Tsukigata Hanpeita (月形半平太, Kokichi Uchide, 1952)

Tusgikata Hanpeita still 1In the midst of post-war confusion, Japanese cinema increasingly looked back to Meiji in all of its chaotic possibility in order to ask what went wrong and what lessons it might have for a second kind of revolution as the nation tried to rebuild itself after decades of militarist folly and chastened wartime defeat. “Tsukigata Hanpeita” (月形半平太) is a “legendary” fictional character first imagined for a kabuki play in 1919 who finds himself swept up in Bakumatsu intrigue as he tries, along with daring revolutionaries Sakamoto Ryoma and Katsura Kogoro, to forge an alliance between the clans of Choshu and Satsuma in order to take on the corrupt shogun in defence of the Emperor and foster a new era of peace in an increasingly uncertain world.

When we first meet him, Tsukigata Hanpeita (Utaemon Ichikawa) is on the run from Kyoto-based special police force the Mimawarigumi but also making time for his mistress, Umematsu (Chizuru Kitagawa) – a geisha. This in particular is a problem which has left him dangerously exposed, even the Mimawarigumi leader Okudaira (Joji Kaieda) seems to be aware of the relationship and is apparently not above using it to his advantage. Meanwhile, he’s not only threatened by shogunate defenders, but by his own side – both by those who remain unconvinced by Sakamoto’s (Jotaro Togami) internationalist philosophy, and by those who simply hold a grudge against Satsuma because of a previous conflict and regard Tsukigata as a traitor for daring to talk to them at all. Despite everything, Tsukigata hides in the shadows and commits himself to living, and if necessary dying, to bring about a better world free of shogunate oppression.

Unlike other revolutionary legends, however, Tsukigata’s fervour has not made him cold or cruel even if he must sometimes act in ways which are mysterious and confuse those around him. Meeting a young man on a bridge, he applauds his studious nature, agreeing that “nothing is more important than to understand advanced civilisation”, and is as polite as he could be when the man tells him he has just joined the Mimawarigumi. Rather than attack or berate him, Tsukigata cheerfully wishes the young man well, allowing him the space to see that his present allegiance to the shogunate is perhaps misguided and out of line with his personal beliefs.

Indeed, his compassion extends even to Okudaira – his mortal enemy. Offering his condolences to a grieving Somehachi (Isuzu Yamada), Tsugikata laments that in a better world he and Okudaira may have been friends, that he had no personal grudge against him despite the fact that they clearly lived on different sides of an ideological divide. He could perhaps even harbour a kind of professional respect for him in his dogged defence of his duty for all he believes it to be misguided. “It’s so unfortunate”, he exclaims, “We have to make the world a better place”.

His desire to change the world is what keeps Tsukigata alive. Several times he faces certain death, but declares but he cannot die now with his great work left unfinished. He is not afraid of death and would gladly give his life in the service of his cause, only not just yet. “Would you please spare my life until I change the world?” he begs of someone he fully believes has a right to kill him, eventually winning their support and unexpected allegiance solely through his guileless goodness.

Yet for all that, his moral austerity does at times perhaps cause him problems in giving rise to emotional confusion. So it is that he winds up in an accidental love triangle with the smitten Somehachi – a former geisha turned madam whose patron is none other than Okudaira, and Umematsu an ageing courtesan with whom he has developed a more or less settled relationship. This is clearly the story of Tsukigata Hanpeita, but more than that it’s the story of the three women who support him without whom the revolution may even be impossible. Somehachi, despite her allegiance to Okudaira, has been a longstanding Tsukigata ally several times helping him escape from the oncoming Mimawarigumi, while Umematsu provides him with safe harbour and occasional message carrying services which is where teenage geisha Hinagiku (Hibari Misora) comes in, acting as a revolutionary go-between with deep-seated political passion.

Speaking strongly of female solidarity, the fallout from the love triangle is eventually minimised by the sisterly geishas who later bond in their shared support of Tsukigata and resolve to put past pettiness behind them. Meanwhile, Tsukigata is deceived by male treachery, only to finally receive the message he’s been waiting for which seems to make everything worthwhile. “I can see the dawn of a new era”, he exclaims, “the new era will be peaceful”. Suddenly he’s not just talking of himself anymore, but directly to the post-war era as he begins to see the way out of a “chaotic society” towards a prosperous future in the faces of his friends united in mutual support and the belief that his better world will soon be a reality.


Dispersed Clouds (わかれ雲, Heinosuke Gosho, 1951)

Heinosuke Gosho made his name before the war as a master of “shomingeki” – often humorous but generally naturalistic portraits of lower middle class life. Becoming synonymous with a Chekhovian mix of laughter and tears later dubbed “Goshoism”, he continued into the post-war era as one of its most prominent humanists, less directly sentimental than Kinoshita but with no less faith in human goodness. Always ahead of the curve, he was among the first Japanese directors to break with the studio system, setting up his own production company (along with director Shiro Toyoda, cameraman Mitsuo Miura, and writers Jun Takami, Junji Kinoshita, and Sumie Tanaka), Studio Eight, after becoming embroiled in the industrial disputes which engulfed Toho in the late ‘40s. Gosho’s participation was apparently more out of a sense of loyalty to his mistreated colleagues than it was political conviction, but in any case he found himself unable to continue working in a system which prevented him from expressing himself to the fullest of his intentions.

1951’s Dispersed Clouds (わかれ雲, Wakaregumo) was the first film released by Studio Eight, distributed by Shin Toho (the “new Toho” set-up by those same colleagues Gosho had supported in the ‘40s). In a sense it addresses similar themes to other post-war films making use of the familiar “cloud” metaphor, but these clouds are dispersing in more positive directions in that they are wilfully floating away from the traumatic past towards a brighter, more compassionate future, as perhaps was Gosho as he embarked on a new phase of his career.

The heroine, Masako (Keiko Sawamura), is a woman caught between old worlds and new. Very much of the post-war era, she is a university student who intends to work after graduation and values her independence but nevertheless is also looking back towards a childhood she feels she was denied, gradually coming to understand that it was she who denied herself in her resentful mistreatment of her young step-mother in mourning of the birthmother she lost at only six years old. The cloud from which she originally disperses is a group of five fellow students with whom she has gone on a walking holiday exploring rural Japan – an increasingly common pastime in the post-war era but one perhaps still a little unusual for five young women travelling alone. Accompanying her friend into a local photography shop in search of an extra roll of film for her camera, Masako receives the unwanted attentions of the storeowner and makes a speedy escape only to fall ill outside the station and cause the gang to miss their train. Irritated, Masako tells the others to go on without her while she stays in a nearby inn convalescing from what is apparently light pneumonia but also, it has to be admitted, an intense bad mood. 

Masako’s friends are keen to help her, but also exasperated. “You never accept the kindness of others” they lament to her passive aggressive desire not to bother them on their trip, while later plotting how best they can help her seeing as she wouldn’t accept their money if they tried to give to her so she’ll be able to pay for the doctor after they’ve left. They never really consider waiting for Masako to recover, resolving to continue on with their holiday, but do check in on her from time to time from the road with the offer to join them later seemingly open. Meanwhile, they’re all swooning over the improbably handsome country doctor, Minami (Yoichi Numata), who swoops in to treat Masako with a no-nonsense yet caring bedside manner.

Only six years older than Masako, Minami is a certain young man who has found his forward path in life. He has his own small practice which is woefully ill-equipped to cater for the entire town (he can’t admit Masako because he is already overflowing with patients sleeping on the floor), but dreams of building another clinic in an even smaller village further up the mountain where they don’t even have electricity. Despite her friends’ giggling, Masako is in too much of a mood to notice Minami much from her sick bed but later takes a liking to him though mostly in flight when her hated step-mother Tamae (Taeko Fukuda) finally arrives to take her back to Tokyo.

While at the inn, Masako bonds with the kindly maid, Osen (Hiroko Kawasaki), who brought her to there in the first place after noticing her in distress at the station. The innkeeper, who has a flighty modern daughter of her own, is not best pleased that Osen has brought sickness into the house and even less so that it’s a young woman whom she is not convinced is the right kind of clientele (her attitude changes when Tamae arrives laden with expensive gifts). Osen, who lost a husband in the war and daughter in infancy, takes to the young woman with maternal warmth – something which Masako has been seeking ever since losing her birth mother. A woman without a child and a child without a mother easily slip into a familial relationship, but rather than jealous Osen is only sad when she sees how much Tamae is trying and failing in the same role while Masako resolutely rejects her out of nothing more than childish resentment.

Masako, self aware to a point, describes herself as “spoiled, nervous, and selfish” and seems to want to change without knowing how. She tells Minami that she dislikes people in general because they’re all liars and can’t be trusted. Nevertheless, she finds herself hanging around Minami’s clinic in order to avoid Tamae and half convinces herself she is in love with him. An ill-advised five mile hike to the next village to find the earnest young doctor provokes an awkward encounter between the two in which it becomes perfectly obvious that Minami is devoted to his practice, sees Masako only as a patient, and is not really interested in her newfound desire to pursue a deeper union. He tells her, politely, that she is too much trouble and would only be an inconvenience. He doubts that she, a middle-class woman from Tokyo, will be able to adjust to the privations of life in the mountains and is perhaps unconvinced that she has acquired the sufficient maturity to try after just one night of having fun “helping people”.

Masako is not wounded by his words but is enlightened by them on discovering that Minami has lost people too – his brother and friends in the war, but where her childhood loss has made her self-involved and resentful, his grief has made him generous and openhearted. Minami has dedicated himself to the wellbeing of all mankind, which might or might not mean that he has little time for deeper individualised connections, but in any case though she doesn’t realise it herself what Masako is seeking isn’t Minami or a romance but a path back into the world as someone less closed off and unforgiving. Thanks to Osen’s warmth and Minami’s generosity she is able to escape her sense of self-imposed inertia and let her mother go.

Because of this she gives to Osen the precious silver spoon she had treasured as a keepsake from her mother, remarking that she doesn’t need it anymore, while Osen then gives her the rather ironic gift of a spoon case she’d knitted as a present. Though the ending is positive with Masako preparing to leave the transitory space of the mountain town to return to Tokyo “healed”, it is also filled with a quiet anxiety for the older Osen who has, in a sense, been bereaved twice in losing another daughter and being left all alone, knowing that Minami will soon be off to his own bright future. Osen made her new start some time ago after reaching the forward-thinking conclusion that she wasn’t happy with the idea that women must have soft hands. She declares herself happy in a calm sort of way, but is also filled with regrets from the past in having chosen to marry the man chosen for her over the one she loved and finding only unhappiness. Her counselling of Masako not to make the same mistake is perhaps one of the things that sends her, mistakenly, off towards Minami, but unlike the younger woman Osen seems primed to remain in the liminal space of the mountain town unable to leave the past behind in order to move forward in a more positive direction. 

“This world is not so easy” Masako is repeatedly told, but in true Gosho style, it needn’t be so hard if only you learn to live generously with a forgiving heart. The rather mercenary relationship between the innkeeper and her flighty but shrewd daughter is directly contrasted with the innocent yet melancholy one between Osen and Masako, but perhaps neither is really more positive than the other only different. In any case, Osen and Masako, like any parent and child, must eventually part. Masako boards the train into the future smiling brightly, a cloud dispersing from the whole, unburdened by the traumatic past and floating defiantly forward on a path of her own choosing resolved to live for others rather than fixating on her personal pain.


The Eternal Rainbow (この天の虹, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

Eternal rainbow poster 1Famously, towards the end of the war, Keisuke Kinoshita got himself into trouble with a dialogue free scene of a mother’s distress as she sent away the son she’d so carefully raised “for the emperor” towards an uncertain future in the midst of hundred of other, identically dressed faceless boys. Army might have showcased the director’s propensity for resistance, but one could also argue that there was just as much propagandistic intent in the post-war films as their had been in the militarist era even if the messages they were selling were often more palatable. 1958’s The Eternal Rainbow (この天の虹, Kono Ten no Niji) is a case in point. A portrait so positive one wonders if it was sponsored by Yahata Steel, The Eternal Rainbow is nevertheless conflicted in its presentation of defeated post-war hope, exploitation, and growing social inequality even as it praises its factory city as a utopian vision of happy industry and fierce potential.

A lengthy opening sequence featuring voice over narration recounts the history of the Yahata Steel Works which began operations in 1901 in Northern Kyushu and now employs thousands of people, many of whom live nearby in the ever expanding company dorms the newer models of which feature bright and colourful modern designs in contrast to the depressing grey prefab of the traditional workers’ homes. Gradually we are introduced to our heroes – chief among them Mr. Suda (Yusuke Kawazu), a young man from the country who saw a factory job as his over the rainbow but is rapidly becoming disillusioned with its dubious gains. Rather than the company dorms, Suda rooms with the foreman, Kageyama (Chishu Ryu), and his wife Fumi (Kinuyo Tanaka) whose young son Minoru (Kazuya Kosaka) didn’t qualify for a factory job on account of his small frame and his been unable to stick at anything in the precarious post-war economy. Meanwhile, Suda has made friends with an older worker, Sagara (Teiji Takahashi), who has fallen for a secretary, Chie (Yoshiko Kuga), but her family are dead against her marrying a factory worker while she is also in a relationship with a college educated engineer, Machimura (Takahiro Tamura), but is beginning to doubt the seriousness of his intentions.

The drama begins when Sagara employs Kageyama to act as a go-between in a formal proposal of marriage to Chie’s parents, the Obitas. Kageyama didn’t really want to be a go-between because it’s gone badly for him before and he thinks this one is a non-starter too – women around here have their sights set on office workers, no one in the arranged marriage market is looking to marry someone on the shop floor. The Obitas feel much the same. Mrs. Obita is keen for Chie to marry up and is somewhat offended by the proposal, granting it only the customary consideration time to not seem rude in turning it down flat. Sagara is stoic about the matter, but the abruptness of the rejection greatly offends Suda who cannot stand for the Obitas snobbish put down of working people.

Herein lies the central conflict. Suda was a country boy who’d been sold an impossible dream. He believed that a job in the factory, for which he had to sit an exam and has been chosen out of thousands of other hopefuls, was his ticket out of rural poverty. Now that he’s working there he realises he is little more than a wage slave, working long hours for almost nothing with the only goal of his life being to earn enough to feed a family with a little (very little) left over for his old age. Minoru, the Kageyamas’ son, feels much the same and has already turned cynical and desperate. He can’t abide his father’s work ethic and wants more out of life than there perhaps is for it to give him. Suda repeatedly asks how people can learn to be happy in this sort of life, wondering if those that claim to be have simply given up their hopes and aspirations in resignation. When Minoru decides not to go to Tokyo it ought to be a victory, but then perhaps it is more that he has simply accepted that there is no hope there either.

Nevertheless, the depiction of Yahata as a place to work is ridiculously positive even as Kinoshita undercuts it with the disillusionment of both Suda and Sagara. A factory city, Yahata is characterised as a cornerstone of the burgeoning post-war economy, literally making the rails on which the new Japan will run. The works provides affordable accommodation for families, guaranteed employment, insurance, a “self service” supermarket right on site, social clubs, cultural activities, and festivals. They even get a large scale show from Tokyo every year.

Even so, an immense and seemingly unbridgeable gap exists between the steelworkers and the company men. Mrs. Obita might seem self serving and mercenary, but she’s had a hard life and perhaps it’s only natural that wants better for her daughter. Suda is angry to think a good man like Sagara who might be a bit old fashioned and unsophisticated but has taken the trouble to do things the “proper” way would be dismissed out of hand simply out of snobbery. His attitude is, however, somewhat problematic in that he begins bothering Chie to find out her reasons for declining the proposal, refusing to recognise that she doesn’t need to offer any reason besides her own will. Chie, meanwhile, is conflicted. A proposal of marriage from a man she doesn’t even really know is not something she was minded to consider in any case, but her feelings for Machimura are tested once she becomes aware that he is not quite in earnest and may have been messing around with his landlady while enjoying the attention he receives as an eligible bachelor around town.

Machimura, like Suda, Sagara, and Minoru, is somewhat listless and apathetic even if for the opposite reason in that his life is far too easy and he hasn’t had to make a lot of concrete decisions about his future. Chie doesn’t deny that his college education and urban sophistication are part of the reason she was attracted to him, but as she later tries to explain to Suda, she wasn’t simply angling to marry up – she just fell in love with someone who happened to be of a higher social class which isn’t the same as looking down on working people. She has a right to her feelings whatever political label an increasingly resentful Suda might like to put on them. Even so, if she had been trying to marry up who could really blame her for that? In a society in which women are still entirely dependent on a man, being largely prevented from pursuing a career in their own right, a marriage is effectively a job for life. Shouldn’t she pick the offer with the best benefits, just as Suda did when he chose to leave the country for a factory job?

Progressive factories are often presented as an ideal solution the problem of post-war poverty, but here Kinoshita does not seem so sure. Despite the emphatic tone of the infrequent voice over and the central messages that factory jobs are good jobs and looking down on manual work nothing more than snobbery, Suda and Sagara remain conflicted. This work is dangerous, pays little, and offers nothing more than false promise. If the vast cities like Yahata are the engines repowering the economic growth of a still straitened Japan, what will be the end result? Metropolis made flesh, the “eternal rainbow” is exposed as a self serving lie but what, Suda might ask, else is there for men like him in a society like this?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Hotelman’s Holiday (駅前旅館, Shiro Toyoda, 1958)

Hotelman's holiday poster 1The post-war world was one rife with trouble. By 1958, however, the horizon was perhaps beginning to brighten which means it was no longer too soon have a good laugh about how awful life could be. Nothing particularly awful happens in Shiro Toyoda’s cheerful comedy The Hotelman’s Holiday (駅前旅館, Ekimae Ryokan), the first in a series of “Ekimae” or “station front” movies produced by Toho, but it does amusingly rip a leaf out of Toei’s book in having its community of feckless hoteliers band together to stand up to greedy yakuza stand-in barkers who are actively destabilising the local economy with their underhanded ways.

Our hero, “born in a maid’s room” Jihei (Hisaya Morishige), is the manager of the Kukimoto inn near Tokyo’s Ueno station. Kukimoto seems to get most of its business from large tour groups, particularly school children on trips to the city and religious organisations, seemingly unperturbed by the area’s then scrappy working class earthiness. The problem is that there are rather a lot of inns in this small area (it is after all near a major rail station) and they’re all competing for the same walk-in guests which means they’re increasingly at the mercy of the local “barkers” who target travellers at points of transit and take them to certain inns in return for commissions. Even so, Jihei himself can often be found outside enticing passersby into the hotel to prove his managerial prowess.

The barkers know their worth and are beginning to get too big for their boots in shifting into the human trafficking business. Not to go into the finer details, the inns have a lot of ladies living on their premises on whom some of their trade relies. The barkers have been tempting the girls from the inns away from their homes and into potentially more lucrative though almost certainly less friendly occupations.

The central drama kicks off when the barkers try to abduct Kukimoto’s maid Okyo (Mina Mitsui) who is saved at the last minute by intellectual student Mannen (Frankie Sakai). Mannen is studying law and working illicitly for several tourist information companies in order to pay his way through college. As such he’s just another of the scrappy young guys trying to forge ahead in the precarious post-war environment. Jihei is, in a sense, pretty much the same. Born in a maid’s room, as he says, he’s very much part of the inn business and is proud to be a manager but also resents his subordinate position to the owner and the way they often treat him like a servant rather than the dependable employee he really is. His position leaves him feeling as if he’s already reached his peak and there is no real future for him other than the status quo. That feeling of futility might be why he, Mannen, and some of the other hotel managers eventually decide that they need to “cleanse” the Ueno Station area of the barker threat.

Their resistance has a pleasantly pithy quality in that it relies on a perfectly peaceful method of putting up banners to encourage customers not to trust the barkers and to approach inns directly. As might be assumed, the barkers aren’t very happy about their business being undermined and immediately begin threatening the Kukimoto inn, whom they assume to be the instigators, with destruction if they do not immediately cease and desist. Jihei thinks he has a solid plan and it does indeed defuse the situation but cannot ultimately rectify it. What it does do is give the inn’s owners the excuse they’ve been looking for to part with him, and Jihei the impetus he perhaps needed to rethink his life.

As Mannen puts it, “our reality is preposterous and absurd”, but we have to go on resisting because “happiness exists even in this world”. The inn managers stand up against the barker oppression in the same way communities stand up against yakuza in Toei’s modern gangster dramas, but like many of anti-gangster narratives, the corruption is so deeply ingrained that it cannot be entirely eliminated, only managed. Thus Jihei, also involved in a series of romantic subplots involving an intense former geisha (Keiko Awaji) and a diffident bar owner (Chikage Awashima), eventually realises that if he cannot change his environment he might be better to leave it, escaping to the sort of place where they still grow barley and travel by cart. Mannen too, their revolution failed, eventually takes off with Okyo to go into business in Osaka, giving up on his imagined future for a more solid present. Meanwhile, chaos rules in Ueno as crowds of travellers pour out of the station towards an uncertain future with only the barkers to guide them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Tomu Uchida, 1959)

Chikamatsu's love in Osaka poster“Money is the enemy” a dejected geisha declares in an attempt to explain her desperate circumstances to a naive young man part way  through Tomu Uchida’s Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Naniwa no Koi no Monogatari). Before a wartime flirtation with the militarist far right, Uchida had been closely involved with the leftwing “tendency film” movement and his post-war work perhaps displays much the same spirit only with a world weary resignation to the inherent unfairness of human society. Chikamatsu, as cited in the slightly awkward English language title, was a Japanese playwright of the 17th/18th century who also specialised in tales of social oppression, most notably in frustrated romance and eventual double suicides.

Uchida’s masterstroke is that he retells Chikamatsu’s well known bunraku play The Courier for Hell and its kabuki counterpart Couriers of Love Fleeing to Yamato from the inside out. Among Chikamatsu’s most famous works the play was in fact inspired by a real life event which took place in Osaka (then known as “Naniwa”) in 1710. Uchida places the grumpy, worldweary figure of the playwright directly into the action as a powerless observer, trapped on the wrong side of the stage able only to observe and comment but, crucially, with the ability to remake reality in altering his tale in the telling.

The tale is familiar enough and possibly a little too close to that of Chikamatsu’s previous hits including Love Suicides at Sonezaki which is given a grim namecheck as events begin to mirror one of his plays. Our hero, Chubei (Kinnosuke Nakamura), is an earnest young man who has been adopted into the Kameya family with the intention that he will marry its only daughter and take over the courier business now being run by stern widow Myokan (Kinuyo Tanaka). Early foreshadowing reminds us that immense responsibility is regularly placed in Chubei’s hands and he must remain above suspicion. Embezzlement is a capital offence in the increasingly austere 18th century society.

Chubei is an honest man, but meek. Unable to risk offending a bawdy client, he allows himself to be bamboozled into the red light district where Hachiemon (Minoru Chiaki) buys him the prettiest courtesan in the place, Umegawa (Ineko Arima). Chubei tries to leave as soon as Hachiemon disappears but is convinced to stay by Umegawa’s entreaties that his sudden exit will reflect badly on her and possibly result in censure or punishment. Struck by her predicament, Chubei falls in love. He makes repeated returns, dips into his savings, and finally makes the fateful decision to spend money not his own when he discovers that a lascivious magnate has made an offer to buy out Umegawa’s contract.

Meanwhile, Chikamatsu hovers on the edges conducting “research” for a new play to save his failing theatre company which itself is suffering due to lack of monetary receipts seeing as audience members obviously prefer the heartrending melodrama of Sonezaki to the more artistic fare he’s currently running. Though he is obviously a frequenter of the red light district and its surrounding drinking establishments, Chikamatsu has a noticeably ambivalent stance towards its existence. His sympathy is instantly caught by the melancholy Umegawa when he notices her tenderly bandage the hand of a little girl who serves in the brothel, only to have her beautiful gesture of human kindness immediately mocked by the lascivious magnate who witnesses the same thing but chooses to ask her to repeat the act on him.

Chikamatsu was supposed to come to the teahouse in order to schmooze the magnate so that he will invest in the theatre company which perhaps generates an odd commonality between the playwright and courtesan both at the mercy of wealthy patrons who, one might say, are all money and no class. Umegawa, however, as Chikamatsu is painfully aware is in no way free and entirely dependent on pleasing men like the magnate whether she likes them or not. As she tells Chubei, Umegawa didn’t choose this line of work but people judge her for it anyway. She has no bodily autonomy and is bought and sold daily with no right to refuse. She is “merchandise” that “talks, laughs, cries, and gets angry” and the sole concern in all of her life is money which she now regards as “the enemy” for the subjugated position in which the need for it has placed her.

Of course, the playwright (our stand-in) has been listening all along. He too would like to free Umegawa from her torment, but he is powerless and can only blame the world that created the circumstances that trap her. Chubei is no hero either, he is weak and feckless even if his eventual willingness to damn himself by embezzling other people’s money (and ruining his adopted family in the process) proves the depth both of his love and of his rage at the social injustice which prevents him from pursuing his romantic desires. Chikamatsu can’t save his fatalistic heroes, but he can create a more fitting vision of their love imbued with all world nearly grandeur of tragic romance that returns our eyes to the cruelty of the world that wouldn’t let them be. A stunning final shot pulls us from Chikamatsu once again in the background as he watches his own play onto the other side of the stage and then back again as the playwright’s eyes burn with silent rage and impotence as he offers the only kind of resistance he can in the face of a cruel and indifferent society.


The Hand of Fate (運命의 손 / 운명의 손, Han Hyung-mo, 1954)

Hand of fate poster 2The kinds of directors who tend to garner retrospectives and reappraisals are perhaps those who lean closer to our own ideological biases. Even in the tightening censorship of the 1960s, Korean directors like Kim Soo-yong and Lee Man-hee were able to subtly undercut the prevailing conservatism of their times. Director Han Hyung-mo, by contrast, was a committed rightist whose films express a distinct intolerance towards liberalism, women’s rights, and the Communist North. Han, like many directors of his generation, studied filmmaking in Japan near the end of the Colonial era and began his career as a cinematographer. His first film, Breaking the Wall released in 1949, is sometimes described as the first Korean anti-communist film. Returning to narrative filmmaking after serving as a documentarian during the Korean War, Han’s Hand of Fate (運命의 손 / 운명의 손, Unmyeong-ui Son, AKA Hand of Destiny) released in 1954 is not perhaps as rabidly anti-communist as might be expected but makes clear that there can be no redemption for an ideologically compromised woman.

Jung-ae (Yu In-ja), a North Korean spy posing as a bar girl in the South, enjoys a life of comparative freedom and luxury but remains committed to her mission. When the police bring a wounded student, Yong-chul (Lee Hyang), to her door one day as a possible suspect in a robbery she’d previously reported to them, she takes pity on the man and tells the police to let him go. She brings him into her apartment, treats his wounds, and feeds him. For some reason she develops an attraction for the melancholy student and so when she spots Yong-chul working on a construction site, Jung-ae takes him out on the town, buys him a new suit and shoes, and eventually begins a relationship with him. Professional habits die hard, however, and so when she rifles through his wallet she is disturbed to find his military intelligence ID card and discover he is really a spy catcher.

Released in 1954, Hand of Fate is a product of the immediate post-war era and is in fact one of the very few surviving films from that year. Nevertheless, it takes its cues very much from international cinema and particularly from American and European noir and spy films in its fatalistic trajectories and uncharacteristically murky worldview. Though Han includes mild anti-communist sentiment in Jung-ae’s eventual disillusionment with the “Communist Party’s hackneyed methods”, the fact that she is a spy for the North is almost incidental for much of the film, the conflict being not that she is a Communist and therefore evil but on a much simpler level that she is required to straddle a difficult ideological divide. Of course, the force that shakes her loyalty is love and in this Han reaffirms her womanliness in simultaneously making emotion both her weakness and the best weapon against the rigidity of Communism. Then again, rightists aren’t so keen on emotion either and so romance must fail.

Both Jung-ae and Yong-chul come to the conclusion that their only mistake was falling in love – not so much with an “enemy” but across an impossible border presented by the 38th Parallel. The futility of the love is laid firmly at the feet of a destructive division imposed by outside powers which painfully separates two parts of one whole. “We love each other, why can’t we be together?” Yong-chul asks, still unaware that Jung-ae is the female spy he’s been looking for. “You’re so close to me now”, Jung-ae adds later, “Why have we been so far apart?”, lamenting that the wall which has kept them at a distance from one another has been largely illusionary and has now been destroyed if only in terms of personal ideology. Rather than the demonisation of the North which would define the anti-communist film, it is the pain of the division which is the real enemy though in contrast to other similarly themed films, Han suggests a clean break might be the best solution rather than holding out hope for reunification.

Meanwhile, the pair work at cross purposes in misattributing the suffering of the other to culturally defined, gender-specific stigmas. Yong-chul assumes Jung-ae’s misery is down to being a “fallen woman”, that as a sex worker she worries she has lost the right to love him (he is keen to assure her that she hasn’t and there’s nothing wrong her life choices – a liberality that stands in contrast to the film’s subtle condemnation of Jung-ae on just this fact as a woman who uses her body as a tool of war), when really she is caught in an impossible position in having fallen in love with a man she will probably have to kill. Before discovering his real occupation, Jung-ae assumed Yong-chul’s misery was down to his poverty. She feels the manual job he takes to support himself through college is beneath him, indulging in a stigma towards blue collar workers which seems odd for a committed communist, and wants to “save” him by restoring him to his rightful social class with her money which she earned in a way she fears he may think immoral.

Despite Han’s fierce conservatism, Hand of Fate features the first on screen kiss in Korean cinema history but where it is undoubtedly romantic, it is also dark and fatalist. In keeping with the title and the noirish atmosphere, the narrative trajectory leads only to tragedy in which the division will be maintained with the South in the ascendent. Jung-ae’s ideological fracturing leaves her with nowhere to turn, while Han’s overly conservative viewpoint will not allow her to find peace or resolution not only because of her Communist roots but because of being an “immoral” and “vulgar” woman as she describes herself early on. Described as “An epoch-marking, ambitious work in the history of Korean Cinema”, Hand of Fate is indeed a bold experiment, opening with a tense, dialogue free sequence of spy craft and danger even if it later overdoes the expressionism with climactic thunderstorms and overly literal bombs (not to mention the constant hand imagery), offering a dark and noirish vision of a divided future in which the pain and suffering caused by the division will continue with the only “hope” that the wall will eventually become a fading scar.


The Hand of Fate is available on English subtitled DVD courtesy of the Korean Film Archive which also includes a special documentary, a video essay by film scholar Kim Jong-won, and an interview with art director Non In-taek, as well as a bilingual booklet featuring a brief commentary on the film and an essay by the Korean Film Archive’s Jo Jun-hyung. Also available to view via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Brief clip (dialogue free)

Fireworks Over the Sea (海の花火, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

In the films of Keisuke Kinoshita, it can (generally) be assumed that the good will triumph, that those who remain true to themselves and refuse to give in to cynicism and selfishness will eventually be rewarded. This is more or less true of the convoluted Fireworks Over the Sea (海の花火, Umi no Hanabi) which takes a once successful family who have made an ill-advised entry into the fishing industry and puts them through the post-war ringer with everything from duplicitous business associates and overbearing relatives to difficult romances and unwanted arranged marriages to contend with.

The action begins in 1949 in the small harbour town of Yobuko in Southern Japan. Tarobei (Chishu Ryu) and his brother Aikawa (Takeshi Sakamoto) run a small fishing concern with two boats under the aegis of the local fishing association. The business is in big trouble and they’re convinced the captain of one of the boats has been secretly stealing part of the catch and selling it on the black market. Attempts to confront him have stalled and the brothers are at a loss, unsure how to proceed given that it will be difficult to find another captain at short notice even if they are already getting serious heat from their investors and the association.

Luckily things begin to look up when a familiar face from the past arrives in the form of Shogo (Takashi Miki) – a soldier who was briefly stationed in the town at the very end of the war during which time he fell in love with Tarobei’s eldest daughter, Mie (Michiyo Kogure). Shogo has a friend who would be perfect for taking over the boat and everything seems to be going well but the Kamiyas just can’t seem to catch a break and their attempt to construct a different economic future for themselves in the post-war world seems doomed to failure.

The Kamiyas are indeed somewhat persecuted. They have lost out precisely because of their essential goodness in which they prefer to conduct business honestly and fairly rather than give in to the selfish ways of the new society. Thus they vacillate over how to deal with the treacherous captain who has already figured out that he holds all the cards and can most likely walk all over them. They encounter the same level of oppressive intimidation when they eventually decide to fight unfair treatment from the association all the way to Tokyo only to be left sitting on a bench outside the clerk’s office for three whole days at the end of which Tarobei is taken seriously ill.

However, unlike Kinoshita’s usual heroes, Tarobei’s faith begins to waver. He is told he can get a loan from another family on the condition that their son marry his youngest daughter Miwa (Yoko Katsuragi). To begin with he laughs it off but as the situation declines he finds himself tempted even if he hates himself for the thought. He never wanted to be one of those fathers who treats his daughters like capital, but here he is. Both Miwa, who has fallen in love with the younger brother of the new captain, and her sister are in a sense at the mercy of their families, torn between personal desire familial duty. Mie, having discovered that her husband died in the war, is still trapped in post-war confusion and unsure if she returns Shogo’s feelings but in any case is afraid to pursue them when she knows the depths of despair her father finds himself in because of their precarious economic situation. Shogo is keen to help, but he is also fighting a war on two fronts seeing as his extremely strange (and somewhat overfamiliar) sister-in-law (Isuzu Yamada) is desperate to marry him off to her niece (Keiko Tsushima) in order to keep him around but also palm off her mother-in-law.

Meanwhile, a lonely geisha (Toshiko Kobayashi) who has fallen into the clutches of the corrupt captain is determined to find out what happened to someone she used to know who might be connected to Shogo and the Kamiyas and falling in desperate unrequited love with replacement captain Yabuki (Rentaro Mikuni) who is inconveniently in love with Mie. Kinoshita apparently cut production on Fireworks short in order to jet off to France which might be why his characteristically large number of interconnected subplots never coalesce. Running the gamut from melancholy existential drama to rowdy fights on boats and shootouts in the street, Kinoshita knows how to mix things up but leaves his final messages unclear as the Kamiyas willingly wave their traumatic pasts out to sea with a few extra passengers in tow still looking for new directions.


Titles and opening (no subtitles)