Beautiful Days (美わしき歳月, Masaki Kobayashi, 1955)

“Life is unpredictable” according to the protagonists of Masaki Kobayashi’s Beautiful Days (美わしき歳月, Uruwashiki Saigetsu, AKA The Beautiful Years), becoming something of refrain in the face of constant change. Among the most quietly angry of post-war humanists, Masaki Kobayashi’s later work is defined by a central question of how the conscientious individual can survive in an oppressive society. Like many directors, however, he had to do his time making regular studio programmers, in his case at Shochiku which was then, and to some extent still is, the home of polite melodrama. Like Kobayashi’s other films from this period, Beautiful Days conforms to the studio’s classic shomin-geki formula, but does perhaps display something of his resistance to the system in its tale of three former school friends scattered by the complicated post-war society but each in his own way attempting to make a break with the past in order to move into a more positive future. 

The action opens, however, with the old. Grandma Mrs. Tokioka (Akiko Tamura) is hit by a fancy car while out shopping, but the owner, retired CEO Shigaki (Eitaro Ozawa), turns out to be a kind and considerate man who insists on taking her to a hospital despite her protestations that she’s absolutely fine. Finally she gives in and asks Shigaki to take her to her regular doctor, Imanishi (Isao Kimura), only when she gets to the clinic Imanishi is getting a dressing down from his boss who accuses him of vanity in insisting on treating an emergency patient without checking his finances first. Imanishi storms out, recklessly quitting yet another job on a matter of principle. 

Mrs. Tokioka wanted to see Imanishi because he was a close friend of her grandson who was killed in the war, along with her son and his wife who were explosives experts, leaving her to care for her only remaining relative, 22-year-old Sakurako (Yoshiko Kuga) who works alongside her at their florist’s shop. Imanishi is from a relatively wealthy family of doctors which is perhaps why he feels so free to prioritise his integrity because the economic consequences are relatively marginal. For his friends, Hakamada (Junkichi Orimoto) and Nakao (Keiji Sada) the situation is different. Hakamada’s family are poor, living in a makeshift shack in the slums while he supports them all with a job in a factory run by an unscrupulous and exploitive boss standing in for heartless post-war capitalism. Nakao, meanwhile, graduated with a law degree but hasn’t been able to find any steady work since coming home from the war and is earning a living playing drums in a cabaret bar for 600 yen a night. 

Formerly close friends since their middle school days, the men maintain a deep yet increasingly distant connection not least because Tokioka’s death has left them with a sense of sad incompleteness. As the others say, Nakao has indeed changed. His experiences in the war along with the death of a close friend who was killed while trying to seek a better life in Brazil, have made him embittered and cynical. He buries himself in the inconsequential pleasures of pool halls and nightclubs to avoid having to think about a future he feels he doesn’t deserve. As Imanishi puts it, he struggles with his kindness towards others, pushing people away, overly cautious in choosing a policy of self-isolation rather than risk potential hurt. It seems he was in love before the war, but she (Toshiko Kobayashi) married someone else and is now a widowed single-mother. He wants to help her, getting Imanishi to visit her mother who was diagnosed with asthma that is most likely TB, and helping her with a job as a tea dancer at the club but feeling conflicted in inviting her into such a low environment while also resisting his continuing love for her, partly in resentment over her past, and partly in a lingering sense of hopelessness about the future. 

Imanishi’s problems meanwhile are mostly born of stubborn male pride. He refuses to work for the increasingly capitalist hospitals of the contemporary era and wants to be a socially responsible doctor but realises that he can’t go on quitting one job after another. He and Sakurako, Mrs. Tokioka’s granddaughter and the sister of his late friend, are in love and want to marry, but he’s too shy to ask for her hand as a man without a steady salary or future prospects. “Men always like to think things over on their own” Sakurako complains, immediately before Imanishi announces he’s about to do just that and wants to take a “break” in their relationship to sort himself out. He’s been offered a place in a research facility in Akita far in the North, but isn’t sure if he should ask Sakurako to go with him because Mrs. Tokioka won’t leave Tokyo, possibly won’t approve of their marriage, and will be disappointed if Sakurako chooses a life of hardship in the remoteness of snow country when all she’s ever wanted is for her to live happily. 

Mrs. Tokioka is in fact entirely ignorant of their relationship, which is why she’s receptive when Shigaki proposes a potential marriage between Sakurako and his younger son Yuji (Akio Satake). She thinks that’s a nice idea, but also acknowledges that times have changed and Sakurako’s marriage isn’t something she should have much say over. Shigaki agrees, and so they decide to introduce the young people casually and see if they hit it off, which they do but Sakurako remains conflicted in her relationship with the distant, to his mind noble, Imanishi who leaves her to think he’s got someone else rather than clear up a simple misunderstanding. 

In a strange way, it’s Mrs. Tokioka and Mr. Shigaki who are perhaps slipping into a romance, Sakurako even jokingly refers to him as her grandmother’s “boyfriend” using the trendy English word which adds an additional layer of incongruity. They each profess a deep confusion with the way the youngsters think, Mr. Shigaki disappointed with his older son who prioritises the bottom line and is cutting corners buying cheaper materials and reducing the quality of the product he worked so hard to perfect. Rampant and irresponsible capitalism is also the force which is currently destabilising Hakamada’s life as he finds himself exploited by his heartless boss but unable to simply quit as Imanishi has repeatedly done because jobs are hard to come by and he’s also supporting his parents. His boss even tries to frame him for stealing materials from the factory, later berating him for “talking like a freeloader” when he tries to bring up workplace conditions, and calling the police to have him charged with assault when he fights back after he hits him. 

Inverting the melancholy flower metaphor, Imanishi describes himself and his friends as horsetail in a field crushed when a dog comes by and defecates on it, but later remembers that horsetail eventually springs back up, while Mrs. Tokioka had wanted to see if her damaged bulbs would grow when planted in the right soil. The three friends are forced into a realisation that they’re heading out on different paths and will inevitably be scattered but they are at least finding their way, learning to come to an acceptance of the traumatic past to move into a happier future. “Life is unpredictable” but sometimes people surprise you and it’s best to give them the opportunity or risk losing your chance to seize happiness wherever you find it. 


One-Way Ticket to Love (恋の片道切符, Masahiro Shinoda, 1960)

vlcsnap-2017-04-14-00h33m57s991Although Masahiro Shinoda has long been admitted into the pantheon of Japanese New Wave masters, he is mostly remembered only for his 1969 adaptation of a Chikamatsu play, Double Suicide. Less overtly political than many of his contemporaries during the heady years of protest and rebellion, Shinoda was a consummate stylist whose films aimed to dazzle with visual flair or often to deliberately disorientate with their worlds of constant uncertainty. Like so many of the directors who would go on to form what would retrospectively become known as the Japanese New Wave, Shinoda also started out as a junior AD, in this case at Shochiku where he felt himself stifled by the studio’s famously safe, inoffensive approach to filmmaking.

By the late ‘60s that approach was itself failing and so the studio began to take a few chances on new young directors including Shinoda who was afforded the opportunity to script and direct his first feature – One-way Ticket to Love (恋の片道切符, Koi no katamichi kippu). Studio mandated programme picture as it was, Shinoda still had to play by some of the rules – notably that the title song which is a Japanese cover of the 1959 Neil Sedaka hit needed to feature prominently. Shinoda does indeed showcase the song throughout the film though he also paints a dark and unforgiving picture of the burgeoning talent management industry whilst sympathising with those trapped in the underworld to which the effects of growing economic prosperity have yet to trickle down.

Down on his luck 20 year old alto-sax player Kenji Shirai (Kazuya Kosaka) has resorted to hanging around stations in Tokyo alongside a host of other unemployed artists trying to get picked up for a job and having little success. His luck changes when a young female talent fixer, Miss Yoshinaga (Yachiyo Otori), finds herself in need of an alto sax player with immediate effect. Kenji is elated to find work but somewhat troubled when the club is abruptly raided, giving him a taste of the precariousness of the underground club scene. Nevertheless, Yoshinaga hands him a card and tells him to come to her office tomorrow in case she has any more work for him.

On his way home, Kenji comes across a distressed woman crying her heart out dangerously near a high bridge. Fearing she is about to commit suicide, Kenji comforts her and then takes her home for the night before introducing her to Yoshinaga the next day in the hope that she may also have work for a young woman – she does, but as a nudie dancer. Mitsuko (Noriko Maki) reluctantly takes the job leaving Kenji conflicted but there’s more drama in both of their lives to come in the form of “The Japanese Elvis” Ueno (Masaaki Hirao), Mitsuko’s married ex-boyfriend Tajima, and an errant pistol belonging to Kenji’s petty yakuza roommate.

Although Shinoda was less noticeably political than many of the other directors of the time, his sympathy remains with those who feels themselves to be oppressed or have in someway been cast aside by an unforgiving world. Kenji in particular feels himself to be just such a person, remarking that the world is a cruel place in which people look after their own interests and are prepared to use and discard those less fortunate in order to get what they want. Describing himself and Mitsuko as nothing more than offerings fit for burning on the altar that is the post-war economy, Kenji’s sense of hopelessness is palpable. Despite having acted to rescue Mitsuko from her suicidal contemplation, he feels powerless to help her in any other way and honestly tells her so each time she comes to him for comfort or assistance. Though his earnestness has an honest quality in its determination not to deceive, it also has an air of cowardice as he refuses to even discourage the woman he loves from doing something he knows she will regret because he has already decided that resistance is futile.

Mitsuko, by contrast, finds herself entirely without agency. Betrayed by the man she loved on discovering that he was already married and had been stringing her along, she finds it difficult to adjust to living life alone. Consequently she finds herself wooed by the big idol star of the day, Ueno, and then swept into a studio scam in which the pair are tricked into a sexual relationship with dire consequences for both. Ueno, who sings the all important title song at several points throughout the film, might be in a more comfortable position than Kenji but he is no more free. The studio’s prime cash cow, Ueno is pimped out to his hoards of screaming teenage girls and denied anything like a private life outside of studio control. As the latest dancer at the club, Mitsuko is assured that she’s going out there a rookie and coming back a star but her fate, along with Ueno’s, is entirely in the hands of the managers who can make or break a career at will.

If the interpersonal drama fails to convince, Shinoda makes up for it with unusually dynamic and interesting cinematography much more like the youth movies Nikkatsu were making at the time than the usual Shochiku stateliness. Looking much more like the European New Wave, Shinoda makes fantastic use of tracking shots and unusual framing to draw attention to the isolation of his protagonists. The club set finale featuring the title song is a masterclass in tension as Kenji roams around the audience, caught among the crowd of screaming girls before pausing for an up close contemplation of Ueno which leads him to his final decision. A programme picture, but one in which Shinoda declared his stylistic intentions if not his scripting prowess. One-way Ticket to Love dazzles with visual flair but never captivates on anything other than a superficial level as its story of love frustrated by social inequality and controlling authority fails to deliver on the melancholy promise of the title.


Final sequence featuring the title song by Masaaki Hirao (English subtitles)