The Water Magician (瀧の白糸, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1933)

“As long as I breathe, I’ll remember my debt to you” avows a young man to his unexpected benefactor becoming one of many claiming they will never forget her kindness though in his case he actually means it. Kenji Mizoguchi would later become known for tragic tales of female suffering, but his central themes were established early on and very much in evidence in 1933 silent The Water Magician (瀧の白糸, Taki no Shiraito) in which a truly good woman tries to use her independent success to improve the lives of those around her but finds herself cruelly betrayed by a greedy and self-interested patriarchal society. 

Tomo Mizushima (Takako Irie) goes by the stage name Taki no Shiraito, which means something like white threads of the waterfall, particularly apt seeing as she is a “water magician” with a troupe of itinerant players. A beautiful woman who can make the water dance, she has her share of followers and is financially independent if subject to the vagaries of the show business existence. Her life changes one day when she is travelling in a horse-drawn coach that is embarrassingly overtaken by a fast running rickshaw man. The passengers are irate, wondering what they’re paying for, while the driver ignores their pleas not to spare the horses. Tomo decides to use her feminine appeal and then her financial power to convince him to speed up, but he ignores her too until he eventually decides to gallop forward recklessly while the passengers shake inside until the coach’s axle finally snaps and leaves them stranded. A gallant young man, the driver grabs Tomo and throws her on his horse to get her to the next town. She faints on the journey and only comes round after the coachman has left but discovers herself in possession of a complicated law book she assumes is his.  

Tomo cannot stop thinking about the dashing young man, only identified as “Kin” (Tokihiko Okada). She is surprised to reencounter him asleep on a bridge though he seems not to remember her. After finding out that he is an unluckily orphaned former samurai who was fired from the coach for breaking the axle and endangering the passengers, she resolves to use her financial power to help him achieve his dreams of studying law in Tokyo. Tomo does this because she is in love and asks for nothing in return except a future promise of romantic union to which the young man does not exactly agree but does take her money and vows to live up to the faith she has shown in him. 

Alone once again Tomo tries to contend with the world around her while dreaming of Kinya, sending him her savings for his upkeep while the troupe continues to suffer especially during the traditional dry spells of the heavy winter. The troupe’s leader makes the decision to get involved with dangerous loanshark Iwabushi (Ichiro Sugai), a huge hulking man with a mean look and lecherous temperament. While Tomo dreams of Kinya, two romances mirror each other in the failed relationship of the cruel knife thrower Minami (Koju Murata) and his terrorised wife Gin (Kumeko Urabe), and the innocent young love of the beautiful Nadeshiko (Suzuko Taki) and the barker Shinzo (Bontaro Miake). Gin also borrows money from Tomo which she was reluctant to surrender because she saved it for Kinya, claiming she needs it to visit her sick mother in Tokyo and vowing once again never to forget Tomo’s kindness but later skipping out with a stagehand to escape Minami’s control. Nadeshiko and Shinzo, however, are forced to flee on learning that Minami plans to sell her to Iwabushi to settle his private debts. The couple regret leaving Tomo who has always supported them in the lurch, but she helps them escape, ushering them out the back towards a waiting boat and handing them still more money asking only that they be happy and stay together always. 

That’s not perhaps a power that’s in their keep, but the youngsters keep it as best they can and eventually attempt to protect her in the way she has protected them. The world, however, is cruel. With work thin on the ground Tomo finds herself unable to go on funding Kinya as she’d promised, and is only shamed by his well-meaning letter explaining that he’ll try to find a way of supporting himself until his studies are finished so she needn’t worry. She cuts a deal with Iwabushi and sells her body on Kinya’s behalf, but he is in league with Minami who sets his goons on her to retrieve the money seconds after she’s obtained it. 

Her hopes are at least repaid on discovering that her love is true to his word, has never forgotten her, and is well on the way to achieving his dreams as person of note. “Chance and fate, that’s all there is” Kinya had lamented on their second meeting, but he couldn’t know how right he’d be. Tomo’s dreams are fulfilled only their negation. Kinya must do his duty even if it does her harm, yet he too feels responsible and wants to share her burden though that, ironically, would only destroy everything for which she has sacrificed so much. “The river flows on as it always has and always will” the Benshi adds in solemn contemplation of this romantic tragedy, somehow inevitable in its cruelty. Tomo finds herself at the mercy of her times in which money is all, goodness is a weakness, and love too fragile to survive. The woman who made the water dance floats away on a river of tears, a victim of a cruel and unforgiving society.


That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, Yasujiro Ozu, 1930)

Most closely associated with his late career family dramas, Yasujiro Ozu has acquired a reputation for geniality which may in a sense be slightly unfair. He was always an astute chronicler of his times, often choosing to view them through the frame of family, and was never as blind to the issues of the day as some would have it. Ozu’s ‘30s work, that which survives at least, is in a sense fiercely political in its critique of the inequalities of the depression-era society. One of his early crime movies, the silent That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, Sono yo no Tsuma) insists that justice must be done but does so with compassion in its full and total empathy for a man driven to extremes by the depth of his paternal love. 

Indeed, the early part of the film is tense noir chase as the hero, desperate father Shuji (Tokihiko Okada), attempts to evade a police dragnet to make his way home after robbing a bank to get money to pay for his sick daughter Michiko’s (Mitsuko Ichimura) medical care. Meanwhile, loyal wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo) has been patiently waiting at home tending to the child who refuses to sleep because she only wants her father and constantly asks where he is. Shuji eventually makes it back and tells his horrified wife what he has done, agreeing that he will turn himself in to the police once Michiko is well, but he’s already out of luck. The taxi he darted into was being driven by an undercover cop (Chishu Ryu) who installs himself in the apartment but agrees to wait until the doctor comes in the morning before taking Shuji in. 

Out of keeping with the rest of Ozu’s career but very much in the vein of his depression-era silents, That Night’s Wife concerns a poor but happy family mustering what little resources they have in the face of despair. Filled with tension as the policeman waits impatiently, the camera pans around the one room apartment where the family live and finds it to be a homely, bohemian space, apparently an artist’s studio with foreign film posters and travel souvenirs hanging from the walls. By all indications a starving painter, Shuji is a poor man brought to ruin by accidental tragedy. His daughter is deathly ill and doctors cost money. We can see that, by the standards of the time, he is a very hands on father beloved by his little girl and is obviously willing to sacrifice himself and his future to ensure her survival

It’s Mayumi, however, to whom the film’s title refers and in her role as wife rather than mother. The doctor (Tatsuo Saito) worries that she has not slept in the last few days, how could she when her child is so ill, but it’s she who eventually picks up the gun to protect the family by disarming the policeman and, essentially, keeping him hostage until the morning when, she claims, Shuji will willingly go with him after confirming Michiko’s survival. The world is turned upside down, no one quite plays the role they’ve been assigned. The loving father, an effete artist, turns unconvincing master criminal, the loyal wife gangster’s moll, and the policeman a calm and compassionate guardian deeply moved by the family’s predicament but also knowing that the law must be served. 

In a typically Ozu touch, the policeman pretends to be asleep with the intention of letting Shuji escape, but he once again makes an atypical choice. He refuses to run, swearing off “crazy ideas” but unrepentant in his crime. Shuji determines to pay his debt to society so that he can return home as a redeemed father and hold his daughter as a man unburned by his transgression. The message isn’t so much that crime doesn’t pay as that crime must be paid for. Shuji is acquitted in the moral courts of the audience’s hearts and not even the policeman blames him for what he has done which is all he could do as a father in an oppressive and indifferent society. A strange complicity develops between the two men who are restored to their original roles, both acknowledging that of the other and sorry for what they each know must happen next but already resigned. The father saves his family only through accepting his exile from it, but unlike Ozu’s wandering fathers of the 1930s, seems destined to return after redeeming himself in the eyes of a society which had long since abandoned him. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

The Lady and the Beard (淑女と髭, Yasujiro Ozu, 1931)

Yasujiro Ozu has sometimes been dismissed as middle of the road, particularly by the young radicals of the post-war generation who saw his, by then, rather conservative films as a symbol of everything they sought to reject in their national cinema. They may in some senses have had a point and, in 1931’s The Lady and the Beard (淑女と髭, Shukujo to hige), Ozu does indeed show us that the middle of the road might be the best place to be as his basically good yet rigidly traditionalist hero is cajoled towards modernity but ultimately rejects its extremes in pulling a “modern girl” back towards the path of righteousness. 

Recent graduate Okajima (Tokihiko Okada) is a kendo enthusiast with a rather unsettling beard which he has long refused to shave. Other than his strangely close friendship with nobleman Teruo (Ichiro Tsukida), he appears to have been rejected by mainstream society because of his odd appearance and socially awkward behaviour. Teruo invites him to his sister’s birthday party without bothering to ask her and consequently scandalises all of her friends who vow to humiliate Okajima as soon as he arrives. Okajima, however, has no idea he is being made fun of. He declines the invitation to dance with the young women in the modern fashion but volunteers to do a dance on his own, prancing about with a fan and waving his sword around in an unexpected display of traditional performance. When Teruo and his sister return after having a private argument, the party is ruined. All the girls have left, for reasons which Okajima seems not to understand. 

He is at least, however, chivalrous. Spotting a young woman in kimono being mugged in the street by a modern girl, he wades in to help, earning her eternal admiration while fending off the other members of the modern girl’s gang with his kendo skills. His heroism further pays off when he discovers that the woman he saved, Hiroko (Hiroko Kawasaki), is a typist at an office where he is interviewing for a job. Hiroko is able to explain to him that the reason he was turned down, despite the fact that the boss also had a big bushy beard, was his facial hair so he should try shaving it off. 

The beard is a symbol not only of Okajima’s traditional mindset but of a certain kind of masculinity which might not be welcome in the modern world. Teruo tries to defend it to his sister by showing her portraits of various great men from the past who all had facial hair while Okajima claims that his is inspired by Abraham Lincoln and is intended to put women off so that he doesn’t get distracted from becoming a great man himself. Okajima’s robust masculinity, avoidance of women, and intense friendship with Teruo, anxious should he get the wrong idea about women in his apartment, might hint at another possibility, but that soon goes out the window when he sheds the beard and instantly becomes irresistible to women. Not only is he developing a romantic relationship with the homely, traditional Hiroko but also becomes attractive to Teruo’s sister Ikuko (Toshiko Iizuka) and the modern girl Satoko (Satoko Date). 

Both Hiroko and Ikuko are attracted to Okajima because of his traditional masculinity in his capacity to protect them. Ikuko, rejecting a suitor who eventually exposes a problematic side to male dominance, tells him that she won’t consider anyone who’s not skilled in kendo because she is looking for a protector. He reminds her that’s what the police and the law are for, so she tells him fair enough, she’ll marry a policeman. Modernity codes “protection” into the system, depersonalised and in other ways perhaps problematic, where traditionalism relies on access to male strength. Ikuko disliked Okajima when he had a beard, but secretly desires those very qualities the beard was set to represent. 

Satoko, meanwhile, the modern girl, rejected Okajima because of his bizarre appearance while he rejects her for the same reason in a mirroring of the various ways we are the image we present. Kimono’d Hiroko is good, modern girl Satoko is bad. Even after shaving his beard, Okajima remains an undercover traditionalist, wearing his kendo clothes under his suit and chivalrous to the end. Not recognising him and possibly in the pay of Teruo trying to put his sister off marriage, Satoko seduces the clean shaven Okajima while he rejects her advances but tries to “save” her from an excess of modernity by getting her away from the gang. She fancies herself in love with him, but what he does is free her from the false image of the modern society to give her back the true freedom of her own agency. In the end he chooses the classically nice, middle of the road option in remaining with Hiroko who loved him with beard and without rather than modern girl Satoko or snooty aristocrat Ikuko. You trim it but it just keeps growing back, the final title card adds, but the message seems to be that too much of one thing be it nationalistic conservatism or hedonistic modernity is no good. The middle way it is, slow and steady and as wholesome as could be.


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

The Dancing Girl of Izu (恋の花咲く 伊豆の踊子, Heinosuke Gosho, 1933)

“Happiness is waiting for you” the melancholy heroine of The Dancing Girl of Izu (恋の花咲く 伊豆の踊子, Koi no Hana Saku Izu no Odoriko) is told by a man who truly loves her, though with his words all her hopes are dashed. Shot on location, Heinosuke Gosho’s 1933 silent is the first of several adaptations of the well-known Yasunari Kawabata story from 1926 and takes a number of liberties with the source material which are partly in keeping with the demands of contemporary cinema and partly an attempt to anchor it more firmly to the increasingly chaotic world of 1933 beset with both economic and political instability thanks to the global depression and Japan’s imperialist ambitions. The price of “happiness” it seems may be love, but perhaps stability as is much as you can ask for in an infinitely unstable world. 

Nominally speaking, the hero of this tale is a young student, Mizuhara (Den Ohinata), through whose eyes we view the transitory nature of young love and the rigidity of a society which will in the end not permit its fulfilment. The “dancing girl” however is our primary focus. Kaoru (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the orphaned younger sister of Eikichi (Tokuji Kobayashi) who inherited a literal goldmine but squandered his inheritance and forced the whole family on the road to earn their keep as travelling players. Such people occupy a kind of underclass, victims of a prejudice against those who have no fixed abode and cannot easily be identified through association with a place or people. Kaoru admits that though she has learned to bear her way of life because at least she’s with her family, signs such as the one they find in a ditch to the effect that beggars and itinerant actors are not welcome in the town fill her with despair. 

Mizuhara meets the actors when they have been unfairly accused of dumping the sign out of frustration (a child later vindicates them after confirming that it was a wandering priest who passed through shortly before). He wades into the fray to urge the angry farmers to exercise a little more patience and ends up agreeing to travel with the family to their next destination as he is himself engaged in a kind of holiday wandering around the picturesque countryside of the Izu peninsula (a popular activity for well to do students of the time). Unbeknownst to him they are already connected by mutual acquaintances in that a friend of Mizuhara’s, Ryuichi (Ryoichi Takeuchi), from the same university also lives in this town and is the son of the man, Zenbei (Arai Atsushi), who bought the goldmine from Eikichi after he went bankrupt. 

The economic subplot concerns an amoral mining engineer, Kubota (Reikichi Kawamura), who apparently has a reputation as a “slave driver” and was responsible for starting the mine which Eikichi’s father owned, the implication being that it failed because of his exploitative business practices and has flourished under Zenbei’s more compassionate ownership in contrast to the picture Kubota is about to paint of him. Having apparently failed at several other endeavours, Kubota has sworn off mines but has convinced himself that he is “owed” something seeing as Zenbei’s mine is now a success and he was the one who found it. He tries to get something out of Ryuichi, but he is unconvinced and eventually offended, accusing of Kubota of blackmail when he insinuates that there was something improper about his buying the mine from Eikichi for much less than it was worth. 

The film’s opening sequence which set up a subplot never resolved about a runaway geisha, however, showed us that Zenbei is as his name suggests a kindhearted man. He reported the geisha’s disappearance to the police not because she took off without clearing her debts but because he was worried for her safety, believing she may have been tricked into running off with an unscrupulous client. Kubota plants the seeds of resentment by convincing Eikichi that he was cheated out of the mine and is owed compensation. Eikichi, feeling humiliated, is determined to “negotiate”, but Zenbei tells him to give them his sister. 

As will be revealed later, Zenbei’s intentions are honourable and he has no thought of replacing the geisha who ran away with Kaoru but wants to take her into his household as an adopted daughter. Eikichi, however, misunderstands but is prepared to sell his sister in order to pursue a pointless revenge against Zenbei by getting money to buy another mine and thereby become even richer. Mizuhara berated him for even considering the idea of trading his sister for money, but in the end even Eikichi only sees her as capital in his rage-fuelled desire to avenge his wounded male pride and sense of impotence. He failed as head of household in losing the family fortune and now has no intention of protecting his sister from the vagaries of the world. 

Mizuhara once again intervenes and learns the truth from Zenbei, that he had been a friend of Eikichi’s father’s and has always been trying to look out for them but has recently lost patience with Eikichi who has already borrowed a lot of money from him. Zenbei is minded towards tough love, convinced his well-meaning attempts to help have only enabled Eikichi’s financial fecklessness. He doesn’t see why Kaoru should pay for his mistakes and has been putting some of the proceeds from the mine into a savings account in her name, hoping also that she may one day marry his son Ryuichi. Mizuhara is at once crushed by the painful goodness he sees in front of him, knowing that his love for Kaoru is now not only impossible but perhaps selfish. All he can do for her now is get out of the way so that she can be saved from the harsh life of an itinerant player, restored to her previous class status, and given the most elusive of all prizes in this chaotic age, stability. 

Zenbei’s plan for Kaoru is in itself a kind of miracle, the best she could ever hope for, but it’s also a minor tragedy in that it both robs her of any kind of agency to make her own choices and destroys the possibility of a romantic future with Mizuhara. To accept everyday comfort and safety, she must resign herself to giving up her love. Mizuhara asks her to do just that in an altruistic act of selflessness which recognises that without money he is powerless to help her. He’s not the one she loves (and we have no idea how he might feel about it), but Ryuichi seems to be a good and kind man, like his father Zenbei who is perhaps the face of compassionate, paternalist capitalism. The world is too chaotic for romance, but there is kindness enough if you’re lucky enough to find it, and if stability is all there is perhaps sorrow is easier to bear than hunger. 


A Woman’s Sorrows (女人哀愁, Mikio Naruse, 1937)

Arriving perhaps in a moment preceding a major change, Mikio Naruse’s A Woman’s Sorrows (女人哀愁, Nyonin Aishu) finds itself on one side of a divide in which it is, paradoxically, a woman’s conservatism that is thought a barrier to her marriage. As usual slightly ahead of his times, Naruse doesn’t so much attack the idea of marriage either arranged or love, but subtly arcs out the patriarchal cage the bars of which only become visible to his conflicted heroine after she has wilfully allowed herself to be locked inside. 

Opening on location, a thriving Tokyo street scene, Naruse introduces us to the “conservative and indecisive” heroine Hiroko (Takako Irie) at her part-time job at a record store. We learn that Hiroko has recently been to an omiai marriage meeting, and that at least according to her friend she has been harbouring a longterm crush on her sensitive, progressive cousin Ryosuke. Hiroko denies having feelings for her cousin claiming that she thinks of him as a brother and that he dislikes her for being too “conservative”. One might think that a truly conservative woman wouldn’t be working in something as modern as selling records, but Hiroko is indeed a kimono-wearing holdout who has almost fully internalised the properness of the patriarchal order. Her indecisiveness, however, perhaps tells us that she isn’t quite as comfortable with it as she seems and is in a sense forcing herself to accept something she thinks she has no power to resist. 

It is also true that Hiroko’s family is poor. Despite confiding to Ryosuke that her husband gave her trouble, failing in one sense at least by dying and leaving his family with debts, Hiroko’s mother is keen that she marry and marry well. Her prospective match Shinichi is from a well to do family and has also offered to pay for the education of Hiroko’s younger brother Masao, so the marriage is undoubtedly financially advantageous if not immediately essential. “Since I cannot marry someone I love, anyone will do” Hiroko silently sighs, resigning herself to a conservative vision of a woman’s life. For his part, Ryosuke rejects Hiroko because he believes her conservatism runs so deep as to lead her to reject love as improper, that love would in fact be a barrier to her marriage which she would feel duty-bound to refuse. 

Hiroko feels that the match is in a sense too good for her, much better than she had a right to expect. Nevertheless, it’s her seeming conservatism that presents a potential problem in that it is assumed that despite working in a record shop she wouldn’t know how to dance in the modern fashion. Far from censorious, Hiroko’s mother is worried that the young girls these days all go to “dance halls” while Hiroko is quiet and demure. As it happens, Hiroko knows how to dance, though perhaps they should have been thinking about the problem from the other side in that men who like going to dance halls don’t necessarily like to go with their wives, and those looking for “conservative” women often do so because they want to lead “modern” lives outside the home. Having agreed to the marriage, Hiroko finds herself an outsider, treated as unwaged maid by her new in-laws who all exclaim how glad they are to have someone so reliable as their new daughter-in-law especially as they’ve recently disowned oldest daughter Yoko (Ranko Sawa) for running off with her lower class fiancé. 

As so often in Naruse’s cinema, modern girl Yoko acts as a mirror for the outwardly conservative Hiroko. Yoko determines to marry for love, but is actually far more conservative than she seems in that she is entirely unwilling to surrender her comfortable middle class life and continues to resent the man she married, Masuda, because he cannot keep her in the manner to which she had become accustomed. Shinichi had warned Yoko about “frivolous” men, an ironic comment seeing as we’d just heard him dismiss a woman he’d been seeing as “just a girlfriend” laying bare his rather misogynistic view of women as a means of passing time, but Masuda is the very opposite of frivolous, serious in his intentions even while Yoko rejects him solely because of his lack of socioeconomic status. Yet like Hiroko Yoko is perhaps herself also conflicted, forcing herself to reject Masuda whom she loves out of a mistaken pride that tells her it would be wrong to suffer for love when she could have done as Hiroko did and married well for a comfortable but emotionally unfulfilling life. 

Unhappy in her marriage, Hiroko claims that she could have put up with being treated as a maid but can’t stand being treated as a doll, believing herself mere decoration in Shinichi’s life. Nevertheless she continues to believe it’s her duty to “manage” as good wife, bearing her sorrow and loneliness gracefully until pushed into a moment of crisis by Yoko’s rather melodramatic love life. Overhearing the family declining to invite her to join their game of mahjong on the grounds she’s too conservative and is perfectly happy with her life of drudgery, Hiroko is stirred by Yoko’s assertion that she’d never be so “submissive” despite the fact that’s exactly what she’s been in leaving Masuda to return to her upper middle class life with the Hories who are not perhaps as grand as they seem with only the one maid and Mrs. Horie’s constant penny pinching. 

Yet the subversive conclusion isn’t so much that Hiroko begins to realise she has choices and agency after all along with the right to leave a marriage that isn’t working, but that she, temporarily at least, rejects marriage itself in favour of independence while Yoko chooses love in defying her family to return to Masuda who, by then, has done something quite foolish in a mistaken attempt to prove himself worthy of her. Rather than leaving Shinichi for Ryosuke, she tells him that she needs time to figure herself out, to “reconstruct my life by myself”, vowing to find out what is the most beautiful thing in the world so that she can see something more important in herself. It’s a startlingly progressive statement for the Japan of 1937 which is edging closer towards a kind of darkness despite the otherwise cheerfully internationalist atmosphere with its Western jazz music and record shops, dance halls, department stores, trains, and telephones, the contradictions of the age symbolised in the Horie’s awkward home with its mix of Western and Japanese furnishings. It turns out, Hiroko is the most “modern” woman of all, who ever would have thought?  


What Did the Lady Forget? (淑女は何を忘れたか, Yasujiro Ozu, 1937)

Japan was in a precarious position in 1937. Ozu’s What Did the Lady Forget? (淑女は何を忘れたか, Shukujo wa Nani wo Wasureta ka) was released in March of that year but by July the Second Sino-Japanese War would be in full swing and on the home front increasing censorship would render this kind of inconsequential comedy a much less easy sell. True enough, the film includes no “patriotic” content though it does eventually reinforce a set of patriarchal values in the remasculinisation of a henpecked husband while quietly sniggering at a new bourgeois social class.

The drama unfolds in the home of a medical professor, Komiya (Tatsuo Saito), and his austere wife Tokiko (Sumiko Kurishima). The couple have no children and mostly lead separate lives. Tokiko spends her days with two close friends, widowed single-mother Mitsuko (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), and wealthy older woman Chiyoko (Choko Iida) who is married to her husband’s friend, Sugiyama (Takeshi Sakamoto). The three women gossip about the usual things from fancy department store kimonos to new ways to laugh so you don’t get wrinkles along with the bizarrely difficult maths problems Mitsuko’s son has been studying in preparation for middle-school that none of them can answer. To help with the embarrassingly taxing homework, Tokiko offers to find a tutor, press-ganging her husband’s best student, Okada (Shuji Sano), into spending time with Mitsuko’s son Fujio (Masao Hayama) though it turns out that he too, a college graduate, is unable to solve these middle-school level problems. 

The real drama occurs when the couple’s neice, Setsuko (Michiko Kuwano), whom Tokiko had described as “proper” and “wholesome” rocks up from Osaka having become the epitome of a modern girl. Setsuko’s arrival further strains the Komiyas’ already fraying relationship as her surprising habits which include driving, smoking, drinking, and hanging out with geisha, continue to exasperate her aunt whose main objection to all of those things is that they aren’t appropriate because Setsuko is not yet married. To get away from his nagging wife who forces him to go golfing as usual when he doesn’t really want to, Komiya stashes his clubs with Okada and goes to a bar in Ginza where he meets Sugiyama who has also been forced outside by his wife. Sugiyama really does go golfing, promising to mail a previously written postcard to Tokiko on Komiya’s behalf, while he is eventually joined by Setsuko who has tracked him down to the bar despite being told to stay home and mind the house (the Komiyas have two live-in maids so the instruction seems unnecessary at best).  

As a “modern gal” Setsuko has some strangely old fashioned ideas even as she behaves like a 1930s ladette, striding around like man while drinking, smoking, and generally being almost as intimidating as Tokiko just in a more likeable fashion. Setsuko finds Komiya’s deferral to his wife embarrassing, encouraging him to be more masculine and stand up for himself even advising that he use violence to reassert his position as the man of the house. He seems uncomfortable with the idea but eventually does just that after a climactic argument once his lying about the golf and Setsuko’s nighttime adventures have been exposed. Caught in a moment of frustration, he slaps Tokiko across the face, leaving her to retreat in shock apparently “beaten”. The thing is, however, Tokiko likes it. She sees his slapping her as a sign of his love, as if she’s been needling him all this time in hope of a reaction while frustrated that perhaps he doesn’t care for her. Once he hits her, the marriage is rebalanced and repaired with traditional gender dynamics restored. She becomes more cheerful and deferent to his male authority, he acknowledges that he enabled her “arrogance” with his weakness as a man.  

Setsuko however, continues to shout at her uncle, disappointed that he apologised for his reaction and accusing him of giving away the victory he’d just won. He tells her that he’s simply using reverse psychology because wives like to believe they’re in charge and in the main it’s best to let them. Setsuko seems satisfied, but jokes with her new love interest Okada that he better not use reverse psychology on her. Or, he can, but she’ll just use reverse reverse psychology to get the upper hand, which perhaps undercuts the central message in praise of traditional gender roles. Nevertheless, What Did the Lady Forget? is full of Lubitschy late-30s charms from an unexpected sighting of real life star Ken Uehara at the Kabuki to Setsuko’s movie magazines featuring Marlene Dietrich and repeated references to Frederich March and William Powell proving that Ginza is open even in 1937, while the Komiya household descends into an oddly peaceful harmony of delayed marital bliss. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Poppy (虞美人草, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1935)

Most closely associated with tales of female suffering in a patriarchal society, Kenji Mizoguchi’s signature themes are already apparent in the films which survive from the pre-war era. Even so, 1935’s Poppy (虞美人草, Gubijinso), adapted from a novel by Natsume Soseki, largely sidesteps the parallel powerlessness of its twin heroines in placing the central dilemma firmly on the shoulders of its conflicted hero, a young man who owes everything to a benevolent patron whose daughter he is expected to marry but is captivated by a young and capricious heiress and consequently torn between duty and passion.

In late Meiji, an old man, Inoue (Yukichi Iwata), washes graffiti off his front wall apparently scrawled by a man desperate to marry his daughter Sayoko (Chiyoko Okura) whose beauty he claims puts other to shame (Inoue looks on approvingly at the last part, and decides to leave it). Inoue intends his daughter to marry Ono (Ichiro Tsukida), a young man he took in as a starving orphan and raised to adulthood. Ono is currently in Tokyo preparing to complete his doctoral thesis and the pair are very much looking forward to moving there to live with him. While Ono has not forgotten them, he has embarked on a life of his own as a Tokyo student, falling in love with the flighty Fujio (Kuniko Miyake) while working as a part-time English tutor. She too is keen to marry him, despite the fact she is technically still engaged to someone else, Hajime (Daijiro Natsukawa), in a match which was orchestrated by her father many years ago. Fujio’s mother is acutely concerned with her marriage for a number of reasons, the first being that Kingo (Kazuyoshi Takeda), her step-son and the family’s heir, refuses to marry and rejects his inheritance but if Fujio remains single then the fortune reverts to him. Secondly, she dislikes the idea of Hajime as a son-in-law because he has repeatedly failed to secure a position in the diplomatic corps and is currently unemployed.

The problem rests with Ono, whose conflicting desires are characterised not so much in terms of love versus obligation but as ambition versus constancy. Instead of explaining in person to Mr. Inoue that he is grateful to him and has no intention of rejecting their family but thinks of Sayoko as a sister and therefore would like to politely decline the idea of marriage, he sends a friend, Asai (Toichiro Negishi), to explain that he’s too busy to think about weddings and wants to defer the conversation until after his thesis is completed. Of course, Mr. Inoue sees through this thin excuse right away and is offended on his daughter’s behalf. The friend warns him that Ono is “worthless”. “He’s interested in what’s fashionable. He’s stupid” Asai goes on, implying that he is not exactly choosing to marry the woman he loves rather than honour a vague suggestion from the past, but is opportunistically seizing the chance to marry up into the high society of late Meiji Japan (a feat near impossible for a man who was once a starving orphan).

Love is not so much a part of the equation as one would expect and neither are the feelings of either woman held in very high regard. Nevertheless, Kingo eventually tries to warn Hajime away from his sister, explaining that “women who seek pleasure are dangerous”. “When I fall in love, I won’t just sit quietly waiting for my lover. I’ll make passionate love to him” Fujio flirtatiously tells Ono, dangling a precious watch from her father which serves as an indication of betrothal and membership of the family. Fujio and her mother are actively using the only means at their disposal to control their own futures by making a match they believe more beneficial which will ensure they keep themselves within the family succession, suggesting that Fujio, like Ono, is acting less out of “love” than self-interest, something which is later reinforced by her offering of the watch to Hajime who casts it to the waves in insistence that he was never interested in what it represents. 

While Asai recounts his meeting with Inoue, he tells Ono that he’s making the right decision and that his best option from all angles is to marry Fujio, but Hajime overhears him and chimes in with contrary advice that he should think carefully and be true to himself. In essence, all Hajime is telling him is to own his decision and make sure he is willing to live with it or else be consumed by self loathing and misery. By this point, we perhaps expect that modernity will win, that all will accept that it is unreasonable to expect anyone to sublimate their own desires to honour an old obligation and most particularly that the women be expected to submit themselves to dynastic marriages arranged by their fathers, but the resolution is quite the reverse. The modernist Fujio is twice rejected, while Sayoko and her father leave the modern capital for the ancient Kyoto. Ono is forced into a reconsideration of his spiritual debt to the Inoues who he would be betraying in marrying Fujio for social gain which is to say that feudalistic, patriarchal values are subtly reinforced while Western individualism is disparaged with only Hajime standing up for emotional integrity which neither philosophy particularly respects. In the end, nobody is happy but everyone is resigned to their particular misery as their burden to carry in knowledge that they have acted properly which is perhaps as close to a condemnation of a still oppressive society as you could get in 1935. 


Tokyo Chorus (東京の合唱, Yasujiro Ozu, 1931)

“Tokyo – city of the unemployed” runs a rather unexpected caption part way through Yasujiro Ozu’s depression-era silent comedy, Tokyo Chorus (東京の合唱, Tokyo no Chorus). Putting an unconventional spin on the reality of the contemporary capital, Ozu nevertheless retreats into his favourite themes as good people attempt to remain cheerful in the face of increasing adversity while embracing an often latent interest in class politics as the hero finds himself losing out at the hands of heartless capitalists when he alone is brave enough to stand up for a friend treated unfairly. 

Ozu opens however with an amusing prologue set some years before the main action in which the hero, Okajima (Tokihiko Okada), is a poor student goofing off during a military-style drill. While another boy arrives late to practice and is mocked for having arrived in geta, Okajima’s problem is that he didn’t want to take his jacket off because he isn’t wearing a shirt. A little less well off than some of the others, he brazens things out by ribbing the teacher, Mr. Omura (Tatsuo Saito). Flashforward some years and Okajima has become an insurance clerk, married with three children. His oldest child, a son, is desperate for a bicycle because the other kids have one and as Okajima is supposed to be getting his bonus today, the parents have decided to give in. 

Things do not, however,  go quite to plan. After picking up his pay packet, Okajima gets talking with an old timer who laments he’s just been fired. He thinks it’s because he sold some unlucky policies in which the beneficiary died shortly after signing the paperwork, but it seems obvious to Okajima that they’re firing him because they don’t want to pay his pension. He talks things over with the other employees who all agree it’s unfair, but is the only one brave enough to march into the boss’ office and say so. Unfortunately, Okajima gets nowhere and loses his own job in the proccess. Dejected, he buys his son a much cheaper scooter on the way home but the boy is unimpressed, as is his wife (Emiko Yagumo) when he hands her his notice of termination. 

It is of course a good and proper thing that Okajima stood up for colleague, but he’s lost out because of his pride, smugly explaining to his wife that he was in the right while arguing with his boss and resentfully refusing to admit the irresponsibility of his actions as a husband and a father. Pride becomes a persistent secondary concern as he tries to find another steady job in the economically straitened world of 1931. Despite telling his colleague he envied him for his job as a sandwichboard man and claiming that having a college degree makes him overqualified for casual work, Okajima struggles with himself intellectually knowing that any job will do to feed his family but embarrassed in having to resort to work he feels is beneath him. When he runs into Mr. Omura and he offers to help him with a job in the curry rice restaurant he now owns after retiring from teaching, Okajima is conflicted, telling him he won’t accept help if it’s offered out of pity but only if extended in friendship. When his wife spots him out delivering leaflets, however, she is scandalised and humiliated rather than proud or grateful, only later coming round and agreeing to help out in the Omuras’ restaurant herself. 

Meanwhile, family life is obviously strained by their ongoing financial predicament. When their daughter is taken ill and needs hospital treatment, Mrs. Okajima is upset to discover that her husband sold all her kimonos to pay the fees, their eyes aflash with anger and despair as they put on a brave face for the children but eventually brightening as they continue on with a family game of pat-a-cake. Despite her distress, Mrs. Okaijma maintains faith in her husband and the family is as happy as it can be under the circumstances. At a reunion organised for some of his former students now no longer the rambunctious young men they were at the film’s opening but wistful for the spent freedoms of their youth, Omura makes a toast hoping that everyone continues to prosper through “hard-work and self-reliance”, but it is the mutual solidarity which Okajima showed when he stood up for his mistreated colleague which eventually proves his salvation. Humbled by his experiences, no longer looking down on honest work, he gets the offer of another job which is not quite of the kind he was hoping for, but is perhaps a new start even if it means leaving Tokyo, city of the unemployed, behind for the greener pastures of provincial Tochigi and a simpler, but perhaps kinder, existence. 


The Straits of Love and Hate (愛怨峡, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1937)

straits of love and hate poster“Tokyo is a dangerous city that traps innocent people like you” the heroine of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1937 melodrama The Straits of Love and Hate (愛怨峡, Aien kyo) is told, but it’s not so much the darkness of the city streets as the world’s cruelty which threatens to consume her soul. Loosely inspired by Tolstoy’s Resurrection, then particularly popular in Japan and a frequent source for adaptation in the silent era, Straits of Love and Hate is a familiar tale of an innocent maid seduced and betrayed by the weak willed son of her social superiors, but rather than see her beaten by a broken heart Mizoguchi allows to her to find new strength in the determination to move forward in a direction of her choosing.

Kitchen maid Ofumi (Fumiko Yamaji) is in love with Kenkichi (Masao Shimizu ), the son of local hotel owners. Now that he’s finished his studies, his parents were expecting him to take over the inn so they’re not exactly pleased when he tells them he plans to go to Tokyo to become a teacher, nor would they be very happy about the idea of him marrying a lowly maid. After arguing with his father, Kenkichi more or less gives up on the idea of leaving, deciding to postpone until his parents come round or perhaps going on his own and sending for Ofumi when he’s financially stable. Twin pressures, however, force him to accept that it’s now or never. Ofumi is a few months pregnant and will soon be showing so his hand is in a sense forced. Meanwhile, Ofumi is keen to leave as soon as possible because her uncle, Murakami (Seiichi Kato), has turned up extremely drunk and is talking to her employers about taking her away to join his troupe of travelling players which she is desperate to avoid because she remembers her mother telling her he was no good and would sell her to a brothel as soon as look at her.

Kenkichi relents and the pair elope to Tokyo, but once there his general fecklessness resurfaces. The couple have begun to outstay their welcome at the apartment of a friend whose wife is becoming thoroughly fed up with Kenkichi who lounges about all day not looking for work, while an increasingly pregnant Ofumi is out job-hunting alone in the unforgiving city. A naive bumpkin, she’s nearly scammed by a street pimp who claims to be saving her from someone in fact just like him, but is rescued by Yoshi (Seizaburo Kawazu) – a wandering accordion player regarded by all as a petty thug. Kindhearted by nature, Yoshi takes pity on her and sets Ofumi up with a job in a cafe but is soon arrested for stabbing the pimp who was bothering her. Meanwhile, the irritated wife of Kenkichi’s friend has wired his dad who promptly arrives to retrieve his son. Spineless, Kenkichi walks out on his pregnant girlfriend leaving her only with a note that says “sorry, good luck with the rest of your life”, and an insultingly small amount of compensation money.

It’s easy enough to think that Kenkichi wasn’t really invested in his romance, got cold feet, or simply rejected adult responsibility, but the truth is more that he’s just as trapped by patriarchal social codes as Ofumi is and no more free even with his comparatively comfortable class background. He lacks the will to defy his father, and is simply too lazy to consider living an ordinary life in the city with a regular job where no one calls him “young master”. Ofumi, by contrast, fights for love. She breaks the class barrier, naively believes that Kenkichi’s parents will accept her because they cannot reject their grandchild, and forgives Kenkichi’s fecklessness because she truly believes in him. One word from his father, and he crumbles. Left alone Ofumi is forced to send her son out to foster parents and has no other choice than to become a bar hostess.

Unlike Kenkichi, Yoshi is patient and kind. He truly means to protect Ofumi and her son, but also has a self-destructive violent streak as manifested in his over the top attack on the pimp and later altercation with a remorseful Kenkichi. Ironically enough, Uncle Murakami whom she so feared becomes an unlikely source of salvation, inviting Ofumi and Yoshi to join the company as a standup double act. Witnessing Ofumi reenact her romantic tragedy on stage as part of a routine forces Kenkichi to confront his moral cowardice. While the intervening years have seen Ofumi become cynical and bitter, still angry and resentful, Kenkichi has become weary and resigned. His parents have moved to the country, and he now runs the hotel, but he’s still not free. Hoping to convince Ofumi to come back, he invites his dad to meet their son but it becomes clear to her that Kenkichi will never change. He lacks the strength to reject his father’s authority, and as he’s abandoned her before he will likely do so again.

Kenkichi, perhaps meaning well, offers to take the child, pointing out that growing up among travelling players is an inauspicious start in life whereas he can bring the boy up with all the advantages of middle-class comfort. Ofumi is guilty in her immediate refusal, acknowledging that she may be denying her son a “better life” than she can give him, perhaps selfish in her reluctance to be parted from her child, but equally certain that she doesn’t want her son to grow up like Kenkichi, a spineless product of a patriarchal social order unable to stand up to his father or seize his own agency. She tells Kenkichi that she’s fallen in love with Yoshi because theirs is a partnership of equals, they understand and support each other, moving forward as one. He won’t abandon her by choice, but he isn’t perfect either and his foolish self-destructive impulses and selfless nobility threaten his new hope for the future as he embarks on a high risk strategy to prompt Ofumi to accept the “better life” that Kenkichi can offer her. Nevertheless, the point is that the choice is finally hers – no man is going to make it for her, not even her son. What she chooses is a kind of independence, stepping boldly forward into a future that’s entirely of her own making.


The Girl in the Rumor (噂の娘, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

vlcsnap-2019-12-21-23h50m32s752The world was changing in 1935, but not everyone was swept away by the fickle tides of modernity. The heroine of Naruse’s 1935 drama The Girl in the Rumor (噂の娘, Uwasa no Musume) is like many of his leading ladies betrayed by the world in which she lives, yet she’s also an encapsulation of the conflicts of the age, at once fiercely traditional and personally progressive while her “modern girl” sister is as selfish and judgemental as any of the bright young things who serve as extreme examples of the risks of Western individualism.

Kunie (Sachiko Chiba), an unmarried young woman, works in her family’s sake shop which is currently struggling to make ends meet. While the guys in the barbers opposite complain that the place has gone downhill since grandpa’s days, the old man himself has begun to worry that there’s something not quite right about their produce. In order to keep the shop going, there’s some talk that Kunie may marry the son of a wealthy family, but her father Kenkichi (Ko Mihashi) is against the idea. He married into his wife’s family and the marriage was intensely unhappy so he is mindful that the same fate doesn’t befall his daughter. His wife now long dead, Kenkichi is free to be more open about his longstanding affair with a bar owner, Oyo (Toshiko Ito), which produced a daughter, Kimiko (Ryuko Umezono), who was raised by Kenkichi and his legal wife and has no idea her birth was illegitimate. Kimiko, unlike her sister, has become a “modern girl”, dressing in Western fashions, listening to jazz, and staying out late going to parties. The trouble starts when Kunie decides to take her sister with her to the omiai for moral support and it becomes obvious that Sato (Heihachiro Okawa) is a bit of a “modern boy” who has lots more in common with the vivacious Kimiko and decides to break protocol by telling the go-between that he’d rather have her instead.

This move comes as a total blindside to the girls’ uncle who arranged the meeting. “The marriage proposal’s turned into something really weird” he tells Kenkichi over the phone while the two men try to work out what the best course of action is. The uncle seems to think it might be a good move to carry on the negotiations with Kimiko instead, after all Kunie is basically running the store so it would be more convenient to keep her around. Kenkichi is unconvinced. He knows Kimiko doesn’t really approve of all this old fashioned arranged marriage business, and to be honest he doesn’t seem to like her much so isn’t keen on talking to her about it but can’t rely on his usual trick of getting Kunie to do it because he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings by letting her know that Sato doesn’t fancy her and has asked her sister out instead.

Kimiko certainly is a “modern girl” and superficially proto-feminist. She mocks her sister’s traditionalism and criticises her for blaming “their” mother for the failure of their parents’ marriage, thinking that she is simply unable to move past the patriarchal mindset and used to blaming everything on the woman. Little knowing that Oyu is her mother, she rejects Kunie’s plan to have her come and live with them as new maternal presence, claiming that she has only contempt for mistresses and thereby exposing herself as being, ironically enough, more judgemental than her superficially conventional sister. Kunie may be “traditional” in her outlook, but she is also empathetic and understanding. It seems her mother may not have been an easy woman, and what she most wants is to repair her family by bringing Oyo into the fold in her “rightful” place at her father’s side. Despite her insistence on her own freedom, however, Kimiko is childishly moralistic, directing her anger with an oppressive system back on the people constrained by it. Yes Kenichi’s life is one of socially condoned hypocrisy, but there’s no point in blaming him or Oyo for trying to find happiness where they can.

Blame them she does, however, and her sister with them. Kimiko meets Sato by chance and starts dating him in the non-serious manner of young people of the time only for the Satos to become worried and again push the idea of a marriage. Having been spotted with Sato in the street by Kunie, Kimiko’s confession is cruel and cutting, delivered almost with glee as she reveals that her uncle and father have been avoiding telling her that Sato turned her down because he liked her sister more. Kunie had professed that she wasn’t all that bothered about the marriage because she had become convinced that she “couldn’t have a happy marriage anyway”, but her tears suggest a deeper hurt than having her hopes for the business dashed and being wounded by her sister’s callousness. Nevertheless, she wants nothing but her sister’s happiness and so if she seriously wanted to marry Sato for the “right” reasons, she would of course support her.

Kimiko however remains selfish and implacable. Kenkichi, hoping to teach her a lesson, brings Oyo into the home and reveals to Kimiko that she is a mistress’ daughter. It does not go well. Kimiko refuses to engage with Oyo, while Kenkichi also asks for an apology on behalf of Kunie who has only ever tried to protect both Kimiko and Oyo by trying to reunite their family, but Kimiko leaves in a huff shouting that she has no need of mothers or fathers or families or anything else. A rapprochement is brokered between the women only when Kenikichi is made to pay for his failure as a patriarch. It turns out grandpa was right after all, he’d been tampering with the sake and now the police want a word with him. With the arrival of Oyo, tacitly accepted by Kimiko’s final return to the home, the family is in some senses restored but also broken. The gossips in the barbers across the way lament the end of the Nadaya Sake store, callously speculating on what will replace it, while all Kunie can do is look on in consternation and disappointment.