The Song Lantern (歌行燈, Mikio Naruse, 1943)

Mikio Naruse famously denounced his wartime films, dissatisfied with himself largely for personal rather than political reasons though among those which survive it is possible to detect a degree of subversion even in his most “national policy” pieces. 1943’s The Song Lantern (歌行燈, Uta-andon) opens with a title card reminding the audience to “support the honour of family and people” and is in part a filial morality tale in which the hero is disowned by his father for his thoughtless haughtiness, though also one which largely manages to skirt its way around the censorship regulations through its historical setting and emphasis on traditional noh theatre. 

As the film opens, a troupe of noh players is moving on to its next destination when they are recognised by a man on the train who liked their performance but also claims to have seen better and if they want to account themselves true artists they need to pay a visit to Master Sozan (Masao Murata) who lives in the area they are heading to. Onchi Genzaburo (Ichijiro Oya), the troupe’s leader, takes this with good grace but his son and heir Kitahachi (Shotaro Hanayagi) is extremely offended. Genzaburo had just been talking with his brother about how good Kitahachi’s performance had been and how glad they are that he will be succeeding them, but were careful not to be overheard because they already think Kitahachi is a little full of himself. Still resentful, Kitahachi does indeed decide to pay Sozan a visit without telling his father or revealing his identity having heard from the maid at the inn that Sozan is a blind masseur who also runs a restaurant but she dislikes him because he has three mistresses, something which leaves Kitahachi mildly scandalised. 

Kitahachi gets him to sing his signature song but remains unimpressed, eventually slapping his thigh to beat out what is, in his view, the proper rhythm leaving the old man breathless and unable to continue singing. Sozan concludes that his guest must also be a great noh master and begs to hear him sing, but Kitahachi cruelly refuses and leaves in huff, rudely rebuffing Sozan’s daughter Osode (Isuzu Yamada) on the way out in the mistaken belief that she is one of the mistresses. The next morning, however, he is accosted by his father who wants to know if he saw Sozan the night before. He admits that he did but goes no further until he is informed that his stunt left the old man feeling so embarrassed that he took his own life. A group of reporters is outside wanting a statement. Encouraged by an audience who reveal that actually everyone hated Sozan and they’re glad he’s dead so Kitahachi need not fear offending them, he tells all but is disowned by his father who forbids him from singing noh ever again. 

So begins Kitahachi’s wandering. The troupe suffers without him, but Genzaburo is unwilling to forgive his son viewing it as bad luck to share a stage with someone who shortened another’s life. As his uncle points out, Kitahachi was raised to be a noh performer and if he can’t perform he has no other way of living. What he resorts to is becoming a street singer, strumming a shamisen and singing popular material. His new occupation provokes another humbling when he’s given a dressing down by a man whose career he has just ruined by shifting into his territory. After hearing him play, Jirozo (Eijiro Yanagi) relents, recognising Kitahachi’s technique as superior and therefore unable to resent him for undercutting his business. Jirozo too is in a similar position, “disowned” by his sister after losing his job as a cook and attempting to earn enough money to go back to his hometown to live right once again. 

Kitahachi is incapable of going back because he is still haunted, almost literally, by the figure of Sozan whose ghost he sees during sake-fuelled nightmares. He’s thinking of paying a visit to the old man’s grave to apologise, but gets another idea when Jirozo advises him to try helping Sozan’s daughter whom he, quite coincidentally, met while doing odd jobs and subsequently rescued from being pelted with eggs after being sold off by her wicked stepmother. Learning that Osode was a daughter not a mistress, Kitahachi feels even more guilty, but realises there is something he can do after Jirozo tells him that she is now working at his sister’s geisha house but is entirely incapable of mastering the shamisen. For some reason, however, he doesn’t teach her how to play an instrument, but gives her a crash course in traditional noh dance in only seven days which is not actually all that useful for an aspiring geisha but might at least help her with her determination never to become someone’s mistress. 

Kitahachi undergoes several humblings and then finally manages to atone only through becoming a teacher, passing on his art to an amateur. It’s Osode’s skill in learning the dance which eventually paves the way for his forgiveness and a possible return to his previous life while Genzaburo also decides to “adopt” her as a daughter, ensuring she won’t ever have to be a mistress (and will most likely become Kitahachi’s wife). Forgiven by everyone but himself, Kitahachi comes “home”, completing the cycle in regaining his position within the family and the theatre troupe in healing the rifts caused not only by his filial failures but his disrespect of the art in his selfish misuse of it to humiliate a man more like himself than he cared to admit.


The Fellows Who Ate the Elephant (象を喰つた連中, Kozaburo Yoshimura, 1947)

The Japan of 1947 was one still very much caught up in post-war chaos. In the cities, most particularly, hunger was a major problem. The Fellows Who Ate the Elephant (象を喰つた連中, Zo wo Kutta Renchu) may have a title that strongly recalls the screwball comedies of the ’30s, but is less slapstick comedy than dark satire in its central premise that a bunch of idiot mad scientists might actually eat a deceased elephant in extreme dedication to “mottainai” waste not want not philosophy coupled with the justification that all is permissible in the name of science. 

The elephant is, apparently, the last in Japan and was the childhood friend of zookeeper Yamashita (Chishu Ryu) who brought him all the way over the mountains from Thailand after the war. “Shiro-chan” is very ill with some kind of elephant cold but for some reason the doctors the zoo uses aren’t vets specialising in large, exotic animals but virologists. While they stand around apparently mystified, Yamashita enquires after the professor he usually deals with but is told that, despite being over 60 years of age, he’s currently away on honeymoon after marrying a very young and extremely beautiful woman. Sadly, Shiro doesn’t make it. The professor is saddened to learn of the death from the paper and wonders if it might have been a virus similar to one which attacks hoofed animals like donkeys and horses but is not usually found in Japan (Shiro is Thai after all). 

This is relevant because the disease is fatal and contagious but does not usually pass to humans and is only a risk if you come into direct contact with it, like say if you eat meat from an infected animal. No one would eat an elephant though so there’s nothing to worry about. Enter extremely unpleasant mad scientist Wada (Shinichi Himori) who decides that science dictates they must find out if it’s sanitary to eat elephant meat. Though Wada ropes in fellow scientist Baba (Yasumi Hara) with his scientific justifications, he tricks the other two into eating some without telling them what it is. Unforgivably, he even gives some to Yamashita and seems to get a kick out of feeding him his own childhood friend when Yamashita had only come on instruction from his boss to apologise for being over emotional the day before. Yamashita leaves feeling sick after Wada tells him what he was eating for additional effect, but his wife (Chiyoko Fumiya) later remembers a story he told her about fellow elephant drivers in Thailand who ate some elephant meat from an infected animal and were dead within 30 hours. 

After hearing Yamashita’s concerns, the scientists begin investigating and indeed find cases of people dying after eating contaminated meat. The only cure is the serum they use to treat the horse infection the professor mentioned, but it seems nowhere has any in stock (the disease is rare in Japan after all). The idiot scientists come to the conclusion they will die in exactly 30 hours’ time and decide to put their affairs in order rather than consult an actual doctor who might be able to help them. This mostly involves trying to explain their foolishness to their wives. Watanabe (Takashi Kanda) is a father of three with another child on the way. He regrets that he hasn’t been present enough in his family life and has failed to adequately provide for his wife who he will shortly be leaving to raise four children alone. Nomura (Toru Abe) meanwhile is an uxorious newlywed constantly worried that his wife (Kyoko Asagiri), who already dislikes Wada for being a bad influence on her husband, will not be able to bear the anxiety of knowing he may soon die. Baba who has only his parents retreats back to his old country home to apologise for not being a better son. 

Wada, meanwhile, moans about everyone else’s understandable desires to comfort their wives and families. He criticises Yamashita for trying to excuse himself because he’d rather go home and have dinner with his wife, while mocking Nomura for being a henpecked husband. This might partly be because he has no wife or family of his own and is currently chasing after Tomie (Akemi Sora), a maid at his boarding house, who seems pretty indifferent or even hostile to his attentions, joking that she’d celebrate on hearing of his demise. She eventually agrees to go out with him, but only if he really dies. Other than the wives, no-one quite believes the guys’ bizarre story. Baba’s parents even try to stop him going back to Tokyo when a potential cure is located in case he goes “even more mad”. 

In these trying times, the idea that someone might try to eat a dead elephant is perhaps not quite as ridiculous as it might first seem. The act of trying it, however, also plays into the constant critiques of bad or irresponsible science which are a mainstay of films in the immediate post-war era. Wada knows that he can and so he doesn’t bother to think about if he should, spinning tales of Jenner and Koch as if they’re about to make some grand lifesaving discovery. His brush with death does at least begin to humble him as he finally accepts responsibility for the unexpected consequences of his cruel prank, realising that as a man with no wife or family it should perhaps be him if anyone is going to have to make a sacrifice. Finally someone manages to get through to the professor on the phone who tells them they’re all very stupid and haven’t thought of something perfectly obvious that makes all their panicking completely pointless, but at least the surreal 30-hour near death experience has brought out a warmer side of Wada and given a few irresponsible scientists a quick lesson in social responsibility. 


Phoenix (不死鳥, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1947)

“Life is about facing your loneliness” according to the heroine of Keisuke Kinoshita’s Phoenix (不死鳥, Fushicho), a woman who’s known her share of suffering but has learned to endure. She knows not only war widows are lonely, and she’s not the only war widow, so she’s doing her best to be as happy as one can be under the circumstances. As much about its nation’s rebirth from the ashes, Phoenix is also quietly subversive in its critique of outdated social conventions and enthusiasm for a woman’s right to seek her independence rather than rely on the support of the traditional family. 

In 1947, Sayoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a much loved daughter-in-law and mother to Ken, who is about to celebrate his fourth birthday. She takes care of the household and looks after the numerous Yasaka siblings while putting up with her sometimes grumpy father-in-law (Isamu Kosugi) who harshly scolds little Ken when he throws a stone through the side window but feels guilty about it afterwards and vows to come home with sweets to make it up to him. Life with the Yasakas is peaceful and happy, though the present crisis, which isn’t really a crisis so much as a matter for consideration, is the potential marriage of younger son Yuji (Akira Yamanouchi) who has been wanting to marry his girlfriend Yoko but had been worried both that his parents would object to him trying to choose his own bride without their input, and that bringing another young woman into the house as a new wife might be insensitive, leaving Sayoko feeling sad and unwelcome. 

Yuji’s mother tells him that he doesn’t need to worry on either point, she and his father have long been in favour of the marriage which hints at something of a sea change in contemporary social attitudes. In Sayoko’s flashbacks to her early courtship, we see Shinichi (Keiji Sada), her later husband, bring her to his family home with the intention of introducing her to his parents as his future bride, but his father won’t even see her, loudly shouting that Shinichi should immediately ask her to leave. His objections are largely feudal in nature, Shinichi is the oldest son and his marriage is therefore of great importance to the family name. Not only does he not know anything about Sayoko, whom he basically calls a loose woman for daring to date while in high school, but he deeply resents that Shinichi has gone behind his back, defied his authority, and tried to arrange his own marriage without his father’s input. 

Despite the clear intention of the pair to continue their association with or without his consent, Mr. Yasaka continues to object. Shinichi insists that “nothing can separate us” despite knowing that he has already enlisted for the army and will shortly be leaving for the war. Sayoko holds the line, resisting even when her father dies and pushy relatives try to railroad her into an arranged marriage which will benefit them financially, and supporting her younger brother who is spared the war but only because he is already in the later stages of incurable TB.

Mr. Yasaka’s objections gain more weight with the war’s intensity. With her brother on his deathbed, he turns up to ask Sayoko not to see Shinichi on his brief leave before he’s shipped abroad during which they plan to get married because he thinks it’s irresponsible for his son to marry a woman knowing there is a good chance he will leave her a widow. Overwhelmed by the scale of her tragedies, Sayoko has had enough, rounding on Mr. Yasaka and letting him know that his concerns are moot because every healthy young man is in the same position and if he’d only given up his stubborn insistence that Shinichi has wronged him by undercutting his authority and given his consent to their marriage at any point during the last six years he wouldn’t have had to come here on this day with her brother dying in the next room to tell her that she shouldn’t marry the man she loves because her marriage is somehow his decision to make. 

Mr. Yasaka is clearly moved by Sayoko’s distress, moving to comfort her but then withdrawing and getting up to leave without saying anything. Petitioned again by Sayoko’s faithful housekeeper, he catches sight of the blooming flowers Sayoko has grown in adversity and is minded to reconsider. Several years later we can see that Mr. Yasaka has grown fond of Sayoko and his grandson even if he has a bit of temper, while she is very happy as a member of their family and not at all minded to remarry despite their desire for her to lead a fulfilling life. That is, as she tells Yuji encouraging him not to feel bashful about his bride, not because of a romantic notion of faithfulness or being hung up on old memories, but for the practical reason that she has nowhere else to go, or at least she is certain there is nowhere where she would be so happy. Later, however, she hopes to open a shop of her own and strive for her independence together with her son rather than remaining dependent on her husband’s family or marrying again for practical rather than emotional reasons.

Shinichi had been fond of talking about the life they’d lead once the war was over, that they’d only be apart for a few years and then never again, but the war stole their future from them as it did for so many other young people whom the film was doubtless intended to comfort. Nevertheless, Sayoko is forever telling people how happy she is. Mr. Yasaka seems to have relented, is going to let his younger son marry a woman of his choosing, and the younger siblings are all bright and cheerful. The future looks rosy, and Sayoko is going to do her best to enjoy it, striving for independence in a now less restrictive society. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

Snow Trail (銀嶺の果て, Senkichi Taniguchi, 1947)

The cinema of the immediate post-war era might in a sense be aspirational, but it rarely shies away from hardship or from the sometimes difficult choices which had to be made both in terms of individual survival and the future direction of a society. Remembered chiefly for featuring the debut of screen legend Toshiro Mifune, Senkichi Taniguchi’s Snow Trail (銀嶺の果て, Ginrei no Hate) is less a crime doesn’t pay story than it is an affirmation that it’s never too late to turn back and that people who do “bad” things aren’t always “bad”, only troubled and desperate, but can be guided back towards the right path by the power of simple human goodness. 

As the film opens, a trio of thieves commits a daring bank robbery and then heads off on the run intending to hideout in the mountains posing as tourists on a skiing trip. To facilitate their ruse, they’ve cut off communication by fiddling with radios and disabling telephones but two young men with too much time on their hands have already heard about the robbery and figured out the three suspicious gentlemen might be the fugitive criminals. In another picture, the two young guys would be the bumbling heroes, mistaken in their assumption that their world has been invaded by crime and probably finding romantic disappointment before heading home. This time however their guess is correct and their investigation has placed them in danger. The leader, Nojiri (Takashi Shimura), whips out a gun on a collection of drunken labourers and forces them out of their clothes and into the hot spring so the gang can make their escape further up the mountain, eventually taking refuge in a tiny lodge run by a philosophical grandpa (Kokuten Kōdo) and his cheerful teenage granddaughter (Setsuko Wakayama).

The police are in hot pursuit, but it is by nature which we will be judged. After leaving the hotel, the trio stop briefly in a ranger’s hut where hotheaded youngster Eijima (Toshiro Mifune) suggests splitting up. Nojiri divides the loot, giving each their promised share, but the other guy, Takasugi (Yoshio Kosugi), objects. He doesn’t want to go it alone and resents being forced to make his own way, even wondering out loud how long they’d get if they gave themselves up now. After a fight knocks Takasugi out, Eijima is keen to leave him behind, but he ends up spelling his own doom when he fires his gun at the police and provokes an avalanche.  

Later the patient grandfather tells us that the “mighty mountain punishes the bad”, and Takasugi is presumably its first victim, paying the price for panic and cowardice. Meanwhile, Nojiri and Eijima find themselves playing tourists once again in the mountain lodge where Nojiri is touched by the simple innocence of the young girl and her grandfather and Eijima paces around impatiently like a caged animal, cruelly killing the little girl’s prized carrier pigeon in case it takes it upon itself to signal the authorities. Threatening the girl’s life, Eijima convinces another guest, Honda (Akitake Kono), to guide them safely over the mountains to escape, but becomes increasingly paranoid that he will be betrayed, knowing he does not have the skills to survive alone in this environment. 

Nojiri meanwhile is drawn back towards humanity. Already softened by Harue, the cheerful young woman at the lodge who innocently offers him honey tea and reminds him of his own daughter who passed away at a similar age, he remains conflicted in their coercion of Honda and even more chastened after Honda saves both of their lives when Nojiri slips breaking own his arm in the process. Later, Nojiri asks him why he helped them rather than just cutting the rope and escaping. He replies that all he did was respect the code of the mountains. “The rope that ties one life to another must never be touched” he tells him. 

In an unexpected twist, Nojiri’s humanity is reawakened by a song filled with nostalgia but it isn’t Furusato or Akatombo, it’s “My Old Kentucky Home” played in an instrumental version on Harue’s portable record player, previously used by Honda who performed a silly dance to tune of Oh Suzannah. The choice of music perhaps echoes the movie’s Hollywood inspiration, but otherwise follows the pattern of other similarly themed contemporary crime movies in which the hero is eventually redeemed by connecting with his own childhood innocence through the “furusato” spirit. Still able to find this essential goodness within himself, the mountain has judged Nojiri favourably, proving that as grandpa says he isn’t a “bad” person even if he’s made “bad” choices. Filled with a new respect for the ropes that bind one human to another, he is allowed to return to the world presumably to live a more connected existence cheerfully helping others rather than remaining selfishly alone.


Broken Drum (破れ太鼓, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1949)

The evils of of authoritarianism are recast as family drama in Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1949 satirical comedy, Broken Drum (破れ太鼓, Yabure Daiko). Co-scripted by Masaki Kobayashi, a student of Kinoshita’s who went on to forge a long career dedicated to interrogating the place of the conscientious individual within an oppressive system, Broken Drum is also a testament to changing times and new possibilities as the youngsters slowly find the strength to resist and insist on their right to individual happiness. 

As the film begins, the family’s maid is leaving in a hurry, sick to the back teeth of the treatment she receives from the head of the household. Though she admits that the wife and children are all lovely, the husband is a tyrant and, according to her, a nouveau riche upstart, all money and no class. Tsuda (Tsumasaburo Bando), a self-made construction magnate, runs his family like a small cult and everyone is so afraid of upsetting him that they find themselves entirely unable to stand up for themselves. Times are, however, changing and Tsuda’s business is in trouble, which means his power may be waning. Denied loans all over town, he tries to railroad his eldest daughter, Akiko (Toshiko Kobayashi), into marrying a wealthy suitor, Hanada (Mitsuo Nagata), and is deaf to her cries of resistance.

Despite the rather ironical speech from the maid who describes herself as a “feminist” which is why she’s unable to put up with Tsuda’s poor conduct, stopping to tell a pregnant dog not to let anyone push her around just because she’s a girl, the world of 1949 is still an incredibly sexist one. Tsuda’s long suffering wife Kuniko (Sachiko Murase) complains that her younger daughter spends all her time rehearsing for her role as Hamlet rather than learning “useful” skills for women like cooking and housekeeping. Akiko’s suitor sides with the maid, affirming that “men should be nice to women” and making a point of telling her that all his maids love him without quite realising that what he’s just said isn’t quite as nice as he thought it was. Akiko doesn’t want to get married and she doesn’t even like Hanada, but she’s too conflicted to fully resist, unsure if she has the right to go against the “tradition” of arranged marriage. She asks her mother how she felt, and learns that she too cried every day, somehow normalising the idea that a woman’s marriage is supposed to make her miserable. 

Meanwhile, Tsuda is slowly destroying his oldest son, Taro (Masayuki Mori), who has been trying to quit the family construction firm to go into business with his aunt making music boxes. Tsuda isn’t having any of it, he tells Taro that music boxes aren’t a manly occupation and that he’ll never make it on his own, but Taro has an advantage in knowing that the construction company is in a bad place and his father’s authority is weakened. He becomes the first of the children to escape by rejecting Tsuda’s influence, decamping to his aunt’s which becomes a point of refuge for the other members of the Tsuda family seeking escape. 

Akiko begins to gain the courage to walk away after bonding with a painter she meets after her father was extremely rude to him on a bus, poking a hole in his canvas and then blaming it on the driver. Luckily he dropped his sketchbook which has his name, Shigeki Nonaka (Jukichi Uno), inside so she can pay him a visit to return it. Unlike the Tsuda’s, the Nonaka household is one of cheerful family warmth. They are not wealthy, but they do not particularly care. Mr & Mrs Nonaka fell in love in Paris decades ago where she was charmed by the sound of his violin while she sketched in the streets. Tsuda, angrily rejecting Akiko’s attempt to cancel the marriage, tells his wife that even if she doesn’t like him now, Hanada’s wealth will make her happy in the long run, but it’s at the Nonaka’s that she discovers “the true happiness of family”, vowing to do whatever it takes to be able to marry Shigeki with whom she has fallen in love. 

Even after losing two of his children and finally alienating his wife, Tsuda fails to learn, blaming his family for the failure of his business rather than accept his old school authoritarianism is out of step with the modern world. His middle son, Heizo (Chuji Kinoshita), actually the most sympathetic of the children, has written a satirical song that likens his father to a “broken drum”, something that makes a lot of noise but is confusing and very unpleasant to listen to. It doesn’t help that Tsuda also has the habit of going into speech mode, raising his arm in a fascist salute as he barks out his orders. “Life is most miserable when there’s no one to love”, Heizo tries to warn him, calmly explaining that a family is made up of “lonely creatures” with individual lives, and that that strong connection only survives through trust and independence.

Beginning to see the light, Tsuda accepts that he’ll be deposed if he doesn’t allow his family its democratic freedoms. Undergoing a conversion worthy of Scrooge at the end of a Christmas Carol, he he suddenly realises that “you need other people to succeed in life”, and is re-embraced by his family who decide to give him a chance to be better than he’s been in the knowledge that he has no more power over them than they choose to give him. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

Travelling Actors (旅役者, Mikio Naruse, 1940)

“You can’t have a horse without the ass” admits a travelling actor, inwardly preparing to meet his obsolescence. Anything’s an art if you care to practice it, but there is such a thing as taking yourself too seriously. A masterclass in tragicomedy, Naruse’s 1940 character study Travelling Actors (旅役者, Tabi Yakusha) finds two ends of a pantomime horse about to be torn apart when their act is unwittingly destroyed by a resentful punter whose drunken attempt to escape his sense of humiliation in being tricked by unscrupulous promoters leaves their horse without a head. 

Hyoroku (Kamatari Fujiwara) prides himself on being the “Danjuro of pantomime horses”, performing with the younger Senpei (Kan Yanagiya) who looks up to him as if he really were a great master of the arts. The guys are part of a group of travelling players touring rural Japan performing traditional skits for an audience starved of entertainment. The troupe is not, however, above exploitative business practices, proudly advertising the appearance of “Kikugoro” but neglecting to mention that it’s not the famous one, just another guy with the same name. Meanwhile, someone has to foot the bill for “producing” the show wherever the actors land, leading the exploitative producers to convince a local barber (Ko Mihashi) to invest, hoping to get a little free publicity because he’s known to be the town gossip and can spread the word through his shop. The plan backfires, however, when he travels to the station to see them arrive and immediately realises they are not a fancy acting company from Tokyo but a bunch of ragged bumpkins. Feeling thoroughly fed up, he demands to be allowed to perform in the show as the price of his silence before getting black out drunk and passing out backstage, crushing the papier-mâché horse’s head in his desperation to find somewhere soft to land. 

As “Kikugoro” points out, the “guy who plays the pantomime horse is really picky” so they know they’re in for some trouble as soon as he finds out what’s happened to his head. In fact, Hyoroku was just in the middle of some remodelling, trying to make the head look even more realistic to improve his art. While the barber is destroying his life’s work, Hyoroku and Senpei are drinking with a pair of geishas who are pretending to be interested in Hyoroku’s mini lecture about his process in which he tells them all about how he’s really captured the true essence of the horse through patiently honing his craft all these long years. 

There might be something in that, that Hyoroku is a workhorse of the theatre now more beast than man. Just occasionally, his horsey mannerisms come out in his offstage life, scratching the floor with his feet or pacing the room like a penned in pony. Though there are other sides of him which are painfully human. He makes a point of belittling Senpei in front of the geishas, insulting his art to assert his place as the teacher, always keen to keep his pupil in his place. But as Senpei points out, you can’t have a horse without the ass, and his “art” is no less important than Hyoroku’s. Continuing to take himself way too seriously, Hyoroku refuses to perform with the broken head, flatly objecting to the suggestion of substituting one from the fox costumes because he can’t get into character when his head’s in the wrong place. 

Faced with the prospect of cancelling the show, the producers come up with a radical idea – hiring a real horse. In a still more ironic touch, they even sell this horse who is making his stage debut as a star in his own right, only realising the dangers of their situation when it urinates right in the middle of the act. Weirdly, that only makes the horse a hit and convinces the troupe they’re on to a winner, which is bad news for the boys because who wants to see two guys in an ugly costume when they could be gazing at the real thing. The days of the pantomime horse are ending, but where does that leave a “great master” like Hyoroku who has spent his life becoming more horsey than a horse? Kicked out of the inn and forced to sleep backstage as non-performers, the guys eventually suffer the indignity of being offered jobs as stable boys, mere servants to the star who has replaced them. 

In an unguarded moment, Hyoroku and Senpei reflect on where they are as a young man in a soldier’s uniform leads a patient horse off to war. “That could be us” they sigh, though it’s not clear if they mean the man or the horse, before going back to horsing around eating shaved ice and flirting with the store owner. “I’m just the horse’s ass”, Senpei laments, secretly hoping to become a “real” actor at last, only for Hyoroku to uncharacteristically start encouraging him before dragging him off on another crazy adventure. Putting the fox’s head on to make a point, Hyoroku disappears into the role, chasing his rival right out of town, dragging his back legs behind him as he goes. 


Hideko, the Bus Conductor (秀子の車掌さん, Mikio Naruse, 1941)

vlcsnap-2019-12-28-21h47m57s539It’s true enough that we might not have enough extant material from the pre-war and wartime eras to be as selective as some might accuse of us of being on realising that the directors we tend to remember are the ones we see as resisting. Though there were a fair few who managed simply to steer clear of the prevailing ideology, most skirted their way around the demands of the censors board by embracing the kinds of themes they could would work with. In Hideko, the Bus Conductor (秀子の車掌さん, Hideko no Shasho-san) Naruse pushes in a slightly different direction, retreating almost entirely from the troubles of the contemporary era into an idyllic vision of pastoral Japan.

Echoing Mr. Thank You, he opens with a POV shot of bus travelling a rural road accompanied by jaunty music. Neatly undercutting the cheerful atmosphere with ironic absurdity, we then cut to bus conductress Okoma (Hideko Takamine) announcing the next stop to an entirely empty bus. The problem is, the bus Okoma and the driver, Sonoda (Kamatari Fujiwara), operate is old, slow, and dirty. A new company, Kaihatsu, recently launched with shiny new buses that are cleaner and faster, if a little more expensive. Unsurprisingly, most people prefer to travel with Kaihatsu, meaning the only passengers waiting for Okoma’s bus are the kind that don’t have much money or are looking for different kinds of service – e.g. transporting live chickens or unusually large amounts of bags.

A radio programme recommended by her landlady gives Okoma an idea to boost business – performing as a kind of tour guide reading out interesting facts about the local area to entertain the passengers. Unfortunately, no one can quite think of any interesting facts or local landmarks in this tiny rural backwater. Nevertheless, Okoma and Sonoda are determined to give it a go, eventually obtaining permission from the decidedly laissez-faire boss who spends most of his days guzzling ramune and eating kakegori. To make sure the service is professional, they enlist the services of a local writer, Ikawa (Daijiro Natsukawa), whose notebook Okoma once returned when he left it on the bus. Weirdly, he doesn’t even want paying because he enjoys writing this kind of thing, and even coaches Okoma on how to get the cutest accent to really attract those customers with adorable local charm (even though Okoma is very proud to be thought of as nicely spoken young lady with nary an accent at all).

Of course, in true Naruse style, it’s not quite as idyllic as it seems. Most of the people we meet are poor and struggling, that’s why they’re taking this bus and not Kaihatsu’s. Even so, they’re all pleasant and polite, not even minding when Okoma asks the driver to stop by her house so she can chat with her mother, giving her a kimono she’s bought as a present (that her mum tells her off for spending her money on) and swapping her worn out cloth shoes for a classic pair of geta in which she seems to be more comfortable. At one stage, a chicken escapes from the bus and they stop to catch it, timetable be damned. Mind you, there don’t even really seem to be specific stops on this strangely occasional service. In need of passengers, Okoma and Sonoda seem content to stop and pick up random passersby who might be in search of a lift, taking them to wherever they might want to to go.

That might be one reason explaining why Okoma’s landlady is keen to warn her that she’s heard the bus company is no good, it’s just a front for some kind of unspecified shadiness. The truth, however, is more that the boss seems to be the feckless sort who enjoys being bossy but has no idea how to run a business. Distracted by Okoma’s monologue, Sonoda starts forgetting to stop and pick people up and eventually has to slam on the brakes when a child runs out into the street. While they’re checking on the kid, the bus rolls back over the verge, injuring Okoma and landing in farmland. Reassured that no-one has been “seriously” hurt (he’s not getting sued), the boss is then more worried about the insurance, seeing as it doesn’t cover him if the engine was running while they were stopped. Even though Sonoda explains that there’s no damage except maybe a scratch on the side, the boss suggests he scupper the engine and smash the windows so they can claim. They need a better bus, otherwise the company will have to close.

Earlier on, Sonoda and Okoma had joked about a popular slogan “When a country gets confused, loyal subjects appear”. Sonoda rolls his eyes a little and calls it “bombast”. They might not object to adding a bit about birds singing for the emperor’s long reign to their monologue, but it’s plain they aren’t going to go along with something they think is wrong because the boss says it’s a good idea. Sonoda is a little conflicted to begin with, talking it over with Ikawa who acts as the slightly patronising voice of city sophistication, he realises that if he follows the boss’ orders and lies he’ll not only be cheating the rest of society but himself too in doing something he knows to be immoral. Both he and Okoma vow they’ll quit rather than be forced into dishonesty, after all, says Okoma, there are plenty of other jobs (or perhaps not, in real terms, but still there is a choice). Suddenly, they feel quite cheerful, buoyed by their sense of moral righteousness.

An intervention from Ikawa saves their jobs, but this is still a Naruse film in which the world will always betray us, and so Okoma and Sonoda cheerfully continue their tour guiding business little knowing that the boss has gone bust and sold the bus. It might be going too far to say that Naruse envisages a fiery crash, a rude awakening for Okoma and Sonoda who will be left with only the cold comfort that they stood up against authoritarianism when it all goes to hell, but the subtle allegory is all but unmissable. Absurdly cheerful, and just a little bit depressing if you stop to think about it, Hideko the Bus Conductor is a charming jaunt through rural ‘40s Japan filled with salt of the earth types just trying to muddle through while the big bosses put their feet up and pop ramune marbles all day long without a care in the world.