The well known Natsume Soseki novel, Botchan, tells the story of an arrogant, middle class Tokyoite who reluctantly accepts a teaching job at a rural school where he relentlessly mocks the locals’ funny accent and looks down on his oikish pupils all the while dreaming of his loyal family nanny. Hiroshi Shimizu’s Nobuko (信子) is almost an inverted picture of Soseki’s work as its titular heroine travels from the country to a posh girls’ boarding school bringing her country bumpkin accent and no nonsense attitude with her. Like Botchan, though for very different reasons, Nobuko also finds herself at odds with the school system but remains idealistic enough to recommend a positive change in the educational environment.
Travelling from the country to take up her teaching job, Nobuko (Mieko Takamine) moves in with her geisha aunt to save money. When she gets to the school she finds out that she’s been shifted from Japanese to P.E. (not ideal, but OK) and there are also a few deductions from her pay which no one had mentioned. The stern but kindly headmistress is quick to point out Nobuko’s strong country accent which is not compatible with the elegant schooling on offer. The most important thing she says is integrity. Women have to be womanly, poised and “proper”. Nobuko, apparently, has a lot to learn.
As many teachers will attest, the early days are hard and Nobuko finds it difficult to cope with her rowdy pupils who deliberately mock her accent and are intent on winding up their new instructor. One girl in particular, Eiko (Mitsuko Miura), has it in for Nobuko and constantly trolls her with pranks and tricks as well as inciting the other girls to join in with her. As it turns out, Eiko is something of a local trouble maker but no one does anything because her father is a wealthy man who has donated a large amount of money to the school and they don’t want to upset him. This attitude lights a fire in Nobuko, to her the pupils are all the same and should be treated equally no matter who their parents are. As Nobuko’s anger and confidence in her position grow, so does Eiko’s wilfull behaviour, but perhaps there’s more to it than a simple desire to misbehave.
Released in 1940, Nobuko avoids political comment other than perhaps advocating for the importance of discipline and education. It does however subtly echo Shimizu’s constant class concerns as “country bumpkin” Nobuko has to fight for her place in the “elegant” city by dropping her distinctive accent for the standard Tokyo dialect whilst making sure she behaves in an “appropriate” fashion for the teacher of upper class girls.
This mirrors her experience at her aunt’s geisha house which she is eventually forced to move out of when the headmistress finds out what sort of place she’s been living in and insists that she find somewhere more suitable for her position. The geisha world is also particular and regimented, but the paths the two sets of female pupils have open to them are very different. Nobuko quickly makes friends with a clever apprentice geisha, Chako (Sachiko Mitani), who would have liked to carry on at school but was sold owing to her family’s poverty. Though she never wanted to be a geisha, Chako exclaims that if she’s going to have to be one then she’s going to be the world’s best, all the while knowing that her path has been chosen for her and has a very definite end point as exemplified by Nobuko’s aunt – an ageing manageress who’s getting too old to be running the house for herself.
Eiko’s problems are fairly easy to work out, it’s just a shame that no one at the school has stopped to think about her as a person rather than as the daughter of a wealthy man. Treated as a “special case” by the teachers and placed at a distance with her peers, Eiko’s constant acting up is a thinly veiled plea for attention but one which is rarely answered. Only made lonely by a place she hoped would offer her a home, Eiko begins to build a bond with Nobuko even while she’s pushing her simply because she’s the only one to push back. After Nobuko goes too far and Eiko takes a drastic decision, the truth finally comes out, leading to regrets and recriminations all round. Despite agreeing with the headmistress that perhaps she should have turned a blind eye like the other teachers, Nobuko reinforces her philosophy that the girls are all the same and deserve to be treated as such, but also adds that they are each in need of affection and the teachers need to be aware of this often neglected part of their work.
Lessons have been learned and understandings reached, the school environment seems to function more fully with a renewed commitment to caring for each of the pupils as individuals with distinct needs and personalities. Even Chako seems as if she may get a much happier ending thanks to Nobuko’s intervention. An unusual effort for the time in that only two male characters appear (one a burglar Nobuko heroically ejects assuming him to be Eiko playing a prank, and the other Eiko’s father) this entirely female led drama neatly highlights the various problems faced by women of all social classes whilst also emphasising Shimizu’s core humanist philosophies where compassion and understanding are found to be essential components of a fully functioning society.