Farewell Rabaul (さらばラバウル, Ishiro Honda, 1954)

Farewell Rabaul dvd coverReleased in 1954, Farewell Rabaul (さらばラバウル, Saraba Rabaul) was the last in a string of war films directed by Ishiro Honda for Toho immediately before the mega hit Godzilla redefined his career and turned him into a director of science fiction and special effects movies. Like the later tokusatsu classics, Honda worked alongside Eiji Tsuburaya to craft the film’s effects which are largely used to recreate the epic dogfights taking place over the island as the airmen and ground crew come to terms with the imminent arrival of American forces. Though he takes care to show the bravery and determination of the Japanese pilots, Honda’s attitudes to the war and the government who waged it are not so kind.

Late into the conflict, at an outpost in the Papa New Guinean city of Rabaul, ace pilot Captain Wakabayashi (Ryo Ikebe) leads a rapidly depleting squad of airmen trying to defend Japanese forces from American air attacks. Known as “Devil” Wakabayashi, he rules with an iron fist – taking issue with men who spend their time in local bars and pointedly refusing to send rescue craft for crashed pilots. Ruthless and cold as he seems, the war is starting to get to Wakabayashi and his resolve crumbles when faced with a gracious American POW and the attentions of a kindly nurse, Komatsu (Mariko Okada).

Honda keeps the action to a minimum, preferring to focus on the life within the military base. Though the effects on the local population are not much addressed, the opening scenes take place in a bar in which Papa New Guinean women dance to tribal drums while Japanese military personnel drink and watch. The waitresses are largely Japanese women dressed in kimono, though it seems the exoticism of local girl Kim (Akemi Negishi), dancing barefoot with flowers in her hair, is the main draw. Eventually Kim falls in love with a Japanese soldier and the two plan to flee but fate always gets in the way.

Wakabayashi, rechristened the “Devil” by Kim – a nickname which seems to stick, objects to his men blowing off steam in the bar for purely practical reasons – he needs them at top form for an upcoming mission and a hungover pilot could be a risk to the entire squad. Walking around looking sullen and refusing to explain himself, it’s no wonder Wakabayashi is unpopular with some of the men even if his skills are widely recognised. Asked to send a rescue squad for a lost pilot, Wakabayashi’s reply is a flat no with no further details offered. Only when a junior officer interjects during a briefing does he offer his reasoning – the crash site is in enemy territory and it’s too risky to send more men in to fetch one pilot who is probably already dead. His reasoning is sound and probably the correct command decision but the cutting coldness with which he delivers his judgement does little to assuage his reputation as a heartless misanthrope.

This is, however, not quite the case. When an extremely young member of his squad is shot down Wakabayashi shouts out to him, trying to advise the rookie on ways to control the aircraft but all to no avail. The pilot cannot bail out as Japanese pilots, particularly those flying the featherweight 0 fighters, are not equipped with parachutes. This is brought up again when a downed American pilot is brought in as a POW. The journalist attached to the unit is able to speak fluent English and interprets for Wakabayashi and the others as the American gives them an improbably frank analysis of Japanese airborne warfare. He tells them that the Americans were once afraid of the 0s and their high speed manoeuvring but have figured out their weaknesses. In the hands of a skilled pilot, the 0 is a powerful weapon but in unskilled hands it’s a liability – its lightweight form makes it easy pickings when the pilot does not know how to fly defensively. If it weren’t for this fighter they call “Devil” they’d be picking them off with ease. The lack of parachutes came as a surprise to the Americans. The 0s need to be as light as possible, but no one could believe that the Japanese government valued life so cheaply that they’d send a man up there with no way down. That’s why, the American says, they will win – no government so unwilling to look after its own could ever expect to.

The senselessness of it all eventually gets to Wakabayshi, even leading him to reverse his original stance and proceed into enemy territory to rescue a fallen comrade himself. He is, however, wounded, his plane damaged, and his friend doesn’t make it. Rabaul falls, and its hero falls with it in a turn which is both melancholy and defiant. Honda refuses to glorify the destruction but ends on a note of sadness, reprising the titular song sung by the women aboard a boat they hope will take them home but that, like everything else, remains so hopelessly uncertain.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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.


 

Love Letter (恋文, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1953)

Love-Letter-1953-film-images-d67cf443-345f-409e-9cdb-26f20177f50Kinuyo Tanaka was one of the most successful actresses of the pre-war years well known for her work with celebrated director Kenji Mizoguchi including several of his most critically acclaimed works such as Sansho the Bailiff, Ugetsu, and The Life of Oharu. However, post-war Japan was a very different place and Tanaka had a different kind of ambition. With 1953’s Love Letter (恋文, Koibumi) she became Japan’s second ever female feature film director, though her working and personal relationship with Mizoguchi ended when he attempted to block her access to the Director’s Guild of Japan. No one quite knows why he did this and he tried to go back on it later but the damage was done, Tanaka never forgave him for this very public betrayal. Whatever Mizoguchi may have been thinking, he was very wrong indeed – Tanaka’s first venture behind the camera is an extraordinarily interesting one which is not only a technically solid production but actively seeks a new kind of Japanese cinema.

Based on the novel by Fumio Niwa and scripted by another of Tanaka’s frequent collaborators Keisuke Kinoshita, Love Letter takes place around 1950 just as the post-war chaos was beginning to settle down allowing individual trauma to come to the surface for the very first time. Our “hero” is Reikichi Mayumi (Masayuki Mori) – a melancholy naval veteran living with his brother Hiroshi (Juzo Dosan) and eking out a living as a translator of French literature. He spends his days hanging round train stations looking for a familiar face and constantly rereading a letter from his childhood sweetheart which informs him that, against her own wishes, she is shortly to be married to someone else. Michiko is apparently now a war widow, but despite his best efforts Reikichi has not been able to find her since being repatriated.

One day he runs into an old naval friend, Yamaji (Jukichi Uno), who has an interesting job. He drafts love letters in English and French from Japanese girls to the faithless foreigners who have abandoned them and returned home. Yamaji has developed an affection for some of these desperate women and tries to help them as much as he can with fatherly advice as he writes heartrending messages designed to get that guilt cash rolling back to Japan. Reikichi is not as well disposed the girls who he feels have sold themselves to the enemy but soon begins working there too. One fateful day, he hears a familiar voice.

Whereas you might expect this to be the end of a conventional movie, it’s only really the beginning. After a desperate chase to the train station Reikichi catches up with Michiko (Yoshiko Kuga) in a beautifully filmed, emotionally powerful scene which frames them both in a closing train door, momentarily eclipsed as it moves away. However, the elation soon fades as Reikichi’s rather backward thinking kicks in and he dwells on the reason Michiko was in the shop in the first place. After having longed for her, searching endlessly for five years, he can’t bring himself to accept this Michiko who he sees as “polluted” by her relations with an American soldier. He says some extremely cruel, and in fact unforgivable, things which Michiko accepts with a deeply internalised sense of guilt and shame. It looks as if the long awaited romantic reunion is not to take place after all.

Tanaka’s point of view is about as progressive as it was possible to be, but there is an ongoing conflict in the film in regards to its portrayal of the post-war “pan-pan” phenomenon. Great pains are taken to separate Michiko from the ranks of other desperate women who found themselves reliant on the occupying forces for their survival. Michiko became the mistress of an American man, bearing and losing his child, and though she wonders herself if it makes a difference that it was one American man and not several, the film definitely thinks it does. Later on she meets a group of women who are more obviously prostitutes and former friends whom she tries to avoid but the attitude to these women is far less sympathetic. At once we’re told that we shouldn’t judge Michiko for having done what she needed to do to survive, but we are being invited to judge these other women, all the while being reminded that Michiko is not like them.

Reikichi, however, is firmly painted as being in the wrong especially when compared to his cheerfully pragmatic brother and down to earth friend. Everybody tells him he’s being unreasonable and attempting to punish himself by also punishing Michiko for a series of things that are no one’s fault, but Reikichi persists in his oddly romanticised, absolutist way of thinking. It is he who will need to change, become less rigid and more empathetic but there is still the idea that Michiko’s past is something to be “forgiven”, and therefore a pre-determined view that she has acted in a morally incorrect way and is paying for it now.

Interestingly, Tanaka undermines the film’s inherently melodramatic quality by choosing to end on a note of ambiguous anxiety. A decision seems to have been reached, yet it is a tentative one and there will be difficulties along the way. This is new and different world, filled with broken and damaged people. A better one is possible but won’t happen with a heartfelt apology over a hospital bed, it will require a long process of mutual understanding and empathy though the wounds themselves may never be entirely healed. Tanaka’s debut is a daring wonder filmed with true visual flair and an unusual degree of assuredness. A sympathetic look at the bubbling trauma of the post-war environment, Love Letter approaches its subjects with extreme sensitivity and the hope that love and forgiveness are possible, but they will require hard work and a willingness to embrace them.


The first Japanese feature film to be directed by a woman was completed by Tazuko Sakane in 1936. Mizoguchi actually gave her a start in the industry and she was able to keep working during in the war by making documentaries as part of the Manchurian Film Association. Once the war ended she was barred from further directorial opportunites because she didn’t have a university degree and returned to continuity and editing roles at Shochiku until she retired in 1962, never making another feature film. Kinuyo Tanaka was a little luckier in this regard and was able to make a few more features becoming the first woman able to have a career in film directing through she also continued acting in other people’s films and on television until the 1970s.

A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.