The Rickshaw Man (無法松の一生, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1958)

Japanese cinema has a special affinity with loveable rogues. We forgive their mischief and inconvenient troublemaking because deep down we know they’re kindhearted and even when they act impulsively it’s only out of an abundance of misplaced emotion. The wild Matsu is a case in point, brought to life by the great Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s remake of a story he first adapted 15 years previously but was apparently unhappy with because of the censorship demands of the time. What is surprising, therefore, is that despite his otherwise liberal outlook Inagaki largely echoes those problematic pre-war views, opting to focus on the tragic comic figure of Matsugoro rather than engage with the destructive visions of toxic masculinity that his well-meaning paternalism represents or with the latent feudalism which continues to inform the later course of his life. 

Beginning in 1897, Inakagaki introduces us to “The Wild Matsu” (Toshiro Mifune) on his “illegal” return to Kokura from which he had apparently been “banished” because of an “incident” the previous year. This time, Matsugoro has crawled back home apparently ill in bed and nursing his head after getting into an argument with a man who turned out to be the kendo instructor for the local police. Unafraid to embarrass himself, Matsugoro later relates the tale as a funny anecdote, admitting that the kendo master put an end to their fight in record time by striking him on the head and knocking him out. Typical Matsugoro, seems to be the reaction from all around him. Later he takes offence with a ticket seller who refuses him a comp to the show when free tickets are usually available to rickshaw drivers (publicity tools haven’t changed as much as you’d think), returning later in the evening and buying a ticket with a friend but setting up a mini stove to bake garlic and stink the place out as his revenge. A calm and rational mediator later explains to him that though he can understand why he was upset because it causes confusion when people refuse to abide by longstanding traditions, his stunt has ruined the evening of a lot of people who weren’t really involved in his vendetta. Immediately seeing the error of his ways, Matsugoro determines to make a full and complete apology to the spectators whom he’d so thoughtlessly inconvenienced. 

This incident demonstrates Matsugoro’s essential goodness. He may be impulsive and easily offended, but he means no harm and even his “revenge” is an amusing, petty affair rather than something dark or violent. The main thrust of the narrative, however, kicks in when he spots a lonely little boy being made fun of by his friends because he’s too scared to climb a tree. Matsugoro pauses to tell him that he needs to man up, but on his way back finds the other kids running away and the boy on the floor crying after having fallen and broken a leg. Finding out where he lives, Matsugoro picks the boy up and takes him home to his mother (Hideko Takamine) who further enlists him to take the child to a doctor. 

The boy, Toshio, lives in the old “samurai district” and is the son of army officer Kotaro Yoshioka (Hiroshi Akutagawa), a cheerful man who though holding similar views on manliness to Matsugoro, finds the incident faintly amusing. In fact, Kotaro had heard of “The Wild Matsu” because he was once very rude to an army general he was charged with conveying from place to place during a series of official events. He decides to invite Matsugoro to dinner and the two men hit it off, but Kotaro suddenly dies of a fever leaving his wife Yoshiko alone with their son, worrying that she won’t be able to cure his sensitivity and turn him into a “strong” young man now that he lacks a male role model. 

Matsugoro is perfectly happy to fill that role, bonding with the little boy but always encouraging him to be “manly” which, in this age, largely means strong and athletic, rational and obedient while manfully repressing his feelings, and finally a willingness and ability to fight. While all of this is going on, we see the tides of militarism rising even in the early years of the century. The Russo-Japanese war giving way to the taking of Qingdao while flags go up everywhere and patriotic celebrations of martial glory become ever more frequent, but the problematic quality of this age of hypermasculinty is never questioned even as it leads the nation towards a decidedly dark destiny. 

Meanwhile, Matsugoro seems to have fallen in deep yet impossible love with Yoshiko but is prevented from voicing his feelings because of a deep seated sense of social inferiority. Matsugoro’s life has been limited not only because he was born poor, but because of a traumatic childhood with a cruel step-mother. Denied a proper education, he is largely illiterate and rickshaw driving, which depends only on his physical strength and stamina (the most highly praised qualities of the age), is all that he can expect out of life. We never have any inkling of how Yoshiko views Matsugoro, if there are any romantic feelings on her part or she simply admires him as a robust and good hearted friend, but the futility of Matsugoro’s unresolvable longing eventually drives him to drink which he had previously given up, along with his “wild” nature, in the need to provide a more respectable example to the young Toshio. 

Similarly, we aren’t privy to the parallel tragedy which will inevitably leave Yoshiko lonely as comparatively young widow whose only son will naturally become distant from his mother, grow-up, and find a wife to start a family of his own. Her anxiety over her son’s participation in a group fight is dismissed as hysterical womanliness, destructive maternity that may prevent Toshio from becoming a “proper” man. Something which is perhaps borne out when Matsugoro, who’d gone to watch over him just in case, has to wade in to defend Toshio who is too frightened to participate.

Nevertheless, Matsugoro is a big hearted man despite his intense masculinity, always acting with selfless kindness but also meekly accepting the fate his cards have dealt him rather than railing against the systems which have caged him all his life from his poverty to the perceived class differences which demand he keep his distance from the beautiful Yoshiko. The wheels of his rickshaw turn on ceaselessly as if relentlessly pulling him on towards his inescapable destiny, but shouldn’t we be asking more for men like Matsugoro whose hearts are good than being resigned to loneliness because of a few outdated social codes?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Shiro Toyoda, 1956)

A studio director at Toho, Shiro Toyoda was most closely associated with adaptations of well respected works of literature, often with an earthy, humanist touch. He might then be an odd fit for a tale of high romance co-produced with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers and inspired by a classic Chinese legend. Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Byaku Fujin no Yoren) effectively drops some of Toho’s top talent, including “pan-Asian” star Shirley (Yoshiko) Yamaguchi (AKA Li Xianglan / Ri Koran), into a contemporary Hong Kong ghost movie with Toyoda doing his best to mimic the house style. 

As in the classic legend, fate is set in motion when herbalist Xu-xian (Ryo Ikebe) allows “noblewoman” Bai-niang (Shirley Yamaguchi) and her maid Xiao-qing (Kaoru Yachigusa) to board a boat he is riding to escape a storm. The pair bond because they are both orphans out in the rain to pay their filial respects to their late parents on tomb sweeping day. Disembarking, Xu-xian lends the ladies his umbrella, vowing to visit their house the next day after his rounds to reclaim it. When he arrives, Xu-xian is greeted by a near hysterical and extremely romantic Bai-niang who has apparently fallen deeply in love with him because of his pure heart. She proposes marriage, but Xu-xian is wary. He is after all just a poor boy, a herbalist living with his older sister and her husband. He has no money to get married and Bai-niang is a noble woman from a good family, society simply wouldn’t allow it. Xu-xian tries to escape, but his gentle words of refusal only wound Bia-niang’s heart. 

Hoping to smooth the situation, Xiao-qing decides to give Xu-xian a small fortune in silver taels so the money issue will be solved. Strangely, the plan appears to work. Xu-xian quickly gets over his reluctance to accept money from a wealthy woman who wants to marry him and returns to being in love and excited, selling his newfound hope for the future to his sister by showing her the taels. It is, however, not quite that simple. The silver turns out to be stolen as evidenced by a mark of fire on its surface. Xu-xian falls under suspicion as a thief and comes to resent Bai-niang for placing him in such a difficult and embarrassing position. 

Nevertheless, despite all the strange goings on such as the suddenly “abandoned” house, the green smoke, and vanishing women, Xu-xian does not seem to suspect that Bai-niang is not fully human, and is only angry with her for misusing him. In a motif which will be repeated, however, he is eventually won over. After taking a job in his sleazy uncle’s inn, he re-encounters Bai-niang and realises she really is the one for him. But as they begin to build their life together, launched with an unwise loan from the sleazy uncle who can’t seem to keep his eyes (and occasionally hands) off Bai-niang, doubt begins to creep in. Those small cracks are deepened when Xu-xian is accosted by a man who announces himself as a Taoist from Mount Ji and tells him that he has an evil aura over his head, encouraging him to believe that an evil spirit is slowly capturing his heart which why he’s a little bit afraid to go home. The priest gives him some useful talismans, which are of course quite bad news for Bai-niang who now knows that her husband secretly doubts her. 

Meanwhile, prepared to do “anything” to make the man she loves happy, Bai-niang has come to the strange conclusion that Xu-xian’s moodiness is down to the fact that their medicine shop isn’t doing so well. Unfortunately, her big idea is poisoning the local well to make everyone think there’s a plague so they’ll have to buy more of her potions. It’s a fairly nefarious plan, but apparently all for love. As in the original tale, however, the real crisis once again comes with the randy uncle who uses the pretext of a local festival to try and get Bai-niang drunk on special wine that is known to unmask spirits. Realising that his wife is a little bit otherworldly sends Xu-xian into a coma, while Bai-niang goes to ask the gods for help, only to be undercut by the annoying Taoist priest who wakes Xu-xian up by convincing him his wife’s “evil”. 

If you don’t want people to think you’re “evil”, trying to drown the entire town might not be the best move. Bai-niang’s refusal to give up on Xu-xian even when he constantly tries to reject her places her at odds with loyal servant Xiao-qing who is equal parts enraged on her behalf and exasperated that she can’t see sense. Bai-niang tells the gods that the only witchcraft she used was the witchcraft of love even if that love caused her to try and poison the entire town, but now regards herself as nothing more than Xu-xian’s wife and is willing to renounce her powers in order to save him. Once again, Xu-xian has a sudden change of heart, avowing that there are human women with the heart of a snake, and Bai-niang is a woman to him even if she’s a snake spirit which is, apparently, the only thing that matters. Still, theirs is a love this world doesn’t understand, and so only in a better one can they ever be together.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Human Vapor (ガス人間第一号, Ishiro Honda, 1960)

The Human Vapour poster“The world is full of hysteria towards things they don’t understand” admits the strangely chatty “villain” at the centre of Ishiro Honda’s The Human Vapor (ガス人間第一号, Gas Ningen dai Ichi-go). Third in a loose trilogy of “mutant” films put out by Toho beginning with The H-Man and followed by The Secret of the Telegian, The Human Vapor is at once the most futuristic and the most traditional in that it’s no longer wartime guilt or nuclear anxiety which has corrupted our increasingly amoral hero but unwise ambition in which desperation to win the space race has produced a new and dangerous threat we may not be able to contain.

Honda opens with an exciting bank heist which on later consideration might not make much sense, filled as it is with shots of a faceless man pointing a gun at terrified staff while the vault doors open seemingly on their own. Earnest policeman Okamoto (Tatsuya Mihashi) is on the case, chasing a suspect car down a narrow country road only for it to crash and be discovered empty with no trace of the driver to be found. Okamoto’s feisty reporter girlfriend Kyoko (Keiko Sata) is dismayed to find out he has no leads, but later picks up on his mention of a buyo dancer, Fujichiyo (Kaoru Yachigusa), who lives near the scene and might have something to do with the case. 

Chasing Fujichiyo takes Okamoto to a library, where he becomes further convinced she is in contact with the mysterious bank robber. A strange and isolated woman, Fujichiyo is apparently from a noble, wealthy family but lives alone in a small cottage with only a single male servant where she devotes herself entirely to perfecting the art of traditional Japanese dance. We discover that Fujichiyo has been in poor health, which is why she hasn’t given a public performance in some time. Okamoto posits that the bank robber is bankrolling her comeback, though he never seems to have much of an explanation why she would need him when she has access to her own resources.

He is however correct, though it seems Fujichiyo was not aware that the money was stolen otherwise she might have been more careful in using it. In a contrast with genre norms, honest cop Okamoto never falls for Fujichiyo but does become oddly invested in her sad love story while sparking with his cheerful reporter girlfriend who ends up doing much the same. In fact, Kyoko is the only one doing much investigating but largely finds herself having to do it in spite of the (generally useless) men around her, including an unpleasant younger colleague who mocks all her ideas but does nothing much of anything on his own.

In any case, smirking villain Mizuno (Yoshio Tsuchiya) later makes himself known to the police in a selfless gesture of love in order to clear Fujichiyo’s name and get her released from police custody. He does this by taking the police to a bank and demonstrating how he was able to get in the vault without a key which involves his curious ability to turn himself into a gas. When Fujichiyo is not released, he takes matters into his own hands and frees all the prisoners in the cells, but Fujichiyo refuses to leave, insisting that she has no intention of running away and prefers to stay until the police affirm her innocence by releasing her.

Mizuno’s intention to bypass the law is one of the many signifiers of his increasing danger, that now believes himself “above” the rest of humanity and therefore no longer subject to their laws. He later tells the police exactly that, sitting them down for a mini audience to explain himself during which he recounts his history as an SDF pilot discharged on a diagnosis of lung cancer after which he took the boring job in the library and fell in love with Fujichiyo. A shady doctor, Sano (Fuyuki Murakami), later approached him claiming to be working for Japan’s space programme and suggested that his fighter pilot background made him a perfect fit for becoming an astronaut. Mizuno agreed to participate in his research to “change the existence of the human body” in preparation for life in space, but when Sano’s weird experiments turned him into a “gas man”, the doctor committed suicide in horror leaving Mizuno just another lonely victim of a mad scientist.

Like many other “mutant” heroes, the change in Mizuno’s body has also changed his soul though his love for Fujichiyo remains unchanged. It seems he’s only committing these crimes to fund her ambition of performing traditional buyo dance on the contemporary stage, while she though obviously devoted to her art finds it difficult to accept the man that he’s become. He promises to give her the world, sacrificing anyone that gets in his way. She remains conflicted, not wanting to accept his offer if it involves that kind of cost, and defending him to her colleagues only with the rationale that he is “different from what they are accustomed to”. While some advise caution, that perhaps Mizuno is not as dangerous as they think despite already having killed and should be given the chance to reform, others take a harder line eventually opting to use a different kind of gas to counter him.

Kyoko pleads with Fujichiyo as one woman in love to another, trying to protect Okamoto while advising her to pull Mizuno back from the brink by cancelling her performance, but precisely because of the understanding that exists between them she cannot. Sadly, as many point out, no one is really interested in buyo dance – the only audience members in attendance are there for the drama and the possibility of seeing the gas man in action. “You and I have finally won” Mizuno tells Fujichiyo on completion of her dance, as if this performance was all that ever mattered to either of them. But their victory leaves them with nowhere else to go, and the world unready to accept the latent threat a gas man represents. Fujichiyo makes her choice, one perhaps informed by her art and her love, while the authorities can only wait outside for the vapours to disperse.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

The Sun’s Burial (太陽の墓場, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

sun's burial poster“Love and hope for the youth!” reads a prominent sign in the middle of a hopeless slum in Oshima’s bitterly nihilistic youth drama The Sun’s Burial (太陽の墓場, Taiyo no Hakaba). Then at Shochiku, home of polite melodrama, Oshima was one of a handful of youngsters (that also included Kiju Yoshida and Masahiro Shinoda) bumped up to director ahead of schedule in an attempt to find voices who could speak to youth in much the same way Nikkatsu was doing with its incendiary tales of the new bright young things. The Sun’s Burial would be Oshima’s penultimate film for the studio before he stormed out after they pulled his next film Night and Fog in Japan from cinemas fearing its fierce critique of a divided left torn apart by dogmatic rigidity and generational conflict was too on the nose in wake of the assassination of the Socialist Party leader by a right-wing nationalist.

Set in the slums of Kamagasaki, Osaka, The Sun’s Burial follows a collection of desperate adolescents trying to survive in an intensely hostile environment. Our “hero” the conflicted Takeshi (Isao Sasaki), is inducted into a street gang after getting beaten up by young tough Yasu (Yusuke Kawazu). Along with his friend Tatsu, he is originally quite taken with the idea of becoming a gang member, but blanches when he passes a room full of captive women, one of whom is being beaten for having conceived a child.

Meanwhile, across town, his polar opposite, the cynical survivor Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) is running a blood racket, literally bleeding the proletariat to sell their bodily fluids on to the cosmetics trade. Technically operating under the aegis of her petty thug father Yosematsu (Junzaburo Ban), Hanako is in business with a doctor and a couple of minions but later has her authority undercut by a mad old imperialist known as “The Agitator” (Eitaro Ozawa) who keeps insisting that the Russians are coming and they have to be ready.

Not permitted to maintain power in her own right, Hanako is forced to shuttle between male protectors, occasionally pitting one against the other in a bid to come out on top. In addition to her blood business, she also engages in casual sex work and seemingly has no qualms about wielding her sex appeal as a weapon in order to manipulate male power. Pushed out by The Agitator, she turns to gang leader Shin (Masahiko Tsugawa) for a temporary alliance. When he too cuts her out, she thinks about tipping off the area’s big Yakuza boss, Ohama (Gen Shimizu), to Shin’s whereabouts, always looking a few moves ahead while the callous Shin remains wary and ever vigilant.

In a move which surprises and disturbs the naive Takeshi who is nevertheless captivated by her cynical self assurance, Hanako is entirely indifferent to the suffering of other women, willingly co-operating with Shin while knowing that he runs an abusive prostitution ring. Takeshi’s loss of innocence comes early when he is sent to go out and find some victims with his friend Tatsu who convinces him to club a high school boy canoodling with his girlfriend over the head so they can rob him. Takeshi looks on in mild confusion and horror as Tetsu proceeds to rape the young woman, turning to Hanako for guidance but all she does is shrug. The high school boy later commits suicide, presumably unable to bear the shame of having failed to protect his girlfriend, leaving Takeshi feeling as if he has blood on his hands. To Hanako, however, the boy’s death is no one’s fault but his own, a product of his own weakness. A strong person, she posits, would have sought revenge. What sort of person ups and dies without a fight?

Meanwhile, back in the slum, a man hangs himself after falling victim to The Agitator’s latest scam – getting involved with a dodgy gangster’s exploitative scheme to buy up legitimate IDs from desperate people and sell them to even more desperate undocumented migrant workers. Full of tales of Empire, The Agitator declares that he’s going to march them all up to Tokyo and teach those noisy students a lesson, proving somehow that populist militarism is not yet dead in quiet corners of Japan. The Agitator has several followers among the middle-aged and older denizens of Kamagasaki, taken in by his bluster and lacking any other sources of hope. They follow him because he demands to be followed and because he made them a series of promises. Only when they realise his plans rest on exploiting people even more unfortunate than they are, and suddenly realising he never got round to paying them either, do they finally rebel, burning down the slum in protest of their hopeless circumstances.

Berated for her cynicism by the now compromised Takeshi, Hanako offers only the defence that she has survived and will continue to survive where others may not if they allow their consciences to take precedence over self-preservation. Bleak as it gets, Oshima ends on with a note of anxious industry as his determined heroine dusts herself off and gets “back to work”, escaping from the ruins of the burned out slum in the bright morning sun. “No hope for Japan now” an embittered member of the older generation laments, and Oshima, it seems, is apt to agree.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Hotelman’s Holiday (駅前旅館, Shiro Toyoda, 1958)

Hotelman's holiday poster 1The post-war world was one rife with trouble. By 1958, however, the horizon was perhaps beginning to brighten which means it was no longer too soon have a good laugh about how awful life could be. Nothing particularly awful happens in Shiro Toyoda’s cheerful comedy The Hotelman’s Holiday (駅前旅館, Ekimae Ryokan), the first in a series of “Ekimae” or “station front” movies produced by Toho, but it does amusingly rip a leaf out of Toei’s book in having its community of feckless hoteliers band together to stand up to greedy yakuza stand-in barkers who are actively destabilising the local economy with their underhanded ways.

Our hero, “born in a maid’s room” Jihei (Hisaya Morishige), is the manager of the Kukimoto inn near Tokyo’s Ueno station. Kukimoto seems to get most of its business from large tour groups, particularly school children on trips to the city and religious organisations, seemingly unperturbed by the area’s then scrappy working class earthiness. The problem is that there are rather a lot of inns in this small area (it is after all near a major rail station) and they’re all competing for the same walk-in guests which means they’re increasingly at the mercy of the local “barkers” who target travellers at points of transit and take them to certain inns in return for commissions. Even so, Jihei himself can often be found outside enticing passersby into the hotel to prove his managerial prowess.

The barkers know their worth and are beginning to get too big for their boots in shifting into the human trafficking business. Not to go into the finer details, the inns have a lot of ladies living on their premises on whom some of their trade relies. The barkers have been tempting the girls from the inns away from their homes and into potentially more lucrative though almost certainly less friendly occupations.

The central drama kicks off when the barkers try to abduct Kukimoto’s maid Okyo (Mina Mitsui) who is saved at the last minute by intellectual student Mannen (Frankie Sakai). Mannen is studying law and working illicitly for several tourist information companies in order to pay his way through college. As such he’s just another of the scrappy young guys trying to forge ahead in the precarious post-war environment. Jihei is, in a sense, pretty much the same. Born in a maid’s room, as he says, he’s very much part of the inn business and is proud to be a manager but also resents his subordinate position to the owner and the way they often treat him like a servant rather than the dependable employee he really is. His position leaves him feeling as if he’s already reached his peak and there is no real future for him other than the status quo. That feeling of futility might be why he, Mannen, and some of the other hotel managers eventually decide that they need to “cleanse” the Ueno Station area of the barker threat.

Their resistance has a pleasantly pithy quality in that it relies on a perfectly peaceful method of putting up banners to encourage customers not to trust the barkers and to approach inns directly. As might be assumed, the barkers aren’t very happy about their business being undermined and immediately begin threatening the Kukimoto inn, whom they assume to be the instigators, with destruction if they do not immediately cease and desist. Jihei thinks he has a solid plan and it does indeed defuse the situation but cannot ultimately rectify it. What it does do is give the inn’s owners the excuse they’ve been looking for to part with him, and Jihei the impetus he perhaps needed to rethink his life.

As Mannen puts it, “our reality is preposterous and absurd”, but we have to go on resisting because “happiness exists even in this world”. The inn managers stand up against the barker oppression in the same way communities stand up against yakuza in Toei’s modern gangster dramas, but like many of anti-gangster narratives, the corruption is so deeply ingrained that it cannot be entirely eliminated, only managed. Thus Jihei, also involved in a series of romantic subplots involving an intense former geisha (Keiko Awaji) and a diffident bar owner (Chikage Awashima), eventually realises that if he cannot change his environment he might be better to leave it, escaping to the sort of place where they still grow barley and travel by cart. Mannen too, their revolution failed, eventually takes off with Okyo to go into business in Osaka, giving up on his imagined future for a more solid present. Meanwhile, chaos rules in Ueno as crowds of travellers pour out of the station towards an uncertain future with only the barkers to guide them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shitamachi no Taiyo (下町の太陽, Yoji Yamada, 1963)

(C) Shochiku 1963

Shitamachi no Taiyou DVD coverYoji Yamada’s debut feature, The Strangers Upstairs, was very much of its time as it attempted to capture the aspirational fighting spirit of the post-war era through the struggles of a nice young couple who are trying to “get on” and escape their humble origins for the salaryman dream through achieving the goal of home ownership as quickly as possible. His second film, Shitamachi no Taiyo (下町の太陽, also known as The Sunshine Girl / Sunshine in the Old Neighbourhood), takes a slightly different look at a similar issue as a young woman from Shitamachi – a working class industrial area on the outskirts of Tokyo, agonises over her future prospects as she considers a marriage to her longterm boyfriend who has ambitions to join the salaryman revolution.

Yamada opens with shots of Shitamachi and its prominent smokestacks while the now famous song plays in an instrumental version over the credits, before abruptly shifting to visions of the upscale Ginza where Machiko (Chieko Baisho) and her boyfriend Michio (Tamotsu Hayakawa) are enjoying a demonstration of an extraordinarily expensive, state of the art radio before retreating to a cafe where they agree that sometimes its more fun to “aspire” to things than actually obtain them. After all, there’s no way they could ever afford the diamond rings they walked past on their way out of the department store unless they decided to rob the place. Both Machiko and Michio are residents of Shitamachi and work in a local soap factory. Michio, however, has his sights firmly set on the path to a middle-class life and is planning to take the exam for a promotion to head office – though he lacks qualifications, Michio is confident because he’s studying hard (though more so because his dad and his section chief served together in the war so Michio is sure a good word will be put in for him).

Despite her fondness for Michio, Machiko has her doubts about his overriding ambition to get out of Shitamachi. Since her mother died, Machiko has been the lady of the house and primary caregiver for her naughty little brother Kenji (Joji Yanagisawa) while her older brother Kunio (Toshio Suzuki) is the family brainbox and also planning to bust out only through the path of education rather than advancement. Having left education behind, Machiko is happily contributing to the family finances with her job on the packing line at the soap factory which is, all things considered, not too bad – the work may be dull and methodical but also relatively quiet and stress free, not to mention sweet smelling. Nevertheless, Machiko does not necessarily want to work on the shop floor all her life but knows her opportunities are limited.

This fact is one cruelly brought home to her by a moody Michio when descends into a major sulk on learning that he hasn’t passed the test for head office because another of his colleagues outdid him – both in terms of his study ranking and in one upping him in having a direct connection to the director. While Machiko tries her best to sympathise and put up with his moody petulance, Michio chooses to throw her sympathy back in her face by abruptly announcing that she can’t understand the pain he’s going through because careers are irrelevant to women who only use them as a stopgap until they get married. Thoroughly annoyed, Machiko leaves Michio to his wallowing before things get any worse but she can’t argue with the fact that he’s only said what most people think.

Still, Machiko isn’t even sure she wants to get married. One of her friends, Kazuko (Kyoko Aoi), recently won the jackpot – she married a nice man who did get a promotion to head office and won the housing lottery for a home on one of the shiny new “danchi” – brand new apartment complexes for upwardly mobile young couples and the very embodiment of post-war aspiration. However, when Machiko and a friend visit the new bride they find that she is not quite as happy as one might expect. Though married life is peaceful enough and she and her husband evidently get on, Kazuko is also intensely lonely. With her husband away at work all day and often out playing golf with colleagues on Sundays too (not to mention after hours drinking and miscellaneous get togethers), there’s precious little for Kazuko to do, stuck at home all day cooking and cleaning while waiting for her husband to return. Having moved to the danchi she’s also lost her community and is no longer close enough to her friends to see them very often.

Meanwhile, Machiko is also somewhat disturbed by Kazuko’s collection of expensive cosmetics which her husband has instructed her to buy because he’s “very particular” about her appearance. Kazuko makes sure her makeup is on point before her husband gets home because that’s apparently what he likes. Machiko, however, does not like this – to start with, she thinks Kazuko looks better without. Not that there’s anything wrong with wearing makeup because you want to wear it, but the idea of wearing it because someone told you to and you’re worried they’ll “get bored” with your face doesn’t strike her as a particularly healthy relationship dynamic. If this is what a love marriage is like, perhaps Machiko would rather do without.

Despite her otherwise close relationship with Michio, it quickly becomes obvious that she does not love him and if she decides to marry him it will be because it’s the “sensible” decision rather than any great romantic desire. Annoyingly enough, Michio hasn’t really even asked her, he just assumes they will marry once he gets his promotion. He also assumes that Machiko, like him, will want to shake the dust of Shitamachi off her feet for good for the bright lights of Tokyo. Machiko, however is not so sure. “Getting on” is one thing and there’s nothing wrong with “aspiration”, but that doesn’t mean you need to look down on the people who come from the same place as you – after all, the sun still shines even in Shitamachi and there’s nothing wrong in choosing to be happy here rather than always chasing an unattainable dream of conventional success.

Another possibility presents itself when Machiko meets an unrefined boy who has an ordinary job in the steelworks. Though their first meeting did not make a good impression – he creepily chased her off a train and then made a mess of trying to explain why, they later bond when she realises he has befriended her troubled little brother and the pair then end up spending a pleasant evening together which is far more romantic than any of her dull and conventional outings with Michio. Then again the choice she faces isn’t between two men but whether or not to embrace her own ability to make a definitive choice about her future. What she rejects is cold and selfish path of men like Michio who only want to get ahead and are willing to step on anyone who gets in their way to make it happen. Machiko doesn’t want fancy radios and diamond rings, she just wants to not have to worry too much about money and for someone to actually listen to what she’s saying. She doesn’t want to end up like Kazuko, all alone in a sparkling apartment with nothing to do but knit. When Michio tells her to shut up and do as he says because he’ll definitely make her happy, the choice seems clear. Hard work, community, and maybe the fiery boy who seems determined to get a yes rather than assuming he already has one. Who wouldn’t want to live here?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Famous title song performed by Chieko Baisho

The Eternal Breasts (乳房よ永遠なれ, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1955)

(c) Nikkatsu 1955

(c) Nikkatsu 1955Having made her directorial debut for Shin Toho with the beautifully drawn post-war romantic melodrama Love Letter scripted by Keisuke Kinoshita, and then moving on to her second film after being accepted as a career director at Nikkatsu – the Ozu scripted humorous romantic family drama The Moon Has Risen, Tanaka chose to work with female script writer Sumie Tanaka (no relation) for a tale of female resilience and resistance in the face of extreme suffering. Fumiko Nakajo was a real life figure who had died of breast cancer at the age of 31 in 1954. The Eternal Breasts (乳房よ永遠なれ, Chibusa yo Eien Nare) , a biopic of sorts, was released in 1955, barely a year later but makes no concession to the recency of Nakajo’s passing in examining both the still taboo subject of breast cancer and the effects of the disease and its treatment on the heroine who, arguably, finally learns to become herself through battling her illness.

Fumiko Shimojo, née Nakajo, (Yumeji Tsukioka) is the wife of a grumpy, resentful stock broker and the mother of their two children, Noboru and Aiko. It’s clear that things in the Shimojo household are far from peaceful with the discord between husband and wife a talking point throughout the local community. Despite her husband’s claims to the contrary, Fumiko is the dutiful “good wife” of the period, trying hard to make her marriage work even in the face of her husband’s ongoing resentment and thinly veiled inferiority complex given Fumiko’s slightly elevated class credentials and education. To get away from her disappointing home life Fumiko has joined a local poetry circle specialising in tanka and is well known for the gritty realism of her poems in which she expresses all of her suffering and unhappiness in regards to life with her husband. When she comes home early one day and finds a woman dressed in kimono entertaining her man, she decides it’s time for a divorce, reverts to her maiden name of Nakajo, and goes back to live with her mother and soon-to-be-married brother, regretting only that her husband insists on custody of their son, Noboru.

The early part of the film deals with the equally taboo subjects of divorce and family breakdown as Fumiko struggles to adjust to her life as a single mother as well as coming to terms with being separated from her son. Though she is often approached by matchmakers and encouraged to remarry, her experience of married life has left her reluctant to commit to a second round of matrimonial subjugation. Her mother, whom she partly blames for pushing her into a marriage she never wanted in the first place, and her brother are fully on her side as are her friends, the Horis – a Christian couple who champion her poetry and act almost as a set of second parents despite being only a little older than she is.

Released from matrimonial shackles, Fumiko is free to embrace her life as a poetess even if she never dreams of any kind of literary success. As the tactless women at the poetry circle put it, pain is good for art and it’s certainly true that each advance in Fumiko’s fortunes is accompanied by emotional suffering. Struggling to cope with the divorce and the children, Fumiko neglects chest pains and a strange feeling in her breast only to keel over when an unpleasant woman arrives to reclaim Noboru with whom she thought she’d finally been reunited.

Diagnosed with late stage breast cancer, Fumiko undergoes a double mastectomy. Refusing to shy away from the medical consequences, Tanaka films the surgery as a kind of fever dream as the bright surgery lights loom over Fumiko whose breasts appear in full view as the surgeons prepare to do their work. The loss of Fumiko’s breasts results in one of her most famous poems, published in a national newspaper, but the physical and emotional consequences are not so easily defined. Before her illness we’re constantly told that young Fumiko was a “tom boy”, and at times it appears as if she has been unsexed after being shorn of her femininity. According to her brother, however, Fumiko has become more like a child – something that rings true as she gaily sings in the bath and almost delights in shocking her friend by flashing her surgery scars unannounced. Mrs. Hori, Kinuko (Yoko Sugi), generally a kind and progressive sort, can hardly bear to look and is unwilling to engage with the physical reality of Fumiko’s condition as much as she would like to help her.

Despite proclaiming that at least she won’t be bothered with marriage proposals anymore, Fumiko’s “unsexing” appears to have the opposite effect in reawakening and intensifying her sense of desire. Earlier on, post-divorce and hiding out from her brother’s wedding at which she feels an awkward guest, Fumiko visits Hori (Masayuki Mori) and confesses her love for him though she knows nothing will come of it. Her love is, however, pure – she also loves and respects Hori’s wife Kinuko safe in the knowledge that Kinuko makes Hori happy. After her operation she returns to the Hori’s home and asks Kinuko to run her a bath so that she can bathe in the same water as her beloved – confessing to her friend that she had been in love with her husband. Kinuko seems to know already and is sympathetic, if a little embarrassed. This same boldness later manifests itself in Fumiko’s last great act of passion in which she embarks on a brief yet intense affair with the journalist (Ryoji Hayama) who is covering her career for a paper in Tokyo.

Fumiko’s relationship with the reporter is originally compromised by his overly gloomy copy which proclaims that her death is only a matter of time (then again, for whom is that not true?). Fearing that her death is being fetishised, that no one would be giving her a second glance if she were not dying, Fumiko refuses to write or have visitors. Just as she was “imprisoned” within her marriage, she is now “imprisoned’ by death. As she puts it in one of her poems, the hospital ward is a gloomy place in which she’s often framed by bars – through the windows, through the footboard of her bed, even the hospital kimono she is wearing is patterned with tiny railings. In an eerie, dream-like sequence she wanders out of her room and follows a parade of wailing relatives as a body is wheeled away but just as she is about to leave the metal gate slides shut in front of her, trapping Fumiko like a ghost in the purgatorial world of the hospital ward as she realises that that same gate will be her only exit route.

The same image is repeated at the end of the film as Fumiko’s own bed is wheeled through the mortuary gates which slam shut across the eyes of her confused children who have been left entirely on their own and without a proper explanation of where their mum is going. Fumiko’s final poem is crushing in its anger and ambivalence as it instructs her children to accept her death as the only thing she has to bequeath them. This terrible legacy seems too cruel, condemning her children to a life of grief and mourning even as she instructs them to “accept” her passing. Yet it also speaks of the final contradictions of her character – loving mother and passionate woman, fierce poet and shy genius. Unlike the sickly heroines of melodrama, Fumiko does not always bear her suffering with saintly stoicism but rages, finally embracing the “true self” she only dared to express through her poetry, learning to live only in the knowledge that she must die.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

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.


 

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: