Military Train (軍用列車 / 군용열차, Seo Gwang-jae, 1938)

Military Train still 2Though there had obviously been increasing pro-Japanese sentiment in Korean cinema throughout the colonial era, 1938’s Military Train (軍用列車 / 군용열차, Gunyongyeolcha), a co-production with Toho, is accounted as the first government backed propaganda film. Military Train is in fact the only film ever directed by Seo Gwang-jae who began his career after winning a contest run by the Chosun Film Art Association which selected 20 people for a one year film course, later becoming an actor and film critic before debuting with his first and only feature. Prior to travelling to Japan to train with the Tokatsu Kinema in Kyoto, Seo had been a member of the left-wing Korea Proletarian Artist Federation, but it appears that by the time he came to make Military Train he had abandoned his socialist ideals and embraced militarism.

Taking advantage of the heated political context of 1937 following the break out of the Sino-Japanese war, Military Train was produced to promote the important work of the Chosun Railway running soldiers and supplies to the front lines. The hero is train driver Jeom-yong (Wang Pyong) who longs to get the opportunity to drive one of the military trains which all the men look on at with envy as they pass them by. Jeom-yong is best friends with his roommate, Won-jin (Dok Eun-gi), who is also dating his little sister Young-shim (Moon Ye-bong). Young-shim is currently working as “gisaeng” or bar girl – an occupation she took up some years ago to support her family after her father died. She and Jeom-yong have another older brother who is currently in Manchuria trying to make his fortune so he can comeback and redeem Young-shim.

The drama occurs when Young-shim’s madam informs her that there is a client interested in purchasing her contract. Young-shim obviously does not want this to happen as she is intending to marry Won-jin as soon as she is released from her life as a gisaeng. Though she assures the madam that her brother will shortly be returning from Manchuria cash in hand, there is little she can do about the fact that she will likely be sold unless they can gazump the wealthy client. This awkward situation provides an in for a shady looking man who’s been hanging round the railway. Overhearing the drama in a cafe, he approaches Won-jin and offers him a large amount of money in return for information on the movement of military trains. At his wits end, Won-jin agrees but is ambivalent about his betrayal of his country and endangerment of his friend.

This being a propaganda film, the obvious message is that Won-jin’s selfish decision to pursue his romantic desires over the national good is an unacceptable act of treason. Nevertheless, Seo’s framing of Won-jin’s dilemma is perhaps not quite the one which might be expected in that it’s only latterly that the national betrayal becomes the paramount issue. Won-jin’s primary conflict is in his betrayal of his friend, who he later hopes will become his brother-in-law, in the full knowledge that what he’s doing places them all in danger from the authorities as well as the Independence Movement while also placing Jeom-yong in the direct line of fire seeing as he may very well be aboard one of the trains blown up by the Resistance.

Then again, it is surprising in itself that the existence of the Resistance movement is even hinted at even if not directly named within the film (the suspicious-looking man is referred to only as a “Chinese spy”). This would seem to undermine the “one nation” idea that Korean cinema has been intent on pushing and explicitly enforces in the final stretch of the film in which Jeom-yong gets to drive a military train and is reminded that he does not belong to himself but to the Japanese citizens. The film carries this idea to its natural conclusion in casting a number of Japanese stars alongside their Korean counterparts including Jeom-yong’s pretty girlfriend Soon-hee (Nobuko Sasaki) and his boss at the railway. Nevertheless, Won-jin’s eventual letter of contrition further makes plain his “mistake” as he instructs Jeom-yong to do his best to preserve the Chosun Railway in order to preserve “peace in Asia”.

The action concludes “positively” from the point of view of the colonial regime as Won-jin’s treachery and subsequent reconsideration allow them to bust a Resistance cell before it can prove effective. Young-shim is eventually saved by her older brother’s return from Manchuria where he has apparently made something of himself thanks to the benefits of empire while Jeom-yong prepares to drive the shiny military train North towards glory leaving his sister behind in the pre-modern past as he prepares to enter a new age of modernity and prosperity as symbolised by the coming of Japan.


Military Train was screened as part of the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at BFI Southbank. It is also available as part of the Korean Film Archive’s The Past Unearthed: the Second Encounter Collection of Chosun Films in the 1930s box set. Not currently available to stream online.

Family Diary (家庭日記, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1938)

Family Diary posterDespite the unending popularity of the romantic melodrama, Hiroshi Shimizu never quite got the bug. For Shimizu, romance is always abstracted – it either goes unresolved or reaches a point of resolution but only through unpleasant or unpalatable circumstances. There are few unambiguously “happy” couples in Shimizu’s movies, but Family Diary (家庭日記, Katei Nikki) takes things one step further in its twin tales of the romantic destinies of two very different students one of whom took the sensible path and the other the path of foolish love.

First we meet the sensible one. Fuji (Shin Saburi) takes a last twilight stroll with his current girlfriend, Kikue (Kuniko Miyake), after which they burn their letters as a symbol of their parting. Now that his brother’s business has failed, Fuji is marrying into a wealthy family who will pay for the remainder of his studies. Meanwhile his best friend, Tsuji (Ken Uehara), is grumpily drinking with a bar girl he plans to marry despite the objection of his parents. Fuji marries Shinako (Sanae Takasugi) and becomes an Ubukata while Tsuji marries Ume (Michiko Kuwano) and goes to Dalian in Manchuria. Some years later when Tsuji returns to Tokyo along with his wife and son, Ubukata has become a successful, happily married man. Coincidentally, Kikue who had gone to Manchuria to escape her heartbreak has also returned and opened up a small hairdressing shop which runs herself as a single woman looking after her younger sister, Yaeko (Mitsuko Miura).

The contrast between Ubukata and Tsuji is set up early on as Ubukata is repeatedly categorised as cold and unfeeling where as Tsuji is unmanly and oversensitive. Ubukata describes Tsuji as “sentimental”, “too delicate”, “almost the artistic type” for his compassionate desire to avoid awkwardness between their wives who, after all, must at least try to become friends if the relationship between the men is to be maintained. He urges him to “think about simpler things” which is most often the way Ubukata appears to think. That is not to say it didn’t hurt to abandon Kikue, but he comforted himself in the knowledge that he was doing the “best” thing based on a series of practical calculations. Ubukata is not heartless, but he is a committed pragmatist and sometimes insensitive to the suffering of others who might not agree with the way he works things out as his wife suggests when she (cheerfully enough) reproaches him for not paying attention to other people’s feelings.

Tsuji, having chosen to marry for love, at times seems envious of Ubukata’s settled home life with his traditional Japanese wife who trails behind him in kimono and rarely goes out without informing her husband first. Where Ubukata’s match might be seen as a betrayal of love for money, his home is harmonious whereas the Tsujis’ is not. Ubukata, it has to be said, is polite enough to Ume but makes no secret of his distaste for her unrefined character. Tsuji’s parents objected to the match because Ume was a bar girl (and, it is implied, a casual prostitute) and though Tsuji has no problem with her past, the snobbish attitudes of men like Ubukata continue to plague her however much she tries to play by the rules of their society. When Ubukata takes Tsuji to dinner, Tsuji asks him not to tell Shinako about Ume’s past in case she looks down on her to which Ubukata tells him he’s being over sensitive but later consents if only because he finds the subject distasteful in any case and is an old fashioned gallant sort of man.

Ume is however out of place in this upper middle-class environment as she demonstrates by provocatively lighting a cigarette while entertaining Ubukata and Shinako who ends up lighting it for her with a look of mild awe in her eyes. Ume fears this world will reject her – something it ultimately does when Tsuji tries to reconnect with his family, but in reality she has already rejected it herself. Unable to see past her own fears and regrets she doubts her husband’s love and lives in constant anxiety, waiting for the next slight from a hoity toity housewife to remind her that she doesn’t deserve all of this “happiness”. Though the Tsujis are “unhappy” there is also love, even if it is complicated and often misunderstood.

Both marriages are ultimately destabilised by external forces – Tsuji’s by his family’s attempts to expunge Ume by “stealing” her son and later plotting to pay her off on the condition she absent herself, and Ubukata’s by the resurfacing of the romantic love that he sacrificed for material gain. Though Ubukata has no intention of rehashing the past, he does want to be of service to Kikue (again, misreading her feelings and attempting to make himself feel better rather than improve the fortunes of another) – something which places a wedge between himself and his wife when she eventually learns of the circumstances which led to her marriage. Yet the wedge itself is not so much caused by Kikue as by Ubukata’s supreme coolness in which he sees no reason to explain himself to his wife because his actions have satisfied his own sense of righteousness and must therefore also satisfy hers.

Though Shinako is tempted by the sophisticated, westernised ways of “modern girl” Ume, and later pressed by fears her husband has never loved her, she remains a steadfast Japanese wife, effortlessly poised and always polite even under emotional duress. Despite their obvious differences, Shinako comes to care for Ume – even becoming something like her only friend, but Ume is only “accepted” by the world of the film after she “proves” herself as an emotional woman through an act of self inflicted violence which somehow demonstrates her essential purity and goodheartedness. Ume prepares to make an exit before being shown the door, but her act of pure desperation and extreme wretchedness becomes her social salvation and finally earns her a place in the moral universe of practical men like Ubukata who now rate her worthy. Thus the social order is restored, the official bonds of marriage held up, and Ubukata’s callous and calculating way of life found to be the better course, but there’s something less than convincing in Shinako’s assertion that everything will be alright now as she and her husband become another of Shimizu’s figures disappearing over a distant bridge.


So Goes My Love (愛より愛へ, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1938)

(C) Shochiku 1938Yasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomingeki” – naturalistic stories of ordinary lower middle class life, and his early career included several forays into the world of the “tendency film” which carried strong left-wing messages. By the late 1930s however his films have shifted upwards a little and often deal with the lives of the upper middle classes as they find themselves at another moment of transition during the turbulent militarist years. In contrast with many contemporary films, Shimazu’s may seem curiously apolitical but speak volumes solely through their subtlety and direct refusal to engage with the propagandist concerns of the ruling regime.

In So Goes My Love (愛より愛へ, Ai yori Ai e), our lead, Shigeo (Shuji Sano), is a struggling writer living with his girlfriend, Miyako (Sanae Takasugi), who supports them both with her meagre earnings as a bar hostess. As we later discover, Shigeo is the eldest son of a prominent family who have (temporarily) disowned him because they don’t approve of his relationship with Miyako. Realising his dreams of becoming a successful writer are unlikely to be fulfilled, Shigeo has become moody and taciturn. He wants to find a job but isn’t exactly equipped to get one especially when the times are as hard as they are. He asks his uncle for help and gets an interview at a newspaper, but quickly realises that his uncle has set him up – he can only have the job if he “legitimises” his living arrangements. Shigeo leaves in a huff but there’s no denying he’s in a financial fix.

Things start to change when Shigeo runs into his younger sister, Toshiko (Mieko Takamine), by chance at a cafe. Toshiko insists on coming back with him to his lodgings “for future reference” but also out of morbid curiosity as a kind of touristic exercise in surveying the lives of those less fortunate. Shigeo thought Miyako would have already gone out but walks in just as she’s leaving. Though Miyako is shy and quiet, a little perturbed over being suddenly ambushed with a visitor, she does her best to ease the awkwardness between herself and her potential sister-in-law with black tea (foregoing a cup herself) until Toshiko finally consents to sit on their floor cushion. Toshiko looks around the bare, depressing flat and spots Miyako’s sewing box with a pair of freshly darned socks sitting on top. It’s immediately clear to her that Miyako is not, as her parents had suggested, some kind of gold digger (no self-respecting gold digger darns their socks, after all). More than that, she seems “nice”, which is perhaps why she’s able to put up with the petulant Shigeo with so little complaint.

The central problem is a two fold one – Shigeo has attempted to choose his own bride and therefore “modernity” over the “traditionalism” of an arranged marriage. He doesn’t particularly care about being the head of a household or about living in relative squalor save for guilt and wounded male pride that he’s condemned Miyako to live there with him (not to mention sending her out to the degrading world of hostess bars and cabarets just so they can survive). The parents have reacted badly and produced a stand-off. Shigeo’s uncle is trying to manipulate the situation to his advantage by convincing Shigeo to leave Miyako and come home, but Shigeo is a proud young man, even if he leaves Miyako there’s no way he’ll come home with his tail between his legs. If the older generation wants to win the younger one over, it will have to compromise and learn to play by less stringent rules.

Making a knee-jerk judgment, Shigeo’s father and uncle have decided that Miyako is just a passing fad, a floozy or a gold digger best worked out of one’s system young and then forgotten about (preferably so that it wounds you so badly you’re ready to accept the cold comforts of a proper arranged marriage). Rather than the uncle, it’s Toshiko who becomes the bridge when she realises how kind and devoted Miyako really is. Shigeo’s mother is also sympathetic but, sadly, it’s still the men who have the final say and it’s not until uncle pays a Miyako a visit to try and persuade her to leave Shigeo that he too begins to see how “sweet” she is and that allowing her into their family wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all. In fact, as we later realise, Shigeo’s father perhaps wasn’t so opposed as he pretended to be and was simply playing his son at his own game, planning to consent to the match once he proved that it was really “serious” and not just a passing fling. Nevertheless, Miyako’s own meekness proves the final barrier as she finds herself suddenly afraid that Shigeo’s family might think her inherent goodness is some kind of trick and she’s been plotting all along. Only when Toshiko comes to fetch her and Shigeo himself calls her to come does she finally understand it’s going to be alright.

For 1938, this rather frivolous story might seem decadent especially with its warmhearted liberalism as the union of a lower-class woman and upper-class man is finally blessed through nothing more than common sense and empathy. Though Shimazu otherwise steers clear of political concerns, he does send Shigeo, Miyako, and Toshiko to the pictures where they end up watching part of a film made by Leni Reifenstahl featuring beautifully photographed visions of lithe young men in swimming trunks after which Shigeo gets up in a huff to smoke a cigarette. Toshiko didn’t seem to enjoy it much either and tries to improve Shigeo’s mood by insisting that the next one will be better but the message is clear – Shimazu didn’t like that film and he doesn’t think you did either. Among fans of Shimazu, at least, modernity is winning. It may not be perfect (Shigeo is an obvious prig whose self-conscious masculine posturing is almost a self parody), but it’s getting there and if everyone would just forget about the “rules” and treat others with respect, decency, and understanding then perhaps things wouldn’t be in such a mess.


Short scene in which the trio go to the cinema

Five Scouts (五人の斥候兵, Tomotaka Tasaka, 1938)

five scouts still 3War, in Japanese cinema, had been largely relegated to the samurai era until militarism took hold and the nation embarked on wide scale warfare mixed with European-style empire building in the mid-1930s. Tomotaka Tasaka’s Five Scouts (五人の斥候兵, Gonin no Sekkohei) is often thought to be the first true Japanese war film, shot on location in Manchuria and trying to put a patriotic spin on its not entirely inspiring central narrative. Like many directors of the era, Tasaka is effectively directing a propaganda film but he neatly sidesteps bold declarations of the glory of war for a less controversial praise of the nobility of the Japanese soldier who longs to die bravely for the Emperor and lives only to defend his friends.

The film opens with an exciting action sequence playing behind the titles featuring impressive scenes of battle with mortar shells exploding while soldiers run over trenches before entrenching themselves with a light machine gun. Eventually the day is won – after a fashion. Having lost 120 men, the 80 surviving of the 200 strong company settle-in to a fortified position awaiting further orders.

The excitement of the battlefield soon gives way to behind the lines boredom. Danger lurks around every corner, but there is work to be done. The men dig trenches, clean their weapons, draw water, cook and eat but they also try to live, chatting or enjoying the “spoils of war” which in this case amount to stolen watermelons and captured ducks. In quiet moments they dream of sukiyaki and of home, but are content in each other’s company and as cheerful as it’s possible to be given the seriousness of their circumstances.

When two enemy soldiers are detected on the perimeter, a squad of five scouts is sent out to investigate but find themselves lost in the confusing Chinese terrain and eventually come under heavy fire. Worryingly enough, only one of the soldiers makes it back in good time with the others remaining unaccounted for until they eventually arrive save one who no one can remember seeing since the beginning of the attack and whose helmet has been found in an abandoned trench.

Tasaka refuses to glorify the business of war. What the men experience is rain and mud and sorrow, not an exultation in male virility and the politics of strength. He does however fulfil his propaganda requirements in demonstrating the army’s dedication to the Emperor. The commanding officer’s final rousing speech reminds his troops that now is the time they are expected to “repay the benevolence of the Emperor” whilst also emphasising that the hopes and dreams of the Japanese people are invested in them and, even if their families at home are worried for their safety, they are also proud of their sons fighting proudly for their homeland so far away from home.

The men too display the appropriate level of patriotic fervour, breaking off to wave at a Japanese plane before dragging out a giant banner to show their support and each remaining committed to serving even when physically compromised. One soldier with a bullet lodged in his arm, violently rejects the idea of going to a field hospital even though there is a strong chance that his arm will need to be amputated if they do not remove the bullet in due time. The soldier pleads to be allowed to stay on the front line, claiming that he does not mind losing an arm if it means he gets to stay and help his comrades. His comrades, touched by his dedication, nevertheless urge him to get his arm seen to by subtly suggesting that his desire to remain on the frontline is a kind of vanity when his effectiveness is compromised. His arm, technically speaking, does belong to the army and the Emperor after all. Another soldier, not so lucky, exclaims he can see Japan as he lays dying, singing the first verse of the national anthem before finally giving up the ghost.

As the men march off towards the final battle following the rousing speech from their commander who warns that many will die, they do so melancholically rather than with eagerness to sacrifice themselves on an imperial altar. Tasaka stages the battle scenes with impressive realism, drawing inspiration from news reel footage to capture the immediacy and energy of the live battlefield, filming on location behind the lines in Manchuria for added effect. The behind the lines sequences are intentionally less dynamic and conventionally captured, allowing the tedium and the anxiety of a soldier’s life of waiting to take centre-stage. Tasaka’s film may seem naive and perhaps lacks the initial impact of the shock of seeing such visceral action scenes portrayed on screen for the first time, but it is also mildly subversive in its subtle rejection of the militarist lust for glory even whilst heaping praise on the ideal soldier’s love of Emperor, comradeship, and strong sense of duty and honour.


Composition Class (綴方教室, Kajiro Yamamoto, 1938)

composition class posterChildren’s essay classes can yield unexpected revelations but sometimes it’s the tragedy behind the humour which catches the attention rather than a unique way of describing a situation not fully understood. Composition Class (綴方教室, Tsuzurikata Kyoshitsu) has something in common with the later Korean classic Sorrow Even Up in Heaven or even the more temporally proximate Tuition in drawing inspiration from the diaries of school age children but predictably it’s far less bleak in outlook. Though young Masako (nicknamed Maako) has her share of problems, her troubles are met with characteristic cheerfulness and a determination to carry on no matter what.

In a small town in North East Tokyo, 1938, Masako Toyoda (Hideko Takamine) lives with her parents and her two brothers in a humble home her family can barely afford. Disaster strikes when dad gets a letter from the court which he can’t read – Masako usually reads for him but letters from the court are still too difficult for a preteen schoolgirl. The family are behind on their rent and have heard that someone is trying to buy up the area with other families also facing possible eviction. Bright though she is, Masako might have to give up school and find a job as a maid while the family moves to stay with relatives who own a shoe shop. Luckily, none of that happens because the note was only about a rent increase (on the rent that haven’t paid for months).

The second crisis occurs when Masako’s teacher is taken with the essays she’s writing in class which are so real and honest that they espouse all the values he wants to teach the children. Around this time, the lady from next door, Reiko’s mother Kimiko, is leaving town (and her husband) and so gives away some her breeding rabbits as pets believing that a nice girl like Masako will be sure to take care of them and that they could use the extra money from selling the babies. Kimiko, thinking Masako is out of earshot, remarks that she was going to give some of the rabbits to the local bigwigs, the Umemotos, but even if they’re wealthy, they aren’t very nice and she wouldn’t like to think of her rabbits not being looked after. Masako naively records this minor detail in one of her essays which the teacher then sells to a local magazine. The Umemotos find out and aren’t happy which is a problem because dad gets most of his work through Mr. Umemoto who has a stranglehold on the local economy.

Through Masako’s diary and child’s eye view of the world, Kaijiro Yamamoto paints an oddly relaxed picture of depression era privation as the Toyodas endure their penury with stoicism and a belief the bad times will sometime end. Masako and her family have it a little better than some, but when bad weather puts an end to dad’s tinsmithing business and he’s forced into the precarious life of a day labourer things go from bad to worse. Now out of work more than in, the family are reliant on rice coupons to get by and spend one miserable New Year’s with no money for the first week of January when the biting cold makes it impossible to go out and forage for food. Masako writes of her embarrassment the first time her mother sent her to the shop with coupons and that she eventually got used to it, save for one occasion she ran into friends and had to quickly cover by saying she’d bought rice bran rather than collecting the rice dole. Like Masako, dad is a good natured soul though he’s also fond of drinking and is often let down or tricked out of his money, even being cheated out of his bicycle which he needs to keep working.

Sadness is all around from the man next door who’s so poor he doesn’t even have money for sake to the dejected Kimiko who eventually returns pale, drawn, and barely recognisable only to find her husband remarried to a much younger woman. Though Masako is a bright girl with a talent for writing her future is already limited. At one low point, her mother seems excited about the idea of selling Masako off to a geisha house where she will at least be fed, have pretty clothes, and maybe make a good match with the sort of man who marries former geishas. Needless to say, Masako is not very enthusiastic, and neither is her teacher who pledges to save her from such an unpleasant fate but luckily it never comes to that. Other girls will be going on to high school and university, but Masako counts herself lucky to have got a job in the local factory which will provide a steady income for her family. Though it’s a shame Masako is denied the same opportunities as the other girls because of her family’s poverty, she does at least pledge to keep writing even as she marches happily towards work and a (possibly) brighter future.


Aizen Katsura (愛染かつら, AKA The Tree of Love/Yearning Laurel, Hiromasa Nomura, 1938)

aizen katsura posterJapan’s political climate had become difficult by 1938 with militarism in full swing. Young men were disappearing from their villages and being shipped off to war, and growing economic strife also saw young women sold into prostitution by their families. Cinema needed to be escapist and aspirational but it also needed to reflect the values of the ruling regime. Adapted from a novel by Katsutaro Kawaguchi, Aizen Katsura (愛染かつら) is an attempt to marry both of these aims whilst staying within the realm of the traditional romantic melodrama. The values are modern and even progressive, to a point, but most importantly they imply that there is always room for hope and that happy endings are always possible.

The heroine, Katsue (Kinuyo Tanaka), has found herself in a difficult position for a woman of 1938. Married off at a young age in payment of a family debt yet rejected by her husband’s family, Katsue’s fortunes fall still further when her husband passes away suddenly leaving her alone and eight months pregnant. Her daughter, Toshi (Kazuko Kojima), is now five years old and Katsue has a good job as a nurse at a local hospital. The job allows her to support herself, her daughter, and her older sister but the problem is that the hospital has a strict policy of not employing married women. Katsue isn’t married anymore, she’s a widow, but the fact that she has a daughter she is raising alone makes her familial status a grey area. She’s been hiding her daughter’s existence from her colleagues in case it costs her the job she needs to survive, but a chance encounter in a park threatens to ruin everything.

Thankfully, Katsue’s colleagues at the hospital turn out to be nice, reasonable people who respond sympathetically on hearing Katsue’s explanation about why she’d avoided telling them the truth about her daughter (and that, crucially, she had been married and the child was conceived legitimately). Her next problem occurs when the son of the hospital’s chief doctor, Kozo (Ken Uehara), returns after graduating university and the pair strike up a friendship which eventually blossoms into romance. Kozo’s father, however, is intent on arranging his marriage to a girl from another medical family – a long held tradition and, in an odd mirror of Katsue’s situation, the marriage is a way of getting additional investment for the rapidly failing clinic. Kozo asks Katsue to run away with him to Kyoto but she still hasn’t told him about Toshi or her previous marriage out of fear of losing not only her new love but her position at the hospital if he rejects her. Just as Katsue is about to go to meet Kozo at the station, Toshi falls ill.

Despite the austerity and conservatism of the times, Aizen Katsura is a very “modern” story in which Katsue’s pragmatic solution to her difficulties is praised and even encouraged. Her life has been an unhappy one in many ways – sold into an arranged marriage at 18, forced out of her hometown after rejection by her husband’s family, and finally widowed in the city, Katsue has been let down at each and every juncture. Alone with a baby, her choices were few and her only support seems to come from her older sister who has no husband of her own (at least, not one that is present), and takes care of Toshi while Katsue has to go out and earn the money to support the family.

Society does not quite know what to do with an anomaly like Katsue who cannot rely on extended family. She needs to support herself and her child but many jobs still have a marriage bar which extends to widows with children. The only options for women who can’t find a solution as elegant as Katsue’s aren’t pleasant, the hospital is a dream come true as it both pays well and is a respectable profession, but if the management found out about Toshi, Katsue could be left out in the cold with little prospect of finding more work despite her nursing qualifications.

The times may be harsh, but the world Katsue inhabits places her on the fringes of the middle classes. Kozo, as young doctor and heir to the clinic (Japanese hospitals are often family businesses) is far above her but is, in some ways, equally constrained. Whilst recognising a duty to his father, Kozo is resolute in refusing the idea of an arranged marriage conducted for financial purposes. He determines to set his own course rather than be railroaded into something which is for his father’s benefit and not his own. Deeply hurt by Katsue’s actions but not attempting to find out why she acted as she did, Kozo enters a depressive spell, sitting around resentfully and not doing much of anything. Luckily for him, the woman his father has picked out, Michiko (Sanae Takasugi), is a thoroughly good person who, once she finds out about Katsue, becomes determined to see that true love wins rather than being shackled to a moody young man and spending the rest of her life in a one sided relationship with someone still pining for a first love.

Katsue’s dreams come true only once she begins to give up on them. Leaving the hospital and returning to her home town with no firm plans, Katsue gets herself a career through luck and talent when a song she enters in a competition is picked up by a leading record label. Music rewards her financially but also gives her a sense of confidence and a purpose which puts her on more of an even footing with Kozo even if he sits in the stalls while her colleagues fill the balcony. Her salvation is both self made and something of a deus ex machina, but the broadly happy ending is intended to give hope to a hopeless age, that miracles can happen and second chances appear once two meet each other openly with full understanding and forgiving hearts.


 

The Silenced (경성학교: 사라진 소녀들, Lee Hae-Young, 2015)

the-silencedThe Silenced (경성학교: 사라진 소녀들, Gyeongseonghakyoo: Sarajin Sonyeodeul) has all the classic genre aspects of the boarding school horror story familiar to fans of gothic literature everywhere, but this is no Victorian tale of repressed sexuality and hallucinatory psychosis. What The Silence does is take all of these essential elements and remix them as a metaphor for the horror of colonialism. Surrounded by quislings and forced into submission in order to survive, how does the essential soul of an oppressed people survive? The Silence would seem to argue that perhaps it can’t, but can evolve and learn to resist its colonisers even if it has to bend to do so.

Korea, 1938. Teenage girl Ju-ran (Park Bo-Young) is dropped off by her rather cool step-mother at a hospital school before her parents relocate to Tokyo. On arrival, Ju-ran switches to her Japanese name of Shizuko which raises a stir among her new schoolmates because another girl with the same name previously occupied her new bed before disappearing suddenly without a word of goodbye. Her physical resemblance to the previous Shizuko, coupled with her ill-health, provokes mistrust among the other girls, especially top girl Yuka and her minions. Shizuko is now expected to get used to all of the school’s arcane rules and regulations as soon as possible or risk harsh punishment. This includes “treatment” for her illness which involves frequent distribution of pills, injections, and other experimental courses. Before long Shizuko begins to notice odd behaviour among the girls, some of whom begin to disappear.

After a lengthy series of diplomatic manoeuvres beginning in the Meiji era, Japan annexed Korea in 1910 beginning a period of direct rule which would continue until the end of the Second World War. During this period, Japanese became the dominant, official language and mainland Japanese culture sought to displace that of the indigenous Korean society. The school, as an official institution, is careful to follow these regulations to the letter. Each of the pupils has a Japanese name which becomes their “official” designation, the Korean identity is “buried” with Korean birth names used only with close friends whose trust is certain.

Similarly, the school’s official language is Japanese with lessons and official business always conducted in the appropriate language. Linguistic shifts suddenly become an interesting phenomenon as the girls continue to talk to each other in their native Korean in the school room and out (even if sticking to Japanese names) but maintain order by obeying commands in the language of authority. The headmistress generally sticks to Japanese, at least when she’s at the lectern, but notably switches to Korean when addressing a girl personally or when she wishes to appear kind and non-threatening rather than authoritarian. This point is further brought home when one girl descends into a fit of rage and attacks another, ranting and raving in Japanese whilst gripping the other girl’s throat. Korean is both the language of kindness and friendship as opposed to the coldness and violence of the official Japanese, and a tool to be manipulated in order to create a false sense of camaraderie between colonised and coloniser.

The school is staffed by collaborators working with the Japanese authorities and training these young women to be model Japanese citizens. Part of their classwork involves a large embroidery project sewing beautiful pink cherry blossoms onto a map of Korea – a motif which is later chillingly repeated by sewing those same flowers onto the body the body of a collaborator. Tokyo has become a kind of magical wonderland paradise and the school even offers the girls hope of advancement there through winning a competition based on physical ability in which the school will select the two most promising candidates and dispatch them to the capital. The headmistress, once the final mystery has been exposed, begs the Japanese military forces to put their faith in her because she is determined to become a loyal Japanese citizen and leave this backward Korea behind forever.

The main thrust of the narrative centres around the interplay between these teenage girls who stand in for a subjugated people, ruled over by their collaborating teachers. Shizuko (Ju-ran) strikes up a friendship with Kazue (or Yeong-duk to restore her Korean name), previously the best friend of her predecessor. The two girls become closer though the the disappearance of the previous Shizuko always stands between them. Beginning to solve the mystery, the two girls are the only opposition to the ruling regime as they accept the various “benefits” of their treatment and education, and return to use them against their oppressors. The girls’ innocence has been corrupted by their experiences, but this same corruption is the very thing which allows them to take a stand for their independence.

Though the supernatural is posited as the ultimate enemy, the solution of the mystery leads straight back into the political realm rather than any less Earthly kind of evil. Director Lee Hae-young generates a supremely creepy atmosphere from the opening sequence onwards which empahises the gothic aesthetic and inescapable presence of something dark lurking in the shadows. Though using minimal instances of jump scares, supernatural episodes, and hallucinatory images, the film pushes its horrors into the real world even if the solution it ultimately offers is more akin to a superhero origin story than a revolutionary uprising. Beautifully photographed, The Silenced is the story of those denied a voice realising they have the right to rebel but like any gothic horror story paints its central battle as an ongoing, unwinnable fight against the darkness.


Original trailer (select English subs from settings menu)

The Masseurs and a Woman (按摩と女, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1938)

vlcsnap-2016-05-19-23h22m51s149Hiroshi Shimizu takes another relaxing sojourn in 1938’s The Masseurs and a Woman (按摩と女, Anma to Onna), this time in a small mountain resort populated by runaways and bullish student hikers. Once again Shimizu follows an atypical narrative structure which begins with the two blind masseurs of the title and the elegant lady from Tokyo but quickly broadens out to investigate the transient hotel environment with even a little crime based intrigue added to the mix.

We arrive at the resort town at the same time as the masseurs themselves who’ve walked all the way passing the time playing games with each other over who can guess how many children are in a group travelling the same way or counting how many people they manage to overtake on the road. Comically, their efforts to pass a group of students actually frighten them a little bit so they take off at speed meaning Fuku and Toku miss their daily target.

As well as the group of male students and another group of female ones, the town is also host to a mysterious and beautiful woman from Tokyo who seems both a little sad and a little scared with a tendency to overreact to small sounds and unusual situations. The other main group is a little boy and his uncle with whom he seems to have something of a troubled relationship.

Toku becomes fascinated with Michiho, the mysterious woman from Tokyo, whom he recognises because of her distinctive perfume. Though he is blind, he “watches” her – sensing where she goes and reading her emotional state. He seems to realise there’s very little possibility that she will return his interest, though he allows her to play on the obvious feelings he has for her, and the pair strike up a melancholic friendship. However, Michiho is only interested in making a play for the good looking uncle of the little boy who she has also befriended but the boy eventually goes cold on her, feeling a little rejected because she spends so long talking to his uncle. The two neglected guys, Toku and the boy, form their own kind of friendship as the blind masseur is the only person who is willing to have some fun with him in this slightly less than child friendly resort in which he’s unspeakably bored.

This being a holiday town, it’s a place that only exists for a small amount of time before sinking back into the mists like Brigadoon when the season ends. All things are transient here and everyone is just passing through. The friends you make are just for now and this brief respite from everyday life will fade from the memory like a pleasant dream. Toku ought to know this as he spends his life in such places, providing additional relief for the weary traveller, yet he still has a yearning to connect which is only exacerbated by the feeling that his blindness cuts him off from everyday society.

When a spate of bath house thefts occur and it turns out Michiho has been seen at each of the crime scenes, Toku comes to the obvious conclusion even though his feelings make him reluctant to suspect her. He tries to help Michiho evade punishment for what he believes are her crimes only to find out a very different sort of truth that sees her eventually decide to continue her journey onward to an uncertain future (though at least one that is 100% of her own devising).

Again, Shimizu opts for a lot of location shooting emphasising the beauty of the scenery and the tranquility of the atmosphere. Mostly he sticks to static camera shots, aside from one lengthly tracking sequence and the hand held finale walking after a departing cart, but when he tries to show us the vision of a blind man it’s a striking moment – a whirling chaos where we too can almost smell the elusive perfume of a woman we know is “beautiful”  though we cannot see her, and also know is deliberately toying with us. A melancholy look at the transience of human relationships and the impossibility of true connection, The Masseurs and a Woman is a genre melding tragicomedy filled with innovative directorial flourishes that are once again far in advance of their time.


The Masseurs and a Woman is the third of four films in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu box set.

This is the only video clip I can find but it’s not subtitled and it has quite a long speech about Hiroshi Shimizu’s career at the beginning so skip to 2:17 for the film itself: