The Munekata Sisters (宗方姉妹, Yasujiro Ozu, 1950)

Though they may eventually turn melancholy, the films of Yasujiro Ozu are often cheerful affairs in which kindhearted people bear life’s troubles with stoic dignity. There are few villains, only those trying to live even while living is hard. The Munekata Sisters (宗方姉妹, Munekata Shimai) adapted from a story by Jiro Osaragi and produced for Shintoho rather than home studio Shochiku, however, strikes a much less happy tone, ambivalently condemning its heroine to unhappiness through her own adherence to the codes it otherwise insists are noble. 

The two titular sisters, Setsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Mariko (Hideko Takamine), live in Tokyo where Setsuko runs a small bar which supports the family while her moody husband Mimura (So Yamamura) has long been out of work. Their father, Mr. Munekata (Chishu Ryu), has returned to Kyoto where, a doctor informs Setsuko in the opening scenes, he is suffering from terminal cancer but surprisingly healthy all things considered. Like his oldest daughter, Kyoto suits Mr. Munekata because as he puts it it is full of the beauty of old Japan, though Mariko has soon had enough of temples and palaces and longs to return to the modernity of the contemporary capital. Whilst in the city, however, they run into an old friend from Manchuria, Hiroshi (Ken Uehara), with whom Mariko soon realises her sister had been in love but he left for France before they could declare their feelings while she was already engaged to her present husband. 

Mariko, a youthful woman dressing exclusively in modern Western fashions, is quite taken with the idea of her sister’s failed romance and determines to get the pair back together. She has only resentment for her moody brother-in-law and has long been aware that Setsuko’s marriage is a failure. Within her seeming modernity, Mariko is surprisingly conservative when it comes to traditional gender roles, resenting Mimura for failing to provide for the family as a man is expected to do. Overcome with despair, he spends his days in a drunken stupor playing with stray cats rather than seriously looking for a job, defined by wounded male pride in his obvious discomfort with the fact that his wife is supporting him through the business that she operates herself. Mariko tells him to man up, tired of the way he leaves each of the women anxious in their own home, but Setsuko, more conservative still, reminds her younger sister that marriage isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and that sometimes all you can do endure. 

Mariko regards her sister’s way of thinking as “old-fashioned”, while Setsuko disapproves of her vacuous “modernity” which she sees as little more than social brainwashing that leads her to blindly follow only what is “fashionable” without thinking for herself. Mr. Munekata had said those who refused to see the beauty in old things were simply “ignorant”, but when asked to arbitrate between the sisters adopts a more equivocal position. You are you and your sister is your sister, he insists, you have your own ways of thinking and neither of you is wrong, you have simply to choose the path which suits you best. He does however caution against Mariko’s “fashionable” mindset, reminding her that it isn’t good to be mindlessly swayed by the prevailing trends, what’s important is to think deeply and value your own life. Those who only do what’s fashionable are boring, he tells her.

Later Mariko describes “modernity” as “not growing old despite the years” perhaps to counter Setsuko’s earlier dismissal that new things never become old because they don’t last. In any case, she is still in many ways a child with an underdeveloped appreciation for complex emotions which might explain why she suddenly proposes to Hiroshi herself as if she means to marry him on her sister’s behalf. She also unfairly takes against a wily widow, apparently a “friend” of Hiroshi’s from Paris who may or may not be in love with him but has obviously not replaced Setsuko in his heart. Setsuko however is conflicted, accepting financial help from Hiroshi to keep the bar open but resentful of her husband’s suggestion there is anything improper between them. She is an “old-fashioned” woman after all. Like What Did the Lady Forget?, Munekata Sisters also posits domestic violence as a reset button on a marriage as Mimura angrily slaps his wife across the face several times, but thankfully here it signals the death knell rather than rebirth of their relationship. Mimura has reasserted his manhood, but it has only shown him just how desperate and empty he has become. His wife no longer has respect for him, let alone love. 

Yet Mimura continues to control her feelings, implying that the failure of the relationship is her fault alone because she never loved him. He has slowly destroyed himself out of resentment and romantic disappointment. It seems that, though he was too cowardly to confess his feelings, Hiroshi has never forgotten his love for Setsuko and the possibility remains that she may be able to claim a happier future through abandoning her “traditional” way of thinking (“fashionable” in its own way), separating from her husband to marry for love. But in the end her code will not allow it. Guilt casts a shadow over her heart, leaving her feeling that she is no longer allowed happiness and must sacrifice her true desires to atone for the failure of her marriage. A glimmer of hope remains in Hiroshi’s determination to wait, trapping himself within the repression of patriarchal social codes, but in the end even Mariko is forced to recognise her sister’s nobility as she too tours the beauty of old Japan without complaint in new contemplation of its ambivalent charms.


Growing Up (たけくらべ, Heinosuke Gosho, 1955)

Gosho Growing UpCaught in a moment of transition, it’s no great mystery that post-war Japanese cinema began to look back at the Meiji past. Progress had indeed been rapid but ended in national tragedy and collective madness. The post-war humanists were eager for a different outcome, to avoid the mistakes of the last fifty years and build a society that was kinder and freer than that which had come before. Though on the surface it might seem as if much had changed since the dawn of a new century, the problems were still the same and a failure to address them only likely to add new tragedies in place of the better future many hoped for. Among the foremost proponents of post-war humanism, Heinosuke Gosho made a rare trip back into the Meiji past in 1955’s Growing Up (たけくらべ, Takekurabe), an adaptation of the well known short story by Ichiyo Higuchi, finding that nothing much had really changed when it came to the fates of women and the poor in an often wilfully indifferent society.

The action opens on the outskirts of the Yoshiwara in 1894. Our heroes are a collection of children who find themselves dealing with typically adolescent problems but also, by modern standards, expected to grow up all too fast. Chief among them is 13-year-old Midori (Hibari Misora) whose sister, Omaki (Keiko Kishi), is the most famous courtesan of the red light district. Although she knows on some level that her parents have already sold her to the brothel owner in whose house they live as servants, Midori has not yet quite processed the full implications of her destiny or that her world of childhood innocence is rapidly drawing to a close. She is in love with a local boy, Shinnyo (Takashi Kitahara), who seems to return her feelings but is as awkward and confused by them as any teenage boy and treats her by turns with coldness and contempt mixed with grudging affection.

Shinnyo, meanwhile, is the son of a greedy and heartless monk (Takamaru Sasaki) who has decided to sell his older sister as a concubine to a wealthy man who already has a wife. As he loves his sister dearly and has a naive, childish sense of absolute morality, this is a sin Shinnyo cannot forgive. He argues with his father but has no real power to change the situation and then decides on rebelling against his father’s wishes that he not become a monk by leaving for the main temple in Kyoto to take holy orders. Of course, this also means he must sacrifice any youthful idea he might have had of pursuing his love for Midori.

The title, in a sense, could refer not only to the increasingly melancholy youngsters coming of age in an oppressive society, but also to Japan itself as it emerged into modernity in an effort to prove itself the equal of any other major power in the late 19th century. It is, however, an ironic a title as any could be. To “grow up” here is to abandon one’s humanity and conform to the kind of “real world” thinking that codifies cruelty and makes a virtue of heartlessness. Still an innocent child, Midori bounces her ball and basks in her somewhat elevated position as a wealthy young girl and sister of a “notorious” woman without fully understanding all that entails. When her sister tells her about a dream she had of climbing trees and picking persimmons, she is incapable of understanding her warning about the loss of innocence she’s about to experience, but her world is brought crashing down when a gang of rival boys rudely attack her and point out that all her finery was bought through “whoring” and that she is nothing more than a “whore” in waiting.

Another of the boys, Sangoro (Masanori Nakamura), whose family is poor, says he can’t wait to be “grown up”, reacting with less than sensitivity to Midori’s pained pleas that she wishes everything could stay as it was and they could be children forever. Sangoro sees adulthood as freedom. He’ll be free to earn his own living and maybe he won’t have to be like his father, too afraid to stand up to people with money because when you don’t have any you’re always reliant on their kindness. Sangoro may be poor, but he’s a man (or will be) and can’t process the total lack of agency that comes with being an adult female whose future is decided entirely by her closest male relative. Midori, like Shinnyo’s sister, has been sold by her father and there’s nothing she or anyone else can do about it now.

Nevertheless, confronted by her fate, Midori decides to own it. She encourages her parents to think of her as dead, cooly hitting back at their callousness but acknowledging an obligation as she goes. The final scenes preceding her passage across the small bridge which will forever sever her from her childhood are filled with dread and anger as if crying out for someone to stop the inevitable from happening, but of course, no one can. An old woman and former courtesan, Okichi (Isuzu Yamada), who owns a shop where Midori used to spend time and is indirectly responsible for Midori’s acceptance of her fate in some cruel, drunken words she threw at her, puts it best when she briefly feels as if she could have done something in affirming that it isn’t her fault, and it isn’t Midori’s, it’s simply “the world”.

Midori meets her fate not with resignation but rage and defiance. Shinnyo, who runs away from his inability to help his sister by becoming a monk, is forever incapable of declaring his real feelings in words but leaves a flower in front of her window in echo of another he gave her long ago. At first Midori picks it up and cherishes it for the innocent symbol of love that it is, but by the time she has travelled half way along the bridge which will take her to the Yoshiwara, she has realised this kind of innocence does not belong inside. She throws the flower to the mud and leaves her youthful dreams of love and happiness behind as she prepares to step through the doorway into a future which is not of her making and over which she has no say. To “grow up”, in this world, is a kind of spiritual death in which there exists nothing other than emptiness and indifference.


Once More (今ひとたびの, Heinosuke Gosho, 1947)

(c) 東宝

Gosho once more posterOf the Japanese golden age directors, there were few who’d “happily” gone along with the requirements of making films under a militarist regime. Heinosuke Gosho, however, must rank among the most recalcitrant in his unwavering refusal to compromise his convictions in order to preserve his career. Most of the scripts he submitted to the censor’s board were rejected in the preliminary stages though he was able to ruffle a few feathers with the few films he did manage to make if only for his skilful ability to skirt around the promised propagandistic overtones. It also “helped” that Gosho had become seriously ill with tuberculosis in 1937 which perhaps protected him from official interference and, in any case, removed him from the film industry for three years while he recovered. Nevertheless, he felt keenly that he and others had a duty and an opportunity to turn the tables in the post-war era, advancing the ideology of humanism to create a better, fairer world than the one which had descended into so much ugliness and chaos.

In fact one of the reasons Gosho decided to film Once More (今ひとたびの, Ima Hitotabi no) in 1947 under the American occupation was to counter the view held among some young people that there had been no active opposition to militarism. Gosho and his screenwriter Keinosuke Uekusa chose to adapt a heavily political novel by Jun Takami which painted itself as a romantic tragedy of resistance in which its leftist heroes find themselves carrying the legacy of defeat onward into the post-war world. Gosho depoliticises Takami’s tale and reconstructs it as a romantic melodrama with a more positive resolution, but is careful to preserve the fierce idealism of the conscientious students relentlessly protesting Japanese Imperialism whilst trying to advance the course of social justice in an increasingly oppressive environment.

The tale begins in 1936 as a group of students prepares to graduate. Nogami (Ichiro Ryuzaki), a doctor, has turned down a lucrative university post to minister to the poor. Unlike his friends Tanaka (Koji Kawamura) and Kambara (Hyo Kitazawa), Nogami is not an activist or left wing agitator but has a strong belief in humanistic socialism and a conviction that he has a duty to ensure his skills are available to those who need them most. Invited to a play directed by Kambara which is being performed to raise money for socialist causes, Nogami accidentally wanders into the dressing room of the leading lady – Akiko (Mieko Takamine), a wealthy socialite, and falls in love at first sight. Akiko too takes a liking to Nogami and invites him to her birthday party despite his rather odd behaviour after the play, but he finds it impossible to get on with her upperclass friends and eventually leaves. The pair advance and retreat, but their romance is frustrated by the times in which they live, politics, and their own senses of personal integrity which encourage them to willingly sacrifice their happiness in acknowledgement of living in an unhappy world.

Despite their original, electric attraction the obstacles surrounding the love of Akiko and Nogami may seem insurmountable, chief among them being the obvious class difference between the pair. Nogami, somewhat contrary to his humanistic ideals, has a mild prejudice against the bourgeoise, believing them to be selfish, unfeeling, and existing in their own bubble hermetically sealed away from the kind of suffering he sees everyday at the clinic. Yet he cannot forget Akiko who harbours no prejudice towards him because of his humble origins (though her friends and family make no secret of theirs) and feels similarly about her own social class, overcome with guilt that she lives in such comfort while others suffer. Eventually Akiko joins the cause, becoming a left-wing agitator and even getting herself arrested and branded a “Red Lady” in the papers (further annoying her very confused social circle). Unlike Nogami she is also subject to a kind of social and gender based oppression in which she is under constant pressure to marry her longstanding fiancé, Sakon (Haruo Tanaka), and conform to the requirements of her position. Nogami is “free” to choose to live a life of selfless altruism in a way that Akiko is not and will struggle to be throughout the rest of the picture.

Yet time and again it is the times which frustrate their romance. Akiko and Nogami repeatedly make plans to meet, but one of them is arrested and prevented from arriving leaving the other assuming the worst – that they have been abandoned, romantically and ideologically. Matters aren’t helped by Nogami’s natural diffidence and awkwardness coupled with his rigid code of honour which makes it impossible for him to pursue Akiko in any normal way, leaving her confused and later at the mercy of her controlling family. In the end it is their own senses of personal integrity which prevent their union, as a friend bound for the front points out when he, essentially, tells them to get over themselves and embrace happiness rather than overthinking an emotional response and ruining it in the process.

As much as Gosho’s central tenet could be boiled down to “don’t think, feel”, he does argue for compassionate rationality and considered fairness and understanding between people. Thus he removes the Marxist overtones from the original novel because his conflicts aren’t “political” but between justice and injustice; he simply sees unfairness and opposes it, placing his faith in the absolute truth of positive emotion and human connection to eradicate the false barriers of rational civility and irrational oppression. For Gosho, love wins, every time. 


The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Bad Sleep Well posterThere’s something rotten in the state of Japan – The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru), Akira Kurosawa’s take on Hamlet, unlike his previous two Shakespearean adaptations, is set firmly in the murky post-war society which, it becomes clear, is so mired in systems of corruption as to be entirely built on top of them. Our hero, like Hamlet himself, is a conflicted revenger. He intends to hold a mirror up to society, reflecting the ugly picture back to the yet unknowing world in the hope that something will really change. Change, however, comes slow – especially when it comes at the disadvantage of those who currently hold all the cards.

We open at a wedding. A small number of attendants lineup around a lift waiting for the arrival of the married couple only for a carriage full of reporters to pour out, apparently in hope of scandal though this is no gossip worthy society function but the wedding of a CEO’s daughter to his secretary. The press is in attendance because the police are – they believe there will be arrests today in connection with the ongoing corruption scandal engulfing the company in which a number of employees are suspected of engaging in kickbacks on government funded projects.

The rather strange wedding proceeds with the top brass sweating buckets while the bride’s brother (Tatsuya Mihashi), already drunk on champagne, takes to the mic with a bizarre speech “refuting” the claims that the groom, Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), has only married the bride, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), for financial gain before avowing that he will kill his new brother-in-law if he makes his little sister sad. Nishi, as we later discover, has indeed married with an ulterior motive which is anticipated by the arrival of a second wedding cake in the shape of a building at the centre of a previous corruption scandal with one black rose sticking out of the seventh floor window from which an employee, Furuya, committed suicide five years previously.

The police are keen to interview their suspects, the press are keen to report on scandal, but somehow or other the system of corruption perpetuates itself. The top guys cover for each other, and when they can’t they “commit suicide” rather than embarrass their “superiors” by submitting themselves to justice. The system of loyalty and reward, of misplaced “honour” mixed with personal greed, ensures its own survival through homosocial bonding with backroom deals done in hostess bars and the lingering threat of scandal and personal ruin for all should one rogue whistleblower dare to threaten the governing principle of an entire economy.

Nishi chooses to threaten it, partly as an act of revolution but mainly as an act of filial piety in avenging the wrongful death of his father who had, in a sense, cast him aside for financial gain and societal success. Wanting to get on, Nishi’s father refused to marry his mother and instead married the woman his “superiors” told him to. Later, his father threw himself out of a seventh floor window because his “superiors” made him understand this was what was expected of him. Furuya wasn’t the last, each time a man’s transgressions progress too far his “superiors” sacrifice him to ensure the survival of the system. Strangely no one seems to rebel, the men go to their deaths willingly, accepting their fate without question rather than submitting themselves to the law and taking their co-conspirators down with them though should someone refuse to do the “decent” thing, there are other ways to ensure their continuing silence.

Reinforcing the post-war message, Nishi chooses a disused munitions factory for his secret base. Both he and his co-conspirator, a war orphan, had been high school conscripts until the factory was destroyed by firebombing and thereafter were forced to live by their wits alone on the streets. Nishi swears that he wants to take revenge on those who manipulate the vulnerable, but finds himself becoming ever more like his prey and worse, hardly caring, wanting only to steel himself for the difficult task ahead.

In any revolution there will be casualties, but these casualties will often be those whom Nishi claims to represent. Chief among them his new wife, Yoshiko, who has been largely cushioned from the harshness of the outside world thanks to her father’s wealth and seeming care. She loves her husband and wants to believe in her father or more particularly that the moral arc of her society points towards goodness. Nishi, tragically falling for his mark, married his wife to destroy her family but ironically finds himself torn between genuine love for Yoshiko, a desire for revenge, and a mission of social justice. Can he, and should he, be prepared to “sacrifice” an innocent in the same way the “superiors” of the world sacrifice their underlings in order to end a system of oppression or should he abandon his plan and save his wife the pain of learning the truth about her husband, her father, and the world in which she lives?

In the end, Nishi will waver. Yoshiko’s father, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), will not. Goodness becomes a weakness – Iwabuchi turns his daughter’s love and faith against her, subverting her innocence for his own evil. He makes a sacrifice of her in service of his own “superiors” who may be about to declare that they “have complete faith” in him at any given moment. The only thing that remains clear is that Iwabuchi will not be forgiven, the wronged children of the post-war era will not be so quick to bow to injustice. Let the great axe fall? One can only hope.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Mikio Naruse, 1959)

vlcsnap-2016-08-03-02h37m50s119The Ainu have not been a frequent feature of Japanese filmmaking though they have made sporadic appearances. Adapted from a novel by Nobuo Ishimori, Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Kotan no Kuchibue, AKA Whistle in My Heart) provides ample material for the generally bleak Naruse who manages to mine its melodramatic set up for all of its heartrending tragedy. Rather than his usual female focus, Naruse tells the story of two resilient Ainu siblings facing not only social discrimination and mistreatment but also a series of personal misfortunes.

Masa and Yutaka are a teenage brother and sister living with their alcoholic father who has been unable to get things together since their mother passed away. They also have their grandmother and cousin, but otherwise they’re pretty much fending for themselves. At school, both children are shunned and picked on by some of their classmates solely for being Ainu. When one girl reports that her purse has gone missing, she immediately points to Masa and though another girl defends her, the obvious racial overtones continue to get to her. Similarly, Yutaka finds himself getting into trouble with one of the other boys after he beats him on a test. Yutaka pays a heavier price (at least physically) but both children are left wondering about their place in the world and what the future might hold for them.

Masa’s bright hope revolves around her art teacher who draws a picture of her at a local watering hole which he intends to enter into a competition. The teacher has his sights firmly set on a career as an artist in Tokyo but like everyone else’s dreams, it proves harder to realise than he might have hoped. Perpetually left behind, Masa’s dreams crumble too as do those of her friend who has her romantic hopes crushed firstly by her well meaning grandmother and then secondly by an unexpectedly racist action by someone who had always been seen as a friend. If all of these difficulties weren’t enough, fate is about to deal Masa and Yutaka a very cruel blow indeed which leaves them at the mercy of an evil uncle worthy of any Dickens novel.

Like much of Naruse’s work, the outlook is extremely bleak. The children face such a hopeless future that the most they can do is affect a kind of false cheerfulness to try and raise their spirits. Masa and Yutaka are both mistreated by the general population, leaving them with a lingering sense of anger and resentment towards those that seem incapable of treating them like regular human beings. Their cousin, Koji, has apparently come to the conclusion that he has to stand up against such mistreatment, however, the ultimate harm that is done to the pair is done by a member of their own family acting with total disregard their feelings and wellbeing. At this point Koji reconsiders and says he understands now that it isn’t about Ainu or Japanese, there are just awful people everywhere. An odd, if depressingly stoic, late in the game plea for empathy and tolerance, this ironically positive statement sits very well with Naruse’s general feelings on human nature.

Whistling in Kotan is not one of Naruse’s more subtle efforts. The tone is relentlessly bleak as the children experience ever more degrading treatment solely because of their ethnic group. Even their supposed ally eventually turns on them exposing the last lingering threads of prejudice among even those who portray themselves as forthright liberals. The message is one of forbearance and patience, that times have changed and will change more but that one has to grin and bear it while they do. Pragmatic as that is, it does let society of the hook when it comes to the refusal to acknowledge and deal with consistent prejudice. Filled with Naruse’s sense of despair, Whistling in Kotan is an uneven yet interesting exploration of this sensitive subject though perhaps undoes much of its good work with its ambiguous and often blunt approach to the material.