The lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Asakusa no Hi) still shone bright before the war. In this tiny corner of Tokyo well known for “low” entertainment, actors mingle with gangsters, lonely owners of amusement stalls, starving artists, bar girls, and wealthy industrialists each just trying to survive in an increasingly jittery city. Yasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomingeki” – stories of ordinary lower middle class people, and brings his characteristic wit and humanity to a tale of backstreet life where danger and ruin lurk on every corner and the only way to ensure one’s safety is to ensure you have the right defenders.
The main stage, if you will, is that of the Nippon-za “opera” company. This is, however, no great opera house but a run down little theatre presenting classical European opera for vaudeville audiences. The currently running show is Carmen, which will turn out to be appropriate for the events at hand. The trouble starts (or perhaps merely intensifies) when a young chorus member, Reiko (Mieko Takamine), begins attracting a range of wanted and unwanted male attention. Reiko, an orphan, had been taken in by a local bar mistress who later pushed her into the opera company but still expects her to make good on her investment by becoming a casual prostitute and taking on “customers” who present themselves at the bar (Reiko is around 16 or so, and therefore has just reached the age her foster mother thinks appropriate to join the business). The complication is that the man who’s taken a fancy to Reiko, Handa (Shunro Takeda), is a steel magnate who also finances the opera troupe meaning it’s not just the bar owner who’s coming under pressure but the financial security of the troupe too.
Being so young, Reiko finds her foster mother’s demands hard to refuse but is rescued by Sasaki (Seiji Nishimura) – the leading actor, married to leading lady Marie (Haruko Sugimura). The situation with Reiko exposes cracks already present in the group when Handa sends his goons in to disrupt the show, irking Sasaki to the point he takes off in a fit of artistic temperament. Meanwhile, another actor Yamagami (Ken Uehara), gets together with the rest of the troupe to ensure Reiko’s safety by hiding her with a feeble minded fan, Pokacho (Daijiro Natsukawa), so that she won’t be forced into a potentially life ruining situation.
Reiko’s plight is perhaps all too common on the streets of Asakusa. Having been orphaned she feels herself indebted to the bar mistress who took her in even if the relationship between them is not especially warm. She also feels grateful to have found a third family in the opera troupe and is afraid to lose her place there. Nevertheless, she is under extreme pressure to submit herself to this system of reciprocal arrangements and sleep with Handa solely to save making trouble for everyone else. Meanwhile her (sometimes) sympathetic roommate Beniko (Kayako Fujiwara) knows exactly what’s at stake through having been in a similar situation herself. She’s long been in love with the pure hearted Yamagami and is harbouring a degree of jealously in believing that Yamagami has a soft spot for Reiko, but she also half wants things to work out between them seeing as she has lost the “right” to love a man like Yamagami because she is no longer a virgin.
Shimazu had often been of a progressive mind, but sadly Beniko falls by the wayside, merely a sacrificial lamb prepared to give up on her dreams on Reiko’s behalf, so we never find out the limits of Yamagami’s justice loving heart or if he would be as bothered about Beniko’s past as she seems to fear he might be. Yamagami, brooding but righteous, would become one of matinee idol Ken Uehara’s best known roles though he too is teetering on the brink in Asakusa. Committed to defending the innocent, he tries to save Reiko’s honour but fails to declare a personal interest, entrusting her to the rather odd painter Pokacho who claims that his love for Reiko is of a spiritual, rather than carnal kind. Yamagami may succeed in his primary goal but still ends up in defeat, running away from the most important fight by retreating from Tokyo completely with a rebound girlfriend in tow, hoping to find kinder light in Osaka than he had on the dog eat dog streets of Asakusa.
Based on a novel by Hiroshi Hamamoto, Shimazu’s portrait of backstreet life sparkles with authenticity but also with a kind of hopelessness as each of these down on their luck “opera” stars laments their sorry fates and longs for a better gig somewhere less down and dirty. Meanwhile, the spectre of war lingers – when Carmen comes off the next show is to be “Two Honourable Soldiers”, filled with maudlin anthems of war which push the messages of patriotism and the glorification of offering one’s life for one’s country. The slimy Handa may have been defeated for now, but his kind are in the ascendent and the streets of Asakusa are unlikely to improve with only war and depression on the horizon.