The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (マダムと女房, Heinosuke Gosho, 1931)

Neighbor's wife and mine flyerThere’s an especial irony in the fact that Japan’s first talkie is essentially all about how annoying sound can be. Directed by Heinosuke Gosho, pioneer of the shomingeki and a longstanding devotee of melancholy comedy, The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (マダムと女房, Madame to Nyobo) is another in a long line of contemporary farces set in an idealised middle-class world but as much as Gosho goes out of his way to include as much soundplay as humanly possible he never lets the gimmick get the better of him.

Gosho opens with a brief prologue sequence otherwise detached from the main narrative in which down on his luck playwright Shibano (Atsushi Watanabe) gets into an argument with a precious artist busily painting a canvas of the house opposite him and gleefully admiring his own work. The painter likes this spot because of its silent serenity – an atmosphere quickly broken when Shibano struts up, whistling loudly, humming, making conversation. Unfortunately Shibano doesn’t rate the painter’s work and is also non-plussed that he doesn’t know who Shibano, apparently a “famous” playwright, is and doesn’t seem to respect writers as fellow artists anyway. A fight breaks out and all because of some unwanted noise pollution. Eventually the two men end up friends again after bonding in their mutual appreciation of the charms of “madame” (Satoko Date) the woman who lives in the house next to the one Shibano has just decided to rent on a whim with the intention of getting some “peace and quiet” in the countryside to finish his overdue manuscript.

The country is, as it turns out, not as quiet as you’d think. No sooner has Shibano moved in than he’s assailed by noise – mostly from within his own household as he’s a father of two, a little girl of perhaps four or five, and a bawling infant son. He doesn’t help matters by winding up his exhausted wife Kinuyo (Kinuyo Tanaka) by loudly impersonating a distressed cat during the middle of the night but a bigger problem is about to present itself in the form of the Mammy Jazz Band who, led by the woman Shibano was so smitten with after bumping into her during his altercation with the painter, use the house next-door as their rehearsal studio.

The house of Shibano is, apparently, a fairly happy one though long suffering wife and mother Kinuyo has reason enough for exasperation as her husband wastes his time drinking and playing mahjong while the deadline for the manuscript he’s supposed to be writing draws ever closer. In charge of the household finances, Kinuyo is keenly aware the family are low on funds – something presumably not helped by Shibano’s impulsive decision to rent a cottage in the country. He’s left himself a dozen inspirational notes reminding himself that manuscripts don’t write themselves, but still Shibano can’t buckle down. Having come to the country to escape the noise of city life, he finds himself assaulted by a silence differential in dealing first with his noisy children and responsibilities as a father, and then the constant intrusion of unexpected sounds which, in the city, might hardly be noticed against the constant background hum.

Trying everything from plugging his ears to tying a scarf around his head and finally jumping inside a cardboard box, Shibano decides to enlist Kinuyo to tell next-door to keep it down but she, an elegant Japanese wife, would hardly dare to disturb the “peace”. She tells her lazy husband to sort it out himself only to regret her decision when she spots him laughing away with the sophisticated modern woman next-door, drinking in the party atmosphere of her Bohemian home and enjoying a private concert as the “noisy” jazz band rehearse their latest numbers.

Despite his occupation which might imply a little Bohemianism in itself, Shibano is a traditionally minded sort. He may have turned up in swanky hat and pinstripe suit carrying a cane, but in his new home he dresses exclusively in kimono, as does his dutiful wife, who can only trail behind her husband in exasperation offering the occasional barbed comment as her only form of mild resistance. His household demands quietude, but cannot attain it. He is, therefore, naturally led away to the woman next door like a time traveller suddenly given a glimpse of the new and exciting future. The musical repertoire of the Mammy Jazz Band is all about “speed”, they move fast and with no thought to the disturbance they trail through the air around them. They are going somewhere, in contrast to Shibano who has been in a state of inertia for quite sometime.

It is, however, a little sad that it’s “madame” that finally speeds on Shibano rather than his wife and children even if there is nothing improper in their relationship – Madame is not particularly interested in Shibano in anything other than a neighbourly fashion, her people pleasing friendliness and genuine kindness perhaps running in contrast to the conventional depiction of a “modern” woman as Kinuyo later points out in jealousy when she remarks that women like that are all “100% sex delinquents”.

The film’s Japanese title is certainly drawing a contrast between the modern “madame” and the traditionally minded “nyobo” though it comes down on neither side, allowing room for both sorts of women in this rapidly changing society. Shibano maybe a lazy, easily distracted sort of man but he’s knows what’s good for him and when all’s said and done his relationship with his wife is as solid as they come despite their frequent financial woes, childcare spats, and momentary pangs of jealousy or anguish. The family, repaired and in motion once again, finally get their day in the sun enjoying a rare moment of blissful happiness as they break into a chorus of “My Blue Heaven”, positively rupturing the silence with their own joyful voices as they join the “noisy” cavalcade heading towards the exciting “speed era” waiting for them in the future.


Seven Seas (七つの海, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1931-1932)

vlcsnap-2017-02-19-01h57m24s364Hiroshi Shimizu is best remembered for his socially conscious, nuanced character pieces often featuring sympathetic portraits of childhood or the suffering of those who find themselves at the mercy of society’s various prejudices. Nevertheless, as a young director at Shochiku, he too had to cut his teeth on a number of program pictures and this two part novel adaptation is among his earliest. Set in a broadly upper middle class milieu, Seven Seas (七つの海, Nanatsu no Umi) is, perhaps, closer to his real life than many of his subsequent efforts but notably makes class itself a matter for discussion as its wealthy elites wield their privilege like a weapon.

Split into two parts each around an hour long, Seven Seas begins with the chapter entitled Virginity in which we meet the closely interconnected circle of friends around whom the narrative turns. Yumie (Hiroko Kawasaki) is a young woman from a middle class background but fallen on hard times as her father, a former government official, is now bedridden and supporting the family only on his pension. She is about to announce her engagement to the upperclass boy Yuzuru (Ureo Egawa) but when his playboy brother Takehiko (Joji Oka) returns from abroad he takes a fancy to her himself, eventually raping her whilst she is a guest in their house. Devastated, Yumie’s father marches over to sort things out but even more tragic events occur, breaking the family forever as Yumie’s sister Miwako (Kinuko Wakamizu) has a breakdown and is committed to an asylum. In desperate need of money, Yumie eventually agrees to become the wife of the man who has so brutalised her, though she also contrives to turn the situation to her advantage in an act of revenge.

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Part two is entitled “Chastity” as this is to be Yumie’s primary method of resistance. Refusing her new husband his conjugal rights, Yumie spends his money with gay abandon making huge donations to her sister’s hospital and eventually also providing a kind of “salary” for her husband’s long term mistress whom he has been seeing for some years and had neglected to inform about his marriage. Meanwhile, Yumie’s friend Ayako (Sachiko Murase) has also fallen in love with Yuzuru who is still nursing a broken heart having separated from his family and taken refuge with the couple’s friends working in a sports equipment shop in the city.

Unusually for a Shimizu hero, Yuzuru is an uncomplicated, innately good person who instantly rejects his family following their heinous treatment of the woman he loves, remaining committed to her even after she has been assaulted by his own brother. This decision is, however, difficult as he no longer has access to the familial fortune and has few options for earning his own. He eventually finds work as a French translator but it doesn’t pay enough to make up for all the extra expenses incurred as a result of his brother’s actions from the loss of Yumie’s father’s pension to the ongoing medical costs for her sister’s treatment. Times being what they are, moralising forces creep into the frame suggesting all of this “made right” by Takehiko doing the “honourable” thing and marrying the woman he’s “bought” by force.

The Yagibashi family think they can sweep all of this under the carpet by throwing money at Yumie and otherwise ignoring the problem but this is not good enough for the morality police. Forced to marry her rapist, Yumie maintains an air of cool distain, detailing her plans for vengeance in her daily diary and arming herself with a pistol in case Takehiko tries his old tricks once again. Takehiko, a vain and selfish man, seems to be filled with a kind of resentment born of his class in which he remains a perpetual child controlled by his father who holds all of the purse strings. He does at least attempt to be a proper husband to Yumie, defending her from his snobbish parents and providing her with everything she asks for but he retains his tendency to believe that he can behave however he likes because he’s the eldest son of the wealthy Yagibashi family. Yumie may be reduced in circumstances but thanks to her father’s position would be considered from a “good family”, yet to Takehiko and the Yagibashis she is just another faceless person from the lower orders, unworthy of consideration or compassion and simply one of the exploitable masses.

Takehiko is also the bearer of the frequently ambivalent attitude to the Western world found in many of Shimizu’s other films of the period. Returning from a trip abroad, he belittles another woman in the carriage for her supposed snobbery. Having been abroad, they say, she feels herself superior to ordinary Japanese – unlike the two of them, obviously. Ironically when they arrive Takehiko discovers that the woman in question is the daughter of his former professor, recently returned from studying music in Italy. The other major foreigner we meet is Ayako’s boss at the newspaper where she has a good job as a female reporter. The diffident Englishman attempts to confess his love for her, leaping straight into a proposal. Shocked, Ayako eventually informs him that unfortunately she’s in love with someone else – Yuzuru. Reacting badly, he tries to stop Ayako from leaving but once she does he abruptly shoots himself! Unusual passion for an Englishman, this side of foreignness is a definite cultural difference though one perhaps imbued with a degree of entitlement that also speaks of a kind of oppressive arrogance.

This is however, contrasted with Yuzuru’s gentle career as a translator of French. These creative, cultural influences seem to be broadly positive ones adding to Japan’s already impressive artistic history which brings both pleasure and new ways of thinking which will help the fledgling nation interact with the new global order. The Yagibashis’ dependence on their inherited wealth and social status proves their downfall when they are the subject of an ongoing scandal but the family name is, in part, saved by Yuzuru’s artistic endeavours in turning his traumatic life story into a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel. The creative instinct triumphs over the passivity of the established order.

Remaining mostly straightforward in terms of approach, Shimizu experiments with his trademark tracking shots coupled with dissolves which are unusually impressive and innovative in terms of their setting. The narrative may be melodramatic but the setting is naturalistic, giving an ordinary picture of these upper class and lower middle class lives as people lived them in the early 1930s. From crowded city streets and rooms above shops to spacious country mansions these class divisions are neatly drawn though it’s perhaps interesting that friendship groups have begun to ignore these lines in spite of the differing possibilities offered to each of the differently troubled friends. As in much of Shimizu’s output, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, fulfilling the need for narrative justice as Yumie finds an unusual path for restitution after having been so cruelly misused by those who held her existence so cheaply as to rob her of her future, family and dignity solely because of their own sense of social superiority.


 

Flunky, Work Hard (腰弁頑張れ, Mikio Naruse, 1931)

flunky work hardMikio Naruse is often remembered for his female focussed stories of ordinary women trying to do they best they can in often difficult circumstances, but the earliest extant example of his work (actually his ninth film), Flunky, Work Hard (腰弁頑張れ, Koshiben Ganbare), is the sometimes comic but ultimately poignant tale of a lowly insurance salesman struggling to get ahead in depression era Japan.

Okabe is the lowly insurance agent of the title. He works hard for his money, but there are slim pickings round here to begin with and a lot of competition from rival agents so Okabe struggles to provide for his wife and his little boy, Susumu, in the way that he would like. Okabe subjects himself any sort of humiliating behaviour on offer to try and get a contract including engaging in leap frog with a well to do lady’s children to try and seem more “friendly” than his rival broker.

Susumu, by contrast is a rebellious little boy and is aways getting into scraps with the neighbourhood kids who tease him because of his parents’ money problems. This wouldn’t usually be too much of a problem and Okabe even tells him it’s OK to defend himself when the other kids start in on him. Only this time Susumu has been fighting with the well to do lady’s sons which is going to make Okabe look bad and make it more difficult to convince her to take out a policy with his firm over another.

Okabe loses his temper and scolds the boy who runs off in anger and confusion only to get into a serious accident. His father, not knowing it’s his son that’s been injured, uses the news of a little boy getting hurt to try and convince the other mothers to take out insurance policies on their children. Later he feels bad about shouting at Susumu and decides to buy him a present, only he might already be too late…

Flunky, Work Hard starts out like the nonsense comedies Shochiku were known for at the time with a little of their common man approach thrown in, but quickly heads into melodrama territory as Susumu meets with his unfortunate destiny. This sequence is the most notable in the film as it’s far more experimental in nature than anything found in Naruse’s later work. Dipping into a montage of kaleidoscopic images, diagonal splits and the awful momentum of a train hurtling along a predetermined track only to meet with a horrifying, unexpected obstacle, this extremely complex sequence is the perfect cinematic expression of the blood draining from a father’s face as he contemplates the fact that he might have just lost his son through having lost his temper over something as trivial as a few shiny coins. Okabe is not a bad man, or even a bad father, but just another ordinary guy trying to make it through the depression. Even so, he may be about to pay a terrible price for failing to side with his son in favour of businesses prospects.

Like many silent films from this era, almost all of Naruse’s early work appears to be lost. Flunky, Work Hard is somewhat atypical when considered alongside his later career which had a strong female focus and leant more towards social commentary than the slapstick humour seen here. However, its tale of a father desperately trying to find a way to support his son in difficult economic circumstances only to find that his efforts may cost him the very thing that he was trying to protect all along is one which is instantly recognisable in any era.


Flunky, Work Hard is the first and earliest of the five films included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.