Fisherman’s Fire (漁火 / 어화, Ahn Cheol-young, 1939)

vlcsnap-2019-02-18-01h49m56s589Late into the colonial era, Korean Cinema became heavily invested in selling the “one nation” idea. Signs of “Koreanness” such as language, dress, and customs were actively discouraged if not directly suppressed while censorship regulations prevented any negative comment on the Japanese empire. Back in Japan, however, there was an appetite for an exoticised view of the colonial landscape which in part played into the idea of Korea as a “backward” land in need of Japanese sophistication. 1939’s Fisherman’s Fire (漁火 / 어화, Eohwa) was directed in Korea by Ahn Cheol-young as a collaborative project between the studio he had co-founded, Keuk-gang Film Company, and the well established Japanese studio Shochiku where it is was “supervised” by Yasujiro Shimazu who prepared the film for Japanese audiences.

Like many Japanese films of the 1930s, Fisherman’s Fire revolves round a young woman from the country who is mis-sold dreams of freedom and urban sophistication only to be misused and betrayed by unscrupulous men. In-soon (Park Rho-kyeong), a fisherman’s daughter, is in love with local boy Chun-seok (Park Hak) but her family is poor and her father has taken on a huge debt from the local lord, Mr. Jang. In-soon longs to follow her friend Ok-boon (Jeon Hyo-bong) to Seoul where she might be able to earn money to help repay the debt but her family aren’t keen for her to go and even though Ok-boon has apparently been able to make an honest life for herself other girls gossip about those who went to the city with big dreams but ended up pressed into sex work.

When her father is lost at sea in a storm, Mr. Jang pressures In-soon’s mother to give him In-soon as a concubine in exchange for the debt. Horrified, In-soon doesn’t know what to do but is unexpectedly saved by Jang’s son Cheol-soo (Na Woong) who gives her mother the money to cancel the arrangement. In-soon ends up going to Seoul, where she has arranged to meet Ok-boon, with Cheol-soo but when she gets there discovers that he has ulterior motives. He traps her in his apartment for 10 days while claiming he has been unable to contact Ok-boon, eventually taking advantage of her before she is able to (temporarily) escape.

In-soon’s sorry tale is one familiar from Japanese cinema of the 1930s – that of a young woman who has been betrayed by an inconsistent level of modernity from which she receives only the dangers and none of the benefits. Then again, her village home was not so innocent – she was after all about to be sold as a concubine to a lecherous old man, meaning that this isn’t simply tale of the pastoral innocence versus urban sophistication. As we discover, Ok-boon found herself in a similar situation to In-soon but was able to escape it and not only that, she has also become “financially independent” which is what she encourages In-soon to become as the only way of freeing herself from the clutches of cads like Cheol-soo who press their patriarchal privileges in order to take advantage of naive girls like In-soon who haven’t been made aware they have the power to refuse.

Unlike the heroine of Sweet Dream whose desires of leading a more fulfilling life eventually lead to nothing but a dead end, In-soon is in a sense allowed to leave her disappointments behind in the city and, as Ok-boon surprisingly advises her, forget about what happened with Cheol-soo and live her life. Traumatised and shamed by her experience, In-soon eventually ends up in sex work, attempting suicide when confronted by a leering Cheol-soo, but discovers that her friends and family have not changed their opinion of her and though she may be looking at it with new eyes, her village is still as beautiful as it has always been.

The village’s visual beauty is, in a sense, the point in that the film was quite obviously made to showcase the idyllic country landscapes of the colonial territories along with the charming local customs which is perhaps why the film is bookended with documentary-style scenes of the fishing community singing and dancing to folksongs as well as including minor details like a shrine visit. Indeed, some Japanese critics felt the film had “failed” in its aims precisely because of In-soon’s eventual journey to the city which loses the feeling of local flavour they regarded as its selling point. What the Japanese audience craved was an exoticised vision of ultra-Koreanness that was in fact entirely created in Japan – something many felt the film did not sufficiently offer which is why it did not prove popular with audiences or critics. Supervised and prepared in Japan for Japanese audiences by Shochiku’s Yasujiro Shimazu, edited by Kozaburo Yoshimura, featuring music by the Ofuna Orchestra (repurposing a traditional Korean tune), and utilising a narrative familiar from domestic films, Fisherman’s Fire is an attempt to sell a manufactured vision of Korea as charmingly unsophisticated and rooted within the romantic pastoral past.

Nevertheless, it has its surprising elements such as the startlingly progressive Ok-boon whose independent city life is praised rather than criticised even if In-soon eventually retreats back to her idyllic village home. Cheol-soo, the feckless landlord’s son, gets a comeuppance for his wicked ways in being fired from his job for unreliability and incompetence which stands in for a kind of karmic punishment for his cavalier misuse of In-soon and other women like her in his attempt to assert his feudal entitlement in the improper environment of the modern city. Unlike the conservative Sweet Dream, Fisherman’s Fire finds scope and possibility for the young women of a new society and is prepared to be forgiving of them even when they fail.


Fisherman’s Fire 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.

Singing Lovebirds (鴛鴦歌合戦, Masahiro Makino, 1939)

singing lovebirds still 5With things the way they were in the Japan of 1939, you might have expected cinema to have taken a universal turn to the dark side but surprisingly enough there was still room on the silver screen for silliness as the improbable marvel of Singing Lovebirds (鴛鴦歌合戦, Oshidori Utagassen) makes plain. Legend has it that musical master of the jidaigeki Masahiro Makino threw Lovebirds together in record time in order to fill a production gap after big time star Chiezo Kataoka was struck down by appendicitis in the middle of filming On the Road with Yaji and Kita. Kataoka is also Lovebird’s nominal male star though his appearance is understandably limited (his scenes were shot later and apparently in a matter of hours) leaving veteran actor Takashi Shimura to pick up the slack as an antiques obsessed disenfranchised former samurai who finds himself at the centre of a dastardly plot orchestrated by the higher ups to solve an ongoing romantic crisis among the youngsters.

The crisis revolves around the handsome Reizo (Chiezo Kataoka) – a young ronin betrothed to a young lady from a well to do family, Fujio (Fujiko Fukamizu), whose father is keen to make the marriage official as quickly as possible. Reizo, however, has fallen for Oharu (Haruyo Ichikawa) – the daughter of ronin umbrella maker Shimura (Takashi Shimura). Meanwhile, Reizo has also become an object of affection for the daughter of a wealthy local merchant, Otomi (Tomiko Hattori), who is spoilt and entitled to the extent that Reizo’s resistance only enflames her ardour. If all that weren’t enough to be going on with, a randy local lord (Dick Mine) is also actively chasing most of the women in the area and after getting turned down by Otomi has his sights set on Oharu.

Peaceful times allow for small bursts of chaos and ongoing romantic silliness which is where we find our conflicted heroes, yet there is a persistent strain of anxiety in the precarious lives of the disenfranchised ronin who find themselves trapped in a cycle of wilful degradation which prevents them from taking on work unbefitting of a gentlemen and, consequently, permanently on the brink of starvation. Umbrella making, a frequent ronin-friendly occupation in the world of the jidaigeki, is one such way of making ends meet, but Shimura can only afford to feed his daughter barley much to her consternation. Rather than use his meagre resources for short term satisfaction he’s decided to “invest” them in various “antiques” which he believes both bolster his status and can be sold to provide a dowry for Oharu when she decides to marry.

Unfortunately, Shimura is mistaken – he’s not got as good an eye for antiques as he thought and is a well known mark for the local hawker. Everything he has is a fake and he’s wasted a small fortune on useless trinkets. Shimura’s antiques mania also leaves him open to other kinds of scams and manipulation when he gets himself into a small amount of debt to the randy lord and Fujio’s dad (Mitsuru Toyama) who have tricked him in order to try and get Oharu out of the Reizo picture and into the lord’s bedchamber. Unlike many Jidaigeki dads, however, Shimura is a nice guy and tells the higher ups where to get off because what kind of father sells his daughter for the price of a pretty tea bowl?

Shimura’s logic might not make much sense to the lords, or to many other residents of the jidiaigeki world, but is perfectly in keeping with the film’s surprisingly humanist morality in which all are made to realise that greed is bad, money is silly, and at the end of the day all that really matters is true love (even if you have to live in a hovel and survive on barley gruel for the rest of your life). Even the spoilt Otomi is finally forced to realise that you can’t force love and the best you can do is try to support other people’s happiness while you wait for yours to come along (which it is more likely to do once you start being nicer to everyone including your long suffering manservant).

Bright, cheerful, and filled with zany humour Singing Lovebirds is a refreshingly warmhearted piece of eminently hummable escapist fluff providing a much needed distraction from the austere world of 1939 in which its particular brand of anti-capitalist humanism would seem to be extremely out of place. Nevertheless, the corrupt and oppressive samurai order gets a much needed comeuppance, the little guy realises he doesn’t need to play their game anymore, and a young woman realises the only person she needed to feel good enough for was herself. A happy ending for all and an umbrella wielding dance routine to boot – who could ask for anything more?


Brief clip (extremely poor quality, no subtitles)

Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1939)

Okayo's Preparedness title cardYasujiro Shimazu had been the pioneer of the “shomingeki” and a fierce chronicler of the lives of ordinary lower middle class people. The growing presence of the militarist regime, however, demanded a slight shift of focus. 1939’s Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Okayo no Kakugo) has its share of propaganda content, but it’s also mildly subversive. In the conventional narrative, a woman must get married and a man must find a purpose. Shimazu turns this upside-down – a man becomes a husband and a woman finds artistic fulfilment in the midst of heartbreak.

In the contemporary era, Osumi’s (Kuniko Miyake) husband has been drafted and is away fighting at the front leaving her alone at home where she makes ends meet running a traditional dance school while looking after their small daughter Mitsuko (Kazue Hayashi). Okayo (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the star pupil at school and also a live-in apprentice, functioning almost as a servant but regarded as a member of the family. The trouble begins when a Osumi gets a visit from her brother-in-law who has received a letter from her husband in which he requests some photographs of his wife and family going about their daily lives while he is unable to be with them. The amateur photographer he’s brought along is a young man of quality and the older brother of one of the school’s pupils. Okayo has developed a fondness for Shunsaku (Ken Uehara) during her time walking his little sister home and secretly hopes he returns her affections. Shy and nervous, she is nevertheless overjoyed when he takes her for tea while they wait for the photographs to be developed. Shunsaku, however, was just being kind. He actually has his eye on another pupil at the school (someone more of his social class) and Okayo is destined to experience her first real heartbreak.

Shimazu gets his propaganda obligations out of the way fairly quickly. We cut to a picture of a man in uniform proudly hanging on the wall whom we later realise to be Osumi’s absent husband. Though Osumi worries about him, his enlistment was regarded as a cause for celebration – Okayo felt obliged to have a rare cup of sake, and it’s clear Osumi is proud to be married to a man defending the nation. Nevertheless, it is also clear that he is experiencing suffering – Okayo and Osumi wonder if he too can enjoy the simple pleasures of warm sake and boiled tofu so far away from home, and Osumi also makes sure to send him a pair of of geta in her care package fearing that he may be missing the small but essential facets of his Japaneseness. Though this is only 1939 and the situation is not yet “serious” there is the betrayal of a mild anxiety in Osumi’s fears as well as in her husband’s letter which states the anxiety he feels after learning that a friend was told of trouble at home only after the fact. After all, it’s hard to put unpleasant news in a letter to someone you know to be already experiencing hardship. Hence the request for the photographs – real visual evidence that his wife and daughter are healthy and happy, rather than mere words which may be offered in the interests of comfort.

Meanwhile, Shimazu is secretly building a second argument behind the scenes. We expect the simple love story of Okayo and Shunsaku will proceed along the usual lines. He will come to appreciate her and they will marry despite the class difference and the difficulty of the times. That is not, however, what happens. Okayo’s attraction is apparently one-sided. Osumi’s brother-in-law warns her that Shunsaku is popular with the ladies, even if he also points out his rather stiff, respectable nature. Shunsaku’s mother has apparently had difficulty finding a suitable match for him which increases Okayo’s hopes, but the reason turns out to be that he has developed at attraction for another pupil at the school, as Okayo finds out listening at the door when Shunsaku’s mother comes to Osumi for an additional character reference. All at once Okayo’s world collapses. She remembers that she is a servant, forever separated from the “nice young ladies” who take classes at the school, and that her youthful romance has been little more than a distracting fantasy.

Earlier on, while taking tea with Shunsaku, Okayo had remarked on how important Osumi had told her her dancing training was as a means of achieving independence and self-sufficiency. The ability to dance well enough to teach (and acquire such well regarded pupils) is after all how Osumi has been able to support herself with a husband away in the army. Osumi’s brother-in-law also tells her something similar when he reminds her that it’s important for her to concentrate on her art rather than getting lost in a romantic daydream. Osumi, realising how hurt Okayo has become after overhearing her conversation with Shunsaku’s mother tries to comfort her with the same logic, convincing her that her infatuation in an entirely normal part of being young and that it will pass. Encouraging her to concentrate on her dancing so that she can turn it into a valid career, Osumi provides both a shoulder to cry on and a valid plan for the future, remaining both sympathetic and supportive in witnessing her pupil’s suffering.

Making a bold formal switch, Shimazu dramatises Okayo’s moment of self-actualisation as a dance sequence taking place in parallel to Shunsaku’s wedding. Sadly picking up a bow she slowly moves to the stage and begins to sing, eventually moving into dance before the scene dissolves and Okayo is in full costume, mid-performance playing the part of a brokenhearted woman watching her beloved marry another. Having danced through her pain and doubly experienced the suffering of her romantic disillusionment, Okayo collapses in exhaustion on the bare stage of the studio, gazing out at the windows and weeping once again as they remain empty yet perhaps open.


Four Seasons of Children (子どもの四季, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1939)

vlcsnap-2016-12-08-00h10m14s613Isn’t it sad that it’s always the kids that end up hurt when parents fight? Throughout Shimizu’s long career of child centric cinema, the one recurring motif is in the sheer pain of a child who suddenly finds the other kids won’t play with him anymore even though he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. Four Seasons of Children (子どもの四季, Kodomo no Shiki) is actually a kind of companion piece to Children in the Wind which also makes use of this motif, as they’re both based on works by the same author, Joji Tsubota, and feature the same cast playing characters with the same names. Four Seasons differs slightly in its form as it originally played as two films released at the same time with the piece split into four sections following the two central brothers across the course of a particularly traumatic year.

Beginning in spring, younger brother Sampei (Bakudan Kozo now known as Jun Yokoyama) is excitedly waiting for the arrival of an old man (Takeshi Sakamoto) who brings masks for the children and rides a fine horse. Unfortunately, Sampei takes a tumble and arrives last when only a noh style mask of a lady’s face remains which really doesn’t appeal to him (later he asks his older brother Zenta (Masao Hayama) to draw a moustache on it to make it look ”stronger”), so the old man offers to give him a ride on his horse to make up for it. Sampei and Zenta don’t think they have any grandparents, but Sampei thinks it would be nice if the old man were his grandpa for real.

After he does a typical Sampei thing and falls off a cow, Sampei’s mother (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) arrives and realises that, yes, mask man really is her estranged father who disowned her after she got married without his consent. Happy that perhaps her parents have finally forgiven her, Sampei’s mother is also a little bit worried as they’ve never explained to the children why they weren’t in contact with her parents and she’s afraid it might upset them. There’s also another problem. The boys’ father (Reikichi Kawamura) is currently very ill, and their dairy farm isn’t doing well either. The family have large debts secretly taken out with the father-in-law’s company behind his back, so all of this could quite easily backfire. More drama erupts when an ambitious underling, Rokai (Seiji Nishimura), realises there’s a possibility the old man will take his daughter’s family as his direct heirs rather than promote from within the company and starts on a series of fiendishly machiavellian plans to oust his rival.

The boys, however, know very little of this. They love their cows and life on the ranch, and the thing they’re most sad about is when they end up having to move in with grandpa for a while to avoid some of Rokai’s scheming. Having been very popular in their old town, the boys are slower to make friends and quickly run into a problem with the son of the man who’s causing their family so much bother. A typically melancholy episode sees little Sampei wandering off on his own to make friends with the carp in the local lake because there’s no one else for him to talk to. However, the boys later bond with their would be arch nemesis, Kintaro (Teruo Furuya), in defiance of the ongoing feud between their families, even going so far as to carry him on their back all the way home after he breaks his leg falling out of a tree when his father stupidly “repossesses” the backyard where the kids have been playing together safely.

Gradually, as time wears on, the allegiance of Kintaro and his mother starts shift away from Rokai and towards the boys and their family who have never been anything other than kind to them. In a nice piece of symmetry, it seems the two women were also close childhood friends who have been kept apart thanks to the ongoing pettiness instigated by the menfolk. The grandfather, having fully patched things up with his daughter, is doing his best to remain on the side of decency despite Rokai’s underhanded tactics but finds himself increasingly cornered by his finagling. The boys’ commitment to their friend and refusal to give in to Rokai’s attempts to use the children to perpetuate his feuding only serve to remind everyone how petty and self serving Rokai’s actions really are.

Rokai is several times described as “a real villain” by the disbelieving grandpa, constantly exasperated by the dishonourable conduct of someone he’d employed on his staff for several years. Yet aside from Rokai himself, it’s greed and pettiness that are the true villains of of the piece. The boys’ father gives them some very important advice for their future lives when he tells them not to strive to have more things than other people but to be generous in its place. Rokai, afraid and resentful, eventually gets his comeuppance, ending a long year of torment for the Ono family and restoring justice to an unjust world.

The boys themselves know little of the details of the feuds between their families, worrying about normal things like whether they’ll be able to go on to middle school and wondering how the cows are doing back at their old ranch. It’s these details at which Shimizu excels as usual, perfectly capturing the reality of childhood even whilst giving more space to adult concerns than he often did in many of his other, more purely child centred films. Once again making great use of location shooting, Shimizu captures the fast disappearing rural paradise the boys inhabit which is entirely divorced from the political tension of the day. Another warm and humorous tale of kids and the way they often become the accidental victims of a grown up dispute, Four Seasons of Children perfectly unifies all of Shimizu’s ongoing themes right up to its necessarily just, compassionate, ending.