Despite being at the forefront of early Japanese cinema, directing Japan’s very first talkie, Heinosuke Gosho remains largely unknown overseas. Like many films of the era, much of Gosho’s silent work is lost but the director was among the pioneers of the “shomin-geki” genre which dealt with ordinary, lower middle class society in contemporary Japan. Burden of Life (人生のお荷物, Jinsei no Onimotsu) is another in the long line of girls getting married movies, but Gosho allows his particular brand of irrevent, ironic humour to colour the scene as an ageing patriarch muses on retiring from the fathering business before resentfully remembering his only son, born to him when he was already 50 years old.
Rather than focussing on the main narrative right away, Gosho gives us a crash course in marital relations as we meet middle sister, Itsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who is currently posing for a raunchy portrait her starving artist husband is painting. Itsuko dresses in Western style, smokes openly and often, and her home is a bohemian one of the kind you’d imagine a (well to do) artist from the ‘30s would live in. The couple are interrupted by their brother-in-law who has come in search of his wife, Takako (Yoshiko Tsubouchi), with whom he’s had yet another argument causing her to storm off somewhere or other in a huff.
Takako has indeed stormed off, but has gone to her mother’s where her younger sister, Machiko (Mitsuyo Mizushima) is preparing for her own wedding and now feeling quite nervous hoping that it won’t be as tempestuous as Takako’s. The three sisters also have a little brother, Kanichi, who is doted on by the women of the family but has a strained relationship with his father, Shozo (Tatsuo Saito). The main conflict occurs once Shozo has successfully married off Machiko and begins happily contemplating a burden free life only to remember that little Kanichi is only eight and so there are twelve more years of fatherhood ahead of him and he’ll be 70 before he gets any peace. In order to speed up the process, he tells his wife Tamako (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) that maybe Kanichi doesn’t need to go school and should go out and get a job instead. Tamako, rightly outraged at her husband’s persistent coldness towards their son brings things to a head by leaving the family home.
The themes are common ones as a family faces the successful marriage of its youngest daughter but the pattern is complicated by the loose end that is Kanichi. Much younger than his sisters, it’s easy to believe Shozo’s assertions that his arrival was somewhat unexpected but far from a joyous surprise Shozo still seems to regard him with a degree of mild horror. Fearing becoming an elderly father Shozo’s concerns are fair given the additional burdens placed on him in having to find good husbands for three women and then pay for their weddings and dowries never mind a college education for a son he never wanted. Kanichi seems to be aware on some level of the way his father feels about him as a poignant scene implies when he begs some of the other neighbourhood children to keep playing with him even though it’s past tea time because he doesn’t want to go home if his dad is there.
Shozo fails to reform his opinion even after his wife leaves him. Almost delighting in a late life slice of batchelorhood, Shozo heads into the bar district for a night out where he ends up drinking with some younger guys, surrounded by students singing the Keio University song. His attention is momentarily taken by a small boy of around Kanichi’s age who is selling flowers to amorous patrons but it’s only once a hostess calls him “papa” that he seems to feel aged fatherhood reassert itself. Enquiring about her age he discovers she is only 19 – much younger than any of his daughters, and consequently Shozo begins to feel more like a ridiculous old man than a young buck on the prowl.
Gosho draws a number of contrasts within his “ordinary” family from the three sisters who seem to represent the changing times in their differing attitudes to the husband and wife and the division of their home. Itsuko, Westernised and brassy, is living well beyond her means and touching her parents for money in order to do it. Talking things over with the kimono’d Takako who offers to recommend a traditional hairstylist for Machiko’s wedding, Itsuko has some advice for dealing with men which she calls “reverse psychology”. Takako and her husband may not have children and fight all the time, but she is in other ways a model wife even if she thinks married life ought to be simpler than it is. Machiko is caught on the brink, though we never see her husband, wondering what her own married life will entail. Her father, Shozo, lamenting on his responsibilities remarks that women are like products for sale, requiring investments which will eventually pay off in terms of successful marriages but any investment in a son is, in a sense, a waste. Family, for him, is less a social unit and more a mini business enterprise from which he was looking forward to retiring.
In the end of course he changes his mind though more out of loneliness or a sense of mortality than any less selfish emotion. Slight at 66 minutes, Gosho packs in as much detail as possible whilst maintaining a broadly comic, almost screwball tone filled with selfish husbands and calculating wives all making the most of the relatively stable times. Life has many burdens but sometimes it’s better to rebrand those burdens joys and make the most of them before someone else decides to carry them for you and all you’re left with is an empty sort of lightness. You’re only old once, after all.