Mother (おかあさん, Mikio Naruse, 1952)

The hahamono or mother movie is a mainstay of post-war cinema, obsessed as it is with self-sacrificing maternity. Mikio Naruse, however, is not a name you’d expect to see associating itself with the genre and his 1952 film Mother (おかあさん, Okaasan), adapted from a child’s essay, is indeed subtly subversive, transgressively questioning the institution of motherhood itself while ostensibly remaining faithful to genre norms even as it makes an accidental villain of its teenage heroine who closes the film plaintively praying for her mother’s happiness having not so long ago shut down perhaps her only real hope of achieving it. 

The Fukuhara family ran a successful laundry before the war, but these days father Ryosuke (Masao Mishima) works at a factory and is nicknamed Papa Popeye by his kids because of his finely tuned muscles born of a lifetime training the iron. Matriarch Masako (Kinuyo Tanaka) and 18-year-old daughter Toshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), our narrator, help the family finances by running street food stalls, while oldest son Susumu (Akihiko Katayama) has become ill with a lung complaint caused by poor conditions at the wool factory where he was working. In addition to youngest daughter Chako who is still in school, the family has also taken in little Tetsu (Takashi Ito) the son of Masako’s sister Noriko (Chieko Nakakita) who is now a widow recently repatriated from Manchuria. 

Like many films of the occupation period, the family at the centre of Mother is determined to rebuild, pinning all their hopes on being able to renovate their home in order to be able to reopen the laundry. The war is very much a background presence but its influence is still deeply felt not least in the ruins and devastation glimpsed around the house and the constant references to loss and widowhood which seem to plague Masako, so many women having lost sons and husbands in the conflict. The tragedy is that Masako will eventually in one sense or another lose all her children by the end of the picture, Susumu succumbing to his illness after having discharged himself from hospital out of guilt and loneliness missing his mother, Chako eventually taken in by wealthier relatives who lost their son in the war, Tetsu soon to be retrieved by his mother, and Toshiko herself clearly heading towards marriage with the cheerful and surprisingly progressive baker Shinjiro (Eiji Okada) with whom she has become close. 

Perhaps surprisingly Toshiko seems remarkably immature for her age, her voiceover taken as it is from a child’s essay has a slightly stilted quality that nevertheless makes plain her poor grasp of the adult world and most particularly the reality of her mother’s life. Masako later tells us that she started working at 14 and continued until she married at not so much older than Toshiko is now despite later stating that Toshiko is too young to marry only to find her self shocked when confronted by the sight of her in a wedding dress stifling a brief wave of despair that her daughter may soon be a wife. Originally complaining about not being able to take dressmaking classes like some of the other girls, Toshiko belatedly swears to help support the family firstly to prevent Chako going to stay with relatives and secondly because her boyfriend inadvertently gives her the impression there’s truth in a local rumour that her mother plans to remarry following her husband’s death from overwork and poverty with a friend of their father’s who’s been helping them out in the shop, “Uncle POW” Mr. Kimura (Daisuke Kato). 

Shinjiro is quick to tell her that she’s being unreasonable. In the modern world parents shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice their personal desires for their children, her mother is also a woman and has the right to pursue happiness in marrying again if she chooses. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly concrete between Masako and Mr. Kimura besides a genial domesticity, the rumour is partly local wishful thinking in knowing that remarriage is sensible economic choice and the pair seem well suited. Toshiko objects strongly to the idea out of fear, jealousy, and outdated moralising resenting her mother for betraying her father’s memory but also fearing further changes in her familial relationships in an already uncertain world. 

In this her otherwise saccharine closing monologue in which she looks on as her mother plays with Tetsu and wonders if she’s really “happy” achieves its final irony, transgressively undercutting the primacy of the self-sacrificing mother to question the ideology of motherhood itself when it requires women to sacrifice their lives and desires in service of an ideal of “family”. Nevertheless, Mother is among the most ostensibly cheerful of Narusean dramas in the gentle comedy and naturalistic depiction of a warm and loving family committed to compassion, kindness, and mutual support as pathways towards a better post-war future.  


Mother is currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel

Early Spring (早春, Yasujiro Ozu, 1956)

By the mid-1950s, Japan’s economy was beginning to improve but now that the desperation that went with hunger had dissipated it freed those who’d managed to climb out of post-war privation to wonder just what the point of their ceaseless toil was. Yasujiro Ozu’s primary subject matter remained the modern family, but 1956’s Early Spring (早春, Soshun) sees him heading in a darker direction as he weighs up the delusions of the salaryman dream and discovers that whichever way you swing it, life is disappointing. 

So it seems to be for salaryman Shoji (Ryo Ikebe). He and Masako (Chikage Awashima) married for love a long time ago, but it’s clear that there is distance in their relationship. They sleep in the same room but their futons are slightly too far apart, and the few words they exchange with each other in the morning are terse in the extreme. The truth is that for many a salaryman for whom long hours and interoffice bonding sessions are compulsory, work is the new family. Wives are welcome to join the Sunday hiking outings but it seems few do. Masako too declines, telling her mother she felt it to be too expensive, already irritated with her husband’s irresponsible spending on mahjong games and drinking with friends. 

Money is certainly a constant worry for her and as we learn from her mother they’re behind on the rent despite it being “very cheap”. Masako had made a visit home in part to ask for another loan, which her mother seems reluctant to give, offering her daughter a takeout of the oden her restaurant sells which is first declined but then accepted. Her mother also flags up the other problem in their marriage which is that they sadly lost a child in infancy and have had no more. Sorrow may have killed their love, but the fact her husband stays out all hours and wastes the little money he earns while failing to win promotions only makes the situation worse. 

As for Shoji, he is becoming very aware of the delusions of the “salaryman dream”. He is one of thousands of men identically dressed in white shirts and grey trousers that board the packed rush hour trains every day heading into the city. His life is one of pointless drudgery and its only victory is that keeps hunger from the door, not even quite stretching to a roof over his head. “All that’s waiting for us is disillusion and loneliness” according to a veteran salaryman growing close to his retirement and realising that he has little left to live on, his dream of buying a small stationary shop all but unobtainable. He was dead set against his own son joining the ranks of the salaryman, but in the end failed to prevent it.

It is perhaps this sense of frustration and impotence that draws Shoji into an affair with a younger woman, Chiyo (Keiko Kishi), who is admittedly very pretty but seems to hold little interest for him aside from her youth and beauty. Chiyo openly pursues her older colleague, declaring that she doesn’t care he has a wife but has come to hate her after the first time they slept together. Shoji meanwhile remains guilty and conflicted. He evidently continues seeing Chiyo, lying to Masako that he’s visiting a sick friend, but otherwise regards her as an irritation. When his co-workers figure out what’s going on they try to stage an intervention, but Shoji doesn’t show up and Chiyo angrily denies everything before arriving at Masako’s looking for Shoji only this time he really is out visiting a sick friend. 

Miura (Junji Masuda), the sick friend, is a true believer in the salaryman dream. Now that he’s ill, he misses the packed trains and elevators, not to mention his old workplace friends. All he wants is to be well enough to return to the office and his predicament perhaps has Shoji thinking that at least he has his health and things aren’t so bad for him after all. Masako, meanwhile, turns to other women for advice. The woman across the way recounts how she caught her husband out with his mistress and made a scene that’s rendered him docile and obedient ever since (a rare man in an Ozu film putting his socks neatly in the laundry basket and hanging up his own coat rather than throwing it on the floor for his wife to deal with). Her widowed friend is more sanguine, admitting that caution is necessary but it’s a little dark to envy the life of a widow for its “freedom”, while her mother thinks she’s overreacting because that’s just how men are in this generation or any other. 

Shoji’s old mentor agrees that “everyone’s disappointed” and all that remains is to try and make the most of it, but still he sees that Shoji has been reckless and inconsiderate in his treatment of both women. He avoids his wife because of the emotional distance between them born of grief, and only really has an affair with Chiyo because it was easier than refusing her. He didn’t even enjoy it, and doubtless it did not quite quell the sense of despair he feels with the utter pointlessness of the “salaryman dream”. Masako, in turn, is disappointed with married life, with her husband’s emotional cowardice, and with her own lack of options. Ultimately, Ozu sides with the mother, not quite condoning Shoji’s behaviour while perhaps excusing it as a direct consequence of dullness of his life while forcing Masako to accept complicity in her husband’s weakness. They may reunite, the stressors of their Tokyo life from the high cost of living to the lure of mahjong now absent, but there is a sense of futility in their eventual insistence that they will “make it work” through starting over in a new place while gazing at the train that, they assume, will eventually carry them back to the city and all of its false promises of a brighter future. 


Early Spring screens 19th/20th/21st October & 20th/23rd November at London’s BFI Southbank as part of BFI Japan. It is also available to stream in the UK via BFI Player and in the US via Criterion Channel.

Repast (めし, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

“Must every woman grow old and die feeling empty?” asks the unhappy heroine of Naruse’s 1951 melodrama Repast (めし, Meshi) only to conclude that yes, she must, but that this in fact constitutes “happiness” as a woman. The first of Naruse’s Fumiko Hayashi adaptations Repast arrived in the year of the author’s death and is inspired by a short story left unfinished at the time of her passing. Screenwriter Sumie Tanaka was apparently convinced that the film should end with a divorce, as Sound of the Mountain would two years later, and consequently left the project after the studio mandated a more “sympathetic” ending. Superficially happy as it might seem, however, the conclusion is as bleak as one might expect from Naruse in which the heroine simply accepts that she must recalibrate her idea of happiness to that which is available to her and learn to find fulfilment in shared endeavour with her husband. 

As she explains in her opening voiceover, Michiyo (Setsuko Hara) married her husband Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara) five years ago in Tokyo against her family’s wishes and has been living on the outskirts of Osaka for the past three. Marital bliss has quite clearly worn off. As we see from the repeated morning scenes of the local community sending their sons off to school and husbands to the office, every day is the same and all Michiyo ever seems to do is cook and clean. The only words Hatsunosuke says to her are “I’m hungry”, and the only source of solace in her life is her cat, Yuri. Yet even this constant state of unhappy frustration is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Hatsunosuke’s spoilt and immature niece Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki) who has apparently run away from home in rebellion against an arranged marriage. 

There is obviously a blood relation between Hatsunosuke and Satoko, but Michiyo’s jealously is not exactly unreasonable given the young woman’s childish flirtation with her uncle, perhaps an adolescent extension of her propensity to pout and preen to get her own way. Aside from all that, finances weigh heavily on Michiyo’s mind. Other than her drudgery, the constant source of friction in the relationship is Hatsunosuke’s low salary and lack of career success. Satoko’s family are a little wealthier and having been brought up in relative comfort she has little idea of the real world and is often tactless, remarking on Hatsunosuke’s worn out tie much to Michiyo’s chagrin. Hatsunosuke is happy enough to have her, but Michiyo is wondering if there’s enough rice in the jar to see them through and Satoko never stops to consider that they’re feeding her for free even falling asleep when Michiyo enjoys her one and only day off reuniting with old friends rather than preparing dinner as she’d been asked. Perhaps aware of the disruptive effect of her presence, Satoko pours salt on the wound by constantly asking her uncle if Michiyo doesn’t like her or is angry, further placing a wedge between husband and wife. 

For all that, however, Hatsunosuke would not be accounted a “bad” husband for the time save perhaps for his lack of career success. He is not cruel or violent, merely insensitive and distant, taking his wife for granted and unable to see that she is deeply unhappy while otherwise internalising a sense of guilt and failure in his inability to adequately provide for her. She meanwhile sometimes takes her dissatisfaction out on him in barbed comments about his low salary, her barely hidden contempt never far from the surface. Yet as her mother later points out in encouraging her go back to him he is “reliable, discreet, and honest”, qualities borne out by his later refusal to go along with a dodgy scheme organised by the old elite along with his nervous rebuttal of the attentions of the “mistress” from across the way. 

At heart a conservative woman, Michiyo too looks down on Ms Kanazawa (Kumeko Otowa) for her taboo status as the illicit lover of a wealthy man which is only in a sense her way of seizing her future as an independent woman running her own bar. Satoko, a woman of the modern era, sees less of a problem with it and is far less judgemental, though her own attempts are destined to end in failure thanks to her inability to work out that her present lifestyle is far above her current reach. Retreating to her Tokyo home, Michiyo looks for other options, admiring the apparently happier relationship between her younger sister and brother-in-law who now run the family shop. She asks a sympathetic cousin, Kazuo (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) who provides an alternate love interest, to help her find work but encounters the brutalising line outside the local employment office and then an old friend now a war widow desperate for employment because her benefits are about to run out and she has a young son to support. Later she spots the same woman handing out flyers, suddenly realising the fallacy of her fantasy of starting again as an independent woman. She pens a letter to her husband admitting that she’s realised how vulnerable she is without his protection, but remains undecided enough to avoid sending it. 

Hearing that Satoko, still childish but perhaps not quite as naive as she assumed her to be, has been laying her claws into Kazuo the final nail seems to have been struck. Michiyo knows she will return to Osaka, but does so not because she has rekindled her love for her husband but because she has accepted there are no better options. Hatsunosuke is dull, but he is in a sense reliable, and honest to the extent that he may be about to be rewarded for his moral unshakability. He cares enough about her to show up in Tokyo hoping, but not insisting, she will return with him which is perhaps as close to a declaration of love that one could hope for. On reflection she decides that a woman’s happiness is found in sharing the journey with her husband, accepting that she must subsume her own desires into his and cannot hope to expect emotional fulfilment other than that found in his satisfaction. Even for a Naruse film, and one as peppered with moments of slapstick humour as this one is, it’s an extraordinarily bleak conclusion subtly hinting at the iniquities of life in a patriarchal society in which the best a woman can hope for is a life of unrewarded drudgery. 


Wife (妻, Mikio Naruse, 1953)

The post-war world, to a certain way of thinking at least, promised a greater degree of freedom in which it might no longer be necessary to go on stoically bearing unhappiness in service to a social ideal. Then again, old habits are hard to break and not everyone is quite so equipped to acknowledge that misery can in a sense be a choice. Mikio Naruse’s Wife (妻, Tsuma) finds itself at a moment of transition in which the meaning of everything the word meant was perhaps beginning to change while the idea that a woman might choose to reject the role was no longer a taboo but an increasingly viable possibility. 

To the unhappily married Mineko (Mieko Takamine), however, the idea of independence remains somewhat distasteful. Each morning her husband, Nakagawa (Ken Uehara), leaves the house without a word. In fact, he doesn’t even look at her before silently walking away. She complains that she has no idea what he’s thinking, all he ever tells her is that he’s “tired” but she also resents him for failing to provide for her in the way that she perhaps expected. The couple live in a sizeable home, but Mineko has to rent out the upstairs to a series of lodgers as well as taking in sewing as a side job to make ends meet. What seems perfectly apparent is that the couple are ill suited, both in terms of temperament and of personal desires. Nakagawa is a soft hearted, romantic sort of man who isn’t particularly bothered if their lodgers pay their rent or not, while his wife is emotionally distant and infinitely practical as perhaps life has taught her to be. 

The peculiarities of life in Japan in 1953 place considerable strain on not only on the Nakagawas but on each of the other couples that we see. Those who married in haste during the war may be regretting their choices, while others, like Eiko (Chieko Nakakita) who rents the upstairs room with her husband Matsuyama (Hajime Izu), complain that the men they waited so long for came back changed. That Matsuyama cannot find a job in the difficult economic circumstances of the post-war society may not be his fault, but the necessity of relying on his wife for economic support has nevertheless eroded his sense of masculinity and left him a resentful drunk, destroying his wife’s love for him. Mineko is slightly scandalised when another tenant, art student Tanimura (Rentaro Mikuni), reveals that Eiko works not in a store but in a bar in Ginza, that being in truth the only kind of job that pays enough to support a married couple and a mother-in-law that a woman can get in 1953. Eventually Eiko leaves her husband, something else that scandalises Mineko, and resolves to live an independent life rather than remarry.

The idea of independence is repeatedly mentioned to her, but Mineko continues to reject it. Her sister jokingly suggests going into business together, while another customer, a widow with a young son, floats the idea of leaving the home of her late husband and opening a shop to support herself independently. She believes remarriage is not a viable option because she has a child, a thought echoed by another widow, Fusako (Yatsuko Tanami), who eventually decides to do something similar by returning to her hometown and going into business with a friend. Opening a shop is a popular option, but it of course requires investment and relies on having strong support, in Fusako’s case from female solidarity in teaming up with another woman in a similar situation. 

It might be easy enough to say that becoming financially independent is a choice on offer only to widows with children who have, in some way, already fulfilled their social obligations, while women like Eiko who chose childless self-sufficiency would still struggle to find acceptance even if their career were not dependent on an industry still itself taboo. That Nakagawa and Mineko have no children perhaps places an additional strain on the marriage. Nakagawa tells a colleague complaining about his family that he wonders if children might have made his life easier, while his only moment of contentment seems to be in playing with Fusako’s young son on the morning after spending an illicit night with her in an inn at Osaka. She sadly tries to ask what might be next for them, but he only wants to live in that moment knowing that their future is an impossibility. 

Despite his unhappiness, Nakagawa doesn’t seem motivated towards ending his marriage, perhaps out of guilt or because as friend later suggests it’s not so much Fusako that he loves as the possibility of a different future. On his return from his Osaka trip, he encounters a new tenant, Mineuchi, who has found her own way to be independent in becoming a mistress. Nakagawa seems to find the arrangement mildly distasteful, though it’s perhaps not so far off what he’s planning to do with Fusako. Mineuchi paid premium for the room and has even brought her own refrigerator and an electric gramophone so she is in a sense living the dream, especially as her “patron”, a furniture store owner, only visits twice a month. 

After learning that Nakagawa has fallen in love with Fusako, Mineko wonders if she should pay her a visit, but then receives one herself from the furniture store owner’s tearful wife who reveals that he is not a wealthy man and has ruined himself, and therefore her, after being bewitched by a Ginza bar hostess. Later, Mineko discovers that the furniture store owner’s wife took her own life in humiliation, lamenting that she didn’t have to go so far just because of her husband’s indiscretion, but also threatens to do the same herself to try and guilt Fusako into giving up her husband. 

Yet, pretty much everyone seems to tell Mineko that this is all her own fault and the reason her perfectly good husband has looked elsewhere is because she has failed as a wife. Sharp and emotionally distant, she alienates those around her but is devastated to realise that she’s lost her husband’s love and will most likely never be able to regain it. Her decision to talk not to him but to Fusako hints at the way in which women see each other as rivals and not as friends, actively holding each other back, as her sister Yoshimi (Michiyo Aratama) also does in insisting on the social order over personal feeling, rather than attempting to find understanding or mutual support. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that ending her husband’s dream of romantic escape through emotional manipulation is unlikely to improve the quality of her married life. 

Mineko, however, never contemplates independence. She tells Fusako that she won’t consent to a divorce just to claim alimony, but privately wonders what would become of her if she left her husband. She might be able to put a stop to it this time, but who’s to say he won’t find someone else. What she seems primed to choose is socially mandated misery, rejecting the “freedoms” of the post-war age to end an unhappy marriage because she can’t conceive of herself as anything other than a “wife” and being miserable is apparently better than being nothing at all. 


The Last War (世界大戦争, Shue Matsubayashi, 1961)

As The Last War (世界大戦争, Sekai Daisenso) points out, by 1961 16 years had passed since the end of World War Two during which Japan had begun to rebuild itself, heading into a period of unprecedented economic prosperity with the Olympics already on the horizon. But the early 1960s were also a time of increased international tension as the Cold War mounted and many in Japan feared being pulled into another conflict especially with the Korean War not quite so much in the distant past. Toho had become the home of special effects cinema and such films were often coloured with strong messages of peace and social responsibility as humanity banded together to combat an existential threat be it a giant monster or mad scientist. The Last War is no different in that regard, but sadder in showing us that the end of the world may come suddenly and without warning and that if we for a second become complacent it could already be too late to stop it. 

Patriarch Mokichi (Frankie Sakai) has made a decent life for himself after the war working as a driver. His wife, Oyoshi (Nobuko Otowa), is in poor health and he dreams of buying a house by the sea where she can live in comfort. Meanwhile, they have a grownup daughter, Saeko (Yuriko Hoshi), born before the war, and two much younger children, a girl, Haru, and boy, Ichiro. They are a very happy, very ordinary family who are beginning to think that their days of hardship are finally behind them and they have escaped the war’s shadow. The only note of potential conflict lies in the fact that Saeko wants to marry a family friend, Takano (Akira Takarada), a sailor, and is afraid of Mokichi’s reaction, especially as he keeps trying to set up matches for her. 

In fact, having lived through the war Oyoshi and Mokichi are certain that nothing like that is going to happen again, even if the younger generation is filled with anxiety. “Who could ever profit from the destruction of the Earth?” Mokichi not unreasonably asks, signalling his newly consumerist world view. Mind you, he adds, everyone knows the alternative to calamity is hard work, “you have to work hard for peace”. 

Mokichi has indeed been working hard, but has perhaps begun to neglect other areas of his life in his desire to become rich even if that desire is only to make his family more comfortable and give his children better opportunities than he had. Brought over to see a new TV set now on sale, he scoffs that he already has one, “Who needs a second TV?” he asks, but on hearing the news that tensions are rising because a military plane has gone down off the coast of Africa, his first thought is to get on the phone to his broker and junk his real estate stocks for shares in aeronautics. Mokichi is unconvinced by an old man selling potatoes on their street who apparently lost everything in Hiroshima and has since become a devoted Christian donating most of his profits to anti-nuclear charities, describing him as just “showing off”, firmly believing that nothing like that is ever going to happen again. “I cannot accept it” he says, “what would be the point of the aspirations of humble folk like us if we’re all destined to go poof into extinction?”.  

As the only nation to have directly experienced nuclear war, the intense fear of its recurrence is indeed understandable. If a nuclear war escalates, it will be the end of everything. All human endeavours over thousands of years will be mere dust. There will be no weddings, no births, no graduations, no grand discoveries, just nothing. When the bomb does indeed hit, the scenes of devastation must have proved extremely traumatic for many in the audience as buildings crumble ominously, the sky turns a fiery red, the streets run with lava, and we can see the outlines of charred bodies lying among the wreckage. The tip of the Diet building sits neatly atop the rubble as if in rebuke of the political failures which, despite the best efforts of the Japanese politicians who make an effort to govern responsibly and are honest with the electorate while advocating strongly for peace through diplomatic channels, have led to the literal end of the world. “You have to work hard for peace” the closing title card reminds us. “We can stop this before it happens, but we have to work together”. “I won’t let you destroy our happiness” Mokichi had screamed at the void, but in the end he was powerless. All it takes is a minor slip, and the world as we know it will cease to be.


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)

White Beast (白い野獣, Mikio Naruse, 1950)

Though motions were made towards criminalising sex work under the American occupation from as early as 1946, not that much changed until the passing of the Prostitution Prevention Law 10 years later. In the desperation of the later war years and their immediate aftermath, many women who’d lost husbands, families, and their homes, found themselves with no other way to survive than to engage in sex work, but the existence of these women who were only doing something that though not exactly well respected was fairly normalised five years previously became an acute source of embarrassment most especially given the views of the morally conservative Occupation forces. 

Slotting in right next to the pro-democracy films of the era, Mikio Naruse’s White Beast (白い野獣, Shiroi Yaju) is a surprisingly progressive effort which locates itself in a “home for wayward women”. The White Lily Residence is run with love and compassion and even if the older female warden is stern in a practical sort of way she is never unkind or uncaring, while the male governor Izumi (So Yamamura) is patient and supportive, always keen to tell the women in his care that they are not spoiled or dirty and are fully deserving of the bright new futures he is certain are waiting for them. Rather than lecturing the women, the home makes a point of teaching them new skills such seamstressing so that they will be able to find honest jobs on the outside, though the conviction that those jobs exist may be a little optimistic in itself. 

Our first introduction to the White Lily is through the eyes of Yukawa (Mitsuko Miura), an educated woman who claims she engaged in sex work simply because she enjoyed it and doesn’t see why she’s been arrested. She tries to leave and is told that she is technically free to do so, but they will have to call the police if she does. Yukawa decides to stay, especially once she locks eyes with cheerful female doctor Nakahara (Kimiko Iino). Perhaps surprisingly, the central drama revolves around an awkward love triangle between Yukawa who becomes fixated on the doctor who to be fair is unambiguously flirting back, and the bashful Izumi who has designs on Nakahara himself. 

Refreshingly direct and professional, Nakahara nevertheless has an engaging warmth that has made her a real asset to Izumi’s team as she deals with the sometimes quite difficult medical circumstances of the women at the centre, many of whom are understandably suffering with various STIs including syphilis. Never judging them she remains sympathetic and egalitarian, even joining in when Yukawa cheekily invites her to dance while some of the other women are listening to records. Appearing to understand what Yukawa is asking her, she tells her that she has remained single by choice and has no intention to marry because she’s prioritising her career. Yukawa’s confidence is, however, shaken when she hears a rumour that Nakahara and Izumi may be romantically involved. 

Yukawa looks to Nakahara to try and understand why she’s ended up at White Lily. She asks her what it means to have a “dirty” body and gets a diplomatic medical answer which nevertheless coyly places the blame on sexual repression. Nakahara admits that marital relationships can also be “dirty”, not because of infidelity but because of patriarchal inequalities – marriages in which the wife is treated as a “doll” or a “maid” for example. The answer seems to satisfy Yukawa, but Nakahara has also cut to the quick of her psychological trauma in asking her if she is not also internalising a sense of shame in secretly battling with the idea that she is somehow “dirty” because of the way she’s lived her life. 

Given her fixation with Nakahara, we might wonder what it is that Yukawa so struggles to accept about herself despite her outwardly liberated persona. Beginning to reflect on her past life, she sees the faces of the men she slept with looming over her but seems confused. Was she deflecting desire rather than embracing it, trying to prove or perhaps overwrite something? In any case, her time at the centre begins to soften her but, crucially, not towards accepting a social definition of herself as dirty but emerging with new degrees of self knowledge and acceptance. 

The one sour note in Izumi’s otherwise progressive philosophy sees him encourage one of his star pupils, Ono (Chieko Nakakita), to reunite with a man she was engaged to before the war who has just been repatriated and claims his feelings haven’t changed despite finding her at White Lily. Ono is reluctant, partly because she feels a sense of unworthiness, but also because she suspects that whatever Iwasaki (Eiji Okada) says now, he will someday hold her past against her. She’s proved right when she gets a day pass to visit him in his flat where he eventually rapes and then tries to strangle her. Ono vows not to see him again, but Izumi convinces her otherwise, as if this is all her fault, telling her that two people who love each other can work through anything, implying that it’s her job to fix his wartime trauma (if perhaps mildly implying the reverse is also true for him). For an otherwise compassionate man, telling a vulnerable woman to return to a violent partner because “love is enough” seems an oddly patriarchal gesture. 

Nevertheless, despite the late in the game swerve towards conservatism, White Beast presents a surprisingly progressive critique of an inherently misogynistic, hypocritically puritanical society. At one point, a wealthy big wig arrives to lecture the women, berating them for “bringing down Japanese womanhood” while insisting that women who justify sex work as a means of avoiding starvation are being disingenuous because most women are just “decadent” and wanting handbags etc. Yukawa, unable to control herself, fires back, asking him who it is he thinks buys their services in the first place. It’s very valid point, and one it seems few are willing to consider. 


Short clip (English subtitles)

Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1961)

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Working from a Keisuke Kinoshita script, Kinuyo Tanaka’s first film as a director, Love Letter, made a point of exploring the often hypocritical and contradictory attitudes towards women who had engaged in sex work or become the mistresses of American servicemen in the immediate aftermath of the defeat. For her fifth film, Tanaka returns to the same subject but this time adapting a novel by Masako Yana scripted by Sumie Tanaka (no relation) with whom she’d previously collaborated on The Eternal Breasts. Somewhat suggestively retitled Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Onna Bakari no Yoru), Tanaka’s adaptation tones down the novel’s sensuality but dares to ask a series of subversive questions regarding female agency and sexuality in the rapidly changing post-war society.

Set in the contemporary era, the film opens with reportage-style voiceover and newspaper clippings highlighting the enforcement of the anti-prostitution laws of 1958. According to the voiceover, the red light districts of Japan may have all but disappeared but streetwalking and other forms of casual sex work are still very much a part of the post-war economy. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the old ways and new, those arrested by the police are divided into two camps – those deemed beyond “redemption” sent to prison, and the rest to reform centres such as the Shiragiku Protective Facility for Women which is where we find our heroines.

The reform centre itself is a fairly progressive place and much more forward looking that seen in the earlier Women of the Night though perhaps sometimes patronising even as it makes a strenuous attempt not look down on the women who enter its care. Our first entry into the facility is in the company of a similarly well meaning women’s association whose misplaced pity only reinforces their innately privileged position. They are as far from many of these women as it is possible to be and struggle to understand how it is possible that they found themselves engaging in a practice they find both shameful and degrading. Having got to know many of the women through trying to help them, the school’s headmistress Nogami (Chikage Awashima) and her assistant are better placed to understand even if they also apologise that many of the women in their care are of “low IQ” and fail to convey the kinds of pressures that many have been subject to from desperate poverty to bad family situations and abusive relationships.

Abuse and the trauma of abuse remains one of the barriers to the women moving on, as in the reason many of them found themselves in sex work was because of their relationship with an exploitative partner who either forced them to sell their bodies or left them with no other choice in order to support themselves through being unable or unwilling to work. Nogami, a compassionate and understanding woman, is at pains to insist that the reason many of these women see nothing wrong in sex work is that they have an insufficient level of self respect and value their bodily autonomy too cheaply in allowing others to buy and sell access to it without full consideration of everything that implies.

Then again, asked by one of her most promising cases, Kuniko (Hisako Hara), what is actually so “bad” about sex work, Nogami is forced to admit that she doesn’t know – only that it is now illegal and her job is to help these women live “honest” lives within law. It is difficult to evade the hypocrisy that Nogami is telling these women that they should exercise full agency over their bodies while simultaneously telling them what they shouldn’t be doing with them, but then for all the centre’s talk about “purity” Nogami herself is refreshingly frank and practical in her approach to helping these women towards reintegration into mainstream society in the assumption that that is something they would want rather than out of any quasi-religious ideas of moral goodness.

Shame and social stigma, however, become another barrier as Kuniko finds to her cost in her attempts to move on from the centre. At her first placement as a live-in assistant at a grocer’s, she is quickly outed by a nosy deliveryman already acquainted with the true nature of the Shiragiku centre. The exposure of Kuniko’s past provokes not only mild disgust and suspicion among “respectable” people but also unwanted male attention from those who assume her former life as a sex worker means that they are already entitled to her sexuality with or without her consent.

Thinking the direct approach might be better, Kuniko decides to share her past with the ladies in the dorm at her next job in a factory but they are not quite as supportive as she might have hoped. Despite the fact that many of these young women are sexually active and in fact involved in what might be thought of as acts of casual sex work, they collectively look down on Kuniko while also seeking to exploit her both for the practical knowledge they assume she must have and by attempting to pimp her out to other men they know. When the attempt fails (Kuniko humiliates the three men who try to pressure her into sex by frightening them off with nothing more than confidence and self-possession), the women turn on her and enact an extremely violent and sadistic revenge.

Despite what she observed at the centre, Kuniko learns to her cost that she cannot necessarily rely on female solidarity as a bulwark against male exploitation. Nevertheless, it is to female communities and friendships that she ultimately returns. The leader of the women’s group from the beginning turns out to be less of a dilettante than she first seems and eventually takes Kuniko in with a promising job in a rose a garden which seems to suit her perfectly. Roses, however, have thorns – this one’s being her tentative relationship with gardener Hayakawa (Yosuke Natsuki) who is aware of her past but falls in love with her anyway only for her romance to hit the barrier of entrenched social mores when she discovers that Hayakawa is in fact a member of a noble family. In another instance of women not helping women, Hayakawa’s mother puts the kibosh on her daughter-in-law being a former sex worker which both reinforces Kuniko’s sense of being irreparably damaged and makes her feel as if she has become a problem for a man with whom she has fallen in love. Vowing to live up to Hayakawa’s vision of her as a “pure” woman, Kuniko retreats once again to a supportive community of women – this time of pearl divers in what seems to be an act of spiritual cleansing.

In Kuniko’s final identification of the “disgracefulness” of her past and declaration that she does not hate the world but only herself, Girls of the Night shifts into a more conventional register than the broadly empathetic, subversively positive attitude it had hitherto adopted towards the idea of sex work and the women who engage in it, opting to blame the woman rather than engage with the various forces of social oppression which attempt to micromanage female sexuality. Nevertheless, Tanaka’s deft touch remains as sympathetic as it’s possible to be in affirming that there is a path forward for those who might feel trapped by past transgression even if it simultaneously insists that its heroine save herself only by rejecting her happy ending in atonement for her past “sins”.


Floating Clouds (浮雲, Mikio Naruse, 1955)

(C) 1955 Toho

floating clouds poster“The past is our only reality” the melancholy Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) intones, only to be told that her past was but a dream and now she is awake. Adapted from a novel by Fumiko Hayashi – a writer whose work proved a frequent inspiration for director Mikio Naruse, Floating Clouds (浮雲, Ukigumo) is a story of the post-war era as its central pair of lovers find themselves caught in a moment of cultural confusion, unsure of how to move forward and unable to leave the traumatic past behind.

We begin with defeat. Shifting from stock footage featuring returnees from Indochina, Naruse’s camera picks out the weary figure of a young woman, Yukiko, drawing her government issue jacket around her. She eventually arrives in the city and at the home of an older man, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), whom we later find out had been her lover when they were both stationed overseas working for the forestry commission but has now returned “home” to his family. Kengo had promised to divorce his wife, Kuniko (Chieko Nakakita), in order to marry Yukiko but now declares their romance one of many casualties of war. With only the brother-in-law who once raped her left of her family, Yukiko has nowhere left to turn, eventually becoming the mistress of an American soldier but despite his earlier declarations the increasingly desperate Kengo cannot bear to let her go and their on again off again affair continues much to Yukiko’s constant suffering.

Floating Clouds is as much about the post-war world as it is about a doomed love affair (if indeed love is really what it is). Kengo and Yukiko are the floating clouds of the title, unable to settle in the chaos of defeat where there is no clear foothold to forge a path into the future, no clear direction in which to head, and no clear sign that the future itself is even a possibility. Naruse begins with the painful present marked by crushing defeat and hopelessness, flashing back to the brighter, warmer forests of Indochina to show us the lovers as they had been in a more “innocent” world. At 22, Yukiko smiles brightly and walks tall with a lightness in her step. She went to Indochina in the middle of a war to escape violence at home and, working in the peaceful environment of the forestry commission, begins to find a kind of serenity even whilst dragged into an ill-advised affair with a moody older man more out of loneliness than lust.

Yet, Yukiko’s troubles started long before the war. Assaulted by her brother-in-law she escapes Japan but falls straight into the arms of Kengo who is thought a good, trustworthy man but proves to be anything but. Kengo, frustrated and broken, attempts to lose himself through intense yet temporary relationships with younger women. Every woman he becomes involved with throughout the course of the film comes to a bad end – his wife, Kuniko, dies of tuberculosis while Kengo was unable to pay for treatment which might perhaps have saved her, an inn keeper’s wife he has a brief fling with is eventually murdered by a jealous husband (a guilty Kengo later attempts to raise money for a better lawyer to defend him), Yukiko’s life is more or less destroyed, and goodness only knows what will happen to a very young errand runner for the local bar whom he apparently kissed in a drunken moment of passion.

The lovers remain trapped by the past, even if Kengo repeatedly insists that one cannot live on memory and that their love died in Dalat where perhaps they should have remained. Yukiko’s tragedy is that she had nothing else than her love for Kengo to cling to, while Kengo’s is that he consistently tries to negate the past rather than accept it, craving the purity of memory over an attainable reality, chasing that same sense of possibility in new and younger lovers but once again squandering each opportunity for happiness through intense self obsession. “Things can’t be the same after a war”, intones Kengo as an excuse for his continued callousness, but they find themselves retreating into the past anyway, taking off for tropical, rainy Yakushima which might not be so different from the Indochina of their memories but the past is not somewhere one can easily return and there can be only tragedy for those who cannot let go of an idealised history in order to move forward into a new and uncertain world.


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

(c) 東宝

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

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

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

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

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

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