Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (靑春の夢いまいづこ, Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

It’s lonely at the top. Perhaps surprisingly, Japan’s depression-era cinema had considerable space for lamenting the complicated position of the young master and, as Hiroshi Shimizu’s The Boss’ Son at College would do the following year, Ozu’s Where Now are the Dreams of Youth (靑春の夢いまいづこ, Seishun no Yume Ima Izuko) follows a young man of privilege realising that inequality is bad for friendship and no matter how much you try to manipulate an inherently unfair system for the good of those you love it is the system itself which will always stand between you. 

Ozu begins, however, in familiar territory continuing in the vein of student comedy which was proving such a big hit for home studio Shochiku and in fact reusing a few gags from his previous films in the genre such as the guys’ persistent attempts to cheat on their exams. The opening sequence in which three of the four friends goof off rehearsing a cheerleading routine neatly sets up the already existing divisions between them as Saiki (Tatsuo Saito), the gang’s outlier, hovers on the sidelines attempting to study explaining to a young woman the guys know from the bakery, Shige (Kinuyo Tanaka), that he has only his mother and cannot afford to spend his time messing around. Despite that, however, we’re also told that Saiki is a hopeless case forever falling his exams and regarded as essentially feckless. 

The hero, Tetsuo (Ureo Egawa), is the son of a company president and even if he doesn’t notice it the guys are already deferring to him as a kind of leader though they are all, in one sense, still “equals” as students at the same university taking the same classes. They all wear the same universal student uniform and drink in the same cafe, though they perhaps have different fears and anxieties for their futures at this difficult economic moment. The friendship is suddenly disrupted by the unexpected death of Tetsuo’s father which necessitates his leaving university to take over the family firm, though it’s also clear that he is not quite in charge and his conservative uncle is in fact running the show. 

Tetsuo’s new status as a company president, now dressed in an expensive tailored business suit, forever sets him apart from his friends who eventually come to him for help on being unable to find jobs in the midst of an economic depression. He decides to use his privilege to help them but in an underhanded way, insisting they sit the company exam but giving them the answer sheet beforehand just like in their school days helping each other to cheat. Nevertheless, he fails to realise that you can’t be both friend and boss and it hurts him that they are now polite and deferent in his presence. Gone is their old camaraderie and foolishness, fear and dependency gradually erode their friendship. 

Meanwhile, Tetsuo has continued to carry a torch for Shige but again has failed to realise that they now live in different worlds. His uncle keeps trying to arrange suitable marriages for him which he delights in frustrating with childish pranks. Now settled in his professional life he tries to abide by a college era bro code in asking for the guys’ permission to ask for Shige’s hand, knowing that they had all taken a liking to her. He places himself on their level but only superficially, acting with a degree of self-confident entitlement which assumes firstly that the others will defer to him and back off, and that Shige is his for the asking. What hurts him most is that none of the guys, who must all know, were brave enough to tell him that Saiki and Shige are already engaged. Fearful for his job, Saiki would have sacrificed the woman he loves, essentially traded her for economic stability. Finding out from Saiki’s mother (Choko Iida), Tetsuo confronts Shige who tells him that she agreed to marry Saiki out of pity and despair after growing weary of waiting for him believing that a company president would never marry a woman like her. 

Tetsuo surrenders his love on the altar of friendship. Despite confirming their love for each other, he and Shige are separated by the great wall of social class in a hierarchal society along with the economic pressures of an ongoing depression. What Tetsuo chooses to save is his male friendship, striking Saiki, who does not fight back, for his moral cowardice in debasing himself by allowing those with power and privilege to rob him of his rights and freedoms. The guys sort things out with a fist fight, restoring an artificial “equality” that provokes a “happy” ending despite the fact that nothing has really changed. Tetsuo has to say goodbye to the dreams of youth in acceptance of the disappointments of adulthood but tries to salvage something as he moves forward in preserving what he can of cross-class friendship as bulwark against the inequalities of his age.


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

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.


 

No Blood Relation (生さぬ仲, Mikio Naruse, 1932)

No blood relationNaruse apparently directed six other films in-between Flunky, Work Hard and No Blood Relation (生さぬ仲, Nasanunaka) but we’ll likely never see any of them again. Adapting a “Shinpa” play (a new kind of Western style melodrama focusing on the real lives of everyday people), Naruse addresses a theme which later becomes central to his cinematic output – the trials and tribulations of women in contemporary society. This time we have two fully grown women tussling over the affections of a little girl who herself seems to have little input into the situation.

After a brief introductory sequence in which we witness the accidentally humorous escapades of a pair of petty crooks, we meet the sister of one of them who happens to be returning ex-pat and successful Hollywood actress, Tamae. It turns out that Tamae has come back to Japan after making her fortune in the movies hoping to reunite with the daughter she left behind six years ago.

However, her ex-husband, Atsumi, has remarried and the daughter, Shigeko, believes the second wife, Masako, is her real mother. Although the family are very happy together there is tension in the air as Atsumi’s company is running into trouble in this period of economic instability and he’s about to reveal he’s gone bankrupt. Atsumi’s mother does not take this well as she’s used to the upper middle class lifestyle and throws something of a hissy fit at being shamed in this way. Masako, by contrast, remains stoic and says she can bear the worst of what comes only she doesn’t want Atsumi to do anything illegal to try and solve their money problems and she doesn’t want to see Shigeko suffer. Her maternal feelings are further borne out when she is injured diving in front of an oncoming car which threatens to hit her daughter as she stops to pick up her doll in the middle of the road.

The problems continue pile up and Tamae uses her money as a lever to try and prise Shigeko away from her step-mother via the greedy grandma but the little girl was an infant when her birth mother left so she simply doesn’t remember Tamae and repeatedly asks to be allowed to go home to her “mother”. It’s understandable how much this would hurt Tamae who claims she’s only returned to Japan because she’s been unable to forget her daughter, yet her daughter never even knew her. If she was expecting some kind of cosmic connection it does not occur and if she truly wanted to rebuild a relationship with her child, what amounts to a virtual kidnapping was probably not the best way to go about it.

At heart it’s a tug of love between two women – the one who gave birth to a child and then abandoned it (perhaps harsh words, but no concrete reason other than a man and America are ever revealed), and the one who later raised it and came to love it as her own though shares no blood connection. Masako is the faithful Japanese wife, devoted to her family and just a very good, decent person which contrasts nicely with the ferocity of her rival – a modern woman, adulteress and movie star who thinks her money can enable her to take back what she previously gave up. For all that, it’s difficult to not to feel sorry for Tamae as her daughter continues to reject her. Even if the way she’s going about things is not sensible, her maternal emotions and the passion, desperation and even in part grief and regret are all too real.

Of course, what gets forgotten here is the plight of little Shigeko who never had any reason to believe Masako, who obviously loves her dearly, was not her real mother. Extremely confused and probably frightened, she just doesn’t understand why she’s being separated from her mum and being forced to hang out with this strange woman. Masako can’t get to see Shigeko after grandma has removed her from the house, but no one else stops to think about what sort of effect this is all having on a confused little girl who just wants to go home.

The depression is more of a backdrop here and even if Atsumi ultimately ends up feeling the brunt of it, money troubles are only a small part of the question at hand. Naruse doesn’t experiment as much as in Flunky, Work Hard but throws in a few impressive tracking sequences across open rooms and adds some rapid zooms as the two women have silent arguments over their relationships to Shigeko. Without giving too much away, the ending undercuts the degree of nuance Naruse had been trying add in ensuring that both women were drawn in a suitably complex manner, provoking sympathy and understanding for everyone caught up in this complicated situation (well, except perhaps for the bumbling crooks who are a little surplus to requirements).

The finale itself almost feels tacked on from an entirely different film with its sudden cheerfulness and abrupt closure as the original family is repaired thanks to a sudden monetary atonement and subsequent self-exile from the originally corrupting influence of the first wife. In many ways a standard melodrama of the time, No Blood Relation perhaps doesn’t have much more to recommend it than as an early example of Naruse’s development but does offer strong performances from its leading ladies and an interesting take on an age old question.


No Blood Relation is the second of five films included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.

Tod Browning’s Freaks

SPOILER WARNING!!!

Tod Browning’s Freaks is notoriously the film that fell so foul with the studio and audiences of the time that even after cutting around a third of its running time the degree of revulsion it produced pretty much ended the director’s career. Having run away to join the circus as a teenager, Browning had spent spent much of his life around circus performers and felt them much maligned by society. Although he’d touched on similar themes before, Browning had always used professional actors made up to appear as if they were in someway different but this time he was determined to use genuine sideshow performers – a decision that would prove too radical for the society of the time.

Although it’s often placed into the horror genre, Freaks is really a tale of revenge and poetic mob justice in which the surrogate family of the carnival people punish the ‘normal’ couple who have tried to harm one of their own by the only method of justice that’s open to them – absorbing the miscreants into their own group. Hans is engaged to Frieda who like him is a midget but has become infatuated with the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra. Cleopatra, however, has recently stolen the boyfriend of another performer, the strongman Hercules, and together they mock Hans’ courteous courting whilst accepting his generous gifts and loans of money. When Frieda confronts Cleopatra about her treatment of Hans and lets slip that Hans has recently come into an inheritance, Cleopatra and Herman decide to trick Hans into a marriage and then do away with him for the money.

Hans is overjoyed to have married the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen but things turn sour at the wedding banquet when, in show of friendliness and inclusivity, the the carnival folk each drink from a large glass whilst chanting before offering it to Cleopatra who recoils in horror and screams ‘Freaks’ repeatedly. Prior to this she’s already been seen in an embrace with Hercules and has been drugging Hans’ champagne with some sort of poison. In a final humiliation, she makes several allusions to Hans’ childlike stature and manhood (or lack thereof) before putting him on her back as if he were a toddler.

Cleopatra then continues to slow poison Hans but unbeknownst to her he knows what’s up and he and the others plan their revenge. An opportune storm hits the convoy in which Hercules attempts to rape or kill his former girlfriend whilst Cleopatra runs off intro the storm pursued by the mob with knives in their teeth. In the extant version of the film this is all we see – we cut back to the sideshow proprietor who provided the opening of a framing sequence who shows us Cleopatra now disfigured and stuffed into some kind of chicken suit – a freak, like those she despised. In the full version we would have seen her legs be hit by a falling tree and her lover Hercules castrated – now emasculated he also joins their group as a member of the deformed.

We are told in the lengthy prose prologue about the code of the carnival freaks (a title they embrace for themselves), of how they stick together and a wrong done against one is done against all. Looked down upon by society and often cast out by their natural families, or even sold on to goodness knows what kind of horror in virtualised slavery who else do they have to turn to other than each other? Lacking any other recourse to justice or protection isn’t their turning on Cleopatra and Hercules who have, after all, attempted to murder and rob their friend, just natural manifest justice?

Some will argue that Freaks is exploitative, aren’t we being expected to flock toward this title to gawp at the oddities? Yes, and then again no. Browning knows we will do this, it’s part of the point of his film after all. We come as voyeurs – allured by the title and the film’s reputation but our expectations are subverted. The carnival folk are good, honest people who are kind and fiercely loyal to their friends. They are willing to welcome Cleopatra into their group yet she cruelly rejects their friendship and pays them back with scorn. The real freaks are the two ‘normal’ people who are prepared to dupe an unsuspecting man in love, exploiting his emotions for their own personal gain before dispatching him completely without a second thought.

In this way Freaks does what all horror should do, it reflects the part of yourself that is ugly, that you’d rather keep hidden. It isn’t ‘otherness’ that’s frightening, it’s your own greed and hate and prejudice. It’s just a shame that it took us so long to be able to face what we so loathe in ourselves that we can finally see Tod Browning’s Freaks for what we are.

Seen at the Prince Charles Cinema, 9th October 2012. 35mm