Ghost in the Well (怪談番町皿屋敷, Toshikazu Kono, 1957)

Ghost in the Well poster 2Love across the class divide threatens to overthrow the social order. Inspired by the classic folktale Bancho Sarayashiki, Ghost in the Well (怪談番町皿屋敷, Kaidan Bancho Sarayashiki) is indeed the story of a haunting though perhaps not altogether of the kind you might be expecting. This is a tale of romance, but also one of impossible love in which the only possible union is in death. The pure love of a servant girl is deemed incompatible with the oppressive world of samurai honour, and so she must die, but her lord cannot survive it. He cannot reconcile himself to having chosen to preserve his honour, his status, his lineage at the cost of her life and his love.

Rowdy samurai Harima (Chiyonosuke Azuma) loves making trouble in the streets. As the lord’s bannerman he knows he has a degree of status and likes to throw his weight around in the yoshiwara, much to the lord’s consternation. Harima has also taken a fancy to one of his maids, Okiku (Hibari Misora), who continues to reject his advances despite returning his affections because she knows the class difference makes a legitimate relationship between them impossible and a dalliance with her lord means losing the opportunity to marry anyone else. Harima tells her that there’s no such thing as status when it comes to love and that he doesn’t think of her as a passing infatuation. Eventually Okiku gives in and a kind of promise is made between them.

Nevertheless, it’s a promise which can’t be kept. The Aoyama family is in trouble and the obvious answer is to make a good match for Harima that will restore both status and wealth. When one of Harima’s friends is ordered to commit seppuku for the exact same petty punk antics Harima gets up to all the time matters come to a crunch. To keep him safe, Harima’s uncle arranges a marriage with an influential family. Harima tries to refuse but he too is more or less powerless even if he weren’t torn between the obligation to his samurai code and his illicit love for servant girl whom he would never be permitted to make his wife. To cement the match, Harima’s uncle has prepared 10 precious plates as a dowry, but Okiku, catching sight of Harima’s bride-to-be, drops one and breaks it in two. Her fate is sealed. Harima draws his sword on her and she backs away, eventually falling into the well and dying there.

The broken plate is, of course, a symbol of their broken covenant but also of Okiku’s shattered dreams as she watches a beautiful but haughty woman steal away her last hope of happiness solely through the accident of noble birth. As her friend tells her, a commoner cannot become the wife of a samurai and all Okiku can do is resign herself to her unhappy fate. Having broken the plate, however, all is lost. The men of the household admit their responsibility for entrusting the entirety of their future to a mere slip of a girl in the middle of intense heartbreak, but Okiku cannot go unpunished and Harima must claim his new life by destroying his past love.

Harima does what he’s supposed to do, if in passion and half by accident. Yet the marriage remains broken, the family in jeopardy, and Harima without hope of future. The ghost of Okiku, real or imagined, haunts him while he remains guilt ridden and filled with regrets. Despite his rowdiness and manly pride, he chose his samurai honour and condemned his one true love to a lonely death. Her love has, however, survived and resurrected her not as a demon of vengeance come to lead him to his doom but as a lovelorn woman keen to remind him of the promise he made and broke but which might be mended.

Harima pays for his transgressions, though more as a mischievous samurai who allowed his over inflated ego to convince him he had the right to oppress his fellow retainers than as a man who caused the death of an innocent woman, first by corrupting her and then by the same rigidity which has led to his present predicament. There can be no “love” in a such a society, let alone the love of a bannerman and a servant girl. Theirs is a blood wedding, uniting them in death, consumed by the impossibilities of the samurai era. At only 45 minutes, Ghost in the Well is perhaps a slight retelling of the tale and somewhat in imbalanced in its presentation of the fates of the two lovers but is nevertheless a refreshingly romantic take on an often dark story in which a scorned woman’s vengeance is reframed as a powerful condemnation of an oppressive society.


The Deep Blue Sea (青い海原, Tsuneo Kobayashi, 1957)

Deep Blue Sea posterHibari Misora turned 20 in 1957, but she’d already been working for eight years and was well on her way to becoming one of the most successful stars of the post-war era. The Deep Blue Sea (青い海原, Aoi Unabara) is one of her earliest grown up musical dramas and finds her sharing the bill with another of the biggest acts of the day in Hachiro Kasuga who, despite being stuck in second lead limbo, does the bulk of the musical heavy lifting. It also sees her star opposite an actor who would become her frequent leading man which might come as something of a surprise to those most familiar with his later work – Ken Takakura, then very fresh faced and playing the juvenile lead.

The action begins with Takakura’s Ken as the stranger who walks into town. In fact he’s not that much of a stranger – he runs into an acquaintance, Saburo (Hachiro Kasuga), right away, but he’s come on a mission. He’s looking for the friend of a man who died in an accident on his boat in order to give him a photograph and some money he’d saved for the daughter he had to leave behind. Before any of that happens, however, he ends up in a meet cute with Misora’s Harumi who manages to tip a whole bucket of water over him, and then later a jug of beer when he fetches up at the bar where she works (and where Saburo is a regular). As coincidence would have it, the man Ken is looking for also lives at the bar and is actually Harumi’s father. Harumi never knew she was adopted and is stunned when she overhears the conversation between the two men but decides to go on pretending not to know anything.

The real drama revolves around a lecherous gangster, Sakazaki (Isamu Yamaguchi), who is having an “affair” with the owner of the bar where Harumi and her dad live. He’s taken a liking to Harumi who wants nothing to do with him, but when her dad gets into an accident and needs money for medical treatment, Saburo makes a deal and unwittingly gives him an additional angle to start railroading Harumi into his arms.

Director Tsuneo Kobayashi would later be best known for genre pieces and tokusatsu. Besides some quite beautiful and unusually convincing work with backdrops, there are no shocks or special effects in Deep Blue Sea but there is plenty of music, most of it sung by Hachiro Kasuga with Misora taking centre stage for a few solo numbers of her own as well as humming an odd tune here and there. Despite not being an integrated musical (all of the songs have a diegetic genesis) and in contrast with many of Misora’s films, The Deep Blue Sea is otherwise a fairly typical musical drama in which the songs drive the narrative rather than being an aside to it.

It does however begin to blur genres, shifting into familiar Toei territory with the introduction of the sleazy yakuza tough guys who are willing to go to quite a lot of trouble to ruin the life of an ordinary girl like Harumi. The central romance follows a familiar pattern as Ken comes to care about Harumi and her dad through his connection with her birth father and becomes their noble protector, while Saburo, who’d silently harboured a crush on Harumi all along hovers sadly on the sidelines, wanting to support his friends in their romantic endeavour but also somewhat grateful when Ken decides to sacrifice himself on Harumi’s behalf. Ken’s sacrifice, however, doesn’t entirely work – you can’t get rid of men like Sakazaki through honest or logical ways and simply paying them off is never enough, in fact it might just make everything worse.

The Deep Blue Sea may be a little darker than most musical romances with its seedy port town setting, gangsters, smuggling action, and the constant sense of things always floating away with the boats that come and go, but in true musical fashion it all works out in the end. Despite learning that she is adopted and that a wealthier blood relative was keen to take her in, Harumi chooses to stay with her adopted father, steadfastly choosing real feeling over blood ties or pragmatic concerns – unlike the greedy bar owner who steals the money her father left her, or the nefarious gangster who tries to manipulate her into giving up her principles and stepping into his world of betrayal and avarice. As usual for a Toei film, the forces of good (for a given definition of “good”) eventually triumph and the bad pay for all their mistakes while the merely unlucky accept their fates with good grace and resolve to make the most of new opportunities. It may not have made any great waves, but The Deep Blue Sea is cheerful and fun and chock full of post-war humanism as the noble Ken comes to the rescue of the goodhearted Harumi and her steadfast father to stand up against the forces of corruption.


Some of Hibari’s musical numbers (no subtitles)

Eight Hours of Terror (8時間の恐怖, Seijun Suzuki, 1957)

(C) Nikkatsu 1957

Eight Hours of Terror poster 2Mr. Thank You meets The Lady Vanishes? Seijun Suzuki’s early slice of claustrophobic social drama Eight Hours of Terror (8時間の恐怖, Hachijikan no Kyofu) is another worthy example Japanese cinema’s strange obsession with buses, transposing John Ford’s Stagecoach to the Japanese mountains as a disparate collection of travellers is forced onto a perilous overnight journey in the hope of making their city-bound connection. Shooting in academy ratio and with a mix of studio shot interior action and on location footage, Suzuki keeps the tension high but maintains his detached sense of humour, finding the comedy in the petty prejudices and selfish preoccupations which take hold when civilisation is abandoned and bandits run free.

When a typhoon causes a landslide and halts the trains, the anxious travellers in a small mountain town are left with the choice of waiting until the tracks are clear or piling into a rundown rail replacement service and driving through the mountains overnight to meet their Tokyo-bound connection set to leave at midday. They are warned that there has recently been a bank robbery and the police have issued a general alert for loose bandits. Those whose journey is not “urgent” might do better to wait, but the bus is the only solution for anyone wanting to get back to the city in good time.

Tense as Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the bus journey throws together a group of people who would never normally keep company with each other and largely have no interest in bonding in their shared hardship. Businessmen moan endlessly about potentially missed meetings while student radicals ironically mirror them, giving mini lectures on leftwing politics to a disinterested audience and trying to raise rousing choruses of Russian folk songs to lift the spirits of the masses. Meanwhile, a suicidal mother with a young baby sadly bides her time, a pan pan makes the best of a bad situation, an elderly couple frets anxiously about making it back to the city to see their seriously ill daughter, and a policeman escorts a man arrested for the murder of his former wife and her new husband.

The spectre of the war haunts them all – almost like a fare-dodging stowaway concealed somewhere on the back of the bus. The driver lost his son and grandchildren in Manchuria, the nervous lingerie salesman claims to have led a motorised brigade but is constantly terrified by every little set back, and the convict turns out to be a former army doctor battling some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder coupled with intense rage and regret for his post-war fate. The student radicals regard the presence of the bandits as a symptom of social breakdown (a narrative they can get behind in the general failures of capitalism) while the fat cat CEO and his ridiculously bejewelled wife angrily bark at the young men who can’t find work in the struggling post-war economy, attributing their economic difficulties to pure laziness and failure to slot into to the demands of a conformist society.

The twin dramas revolve around the intertwined fates of the young woman and her baby, and the bank robbers who eventually turn up and hijack the bus. Despite a need to pull together in the face of adversity, many of the passengers are content to ignore the pain and suffering of those around them in order to achieve their own selfish goals. The lingerie salesman, panicked by the delay, attempts to drive the bus over a rickety bridge the driver is currently checking for safety at the risk of everyone’s lives. Meanwhile the woman and her baby are missing. Later found seriously ill, the woman recovers but the baby struggles. The pan pan, who becomes the de facto leader of group, suggests getting the convict, a former doctor, to treat the baby but not everyone is happy about uncuffing a potential killer even if it means life and death for an innocent child. Similarly, after the pan pan helps to despatch one of the hijackers, many of the passengers want to drive off and leave her behind with only the convict eventually coming to her rescue. Despite all she’d done for them, the passengers reject her once again when directly confronted by the taboo nature of her work as a prostitute at the American bases after someone steals her purse and finds a picture of a black GI inside the fold.

The world outside the bus is changing. The pan pan fears for her future now the occupation is coming to an end, as do some of the young men who’d relied on the presence of the American troops for their employment. The CEOs and lingerie salesmen of the world are content to remain within their own bubbles, ignoring everyone else they protect their elitist status while the idealistic student activists are perhaps no better – they too want to take the hijackers’ ill gotten gains and repurpose them for social good by getting more leftists elected to parliament. The convict and the pan pan are the kindest and the most human, finding an unexpected bond in their shared humanism while the aspiring actress finds joy in treating everything like a fantastic adventure only to give up on her dreams of stardom after realising she’d be forced to kiss a bunch of guys she didn’t like in order to achieve them.

Mixing studio shot rear projection and location shooting of the bus making its precarious journey along winding mountain roads, Suzuki keeps the tension high as the passengers bicker and bond, eventually banding together despite themselves in order to despatch the final bandit who finally takes care of himself. Things do, however, end by going back to normal. Crisis averted, the same old prejudices return as soon as “civilisation” reappears on the horizon. 


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.

Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1957)

img_0Return to sender – address unknown. For the protagonists of I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ, Ore wa Matteru ze), the debut feature from Koreyoshi Kurahara, all that’s left to them is to wait for uncertain answers, trapped in the limbo land of the desolate post-war landscape. With nothing to hope for and no clear direction out of their various predicaments, the pair bide their time until something, good or bad, comes for them but luckily enough what finds them is each other and suddenly a path towards resolution of their troubles. Reuniting newly minted matinee idol Yujiro Ishihara and future real life wife Mie Kitahara fresh off the red hot success of the youth on fire drama Crazed Fruit, I Am Waiting is an altogether more melancholy affair set in the down and out depression town of the American film noir.

One fateful night, Joji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara) steps out onto the Yokohama Harbour clutching a letter he nervously drops into a post-box, but is struck by the figure of a distressed young woman hanging around ominously close to the water’s edge. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Joji approaches the woman and convinces her to come back with him to the small cafe he runs right by the railway line. The girl, Saeko (Mie Kitahara), confesses to him that she thinks she may have killed a mobster who was making the moves on her and has no idea what to do now. Joji suggests she hide out with him, check the morning paper for news of a body, and then figure out the rest later. Left with no other options, Saeko agrees but it seems the past has a hold on them both which not even Joji’s powerful fists will be able to break.

Joji has been “waiting” for a letter from his older brother, supposedly in Brazil buying farmland. “Brazil” has become Joji’s main escape plan, but while he waits and waits his Japan life stagnates. A former prize fighter, Joji has been fighting his past self for the past couple of years ever since he lost his temper and killed a man in a bar brawl. Joji is afraid of his rage, convinced that he’s no good, a toxic influence to all around him, which explains why he’s so often abandoned by those he loves. When the letters he’d been sending to Brazil start coming back “no such person”, he fears the worst – that his brother has run off with their money and started a new life on his own without him.

In a noirish coincidence, Joji’s fate is bound up with that of melancholy nightclub singer Saeko. Once a respected opera singer, Saeko has been relegated to jazz cabaret in seedy harbour bars after losing her voice to illness and having her heart broken by her singing teacher whose affections were not as true as he claimed. “A canary that’s forgotten how to sing”, Saeko fears that her life is already over, there will be no escape from the gangsters who claim to own her and the only path left to her is the one she ruled out taking when she bopped the shady mobster on the head with a nearby vase. Saeko had no escape plan because she thought escape was impossible, but the unexpected nobility of a man like Joji has begun to change her mind, if only Joji’s heart weren’t already so battered and bruised.

Joji’s bar, the Reef Restaurant, is the gathering place for the battered and bruised. Located right on the railway line, it’s a literal waiting room through which pass all those who aren’t quite sure where they’re going. Everyone here is nursing the wounds of broken dreams – Joji’s chef used to be racing driver until he got injured, the doctor is a drunk, Joji’s an ex-boxer with anger issues, and Saeko’s a bird with a broken wing. This is not the departure lounge, it’s arrivals – the end of the line when there is no place else to go.

Still, a waiting room is a place you can choose to leave, no one has to wait forever. In meeting Saeko, Joji has already begun to move forward even if he doesn’t know it. Suddenly giving up on their melancholy passivity, the pair spur each other on towards a killer finale which offers them, if not exactly a way out, a possibility of a better life having resolved to leave the past in the past and reject its continuing hold over them. Kurahara co-opts the fatalism and lingering existential angst of the film noir with its rolling fog and permanent drizzle clouding the darkened horizons for our two pinned protagonists who relive their most fearful moments with the force of silent movie scored by the intense jazz soundtrack suddenly turned up to 11. An important missive to the post-war young, I Am Waiting offers the message that the past can be beaten, but only once one comes to believe in the existence of the future and makes a decision to walk towards it rather than waiting for it to arrive unbidden.   


Clip (English subtitles)

Elegy of the North (挽歌, Heinosuke Gosho, 1957)

elegy of the north posterHeinosuke Gosho is perhaps among the most neglected Japanese directors of the “golden age”. A pioneer of the “shomingeki”, Gosho’s work is marked by a profound humanism but also a refusal to reduce the complexity of human emotions to the superficially immediate. Elegy of the North (挽歌, Banka) takes him much further in the direction of standard melodrama than he would usually venture, echoing contemporary American or European romantic dramas filled with soaring scores and moments of intense emotion bridged by long periods of restraint and repression. Yet it is also among the most psychologically complex of Gosho’s narratives, telling stories of death and rebirth in place of the usual coming of age and first heartbreak for which the genre is so well loved. In Reiko (Yoshiko Kuga) he presents us with a heroine we can’t be sure we like and certainly are not intended to approve of even as we sympathise with her pain and long for an end to her (often self inflicted) suffering.

Walking along the smoking volcanic soil of frozen Hokkaido, Reiko offers us the first of many voiceovers in which she tells us about her left arm – withered and almost numb due to childhood arthritis. When her withered arm is bitten by a dog, Nellie, owned by a melancholy architect, Katsuragi (Masayuki Mori), she barely feels it but Katsuragi is mortified. “She’s never bitten anyone before”, he tells Reiko by way of explanation, “I’ve never been bitten before”, Reiko fires back but bitten she certainly has been. Captivated by the idea of Katsuragi, she doesn’t immediately take him up on the offer of coming to his house and possibly adopting a puppy but catches sight of him around town and then decides to pay him a visit. He isn’t in, but Akiko (Mieko Takamine), his wife, is. Reiko didn’t want to see Katsuragi’s wife so she makes a speedy escape.

Having caught sight of Akiko, Reiko is equally intrigued. Akiko, as Reiko discovers, is having an (unhappy) affair with a much younger medical student, Tatsumi (Fumio Watanabe). Failing to read the emotional landscape of this sorry scene, Reiko regards this information as a juicy piece of gossip in her ongoing campaign to win over Katsuragi. She spies on the lovers, childishly eavesdropping on them in a local cafe, even suddenly delivering their coffee for them so she can get a proper look at Akiko – not that she really sees her or the distraught look on her face, she merely observes her rival – the wicked woman who has betrayed her beloved Katsuragi.

Reiko is constantly berated by her father and grandmother for her unwomanliness. Compared with the typical Japanese woman of the time and particularly with the stoic yet miserable Akiko, Reiko can certainly be thought unusual. Dressing in androgynous loose trousers, polo neck jumper and overcoat, without makeup and with unkempt hair, her aesthetic is one of rambunctious child or rebellious teenager. Her habit of throwing out awkward, inappropriate questions at first seems like childish ineptness but later seems calculated to unbalance. She is often cruel, perhaps deliberately so, but then remorseful (if only for selfish reasons). Though Reiko seems to feel that it’s her disability that marks her out as an outcast, unfit for marriage or a “normal” life, her family appear much more concerned with her unconventional rejection of femininity in her boldness, masculine dress, and refusal to learn the traditionally feminine crafts of housework and cookery so necessary to becoming the ideal wife.

What Reiko sees in Akiko is an image of her idealised self – beautiful, poised, elegant, and the wife of Katsuragi. As part of her nefarious plan, Reiko decides to “befriend” Akiko while Katsuragi is away on a business trip. What she never expected is that she would come to genuinely care for both Akiko and the couple’s small daughter Kumiko (Etsuko Nakazato), making her position as a potential home wrecker impossible. Reiko’s father blames himself for her unwomanliness, having raised her alone after his wife died, denying her of a maternal influence from whom she would have learned all the essentials of femininity which she now seems to lack. Akiko, a few years older, becomes both friend and surrogate mother – Reiko even begins calling her “Mamma” just as Kumiko does. Akiko’s distant poise begins to thaw when Reiko crawls in through her door one night after contracting pneumonia. Nursing Reiko as a mother would brings the two women closer together but it also unwittingly drives them apart in deepening Reiko’s sense of guilt in being torn between two loves in the knowledge that she must destroy one of them or herself.

Akiko, the tragic heroine of the piece, remains a cypher precisely because of her adherence to the rules of traditional femininity. Reiko is first drawn to her because of her sad smile – something she later brings up again in their fiercely undramatic yet heartrending parting scene as Reiko tries to undo the harm she has just done only for Akiko to mildly reject her by instructing her that she needs to take better care of herself. Her relationship with Katsuragi appears to have floundered and, trapped in a lonely marriage, Akiko has found herself in an emotionally draining entanglement with a younger man whose life she fears she is ruining. Tatsumi, needled, is irritated by Reiko’s buzzing around Akiko, asking her an awkward question of his own in accusing her of being a lesbian, to which Reiko gives one of her infuriately barbed replies with “call it what you want”. Reiko’s intentions probably do not run that way (at least consciously), so much as she longs for the love and affection she missed out on after losing her mother at such a young age. Akiko, however, may see things differently. Her life appears lonely, and her friendship with Reiko, whom she brands “reckless yet somehow cheerful” (again, like an infuriating child), is one of its few bright spots. The betrayal is not so much that Reiko has slept with her husband, but that Reiko has deliberately ruined their friendship by exposing it as a cruel ruse in the most wounding of ways. The last time we see Akiko, she is wearing the necklace that Reiko gave to her – a sure sign that her final decision is, in someway, taken on Reiko’s behalf.

Reiko’s tragedy is that her intense self loathing which she attributes to her withered arm, leads her to suspect each act of kindness is only one of pity and that no one can truly love her, they’re just overcompensating because of her “deformity”. At the beginning of the film she asks herself if her mind is as warped as her body. Her actions are often “warped”, as in she works against herself and ultimately destroys the very thing she wanted most yet there is a kind of settling that occurs through her interactions with Akiko. In the final sequence, Reiko has shed her dowdy, dark coloured, worn trousers and jumpers for an elegant skirt and blouse, and has learned to accommodate a certain level of domesticity. Even if she is merely echoing Akiko, Reiko has at least attempted to move forward in exploring the areas of femininity she had hitherto rejected outright. That it is not to say her “unusual” nature is tamed in favour of conforming to social norms, merely that a side of herself which she had decided to keep locked has been opened up for examination (and may then be rejected with greater self knowledge). Elegy of the North lives up to its name in singing a long and painful song of mourning, but Gosho ends on a note of hopeful, in pained, optimism for his contrary heroine, literally forced to move past the scene of her crime towards a possibly happier future.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

blue sky maiden dvd coverYasuzo Masumura is generally remembered for dark, erotic and disturbing explorations of human behaviour but the early part of his career was marked by a more hopeful innocence and a less cynical yet still cutting humour. His debut, Kisses, was very much in the mould of the youth movie of the day but its themes were both more innocent and more controversial as a boy and girl bond after running into each other at the prison where both of their parents are serving time. Marked by darkness as it is, the worldview of Kisses is much kinder than Masumura would later allow as the pair of lovers seem to shake off their respective concerns to embrace the youthful joy and boundless freedom young love can offer.

The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Aozora Musume), Masumura’s second film, does something similar but with added bite. Working for the first time with actress Ayako Wakao who would later become something of a muse, Masumura takes a typical melodrama storyline – the returned illegitimate child treated as a poor relation by her own “family”, and turns it into a genial comedy in which Wakao’s charming heroine shines brightly despite the often cruel and heartless treatment she receives. As far as the family drama goes, the genre was still in its heyday and the family unit itself fairly unquestioned yet as Masumura shows times were changing and perhaps the family is not the bedrock it initially seems to be.

18 year old Yuko (Ayako Wakao) stands at the gates of adulthood. Taking a last photo in school uniform with her high school friends as they prepare for graduation, Yuko expresses her nervousness about being sent to Tokyo to live with the family of a father she barely knows while her friends worry about getting married or getting stuck in their tiny village all alone respectively. Tragedy strikes when the girls’ teacher arrives on a bicycle and informs them that Yuko’s grandmother has been taken ill. On her death bed, the grandmother reveals the reason Yuko is the only one of her father’s four children to be raised in the country is not a concern for her health, but that she is illegitimate. Yuko’s father, unhappy in his marriage, fell in love with his secretary (Kuniko Miyake) who later gave birth to Yuko, but he was already married with two children and so Yuko’s mother went to Manchuria leaving her to be raised in secret in the country.

Having nowhere else to go, Yuko arrives at her father’s large Western style house to be greeted coldly by her half-siblings, and treated as a maid by her still angry step-mother while her father (Kinzo Shin) is away on business. It has to be said that this model middle class family are an extremely unpleasant bunch. Step-mother Tatsuko (Sadako Sawamura) is shrewish and embittered while oldest daughter Teruko (Noriko Hodaka) spends all her time chasing wealthy boyfriends (but failing to win them because she’s just as mean as her mother). The oldest brother (Yuji Shinagawa) idles away in a hipster jazz band while the youngest boy, Hiroshi (Yukihiko Iwatare), is rude and boisterous but later bonds with his new big sister when she is the only one to really bother interacting with him.

The Ono household has always been an unhappy one. Yuko’s father married his wife after being bamboozled into it by an overbearing boss trying to offload his difficult daughter. Feeling trapped and avoiding going home he fell in love with a kind woman at work, had an affair, and wanted to marry her but wasn’t strong enough to break off not only from his unwanted family but also from his career in pursuing personal happiness. By Masumura’s logic, it’s this failure to follow one’s heart which has poisoned the Ono family ruining not only the lives of Tatsuko and the children who have no respect for their father or capacity for real human feeling (as Yuko later tells them), but also that of Yuko’s poor mother  whose life has been one of constant suffering after being unfairly jettisoned by a man who was bold enough to have an affair, but not to defy social conventions and leave an unhappy home.

Yuko herself, however, refuses to allow her life to be ruined by the failings of others. Looking up at the bright blue sky with her teacher (Kenji Sugawara), she learns to create her own stretch of heaven if only in her own mind. Though others might have fought and complained at being forced into the role of maid in what is her own family home, Yuko bears her new circumstances with stoicism and good humour. Thanks to her kindness and enthusiasm, the family maid, Yae (Chocho Miyako), is quickly on her side and if Teruko’s latest target, Hirooka (Keizo Kawasaki) starts to prefer the “new servant girl” his defection is completely understandable. Unlike later Masumura heroines, Yuko’s “revenge” is total yet constructive. She refuses to be cowed by unkindness, remains pure hearted in the face of cruelty, and resolves to find her own happiness and encourage others to do the same. With a few cutting words offered kindly, Yuko gets to the heart of the Onos, essentially reminding her father that all of this unhappiness is his own fault – he made his bed 20 years ago, now he needs to lie it and be a full-time husband and father to the family of lonely misfits he created in the absence of love.

Light and bright and colourful, The Blue Sky Maiden is among Masumura’s more cheerful films, not least because it does seem to believe that true happiness is possible. Yuko does not so much defy social convention as ignore it. She lives openly and without rancour or regret. She takes things as she finds them and people (aside from the Onos) are good to her because she is good to them. Though Masumura’s later work would become increasingly dark and melancholy, Yuko bears out many of his most central themes in her steadfast claim to her own individuality and equally steadfast commitment to enabling the happiness of others in defiance of prevailing social codes.