Death was often the samurai’s only justification for life – they could prove their worth by dying at their own hand or be struck down by colleagues, as in the case of Gembei. Okiku tries to prevent this fate but she too, is injured during the attack. Months later, she recovers but her father is long dead and her vocal cords are permanently damaged.
Okiku’s World comes off as Orwellian but it’s never dystopian. There’s something marvelously farcial and liberating about the lives of the three protagonists. Yasuke and Chuji’s existence may be mired in excrement but they’re definitely onto something as they observe: “You shove food in the top hole and it comes out as shit from the bottom hole. Without us, the whole of Edo will sink in shit!”
As for Okiku, liberated from the patriarchy and the world of the samurai with the execution of Gembei, finally acquires the kind of freedom that Edo women in her class rarely knew. She was free to live alone, free to have a job and to have a boyfriend of sorts. It doesn’t matter what she and Chuji are to each other exactly. They have no future or even the past. There is only the knowledge that no matter what happens, there will be shit to swill and tomorrow, there’ll be more of the same. None of the trio will likely live past 25. But when they are together, they bask in the moment and their youth as something incredibly precious.
The Japanese take toilets very, very seriously, attesting to the cleanliness of the public toilets in Tokyo and the rest of the nation. Deep in our hearts we know that romance and love and lofty, political ideals cannot exist without a flush toilet in the general vicinity. It’s time to stop glorifying the Edo Period and see it for what it was: a pile of shit unless someone took the trouble to swill it all out.