Okoto and Sasuke (春琴抄 お琴と佐助, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1935)

Okoto to SasukeYasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomin-geki” – naturalistic tales of ordinary working people in the contemporary era, but 1935’s Okoto and Sasuke (春琴抄 お琴と佐助, Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke) sees him step back from the modern world in adapting a soon to be classic novella by contemporary novelist Junichiro Tanizaki. Published in 1933 under the title Shunkinsho and set in late Meiji, Okoto and Sasuke is another in the author’s long series of dark erotic dramas which aim to explore the baser elements of the human heart while engaging in a kind of cultural soul searching. The first of many adaptations, Shimazu’s scales back on Tanizaki’s taste for the perverse as well as his wry sense of humour, spinning a tender tale of love which finally finds its home only in the shared darkness of two becoming one in self imposed exile from the visible world.

Okoto (Kinuyo Tanaka) has been blind since she was nine and, though her parents appear to dote on her, has a proud and imperious manner which sees her mistreat those who only seek her friendship. Fearing that, due to her disability, Okoto will never find a suitable husband, the family have decided to let her study the koto and shamisen (traditionally strong areas for the blind) so that she might be able to support herself and have some degree of accomplishment. Sasuke (Kokichi Takada), a young servant at the pharmacy run by Okoto’s father, began escorting Okoto to her classes for no especial reason but as he is one of the few who can cope with Okoto’s moods, and is one of the few Okoto seems to tolerate, he quickly became her personal companion.

Sasuke remains completely devoted to Okoto even when she treats him cruelly. So many areas of their relationship are an inversion of the customs of the time – Okoto is the mistress, while Sasuke is the servant, she is strong while he is weak, she is cruel and he is kind. She has all the power, and he has none but seems to revel in his degradation, obeying each and every one of Okoto’s commands and rarely minding even when she strikes him. Nevertheless, despite her outward contempt for him Okoto is also dependent of Sasuke – not only for the assistance he provides, but for the gentle touch of his hands and his willingness to place himself entirely under her authority in worshipful devotion.

The relationship between the pair is one of (seemingly) chaste sadomasochism in which both reject the “normal” romantic affectations of their time. Despite the obvious class difference, Okoto’s family are secretly hoping Okoto and Sasuke will someday marry – an idea floated with intense seriousness when it is discovered that Okoto has become pregnant though she refuses to name the father of the child, denying that her lover is Sasuke and vowing that she would find it “humiliating” to be married to a mere servant.

There is something, as uncomfortable as it is, which presents Okoto’s pride as a kind of rebellion born of her blindness, a rejection of the world which has rejected her as “imperfect” and which she literally cannot see. Despite her family’s reservations Okoto does acquire a suitor, but he is only interested in her precisely because of her blindness. A playboy, Ritaro has fetishised Okoto’s “difference” and sees her almost as a trophy, captivated by her intense beauty and only spurred on by her haughtiness. A friend of Sasuke’s, by contrast, hearing the rumour of Okoto’s pregnancy, expresses horror at the idea of a “disabled” woman with a child, avowing that society would never stand for such a thing, rejecting and salivating over the salacious rumour at the same time. Okoto will pay a heavy price for her violent rejection of Ritaro’s attempt to reduce her to a mere conquest, ironically allowing him to rob her of something, but eventually leading her towards the destiny which will bind her forever to her devoted servant, Sasuke.

Okoto, having suffered facial disfigurement, comes to realise the true nature of her feelings for Sasuke but cannot bear for him to see her ruined face, and he, dutifully, resolves to keep his eyes closed as if blind. Ultimately Sasuke opts for the traditionally female act of sacrifice in deciding to shift from his own world into that of Okoto. Together they cut themselves off from the outside world, electing to live in a world made for two alone in which none else may enter. Their act is one of intense individualism taken as a pair who have become one in their mutual devotion, rejoicing in a love born of darkness. Shimazu undercuts Tanizaki’s need for discomfort to present the final union of Okoto and Sasuke as the uncomplicated realisation of a love deep and true – concluding with an intertitle rather than succumb to the inherently melodramatic resolution of Tanizaki’s eroguro love story. Nevertheless through the powerful performance of Kinuyo Tanaka as the increasingly conflicted Okoto, Shimazu manages to capture something of the “pure” love of equals who find their place in a changing world only by removing themselves from it.


Aizen Katsura (愛染かつら, AKA The Tree of Love/Yearning Laurel, Hiromasa Nomura, 1938)

aizen katsura posterJapan’s political climate had become difficult by 1938 with militarism in full swing. Young men were disappearing from their villages and being shipped off to war, and growing economic strife also saw young women sold into prostitution by their families. Cinema needed to be escapist and aspirational but it also needed to reflect the values of the ruling regime. Adapted from a novel by Katsutaro Kawaguchi, Aizen Katsura (愛染かつら) is an attempt to marry both of these aims whilst staying within the realm of the traditional romantic melodrama. The values are modern and even progressive, to a point, but most importantly they imply that there is always room for hope and that happy endings are always possible.

The heroine, Katsue (Kinuyo Tanaka), has found herself in a difficult position for a woman of 1938. Married off at a young age in payment of a family debt yet rejected by her husband’s family, Katsue’s fortunes fall still further when her husband passes away suddenly leaving her alone and eight months pregnant. Her daughter, Toshi (Kazuko Kojima), is now five years old and Katsue has a good job as a nurse at a local hospital. The job allows her to support herself, her daughter, and her older sister but the problem is that the hospital has a strict policy of not employing married women. Katsue isn’t married anymore, she’s a widow, but the fact that she has a daughter she is raising alone makes her familial status a grey area. She’s been hiding her daughter’s existence from her colleagues in case it costs her the job she needs to survive, but a chance encounter in a park threatens to ruin everything.

Thankfully, Katsue’s colleagues at the hospital turn out to be nice, reasonable people who respond sympathetically on hearing Katsue’s explanation about why she’d avoided telling them the truth about her daughter (and that, crucially, she had been married and the child was conceived legitimately). Her next problem occurs when the son of the hospital’s chief doctor, Kozo (Ken Uehara), returns after graduating university and the pair strike up a friendship which eventually blossoms into romance. Kozo’s father, however, is intent on arranging his marriage to a girl from another medical family – a long held tradition and, in an odd mirror of Katsue’s situation, the marriage is a way of getting additional investment for the rapidly failing clinic. Kozo asks Katsue to run away with him to Kyoto but she still hasn’t told him about Toshi or her previous marriage out of fear of losing not only her new love but her position at the hospital if he rejects her. Just as Katsue is about to go to meet Kozo at the station, Toshi falls ill.

Despite the austerity and conservatism of the times, Aizen Katsura is a very “modern” story in which Katsue’s pragmatic solution to her difficulties is praised and even encouraged. Her life has been an unhappy one in many ways – sold into an arranged marriage at 18, forced out of her hometown after rejection by her husband’s family, and finally widowed in the city, Katsue has been let down at each and every juncture. Alone with a baby, her choices were few and her only support seems to come from her older sister who has no husband of her own (at least, not one that is present), and takes care of Toshi while Katsue has to go out and earn the money to support the family.

Society does not quite know what to do with an anomaly like Katsue who cannot rely on extended family. She needs to support herself and her child but many jobs still have a marriage bar which extends to widows with children. The only options for women who can’t find a solution as elegant as Katsue’s aren’t pleasant, the hospital is a dream come true as it both pays well and is a respectable profession, but if the management found out about Toshi, Katsue could be left out in the cold with little prospect of finding more work despite her nursing qualifications.

The times may be harsh, but the world Katsue inhabits places her on the fringes of the middle classes. Kozo, as young doctor and heir to the clinic (Japanese hospitals are often family businesses) is far above her but is, in some ways, equally constrained. Whilst recognising a duty to his father, Kozo is resolute in refusing the idea of an arranged marriage conducted for financial purposes. He determines to set his own course rather than be railroaded into something which is for his father’s benefit and not his own. Deeply hurt by Katsue’s actions but not attempting to find out why she acted as she did, Kozo enters a depressive spell, sitting around resentfully and not doing much of anything. Luckily for him, the woman his father has picked out, Michiko (Sanae Takasugi), is a thoroughly good person who, once she finds out about Katsue, becomes determined to see that true love wins rather than being shackled to a moody young man and spending the rest of her life in a one sided relationship with someone still pining for a first love.

Katsue’s dreams come true only once she begins to give up on them. Leaving the hospital and returning to her home town with no firm plans, Katsue gets herself a career through luck and talent when a song she enters in a competition is picked up by a leading record label. Music rewards her financially but also gives her a sense of confidence and a purpose which puts her on more of an even footing with Kozo even if he sits in the stalls while her colleagues fill the balcony. Her salvation is both self made and something of a deus ex machina, but the broadly happy ending is intended to give hope to a hopeless age, that miracles can happen and second chances appear once two meet each other openly with full understanding and forgiving hearts.


 

Seven Seas (七つの海, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1931-1932)

vlcsnap-2017-02-19-01h57m24s364Hiroshi Shimizu is best remembered for his socially conscious, nuanced character pieces often featuring sympathetic portraits of childhood or the suffering of those who find themselves at the mercy of society’s various prejudices. Nevertheless, as a young director at Shochiku, he too had to cut his teeth on a number of program pictures and this two part novel adaptation is among his earliest. Set in a broadly upper middle class milieu, Seven Seas (七つの海, Nanatsu no Umi) is, perhaps, closer to his real life than many of his subsequent efforts but notably makes class itself a matter for discussion as its wealthy elites wield their privilege like a weapon.

Split into two parts each around an hour long, Seven Seas begins with the chapter entitled Virginity in which we meet the closely interconnected circle of friends around whom the narrative turns. Yumie (Hiroko Kawasaki) is a young woman from a middle class background but fallen on hard times as her father, a former government official, is now bedridden and supporting the family only on his pension. She is about to announce her engagement to the upperclass boy Yuzuru (Ureo Egawa) but when his playboy brother Takehiko (Joji Oka) returns from abroad he takes a fancy to her himself, eventually raping her whilst she is a guest in their house. Devastated, Yumie’s father marches over to sort things out but even more tragic events occur, breaking the family forever as Yumie’s sister Miwako (Kinuko Wakamizu) has a breakdown and is committed to an asylum. In desperate need of money, Yumie eventually agrees to become the wife of the man who has so brutalised her, though she also contrives to turn the situation to her advantage in an act of revenge.

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Part two is entitled “Chastity” as this is to be Yumie’s primary method of resistance. Refusing her new husband his conjugal rights, Yumie spends his money with gay abandon making huge donations to her sister’s hospital and eventually also providing a kind of “salary” for her husband’s long term mistress whom he has been seeing for some years and had neglected to inform about his marriage. Meanwhile, Yumie’s friend Ayako (Sachiko Murase) has also fallen in love with Yuzuru who is still nursing a broken heart having separated from his family and taken refuge with the couple’s friends working in a sports equipment shop in the city.

Unusually for a Shimizu hero, Yuzuru is an uncomplicated, innately good person who instantly rejects his family following their heinous treatment of the woman he loves, remaining committed to her even after she has been assaulted by his own brother. This decision is, however, difficult as he no longer has access to the familial fortune and has few options for earning his own. He eventually finds work as a French translator but it doesn’t pay enough to make up for all the extra expenses incurred as a result of his brother’s actions from the loss of Yumie’s father’s pension to the ongoing medical costs for her sister’s treatment. Times being what they are, moralising forces creep into the frame suggesting all of this “made right” by Takehiko doing the “honourable” thing and marrying the woman he’s “bought” by force.

The Yagibashi family think they can sweep all of this under the carpet by throwing money at Yumie and otherwise ignoring the problem but this is not good enough for the morality police. Forced to marry her rapist, Yumie maintains an air of cool distain, detailing her plans for vengeance in her daily diary and arming herself with a pistol in case Takehiko tries his old tricks once again. Takehiko, a vain and selfish man, seems to be filled with a kind of resentment born of his class in which he remains a perpetual child controlled by his father who holds all of the purse strings. He does at least attempt to be a proper husband to Yumie, defending her from his snobbish parents and providing her with everything she asks for but he retains his tendency to believe that he can behave however he likes because he’s the eldest son of the wealthy Yagibashi family. Yumie may be reduced in circumstances but thanks to her father’s position would be considered from a “good family”, yet to Takehiko and the Yagibashis she is just another faceless person from the lower orders, unworthy of consideration or compassion and simply one of the exploitable masses.

Takehiko is also the bearer of the frequently ambivalent attitude to the Western world found in many of Shimizu’s other films of the period. Returning from a trip abroad, he belittles another woman in the carriage for her supposed snobbery. Having been abroad, they say, she feels herself superior to ordinary Japanese – unlike the two of them, obviously. Ironically when they arrive Takehiko discovers that the woman in question is the daughter of his former professor, recently returned from studying music in Italy. The other major foreigner we meet is Ayako’s boss at the newspaper where she has a good job as a female reporter. The diffident Englishman attempts to confess his love for her, leaping straight into a proposal. Shocked, Ayako eventually informs him that unfortunately she’s in love with someone else – Yuzuru. Reacting badly, he tries to stop Ayako from leaving but once she does he abruptly shoots himself! Unusual passion for an Englishman, this side of foreignness is a definite cultural difference though one perhaps imbued with a degree of entitlement that also speaks of a kind of oppressive arrogance.

This is however, contrasted with Yuzuru’s gentle career as a translator of French. These creative, cultural influences seem to be broadly positive ones adding to Japan’s already impressive artistic history which brings both pleasure and new ways of thinking which will help the fledgling nation interact with the new global order. The Yagibashis’ dependence on their inherited wealth and social status proves their downfall when they are the subject of an ongoing scandal but the family name is, in part, saved by Yuzuru’s artistic endeavours in turning his traumatic life story into a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel. The creative instinct triumphs over the passivity of the established order.

Remaining mostly straightforward in terms of approach, Shimizu experiments with his trademark tracking shots coupled with dissolves which are unusually impressive and innovative in terms of their setting. The narrative may be melodramatic but the setting is naturalistic, giving an ordinary picture of these upper class and lower middle class lives as people lived them in the early 1930s. From crowded city streets and rooms above shops to spacious country mansions these class divisions are neatly drawn though it’s perhaps interesting that friendship groups have begun to ignore these lines in spite of the differing possibilities offered to each of the differently troubled friends. As in much of Shimizu’s output, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, fulfilling the need for narrative justice as Yumie finds an unusual path for restitution after having been so cruelly misused by those who held her existence so cheaply as to rob her of her future, family and dignity solely because of their own sense of social superiority.