In Search of Mother (瞼の母, Tai Kato, 1962)

The toxic hyper-masculinity of the yakuza world conspires against a sensitive young man who longs to reclaim his place in society through reuniting with the mother who was forced to abandon him at five years old in Tai Kato’s hugely moving jidaigeki, In Search of Mother (瞼の母, Mabuta no Haha). Adapted from a kabuki play by Shin Hasegawa, Kato’s wandering tale is perfectly tailored for post-war concerns situating itself in a world of mass displacement, economic inequality, and lonely regret in which the secrets of the immediate past have become a threat to the promise of the near future which may then in itself prove unrealisable. 

As the film opens, 25-year-old Chutaro (Kinnosuke Nakamura) is trying to stop his hot-headed friend Hanji (Hiroki Matsukata) from taking revenge on a rival gang on behalf of their boss who is to them something like a father figure. Chutaro reminds Hanji that he has other ties and should think about the mother and sister who wait for him in his hometown to whom he should return and attempt to live an honest life, the possibility of which Chutaro is deprived because he is an orphan with no home or family to turn to. His pleas fall on deaf ears, Hanji reminding him of the code by which they live. “What’s going to happen to my pride as a man?” he exclaims, later telling his mother “I’m not a man if I don’t accept their challenge”. “If that’s the case then don’t be a man” she counters, physically preventing him from leaving as if Hanji were a still a child but to him it seems life is not worth living if you are not accounted a proper “man” by the values of the society in which he lives. When Hanji’s sister Onui (Hitomi Nakahara) attempts to plead for him, the gangsters explain to her that they are trapped too, they cannot return without fulfilling this debt of honour. “That’s not how it works miss, if we let him go after he attacked our boss we won’t be able to survive in our world.” 

Just as Chutaro searches for his long lost mother in order to reclaim his place in mainstream society, he is pursued by the gangsters desperate to redeem themselves through revenge. Eventually arriving in Edo by winter, he adopts the rather unscientific tactic of stopping every middle-aged woman he comes across and asking her if she might once have had a son. The first of these is a blind shamisen player whom he witnesses being cheated by man who makes a point of dropping the coin he was to give her back in his own pouch to make it sound like he paid when he didn’t and then getting indignant when he she calls him on it. The woman gives her age as 50 though looks 20 years older and relates her own sad story of widowhood and a son she had to give up but is not Chutaro’s mother. In any case he gives her a large amount of money out of a kindness he might hope someone would show to his own mother were they in his position. 

He does something similar with the next woman, Otora (Sadako Sawamura), a sex worker, like him ostracised by the world around her, who had a son who died in infancy and is now rejected by a judgemental society for doing the only thing she can to survive. Kato films each of these poignant moments in long unbroken takes tinged with the desperation and loneliness of two people looking for something from the other which in the end they are not able to give each other only find relief in their shared sorrow. Nevertheless the encounters also expose the difficulties faced by women in this era in which they must be dependent on men, the shamisen player suffering in her widowhood and Otora left with no choice than to engage in sex work which then exiles her from society at large just as Chutaro is rendered an outcast because of his yakuza past yet as he later explains what else could a child without parents have done?

This is something which might press heavily on the minds of a post-war audience in which the plight of war orphans and otherwise displaced children was all too familiar. In terms of cinema, the yakuza is often presented as a surrogate family in which orphaned boys can replace unconditional love with the mutual solidarity of a brotherhood defined by highly codified existence. Yet Chutaro longs to repair his connection to mainstream society by finding his mother, carrying around money he has saved in order to help her should he discover that she, like Otora and the shamisen player, is living in poverty. What he did not consider, however, is that she may reject him. Acting from a tip off from Otora he pays a visit to a local store run by Ohama (Michiyo Kogure) who unlike the other women has been able to build an independent life for herself and is preparing to marry off her daughter Otose (Keiko Okawa) to a wealthy merchant’s son. When Chutaro first appears, she assumes he is a conman fed information by Otora, admitting that she once had a son by his name but was told he had died in an epidemic when he was nine. Just as we’d seen her reject Otora lest she expose her sex worker past, she rejects Chutaro in fear that his yakuza ties will ruin her reputation, wreck her daughter’s marriage, and disrupt the comfortable life which she worked so hard to create just at the moment of its fruition. 

“You are suspicious of people because you have wealth” Chutaro points out, making plain the various ways in which economic inequality continues to disrupt the bonds between people. As we discover, Ohama was forced to abandon him because his father was abusive. In that era it would not have been possible to take her son with her and so she made her peace with leaving him but despite herself is now conflicted on witnessing him crying in front of her like a child while afraid to acknowledge him lest it disadvantage her daughter. The problem here is not that her past is shameful or a secret, Otose knows she had an older brother, but the fact that Chutaro has become a yakuza with judgment unfairly placed upon him for simply doing what he could to survive without parents to care for or guide him. Too late, Ohama realises she has made a terrible mistake. She and Otose go out to look for Chutaro but either too hurt by the rejection or having come to believe that he cannot escape his yakuza past, he lets them pass him by resigning himself to the fate of a lonely wanderer. Shot entirely on stage sets more often from mid-height rather than his characteristically low perspective and with additional fluidity mimicing Chutaro’s restless sense of displacement, Kato’s take on this classic tale is a profoundly moving examination of the effects of oppressive social codes on even the most essential of connections. 


This Year’s Love (今年の恋, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1962)

The friendship between two underachieving teenage boys hints a series of conflicts in a changing society while accidentally bringing their respective siblings together in Keisuke Kinoshita’s cheerful romantic comedy, This Year’s Love (今年の恋, Kotoshi no Koi). In many ways, it’s the older siblings who appear to be stuck while the parents are largely content to let life be and the boys rejecting the conventional paths laid out for them while attempting to overcome their loneliness and sense of despair through the sincerity of their interclass friendship. 

As the film opens, high school boys Hikaru (Masakazu Tamura) and Ichiro (Ryuji Ishikawa) have been lured to a patch of grass above the city where they’re assaulted by an older bully who for some reason resents the fact that they weren’t wearing their traditional students caps even though such things are perhaps already outdated in the rapidly changing society of 1962. In any case, Hikaru vows revenge, deciding to give up golf club and a series of other things to take up boxing, instructing Ichiro to abandon the “girly” sport of basketball and join him. Neither boy is currently doing very well at their studies, with Ichiro’s prim and proper sister Mikako (Mariko Okada) convinced that Hikaru is a bad influence on her brother assuming that he is another spoilt rich kid set on leading him astray. 

In fact, she’s not entirely wrong. Hikaru does seem to be somewhat aimless probably because his family is wealthy and he doesn’t see much urgency in the situation nor hold that kind of anxiety for his future though is fond of telling people that he feels quite depressed. While Ichiro lives in Ginza where his family run a successful restaurant, Hikaru lives in a large townhouse in nearby Yokohama cared for largely by their kindhearted housekeeper (Chieko Higashiyama) and a live-in maid while his older brother Tadashi (Teruo Yoshida) is currently a graduate student heading towards a regular salaryman job. Their mother having died some time ago and their father always away on business, care for Hikaru has largely fallen to Tadashi who is nevertheless a young man himself with his own life to be getting on with. Similarly Mikako has largely taken on a maternal role when it comes to caring for Ichiro because her parents are always busy with the restaurant. Part of the reason she’s resentful of Hikaru is that she’s the one the school keeps calling in about her brother’s poor academic performance while Ichiro is always off messing around with his rich kid friend. 

Mikako seems to take against Hikaru in part because he is rich, assuming that wealthy people are necessarily decadent and lazy while concerned that Ichiro’s head is being turned by seeing the way the other half live without understanding what it takes to live that way. The Aikawas aren’t exactly poor, they also have a live-in maid and their quarters behind the restaurant are spacious enough, though they couldn’t quite claim to be middle class because they work in the hospitality sector which is still somewhat looked down upon. In any case, dressing exclusively in kimono Mikako is extremely uptight and obsessed with properness. She further takes against the Yamadas after an awkward first meeting with Tadashi who is dumped by his fed up girlfriend in her restaurant and ends up getting beer thrown in his face, while his father later turns up with his secret longterm mistress, a maid from an inn in Atami, leaving Mikako scandalised and embarrassed. 

Ironically enough, Tadashi’s name quite literally means “correct” though even if he isn’t quite as hardline as Mikako he also wants the best for his brother. Because of the realities of life in post-war Japan, both boys explain that they find it hard to study in part because they are lonely often left home alone with no one to talk to which is one reason they value their friendship so deeply. Hikaru’s mother has passed away and his father is largely absent, while Ichiro’s parents are always working in the restaurant as is Mikako even if she’s largely been delegated other maternal duties. Tadashi and the housekeeper attempt to set Hikaru straight that he needs to do well in school because he’ll have to be able to get a good job to support himself, but Hikaru is part of a new generation that doesn’t the see point in the emptiness of the salaryman lifestyle. Tadashi might not either, but he’s going along with it anyway whereas as Mikako is completely wedded to the idea of aspirational respectability intent that Ichiro should do his best to get into college and catapult himself into the middle classes.

Her cheerfully laidback parents meanwhile barely finished school and have done alright for themselves with restaurant. They aren’t that bothered if Ichiro isn’t academically inclined because they can train him up as a chef even if that isn’t quite the future Mikako had envisaged for him in her upwardly mobile worldview. Nevertheless, she’s not quite as prim as she makes out, sneaking the odd cigarette here and there, and despite herself begins to fall for Tadashi’s goofy charms while bonding in shared love for their siblings. In the end she’s the one who has to learn that it’s alright to have a little fun now and then and if longtime widower Mr Yamada has a girlfriend that’s probably alright too. The boys’ teacher hints that he finds it strange they aren’t more into girls, Hikaru apparently so popular that the phone at his house never stops ringing but he turns them all down because he’s too consumed with ennui to date, introducing an additional transgressive element to their friendship along with their bid for manliness with their new obsession with boxing which as Mikako’s maid points out does feature a series of shirtless musclebound men. Perhaps Mikako’s newfound appreciation for romantic freedom wouldn’t stretch that far, but it does seem to have opened her up to new possibilities in a less judgemental future as she rings in the new year in the old capital of Kyoto. 


The End of Summer (小早川家の秋, Yasujiro Ozu, 1961)

Fathers in Ozu are usually sentimental and doting, sometimes insensitive or austere, but by and large responsible. The crises the family faces are generally emotional more than they are practical, few Ozu fathers fail in a duty of care towards their wives and children. And then, there’s Manbei (Ganjiro Nakamura). The hero of Ozu’s penultimate film, The End of Summer (小早川家の秋, Kohayagawa-ke no Aki), is quite the opposite. He does as he pleases and enjoys his life to the fullest without really noticing the effect his behaviour has those around him. But then, as his sister later puts it, he was a very happy man which is rare thing in this society so perhaps he had something right after all. 

Produced for Toho and set in Osaka rather than the usual Shochiku and Tokyo, the film opens not with Manbei but with his brother-in-law Kitagawa (Daisuke Kato) trying to set up Manbei’s widowed daughter-in-law Akiko (Setsuko Hara) with a widowed industrialist obsessed with cows. Meanwhile, the family is also trying to find a match for his youngest daughter, Noriko (Yoko Tsukasa), who is put off by the whole idea of an arranged marriage and worried that Manbei and her older sister Fumiko (Michiyo Aratama) may try to pressure her into accepting because their family sake brewery is trouble. Fumiko’s husband Hisao (Keiju Kobayashi) is technically running the brewery and favours a merger to save the business but Manbei is resistant. Manbei himself is largely absent and his increasing habit of skipping out during the day is beginning to worry the family, especially when they discover he’s been visiting an old mistress with a 21-year-old daughter he thinks is his. 

Followed to a cafe, Manbei exclaims that summer refuses to end in an accidental metaphor for his life. For him everything is sunshine and rainbows, scuttling away from the family home like a little boy sneaking out after dark while the now grownup kids are left behind to clean up his messes. Manbei is a widower, and aside from the financial dimension, perhaps it’s not a huge problem if he wants to go and hang out with an old flame, but Fumiko in particular is scandalised remembering the various humiliations he put her late mother through when she was just a child. Hisao advises her that perhaps it’s best not to bring it up. Manbei isn’t going to change his behaviour and it’s only going to create more drama whereas it might be more manageable if they all pretend not know. Fumiko, however, can’t stay silent even if she knows her father isn’t going to listen to her and in fact lies quite baldly about what he’s been doing in Kyoto. 

Fumiko is on the side of marrying Noriko off, but unlike her husband, father, and uncle, is keen to emphasise that they should move slowly and be sure to take her feelings into account. Rather than her sister, Noriko turns to Akiko for support. Originally in favour of meeting the prospective husband, after all you can always turn it down if you don’t like him, she cautions Noriko that the most important thing is character rather than behaviour and that it’s essential to marry without regret. Noriko feels as if she’s obliged to do as everyone says, but is secretly in love with a young man she met on a skiing holiday who has just been transferred to Sapporo. Akiko, meanwhile, was not altogether taken with the cow-loving widower, but in any case would prefer to maintain her present way of life as a single mother even while others pressure her to remarry. 

The conclusion Noriko comes to is, perhaps strangely, inspired by her carefree father in that she decides it’s best to do what will make her the most happy rather than simply going along with what everyone else wants her to do which may or may not be in her best interest. Fumiko grudgingly admits that though her father was often exasperating perhaps he was the only thing holding the family together. Ozu broadly lends the irresponsible but never malicious Manbei tacit approval in celebrating the fact that he lived the life he wanted to live and he was at least defiantly happy in his own eternal summer, but then ends on an uncharacteristically morbid note as two farmers wash vegetables in the river opposite a crematorium remarking on the increasing number of crows while resigning themselves to the cycle of life. Smoke and crows await us all, perhaps Manbei had it right and the thing is to be happy while you can without taking much notice of what others might have to say about it. 


The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (華岡青洲の妻, Yasuzo Masumura, 1967)

The close relationship between two women is disrupted by the reintroduction of a man in Yasuzo Masumura’s fictionalised account of the rivalry between the wife and mother of pioneering Japanese doctor Seishu Hanaoka. Scripted by Kaneto Shindo and adapted from the novel by Sawako Ariyoshi, the refocusing of the narrative is apparent in its title, not the life of but The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (華岡青洲の妻, Hanaoka Seishu no Tsuma) less a tale of scientific endeavour than of domestic rivalry born of the inherently patriarchal social codes of the feudal society which cannot but help pit one woman against another while forcing each of them to play a role they may not wish to fulfil in order to secure their status and therefore their survival. 

Samurai’s daughter Kae (Ayako Wakao) first catches sight of the beautiful Otsugi (Hideko Takamine) at only eight years old and is instantly captivated by her, a fascination which persists well into adulthood when she is approached to marry into the Hanaoka household as wife to oldest son Seishu (Raizo Ichikawa) away studying to become a doctor like his father. Kae’s father originally objects to the match because of the class difference between the two families, Seishu’s father Naomichi (Yunosuke Ito) being only a humble country doctor of peasant stock whereas they had envisaged a grander station for their only daughter. Yet Kae is already old not to be married and continues to decline prospective suitors and so her mother and nanny (Chieko Naniwa) are minded to put it directly to her discovering that she is in fact more than willing to become a Hanaoka though mostly it seems in order to get close to Otsugi whom she has continued to idolise. 

The strange thing is that the wedding is conducted in Seishu’s absence, a medical text standing in for him while Kae in effect marries her mother-in-law Otsugi. These early days are spent in blissful tranquility as Kae does her best to be the ideal daughter-in-law, Otsugi even remarking that she’s come to love her more than a daughter. The two women share a room, Kae often staring longingly at the back of Otsugi’s head, their relationship one of mutual respect and affection that allows them to forget their respective stations but when three years later Seishu finally returns, it forces them apart in reverting to the roles of wife and mother their statuses conferred only by proximity to a man. 

Pregnant with her first child and about to become a mother herself, Kae’s resentment towards Otsugi begins to boil over. In an ironic premonition of the way the relationship between Masumura and his muse would eventually break down, she claims to have seen through Otsugi’s beauty and concluded that she is cold and calculating believing that she only brought her into the household as an unpaid servant forcing her to work a loom to raise money for Seishu’s medical training. Alternately jealous and condescending, Otsugi’s resentment is mediated through attempts to undermine her daughter-in-law’s authority finally leading to an ironic and absurdist battle between the two as they attempt to outdo each other volunteering to become test subjects for Seishu’s ongoing experiments to discover a safe anaesthetic in order save patients who require surgery but cannot endure the trauma. 

The marriage itself perhaps represents a moment of change in the feudal society, it becoming clear that the samurai are on their way down while skill and knowledge will define success in this new age of enlightenment. While Seishu works on his anaesthetic, the superstitious local community begins to view the Hanaokas with suspicion, believing that the misfortune that befalls them is the result of a curse owing to the large number of cats and dogs which have become casualties of Seishu’s failed experiments while a pedlar brings news of a mysterious disease attributed to the rain which is in fact due to mass malnutrition following a famine caused by the bad weather. When news of Seishu’s prowess as a doctor spreads they are soon overwhelmed with patients, many of whom cannot pay but are seemingly treated anyway. 

Seishu’s eventual victory is one of science over superstition, but it also requires faith which is the battleground contested between wife and mother. Having found a successful solution in cats, Seishu needs human test subjects with both instantly volunteering only to become locked into an absurd, internecine contest to prove who is the most self-sacrificing. The competition goes so far that it effectively becomes a game of dare with each determined to be the one to die for Seishu’s discovery but later realising that the stakes are even higher than first assumed because the winner will be dead but the loser saddled with guilt and possible ostracisation as someone who allowed their mother/daughter-in-law to die to in their place. 

Even so, the pair of them are described as “wonderful examples of womanhood” in their willingness to risk their lives for their “master’s success”. Kae is reminded that a woman’s job is to give birth to a healthy baby, later weaponising her ability to do so as currency in realising that Otsugi has all the control but the one thing she can’t do is bear Seishu’s child. Ironically enough, the cases Seishu is trying to treat are of aggressive breast cancer, the oft repeated maxim being that a woman’s breasts are her life and to remove them is as good as killing her contributing to the sense that maternity is the only thing that gives a woman’s life meaning. It’s not without irony that the first successful surgery under anaesthesia directly juxtaposes a massive tumour removed from a woman’s breast with a baby being removed from a pregnant Kae who, at this point having lost her sight as a consequence of Seishu’s experiments, must bear the pain with no relief. 

Brought together by tragedy, Kae comes to a better understanding of her relationship with her mother-in-law only after she dies learning to see her once again as the kind and beautiful woman she met at eight years old while her unmarried sister-in-law having witnessed their painful war of attrition prays that she won’t be reborn as a woman glad that she was never forced to become a bride nor a mother-in-law. “The struggles of the women in this house were in the end just to bring up one man” she laments, suggesting that Seishu most likely noticed the conflict between the two and used it to his advantage in getting them to participate in his experiments as they desperately tried to prove themselves the better through dying for his love. 

Going one step further, it seems that being a woman is an exercise in futility the only source of success lying paradoxically in birth or death alone, the natural affection between Otsugi and Kae neutered by the presence of Seishu who inserts himself as the pole around which they must dance for their survival. Kae becomes a local legend, a woman who sacrificed her sight in service of her husband but now rejects this mischaracterisation of her life along with the implication that it’s somehow a wife’s duty to deplete herself for her husband’s gain retreating entirely from the society of others while Seishu’s practice continues to prosper. Even so Masumura ends on a note of irony in the literal transformation of Kae into the figure of Otsugi recreating the opening scene as she walks among the bright flowers she can no longer see.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)

Japanese golden age cinema is famed for its centring of female stories, but while it’s true that many of Yasujiro Ozu’s family dramas revolve around a young woman’s feelings towards marriage, the perspective is often surprisingly male. Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Higanbana), his first film in colour, marks something of a change in direction in its spirited defence of the young, but at heart is still a story as much about impending old age, the responsibilities of fatherhood, and changing times as it is about contemporary family dynamics or female agency. 

The father in question, Hirayama (Shin Saburi), is a high ranking executive with two daughters. The older, Setsuko (Ineko Arima), is working at another company, and the younger, Hisako (Miyuki Kuwano), is still in school. Marriage is on his mind because he’s just attended the wedding of an old school friend’s daughter at which he gave a speech, with his wife Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) sitting awkwardly next to him, describing the arranged marriage he had with her as “pragmatic, routine” while he envies the young couple’s “fortunate opportunity” to indulge in romance. He and Kiyoko idly discuss the idea of Setsuko’s marriage, it seems as if there is a promising match on the horizon, with Hirayama conflicted while Kiyoko is very much in favour of doing things the traditional way. She’s already mentioned it to her daughter, but all she does is smile demurely which seems to provoke different interpretations from each of the parents. 

While thinking about all of that, Hirayama receives a visit from an old friend who was a notable absence at the wedding asking him to check up on his daughter Fumiko (Yoshiko Kuga) who ran away from home two months ago to live with a musician after he tried to veto her intention to marry without consulting him. Hirayama is sympathetic, perhaps thinking his friend has acted foolishly and pushed his daughter away. After visiting the bar where she works, he comes to the conclusion that as long as she’s happy with her choice then everyone else should be too. That all goes out the window, however, when a young man, Taniguchi (Keiji Sada), visits him unexpectedly at work and asks for permission to marry Setsuko. Hirayama quite rudely asks him to leave and then irritatedly talks the matter over with Setsuko before petulantly refusing his consent, not because he objects to Taniguchi, but because he is hurt on emotional level that she hadn’t talked to him about this first (not least so that they stop worrying about arranging a marriage) while resentful that she’s gone behind his back and undercut his patriarchal authority. 

In addition to the changing nature of family dynamics, Hirayama is perhaps conscious of his advancing age, feeling himself increasingly obsolescent and therefore additionally wounded by this assault on his authority as a father. The generation gap, however, is all too present. Both Setsuko and Fumiko feel as if they simply cannot talk to their parents because they wouldn’t listen and will never understand. Yukiko (Fujiko Yamamoto), the daughter of another friend, feels something similar in her exasperation with her well-meaning single mother who keeps hatching plans to set her up with various men she isn’t interested in. Intellectually, Hirayama sides with the young, envying them their freedoms and advising Yukiko firstly not to marry at all, and then encouraging her desire to resist arranged marriages despite trying to foist them on his own daughters. 

Even Kiyoko eventually describes her husband’s continuing petulance as “inconsistent”. It seems obvious that Kiyoko is siding with her daughter, immediately taking a liking to Taniguchi who politely brought her home after she stormed out following an argument with her father, but she continues to behave as a “good wife” should, politely minding her husband while gently hoping that he will eventually come round. Only once pushed does she try to explain to him, again politely, that he’s being selfish and unreasonable, but he continues on in resentment while causing his daughter emotional pain simply for trying to find her own happiness rather letting him decide for her. Kiyoko is afraid that if it carries on like this, then Setsuko will, like Fumiko, eventually leave and they’ll lose her completely, something which Hirayama either hasn’t fully considered or is actively encouraging through his petulance. 

In the end the conclusion he comes to is that the parents will eventually have to give way or risk losing their children entirely. He tells both Fumiko and Yukiko that all parents want is for their children to be happy and so nothing else matters, but struggles to put his advice into practice when it comes to his own daughter. Like pretty much everyone in an Ozu film, Hirayama is a good, kind person, even if one struggling against himself as he contemplates a loss of authority, a change in standing, and the difficulty of dealing with complex emotions as a man in a patriarchal society. Predictably, it’s women who essentially bully him into making better decisions, Yukiko “interfering” in the nicest of ways, while his wife makes it clear that though she thinks he’s wrong she will continue to stand by him if only in the hope he will eventually see the light. “Life is absurd, we’re not all perfect” he admits, only later realising how his stubborn foolishness may have caused unnecessary suffering to those he loves the most.


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Snow Country (雪国, Shiro Toyoda, 1957)

Closely associated with literary adaptation, Shiro Toyoda had been wanting to adapt Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (雪国) since its serialisation and apparently spent four years preparing his treatment ahead of the 1957 film starring Ryo Ikebe as the solipsistic aesthete at the novel’s centre. Characteristically, however, he takes several liberties with the source material, notably introducing an entirely different conclusion which perhaps helps in re-centring the tale away from the hero Shimamura to the melancholy geisha who apparently falls for him because of his intense loneliness. 

A brief reference to a failed military insurrection in Manchuria sets us firmly in the mid-1930s as do repeated mentions of the ongoing depression which causes additional anxiety to local business owners in a small holiday resort town. Mimicking the novel’s famous opening, Toyoda opens with a POV shot of a train exiting a tunnel into the snow-covered landscape, the hero Shimamura (Ryo Ikebe) sitting sadly gazing out of a window and eventually captivated by the reflection of a young woman devotedly caring for a young man who appears to be in poor health. Meanwhile, another young woman, Komako (Keiko Kishi), gazes at her own reflection in a train station window, waiting once again as if unable to depart. As we discover, Shimamura has returned with the intention of seeing Komako with whom he’d struck up a relationship during a summer trip but is somewhat disappointed to learn that she has since become a geisha.

In a flashback to their first meeting, Komako asks Shimamura if he has come for “escape”, a question he doesn’t exactly answer while petulantly complaining about his lack of artistic success as someone who paints pictures apparently out of step with his times. When the head of the local commerce association tries to involve him in conversation about the failed insurrection, he bluntly tells him that he’s an artist and as such has no interest in such things, but it does indeed seem that he is looking for some kind of escape from the turbulent times, expressing that here the war seems very far away as does “the depression”. Komako, a more modern and perhaps prophetic figure than it might at first seem, is the only one to bring up the war directly speculating that it may be about to intensify while the frustrated affair between the two seems to be informed by the mounting tensions against which they are attempting to live their lives. 

Rather self-absorbed, Shimamura in a sense may even identify with Komako explaining that he too has a “patron” and implying that his flight is perhaps a response to his sense of powerlessness, that he feels constrained by his financial dependency presumably on his father-in-law though his relative economic superiority which leads Komako to frequently remark on his “extravagance” obviously affords him the freedom to make these random solo trips to ski resorts and indulge his career as a painter regardless of its capacity to support himself and his family. Komako must know on some level that the relationship is a fantasy, yet she believes in it enough to end her connection with an elderly patron on suspecting that she is carrying Shimamura’s child only to have her hopes dashed when he does not turn up for a local festival as promised with the consequence that all of her dependents are turfed out of the home he had provided for her. 

Komako is not “free” in the same way that Shimamura evidently is, her entire life dictated by the fact that she is poor and female. Fostered by a shamisen teacher, she may have been technically engaged to the young man, Yukio (Akira Nakamura), Shimamura saw on the train being cared for by Yoko (Kaoru Yachigusa), Komako’s foster sister in love with him herself, but intensely resents the burdens she is expected to bear quite literally with her body. She later tells Shimamura that she didn’t become a geisha for Yukio in order to pay his medical bills but out of a sense of obligation, while she is also responsible for her birth family, the now bedridden shamisen teacher, and Yoko who intensely resents her for her callous treatment of Yukio and generally “dissolute”, selfish way of living. During the famous fire in a cinema that closes the novel (but not the film), Komako even exclaims that her life would be easier if Yoko burned to death, but on witnessing her either fall or jump from the burning building she can do nothing other than run to her side. 

Indeed, the novel’s climax finds Shimaura standing alone indifferent to the fate of Yoko, a young woman he had come to admire if only for her contrary qualities, admiring instead the beauty of the night sky. In Toyoda’s characterisation, Yoko is in one sense the conventionally good woman whose selfless devotion to the sickly Yukio so captivates Shimamura, but her goodness is nevertheless undercut by the degree of her animosity towards Komako even as the two women remain trapped in a complex web of frustrated affection and intense resentment, each perhaps knowing they neither can have the man they want and are condemned to an eternal unhappiness as the snow mounts all around them in this perpetually cold and depressing moribund resort town. Switching between studio matte paintings ironically mimicking Shimamura’s art and on-location footage of the deepening snows, Toyoda’s sense of near nihilistic melancholy evoking the atmosphere of Japan in the mid-1930s hints at grand tragedy but finds resolution only in stoicism as the heroine picks up her shamisen and trudges onward amid the quickening blizzard.  


Shozo, a Cat and Two Women (猫と庄造と二人のをんな, Shiro Toyoda, 1956)

Post-war melodrama is largely concerned with the place of women, in particular, in a rapidly changing society, but given the centrality of domestic life, were men yearning for “independence” too? Shiro Toyoda was closely associated with comedic tales of strong women and weak men, and Shozo, a Cat and Two Women (猫と庄造と二人のをんな, Neko to Shozo to Futari no Onna) is as its title implies no exception. Adapting the novel by Tanizaki, Toyoda offers a subtle critique of the traditional family as its hapless hero finds himself caught between the conflicting demands of his feudalistic mother, stoic first wife, hedonistic second, and his much loved but perhaps mercenary feline, Lily. 

Shozo (Hisaya Morishige) is perhaps a typical spoiled only son, lazy, feckless, and essentially passive. Shinako (Isuzu Yamada) who agreed to an arranged marriage with him four years previously is walking out, thoroughly fed up with her mother-in-law Orin’s (Chieko Naniwa) constant complaints not least among them that the couple have no children. Unbeknownst to Shinako, however,  Shozo has been carrying on with his slightly younger cousin, Fukuko (Kyoko Kagawa), who is a free spirited modern woman. In fact, Fukuko has already run away from home three times in the company of various men so her wealthy father would be only too pleased to see her settle down and is so desperate to offload her that he’s even offering a huge dowry. All of this is complicated by the fact that Fukuko’s father already owns the mortgage on Shozo’s family store, which presents a serious challenge to typical family dynamics. 

Shozo, meanwhile, is only really interested in his pet cat, Lily, something which was a bone of contention in his failed marriage to Shinako (and perhaps a reason they have not been blessed with children). On learning that Orin has already moved Fukuko into the family home mere seconds after she vacated it, Shinako is suddenly struck by remorse and feels the need to vindicate her pride through revenge. Plotting how best to drive a wedge between Fukuko and her new husband, she settles on petitioning Shozo to give her custody of Lily, and then suggests the same thing to her rival knowing that whatever happens it will cause a series of problems in the Oyama household. 

The irony is, in a sense, that it’s Shozo who has been displaced from his own home. Perhaps surprisingly, he often tries to help out with household tasks but his mother always stops him, insisting that housework isn’t something a man should pay attention to. Orin is of course perpetuating outdated ideas of traditional gender roles, but there is also an obvious anxiety in her need to protect her territory from possible incursion. She doesn’t necessarily trust the idea that she and Shozo are connected by anything deeper than practicality and filial obligation and her only currency is her ability to provide the services that Shozo “cannot” provide for himself. His learning to take care of himself is an existential threat to her position as his caregiver even though he is a grown man in his 30s perfectly capable of doing his own laundry and preparing his own meals (as he already does for Lily who particularly enjoys grilled chicken). 

When they brought Shinako into the house, they did so apparently because she was known to be a “good worker” at her job as a maid for a wealthy family. Since then she has indeed worked hard, but is viewed as little more than a glorified servant by Orin who has delegated much of the feminine labour to the younger woman, while Shozo emotionally neglects her in favour of the cat and apparently satisfies his carnal urges outside the home. They accept Fukuko for her money, but take the opposite approach, treating her as the lady of the manor. Fukuko does no housework (a cupboard is later discovered where she’d thrown all the washing she couldn’t be bothered to do), but Orin simply picks up her share and more, becoming maid to her daughter-in-law who frequently reminds them that it’s her money paying for everything so she is the one who is really in charge. 

Shozo does not seem to react too closely to these assaults on his masculinity, but only wants to escape to be alone with Lily whom he believes is the only one who really loves him. In this he is perhaps the truly modern man who wanted his family relations to be “real” rather than defined by social obligation, but he’s also self-centred and childish, still seeing the women (even Lily) as providers of service rather than fellow human beings. His mother satisfied his hunger, Shinako kept him financially by managing the business, and Fukuko sated his passion, but he feels oppressed by all of them in different ways and in the end does not want the responsibility of dealing with human emotions. Lily may be capricious, but her needs are easily satisfied and to that extent she is dependent on him. His desire to be “independent” and find emotional fulfilment only with his cat is just as much of a challenge to the social order as a woman who rejects marriage or seeks to fulfil herself outside of the home. 

Shozo’s dilemma is however presented as comedic until its unexpectedly melancholy conclusion which reduces him to the status of a stray cat as the women come to literal blows, fighting not quite over him (he isn’t worth fighting over) but for their own self-esteem and particular brand of womanhood. Shinako sits at home and calculates all the back pay she’d be entitled to for the labour she performed at the Oyama household in recognition that being a wife is also a job and they treated her as a maid anyway (which is to say as an outsider with no intention of love or loyalty), while Fukuko begins to see the “emptiness” in her party girl lifestyle but prefers to be pampered and resents being “beaten” by a mere housemaid. This system traps everyone, forcing them to manipulate the desires of others while suppressing their own. Shozo and his cat are left out in the cold, trapped between tradition and modernity but no more free than they were before even in their mutual dependency.


Tsukigata Hanpeita (月形半平太, Kokichi Uchide, 1952)

Tusgikata Hanpeita still 1In the midst of post-war confusion, Japanese cinema increasingly looked back to Meiji in all of its chaotic possibility in order to ask what went wrong and what lessons it might have for a second kind of revolution as the nation tried to rebuild itself after decades of militarist folly and chastened wartime defeat. “Tsukigata Hanpeita” (月形半平太) is a “legendary” fictional character first imagined for a kabuki play in 1919 who finds himself swept up in Bakumatsu intrigue as he tries, along with daring revolutionaries Sakamoto Ryoma and Katsura Kogoro, to forge an alliance between the clans of Choshu and Satsuma in order to take on the corrupt shogun in defence of the Emperor and foster a new era of peace in an increasingly uncertain world.

When we first meet him, Tsukigata Hanpeita (Utaemon Ichikawa) is on the run from Kyoto-based special police force the Mimawarigumi but also making time for his mistress, Umematsu (Chizuru Kitagawa) – a geisha. This in particular is a problem which has left him dangerously exposed, even the Mimawarigumi leader Okudaira (Joji Kaieda) seems to be aware of the relationship and is apparently not above using it to his advantage. Meanwhile, he’s not only threatened by shogunate defenders, but by his own side – both by those who remain unconvinced by Sakamoto’s (Jotaro Togami) internationalist philosophy, and by those who simply hold a grudge against Satsuma because of a previous conflict and regard Tsukigata as a traitor for daring to talk to them at all. Despite everything, Tsukigata hides in the shadows and commits himself to living, and if necessary dying, to bring about a better world free of shogunate oppression.

Unlike other revolutionary legends, however, Tsukigata’s fervour has not made him cold or cruel even if he must sometimes act in ways which are mysterious and confuse those around him. Meeting a young man on a bridge, he applauds his studious nature, agreeing that “nothing is more important than to understand advanced civilisation”, and is as polite as he could be when the man tells him he has just joined the Mimawarigumi. Rather than attack or berate him, Tsukigata cheerfully wishes the young man well, allowing him the space to see that his present allegiance to the shogunate is perhaps misguided and out of line with his personal beliefs.

Indeed, his compassion extends even to Okudaira – his mortal enemy. Offering his condolences to a grieving Somehachi (Isuzu Yamada), Tsugikata laments that in a better world he and Okudaira may have been friends, that he had no personal grudge against him despite the fact that they clearly lived on different sides of an ideological divide. He could perhaps even harbour a kind of professional respect for him in his dogged defence of his duty for all he believes it to be misguided. “It’s so unfortunate”, he exclaims, “We have to make the world a better place”.

His desire to change the world is what keeps Tsukigata alive. Several times he faces certain death, but declares but he cannot die now with his great work left unfinished. He is not afraid of death and would gladly give his life in the service of his cause, only not just yet. “Would you please spare my life until I change the world?” he begs of someone he fully believes has a right to kill him, eventually winning their support and unexpected allegiance solely through his guileless goodness.

Yet for all that, his moral austerity does at times perhaps cause him problems in giving rise to emotional confusion. So it is that he winds up in an accidental love triangle with the smitten Somehachi – a former geisha turned madam whose patron is none other than Okudaira, and Umematsu an ageing courtesan with whom he has developed a more or less settled relationship. This is clearly the story of Tsukigata Hanpeita, but more than that it’s the story of the three women who support him without whom the revolution may even be impossible. Somehachi, despite her allegiance to Okudaira, has been a longstanding Tsukigata ally several times helping him escape from the oncoming Mimawarigumi, while Umematsu provides him with safe harbour and occasional message carrying services which is where teenage geisha Hinagiku (Hibari Misora) comes in, acting as a revolutionary go-between with deep-seated political passion.

Speaking strongly of female solidarity, the fallout from the love triangle is eventually minimised by the sisterly geishas who later bond in their shared support of Tsukigata and resolve to put past pettiness behind them. Meanwhile, Tsukigata is deceived by male treachery, only to finally receive the message he’s been waiting for which seems to make everything worthwhile. “I can see the dawn of a new era”, he exclaims, “the new era will be peaceful”. Suddenly he’s not just talking of himself anymore, but directly to the post-war era as he begins to see the way out of a “chaotic society” towards a prosperous future in the faces of his friends united in mutual support and the belief that his better world will soon be a reality.


Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Tomu Uchida, 1959)

Chikamatsu's love in Osaka poster“Money is the enemy” a dejected geisha declares in an attempt to explain her desperate circumstances to a naive young man part way  through Tomu Uchida’s Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Naniwa no Koi no Monogatari). Before a wartime flirtation with the militarist far right, Uchida had been closely involved with the leftwing “tendency film” movement and his post-war work perhaps displays much the same spirit only with a world weary resignation to the inherent unfairness of human society. Chikamatsu, as cited in the slightly awkward English language title, was a Japanese playwright of the 17th/18th century who also specialised in tales of social oppression, most notably in frustrated romance and eventual double suicides.

Uchida’s masterstroke is that he retells Chikamatsu’s well known bunraku play The Courier for Hell and its kabuki counterpart Couriers of Love Fleeing to Yamato from the inside out. Among Chikamatsu’s most famous works the play was in fact inspired by a real life event which took place in Osaka (then known as “Naniwa”) in 1710. Uchida places the grumpy, worldweary figure of the playwright directly into the action as a powerless observer, trapped on the wrong side of the stage able only to observe and comment but, crucially, with the ability to remake reality in altering his tale in the telling.

The tale is familiar enough and possibly a little too close to that of Chikamatsu’s previous hits including Love Suicides at Sonezaki which is given a grim namecheck as events begin to mirror one of his plays. Our hero, Chubei (Kinnosuke Nakamura), is an earnest young man who has been adopted into the Kameya family with the intention that he will marry its only daughter and take over the courier business now being run by stern widow Myokan (Kinuyo Tanaka). Early foreshadowing reminds us that immense responsibility is regularly placed in Chubei’s hands and he must remain above suspicion. Embezzlement is a capital offence in the increasingly austere 18th century society.

Chubei is an honest man, but meek. Unable to risk offending a bawdy client, he allows himself to be bamboozled into the red light district where Hachiemon (Minoru Chiaki) buys him the prettiest courtesan in the place, Umegawa (Ineko Arima). Chubei tries to leave as soon as Hachiemon disappears but is convinced to stay by Umegawa’s entreaties that his sudden exit will reflect badly on her and possibly result in censure or punishment. Struck by her predicament, Chubei falls in love. He makes repeated returns, dips into his savings, and finally makes the fateful decision to spend money not his own when he discovers that a lascivious magnate has made an offer to buy out Umegawa’s contract.

Meanwhile, Chikamatsu hovers on the edges conducting “research” for a new play to save his failing theatre company which itself is suffering due to lack of monetary receipts seeing as audience members obviously prefer the heartrending melodrama of Sonezaki to the more artistic fare he’s currently running. Though he is obviously a frequenter of the red light district and its surrounding drinking establishments, Chikamatsu has a noticeably ambivalent stance towards its existence. His sympathy is instantly caught by the melancholy Umegawa when he notices her tenderly bandage the hand of a little girl who serves in the brothel, only to have her beautiful gesture of human kindness immediately mocked by the lascivious magnate who witnesses the same thing but chooses to ask her to repeat the act on him.

Chikamatsu was supposed to come to the teahouse in order to schmooze the magnate so that he will invest in the theatre company which perhaps generates an odd commonality between the playwright and courtesan both at the mercy of wealthy patrons who, one might say, are all money and no class. Umegawa, however, as Chikamatsu is painfully aware is in no way free and entirely dependent on pleasing men like the magnate whether she likes them or not. As she tells Chubei, Umegawa didn’t choose this line of work but people judge her for it anyway. She has no bodily autonomy and is bought and sold daily with no right to refuse. She is “merchandise” that “talks, laughs, cries, and gets angry” and the sole concern in all of her life is money which she now regards as “the enemy” for the subjugated position in which the need for it has placed her.

Of course, the playwright (our stand-in) has been listening all along. He too would like to free Umegawa from her torment, but he is powerless and can only blame the world that created the circumstances that trap her. Chubei is no hero either, he is weak and feckless even if his eventual willingness to damn himself by embezzling other people’s money (and ruining his adopted family in the process) proves the depth both of his love and of his rage at the social injustice which prevents him from pursuing his romantic desires. Chikamatsu can’t save his fatalistic heroes, but he can create a more fitting vision of their love imbued with all world nearly grandeur of tragic romance that returns our eyes to the cruelty of the world that wouldn’t let them be. A stunning final shot pulls us from Chikamatsu once again in the background as he watches his own play onto the other side of the stage and then back again as the playwright’s eyes burn with silent rage and impotence as he offers the only kind of resistance he can in the face of a cruel and indifferent society.


The Garden of Women (女の園, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1954)

garden of women still 1Things changed after the war, but not as much as some might have hoped. Sadly still topical, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Garden of Women (女の園, Onna no Sono) takes aim both at persistent and oppressive patriarchal social structures and at a compromised educational system which, intentionally or otherwise, systematically stifles attempts at progressive social change. A short few years before student protests would plunge education into crisis, Kinoshita’s film asks why it is that the establishment finds itself in conflict with the prevailing moods of the time and discovers that youth intends to have its brighter future even if it has to fight for it all the way.

The setting is an exclusive private woman’s university in the elegant historical city of Kyoto. The ladies who attend this establishment are mostly from very wealthy families who have decided to educate their daughters at the college precisely because of its image of properness. As one student will later put it, there are two kinds of girls at the school – those who genuinely want to study in order to make an independent life for themselves and intend to look for work after graduation, and those who are merely adding to their accomplishments in order to hook a better class of husband. Everyone, however, is subject to a stringent set of rules which revolves around the formation of the ideal Japanese woman through strictly enforced “moral education” which runs to opening the girls’ private letters and informing their families of any “untoward” content, and requiring that permission be sought should the girls wish to attend “dances” or anything of that nature.

As might be expected, not all of the girls are fully compliant even if they superficially conform to the school’s rigid social code. Scolded for her “gaudy” hair ribbon on the first day of school, Tomiko (Keiko Kishi) rolls her eyes at the over the top regulations and enlists the aid of the other girls to cover for her when she stays out late with friends but her resistance is only passive and she has no real ideological objection towards the ethos of the school other than annoyance in being inconvenienced. Tomiko is therefore mildly irritated by the presence of the melancholy Yoshie (Hideko Takamine). Three years older, she’s come to college late and is struggling to keep up with classes but is, ironically enough, prevented from studying by the same school rules which insist she go to bed early.

Meanwhile, dorm mate Akiko (Yoshiko Kuga), from an extraordinarily wealthy and well connected family, is becoming increasingly opposed to the oppressive atmosphere at the school. However, as another already politically active student points out, Akiko’s background means there are absolutely no stakes for her in this fight. She has never suffered, and likely never will, because she always has been and always will be protected by her privilege. Fumie (Kazuko Yamamoto), a hardline socialist, doubts Akiko’s commitment to the cause, worrying that in the end she is only staging a minor protest against her family and will eventually drift away back to her world of ski lodges and summer houses. Despite her ardour, Akiko finds it hard to entirely dispute Fumie’s reasoning and is at constant battle with herself over her true feelings about the state of the modern world as it relates to herself individually and for women in general.

This is certainly a fiercely patriarchal society. Even though these women are in higher education, they are mostly there to perfect the feminine arts which are, in the main, domestic. They are not being prepared for the world of work or to become influential people in their own right, but merely to support husbands and sons as pillars of the rapidly declining social order that those who sent them there are desperate to preserve. For many of the girls, however, times are changing though more for some than others. Tomiko rolls her eyes and does as she pleases, within reason, and even if she eventually wants to see things change at the school it is mostly for her own benefit. She sees no sense in Akiko’s desire for reform as a stepping stone to wider social change, and perhaps even fears the kinds of changes that Akiko and Fumie are seeking.

Akiko and Fumie, and to an extent, Tomiko, seem to have a degree of agency that others do not as seen in the tragic story of Yoshie whose life has been largely ruined thanks to the selfish and heartless actions of her father. From a comparatively less wealthy family, Yoshie worked in a bank for three years during which time she met and fell in love with an earnest young man named Shimoda (Takahiro Tamura). However, her father, having become moderately successful, developed an appetite for social climbing and is determined she marry “well” to increase his own sense of superiority as a fully fledged member of the middle classes. He sees his daughter as nothing more than a tool or extension of himself and cares nothing for her thoughts or feelings. In order to resist his demands for an arranged marriage, Yoshie enrolled in school and is desperate to stay long enough for Shimoda to finish his education so they can marry.

Yoshie is trapped at every turn – she cannot rely on her family, she cannot simply leave them, she cannot yet marry, if she leaves the school she will be reliant on a man who effectively intends to sell her, but her life here is miserable and there is no one who can help her. All she receives from the educational establishment is censure and the instruction to buck up or get kicked out. She feels herself a burden to the other girls who regard her as dim and out of place thanks to their relatively minor age gap and cannot fully comprehend her sense of anxiety and frustration.

Finally standing up to the uncomfortably fascistic school board the girls band together to demand freedoms both academic and social, insisting that there can be no education without liberty, but the old ways die hard as they discover most care only for appearances, neatly shifting the blame onto others in order to support their cause. “Why must we suffer so?” Yoshie decries at a particularly low point as she laments her impossible circumstances. Why indeed. The oppressive stricture of the old regime may eventually cause its demise but it intends to fight back by doubling down and the fight for freedom will be a long one even if youth intends to stand firm.


Titles and opening scene (no subtitles)