Afternoon Breezes (風たちの午後, Hitoshi Yazaki, 1980)

Even in the Japan of 1980, many kinds of love are impossible. Afternoon Breezes (風たちの午後, Kazetachi no gogo), the indie debut from Hitoshi Yazaki follows just one of them as a repressed gay nursery nurse falls hopelessly in love with her straight roommate. Based on a salacious newspaper report of the time, Afternoon Breezes is a textbook examination of obsessive unrequited love as its heroine is drawn ever deeper into a spiral of inescapable despair and incurable loneliness.

Nursery nurse Natsuko (Setsuko Aya) is in love with her hairdresser roommate Mitsu (Naomi Ito), who seems to be completely oblivious of her friend’s feelings. Mitsu has a boyfriend, Hideo (Hiroshi Sugita), and the relationship is becoming serious enough to have Natsuko worried. Hideo, unlike Mitsu, is pretty sure Natsuko is a lesbian and in love with his girlfriend but finds the situation amusing more than anything else. Beginning to go out of her mind with frustration, Natsuko tries just about everything she can to break Mitsu and Hideo up including introducing him to another pretty girl from the nursery, Etsuko (Mari Atake). Hideo is not exactly a great guy and shows interest in Etsuko though does not seem as intent on leaving Mitsu as Natsuko had hoped. Desperate times call for desperate measures and so Natsuko steels herself against her revulsion of men and seduces Hideo on the condition that he end things with her beloved Mitsu. He does, but the plan goes awry when Natsuko realises she is pregnant with Hideo’s child.

Less about lesbianism and more about love which can never be returned slowly eroding a mind, Afternoon Breezes perfectly captures the hopeless fate of its heroine as she idly dreams a future for herself which she knows she will never have. Natsuko buys expensive gifts for roommate, returns home with flowers and courts her in all of the various ways a shy lover reveals themselves but if Mitsu ever recognises these overtures for what they are she never acknowledges them. Her boyfriend, Hideo, seems more worldly wise and makes a point of cracking jokes about Natsuko, asking Mitsu directly if her friend has a crush on her but Mitsu always laughs the questioning off. Mitsu may know on some level that Natsuko is in love with her, she seems to be aware of her distaste for men even if she tries to take her out to pick one up, but if she does it’s a truth she does not want to own and when it is finally impossible to ignore she will have nothing to do with it.

Despite Mitsu’s ongoing refusal to confront the situation, Natsuko basks in idealised visions of domesticity as she and Mitsu enjoy a romantic walk in the rain only to have their reverie interrupted by a passing pram containing a newborn baby. What Natsuko wants is a conventional family life with Mitsu, including children. After their walk, the pair adopt a pet mouse which Natsuko comes to think of as their “baby” but like a grim harbinger of her unrealisable dream, the mouse dies leading Mitsu to bundle it into a envelope and leave it on a rubbish heap along with Natsuko’s heart and dreams for the future.

When her colleagues at the nursery get stuck into the girl talk and ask Natsuko about boyfriends, her response is that she would not “degrade” herself yet that is exactly what she finally resorts to in an increasingly desperate effort to get close to Mitsu. After her attempts to get him to fall for another girl fail, Natsuko’s last sacrificial offering is her own body, surrendered on the altar of love as she pleads with the heartless Hideo to leave Mitsu for good. Though her bodily submission is painful to watch in her obvious discomfort her mental degradation has been steadily progressing as Hideo deliberately places himself between the two women, even going so far as to disrupt a seaside holiday planned for two by inviting himself along.

Yazaki perfectly captures Natsuko’s ever fracturing mental state through the inescapable presence of the dripping tap in the girls’ apartment which becomes a dangerous ticking in Natsuko’s time bomb mind. Occasionally gelling with clocks and doors and other oppressive noises, the internal banging inside Natsuko’s head only intensifies as she’s forced to endure the literal banging of Mitsu and Hideo’s lovemaking during her romantic getaway. Just as an earlier scene found Natsuko sitting on the swing outside embracing the flowers she’d brought for Mitsu only to find Hideo already there, Natsuko’s fate is to be perpetually left out in the cold, eventually resorting to rifling through her true love’s rubbish and biting into a half eaten apple in a desperate attempt at contact.

Natsuko’s love is an impossible one, not only because Mitsu is unable to return it, but because it is essentially unembraceable. In a society where her love is a taboo, Natsuko is not able to voice her desires clearly or live in an ordinary, straightforward way but is forced to act with clandestine subtly. After Hideo unwittingly deflowers her and laughs about it, stating that she “must really be gay” Natsuko lunges at him with a knife, suddenly overburdened with one degradation too many. Though the prospect of the baby may raise the possibility of a happy family, albeit an unconventional one, the signs point more towards funerals than christenings, so devoid of hope does Natsuko’s world seem to be. Shot in a crisp 16mm black and white, Afternoon Breezes owes an obvious debt to the art films of twenty years before with its long takes, static camera giving way to handheld, and flower filled conclusion, but adds an additional layer of youthful anxiety as its heroines find themselves moving into a more prosperous, socially liberal age only to discover some dreams are still off limits.


 

Nobuko (信子, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1940)

vlcsnap-2016-12-09-01h11m57s027The well known Natsume Soseki novel, Botchan, tells the story of an arrogant, middle class Tokyoite who reluctantly accepts a teaching job at a rural school where he relentlessly mocks the locals’ funny accent and looks down on his oikish pupils all the while dreaming of his loyal family nanny. Hiroshi Shimizu’s Nobuko (信子) is almost an inverted picture of Soseki’s work as its titular heroine travels from the country to a posh girls’ boarding school bringing her country bumpkin accent and no nonsense attitude with her. Like Botchan, though for very different reasons, Nobuko also finds herself at odds with the school system but remains idealistic enough to recommend a positive change in the educational environment.

Travelling from the country to take up her teaching job, Nobuko (Mieko Takamine) moves in with her geisha aunt to save money. When she gets to the school she finds out that she’s been shifted from Japanese to P.E. (not ideal, but OK) and there are also a few deductions from her pay which no one had mentioned. The stern but kindly headmistress is quick to point out Nobuko’s strong country accent which is not compatible with the elegant schooling on offer. The most important thing she says is integrity. Women have to be womanly, poised and “proper”. Nobuko, apparently, has a lot to learn.

As many teachers will attest, the early days are hard and Nobuko finds it difficult to cope with her rowdy pupils who deliberately mock her accent and are intent on winding up their new instructor. One girl in particular, Eiko (Mitsuko Miura), has it in for Nobuko and constantly trolls her with pranks and tricks as well as inciting the other girls to join in with her. As it turns out, Eiko is something of a local trouble maker but no one does anything because her father is a wealthy man who has donated a large amount of money to the school and they don’t want to upset him. This attitude lights a fire in Nobuko, to her the pupils are all the same and should be treated equally no matter who their parents are. As Nobuko’s anger and confidence in her position grow, so does Eiko’s wilfull behaviour, but perhaps there’s more to it than a simple desire to misbehave.

Released in 1940, Nobuko avoids political comment other than perhaps advocating for the importance of discipline and education. It does however subtly echo Shimizu’s constant class concerns as “country bumpkin” Nobuko has to fight for her place in the “elegant” city by dropping her distinctive accent for the standard Tokyo dialect whilst making sure she behaves in an “appropriate” fashion for the teacher of upper class girls.

This mirrors her experience at her aunt’s geisha house which she is eventually forced to move out of when the headmistress finds out what sort of place she’s been living in and insists that she find somewhere more suitable for her position. The geisha world is also particular and regimented, but the paths the two sets of female pupils have open to them are very different. Nobuko quickly makes friends with a clever apprentice geisha, Chako (Sachiko Mitani), who would have liked to carry on at school but was sold owing to her family’s poverty. Though she never wanted to be a geisha, Chako exclaims that if she’s going to have to be one then she’s going to be the world’s best, all the while knowing that her path has been chosen for her and has a very definite end point as exemplified by Nobuko’s aunt – an ageing manageress who’s getting too old to be running the house for herself.

Eiko’s problems are fairly easy to work out, it’s just a shame that no one at the school has stopped to think about her as a person rather than as the daughter of a wealthy man. Treated as a “special case” by the teachers and placed at a distance with her peers, Eiko’s constant acting up is a thinly veiled plea for attention but one which is rarely answered. Only made lonely by a place she hoped would offer her a home, Eiko begins to build a bond with Nobuko even while she’s pushing her simply because she’s the only one to push back. After Nobuko goes too far and Eiko takes a drastic decision, the truth finally comes out, leading to regrets and recriminations all round. Despite agreeing with the headmistress that perhaps she should have turned a blind eye like the other teachers, Nobuko reinforces her philosophy that the girls are all the same and deserve to be treated as such, but also adds that they are each in need of affection and the teachers need to be aware of this often neglected part of their work.

Lessons have been learned and understandings reached, the school environment seems to function more fully with a renewed commitment to caring for each of the pupils as individuals with distinct needs and personalities. Even Chako seems as if she may get a much happier ending thanks to Nobuko’s intervention. An unusual effort for the time in that only two male characters appear (one a burglar Nobuko heroically ejects assuming him to be Eiko playing a prank, and the other Eiko’s father) this entirely female led drama neatly highlights the various problems faced by women of all social classes whilst also emphasising Shimizu’s core humanist philosophies where compassion and understanding are found to be essential components of a fully functioning society.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Children in the Wind (風の中の子供, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2016-12-06-23h27m52s218It would be a mistake to say that Hiroshi Shimizu made “children’s films” in that his work is not particularly intended for younger audiences though it often takes their point of view. This is certainly true of one of his most well known pieces, Children in the Wind (風の中の子供, Kaze no Naka no Kodomo), which is told entirely from the perspective of the two young boys who suddenly find themselves thrown into an entirely different world when their father is framed for embezzlement and arrested.  Encompassing Shimizu’s constant themes of injustice, compassion and resilience, Children in the Wind is one of his kindest films, if perhaps one of his lightest.

Brothers Zenta (Masao Hayama) and Sampei (Bakudan Kozo) live a fairly comfortable life in a small town with their accountancy clerk father (Reikichi Kawamura) and doting mother (Mitsuko Yoshikawa). Older brother Zenta is the stereotypically good boy who studies hard, gets good grades, and causes no trouble. Sampei, by contrast, is a handful. Running out of the house to play Tarzan with the other neighbourhood kids even though he’d promised his mother he’d stay home to study to improve his awful performance at school, Sampei is the loveable rascal that no one quite knows what to do with. Despite their mother’s protestations, the boys’ father is content to let Sampei run riot for now, he’s only young after all.

When their father is accused of embezzling company funds, sacked, and later arrested, the boys’ world begins to crumble. The other kids won’t play with them anymore, their dad isn’t home, and their mother is worrying about money now that her husband has lost his job. Sampei is packed off to an uncle’s while Zenta stays behind to try and get a job to help out. Unfortunately, Sampei does not take well to his new environment and starts misbehaving even more than usual by disappearing up trees, riding a bucket down a river, running off to meet kappa, and even trying to run away with the circus!

All of this is told more or less from Sampei’s point view meaning that the facts of his father’s case recede into the background while Sampei’s worry and confusion comes to the fore. Having been in the office to deliver his father’s lunch when the coup occurred, Sampei can tell something awful has happened and tries to comfort his dad by closing all the blinds to block out the nosy kids’ faces peeking in from outside, and grabbing his father’s hat to get him to come home. Reassuring his dad that it’s all fine because he can just start a better company of his own, Sampei puts a childishly brave face on things while his ashen faced father walks home in silence. Of course, because Sampei is a child, no one explains to him exactly what’s happened, so no one explains it to us either, but we can perhaps infer a little more from the adults’ passing conversation than the still innocent Sampei.

The boys’ relationship with their father is one of the film’s warmest elements as, in contrast to the stereotypically austere salaryman dad, he delights in playing with his children, even breaking off from worrying about his impending doom by launching into a game of sumo. Sampei and Zenta know their father couldn’t have really done anything bad, so they aren’t really worried and though they miss him, they are sure he’ll be home soon. It’s not until fairly late on that they start to realise the gravity of the situation and how difficult things are for their mother, but once they do they become determined to support her too.

This being a (happy) Shimizu film, the injustice is finally undone and everything goes back to normal which what all children always want. Children, more than adults, are apt to forget quickly and so it’s not long before the other neighbourhood kids start responding to Sampei’s Tarzan call once again. In a typically nice touch, Sampei even invites his arch rival, Kinta – the son of the man who framed his dad for embezzlement in the first place, to come and see the approaching circus with him. A final gesture of reconciliation signals the end to hostilities as a possibly life changing event becomes a humorous summer interlude in the boys’ early lives. Warm and lighthearted, Children in the Wind is perhaps not as cutting or incisive as some of Shimizu’s more socially conscious efforts, but is filled with his characteristic compassionate humanism in its childlike certainty in justice and the willingness to forgive and forget.


 

The Boss’ Son at College (大学の若旦那, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933)

vlcsnap-2016-09-25-01h32m39s471It’s tough being young. The Boss’ Son At College (大学の若旦那, Daigaku no Wakadanna) is the first, and only surviving, film in a series which followed the adventures of the well to do son of a soy sauce manufacturer set in the contemporary era. Somewhat autobiographical, Shimizu’s film centres around the titular boss’ son as he struggles with conflicting influences – those of his father and the traditional past and those of his forward looking, hedonistic youth.

Fuji (Mitsugu Fujii) is the star of the university rugby team. In fact his prowess on the rugby field has made him something of a mini celebrity and a big man on campus which Fuji seems to enjoy very much. At home, he’s the son of a successful soy sauce brewer with distinctly conservative attitudes. Fuji’s father has just married off one of his daughters to an employee and is setting about sorting out the second one despite the reluctance of all parties involved. Everyone seems very intent on Fuji also hurrying up with finishing his studies so he can conform to the normal social rules by working hard and getting married.

Fuji, however, spends most of his off the pitch time drinking with geisha, one of whom has unwisely fallen in love with him. Like many teams, Fuji’s rugby buddies have a strict “orderly conduct” rule which Fuji has been breaking thanks to his loose ways. His top player status has kept him safe but also made him enemies and when an embarrassing incident proves too much to overlook he’s finally kicked off the team.

The times may have been changing, but Fuji’s soy sauce shop remains untouched. Gohei (Haruro Takeda), the patriarch, grumpily rules over all with a “father knows best” attitude, refusing to listen to his son’s complaints. In fact, he tries to bypass his son altogether by marrying off another employee to his younger daughter, Miyako. Though Miyako tries to come to the employee’s defence (as well as her own) by informing her father that “this way of treating employees is obsolete”, she is shrugged off by Gohei’s authoritarian attitude. He’s already tried this once by arranging a marriage for his older daughter but his son-in-law spends all his time in geisha houses, often accompanied by Fuji, and the match has produced neither a happy family nor a successful business arrangement.

Fuji is a young man and he wants to enjoy his youth, in part because he knows it will be short and that conformity is all that awaits him. His dalliance with a geisha which contributes to him being kicked off the rugby team is in no way serious on his part (caddish, if not usually so). However, when he befriends an injured teammate and meets his showgirl sister, Fuji falls in love for real. This presents a problem for the friend whose main commitment is to the rugby team who were thinking of reinstating Fuji because they have a big match coming up and need him to have any chance of not disgracing themselves. This poor woman who has apparently been forced onto the stage to pay her brother’s school fees is then physically beaten by him (if in a childishly brotherly way) until she agrees to break things off with Fuji for the good of the rugby team.

Fuji is finally allowed onto the pitch again, in part at the behest of his previously hostile father who thinks rugby training is probably better than spending all night drinking (and keeping his brother-in-law out all night with him). The loss of status Fuji experienced after leaving the team rocked him to the core though his central conflict goes back to his place as his father’s son. At one point, Fuji argues with a friend only for a woman to emerge and inform him that his friend had things he longed to tell him, but he could never say them to “the young master”. Fuji may have embraced his star label, but he doesn’t want this one of inherited burdens and artificial walls. Hard as he tries, he can never be anything other than “the boss’ son”, with all of the pressures and responsibilities that entails but with few of the benefits. Getting back on the team is, ironically, like getting his individual personality back but also requires sacrificing it for the common good.

In contrast with some of Shimizu’s post-war films which praise the importance of working together for a common good but imply that the duty of the individual is oppose the majority if it thinks it’s wrong, here Fuji is made to sacrifice everything in service of the team. At the end of his final match, Fuji remarks to his teammate that this is “the end of their beautiful youth”. After graduation, they’ll find jobs, get married, have children and lose all rights to any kind of individual expression. Fuji is still torn between his “selfish” hedonistic desires and the growing responsibilities of adulthood, but even such vacillation will soon be unavailable to him. Ending on a far less hopeful note than many a Shimizu film with Fuji silently crying whilst his teammates celebrate victory, The Boss’ Son Goes to College is a lament for the necessary death of the self as a young man contemplates his impending graduation into the adult world, but it’s one filled with a rosy kind of humour and an unwilling resignation to the natural order of things.


 

What Made Her Do It? (何が彼女をそうさせたか, Shigeyoshi Suzuki, 1930)

what-made-her-do-itLike many other areas of the world in the first half of the 20th century, Japan also found itself at a dividing line of political thought with militarism on the rise from the late 1920s. Despite the onward march of right-wing ideology, the left was not necessarily silent. Ironically, the then voiceless cinema was able to speak for those who were its greatest consumers as an accidental genre was born detailing the everyday hardships faced by those at the bottom end of the ladder. These “proletarian films” or “tendency films” (keiko eiga) were increasingly suppressed as time went on yet, in contrast to the more politically overt cinema of the independent Proletarian Film League of Japan, continued to be produced by mainstream studios. Long thought lost, Shigeyoshi Suzuki’s What Made Her Do It? (何が彼女をそうさせたか, Nani ga Kanojo wo Sousaseta ka) was a major hit on its original release with some press reports even claiming the film provoked riots when audiences were passionately moved by the heroine’s tragic descent into madness and arson after suffering countless cruelties in an unfeeling world.

Though still only a child, Sumiko (Keiko Takatsu) has been sent alone to the house of her uncle in a distant village but has run out of money for travel and food. Luckily she meets a kindly cart driver, Doi, who feeds her and takes her most of the way to her uncle’s village but he will be the last “kind” person that she encounters on her long and sad journey. As it turns out, her father had not informed his brother of Sumiko’s arrival and actually had not even had any contact with him for many years. Consequently, Sumiko’s uncle is not exactly overjoyed to see her as he already has a house full of children he struggles to feed (not to mention a healthy appetite for drink). Eventually he sells her to a circus where she is cruelly treated by fellow performers and the sadistic ringmaster.

Things are looking up when Sumiko escapes with fellow performer Shintaro (Ryuujin Unno) but the pair are divided by fate landing Sumiko in trouble with the law after she falls in with a gang of thieves. A spell in the workhouse is followed by patronising treatment as a servant for a wealthy family, and later an otherwise successful tenure as a housekeeper for a leacherous biwa player, before a tiny window of happiness opens up only to immediately cloud over again. Ending up at the “Garden of Angels” Christian reform institution for “wayward women” Sumiko tries God on for size but finds him wanting.

Long thought lost, a partial print of What Made Her Do It? turned up in Russian archives in the ‘90s (presumably following its export as a suitably socialist film) and has since been restored with additional intertitles replacing the missing portions. The opening sequence of Sumiko beginning her journey by train and the presumably spectacular finale of Christ on fire as Sumiko dances madly in the flames of the burning church are both missing but even so the drama rams home the seriousness of Sumiko’s plight as she finds only hypocrisy and selfishness at every turn.

Keiko Takatsu perfectly plays Sumiko’s essential sadness as well as her growing resilience and barely suppressed resentment towards the constant cruelty she experiences. All pleading eyes and sorrowful looks, Sumiko suffers while others exploit her for their own ends. Betrayed by her uncle who pockets the money her father enclosed for Sumiko’s care and purposefully hides from her the fact that her father is likely dead, Sumiko is left adrift in a world in which it’s impossible to survive without family. The state surfaces in her life with the supposedly progressive environment of the workhouse which feeds and houses her whilst exploiting her forced labour. The well to do household in which she is offered opportunity is little better as the cruel mistress of the house constantly exerts her authority, stresses the differences in social status, and denies her maids even small pleasures such as soy sauce on pickles in order to maintain discipline.

Finally Sumiko ends up in the house of God though what she finds there is repression and forced religiosity rather than the love and support proudly displayed in the credo. The Garden of Angels is, presumably, filled with women who have somehow disappointed modern moral codes with Christian virtues expressly emphasised and contact with the outside world forbidden. Residents are allowed to leave once they’ve proved they’ve accepted Jesus into their hearts and are resolved to live in a more “proper” manner, though Sumiko falls foul of the rules after another woman talks her into writing a letter to a friend on the outside.

When the letter is discovered, the other woman is sent to solitary as the head of the establishment informs her that her sin “will never be forgiven”, while Sumiko is forced to make a public self criticism to atone for her selfish disregard for the rules. This backfires when Sumiko’s inner rage takes hold, leading her to take a stand by decrying the hypocrisy of the religious establishment which preaches that God is love and all will be forgiven but ultimately offers nothing other than fear and hate. When the church burns down the woman in charge is the first out the door with her valuables in hand leaving the other women to discover their own salvation amongst the ashes.

Suzuki’s technique is clearly informed by foreign cinema especially that of socialist films from the Soviet Union. Using frequent dissolves and montages, Suzuki throws in impressive set pieces such as scene in which the camera pulls away from Sumiko after she receives some bad news with a door closing across it and snow falling outside. A long lost left wing populist effort, What Made Her Do It? is also a classic melodrama of female suffering as the heroine experiences just about every degradation possible whilst remaining steadfastly defiant in the face of tragedy before the final irony of her eventual position drives her into madness. What made her do it? An intensely self-interested world. Some things don’t change.


 

The Room (部屋, Sion Sono, 1993)

The roomThough the later work of Sion Sono is often noted for its cinematic excess, his earlier career saw him embracing the art of minimalism. The Room (部屋, Heya) finds him in the realms of existentialist noir as a grumpy hitman whiles away his remaining time in the search for the perfect apartment guided only by a detached estate agent.

Sono begins the film with an uncomfortably long static camera shot of a warehouse area where nothing moves until a man suddenly turns a corner and sits down on a bench. We then cut to a rear shot of the same man who’s now sitting facing a harbour filled with boats coming and going as the sun bounces of the rippling sea. We don’t know very much about him but he’s dressed in the crumpled mac and fedora familiar to every fan of hardboiled fiction and walks with the steady invisibility of the typical genre anti-hero.

Before we head into the main “narrative” such as it is, Sono presents us with another uncomfortably long shot of the title card which takes the form of a street sign simply reading The Room, over which someone is whistling a traditional Japanese tune. Eventually we catch up with the hitman as he meets a young female estate agent identified only by the extremely long number she wears on the jacket of her official looking business suit. The hitman gruffly lists his poetical demands for his new home – must be quiet, have the gentle smell of spring flowers wafting through it, and above all it must have an open, unoverlooked view from a well lit window. The estate agent reacts with dispassionate efficiency, her gaze vacantly directed at the floor or around the rundown apartments which she recommends to her client. Together, the pair travel the city looking for the elusive “Room” though perhaps that isn’t quite what they’re seeking after all.

Sono shoots the entire film in grainy black and white and in academy ratio. He largely avoids dialogue in favour of visual storytelling though what dialogue there is is direct, if poetic, almost symbolic in terms of tone and delivery. The occasional intrusion of the jazzy score coupled with the deserted streets and stark black and white photography underlines the noir atmosphere though like the best hardboiled tales this is one filled emptiness led by a man seeking the end of the world, even if he doesn’t quite know it.

In fact, the relationship between our hitman and the passive figure of the estate agent can’t help but recall Lemmy Caution and the unemotional Natasha from Godard’s Alphaville – also set in an eerily cold city. If Sono is channelling Godard for much of the film, he also brings in a little of Tarkovsky as the hitman and estate agent make an oddly arduous train journey around the city looking for this magical space much like the explorers of the Zone in Stalker. Yet for all that there’s a touch of early Fassbinder too in Sono’s deliberately theatrical staging which attempts both to alienate and to engage at the same time.

The Room’s central conceit is its use of extremely long shots filled with minimal action or movement. In a 90 minute film, Sono has given us only 44 takes, lingering on empty streets and abandoned buildings long enough to test the patience of even the most forgiving viewer. Deliberately tedious, The Room won’t counter arguments of indulgence but its increasing minimalism eventually takes on a hypnotic quality, lending to its dreamlike, etherial atmosphere.

Here the city seems strange, a half formed place made up of half remembered images and crumbling buildings. Empty trains, scattered papers, and lonely bars are its mainstays yet it’s still somehow recognisable. Leaning more towards Sono’s poetic ambitions than the anarchism of his more aggressive work, The Room is a beautifully oblique exploration of the landscape of a tired mind as it prepares to meet the end of its journey.


Original trailer (no subtitles):

Utae! Seishun Harikiri Musume (歌え!青春 はりきり娘, Toshio Sugie, 1955)

vlcsnap-2016-07-04-00h41m46s630Hibari Misora was one of the leading lights of the post-war entertainment world. Largely active as a chart topping ballad singer, she also made frequent forays into the movies notably starring with fellow musical stars Izumi Yukimura and Chiemi Eri in the Sannin Musume series. This solo effort from 1955 is directed by the Sannin Musume director Toshio Sugie and follows a similar approach with the 18 year old Hibari starring as a teenage girl who looks really like Hibari Misora (but unfortunately cannot sing).

Hibari is playing a teenager here but she’s left school and is working as a bus conductoress. Bright and cheerful in her work, she takes some ribbing from the other employees because of her resemblance to the singing star (she has a large beauty mark drawn on her right cheek to make sure we know she’s not the “real” Hibari) and is a little embarrassed when they ask her to sing something because unlike her doppelganger, she’s tone deaf. Hibari lives at home with her mother and younger brother who’s still in school but their father seems to have left the household and there’s a degree of discord between the couple. Hibari tries to get her parents back together so they can live as a family whilst also maintaining her bus job, beginning a tentative romance with a former passenger, and even getting a few singing lessons from the real Hibari Misora herself!

Unlike the Sannin Musume movies, Harikiri Musume is shot in regular black and white though has pretty good production values for the time with some location shooting and outdoor scenes. Hibari is only 18 here but she’s already working at the bus company which seems like a pretty good gig all things considered (though her money is going to pay for her brother’s school fees, such is life). Her biggest problems are her no good father and her singing star doppleganger which continues to cause her embarrassment.

Harikiri Musume is a pop star vehicle but oddly Hibari doesn’t get to perform that much. Early on she laments not being able to sing as she listens to one of her bus company colleagues singing the song Rendezvous (also featured in one of the Sannin Musume movies) which is then followed by a more operatic track from a male colleague (of course, these two end up becoming a couple, united in their musical talents). She watches “herself”  on TV and later mimes to a recording of the famous Hibari at home but the main subplot of the film takes hold once the two Hibaris meet in a neat cinematic doubling trick. Famous Hibari teaches ordinary Hibari how to sing properly using Misora’s famous song Ringo Oiwake. She then turns up in the finale at the wedding celebration of two employees with a new song just for the bus company as a special gift.

As well as Rendezvous, there are even a few callbacks to Jankenbon which also appears in So Young, So Bright which was released the same year. Hibari is mostly acting with herself here and it’s altogether a more modest affair than the Sannin Musume pictures with no real production numbers or complicated staging but somehow all the more charming for it. In keeping with other similarly themed movies, Hibari has the disrupted family subplot and a very slight romance which never really gets started until near the end but the film cleverly avoids any kind of heaviness in favour of a light and breezy youthful tone. First rate fluff, but nevertheless an interesting look at the “ordinary” people of movie land in the mid fifties and an entertaining musical comedy in its own right.


No trailer but here’s a clip of Hibari Misora singing Ringo no Oiwake almost 25 years later:

So Young, So Bright (AKA Janken Musume, ジャンケン娘, Toshio Sugie, 1955)

Janken MusumePop stars invading the cinematic realm either for reasons of commerce, vanity, or just simple ambition is hardly a new phenomenon and even continues today with the biggest singers of the era getting to play their own track over the closing credits of the latest tentpole feature. This is even more popular in Japan where idol culture dominates the entertainment world and boy bands boys are often top of the list for any going blockbuster (wisely or otherwise). Cycling back to 1955 when the phenomenon was at its heyday all over the world, So Young, So Bright (ジャンケン娘, Janken Musume) is the first of four so called “three girl” (Sannin Musume) musicals which united the three biggest female singers of the post-war era: Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura for a music infused comedy caper.

As far as plot goes, it’s actually very simple and yet quite complicated at the same time as highschoolers Yumi (Chiemi Eri) and Ruri (Hibari Misora) end up on a school trip to Kyoto where they fall in a river because they’re laughing so much at their classmates’ excitement at spotting someone filming a jidaigeki on the riverbank (neat cameo from director Toshio Sugie). Breaking off from their group, they take their uniforms off to dry only to be disturbed by a young man who tries to take photographs of them at which point they pretend to be washing some clothes in the river. Later they head to an inn which is owned by a friend of Ruri’s mother (who is also an inn owner and former geisha) where they befriend an apprentice geisha, Piyo (Izumi Yukimura).

Piyo then turns up in Tokyo in a bit of a state as it turns out she will shortly be sold into prostitution! She’s fallen in love with someone from the city who she thinks could save her if only she can find him so the girls set out to help her, except the guy’s name is Saito which is the Smith of Japan. During all of this, Ruri also has a subplot about her long lost father who will shortly be moving abroad and apparently wants to actually meet her, opening lots of old wounds.

So Young, So Bright is not a musical in the classical sense, it’s not integrated, but allows ample space for its singing stars to do their thing. Yumi just loves to sing so she randomly starts singing songs she’s heard everywhere, Piyo sings as a geisha and Ruri is rehearsing for some kind of kabuki style performance she gives alone on stage at the climax of the film.

That aside, the main musical sequence comes towards the end where the three girls go to the theatre together and strangely end up seeing “themselves” performing on stage. It’s a neat kind of fantasy sequence in which each of the girls indulges in a little bit of daydreaming as they imagine themselves as stage stars with Piyo being given the cutest, most MGM style number which is then followed by a number from Yumi entitled “Africa” which is very much of its time…and then you get the elegant number from Ruri which is mostly the English version of La Vie en Rose. They also get a trio number to close the film which takes place entirely on a rollercoaster but celebrates each of their slightly different singing styles.

So Young, So Bright is not intended to be anything other than irrepressibly cheerful fluff (despite containing a subplot about possible forced prostitution), but succeeds in being exactly that. An early colour film from Japan it certainly makes fantastic use of its technicolour swirl to give Hollywood a run for its money in the sophistication of happiness stakes. Hollywood musicals are quite clearly the biggest influence though perhaps more those from the pre-war era even down to the only large scale dance sequence which has a distinct Busby Berkley vibe (even it only lasts twenty seconds or so). The rest of the film is actually quite light on dance but makes sure to showcase the singing talents of each of its leading ladies equally. Strangely innocent, even if darkness lurks around the edges with the betrayed geisha and possible prostitution subplots, So Young, So Bright lives up to its name as a completely charming musical comedy that is perfectly primed to banish even the bluest of blues far into the distance.


These movies are so much fun! No subtitles but here are some clips of the various musical numbers:

Izumi Yukimura’s Cha Cha number:

Chiemi Eri’s Africa number (not very PC by modern standards, just a warning)

Hibari Misora’s take on the English language version of La Vie en Rose

And the finale:

The Masseurs and a Woman (按摩と女, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1938)

vlcsnap-2016-05-19-23h22m51s149Hiroshi Shimizu takes another relaxing sojourn in 1938’s The Masseurs and a Woman (按摩と女, Anma to Onna), this time in a small mountain resort populated by runaways and bullish student hikers. Once again Shimizu follows an atypical narrative structure which begins with the two blind masseurs of the title and the elegant lady from Tokyo but quickly broadens out to investigate the transient hotel environment with even a little crime based intrigue added to the mix.

We arrive at the resort town at the same time as the masseurs themselves who’ve walked all the way passing the time playing games with each other over who can guess how many children are in a group travelling the same way or counting how many people they manage to overtake on the road. Comically, their efforts to pass a group of students actually frighten them a little bit so they take off at speed meaning Fuku and Toku miss their daily target.

As well as the group of male students and another group of female ones, the town is also host to a mysterious and beautiful woman from Tokyo who seems both a little sad and a little scared with a tendency to overreact to small sounds and unusual situations. The other main group is a little boy and his uncle with whom he seems to have something of a troubled relationship.

Toku becomes fascinated with Michiho, the mysterious woman from Tokyo, whom he recognises because of her distinctive perfume. Though he is blind, he “watches” her – sensing where she goes and reading her emotional state. He seems to realise there’s very little possibility that she will return his interest, though he allows her to play on the obvious feelings he has for her, and the pair strike up a melancholic friendship. However, Michiho is only interested in making a play for the good looking uncle of the little boy who she has also befriended but the boy eventually goes cold on her, feeling a little rejected because she spends so long talking to his uncle. The two neglected guys, Toku and the boy, form their own kind of friendship as the blind masseur is the only person who is willing to have some fun with him in this slightly less than child friendly resort in which he’s unspeakably bored.

This being a holiday town, it’s a place that only exists for a small amount of time before sinking back into the mists like Brigadoon when the season ends. All things are transient here and everyone is just passing through. The friends you make are just for now and this brief respite from everyday life will fade from the memory like a pleasant dream. Toku ought to know this as he spends his life in such places, providing additional relief for the weary traveller, yet he still has a yearning to connect which is only exacerbated by the feeling that his blindness cuts him off from everyday society.

When a spate of bath house thefts occur and it turns out Michiho has been seen at each of the crime scenes, Toku comes to the obvious conclusion even though his feelings make him reluctant to suspect her. He tries to help Michiho evade punishment for what he believes are her crimes only to find out a very different sort of truth that sees her eventually decide to continue her journey onward to an uncertain future (though at least one that is 100% of her own devising).

Again, Shimizu opts for a lot of location shooting emphasising the beauty of the scenery and the tranquility of the atmosphere. Mostly he sticks to static camera shots, aside from one lengthly tracking sequence and the hand held finale walking after a departing cart, but when he tries to show us the vision of a blind man it’s a striking moment – a whirling chaos where we too can almost smell the elusive perfume of a woman we know is “beautiful”  though we cannot see her, and also know is deliberately toying with us. A melancholy look at the transience of human relationships and the impossibility of true connection, The Masseurs and a Woman is a genre melding tragicomedy filled with innovative directorial flourishes that are once again far in advance of their time.


The Masseurs and a Woman is the third of four films in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu box set.

This is the only video clip I can find but it’s not subtitled and it has quite a long speech about Hiroshi Shimizu’s career at the beginning so skip to 2:17 for the film itself: