The daughter of a tonkatsu shop finds herself with an overabundance of suitors in Heinosuke Gosho’s generally cheerful yet occasionally dark melodrama Song of the Flower Basket (花籠の歌, Hanakago no Uta). Adapted from a novel by Fumitaka Iwasaki and scripted by Kogo Noda, the film finds its heroine caught at a moment of social change as she battles her snooty aunt for the right to decide her romantic future while her impoverished student boyfriend does something much the same in defying his family’s attempts to micromanage his life dreaming of the bright lights of Ginza.
Yoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the “kanban musume” of her father Keizo’s (Reikichi Kawamura) pork cutlet restaurant, attracting customers with her charm and beauty while the Chinese chef her father brought back with him from Shanghai, Lee (Shin Tokudaiji), is the culinary star. Lee is secretly in love with Yoko whom he continues to refer to largely as “the young lady” and has long been writing an ode in her honour. Yoko meanwhile is in love with a penniless student, Ono (Shuji Sano), who at the beginning of the film has just returned home after visiting his family whom he has alienated by declaring that he doesn’t want to work in an office in the country while refusing an offer to marry into another family as an adopted son-in-law. The reason for this is less his pride than his desire to stay in Tokyo amid the bright lights of Ginza, sighing as he looks out into the neon-lit night gazing at adverts for Club Hamigaki toothpaste and Meiji Chocolate. The second reason may also be that he’s fallen for Yoko but given his precarious financial situation and lack of prospects does not quite dare to imagine a future with her.
He must however be serious as we later learn he’s given up going to hostess bars with his friends, a bar girl greeting him in the restaurant evidently not having seen him in ages asking where he’s been much to Yoko’s embarrassment. The encounter places a seed of doubt in her mind in a minor role reversal as she begins to resent Ono’s past irrationally annoyed by the idea he has dated other women. Meanwhile, at the memorial event marking 11 years since her mother passed away while working as a steward on a boat in Singapore, Yoko’s snooty aunt tries to set her up with an arranged marriage to an Osakan doctor who may or may not marry depending on the “negotiations” but has also been promised his own clinic by his wealthy parents if the marriage is confirmed. Okamoto (Toshiaki Konoe) has visited the restaurant to get a better look at Yoko making him the third suitor to encircle her even though the chief concern of the family is that Yoko is almost 24 and therefore ageing out of top tier matches.
To his credit, Yoko’s father is fully in her corner trying to stand up to the domineering aunt who is definitely overreaching in trying to micromanage the romantic lives of her nieces in the absence of her sister. He determines to find out if Yoko has her eye on someone already to get the aunt off their backs, but the situation develops in an unexpected direction when Lee mistakenly assumes that she likes him back. Too shy to say himself, he advises Keizo to ask frequent customer and best friend of Ono, Hotta (Chishu Ryu), who is on track to become a Buddhist priest and take over the family temple, only Hotta obviously tells him, correctly, that Yoko is in love with Ono having completely forgotten that Lee had once confessed his feelings to him.
The film does its best to present a more positive vision an internationalist Japan even in 1937 despite the Aunt’s obvious disapproval of the family’s wandering past and is largely sympathetic of the lovelorn Lee yet implies that a romance between he and Yoko is so unthinkable that no one really considered the possibility that he may be in love with her himself even though it is incredibly obvious given his ongoing attempts to write a love song while he’s even torn out a picture of Yoko which appeared in a magazine and hung it on his wall. Yoko is oblivious to his feelings, believing that he is in love with their waitress, Oteru (Yaeko Izumo), who is indeed in love with him, and perhaps doesn’t appreciate the effect moving Ono in as a trainee chef will have on him both professionally and emotionally. The message that is emerges accidentally or otherwise is that Lee’s place at the cafe is insecure despite his skill being a large part of its success as he falls into a deep depression and eventually decides it’s too painful for him to stay.
The revelations surrounding Lee further destabilise Yoko’s confidence in her choice of Ono whom she constantly doubts even suspecting he may have committed a violent crime when carted off by the police after newspaper reports stating the bar hostess he introduced her to earlier has been murdered in her apartment. Perhaps it’s normal enough to be uncertain if you’ve made the right choice in the early days of a marriage, but believing your spouse capable of murder is a significant stumbling block as is her final admission that she doesn’t really trust him and isn’t ready to accept his past with other women in a further reversal of their roles given he has now married into her family and taken her name. Nevertheless, the crisis seems to be repaired by her father’s simple act of ordering a round of beers making clear that he plans to celebrate and obviously still has confidence in Ono while preparing to adapt their restaurant to their new circumstances by branching out into sukiyaki. Expressing some of the anxieties of the 1930s from the precarious economy and uncertainty of the future to changing social mores as young people reject the traditional to craft their own romantic futures, Song of the Flower Basket nevertheless ends on a note of melancholy in the wandering Lee’s ode to loneliness and heartbreak under the neon lights of Ginza.