Warm Current (暖流, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

Never one to tread the beaten path, Yasuzo Masumura studied film abroad in Italy before, perhaps counter intuitively, entering the Japanese studio system apprenticing at Daiei where he’d remain until its bankruptcy in the early ‘70s forced him into freelancing. His 1957 debut Kisses was a response to the taiyozoku or sun tribe craze of nihilistic youth movies though it was in its own way quietly hopeful and even sweet, at least in contrast to some the more cynical views of romance which colour some of the director’s later work, but again despite being positioned as precursor to the New Wave is also very much in the classical tradition if owing something to contemporary European art house. Masumura’s second film Blue Sky Maiden continued in the same vein, an ostensibly cheerful take on Sirkian melodrama in which the plucky heroine finds self-actualisation while dealing with her difficult family history. Warm Current (暖流, Danryu), meanwhile, builds on the same Sirkian foundations, remaking a popular weepy which had proved a big hit for Kozaburo Yoshimura 20 years earlier, but further undercutting it with a sense of ironic inconsequentiality as the heroes engage in a background battle for the post-war future. 

The film opens with a suicide, a nurse discovered dead on a bench after apparently having poisoned herself. She is, however, not the focus of the story and all too quickly forgotten in favour of the return of Keiko (Hitomi Nozoe), the daughter of the hospital’s director who has until recently been studying abroad. She’s come to the hospital because she has a piece of a sewing needle somehow embedded in her finger which needs rather more treatment than one might expect. Anyway, while there she attracts the attentions of handsome doctor Sasajima (Ryuji Shinagawa) and meets up with old schoolfriend Gin (Sachiko Hidari) who has since become a nurse. The problem is that the hospital is in big financial trouble and Keiko’s father Shima (Toranosuke Ogawa) is secretly terminally ill with cancer. He brings in Hibiki (Jun Negami), a pharmaceuticals executive he’s been supporting as a favour to his late father, as a consultant to streamline the business, while sidelining his rather feckless son Yasuhiko (Eiji Funakoshi), an orthopaedics doctor who might be assumed to take over were he not so entirely useless. 

Introduced rather late, Hibiki is positioned almost as a villain, a destabilising force within this very bourgeois world of the hospital determined to strip it of the corrupt entitlement of the surgical class. To that extent, he comes in like a new broom to apply modern business thinking to the ancient art of medicine but does so with rather old-fashioned ideas of gratitude and loyalty to Shima, always acting in the best interests of the family while positioning himself as a servant retainer. This the minor conflict that defines his complicated relationship with the equally confused Keiko who too has returned from abroad with taste for Western individualism but is uncertain how to live her life as a woman in still conservative Japan. All her friends ask her about blue-eyed boyfriends, and though it seems that she is immediately smitten with Hibiki she quite rudely dismisses him for his slightly condescending manner later remarking that she was turned off by a sense of his overconfidence. 

Keiko tells her father she’s no plans to marry and has come back to Japan intending to continue her studies. For his part, Shima is all for a woman working but not as he puts it if it causes her to become a “brainy spinster”. Eventually courted by Sasajima she finds herself torn, even as he tells her that, unexpectedly, he has no issue with her desire to work or study were she to become his wife, uncertain in her attraction to Hibiki while drawn back towards conservatism in knowing that her father favours marriage and that Sasajima is her class-appropriate match. Despite his own attraction to her, Hibiki says nothing even on hearing of her engagement precisely because of this increasingly outdated sense of social inferiority. Meanwhile, he remains seemingly oblivious to the fact that Gin, who like him is a war orphan, has fallen in love with him which is why she continues to help him as a “spy” within the hospital. 

In response to her war trauma, Gin has developed the habit of laughing loudly, an especially unusual trait in a generally reserved culture, and often remarks on her own “stupidity”, the childlike excitability which so clearly positions her as a mirror to the elegant Keiko. Yet the push and pull between the two women has little rancour in it, save that Gin is already aware that Sasajima was responsible for the suicide of the nurse on the rooftop but has chosen not to say anything hoping they’ll marry and Hibiki will be hers. As Keiko later discovers, Sasajima is fairly brazen in his “modernity”, having lived with an aspiring model who declines to marry him because it would adversely affect her career but has no problem with him marrying someone else confident that their physical relationship will continue. Sasajima turns up while Keiko is visiting her, but calmly sits down on the bed and explains that he essentially plans to have two wives, the model for the bedroom and Keiko to be his companion of the mind. He brands her vulgar and small-minded in her conservatism when she proves unconvinced, laying bare an essential misogyny when he echoes that brainy women are “boring”, which is why he “needs” the model to satisfy himself sexually. Nevertheless, Keiko is not that kind of “modern” and in any case not so in love with Sasajima nor deluded enough to think she needs him to agree to his arrangement. 

Gin meanwhile echoes something of the model’s passive resignation when she too declares that she doesn’t care if Keiko marries Hibiki because she’s certain he’s supposed to be with her in the end because they are “alike”. There is no class conflict between them, and as they are both war orphans they share a sense of displacement in the post-war society. Unlike Keiko Gin is open in her feelings, declaring her love for Hibiki even chasing after him at the station and calling out across the ticket barriers that she’ll wait forever even if she only becomes his mistress. Earlier on, Keiko had been reading a foreign romance about a woman courted by two men she was unable to choose between only making up her mind when one of the men’s accent slipped, but in essence it’s Hibiki who finds himself torn if earnestly, thinking himself in love with Keiko but prevented from pursuing her because of his class anxiety rather than attracted to her precisely because of her class standing and everything it represents which is in a sense the target of his “revolutionary” reforms at the hospital. Tempted, he is eventually pulled back towards the side of “passion”, won over by Gin’s slightly scary if unwavering love for him. 

Yet this is no grand weepy, just the romantic confusion of three young(ish) friends who eventually find direction in their lives as mediated through “love”. Keiko reassumes her stance as a thoroughly modern woman, explaining to her rather naive mother that Yasuhiko, who has wrested control of the estate away from Hibiki, is not capable of looking after them even if he had the desire and so she intends to work, apologising to her father for her intention to become a “brainy spinster” after all. Hibiki loses out in the hospital too which is quickly retaken by the same corrupt forces Shima brought him in to combat. “I understand a woman’s feelings” Hibiki somewhat patronisingly claims as a result of his experiences, immediately proving that he doesn’t in misreading Keiko’s intentions while she, ironically, claims that she is no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by male authority. Unable to change their respective futures, the only option that remains is to abandon them for new ones of their own making but this is far from a tragedy, merely the ironic fate of the post-war generation remaking itself in real time, letting the door close behind them as they walk away from the irredeemably corrupt. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Fellows Who Ate the Elephant (象を喰つた連中, Kozaburo Yoshimura, 1947)

The Japan of 1947 was one still very much caught up in post-war chaos. In the cities, most particularly, hunger was a major problem. The Fellows Who Ate the Elephant (象を喰つた連中, Zo wo Kutta Renchu) may have a title that strongly recalls the screwball comedies of the ’30s, but is less slapstick comedy than dark satire in its central premise that a bunch of idiot mad scientists might actually eat a deceased elephant in extreme dedication to “mottainai” waste not want not philosophy coupled with the justification that all is permissible in the name of science. 

The elephant is, apparently, the last in Japan and was the childhood friend of zookeeper Yamashita (Chishu Ryu) who brought him all the way over the mountains from Thailand after the war. “Shiro-chan” is very ill with some kind of elephant cold but for some reason the doctors the zoo uses aren’t vets specialising in large, exotic animals but virologists. While they stand around apparently mystified, Yamashita enquires after the professor he usually deals with but is told that, despite being over 60 years of age, he’s currently away on honeymoon after marrying a very young and extremely beautiful woman. Sadly, Shiro doesn’t make it. The professor is saddened to learn of the death from the paper and wonders if it might have been a virus similar to one which attacks hoofed animals like donkeys and horses but is not usually found in Japan (Shiro is Thai after all). 

This is relevant because the disease is fatal and contagious but does not usually pass to humans and is only a risk if you come into direct contact with it, like say if you eat meat from an infected animal. No one would eat an elephant though so there’s nothing to worry about. Enter extremely unpleasant mad scientist Wada (Shinichi Himori) who decides that science dictates they must find out if it’s sanitary to eat elephant meat. Though Wada ropes in fellow scientist Baba (Yasumi Hara) with his scientific justifications, he tricks the other two into eating some without telling them what it is. Unforgivably, he even gives some to Yamashita and seems to get a kick out of feeding him his own childhood friend when Yamashita had only come on instruction from his boss to apologise for being over emotional the day before. Yamashita leaves feeling sick after Wada tells him what he was eating for additional effect, but his wife (Chiyoko Fumiya) later remembers a story he told her about fellow elephant drivers in Thailand who ate some elephant meat from an infected animal and were dead within 30 hours. 

After hearing Yamashita’s concerns, the scientists begin investigating and indeed find cases of people dying after eating contaminated meat. The only cure is the serum they use to treat the horse infection the professor mentioned, but it seems nowhere has any in stock (the disease is rare in Japan after all). The idiot scientists come to the conclusion they will die in exactly 30 hours’ time and decide to put their affairs in order rather than consult an actual doctor who might be able to help them. This mostly involves trying to explain their foolishness to their wives. Watanabe (Takashi Kanda) is a father of three with another child on the way. He regrets that he hasn’t been present enough in his family life and has failed to adequately provide for his wife who he will shortly be leaving to raise four children alone. Nomura (Toru Abe) meanwhile is an uxorious newlywed constantly worried that his wife (Kyoko Asagiri), who already dislikes Wada for being a bad influence on her husband, will not be able to bear the anxiety of knowing he may soon die. Baba who has only his parents retreats back to his old country home to apologise for not being a better son. 

Wada, meanwhile, moans about everyone else’s understandable desires to comfort their wives and families. He criticises Yamashita for trying to excuse himself because he’d rather go home and have dinner with his wife, while mocking Nomura for being a henpecked husband. This might partly be because he has no wife or family of his own and is currently chasing after Tomie (Akemi Sora), a maid at his boarding house, who seems pretty indifferent or even hostile to his attentions, joking that she’d celebrate on hearing of his demise. She eventually agrees to go out with him, but only if he really dies. Other than the wives, no-one quite believes the guys’ bizarre story. Baba’s parents even try to stop him going back to Tokyo when a potential cure is located in case he goes “even more mad”. 

In these trying times, the idea that someone might try to eat a dead elephant is perhaps not quite as ridiculous as it might first seem. The act of trying it, however, also plays into the constant critiques of bad or irresponsible science which are a mainstay of films in the immediate post-war era. Wada knows that he can and so he doesn’t bother to think about if he should, spinning tales of Jenner and Koch as if they’re about to make some grand lifesaving discovery. His brush with death does at least begin to humble him as he finally accepts responsibility for the unexpected consequences of his cruel prank, realising that as a man with no wife or family it should perhaps be him if anyone is going to have to make a sacrifice. Finally someone manages to get through to the professor on the phone who tells them they’re all very stupid and haven’t thought of something perfectly obvious that makes all their panicking completely pointless, but at least the surreal 30-hour near death experience has brought out a warmer side of Wada and given a few irresponsible scientists a quick lesson in social responsibility. 


Clothes of Deception (偽れる盛装, Kozaburo Yoshimura, 1951)

「偽れる盛装」(C)KADOKAWA1951

「偽れる盛装」(C)KADOKAWA1951Japan at a crossroads. East/West, past/future becomes a conflict between Kyoto and Tokyo in Yoshimura’s exploration of two women pulled in surprisingly contradictory directions in the new post-war world, Clothes of Deception (偽れる盛装, Itsuwareru Seiso). Working from a script by Kaneto Shindo, Yoshimura frames his tale as one of progress and resistance but the divisions are not as simple as they first seem. Machiko Kyo turns in another wonderfully nuanced performance as a Kyoto geisha trapped by the unchanging nature of her city yet yearning for an end to its slavish devotion to tradition.

Kumicho (Machiko Kyo) is the daughter of a longstanding geisha house currently operated by her mother. Though working as a geisha, Kumicho is not universally popular with the older generation thanks to her money first attitude which sees her prioritise earnings potential through having an unlimited number of clients rather than relying on a single patron. Kumicho is tough where geishas are generally soft and accommodating. She doesn’t take orders or nonsense from anyone, not least her push over of a mother.

Kumicho’s sister, Taeko (Yasuko Fujita), is not involved in the geisha trade and has a regular office job in the local tourist office. Unlike Kumicho, Taeko is mild mannered and reserved, dressing in regular Western fashions and travelling everywhere by bicycle. Taeko is engaged to a colleague, Koji (Keiju Kobayashi), who just happens to be the adopted son of another geisha house run by a woman with a long standing grudge against her mother.

Kyoto, a former capital, is famous for its historical qualities – a living museum to old-time Japan, but as a friend visiting from Tokyo points out perhaps that’s not altogether a good thing. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto escaped much of the wartime destruction allowing it to be seen as a symbol of cultural resilience but lack of destruction also robs of it the chance for rebirth. History has survived, but so have lots of “tired old ideas”, according to Taeko’s friend Yukiko who urges her to forget the stagnant city and head for pastures new in Tokyo where the exciting post-war future is already underway.

Those old fashioned ideas are embodied within the rigid codes of the geisha world which Kumicho, on the surface the more traditional of the sisters but in actuality less so, has been breaking. Kumicho cares about money and she cares about survival which has made her unsentimental. Despite being involved in the “traditional” Kyoto occupation with all of its elegance and complicated ritual, Kumicho is a modernist who secretly hates the trade and holds each of her customers in deep contempt. Thus she thinks her mother, Kiku (Hisako Takihana), is a soft touch for continuing to bankroll the feckless son of her former lover, but is as heartbroken as anyone when one of the geishas becomes gravely ill. Kumicho’s manner maybe brash and brassy but her heart is as warm as her mother’s who continues to visit the widow of her former patron and makes sure the sickly geisha is cared for properly without resenting either the costs involved or the loss of earnings.

Taeko’s engagement to Koji opens up old wounds and exposes the less genial side of geishadom in the grudge bearing rivalry of Kiku and Koji’s mother Chiyo (Chieko Murata). Chiyo tries to put the kibosh on Taeko’s marriage as a way of getting back at Kiku, claiming that Taeko simply isn’t good enough for her son, but her authority is also dependent on those tired old ideas of hierarchy and filial piety. Koji, an adopted child, feels himself beholden to his mother’s needs in having been raised exclusively to fulfil them and vacillates in indecision regarding his marriage. Spineless and cowardly, Koji cannot find the strength to tell his mother no but also refuses to definitively break things off with Taeko.

Younger than Kumicho and a part of the “modern” world thanks to her regular office job in the tourist office, Taeko is comparatively more socially conservative reacting with horror when the increasingly strained Koji makes desperate, aggressive advances towards her whilst refusing to confirm his intention to marry against his mother’s wishes. Taeko and Koji have imprisoned themselves within Kyoto’s oppressive system of social codes in refusing to seize their chance of individual happiness and stride forward into the bright future being offered everywhere else except in the unchanging city.

Kumicho’s machinations eventually land her in hot water when an obsessed client ruins himself and then turns violent, demonstrating the less publicised dangerous side of life in the geisha trade. Kyoto, with all of its elegant refinement, can still be a place of rancour and regret where decades old grudges and more recent resentments threaten to disturb the peace. Kumicho’s innovations have shown up the geisha trade for what it is through her thoroughly unsentimental seduce and discard philosophy but she is, if nothing else, essentially truthful in her “modern” desire to call a spade a spade. The old ways are changing, though perhaps not fast enough. Kyoto, with its rigidity and stagnation is eventually rejected as Kumicho, unable to extricate herself, makes sure that her sister is first in line for all the opportunities the new world has to offer – by sending her to Tokyo, the capital of the future.


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

Diary of a Mad Old Man (瘋癲老人日記, Keigo Kimura, 1962)

e0022344_20155095Junichiro Tanizaki is giant of Japanese literature whose work has often been adapted for the screen with Manji alone receiving four different filmic treatments between 1964 and 2006. His often erotic themes tallied nicely with those of the director of the 1964 version, Yasuzo Masumura who also adapted Tanizaki’s The Tattooist under the title of Irezumi, both of which starred Masumura’s muse Ayako Wakao. Preceding both of these, Keigo Kimura’s Diary of a Mad Old Man (瘋癲老人日記, Futen Rojin Nikki) adapts a late, and at that time extremely recent, work by Tanizaki which again drew some inspiration from his own life as it explores the frustrated sexuality of an older man facing partial paralysis following a stroke. Once again employing Wakao as a genial femme fatale, Kimura’s film is a broadly comic tale of an old man’s folly, neatly undercutting its darker themes with naturalistic humour and late life melancholy.

Tanazaki’s stand in is a wealthy old man, Utsugi (So Yamamura), who has recently suffered a stroke which has paralysed his right hand and significantly reduced his quality of life. He currently operates a large household with a number of live-in staff, including a round the clock nurse, his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. The son, Joukichi (Keizo Kawasaki), is a successful executive currently having an affair with a cabaret dancer, leaving his extremely beautiful wife, Sachiko (Ayako Wakao), herself also formerly a dancer, at a loose end. Though approaching the end of his life and possibly physically incapable of acting on his desire, Utsugi is consumed with lust for Sachiko and thinks of little else but how to convince her to allow him even the smallest of intimacies. Sachiko, for her part, is not particularly interested in pursuing a romantic entanglement with her aged father-in-law but is perfectly aware of her power over him which she uses to fulfil her material desires. Meanwhile, Utsugi’s rather pathetic behaviour has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the household who view his desperation with a mix of pity, exasperation, and outrage.

Kimura’s film takes more of an objective view than the subjective quality of the title would suggest but still treats its protagonist with a degree of well intentioned sympathy for a man realising he’s reached the final stages of his life. Utsugi’s sexual desire intensifies even as his body betrays him but this very life force becomes his rebellion against the encroaching onset of decay as he clings to his virility, trying to off-set the inevitable. As such, conquest of Sachiko becomes his last dying quest for which he is willing to sacrifice anything, undergo any kind of degradation, simply to climb one rung on the ladder towards an eventual consummation of his desires.

Sachiko, instinctively disliked by her mother-in-law, is more than a match for Utsugi’s finagling. A young, confident, and beautiful woman, Sachiko has learned how to do as she pleases without needing permission from anyone for anything. In this, the pair are alike – both completely self aware yet also in full knowledge of those around them. The strange arrangement they’ve developed is a game of reciprocal gift giving which is less a war than a playful exercise in which both are perfectly aware of the rules and outcomes. Sachiko allows Utsugi certain privileges beginning with slightly patronising flirtation leading to leaving the bathroom door unlocked when she showers (behind a curtain) and permitting Utsugi to kiss and fondle her leg (even if she hoses it down, complaining it feels like being licked by a slug).

Tanizaki’s strange fetish is again in evidence as Utsugi finally deifies Sachiko in creating a print of the sole of her foot which he intends to have carved into his grave so he can live protected beneath her forever, as insects are under the foot of Buddha. This final act which takes the place of a literal consummation goes some way towards easing his desire but may also be the one which pushes him towards the grave he was seeking to avoid. Notably, Sachiko is bored and eventually exhausted by the entire enterprise even whilst Utsugi is caught in the throws of his dangerous ecstasy.

Other members of the household view the continuing interaction of Sachiko and Utsugi with bemusement, pitying and resenting the old man for his foolishness whilst half-admiring, half disapproving of Sachiko’s manipulation of his desires. Utsugi had been a stingy man despite his wealth and even now risks discord within his own family by refusing to assist his grown-up daughter who finds herself in financial difficulty and in need of familial support, yet lavishing vast sums on Sachiko for expensive trinkets even as she continues an affair with a younger man right under his nose. Still, Sachiko uses what she has and gets what she wants and Utsugi attempts to do the same only less successfully, completely self aware of his foolishness and the low probability of success yet buoyed with each tiny concession Sachiko affords him. A wry and unforgiving exploration of the link between sex and death, Diary of a Mad Old Man undercuts the less savoury elements of its source material with a broadly humorous, mocking tone gradually giving way to melancholy as the old man begins to accept his own impotence, the light around him dwindling while Sachiko’s only brightens.