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Year: 1989
Director: Toshiya Itoh
Screenplay: Tsutui Tomomi, Toshiya Itoh
Cinematography: N/A
Cast: Hayase Misato, Kobayashi Yu, Shiga Junichi, Amasaga Toshiyuki, Uchida Asao, Dan Fumi, Kusakari Masao
Runtime: 107 min
Trailer: no trailer available, but 4 min clip of the opening is on YouTube

Seen at a screening as part of the Films at the Embassy of Japan programme.

It’s another film that is simply magicalKaze no Matasaburō: Garasu no masoto (literally Matasaburō of the Wind: Cape of Glass) depicts a story of childhood in the rural Japan of the 1920s. At the heart of the tale is Takada (Kobayashi Yu), a young boy, whose father is transferred to a remote village in the Tōhoku region. Takada arrives there on the very windy 210th day of the year, which immediately raises suspicion in the village children: he must, they whisper amongst themselves, be Matasaburō, the son of the wind god, who appears on this day and stays until the 220th – a suspicion that seems confirmed when it turns out that Takada’s first name is Saburō.

The mysterious new boy: Matasaburō seemingly appears out of nowhere.

It is true that Takada Saburō – soon called only Matasaburō by everyone – is different from the other children: he is always dressed in distinct clothes of white (and a sun hat to top it off), while the village children wear rags. He is also happy to make friends with Karin (Hayase Misato), a young girl that the others have been shunning because she “stinks” of disinfectant that is all over her house due to her mother’s tuberculosis. Yet the children cannot help but be fascinated by Matasaburō, who seems to be here one moment and there another. They soon start following him around, in the process also integrating Karin into their group.

Although Kaze no Matasaburō is, in a sense, a children’s film, it reminds us once again how Japanese filmmaking differs from Western approaches. Karin’s position as the bullied outcast – not only with a gravely ill mother, but also fatherless and deaf in one ear – weaves some rather dark strands into the tale. Joyous, light-hearted moments of childhood are portrayed as well, but Toshiya gives us the world as it is experienced by children, not how we would ideally like it to be for them. This means that there are grass-sledding races and laughter-filled mud fights, but also scenes that evoke the terror of a child lost in the mountains (the boy’s imagination running wild, stones and roots monstrously coming to life) and others that leave the viewer gasping for a moment, such as when the village boys gang up on Matasaburō and press his head under water for so long that we can’t be sure whether the film will not take a more tragic spin.

Cover of the original book that Kaze no Matasaburō is based on.
(See also “Bonus bits” below)

As we watch Kaze no Matasaburō through the eyes of the children, the question of whether the boy is the mythical Matasaburō or not never quite goes away. For the grown ups, it is clear: nothing unusual ever happens, they merely see a boy who moves here one day, and leaves on another. Karin, Ichiro (Shiga Junichi), Kasuke (Amagasa Toshiyuki) and the rest of the lot, however, are only at the cusp of adulthood. Some are convinced that Saburō must be the son of the wind god, others vocally dismiss the idea as “ridiculous” – but none is entirely sure and therefore neither are we as viewers. Mysterious things do happen, but is it really because of the boy? Wanting a definite answer, the kids (with the exception of Karin, who has no doubt) eventually confront Saburō and challenge him to prove himself by creating wind. In response, the boy whistles a mysterious tune – the rather haunting「どどど」(Dododo) song – but nothing happens. It is not him then after all. Yet minutes later, when the children are threatened by the village commissioner, the man’s hat is suddenly carried off by the wind and a furious rainstorm rises, driving the commissioner away.

Although Kaze no Matasaburō is set in a Japan long, long ago and also a film obviously made in another time – dated by the occasionally overly dramatic orchestral soundscore and some half-clumsy special effects – it tells a story that is enchanting and, ultimately, timeless.

Overall Verdict: A rare little gem that, if you are lucky to come across it somewhere, you should not miss.

Bonus bits:

  • Kaze no Matasaburō was based on an apparently beloved children’s novel by Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933). According to this website, it has been translated into English as Matasaburo the Wind Imp (translation by John Bester, published by Kodansha International). Abebooks.co.uk has a few copies available – I just snatched one up.
  • One translation of the book/film title was Misty Kid of Wind (see VHS cover above). The film is now also known as The Glass Cape, a reference to the glass-like, shimmering cape that the son of the wind god apparently wears when flying through the sky.
  • Kaze no Matasaburō: Garasu no masoto was made into a short (30 min) animated film in 1988. I would love to see it and, even more, I would love Studio Ghibli or Katabuchi Sunao of マイマイ新子と千年の魔法 (Maimai Shinko to sen-nen no mahō/Mai Mai Miracle)  extend it to a feature-length production.
  • Matasaburō’s「どどど」(Dododo) song – haunting. Really manages to set the mood of the film.
  • Kaze no Matasaburō: Garasu no masoto comes in multiple reincarnations. See image gallery on the side for covers of the novel, a manga, a statue of Matasaburō that seems to be somewhere in Japan, and earlier film version(s?), including this one. The animated film, the earlier film(s) as well as the 1989 one all seem to be rare items – certainly in subtitled form.