Like many other areas of the world in the first half of the 20th century, Japan also found itself at a dividing line of political thought with militarism on the rise from the late 1920s. Despite the onward march of right-wing ideology, the left was not necessarily silent. Ironically, the then voiceless cinema was able to speak for those who were its greatest consumers as an accidental genre was born detailing the everyday hardships faced by those at the bottom end of the ladder. These “proletarian films” or “tendency films” (keiko eiga) were increasingly suppressed as time went on yet, in contrast to the more politically overt cinema of the independent Proletarian Film League of Japan, continued to be produced by mainstream studios. Long thought lost, Shigeyoshi Suzuki’s What Made Her Do It? (何が彼女をそうさせたか, Nani ga Kanojo wo Sousaseta ka) was a major hit on its original release with some press reports even claiming the film provoked riots when audiences were passionately moved by the heroine’s tragic descent into madness and arson after suffering countless cruelties in an unfeeling world.
Though still only a child, Sumiko (Keiko Takatsu) has been sent alone to the house of her uncle in a distant village but has run out of money for travel and food. Luckily she meets a kindly cart driver, Doi, who feeds her and takes her most of the way to her uncle’s village but he will be the last “kind” person that she encounters on her long and sad journey. As it turns out, her father had not informed his brother of Sumiko’s arrival and actually had not even had any contact with him for many years. Consequently, Sumiko’s uncle is not exactly overjoyed to see her as he already has a house full of children he struggles to feed (not to mention a healthy appetite for drink). Eventually he sells her to a circus where she is cruelly treated by fellow performers and the sadistic ringmaster.
Things are looking up when Sumiko escapes with fellow performer Shintaro (Ryuujin Unno) but the pair are divided by fate landing Sumiko in trouble with the law after she falls in with a gang of thieves. A spell in the workhouse is followed by patronising treatment as a servant for a wealthy family, and later an otherwise successful tenure as a housekeeper for a leacherous biwa player, before a tiny window of happiness opens up only to immediately cloud over again. Ending up at the “Garden of Angels” Christian reform institution for “wayward women” Sumiko tries God on for size but finds him wanting.
Long thought lost, a partial print of What Made Her Do It? turned up in Russian archives in the ‘90s (presumably following its export as a suitably socialist film) and has since been restored with additional intertitles replacing the missing portions. The opening sequence of Sumiko beginning her journey by train and the presumably spectacular finale of Christ on fire as Sumiko dances madly in the flames of the burning church are both missing but even so the drama rams home the seriousness of Sumiko’s plight as she finds only hypocrisy and selfishness at every turn.
Keiko Takatsu perfectly plays Sumiko’s essential sadness as well as her growing resilience and barely suppressed resentment towards the constant cruelty she experiences. All pleading eyes and sorrowful looks, Sumiko suffers while others exploit her for their own ends. Betrayed by her uncle who pockets the money her father enclosed for Sumiko’s care and purposefully hides from her the fact that her father is likely dead, Sumiko is left adrift in a world in which it’s impossible to survive without family. The state surfaces in her life with the supposedly progressive environment of the workhouse which feeds and houses her whilst exploiting her forced labour. The well to do household in which she is offered opportunity is little better as the cruel mistress of the house constantly exerts her authority, stresses the differences in social status, and denies her maids even small pleasures such as soy sauce on pickles in order to maintain discipline.
Finally Sumiko ends up in the house of God though what she finds there is repression and forced religiosity rather than the love and support proudly displayed in the credo. The Garden of Angels is, presumably, filled with women who have somehow disappointed modern moral codes with Christian virtues expressly emphasised and contact with the outside world forbidden. Residents are allowed to leave once they’ve proved they’ve accepted Jesus into their hearts and are resolved to live in a more “proper” manner, though Sumiko falls foul of the rules after another woman talks her into writing a letter to a friend on the outside.
When the letter is discovered, the other woman is sent to solitary as the head of the establishment informs her that her sin “will never be forgiven”, while Sumiko is forced to make a public self criticism to atone for her selfish disregard for the rules. This backfires when Sumiko’s inner rage takes hold, leading her to take a stand by decrying the hypocrisy of the religious establishment which preaches that God is love and all will be forgiven but ultimately offers nothing other than fear and hate. When the church burns down the woman in charge is the first out the door with her valuables in hand leaving the other women to discover their own salvation amongst the ashes.
Suzuki’s technique is clearly informed by foreign cinema especially that of socialist films from the Soviet Union. Using frequent dissolves and montages, Suzuki throws in impressive set pieces such as scene in which the camera pulls away from Sumiko after she receives some bad news with a door closing across it and snow falling outside. A long lost left wing populist effort, What Made Her Do It? is also a classic melodrama of female suffering as the heroine experiences just about every degradation possible whilst remaining steadfastly defiant in the face of tragedy before the final irony of her eventual position drives her into madness. What made her do it? An intensely self-interested world. Some things don’t change.