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.

Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky (この広い空のどこかに, Masaki Kobayashi, 1954)

somewhere-beneath-the-wide-skyOf the chroniclers of the history of post-war Japan, none was perhaps as unflinching as Masaki Kobayashi. However, everyone has to start somewhere and as a junior director at Shochiku where he began as an assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi was obliged to make his share of regular studio pictures. This was even truer following his attempt at a more personal project – Thick Walled Room, which dealt with the controversial subject of class C war criminals and was deemed so problematic that it lingered on the shelves for quite some time. Made the same year as the somewhat similar Three Loves, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky (この広い空のどこかに, Kono Hiroi Sora no Dokoka ni) is a fairly typical contemporary drama of ordinary people attempting to live in the new and ever changing post-war world, yet it also subtly hints at Kobayashi’s ongoing humanist preoccupations in its conflict between the idealistic young student Noboru and his practically minded (yet kind hearted) older brother.

The Moritas own the liquor store in this tiny corner of Ginza, where oldest brother Ryoichi (Keiji Sada) has recently married country girl Hiroko (Yoshiko Kuga). The household consists of mother-in-law Shige (Kumeko Urabe), step-mother to Ryoichi, unmarried sister Yasuko (Hideko Takamine), and student younger brother Noboru (Akira Ishihama). Things are actually going pretty well for the family, they aren’t rich but the store is prospering and they’re mostly happy enough – except when they aren’t. Ryoichi married for love, but his step-mother and sister aren’t always as convinced by his choice as he is, despite Hiroko’s friendly nature and constant attempts to fit in.

As if to signal the dividing wall between the generations, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky opens with a discussion between two older women, each complaining about their daughters-in-law and the fact that their sons married for love rather than agreeing to an arranged marriage as was common in their day. These love matches, they claim, have unbalanced the family dynamic, giving the new wife undue powers against the matriarchal figure of the mother-in-law. While the other woman’s main complaint is that her son’s wife is absent minded and bossy, Shige seems to have little to complain about bar Hiroko’s slow progress with becoming used to the runnings of the shop.

Despite this, both women appear somewhat hostile towards Ryoichi’s new wife, often making her new home an uncomfortable place for her to be. Though Hiroko is keen to pitch in with the shop and the housework, Shige often refuses her help and is preoccupied with trying to get the depressed Yasuko to do her fair share instead. At 28 years old, Yasuko has resigned herself to a life of single suffering, believing it will now be impossible for her to make a good a match. Yasuko had been engaged to a man she loved before the war but when he returned and discovered that she now walks with a pronounced limp following an injury during an air raid, he left her flat with a broken heart. Embittered and having internalised intense shame over her physical disability, Yasuko finds the figure of her new sister-in-law a difficult reminder of the life she will never have.

A crisis approaches when an old friend (and perhaps former flame) arrives from Hiroko’s hometown and raises the prospect of abandoning her young marriage to return home instead. No matter how her new relatives make her feel, Hiroko is very much in love with Ryoichi and has no desire to leave him. Thankfully, Ryoichi is a kind and understanding man who can see how difficult the other women in the house are making things for his new wife and is willing to be patient and trust Hiroko to make what she feels is the right decision.

Ryoichi’s talent for tolerance is seemingly infinite in his desire to run a harmonious household. However, he, unlike younger brother Noboru, is of a slightly older generation with a practical mindset rather than an idealistic one. Ryoichi simply wants to prosper and ensure a happy and healthy life for himself and his family. This doesn’t mean he’s averse to helping others and is actually a very kind and decent person, but he is quick to point out that he needs to help himself first. Thus he comes into conflict with little brother Noburu from whom the film’s title comes.

Noburu is a dreamer, apt to look up at the wide sky as symbol of his boundless dreams. His fortunes are contrasted with the far less fortunate fellow student Mitsui (Masami Taura), who comes from a much less prosperous and harmonious family, finding himself working five different jobs just to eat twice a day and study when he can. Noburu wants to believe in a brighter world where things like his sister’s disability would be irrelevant and something could be done to help people like Mitsui who are struggling to get by when others have it so good. Ryoichi thinks this is all very well, but it’s pie in the sky thinking and when push comes to shove you have to respect “the natural order of things”. Ryoichi wants to work within the system and even prosper by it, where as Noburu, perhaps like Kobayashi himself, would prefer that the “natural order of things” became an obsolete way of thinking.

Nevertheless, it is the power of kindness which cures all. Gloomy Yasuko begins to live again after re-encountering an old school friend and being able to help her when she is most in of need of it. Being of use after all helps her put thoughts of her disability to the back of her mind and so, after hiding from a man who’d loved her in the past out of fearing his reaction to her current state (and overhearing his general indifference on hearing of it), she makes the bold decision to strike out for love and the chance of happiness in the beautiful, yet challenging, mountain environment.

Like many films of the era, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky is invested in demonstrating that life may be hard at times, but it will get better and the important thing is to find happiness wherever it presents itself. This is not quite the message Kobayashi was keen on delivering in his subsequent career which calls for a more circumspect examination of contemporary society along with a need for greater personal responsibility for creating a kinder, fairer and more honest one. A much more straightforward exercise, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky is Kobayashi channeling Kinoshita but minimising his sentimentality. Nevertheless, it does present a warm tale of a family finally coming together as its central couple prepares to pick up the reins and ride on into the sometimes difficult but also full of possibility post-war world.


 

The Snow Woman (怪談雪女郎, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1968)

snow womanThe Snow Woman is one of the most popular figures of Japanese folklore. Though the legend begins as a terrifying tale of an evil spirit casting dominion over the snow lands and freezing to death any men she happens to find intruding on her territory, the tale suddenly changes track and far from celebrating human victory over supernatural malevolence, ultimately forces us to reconsider everything we know and see the Snow Woman as the final victim in her own story. Previously brought the screen by Masaki Kobayashi as part of his Kwaidan omnibus movie, Tokuzo Tanaka’s expanded look at the classic tale (怪談雪女郎, Kaidan Yukijoro) is one of extreme beauty contrasting human cruelty with supernatural inevitability and the endless quest for compassion.

As in the original folktale, the film begins with two sculptors venturing into snow filled forests looking for the perfect tree to carve a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kanon, for the local temple. Having finally located the longed for tree, the pair spend the night in a cabin only to receive a visit from the Snow Woman herself who freezes the older man but is taken by the younger one’s beauty and spares his life, instructing him never to speak of these events.

Yosaku is taken back to the village followed not long after by the tree trunk. In tribute to his master, the head of the temple asks him to complete the statue himself despite his relative lack of experience. Later, a beautiful yet mysterious woman takes shelter from the intense rain under Yosaku’s roof and is taken in by his adoptive mother and wife of his former master. Eventually, Yosaku and “Yuki” fall in love and marry but the two quickly come to the notice of the higher samurai orders who seem determined to ruin their happy union.

Inspired by Lafcadio Hearn’s version of the story, this retelling adds a layer of social commentary with the constant interference of the higher echelons who exist solely to plague those below them with their petty games of subjugation. We first meet the local bailiff Jito when he rides into town trailing a massive entourage and immediately stars beating some of the local children who were playing with piles of wood. When Yosaku’s adoptive mother pleads with them to stop, he beats her too for having the temerity to speak to a samurai. Unfortunately, he has it in for Yosaku because he has another master sculptor he wants to use for the statue, and now he’s also taken a liking to the beautiful Yuki and will stop at nothing to have his wicked way with her. He is in for quite a nasty shock but even so, the higher orders remain the higher orders and those below them are left with no recourse but simply to follow suit.

The real villain of the film is this enforced class system which allows or even encourages those at its summit to run rampant over those below. The samurai will have their way and the people have nothing to oppose them with save their sense of personal integrity. The Snow Woman then becomes the film’s unlikely heroine. By the time we reach the film’s emotionally devastating finale, Yuki claims that she learned human compassion in her life with Yosaku and their child and ultimately sacrifices her own happiness to preserve that of her husband and son. Yosaku finds himself in competition with the other sculptor who manages to complete a beautiful statue but the temple priest finds it wanting, its expression is soulless and devoid of the sense of compassion he was looking for in the face of a goddess of mercy. Yosaku finds the very look he needs in his wife’s face, exhausted from lending her supernatural strength to save the life of a small child and her husband’s freedom, and in her eyes as she prepares to bid goodbye to him.

The Snow Woman is only obeying her own nature and cannot be blamed for merely being what she is, but the human cruelty and selfishness inherent in the feudal world is a matter of choice. Jito is an evil man, doubtless his world has also made him cruel and selfish but the choice always remains for him not to be – a choice which he is incapable of making. Men like Yosaku toil away endlessly and honestly but their rewards are fragile, personal things rarely recognised by the world at large. Only the Snow Woman, a cold creature, possesses the necessary warmth to breath life into a monument to mercy built solely by a pair of sincere hands.

Tanaka creates a stunning visual world using mostly simple effects and optical trickery to bring the Snow Woman’s icy domain into the ordinary feudal environment. The Snow Woman glides eerily through impressively layered snow scenes, dissolving from one world only to reappear in another. Beautifully filmed and filled with warmth and compassion despite its frozen aesthetic, The Snow Woman is deeply moving plea for empathy in a cruel world which successfully makes a tragic heroine out of its supernatural protagonist.


Original trailer (no subtitles)