Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (乙女ごころ三人姉妹, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Three sisters with maiden heart title card“From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us” Mikio Naruse is often quoted as saying, and it’s certainly an idea which informs much of his filmmaking. 1935’s Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (乙女ごころ三人姉妹, Otome-gokoro  Sannin-shimai), adapted from a short story by Yasunari Kawabata, is indeed a tale of the world’s cruelty as its saintly heroine attempts to escape her austere mother’s icy grip through kindness alone but finds her efforts frustrated by the world in which she lives.

Osome (Masako Tsutsumi) is the middle of three sisters raised by a cold woman (Chitose Hayashi) who forced her daughters to earn their keep by playing the shamisen on the streets of Asakusa. Oldest daughter Oren (Chikako Hosokawa) left the family some time ago after falling in love with a salaryman and hasn’t been heard from since, and while Osome is still expected to ply her trade, youngest daughter Chieko (Ryuko Umezono) has been spared, becoming a “modern girl” currently working as a dancer in a revue. Unbeknownst to her family, Chieko has also got a boyfriend – the handsome and seemingly quite wealthy Aoyama (Heihachiro Okawa) who runs into Osome by chance in the street and offers her a handkerchief to help fix her broken geta. This is not the story of a love triangle, however, so much as cruel fate accidentally bringing the sisters back together through a shared destiny.

While Chieko idly muses that it might have been better if her mother had opted for group suicide (joking with her lover about dying together as was apparently a fad at the time), Osome tearfully asks her to “please accept us as we are” but her pleas largely fall on deaf ears. Having taken in a series of apprentices, Osome’s mother continues to treat them cruelly, berating them for not picking up the shamisen, and insisting on “discipline” when she discovers one of the girls has had the temerity to buy a magazine with some of the money she herself has earned. Osome, in a characteristic act of kindness, insists she bought the magazine as a morale booster only to receive her mother’s scorn. “I put so much effort into raising you, but you still haven’t become people who’ll give an honest day’s work” she complains, commodifying them once again. “You don’t know how much easier it would be to go out and earn money myself”, she adds unconvincingly, telling her daughter she can always leave if she doesn’t like it despite having irritatedly complained about Chieko’s increasingly late return home and the possibility she may leave just like Oren did.

As Osome tells us, she and her sister were forced to play the shamisen in unsavoury Asakusa from only eight years old. As they got older, Osome was worried about the attention Oren seemed to be getting from “rough” men in the streets. Eventually Oren stopped carrying her shamisen at all and fell in with a bad crowd, only escaping when she met her husband Kosugi (Osamu Takizawa). Kosugi, however, is ill with TB and finding it difficult to hold down a job. Increasingly jealous and paranoid, he is afraid Oren will hook up with her old gangster friends and fall back into bad habits. Meanwhile, Osome is still playing her shamisen and putting up with rough treatment from the drunken clientele who sometimes try to manhandle her or make unreasonable requests. An irritated bar owner eventually knocks on a record to drown her out as if signalling her impending obsolesce.

Nevertheless, the older two sisters have largely remained traditional. Oren’s fall into the gangster underworld is signalled by a sighting of her in Western clothes, looking like a well to do young lady as Osome puts it, but once with Kosugi she soon reverts to kimono and fully embraces the role of a conventional housewife supporting her husband with all her strength. Chieko, however, is a “modern girl”, dancing in a nightclub revue and dressing exclusively in Western fashions. Some horrible boys who make a point of singing the rather vulgar song back at the girls through the window yell “modern girl” at her in the street, indicating just how shocking and unconventional her appearance was back in 1935 even in the backstreets of Asakusa. Nevertheless, Chieko appears to have found a satisfying romance with a “modern boy” in Aoyama who dresses in suits and seems to have a bit of money but is undeterred by a possible class difference and just as nice as his potential sister-in-law.

Despite Osome’s attempts to reunite the sisters, fate conspires against her. Oren hooks back up with her lowlife friends who use her in a plot to extort Aoyama while she remains completely unaware that she’s targeting her sister’s young man. Osome tries to tries to stop them but is stabbed by thugs in the process and, figuring out what’s happened, keeps Aoyama and Chieko away from the station where she has arranged to bid Oren goodbye on the last train out of Ueno. Poignantly, Oren seems happy that her sister has found someone nice, saying that she’d have liked to meet him still unaware she already has. The sisters know they likely won’t meet again, and Osome is content only in knowing that in theory at least she has saved the memory of the bond they once shared through preventing Oren’s involvement in the incident with Aoyama from coming to light.

Osome’s kindness is her undoing. Her world betrays her, she is simply too good, too pure-hearted to be able to survive in it. The three sisters struggle to overcome neglectful parenting, but their mother has at least survived if unhappily, suggesting the world is kinder to those whose hearts are colder. Oren and Chieko go their separate ways, into the past (on a train) and the future (by car), but Osome remains stubbornly in the waiting room with only the inevitable awaiting her.


The Actress and the Poet (女優と詩人, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Actress and the Poet title cardAmong the directors most closely associated with the golden age of Japanese cinema, Mikio Naruse is not usually remembered for his sense of humour but his pre-war work often saw him making uncomfortable forays into the shomin-geki comedy. The Actress and the Poet (女優と詩人, Joyu to shijin), Naruse’s second film after leaving Shochiku for P.C.L, is among the more successful but also tinged with characteristic irony that says this is funny because it’s not funny at all.

The generic shomin-geki setup finds us in a small community of suburban houses where mild-mannered poet Geppu (Hiroshi Uruki) lives with his successful actress wife Chieko (Sachiko Chiba). Amusingly enough, and in a motif which will be repeated, the film opens with an high impact scene of a woman screaming after being threatened with a knife, but thankfully it turns out that Chieko and her friends are simply rehearsing for a play. The actors dispatch Geppu to fetch them some cigarettes, which brings him into contact with his no good “friend” Nose (Kamatari Fujiwara), a struggling writer who is absolutely sure his latest work is going to win a big prize which is why it’s not a big problem that he’s so behind on his rent that he’s been coming and going through the upstairs window so he doesn’t attract the attention of his landlady.

When we first meet Geppu he’s wearing a pinny and cheerfully hanging up the washing. A young man passes by on a bicycle and seems surprised, asking if he himself really did all that laundry to which Geppu somewhat improbably replies that it’s all second nature when you’ve been in the army. Even though this is obviously a very “normal” day for Geppu, the questions keep coming. Ohama (Haruko Toda), the nosy woman from next-door, remarks that everyone in the neighbourhood loves Geppu because he’s just so nice but he’s also become a hot topic with the ladies at the bathhouse because no one’s quite sure what it is he “does”. In the modern parlance, Geppu is a basically househusband who dabbles in “poetry”, or as Ohama later explains “songs for children”.

In this fiercely modern environment, it’s Chieko who wields the financial power while her husband appears not to mind trailing behind. She wears kimono but often with luxurious furs which might lead to us ask why they live in this modest suburban house rather than in the bright lights of the city, but even so the marriage appears to be a happy and progressively equal one. In fact, as we later discover, there’s never been a cross word between Geppu and his wife, which is a problem because Chieko’s latest role involves a marital tiff and she’s struggling to get to grips with it because she doesn’t know what it’s like to fall out with your spouse. To figure it out she gets Geppu to read lines with her in a situation which eventually repeats in their real life when Nose bamboozles Geppu into letting him stay in the upstairs room rent free, leading to an almost identical fight watched calmly by Nose and Ohama who think they’ve got ringside seats to a play they could never afford to see.

Nose’s intervention unbalances the couple’s relationship in that it forces Geppu to reassert his masculinity. “A promise between men is a serious thing”, Geppu affirms “I can’t just go back on it because my wife says no”. Chieko reminds him, however, that this is technically her house – she pays all the bills, while his “writing” career is good only for the odd box of sponge cake. She doesn’t like it, perhaps understandably, that he’s “invited” a ne’er do well to come and live with them without even bothering to talk to her about it. She tries to put her foot down, but Geppu remains as irritatingly passive as ever only slightly putout to have his subjugated status suddenly used against him.

Naruse ends the picture with a comic sequence in which Chieko sees the light. Thanks to her real life argument with her husband, she’s figured out how to perfect her performance but she’s apparently so method that she also begins to embrace her role as a conventional wife off stage too. Rather than Geppu letting her sleep in and cooking the breakfast himself, this time it’s Geppu wrapped up in a futon while Chieko chops veg downstairs. Nevertheless, there is a minor irony in this moment of domestic bliss in that it directly follows the news that the nice young couple who just moved in across the road have committed double suicide because of his embezzlement and subsequent debts. Neatly underlining the consumerist trends of the age, the couple wanted to die in their own home even if it was only “theirs” for a few moments. Meanwhile, Ohama and her insurance salesman husband are busy having a blazing row next-door which just goes to show that old-fashioned marriages aren’t so happy either.

Chieko superficially plays the conventional wife, engaging in a little role-play with her husband while Nose listens on from the stairwell, but theirs remains a very modern marriage in which she is free to fulfil herself outside the home and her husband is seemingly unbothered (to a point at least) by the mild censure of the local ladies who both love him for his niceness and perhaps dislike him for it too. Naruse undercuts the conventionally “happy” ending in which traditional gender roles are restored and the family rebalanced by ending on a note of irony as the home of Ohama, a traditional wife dominating her henpecked husband in a comic yet socially accepted fashion, is thrown into violent discord while all is peaceful in the decidedly modern house of Geppu.


Wife! Be Like a Rose! (妻よ薔薇のやうに, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Wife be like a rose posterIt’s tempting to view the cinema of the 1930s as a gloomy affair, facilitating the rise of militarism and increasingly at mercy of the censors, but the early sound era was nothing if not playful and generously open to international influences. It was also often surprisingly progressive, evidencing the fact that pre-war Japan was also changing or, at least, that there was an appetite for change especially among the young. Mikio Naruse’s delightfully charming (perhaps uncharacteristically so) comedy, Wife! Be Like a Rose! (妻よ薔薇のやうに, Tsuma yo bara no yo ni) dramatises just this change as its modern girl heroine tries to process the definitive end of her parents’ relationship as she prepares to marry.

Kimiko (Sachiko Chiba) has a job in an office which is more or less supporting herself and her mother seeing as her father, Shunsaku (Sadao Maruyama), left the family over 15 years previously and has been living with former geisha with whom he has two other children. Despite his long absence, Kimiko’s mother Etsuko (Toshiko Ito) has continued to pine for her absent husband and makes a little money on the side writing sad love poems for the newspapers. A request to stand as a go between at a wedding, traditionally a role only performed by married women, forces Etsuko to accept that she has been abandoned but the snag is that Kimiko and her boyfriend Seiji (Heihachiro Okawa) want to get married themselves and so his father wants to meet Kimiko’s dad which is obviously a problem.

Despite her “modern girl” appearance, Kimiko has some quite old fashioned ideas. She looks down on her maudlin mother, believing that she’s brought her apparent romantic heartbreak on herself through being a bad wife. Etsuko never seemed very interested in Shunsaku when he was around and never did any of the little wifely things Kimiko thinks a wife ought to do like vacuous chat and helping her husband change out of his work clothes. Kimiko thinks a good wife “acts childish and cajoling, or jealous sometimes, or motherly and protective”, believing that Etsuko knows this and has the ability to play the part of the ideal spouse but refuses to and therefore has only herself to blame. Kimiko’s uncle (Kamatari Fujiwara), however, corrects her. He piles the blame on the irresponsible Shunsaku who ran out on a wife and daughter to shack up with geisha.

Shunsaku, meanwhile, may be irresponsible in one sense, but perhaps it’s equally irresponsible to stay in an unhappy marriage. Now a gold prospector in the mountains, he is poor and unsuccessful but has built a happy family home with a kindly wife and two sweet children. Kimiko’s desire to drag him back to the city is partly practical in that she needs him to be her father so she can marry Seiji, but there’s also a part of her that thinks that her father’s transgression must be corrected by forcing him to resume his paternal role. Unlike Etsuko, however, Oyuki (Yuriko Hanabusa) is the classically “good” wife and Kimiko can’t deny she’s good for her father. Seeing him in the mountains and remembering him at home, Kimiko begins to realise that it would be wrong to take him away from his new family even if she thinks she has the better claim, especially when she finds out that it’s Oyuki who’s been sending her mother maintenance cheques every month for the past few years.

In fact, Oyuki feels so guilty about stealing Shunsaku away that she’s been putting money aside to pay for Kimiko’s wedding/education while keeping her own daughter home from school. Far from the gold digger Kimiko had assumed her to be, she’s been the one supporting the feckless Shunsaku as he pursues his get rich quick dream of gold prospecting. Realising that the pair of them “act in perfect harmony”, Kimiko comes to the conclusion that her father belongs in the mountains but finds her resolve wavering after returning to civilisation. She begins to wish he’d stay and hatches a plan to get her parents back together only to see how out of sync they are after 15 years apart. They swap pleasantries like strangers, and the mild-mannered Shunsaku visibly shrinks in the presence of the shrewish Etsuko who allows her pride to ruin any attempt at reconciliation.

What the modern girl Kimiko discovers is that sometimes things don’t work out like they’re supposed to, and that’s OK. Though it is in one sense a “happy” ending in that it obeys a justice born of human feeling, it’s also a melancholy moment of defeat both for the lovelorn Etsuko who has, as Kimiko says “lost”, and the now resigned Kimiko who harbours a degree of contempt towards her mother for not fighting harder for love. Standing at a crossroads of modernity, Kimiko looks both forward and back. She vows to be a “good wife” but her foundations have been shaken. Is this tragedy, or farce? She asks herself. It’s almost impossible to say.


Lumberjack and Lady (與太者と小町娘, Hiromasa Nomura, 1935)

vlcsnap-2019-03-01-23h23m29s757Remembered mostly for his 1938 melodrama Aizen Katsura starring Kinuyo Tanaka and Ken Uehara, Hiromasa Nomura was a prominent studio director at Shochiku in the pre-war period before decamping to Shintoho in 1948 and then to Daiei in the mid-50s before shifting back to Shintoho and then to TV for the final part of his career. Much of his earlier work is presumed lost, but a late silent effort from 1935 Lumberjack and Lady (與太者と小町娘, Yotamono to Komachi Musume, AKA The Layabout and the Town Belle – part of the “yotamono” (layabout) series) seems to showcase a talent for slapstick comedy while perhaps engaging with the concerns of the time in its three heroes’ quest to defend their mountain against an evil upstart from the opposing peak.

The trouble begins when our three “stooges” get themselves stuck on a logging cart and accidentally end up on the other mountain where a rival logging group run by the fabulously moustachioed Torazou (Isamu Yamaguchi) are not exactly happy to see them. Just when things look grim for our heroes, Torazou himself shows up and saves the day, handing them a letter to take back to their boss, Kaheiji (Sojin Kamiyama). The letter, however, contains ill tidings – Torazou wants the hand of Kaheiji’s pretty daughter Kayo (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) and makes plain that he’s not about to take no for an answer.

The early part of the film revolves around the comical exploits of our three bumpkins who are always accompanied by their three adorable dogs. The guys are all, predictably, in love with Kayo but in a dreamy, innocent sort of way – there is no conflict between them over their shared love of the boss’ daughter, only a sort of pure hearted camaraderie and a desire to make sure the best is done for her which means putting paid to the evil Torazou once and for all.

In a mildly interesting twist, it’s clear that the Kaheiji gang are the poor but honest crowd. Our guys dress in torn and battered clothing, remaining unable to pay off their tabs with the wily old lady who runs the local store even after old Kaheiji has given them some money to go out on the town. Torazou’s boys, however, seem to be doing much better. Torazou himself is portly man in early middle age who is always accompanied by his bizarrely tiny henchman who is always ready to repeat whatever it was his boss just said only with additional menace. It’s clear we don’t want Kayo to fall into his clutches lest her innocence be polluted by his grubby little hands. A mustache twirling villain, Torazou is perhaps as close as you might be able to get in 1935 to a personification of the evils of the age as an exploitative capitalist fat cat who thinks he can do as he pleases because he has the most minions and the most friends in handy places. Not much of strategist, he thinks nothing of trying to force himself on the grieving Kayo as she bends over a grave, somehow convinced that this will be a surefire way to win her love and pave the way to a happy marriage.

The action takes an unexpected direction in the second act after a key player mysteriously falls off a cliff in true silent movie fashion. Realising they need to find a “suitable” husband for Kayo (i.e. someone not like them but of a higher social class), the guys run into “Mr. Yamazaki” (Den Obinata) from Tokyo who, unbeknownst to them, is Kaheiji’s chosen successor and a potential fiancé. Kenji brings some Tokyo class out to the mountains along with a little youthful hotheadedness in which he cannot help but refuse to back down in the face of Torazou’s continuous shenanigans – an act which accidentally puts Kayo in danger while he fixates on proving himself the bigger the man.

A light and fluffy escapade, albeit one which perhaps subtly reinforces some of the ideas many maybe seeking escape from, Lady and Lumberjack is largely built around the slapstick adventures of our three idiot heroes which are enlivened by the fresh mountain air and beautiful location shooting. Drawing inspiration from popular Hollywood silent comedies, Nomura perhaps fails to tie his series of set pieces together in a suitably coherent fashion but fully embraces the film’s sense of silly fun (mostly had at the expense of the decidedly dim, if essentially good, lumberjacks) while ensuring a victory for the honest little guy against the forces of selfishness and corruption.


A Hero of Tokyo (東京の英雄, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1935)

Hero of Tokyo still 1Hiroshi Shimizu’s ‘30s films, made against the backdrop of the increasingly censorious militarist regime, had an ambivalent attitude to Japan’s wider foreign policy, its economic impact, and prospects for the future. His final silent film, A Hero of Tokyo (東京の英雄, Tokyo no Eiyu), the title of which is perhaps either deceptive or mildly ironic, is among the bleakest of Shimizu’s depictions of a changing society he perhaps saw as increasingly corrupted by greed and inhumanity. A hahamono of sorts, Hero is not as crushing as Forget Love For Now, but ends on a note of frustrated ambiguity in which wrongdoing has been exposed and justice served but at a terrible cost, leaving the institution of the family itself and therefore the entire social order lying in pieces and broken beyond repair.

The film begins among Shimizu’s familiar milieu of small boys as they watch the trains that will eventually bring their fathers home to them coming and going. Some of the boys stay to play but eventually only one is left behind – Kanichi (Tomio Aoki), whose widowed father constantly works late and leaves him alone in the care of their maid. Kanichi’s father, Nemoto (Yukichi Iwata), is engaged in a local mining concern and, berated by the maid who reminds him that his son is often lonely, decides to marry again to bring order to his house. After placing an ad which states he is a widowed CEO with a good salary, Nemoto marries Haruko (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) – a widow with two children of her own, Hideo (Jun Yokoyama) and Kayoko (Mitsuko Ichimura). A short time later it is discovered that Nemoto’s business is a scam and he flees town leaving his family to face the music alone. Haruko, committed to raising all three children equally, must now find a way to support herself but as a woman with young children and few qualifications there are few jobs available to her. Soon she falls into bar work which may not be “respectable” but allows her to support her family.

10 years later, Haruko owns a fine suburban house and the children appear to be leading a fine middle-class life. Trouble begins when Kayoko (Michiko Kuwano) marries a nice middle-class young man only to be “sent back” soon after the wedding when his family find out about Haruko’s “shameful” past. Though Haruko had told the children that she worked “in a club where executives come to relax” when they were small, Kayoko is shocked and appalled to discover her mother is tainted with the stigma of the sex trade and even more so when her mother’s past threatens to destroy her future. Haruko begs her not to tell her brothers, but Hideo (Koji Mitsui) finds out from his girlfriend, who also dumps him on hearing the rumours, and goes off the rails. Only Kanichi (Mitsugu Fujii), the step-son, stands by the mother he regards as the “best in Japan”, feeling both profound gratitude and sorrowful empathy for the sacrifice she has made on his behalf.

At heart a hahamono, A Hero of Tokyo fits neatly into Shimizu’s career long interest in female oppression in casting Haruko’s trials as entirely caused by being badly let down by a patriarchal society. Having lost one husband and being betrayed by the second, Haruko is forced to stand alone in a society which refuses to forgive her for it. As a “married” woman, she can gain no “honest” work and the necessity to care for her children means that she cannot take a role in service which in effect means dedicating oneself to a family which is not one’s own. She lacks qualifications or connections and has no family to support her and so she is forced into the only remaining line of work available to women in her situation. Haruko makes a great success of herself and becomes an upright businesswoman running her own establishment even if she cannot be exactly proud of the achievement which does (to her own shame and regret) rely on the degradation of other women just like her, though she tries to do the best for them that she can.

Yet her children, as all ungrateful children of a hahamono, are unable to forgive her for the transgressions she was forced to make entirely for their benefit. Having cast their mother as a saint of elegance and decorum, they cannot accept this new information which renders her a mere woman at the mercy of a cruel society. Kayoko, having run away from home, ironically finds herself in the same, or perhaps a worse, position, becoming a streetwalker – by her own admission “famous” and an accidental subject for one of Kanichi’s episodes of investigative reporting as a rookie newspaper man. Meanwhile Hideo has crossed to the other side and joined the ranks of exploiters of women in joining a gang only to get himself into trouble for trying to leave it when he realises he has become a hired goon for one of Nemoto’s stooge companies. The children are “ruined” not by their mother’s “sin” but by the conservative society that forced her into it and by the paternal failures of Nemoto whose abandonment reduced them to dire desperation.

It is, in this sense, Haruko rather than Kanichi who is the “hero” of the title – valiantly battling against the prejudices and cruelties of the city whilst retaining her innate sense of honour decency and steadfastly shielding her children from suffering. Her attempt to protect them perhaps backfires, leaving them without the necessary perspective and humanitarian spirit to feel empathy for others rather than succumbing to the judgemental attitudes of the age. Thus both of the biological children are condemned to suffer in the very way Haruko suffered to prevent and then find themselves too ashamed to return to her. Only Kanichi who had already suffered in his childhood loneliness, in his shame for the transgression of his father, and his position as a step-son doubting his place in a family which was not his by blood, is able to accept and sympathise with his mother’s suffering and experiences only guilt and gratitude that she had chosen to sacrifice herself for his greater happiness.

Yet Kanichi’s role as the good son is also tainted by his filial opposition to his father as it necessarily conflicts with his desire for social justice as a crusading reporter. Kanichi’s desire to expose corruption is ultimately for the common good – to save innocent people being deceived by his father’s dishonourable scheming, but it’s also an act of revenge aimed squarely at a symbol of broken patriarchal responsibilities. In the various names Shimizu attaches to Nemoto’s sham businesses, he aligns him with the expansionist Japanese state which was currently attempting a similarly dishonourable attempt to sell the economic gains of its imperialist project built on the back of international exploitation and dishonesty. It is not just a father who has failed his family, but “the” father which is failing its people in leading them down a dark and disturbing alleyway in which honour and morality no longer have any currency.

Kanichi too profits from his father’s crime – his first bonus is a direct result of the exposé of his father’s company and so he also becomes part of a system of corruption. His actions, however, are not entirely accepted by Haruko who is ashamed and troubled by Kanichi’s crime against filial piety and therefore by his betrayal of the social codes which define his society. Kanichi has picked a side, but in doing so he has also damned himself and emerges not victorious but compromised. Despite the “happy” ending, in which justice has been done and the emotional bonds of the true family restored, the concluding scenes remain ominous as the newspaper boy delivers the sorry news all over town and ruptures the tranquil middle-class peace of Haruko’s once happy suburban home.


Okoto and Sasuke (春琴抄 お琴と佐助, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1935)

Okoto to SasukeYasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomin-geki” – naturalistic tales of ordinary working people in the contemporary era, but 1935’s Okoto and Sasuke (春琴抄 お琴と佐助, Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke) sees him step back from the modern world in adapting a soon to be classic novella by contemporary novelist Junichiro Tanizaki. Published in 1933 under the title Shunkinsho and set in late Meiji, Okoto and Sasuke is another in the author’s long series of dark erotic dramas which aim to explore the baser elements of the human heart while engaging in a kind of cultural soul searching. The first of many adaptations, Shimazu’s scales back on Tanizaki’s taste for the perverse as well as his wry sense of humour, spinning a tender tale of love which finally finds its home only in the shared darkness of two becoming one in self imposed exile from the visible world.

Okoto (Kinuyo Tanaka) has been blind since she was nine and, though her parents appear to dote on her, has a proud and imperious manner which sees her mistreat those who only seek her friendship. Fearing that, due to her disability, Okoto will never find a suitable husband, the family have decided to let her study the koto and shamisen (traditionally strong areas for the blind) so that she might be able to support herself and have some degree of accomplishment. Sasuke (Kokichi Takada), a young servant at the pharmacy run by Okoto’s father, began escorting Okoto to her classes for no especial reason but as he is one of the few who can cope with Okoto’s moods, and is one of the few Okoto seems to tolerate, he quickly became her personal companion.

Sasuke remains completely devoted to Okoto even when she treats him cruelly. So many areas of their relationship are an inversion of the customs of the time – Okoto is the mistress, while Sasuke is the servant, she is strong while he is weak, she is cruel and he is kind. She has all the power, and he has none but seems to revel in his degradation, obeying each and every one of Okoto’s commands and rarely minding even when she strikes him. Nevertheless, despite her outward contempt for him Okoto is also dependent of Sasuke – not only for the assistance he provides, but for the gentle touch of his hands and his willingness to place himself entirely under her authority in worshipful devotion.

The relationship between the pair is one of (seemingly) chaste sadomasochism in which both reject the “normal” romantic affectations of their time. Despite the obvious class difference, Okoto’s family are secretly hoping Okoto and Sasuke will someday marry – an idea floated with intense seriousness when it is discovered that Okoto has become pregnant though she refuses to name the father of the child, denying that her lover is Sasuke and vowing that she would find it “humiliating” to be married to a mere servant.

There is something, as uncomfortable as it is, which presents Okoto’s pride as a kind of rebellion born of her blindness, a rejection of the world which has rejected her as “imperfect” and which she literally cannot see. Despite her family’s reservations Okoto does acquire a suitor, but he is only interested in her precisely because of her blindness. A playboy, Ritaro has fetishised Okoto’s “difference” and sees her almost as a trophy, captivated by her intense beauty and only spurred on by her haughtiness. A friend of Sasuke’s, by contrast, hearing the rumour of Okoto’s pregnancy, expresses horror at the idea of a “disabled” woman with a child, avowing that society would never stand for such a thing, rejecting and salivating over the salacious rumour at the same time. Okoto will pay a heavy price for her violent rejection of Ritaro’s attempt to reduce her to a mere conquest, ironically allowing him to rob her of something, but eventually leading her towards the destiny which will bind her forever to her devoted servant, Sasuke.

Okoto, having suffered facial disfigurement, comes to realise the true nature of her feelings for Sasuke but cannot bear for him to see her ruined face, and he, dutifully, resolves to keep his eyes closed as if blind. Ultimately Sasuke opts for the traditionally female act of sacrifice in deciding to shift from his own world into that of Okoto. Together they cut themselves off from the outside world, electing to live in a world made for two alone in which none else may enter. Their act is one of intense individualism taken as a pair who have become one in their mutual devotion, rejoicing in a love born of darkness. Shimazu undercuts Tanizaki’s need for discomfort to present the final union of Okoto and Sasuke as the uncomplicated realisation of a love deep and true – concluding with an intertitle rather than succumb to the inherently melodramatic resolution of Tanizaki’s eroguro love story. Nevertheless through the powerful performance of Kinuyo Tanaka as the increasingly conflicted Okoto, Shimazu manages to capture something of the “pure” love of equals who find their place in a changing world only by removing themselves from it.


Burden of Life (人生のお荷物, Heinosuke Gosho, 1935)

Despite being at the forefront of early Japanese cinema, directing Japan’s very first talkie, Heinosuke Gosho remains largely unknown overseas. Like many films of the era, much of Gosho’s silent work is lost but the director was among the pioneers of the “shomin-geki” genre which dealt with ordinary, lower middle class society in contemporary Japan. Burden of Life (人生のお荷物, Jinsei no Onimotsu) is another in the long line of girls getting married movies, but Gosho allows his particular brand of irrevent, ironic humour to colour the scene as an ageing patriarch muses on retiring from the fathering business before resentfully remembering his only son, born to him when he was already 50 years old.

Rather than focussing on the main narrative right away, Gosho gives us a crash course in marital relations as we meet middle sister, Itsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who is currently posing for a raunchy portrait her starving artist husband is painting. Itsuko dresses in Western style, smokes openly and often, and her home is a bohemian one of the kind you’d imagine a (well to do) artist from the ‘30s would live in. The couple are interrupted by their brother-in-law who has come in search of his wife, Takako (Yoshiko Tsubouchi), with whom he’s had yet another argument causing her to storm off somewhere or other in a huff.

Takako has indeed stormed off, but has gone to her mother’s where her younger sister, Machiko (Mitsuyo Mizushima) is preparing for her own wedding and now feeling quite nervous hoping that it won’t be as tempestuous as Takako’s. The three sisters also have a little brother, Kanichi, who is doted on by the women of the family but has a strained relationship with his father, Shozo (Tatsuo Saito). The main conflict occurs once Shozo has successfully married off Machiko and begins happily contemplating a burden free life only to remember that little Kanichi is only eight and so there are twelve more years of fatherhood ahead of him and he’ll be 70 before he gets any peace. In order to speed up the process, he tells his wife Tamako (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) that maybe Kanichi doesn’t need to go school and should go out and get a job instead. Tamako, rightly outraged at her husband’s persistent coldness towards their son brings things to a head by leaving the family home.

The themes are common ones as a family faces the successful marriage of its youngest daughter but the pattern is complicated by the loose end that is Kanichi. Much younger than his sisters, it’s easy to believe Shozo’s assertions that his arrival was somewhat unexpected but far from a joyous surprise Shozo still seems to regard him with a degree of mild horror. Fearing becoming an elderly father Shozo’s concerns are fair given the additional burdens placed on him in having to find good husbands for three women and then pay for their weddings and dowries never mind a college education for a son he never wanted. Kanichi seems to be aware on some level of the way his father feels about him as a poignant scene implies when he begs some of the other neighbourhood children to keep playing with him even though it’s past tea time because he doesn’t want to go home if his dad is there.

Shozo fails to reform his opinion even after his wife leaves him. Almost delighting in a late life slice of batchelorhood, Shozo heads into the bar district for a night out where he ends up drinking with some younger guys, surrounded by students singing the Keio University song. His attention is momentarily taken by a small boy of around Kanichi’s age who is selling flowers to amorous patrons but it’s only once a hostess calls him “papa” that he seems to feel aged fatherhood reassert itself. Enquiring about her age he discovers she is only 19 – much younger than any of his daughters, and consequently Shozo begins to feel more like a ridiculous old man than a young buck on the prowl.

Gosho draws a number of contrasts within his “ordinary” family from the three sisters who seem to represent the changing times in their differing attitudes to the husband and wife and the division of their home. Itsuko, Westernised and brassy, is living well beyond her means and touching her parents for money in order to do it. Talking things over with the kimono’d Takako who offers to recommend a traditional hairstylist for Machiko’s wedding, Itsuko has some advice for dealing with men which she calls “reverse psychology”. Takako and her husband may not have children and fight all the time, but she is in other ways a model wife even if she thinks married life ought to be simpler than it is. Machiko is caught on the brink, though we never see her husband, wondering what her own married life will entail. Her father, Shozo, lamenting on his responsibilities remarks that women are like products for sale, requiring investments which will eventually pay off in terms of successful marriages but any investment in a son is, in a sense, a waste. Family, for him, is less a social unit and more a mini business enterprise from which he was looking forward to retiring.

In the end of course he changes his mind though more out of loneliness or a sense of mortality than any less selfish emotion. Slight at 66 minutes, Gosho packs in as much detail as possible whilst maintaining a broadly comic, almost screwball tone filled with selfish husbands and calculating wives all making the most of the relatively stable times. Life has many burdens but sometimes it’s better to rebrand those burdens joys and make the most of them before someone else decides to carry them for you and all you’re left with is an empty sort of lightness. You’re only old once, after all.