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.


 

Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (丹下左膳余話 百萬両の壺, Sadao Yamanaka, 1935)

million ryoSadao Yamanaka had a meteoric rise in the film industry completing 26 films between 1932 and 1938 after joining the Makino company at only 20 years old. Alongside such masters to be as Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi, Yamanaka became one of the shining lights of the early Japanese cinematic world. Unfortunately, this light went out when Yamanaka was drafted into the army and sent on the Manchurian campaign where he unfortunately died in a field hospital at only 28 years old. Despite the vast respect of his peers, only three of Yamanaka’s 26 films have survived. Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (丹下左膳余話 百萬両の壺, Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo) is the earliest of these and though a light hearted effort displays his trademark down to earth humanity.

The plot turns on the titular one million ryo pot when the local feudal lord inconveniently discovers that an ugly vase with a weird monkey pattern is actually a hidden treasure map just after he’s palmed it off on his younger brother as a kind of family heirloom. The brother, Genzaburo, is both angry and insulted that his vastly wealthy brother has given him such a worthless gift rather than the money which he feels he is owed. An underling is dispatched to try and get the pot back but Genzaburo is so annoyed about it that the pot gets sold before he finds out its value. The peddlers who buy it don’t know either so they give it to a little boy to keep his pet goldfish in. Eventually the boy comes into contact with Tange Sazen who is a popular character of the time known for the scar across his eye and lack of one arm. Round and round the pot goes but where it stops, no one knows – though in the end, it’s not the pot or even the treasure that really matters.

There’s something quite amusing about the central irony that this whole mess started with a stingy rich old man accidentally cheating himself out of a vast amount of money that he really didn’t need in the first place. Genzaburo does seem more like the impoverished and subjugated kind of samurai, but still he’s not exactly starving and has a large staff to support him. His concern is more with the humiliation he feels in the way he is treated by his brother. Truth be told, Genzaburo is a feckless and clumsy man who knows he has little talent or ability and continues to sulk about it. He’s even subjugated by his wife at one point after she discovers how much time he’s been spending at the local geisha house leading to another embarrassment when he tries to sneak back in late at night and is beaten up by his own servants who assumed he was a thief.

Indeed, Genzaburo repeatedly utters that finding the pot could take ten or twenty years – like a noble quest for justice! The truth being that he loses interest in the idea of actually finding it because it would mean an end to his life of “looking for the pot” which allows him to spend all his time shooting arrows with the ladies at the bar. In essence, Genzaburo is the harmless, childish kind of second tier samurai who complains about harsh treatment and lack of status but at the same time enjoys a life of leisure, indulging his personal whims and ignoring his feudal responsibilities as well as his family home.

Tange Sazen, by contrast, is well known from various other kinds of media as a loose cannon swordsman and wandering ronin gambler but here he’s more of a gruff but goodhearted ne’er do well. He seems to be in a fairly solid but perhaps unofficial relationship with the no nonsense owner of the archery-parlour-cum-geisha-palace, Ofuji, and together (more or less, after a lot of arguing and refusing) they take in the orphaned little boy, Yasu, who, unbeknownst to all, is keeping his prized goldfish inside the very pot which everyone is looking for. In fact, Genzaburo and Tange Sazen have been sitting next to it all along but entirely failed to notice.

This is just one strand of the film’s deeply felt humour as everyone fails to see what is staring them right in the face. Yamanaka proves far ahead of his time employing comedic techniques including frequent uses of what would later become know as a “bicycle joke” in which a character swears they’ll absolutely never do something only for the film to cut to them doing exactly that. Tange Sazen and Ofuji bicker endlessly – particularly about Yasu whom they’ve both become quite attached to despite their claims to the contrary. In addition to the frequent wipes and dissolves, Yamanaka’s direction is resolutely forward looking and inventive which, coupled with a more naturalistic acting style, lend it an oddly modern air for a film completed in 1935. Humorous and heartwarming with a little social commentary thrown in, Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot is a wonderfully put together ensemble comedy which still proves hugely entertaining eighty years later.


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