“Life is a journey” according to the melancholy heroine of Mikio Naruse’s Five Men in a Circus (サーカス五人組, Circus Goningumi), one of the director’s early anti-comedies in which a collection of itinerant performers find not so much hope for the future as accommodation with despair. Though the Japan of 1935 was not perhaps as straitened as the nation was to become, an all pervasive sense of hopelessness traps these travelling players in perpetual motion, burdened by the unattainability of their dreams as they find themselves continually moving forward while standing still.
The five men of the title are an itinerant jinta brass band, though to tell the truth not a very good one. They were supposed to be on their way to play at a primary school sports day, only when they get there they’re told the event has been postponed to the following spring. After having wasted the afternoon killing time playing on the monkey bars and children’s slide, they decide to give a little concert anyway, not that anyone’s listening and there’s no real chance of getting paid. It’s in the next town, however, that they make a series of serendipitous meetings connected with a travelling circus which is currently undergoing a crisis as the entire male company has gone on strike against the boss’ tyrannical management style in a subversive dig at rising authoritarianism.
All things considered, the circus seems to be doing pretty well for itself. It has a sizeable company with several accomplished performers and appears to be drawing good audiences. The boss (Sadao Maruyama) dresses in fancy outfits and there doesn’t seem to be much anxiety over hunger or any sign of the usual worries with which films about itinerant performers are usually concerned, all of which is in direct contrast to the jinta guys whose ragged appearance and habit of pinching yukata from the various inns on their route make plain their relative poverty. “None of us do jinta because we like it” the oldest of the players Seiroku (Ko Mihashi) points out, a woman behind in the bar him echoing that no one becomes a hostess because they like it either. None of these men had a burning desire to be in a band, they simply ended up there and now they can’t get out. Young orphan Kokichi (Heihachiro Okawa), however, dreams of going to Tokyo to study the violin carrying around a record of Western classical music to refresh his soul while worrying that his jinta life is corrupting him.
Kokichi’s earnestness finds a fan and a mirror in Chiyoko (Masako Tsutsumi), the older daughter of the circus master who claims that she has long since given up hope of a better life even as she continues to dream her small dream of living in an ordinary house with a man she loves. Trapped by filial duty to her cruel father, Chiyoko actively encourages the escape of her younger sister Sumiko (Ryuko Umezono) who is in love with the ringmaster Kunio (Koji Kaga) though their father won’t let them marry. Kunio is also the instigator of the strike which is currently engulfing the circus, placing a strain on Sumiko’s conflicted loyalties as she struggles with her desire to leave the intinerant life behind.
After the band is taken on as ringers to replace the striking musicians they also find themselves required to perform on stage, with varying degrees of success. Kokichi pleads to be given a chance to perform with a violin, even foregoing his pay as he’s warned the target audience is unlikely to find much to entertain them in a violin recital. His inexpert playing is roundly rejected by the baying mob who quickly begin throwing their rubbish at him until he’s forced to leave the stage in a moment of pure and crushing tragedy. Chiyoko tries to comfort him that she at least enjoyed the performance, but her words fail to cheer him more than superficially. He knows he’ll never go to Tokyo, or be anything more than a jinta player with only false hope to sustain him in the same way that Seiroku realises he’ll never never make peace with his past when he’s slyly conned by a 10-year-old girl he half suspected was the baby he abandoned out of economic desperation following the death of his wife.
Yet it is in a sense romance that eventually eventually brokers resolution in the eventual implosion of Sumiko’s conflicted desires which cause her to “fall” from the trapeze, a moment of crisis daringly filmed through the use of double exposure superimposing Sumiko’s face over her POV of the men fighting in the ring. This narrowly averted tragedy apparently awakens something in her father who, she tells Kunio, only became cruel when their mother left, forcing him to relent and agree to be nicer to his employees while approving his daughter’s marriage. Yet romance cannot solve everything, and the only other romantic resolution we discover is in the roguish Torakichi (Hiroshi Uruki) who relents and accepts a woman he callously seduced and abandoned but who followed him because of the strength of a woman’s “passion”. Though we can see a connection has arisen between Chiyoko and Kokichi, it is not one which can be fulfilled, fate is pulling them in different directions. Forever a jinta player, he is pulled on to the next gig, the camera pulling back tragically from the bereaved Chiyoko, rooted to the spot as she watches her last hope walk away from her. “Life is a journey” she offers as a note of grim resignation, while knowing she’s going nowhere at all.