The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (怪異宇都宮釣天井, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1956)

Crime does not pay for a series of conspirators at the centre of Nobuo Nakagawa’s supernaturally-inflected historical tale, The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (怪異宇都宮釣天井, Kaii Utsunomiya Tsuritenjo). As the title implies, Nakagawa’s ominous jidaigeki is inspired by a historical legend in which a retainer supposedly attempted to assassinate the shogun through the rather elaborate device of a mechanical ceiling designed to crush him as he slept. In actuality no such thing took place, the shogun changed his route and subsequent investigations of Utsunomiya Castle found no sign of a false ceiling, yet the story took on a life of its own as local folklore. 

In this version of the tale, conspirators Councillor Kawamura (Ureo Egawa) and local yakuza Kagiya (Masao Mishima) are conspiring to depose Tokugawa Iemitsu (Yoichi Numata) in favour of his brother, manipulating Lord Honda (Shuntaro Emi) of Utsunomiya Castle by convincing him that his clan will prosper when the other retainers fall in behind the new shogun. The pair have arranged for nine talented craftsmen to be shut up in the castle to install “the mechanism” in time for the arrival of the shogun who is due to stay at the castle on his way to Nikko. Meanwhile, Kawamura is also intent on sleeping with the daughter of head carpenter Toemon (Yoji Misaki), Ofuji (Konomi Fuji), whom chief minion Tenzen (Tetsuro Tamba) is supposed to kidnap once the workmen have gone into isolation in the castle. Righteous samurai Ryutaro (Hiroshi Ogasawara) however, an undercover shogunate bodyguard, begins to disrupt their plan saving Ofuji while bonding with a friendly bar hostess, Onobu (Sachiko Toyama), and secret princess forest woman Oshino (Akemi Tsukushi). 

The plot represents in itself a malfunctioning of the feudal order in the essential weakness of Lord Honda, the ambition of his underling Kawamura, and the cruel greed of Kagiya. As the two men conspire, Kagiya jokingly laments that he isn’t a samurai while Kawamura reminds him that if the plan comes off he’ll be fantastically rich. Kagiya, a yakuza who sends his thugs to extort protection money from the local market, is representation of the threat of the rising merchant class whose financial power presents a challenge to the authority of the samurai. Toemon, meanwhile, a master craftsman, is manipulated into participating in the plan because he is in debt to Kagiya, later promised that he too will be “promoted” in being given permission to carry a sword little knowing that Kawamura and Kagiya not only plan to kidnap and rape his daughter but never intend to allow any of the craftsmen to live because they simply know too much. 

The Ceiling at Utsunomiya is not a ghost story in the manner for which Nakagawa is best known but it certainly plays like one, Kagiya eventually haunted by the figure of a betrayed Toemon which in turn leads him to a self-destructive attack on Tenzen and his eventual demise collapsed over his ill-gotten gains, a koban falling from his hand. Greed and violence will only repay in the same, the weak-willed Lord getting his comeuppance from the ever confident shogun even if he himself coolly stands back while others risk their lives to protect him. Even so, the eventual operation of “the mechanism” is intensely startling, the ceiling abruptly collapsing with alarming ferocity though one wonders what the advantage is in such an expensive, elaborate contraption aside from its ironic symbolism when the point of a sword will do. 

Then again, the heroic Ryutaro is almost assassinated while crossing a river via zip wire later fished out of the river by sullen forest woman Oshino, first encountered hunting birds with darts but later revealed to be the illegitimate child of samurai parents who fell foul of political intrigue. In a sense this revelation emphasises the restoration of the political order, Ryutaro permitted to fall in love with Oshino because they are of the same social class, while the romance between Ofuji and craftsman Yoshichi (Kotaro Sugiyama) also comes to fruition eliding the minor class difference between them in allowing the boss’ protege to marry the now orphaned daughter. Onobu meanwhile pays heavy price for her misplaced love for Ryutaro, denied romantic fulfilment in her liminal existence as a bar hostess. In any case, the corruption is exorcised and the normal order resumes reinforcing the hierarchical shogunate society with each of the players back in their rightful positions and possessing new hope for the future as Ryutaro and the shogun continue their tour while their former comrades kneel at the roadside. 


The Rose on His Arm (太陽とバラ, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1956)

In the mid-1950s, a minor moral panic took hold over the so-called “Sun Tribe” movies which, inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara, depicted a world of crazed abandon in which a collection of bored rich kids lost themselves in the hedonistic pursuits of sex and drugs rejecting the stability the wartime generation had striven so hard to create for their children. Shochiku, at that time the home of polite melodrama, nevertheless attempted to get in on the youth movie boom mostly through commissioning a series of young directors such as Kiju Yoshida and Nagisa Oshima in the hope that they could speak directly to their generation. Meanwhile, the by that point well-established Keisuke Kinoshita also made his own, perhaps surprising, take on the genre with The Rose on His Arm (太陽とバラ, Taiyo to Bara), a youth movie melodrama which nevertheless anticipated the questions others were beginning to ask about the Sun Tribe movies in their very particular view of contemporary class dynamics. 

Our hero, Kiyoshi (Katsuo Nakamura), is like the (anti-)heroes of the post-Sun Tribe youth movies, a poor boy turned delinquent out of a sense of frustrated hopelessness. Quitting one job after another solely because the work is boring, he spends most of his days hanging out at the beach with other no good kids robbing unsuspecting bathers. Kiyoshi’s sense of inferiority is compounded by the fact that his mother (Sadako Sawamura) works as a maid for a wealthy family while making ends meet by crafting paper flowers by night. The young master of the house where his mother works, Masahiro (Akira Ishihama), never misses a chance to lord his wealth over him but later co-opts Kiyoshi into his group of wealthy friends as a source of entertainment (and because his delinquent friend, Yamanaka (Tamotsu Tamura), begins supplying them with drugs).

“I screwed up my life because I was poor, what’s your excuse?” Kiyoshi eventually asks an indifferent Masahiro after beginning to see him for what he is. Like the hero of Punishment Room, Kiyoshi’s internalised resentment is partly down to a paternal failure in that he is deeply ashamed of his late father who died, his mother claimed, saving him but also in the course of his activities as a black marketeer in which he’d forced his son to be complicit. The family had apparently tried to make a life for themselves in the new colonies, in this case Palau, but of course had to return to Japan and were then penniless. People did what they had to do, but no one trusts a black marketeer and it seems to be a stain Kiyoshi (whose name means “pure”) cannot wash off. As a poor boy with no education or prospects, he knows all that awaits him is drudgery, so why not make a fast buck stealing purses at the beach rather than slave away at the factory for a week making less than Masahiro gets in pocket money from his factory owner father? 

Convincing himself he’s no good, Kiyoshi consistently sabotages opportunities but resents himself for doing so. He begins to buckle down at the factory but quickly becomes “bored” and starts taking advantage of his supportive floor manager while sucked into Masahiro’s hedonistic lifestyle even after it becomes obvious that he’s keeping him around to be some kind of hired goon, good for punching other pasty rich boys and hooking him up with underworld thrills. Masahiro is a delinquent because his life is too easy, he has no economic imperative to be responsible and will most likely go to college and then either take over the factory or walk into a lucrative salaryman job. Kiyoshi is a delinquent because he’s desperate and has no other means of living. 

Meanwhile he resents his mother’s love, shamed, in more than one sense, by her continuing industry. She often tells him the story of how he fell ill on Palau only to make a miraculous recovery after which she collapsed into a rose a garden. To spite her, Kiyoshi gets the titular rose tattooed on his arm, something which forever marks him out as a ne’er do well in conservative Japanese society, all but guaranteeing he’ll never get an honest job (he even has to cover the tattoo with bandages in public places to avoid causing offence). Eventually he takes drastic action to end his sense of hopelessness, pursuing what is strangely a darker yet more romantic destiny than that of his post-Sun Tribe compatriots in taking a poetic stand, paper rose in hand, defying his despair only through embracing it. 


The Rose on His Arm is currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Early Spring (早春, Yasujiro Ozu, 1956)

By the mid-1950s, Japan’s economy was beginning to improve but now that the desperation that went with hunger had dissipated it freed those who’d managed to climb out of post-war privation to wonder just what the point of their ceaseless toil was. Yasujiro Ozu’s primary subject matter remained the modern family, but 1956’s Early Spring (早春, Soshun) sees him heading in a darker direction as he weighs up the delusions of the salaryman dream and discovers that whichever way you swing it, life is disappointing. 

So it seems to be for salaryman Shoji (Ryo Ikebe). He and Masako (Chikage Awashima) married for love a long time ago, but it’s clear that there is distance in their relationship. They sleep in the same room but their futons are slightly too far apart, and the few words they exchange with each other in the morning are terse in the extreme. The truth is that for many a salaryman for whom long hours and interoffice bonding sessions are compulsory, work is the new family. Wives are welcome to join the Sunday hiking outings but it seems few do. Masako too declines, telling her mother she felt it to be too expensive, already irritated with her husband’s irresponsible spending on mahjong games and drinking with friends. 

Money is certainly a constant worry for her and as we learn from her mother they’re behind on the rent despite it being “very cheap”. Masako had made a visit home in part to ask for another loan, which her mother seems reluctant to give, offering her daughter a takeout of the oden her restaurant sells which is first declined but then accepted. Her mother also flags up the other problem in their marriage which is that they sadly lost a child in infancy and have had no more. Sorrow may have killed their love, but the fact her husband stays out all hours and wastes the little money he earns while failing to win promotions only makes the situation worse. 

As for Shoji, he is becoming very aware of the delusions of the “salaryman dream”. He is one of thousands of men identically dressed in white shirts and grey trousers that board the packed rush hour trains every day heading into the city. His life is one of pointless drudgery and its only victory is that keeps hunger from the door, not even quite stretching to a roof over his head. “All that’s waiting for us is disillusion and loneliness” according to a veteran salaryman growing close to his retirement and realising that he has little left to live on, his dream of buying a small stationary shop all but unobtainable. He was dead set against his own son joining the ranks of the salaryman, but in the end failed to prevent it.

It is perhaps this sense of frustration and impotence that draws Shoji into an affair with a younger woman, Chiyo (Keiko Kishi), who is admittedly very pretty but seems to hold little interest for him aside from her youth and beauty. Chiyo openly pursues her older colleague, declaring that she doesn’t care he has a wife but has come to hate her after the first time they slept together. Shoji meanwhile remains guilty and conflicted. He evidently continues seeing Chiyo, lying to Masako that he’s visiting a sick friend, but otherwise regards her as an irritation. When his co-workers figure out what’s going on they try to stage an intervention, but Shoji doesn’t show up and Chiyo angrily denies everything before arriving at Masako’s looking for Shoji only this time he really is out visiting a sick friend. 

Miura (Junji Masuda), the sick friend, is a true believer in the salaryman dream. Now that he’s ill, he misses the packed trains and elevators, not to mention his old workplace friends. All he wants is to be well enough to return to the office and his predicament perhaps has Shoji thinking that at least he has his health and things aren’t so bad for him after all. Masako, meanwhile, turns to other women for advice. The woman across the way recounts how she caught her husband out with his mistress and made a scene that’s rendered him docile and obedient ever since (a rare man in an Ozu film putting his socks neatly in the laundry basket and hanging up his own coat rather than throwing it on the floor for his wife to deal with). Her widowed friend is more sanguine, admitting that caution is necessary but it’s a little dark to envy the life of a widow for its “freedom”, while her mother thinks she’s overreacting because that’s just how men are in this generation or any other. 

Shoji’s old mentor agrees that “everyone’s disappointed” and all that remains is to try and make the most of it, but still he sees that Shoji has been reckless and inconsiderate in his treatment of both women. He avoids his wife because of the emotional distance between them born of grief, and only really has an affair with Chiyo because it was easier than refusing her. He didn’t even enjoy it, and doubtless it did not quite quell the sense of despair he feels with the utter pointlessness of the “salaryman dream”. Masako, in turn, is disappointed with married life, with her husband’s emotional cowardice, and with her own lack of options. Ultimately, Ozu sides with the mother, not quite condoning Shoji’s behaviour while perhaps excusing it as a direct consequence of dullness of his life while forcing Masako to accept complicity in her husband’s weakness. They may reunite, the stressors of their Tokyo life from the high cost of living to the lure of mahjong now absent, but there is a sense of futility in their eventual insistence that they will “make it work” through starting over in a new place while gazing at the train that, they assume, will eventually carry them back to the city and all of its false promises of a brighter future. 


Early Spring screens 19th/20th/21st October & 20th/23rd November at London’s BFI Southbank as part of BFI Japan. It is also available to stream in the UK via BFI Player and in the US via Criterion Channel.

Shozo, a Cat and Two Women (猫と庄造と二人のをんな, Shiro Toyoda, 1956)

Post-war melodrama is largely concerned with the place of women, in particular, in a rapidly changing society, but given the centrality of domestic life, were men yearning for “independence” too? Shiro Toyoda was closely associated with comedic tales of strong women and weak men, and Shozo, a Cat and Two Women (猫と庄造と二人のをんな, Neko to Shozo to Futari no Onna) is as its title implies no exception. Adapting the novel by Tanizaki, Toyoda offers a subtle critique of the traditional family as its hapless hero finds himself caught between the conflicting demands of his feudalistic mother, stoic first wife, hedonistic second, and his much loved but perhaps mercenary feline, Lily. 

Shozo (Hisaya Morishige) is perhaps a typical spoiled only son, lazy, feckless, and essentially passive. Shinako (Isuzu Yamada) who agreed to an arranged marriage with him four years previously is walking out, thoroughly fed up with her mother-in-law Orin’s (Chieko Naniwa) constant complaints not least among them that the couple have no children. Unbeknownst to Shinako, however,  Shozo has been carrying on with his slightly younger cousin, Fukuko (Kyoko Kagawa), who is a free spirited modern woman. In fact, Fukuko has already run away from home three times in the company of various men so her wealthy father would be only too pleased to see her settle down and is so desperate to offload her that he’s even offering a huge dowry. All of this is complicated by the fact that Fukuko’s father already owns the mortgage on Shozo’s family store, which presents a serious challenge to typical family dynamics. 

Shozo, meanwhile, is only really interested in his pet cat, Lily, something which was a bone of contention in his failed marriage to Shinako (and perhaps a reason they have not been blessed with children). On learning that Orin has already moved Fukuko into the family home mere seconds after she vacated it, Shinako is suddenly struck by remorse and feels the need to vindicate her pride through revenge. Plotting how best to drive a wedge between Fukuko and her new husband, she settles on petitioning Shozo to give her custody of Lily, and then suggests the same thing to her rival knowing that whatever happens it will cause a series of problems in the Oyama household. 

The irony is, in a sense, that it’s Shozo who has been displaced from his own home. Perhaps surprisingly, he often tries to help out with household tasks but his mother always stops him, insisting that housework isn’t something a man should pay attention to. Orin is of course perpetuating outdated ideas of traditional gender roles, but there is also an obvious anxiety in her need to protect her territory from possible incursion. She doesn’t necessarily trust the idea that she and Shozo are connected by anything deeper than practicality and filial obligation and her only currency is her ability to provide the services that Shozo “cannot” provide for himself. His learning to take care of himself is an existential threat to her position as his caregiver even though he is a grown man in his 30s perfectly capable of doing his own laundry and preparing his own meals (as he already does for Lily who particularly enjoys grilled chicken). 

When they brought Shinako into the house, they did so apparently because she was known to be a “good worker” at her job as a maid for a wealthy family. Since then she has indeed worked hard, but is viewed as little more than a glorified servant by Orin who has delegated much of the feminine labour to the younger woman, while Shozo emotionally neglects her in favour of the cat and apparently satisfies his carnal urges outside the home. They accept Fukuko for her money, but take the opposite approach, treating her as the lady of the manor. Fukuko does no housework (a cupboard is later discovered where she’d thrown all the washing she couldn’t be bothered to do), but Orin simply picks up her share and more, becoming maid to her daughter-in-law who frequently reminds them that it’s her money paying for everything so she is the one who is really in charge. 

Shozo does not seem to react too closely to these assaults on his masculinity, but only wants to escape to be alone with Lily whom he believes is the only one who really loves him. In this he is perhaps the truly modern man who wanted his family relations to be “real” rather than defined by social obligation, but he’s also self-centred and childish, still seeing the women (even Lily) as providers of service rather than fellow human beings. His mother satisfied his hunger, Shinako kept him financially by managing the business, and Fukuko sated his passion, but he feels oppressed by all of them in different ways and in the end does not want the responsibility of dealing with human emotions. Lily may be capricious, but her needs are easily satisfied and to that extent she is dependent on him. His desire to be “independent” and find emotional fulfilment only with his cat is just as much of a challenge to the social order as a woman who rejects marriage or seeks to fulfil herself outside of the home. 

Shozo’s dilemma is however presented as comedic until its unexpectedly melancholy conclusion which reduces him to the status of a stray cat as the women come to literal blows, fighting not quite over him (he isn’t worth fighting over) but for their own self-esteem and particular brand of womanhood. Shinako sits at home and calculates all the back pay she’d be entitled to for the labour she performed at the Oyama household in recognition that being a wife is also a job and they treated her as a maid anyway (which is to say as an outsider with no intention of love or loyalty), while Fukuko begins to see the “emptiness” in her party girl lifestyle but prefers to be pampered and resents being “beaten” by a mere housemaid. This system traps everyone, forcing them to manipulate the desires of others while suppressing their own. Shozo and his cat are left out in the cold, trapped between tradition and modernity but no more free than they were before even in their mutual dependency.


Mysteries of Edo (ふり袖捕物帖 若衆変化, Shoji Matsumura, 1956)

The voice of the post-war era, Hibari Misora was a major marquee star but in contrast to expectation, appears to have been fully in command of her contradictory brand, selling an image of herself not as docile and innocent in the manner of many a manufactured idol but feisty and true, refusing to backdown in the face of injustice. In her contemporary movies, she stood up to gangsters and corrupt corporations alike with salt of the earth charm, while her period roles saw her do much the same only against the inherently corrupt samurai order. An early outing for Toei, Mysteries of Edo (ふり袖捕物帖 若衆変化, Furisode Torimonocho: Wakashu Henge) sees her star in the first of a series of films as a princess in hiding turned feminist detective, investigating series of abductions in the rapidly changing bakumatsu society. 

A “newspaper” seller in the street informs us that 14 girls have recently gone missing in this area of town, and no one’s doing much about it. A dance teacher escorts her pupils home to be on the safe side while her apprentice, Oshichi (Hibari Misori), stays behind to teach cowardly samurai Kawashima (Hashizo Okawa) some moves. Local bobby Gorohachi (Shunji Sakai), himself a dance enthusiast, arrives to get some guidance from Oshichi but their lesson is interrupted by the news that the dance mistress and her daughter have become the latest two abduction victims. Oshichi springs into action but quickly falls under suspicion from a rival policeman, Gonroku (Haruhisa Kawada), who questions her background. All too soon, the body of a young woman is discovered at the local shrine and believed to be connected to the abduction cases. Gonroku accepts a bribe from a samurai to get rid of the body as quickly as possible, but Oshichi immediately notices the bruises on the woman’s neck and concludes it’s a murder. She and Gorohachi trace the samurai back to the red light district and discover some shady goings on in a “back house” behind a brothel belonging to a prominent merchant. 

During this era, Japan was still in its isolationist period during which consorting with foreigners was forbidden outside of a few explicitly designated trading spots. Oshichi figures out that the merchant, Nagasaki (Ryosuke Kagawa), is involved with smuggling and uses his second house as a place to entertain foreigners in collusion with local politicians. When he ran out of courtesans from the brothel next door, he started simply abducting random women off the street to entertain his guests with more authentic charms. Those who don’t comply are threatened with being sold off on slave ships, itself another evil of the age. 

Of course, a lowly dance teacher and a bumbling policeman aren’t much of a match for entrenched samurai corruption, but Oshichi has a trump card – she’s secretly a princess in hiding. Bored with the life of an upperclass noblewoman, she ran away from her brother’s home to live an independent life in Edo but can still rely on her class background when necessary. Stealing a pistol and a letter box, she rebrands herself as a man and gets a job in the ministry to try and spy on the corrupt lords while hoping to save her boss, keeping up the ruse well enough but eventually unmasked as a girl. 

As in many of her films, Misora plays on gender ambiguity. Rejecting the cosseted life of a lady, she takes to the streets and then takes charge. She’s technically Gorohachi’s subordinate, but in reality he follows her lead, and she gives as good as she gets in the frequent fight sequences. In the end, however, she’s “rescued” by a masked samurai dressed in white with whom she becomes instantly smitten. She dreams of meeting him in a deserted field where he mildly berates her for her lack of femininity, insisting that he liked “the Oshichi from before”, meanwhile she conjures up the figure of Kawashima who manfully wades in to save her. Previously, in refusing to help, Kawashima had told her that “a woman should know her place and act like a woman”. Oshichi tells him perhaps he should act like a man, practice kendo or something else more manly rather than prancing about learning to dance. His words have perhaps cut her because he tells her the same thing in her dream, insisting that he “could fall for the womanly Oshichi”.

Oshichi tries on womanliness for size, but it only seems to confuse the “real” Kawashima who describes her attempt at genial femininity as “creepy”. She quickly goes back to holding her own, pushing forward where the men hold back perhaps bashful in love but never in justice. Even if it’s true that the dashing samurai arrives to save the day, Oshichi is no damsel in distress watching passively from the sidelines but an active participant threatening bad guys with a gun cunningly smuggled in while she distracted them with a song, and grabbing a sword off the wall to wade into the fray. Rewarded for her good work and asked what she’d like in return, Oshichi chooses her freedom, intending to stay in the town a little longer, solving crimes in old Edo and ensuring that no one, even those who think they have a right to be, is truly above the law.


Our Town (わが町, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

“They tricked me and you and everyone! It’s so stupid” a stammering man tries to explain to his deluded friend, but some people just don’t want to hear the truth. Spanning 30 years of tumultuous 20th century history, Yuzo Kawashima’s Our Town (わが町, Waga Machi) charts a course of authoritarian fallacy as its puffed up hero refuses to give up on the imperialism of his youth and condemns all around him to lives of misery out of misguided faith in an outdated code of patriarchal and national pride. Too late he will perhaps begin to realise that his unforgiving rigidity has done nothing more than alienate the people that he loves, but his story is both a lament for past folly and a warning for the freer post-war future. 

Back in the 1900s, the tail end of the Meiji era, Taa (Ryutaro Tatsumi) was one of 1200 Japanese construction workers who travelled to the Philippines to help build a road intended to boost the economy of the recently independent nation. Now, around this time, Japan was also embarking on the the first of its 20th century wars fought against the Russians. While Taa was breaking his back on the Benguet road, other young men were busy painting themselves in glory as imperial soldiers contributing to the expansion of the burgeoning Japanese Empire. In his own way, and quite literally, Taa was also building the Japanese Empire and intensely resents that no one recognises his contribution as the self-styled “Taa of Benguet” who apparently kept his fellow Japanese going even when it became clear that they were just exploited workers, hung out to dry once the job was done and left to die of poverty or tropical disease. 

Taa’s life philosophy is that humans are born to work and that suffering in youth builds character. He wanted to show the world what Japanese people are made of and feels he made Japan proud building the Benguet roadway, but there are no flag waving parades for his return as there were for Hanai who went away to war, nor is there any real work. Embarrassed about his illiteracy, he didn’t even write any letters home which is one reason why he didn’t know that a casual girlfriend, Tsuru (Yoko Minamida), whom he’d perhaps long forgotten, had given birth to his child, Hatsue, who is now four. Despite his initial surprise, Taa submits himself to the role of husband and father, earning money as a rickshaw driver, but never forgets that he is “Taa of Benguet” or that the meaning of life is suffering through hard work. 

Old fashioned and patriarchal even for the times in which he lives, Taa’s attitudes continue to destroy the lives of those around him. He wasn’t there to support Tsuru and so she worked herself to death in his absence. Hatsue (Tomoko Ko) grows into a beautiful young woman and falls in love with Shintaro (Shiro Osaka) the son of a bucket maker who, though athletic, is not perhaps built for hard work in the same way as Taa had been. He tries to force his philosophies on the younger generation, pressuring Shintaro to go to the Philippines to make a man of himself, not quite understanding that much has changed in the previous 15 years, nor that Shintaro may not be able to endure the kind of hardship he regards as indicative of a productive life. 

Taa learns nothing from his mistakes, eventually pressuring his granddaughter Kimie (Yoko Minamida) in the same way he’d done his daughter, objecting to her desire to marry a man of her own choosing even though he embodies many of his oft spoken ideals including dedication to hard work. Jiro (Tatsuya Mihashi) is the son of his old rival Hanai and was himself in the war. Like Taa and the men of his generation, he too was “tricked” into working overseas for a mistaken ideal of Japanese imperialism but he’s also a man of the post-war generation and has no more illusions about things like glory or suffering.

Kimie too, as she later tells Taa, is a post-war woman. She feels no obligation towards her grandfather simply because he raised her, nor will she allow her life to be ruined in the same way her mother’s and grandmother’s were by Taa’s patriarchal authoritarianism. “You’ve got to start listening to the younger generation” Jiro tries to explain, but Taa is not someone used to listening. “Every single thing you’ve ever done has been pointless” Kimie tells him, “trapped in your own happy bubble, getting in the way of everyone else”. All Taa’s philosophy has ever caused is pain and suffering, trying to make the lives of all the men who died building a road in a foreign land mean something while ironically propping up the same ideology that robs men like him of their freedom and possibility. You could say something broke in 1905, but it also broke 40 years later, people are wiser now and they know there’s no glory in suffering. Taa sees the error of his ways, but also that there’s no place for him in the kinder post-war era where there’s no sin in working hard, but no life without freedom. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

The Balloon (風船, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

The uncertainties of the post-war world are often conveyed through the familiar “cloud” metaphor, but in characteristic fashion Yuzo Kawashima opts for something earthier in the manmade “Balloon” (風船, Fusen). Less representative of its troubled humanists than the amoral villain Tsuzuki (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) who likes to know which way the wind is blowing so he can go that way too, these balloons are up in the air because they’re afraid to land fearing the inevitable pop if they pick the wrong spot.

Our hero, former painter Murakami (Masayuki Mori), has become the head of a successful camera firm. His son, Keikichi (Tatsuya Mihashi), works with him, while his 20-year-old daughter Tamako (Izumi Ashikawa) is a reluctant student still living in the family home. Out of step with his times, he’s known as a decent and compassionate boss, offering his staff a significant wage increase in excess of that recommended by the union just because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. Unfortunately, Keikichi is much more like his conservative mother and does not quite share his father’s egalitarian principles. He’s currently engaged in a “relationship” with widowed bar hostess Kumiko (Michiyo Aratama) but treats her extremely badly, throwing money on the side table as he leaves her apartment to make it clear that he views himself as a customer and not as a lover. When Murakami re-encounters a family friend, Tsuzuki, at his father’s funeral it sets off a chain of events that will change his life completely. Now a shady nightclub entrepreneur, Tsuzuki is dead set on making his singer, Mikiko (Mie Kitahara), a star and thinks a good way to help make that happen might be to get her married to someone with money, like, for instance, Keikichi. 

Raised in Shanghai, singing in French, and forever wearing berets, Mikiko may indeed be the face of avaricious post-war youth, apparently having floated along with Tsuzuki halfway across the world in search of a place in the sun. Urged on by her manager, she goes to war against Kumiko who, in contrast to the “bar girl” image, is earnest and naive. Working as a hostess places her on the fringes of the sex trade, but does not necessarily imply that she makes a living by sleeping with her customers, and she certainly seems less than grateful to receive money from Keikichi whom she believes to be her boyfriend. Mikiko willingly weaponises her sex appeal and seemingly endures no consequences for doing so, while Kumiko is roundly rejected as a “fallen woman” and deemed an unsuitable match by Keikichi’s snooty mother. 

Tamako, by contrast, actively reaches out to Kumiko and attempts to make her a member of the family, never for a second considering that she might not be welcome because she can see that Kumiko is a “nice” person. Much more like her kindly father, she finds herself uncomfortable at home and mostly holes up in the attic painting. After suffering childhood polio, she’s been left with muscle weakness in her left arm and is treated like a child by her mother and brother who openly tell people that the illness has also made her “simple”. Despite all that, however, she sees only the best in people and desperately wants those around her to be happy. 

The difference in her own family is brought home to her when her father takes her with him on a business trip to the much quieter, more traditional Kyoto where he has reunited with a pair of youngsters whose late parents once rented him a room when he was temporarily displaced by post-war confusion. Like Kumiko, Rui (Sachiko Hidari) is a kind person in difficult circumstances. She too is working in a bar and has done some work as a photo model, even glamour shots to earn money to pay her brother’s university fees. Rui doesn’t want to go on doing that in the future, but doesn’t feel too bad about it either because she only exposed the outside of herself, and really who cares about that. 

Beginning to regret some of his life choices, Murakami wonders if he mightn’t be better to move back into the attic room in Kyoto and pray at the temple everyday like before instead of trying to make money he feels has slowly corrupted his family. Confronted with Keikichi’s near sociopathic self-involvement over his relationships with Kumiko and Mikiko, he comes to the conclusion that all he can do is cut him loose and hope he learns some humility through being forced to stand on his own two feet. Given a talking to by his father Keikichi doubles down with his misogynistic world view, insisting that “all women are whores” and all relationships are essentially transactions while claiming that he, himself, as well as men in general, is the real victim because he’s being forced to carry the can for the way the world works. Murakami isn’t having any of it, calmly asking him if he’d say the same thing to his mother, which he sheepishly admits he couldn’t. 

Mikiko likens Tsuzuki to one off his metaphorical balloons, pointing out that he was an imperialist in Shanghai and now seems to have it in for the bourgeoisie, but for all his cynicism he seems to have a kind of admiration for a woman like Kumiko who carried on loving one man no matter how poorly he treated her. If only he had a woman like that, he might have found a place to land and his life would have been very different, he muses. Murakami, meanwhile, has rejected the modern city, certain that his son is the way he is because his life has been too easy and access to wealth has given him a superiority complex that’s put him out of touch with ordinary people. Disappointed with his own family, he decides to make a new one with the two cheerful youngsters in Kyoto, hoping that he will at least be able to save his daughter from the ravages of a rapidly declining society which seems primed to swallow the sensitive whole.


Currently available to stream on Mubi in the US.

Punishment Room (処刑の部屋, Kon Ichikawa, 1956)

In the mid-1950s, Nikkatsu released a series of incendiary youth films which gave rise to a small moral panic in the older generation. The “Sun Tribe” movies proved so controversial that Nikkatsu could only release three of them before bowing to public pressure while Toho and Daiei both managed to release one each, bringing the total up to five. Produced by Daiei, Kon Ichikawa’s contribution to the Sun Tribe phenomenon, Punishment Room (処刑の部屋, Shokei no Heya), adapted another novel by Crazed Fruit’s Shintaro Ishihara who had, it seems, managed to capture something of the nihilistic spirit of the age.

Among the darkest of the Sun Tribe tales, Punishment Room follows near sociopathic university student Katsumi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) as he works out his frustration with his hangdog father Hanya (Seiji Miyaguchi) by kicking back against societal rigidity. Hanya is a bank clerk with some kind of stress-related stomach complaint for which he is forever taking medicine. One particular day, Katsumi and his friend Hideo (Shoji Umewaka) turn up to run some kind of scam on him, insisting that Hideo’s family are in dire straits because his dad’s working abroad and they don’t have money to make a payment on a loan. The boys want Hanya to buy the note of debt as security and lend them 30,000 yen, something which isn’t really allowed but he ends up taking out half of his own life savings to avoid embarrassing or being embarrassed by his own son in the workplace. The boys, however, were just trying to extort him and planning to use the money to host a college dance while making a little extra on the side. 

At this point, most still seem to feel that Katsumi is a “nice kid”, while Hideo is a bad influence. His middle school best friend Ryoji more or less says as much, but no one really knows the extent to which Katsumi is already becoming a black hole of nihilistic fury. His ire is provoked during a college debate session at which he’s outtalked by smart female student Akiko (Ayako Wakao) and abruptly cut off by the bored professor (Nobuo Nakamura). Despite knowing that one of his buddies has a crush on her, Katsumi makes a point of picking Akiko up during the chaos of celebration after a sports game. Along with Hideo and another, more innocent student they nickname “Sonny”, Katsumi takes Akiko and her friend to a nearby drinking house, popping out to buy sleeping pills and eventually spiking their drinks while they use the bathroom, knocking Sonny out for good measure to stop him getting in the way. After dragging the barely conscious girls back to Hideo’s family home, they take one each and rape them. On waking Akiko is defiant, threatening to call the police but an unrepentant Katsumi insists that she won’t be believed. Not content with their humiliations, the guys even insist on taking the girls home by cab only to run out and leave them with the bill. 

Katsumi is is equally unrepentant when someone sends his family a letter informing them of his conduct, admitting that the allegations are true but insisting that the women are complicit because they did not report him to the police. He even refers to Akiko, who has after a fashion fallen in love with him, as “sort of my girlfriend”. Hanya ironically blames his wife whom he has treated with nothing but contempt, giving his son a crash course in a inherited misogyny, but she turns the same logic of toxic masculinity back on him in pointing out that his own passivity is the major cause of his son’s resentful rebelliousness. If Katsumi is rebelling against something rather than just a sociopathic little punk, it is indeed the spinelessness he sees in his father, obliged to scrape and bow for a mere pittance as a “wage slave” of a cruelly conformist society. 

An angry young man, Katsumi preemptively rejects the salaryman straightjacket by rebelling against conventional morality. “I do what I want” he insists, as if proving that he’s a free agent acting under force of will alone and beholden to no one. His efforts are however, futile. His amoral violence buys him nothing but the same in return. Denied a mechanism for dealing with emotion, contemptuous of hollow authority figures, and infinitely bored by a society they believe has nothing to offer them bar empty consumerism, post-war youth seeks escape but finds only nihilistic self-destruction, trapped in a perpetual Punishment Room with no exit in sight. 


Opening Scene (no subtitles)

Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Shiro Toyoda, 1956)

A studio director at Toho, Shiro Toyoda was most closely associated with adaptations of well respected works of literature, often with an earthy, humanist touch. He might then be an odd fit for a tale of high romance co-produced with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers and inspired by a classic Chinese legend. Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Byaku Fujin no Yoren) effectively drops some of Toho’s top talent, including “pan-Asian” star Shirley (Yoshiko) Yamaguchi (AKA Li Xianglan / Ri Koran), into a contemporary Hong Kong ghost movie with Toyoda doing his best to mimic the house style. 

As in the classic legend, fate is set in motion when herbalist Xu-xian (Ryo Ikebe) allows “noblewoman” Bai-niang (Shirley Yamaguchi) and her maid Xiao-qing (Kaoru Yachigusa) to board a boat he is riding to escape a storm. The pair bond because they are both orphans out in the rain to pay their filial respects to their late parents on tomb sweeping day. Disembarking, Xu-xian lends the ladies his umbrella, vowing to visit their house the next day after his rounds to reclaim it. When he arrives, Xu-xian is greeted by a near hysterical and extremely romantic Bai-niang who has apparently fallen deeply in love with him because of his pure heart. She proposes marriage, but Xu-xian is wary. He is after all just a poor boy, a herbalist living with his older sister and her husband. He has no money to get married and Bai-niang is a noble woman from a good family, society simply wouldn’t allow it. Xu-xian tries to escape, but his gentle words of refusal only wound Bia-niang’s heart. 

Hoping to smooth the situation, Xiao-qing decides to give Xu-xian a small fortune in silver taels so the money issue will be solved. Strangely, the plan appears to work. Xu-xian quickly gets over his reluctance to accept money from a wealthy woman who wants to marry him and returns to being in love and excited, selling his newfound hope for the future to his sister by showing her the taels. It is, however, not quite that simple. The silver turns out to be stolen as evidenced by a mark of fire on its surface. Xu-xian falls under suspicion as a thief and comes to resent Bai-niang for placing him in such a difficult and embarrassing position. 

Nevertheless, despite all the strange goings on such as the suddenly “abandoned” house, the green smoke, and vanishing women, Xu-xian does not seem to suspect that Bai-niang is not fully human, and is only angry with her for misusing him. In a motif which will be repeated, however, he is eventually won over. After taking a job in his sleazy uncle’s inn, he re-encounters Bai-niang and realises she really is the one for him. But as they begin to build their life together, launched with an unwise loan from the sleazy uncle who can’t seem to keep his eyes (and occasionally hands) off Bai-niang, doubt begins to creep in. Those small cracks are deepened when Xu-xian is accosted by a man who announces himself as a Taoist from Mount Ji and tells him that he has an evil aura over his head, encouraging him to believe that an evil spirit is slowly capturing his heart which why he’s a little bit afraid to go home. The priest gives him some useful talismans, which are of course quite bad news for Bai-niang who now knows that her husband secretly doubts her. 

Meanwhile, prepared to do “anything” to make the man she loves happy, Bai-niang has come to the strange conclusion that Xu-xian’s moodiness is down to the fact that their medicine shop isn’t doing so well. Unfortunately, her big idea is poisoning the local well to make everyone think there’s a plague so they’ll have to buy more of her potions. It’s a fairly nefarious plan, but apparently all for love. As in the original tale, however, the real crisis once again comes with the randy uncle who uses the pretext of a local festival to try and get Bai-niang drunk on special wine that is known to unmask spirits. Realising that his wife is a little bit otherworldly sends Xu-xian into a coma, while Bai-niang goes to ask the gods for help, only to be undercut by the annoying Taoist priest who wakes Xu-xian up by convincing him his wife’s “evil”. 

If you don’t want people to think you’re “evil”, trying to drown the entire town might not be the best move. Bai-niang’s refusal to give up on Xu-xian even when he constantly tries to reject her places her at odds with loyal servant Xiao-qing who is equal parts enraged on her behalf and exasperated that she can’t see sense. Bai-niang tells the gods that the only witchcraft she used was the witchcraft of love even if that love caused her to try and poison the entire town, but now regards herself as nothing more than Xu-xian’s wife and is willing to renounce her powers in order to save him. Once again, Xu-xian has a sudden change of heart, avowing that there are human women with the heart of a snake, and Bai-niang is a woman to him even if she’s a snake spirit which is, apparently, the only thing that matters. Still, theirs is a love this world doesn’t understand, and so only in a better one can they ever be together.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Suzaki Paradise: Red Light (洲崎パラダイス 赤信号, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

Suzaki paradise posterBy 1956, things were beginning to look up. Post-war privation was receding into the distance with the consumerist future already on the horizon, but as much as there were possibilities for some others found themselves floundering, unable to find direction in a world of constant change. Yuzo Kawashima’s Suzaki Paradise: Red Light (洲崎パラダイス 赤信号, Susaki Paradise: Akashingo)* was released in the same year that the anti-prostitution law came into force forever changing the face of the red light district and like its heroes finds itself hovering on a precipice caught between an old world the new.

Lovers Tsutae (Michiyo Aratama) and Yoshiji (Tatsuya Mihashi) have found themselves at a crossroads, or more accurately on a bridge, unsure whether to go forward, or back, or some other place entirely. Tsutae is disappointed in Yoshiji, expecting him as the man to have some kind of plan, while he is a little resentful of her fortitude and tendency to take the lead. Yoshiji grows maudlin and moody, berating himself for his failure of manhood, a failing for which Tsutae has little sympathy. Fed up with him, she runs off and catches a bus. He chases her, and they both get off at Susaki, home to a famous red light district. Yoshiji isn’t happy with this development, worried that Tsutae will cross the bridge and fall back into her “old self”, perhaps hinting at the kind of life she lived before. Luckily for them, Tsutae spots a help wanted sign at a tiny bar firmly on this side of the river. The landlady, Otoku (Yukiko Todoroki), is a kind woman raising her two sons alone, but is wary of handing the job to a woman the like of Tsutae. As she tells her, no one stays here long, most just see it as a stepping stone, a place where they can acclimatise themselves to the idea of crossing the bridge into the ironically named “Susaki Paradise”.   

Once you cross the bridge, most seem to say, you never really cross back. Later we learn that Tsutae is from the other side of the water and seemingly forever trying to escape her past though mostly through trying to attach herself to a man she thinks can carry her out it. Yoshiji seems to be aware that Tsutae is a former sex worker and is desperate to prevent her returning to her previous occupation, worried that he’ll lose her if she does or perhaps just unfairly judgemental. Likewise, we learn that he lost his job through some kind of impropriety, perhaps committed trying to keep Tsutae with him. Each of them is in one way or another trapped by patriarchal social codes, Tsutae believing that the only way she can save herself is by finding the right man to save her, and Yoshiji increasingly resentful for not living up to the male ideal. He can’t keep his woman, can’t provide for or protect her, most pressingly he cannot find a job but is also proud, shamed by the idea of accepting low paid manual work. He feels belittled and humiliated and is embittered by it.

Tsutae meanwhile takes to Otoku’s bar like a duck to water, quickly bringing in a host of male custom while bonding with the cheerful owner of a radio shop in nearby electronics centre Kanda, Ochiai (Seizaburo Kawazu). Otoku manages to find a job for Yoshiji delivering soba noodles in a local restaurant which he decides to take despite his intense resentment and wounded male pride. Ironically enough, the name of the soba restaurant is “Damasare-ya” which sounds like “tricked”, explaining why he might be reluctant to take the job, but the biggest problem is that he can’t trust Tsutae and is always paranoid about her meeting men in the bar or deciding to cross the bridge in his absence. Eventually, Ochiai offers to make Tsutae his mistress and provide a flat for her in Kanda, leaving her with a choice – “love”, if that’s what it is, with the feckless and jealous Yoshiji, or perfectly pleasant yet transactional comfort with Ochiai. Yoshiji, meanwhile, attracts the attentions of an earnest waitress in the soba noodle restaurant (Izumi Ashikawa) who seems to support his attachment to Tsutae but is also rooting for him to get over himself and live an honest life of hard work by knuckling down at his new job.

Yet that post-war restlessness won’t seem to let either of them go. Once you fall, you fall and it may not be possible to climb back up, or at least not without the right person to help keep you from slipping back down. Otoku has managed to keep a steady hand on the tiller, apparently waiting, we’re told, for the return of her husband who ran off with a woman from the red light district four years previously. The red light district, like toxic masculinity, cuts both ways and you’ll pay a heavy price for crossing the bridge. “People had better live honestly” a middle-aged man avows after having apparently seen the error of his ways, but it’s easier said than done.

When their worlds come crashing down, Tsutae and Yoshiji find themselves right back where they started, hovering on the bridge. “We have to live until we die” Tsutae once said, dismissing any fears we might have had that the pair might jump, but their course is both set and not. Now chastened, Tsutae’s decision to take a step back is both a reflection on the failure of her Susaki experiment, and also perhaps a mild concession to patriarchal social norms as she actively assumes the submissive role, affirming that she will follow Yoshiji’s lead while he reassumes his masculinity by finally taking charge. No longer quite so liminal they move on, another pair of floating clouds, perhaps more at home with who they are and can never be, but with no clear destination in sight.


*The reading of this place name is “Susaki” but the film has become more commonly known under the title “Suzaki Paradise”

Currently streaming on Mubi as part of an ongoing Yuzo Kawashima retrospective.

Title sequence (no subtitles)