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

vlcsnap-2019-03-15-00h18m28s351Working 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”.


The Good Fairy (善魔, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

Good fairy DVDAlthough one of the more prominent names in post-war cinema, the work of Keisuke Kinoshita has often been out of fashion, derided for its sentimental naivety. It is true to say that Kinoshita values heroes whose essential goodness improves the world around them though that is not to say that he is entirely without sympathy for the conflicted or imperfect even if his equanimity begins to waver with age. 1951’s The Good Fairy (善魔, Zemma), however, working from a script penned not by himself but Kogo Noda and adapted from the novel by Kunio Kishida, seems to turn his life philosophy on its head, wondering whether the tyranny of puritanical goodness is an evil in itself or merely the best weapon against it.

After beginning with a hellish, ominous title sequence set against the flames, the film opens with newspaper editor Nakanuma (Masayuki Mori) getting a hot tip regarding a politician’s wife who seems to have mysteriously disappeared. He hands the assignment to rookie reporter Rentaro Mikuni (played by the actor Rentaro Mikuni who subsequently took his stage name from this his debut role) who specialises in political corruption. Mikuni doesn’t like the assignment. He thinks it’s unethical and whatever happens between a man and his wife is no one’s business, but ends up going to see the politician, Kitaura (Koreya Senda), anyway and instantly dislikes him. Mildly worried by Kitaura’s lack of concern over his wife’s sudden absence, Mikuni stays on the case and visits the wife’s father (Chishu Ryu) up in the mountains where he also meets her sister, Mikako (Yoko Katsuragi), who eventually leads him to the woman herself, Itsuko (Chikage Awashima), who has taken refuge with a friend after becoming disillusioned with her husband’s “vulgar” pursuit of success at the continuing cost of human decency.

To pull back for a second, in any other Kinoshita film, Itsuko would be among the heroes in standing up against her husband’s corrupting influences, but for reasons which will later be explained she lingers on the borders of righteousness owing to having made a mistaken choice in her youth which was, in many ways, defined by the times in which she lived. Nukanuma had not been entirely honest with Mikuni in that he had known and secretly been in love with Itsuko when they were both students but he was poor and diffident and so he never declared himself, his only attempt to hint as his feelings either tragically or wilfully misunderstood. Where Itsuko, who married for money and status as a young woman was expected to do in the pre-war society, has mellowed with age and gained compassionate morality, Nakanuma who became a reporter to fight for justice against the background of fascist oppression has become cynical and selfish. Never having quite forgotten Itsuko, he has been in a casual relationship with a young actress, Suzue (Toshiko Kobayashi), for the last two years never realising that she has really fallen in love with him.

Thinking back on his college relationship with Itsuko, Nakanuma remembers talking with her about unsuccessful romances, that if a man tries his best to make a woman happy but isn’t able to then it must be because she doesn’t love him. Itsuko agrees, adding that men never seem to know what makes a woman happy in love but that friendship is a different matter. She says something similar when she tells him she’s getting married but doesn’t want to lose his friendship, and when he begins floating the idea of marriage hinting that he wants to marry her but perhaps giving the mistaken impression that there’s someone else in stating that it’s sad when a friend marries because the relationship with never be the same again and knowing that he intends to marry she now treasures their friendship even more. In a sense, Nakanuma thinks of Suzue as a “friend” with whom he occasionally sleeps, believing that their relationship is only ever liminal and temporary but mutually beneficial and capable of continuing even if the sexual component had to end.

Having failed once in love, Nakanuma is resolved not to do so again and determined to fight to win Itsuko rather than lose her through cowardice, but to do so he will cruelly wound Suzue who has treated him with nothing other than tenderness. By this time, Mikuni has fallen in chaste, innocent love with Mikako who reminds him of the parts of himself he feels are being erased by his compromising job as part of the mass media machine. Mikuni’s terrifying “goodness” is largely a positive quality which leads him to fight for justice against oppression even within his own organisation but his love for the saintly Mikako only intensifies his moral purity and threatens not only to turn him into an insufferable prig but to create in him a new oppressor, spreading guilt and unhappiness like the self-righteous hero of an Ibsen play.

Early on, following their mild disagreement about journalistic ethics, Mikuni and Nakanuma have dinner together over which they debate the power of the press to bring about social change and hold power to account. Nakanuma says he’s become cynical because hating injustice isn’t enough and there’s nothing that the individual can do against an oppressive system. What he’s telling Mikuni is that he used to be like him, but time has taught him righteousness is not an effective weapon against entrenched social privilege. He recounts a dark story from a Buddhist monk who told him that good can never win over evil because it isn’t strong enough, only evil is strong enough to fight evil and so in order to counter it you will need to affect its weapons. Later, crazed by grief and exhaustion, Mikuni’s “goodness” seems to pulse out of him with ominous supernatural force as he takes Nakanuma to task for his callous treatment of Suzue only for he and Itsuko to come to the conclusion that they’ve heard the voice of “evil” and are now condemned by their past choices to lives of morally pure unhappiness.

This central conundrum seems to contradict Kinoshita’s otherwise open philosophies in its unwelcome rigidity which says that there are no second chances and no possibility of ever moving on from the past with positivity. Itsuko made the “wrong” choice when she was young in choosing to marry for material gain, but she was only making the choice her society expected her to make in the absence of other options – it wasn’t as if she had any reason to wait around for Nakanuma whose regret over his romantic cowardice has made him cold and bitter. She realised her mistake too late and resolved to correct it, but the “Good Fairy” won’t let her, it says she has to pay (for the crimes of an oppressive society) by sacrificing again her chance of happiness in the full knowledge of all she’s giving up. Kinoshita’s films advocate the right to love by will, free of oppressive social codes or obligations but Itsuko is denied a romantic resolution despite having “reformed” herself and made consistently “correct” choices since discovering her husband’s “fraud”. She is denied this largely because of Nakunuma’s failing in being unkind to one who loved him, which is, in a round about way, still her fault for not having realised he loved her and deciding to marry him instead. In fact, the only one who seems to get off scot-free is Kitaura whose fraudulent activities will be covered up on the condition he consent to Itsuko’s divorce petition and sets her fully “free” so she can be fully burdened by the weight of her romantic sacrifice.

In the end, it’s difficult to see a positive outcome which could emerge from all this unhappiness which seems primed only to spread and reproduce itself with potentially disastrous consequences. Mikuni’s purity has become puritanical, unforgiving and rigid, condemning all to a hellish misery from which there can be no escape. The cure is worse than the disease. No one could live like this, and no one should. Goodness, tempered by compassion and understanding, might not be enough to fight the darkness all alone but it might be better to live in the half-light than in the hellish flickering of the fires of righteousness.


Title sequence and opening scene (no subtitles)

Until the Lights Come Back (大停電の夜に, Takashi Minamoto, 2005)

Until the Lights Come Back posterChristmas is, among other things, conveniently held on the same day every year. As such, it can’t help but become a moment of minor introspection inviting a thorough investigation of a life’s trajectory. In Japan, Christmas is also about romance which means it can also be an intense or melancholy occasion in which relationships past and present come up for reappraisal. Takashi Minamoto’s ensemble drama Until the Lights Come Back (大停電の夜に, Daiteiden no Yoru ni) spins a tale of city life as it catches hold of a number of accidentally connected souls and puts them through the emotional ringer thanks to an artificial psychological pause engineered by a power cut on Christmas Eve,

A melancholy barman sets a record going. A boy tracking satellites sees a girl hovering dangerously close to edge of the roof opposite. A conflicted salaryman finds out a dark family secret. A mistress is dumped while a wife wonders how much longer she should wait. A pregnant woman is chased by a yakuza, and an old lady gets an unexpected phone call.

Somehow, all of these events are connected though it takes a moment to figure out how. Christmas is a time for romance, but for the dejected salaryman, Ryotaro (Tomorowo Taguchi), it’s about to become a very difficult day indeed. When his terminally ill father decides to tell him the secrets of his birth, it prompts him into a mild bout of introspection concerning his own familial relationships. Ten years with the patient Shizue (Tomoyo Harada) haven’t cured his philandering and the marriage is strained to breaking point. Still, he thinks nothing of cancelling their special Christmas Eve dinner together to go meet his mistress even if his true purpose is to end things before they get any more complicated.

Missed connections and frustrated love stories continue to dominate. The mistress, Misuzo (Haruka Igawa), gets into a lift with Chinese bellboy Dongdong (Tsuyoshi Abe) who was supposed to be going back to Shanghai to visit his long-distance girlfriend who he worries is losing interest. Meanwhile, the melancholy barman, Mr. Kido (Etsushi Toyokawa), is pining for a failed love of his own – a woman he foolishly abandoned and then tried to pick back up again only to learn she had married someone else and that the marriage was unhappy. Mr. Kido gave up his musical dreams to open a jazz bar in the hope his love would someday return to him, only to be visited by “hope” in a different form – that of the strange young woman, Nozomi (Tomoko Tabata), from the across the way who’s about to have a very big business night in her off the beaten track artisanal candle shop.

Meanwhile, the recently released ex-yakuza, Gin (Koji Kikkawa), pines for his lost love in the form of the heavily pregnant Reiko (Shinobu Terajima) who swore to wait for him but eventually drifted away and married someone else though she seems to be happy enough which, strangely, he seems to find a comfort. When the lights go out there’s nothing much else to do but talk and think and so each of our wounded protagonists is forced to put their pain into focus, considering the wider context of an emotional landscape and attempting to find accommodation within it. Mr. Kido can’t quite let go of his failed love, however much he might want to, but Gin can perhaps learn to be thankful that the woman he loved found someone nice who looked after her when he couldn’t.

While the older generation swap stories of the eerie wartime blackouts and those of the comparatively less worrying power outages born of an inability to keep up with a rapidly recovering economy, the young make the best of it – swapping the twinkling lights of Christmas displays for the wonder of the stars. Candlelight and unexpected friendships give birth to new ways of thinking and create their very own Christmas miracles which seem set to pave a way towards a happier future for all in which forgiveness and understanding rule. Strangely warm yet never sentimental, Until the Lights Come Back captures a brief moment of stillness in a lonely city as its disconnected heroes find themselves pulled into a series of concentric epiphanies, putting the past to rest while learning to embrace an as yet unseen future.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Room for Let (貸間あり, Yuzo Kawashima, 1959)

room for rent poster“Life is just goodbyes” exclaims a tenant of the small, rundown boarding house at the centre of Yuzo Kawashima’s Room for Let (貸間あり, Kashima Ari). Best remembered for his anarchic farces, Kawashima takes a trip down south to the comedy capital of Japan for an exploration of life on the margins of a major metropolis as a host of eccentric characters attempt to negotiate the difficult post-war economy, each in someway having failed badly enough to end up here. Though the setting is perhaps depressing, the lively atmosphere of the boarding house is anything but and the residents, depending on each other as a community of solidarity, know they have the ultimate resource at their disposal in the form of infinitely kind hearted, multi-talented fixer Goro Yoda.

Our introduction to the boarding house follows the passage of an outsider, Yumiko Tsuyama (Chikage Awashima) – a ceramicist who wants to make use of Goro’s printing facilities, but to find him she’ll first have to run the gamut of eccentric residents from the batty bee keeper to the geisha currently trying to fumigate one of her patrons by riding him around the room and the henpecked husband who responds to his wife’s frequent shouts of “Darling!” with a military style “yes, sir!”. On her way to Goro’s jam packed annex, Yumiko notices a room to let sign along with a kiln in the courtyard which catches her eye. Taking a liking both to the room and to Goro, Yumiko moves in and subsequently gets herself involved in the oddly exciting world of an old-fashioned courtyard standing on a ridge above a rapidly evolving city.

Played by well known comedian Frankie Sakai (who played a similar role in Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyoden of two years earlier), Goro is an awkward symbol of post-war malaise and confusion. Goro, a jack of all trades, is the man everyone turns to when they run into a seemingly unsolvable problem, and Goro almost always knows a way to solve them (for a price). His sign in the marketplace proclaims that he speaks several languages and is available for tutoring students, he’s written “how to” books on just about everything you can imagine, he knows how to make the perfect cabbage rolls and konyaku, ghostwrites serial fiction, and runs a small printing enterprise, yet Goro is not a scholar, (licensed) lawyer, doctor, or successful businessman he’s a goodhearted chancer living on his wits. He runs away from success and eventually from love because he doesn’t think he deserves it due his continuing “fakery”.

Despite his minor shadiness, Goro’s kindness and sincerity stand in stark contrast to the evils of his age. Like Goro, many of the boarding house residents are trying to get ahead through somewhat unconventional means including the bawdy lady from upstairs whose main business is blackmarket booze, the peeping-tom street punk who peddles dirty pictures near the station, and the sad young woman working as an independent geisha (Nobuko Otowa) to save enough money to marry her betrothed whom she hopes is still waiting for her at home in her tiny village. That’s not to mention the mad scientist bee keeper who can’t help describing everything he sees in terms of bees and has attempted to turn their apian secretions into a cream which increases sexual potency, or the enterprising landlady who realises she could charge a few more pennies for patrons who want to sit in a fancy seat or watch TV while they eat dinner.

Yumiko isn’t the only outsider sending shockwaves through the community, a young student armed with a camera and the determination to avoid parental disapproval, intends to petition Goro to take his exams for him. The aptly named Eto (Shoichi Ozawa) is a dim boy with seemingly infinite wealth who’d rather scheme his way to the top than invest his energy in getting there the honest way. In this he’s the inverse of Goro whose simple sincerity and easy going nature are, it is subtly suggested, partly the reason he hasn’t made his way in the increasingly duplicitous post-war society. Goro does, however, give in to Eto’s nefarious plan even if it conflicts with his otherwise solid honour code which also sees him turn down the “opportunity” of sleeping with his neighbour’s seemingly insatiable wife in one of the stranger requests coming in to his do anything shop.

Kawashima’s true mastery lies not in the myriad moments of small comedy that pepper the main narrative, but in the glorious way he brings them all together as a perfectly constructed farce. The residents of the boarding house (one of whom is so proud of the “room to let” sign he made that he doesn’t want to rent the room because then he’d have to take the sign down) each face their own difficulties and disappointments but even when darkness creeps in (suicides, arrest, sexual assault, and animal cruelty all raising their ugly heads) the absurd positivity and warmth of these ordinary Osakans seems to be enough to combat it. Life may be a series of goodbyes, but it must still be lived, at least to the best of one’s ability.


 Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Also screening at:

An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Tadashi Imai, 1953)

inlet of muddy water dvd coverTadashi Imai was among the greatest directors of the golden age though his name remains far less known than contemporaries Ozu or Mizoguchi. Despite beginning in outright propaganda films during the war, Imai is best remembered as a staunchly left wing director whose films are known for their gritty realism and opposition to oppressive social codes. An Inlet of Muddy Water (にごりえ, Nigorie) very much fits this bill in adapting three stories from Japanese author Ichiyo Higuchi. Higuchi is herself a giant figure of Japanese literature though little of her work has been translated into English. Like Imai’s films, Higuchi’s stories are known for their focus on female suffering and the prevailing social oppression of the late Meiji era which had seen many changes but not all for the better. Higuchi was not a political writer and her work does not attack an uncaring society so much as describe it accurately though her own early death from tuberculosis at only 24 certainly lends weight to the tragedy of her times.

In the first part of the film which is inspired by one of Higuchi’s best known stories, The Thirteenth Night, a young woman returns home to her parents, no longer able to bear living with an emotionally abusive husband. Oseki (Yatsuko Tanami) had been raised an ordinary, lower middle-class girl but, like many a heroine of feudal era literature, caught the eye of a prominent nobleman who determined to marry her despite their class difference. Life is not a fairytale, and so the nobleman quickly tired of his beautiful peasant wife, belittling her lowly status, lack of education, and failure to slot into the elite world he inhabits.

Oseki’s plight elicits ambivalent reactions in each of her parents though they both sympathise with her immensely, if in different ways. Her mother (Akiko Tamura) is heartbroken – having long believed her daughter to be living a blissful life of luxury, she feels terribly guilty not to have known she had been suffering all this time and believes Oseki has done the right thing in leaving. Her father (Ken Mitsuda), however, also feels sad but reacts in practicality, pointing out that to leave her husband now would mean losing her son forever and probably a long, lonely life of penury. He, somewhat coldly, tells her to go back, grin and bear it. Oseki can see his point and considers resigning herself to return if only to look after her son.

On her way home she runs into a childhood friend whom she might have married if things had not turned out the way they did. “Life gets in the way of the things we want to do”, she tells him by of explanation for not staying in touch. Rokunosuke (Hiroshi Akutagawa), once a fine merchant, is now a ragged rickshaw driver, bereaved father, and divorcee. Like Oseki his life is a tragedy of frustration with the added irritant that he and Oseki might have been happy together, rather than independently miserable, if an elite had not suddenly decided to interfere by crossing class lines just because he can rather than out of any genuine feeling.

The callousness of elites is also a theme in the second story, The Last Day of the Year, in which a young maid, Omine (Yoshiko Kuga), works for a wealthy household dominated by a moody, penny pinching mistress whose mistreatment of her staff is more indifference than deliberate scorn. Omine’s uncle, who raised her, has fallen ill. At the beginning of his illness he took out a loan but he’s got no better and still needs to pay it back so he asks Omine to ask the mistress for an advance of the paltry sum of two yen in the hope that his son will be able to enjoy a new year mochi like the other kids. The mistress says yes and then changes her mind, leaving Omine to consider a transgressive act of social justice.

Where The Thirteenth Night and The Last Day of the Year pointed the finger at uncaring elites, Troubled Waters broadens its disdain to the entire world of men in focussing on two women caught on either side of the red light district – Oriki (Chikage Awashima), a geisha stalked by a ruined client, and the client’s wife, Ohatsu (Haruko Sugimura), who endures a life of penury thanks to her husband’s geisha obsession. Oriki’s sad story is recounted to a wealthy patron (So Yamamura) who is more fascinated in learning the secrets of her soul than her kimono, but like many of her age it begins with parental strife, orphanhood and perpetual imprisonment as a geisha wondering what will become of her when her looks fade and she’s no longer number one. She has no control over the men who spend time with her but is worried by Gen (Seiji Miyaguchi) who ruined himself buying her time and now stalks her in and around the inn. Infatuated and obsessed with Oriki, Gen has turned against his noble wife Ohatsu who is working herself to the bone to support the family while Gen has resorted to a life of casual labour but rarely does much of anything at all.

Recalling Higuchi’s famous diary, Imai opens each of the segments with a brief voiceover detailing the inconsequential details of the weather with a world weary, often melancholy tone as the writer laments too much time spent on fiction and resolves to tell the story of the world as it really is. There is no real connection or overarching theme which unites the three stories, save for the continued suffering of women at the hands of men and the society they have devised. Oseki must return to her abusive husband, Omine will continue to work for her heartless mistress, and Ohatsu will have to make do on her own after being so thoroughly let down by her husband. There is no recourse or escape, no path forward that will allow the women to break free of their oppression or even to learn to be free within it. Each of the stories is bleak, ending on a note of resignation and acceptance of one’s fate as terrible as that may be but Imai’s ending is most terrible of all, reminding us that today is simply another day and the heavy atmosphere of dread and oppression is certain to endure as long as we all remain resigned.


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

Marital Relations (夫婦善哉, AKA Meoto Zenzai, Shiro Toyoda, 1955)

Marriage is not always simple, but when you aren’t actually married (and one of you is technically still married to someone else) the difficulties can be all the more pronounced. Often neglected in comparison with some of his contemporaries, Shiro Toyoda is best remembered for his often humorous literary adaptations. Marital Relations (夫婦善哉 Meoto Zenzai), based on a 1940 novel by Sakunosuke Oda and runner up to Naruse’s Floating Clouds in Kinema Junpo’s top ten for 1955, is a prime example of his style as it examines the unconventional relationship between a spoilt younger son of a wealthy family and a feisty geisha who nevertheless remains devoted to him despite his often insensitive treatment.

In the early 1930s, the oldest son of a wealthy family has scandalised his conservative father by continuing to consort with a local geisha. Irritated, Ryukichi (Hisaya Morishige) elopes with Choko (Chikage Awashima) assuming that he will eventually get his own way only to find his father is just as stubborn as he is. Ryukichi is already married though living apart from his wife who has a serious illness and has returned to her family with their only child, Mitsuko. Nevertheless, Choko and Ryukichi manage to live together as man and wife even without the official paperwork, installing themselves at her parents’ tempura shop. Though the couple are happy enough, Ryukichi is unused to living without his family money and Choko soon has to go back to work.

Even in early Showa things were changing. Ryukichi, spoilt and made useless by access to his family fortune and previously secure path to succession, pouts and whines about his arranged marriage and the wife he’s abandoned, emphatically demanding a free choice of mate even if she happens to have been a geisha. Choko, a working class daughter of shopkeepers, seems to have been sold to the geisha house to fund her parents’ store – in fact, Choko’s abrupt decision to leave the geisha house will also have financial consequences which Ryukichi claims he will take up with his father. Even if Choko were not a geisha, she would likely not have been accepted by the traditional upper middle class family and her constant battle is always for recognition as Ryukichi’s significant other (or perhaps primary carer). Geisha she was though, and will be again thanks to Ryukichi’s recklessness and mistaken assumption that he will regain his former status simply by being his father’s son.

Not having had the luxury of a wealthy upbringing, Choko is (financially, at least) a realist and prepared to work hard for what she wants. Heading back into the geisha world as a hostess and entertainer, Choko is the sole breadwinner of their technically illegitimate union though Ryukichi cannot entirely break with his former habits, casually burning Choko’s carefully balanced housekeeping accounts book, and eventually spending all her savings on a night of debauchery. Nevertheless, it’s Choko who eventually takes the initiative and goes into business with a friend opening a successful night spot which cleverly caters to her internationalist clientele with a “traditionally Japanese” theme. Like many of Toyoda’s women, Choko is a hardworking, practical lady determined to make a success of everything she does even if she’s had the misfortune to find herself shackled to the inconvenient man child that is Ryukichi.

Eventually it all gets too much and Choko takes a drastic decision after receiving a cruel and thoughtless slight from Ryukichi’s brother-in-law who has been adopted as the heir to the family. This shocking incident aside, the tone is largely one of comic knowingness as Ryukichi continues with his various schemes to wheedle his way back into his elite social circle while Choko spends her time working hard to create something new. Ryukichi is the worst of the old world – lazy, entitled, often selfish and thoughtless (if well meaning and resolutely devoted to Choko), whereas Choko is the best of the new – resilient, hardworking, honest and kind. Towards the end, having settled some of their differences, Choko and Ryukichi appear to have cemented their coupledom for good but are suddenly confronted with another ugly aspect of class legacy when a former servant (and sort of friend) of Ryukichi’s passes them in the street now obviously raised in status, and blanks them even as they call out to him.

Ryukichi’s sister comments at one point that her brother’s personality has been warped by his strict upbringing and the pressure to conform to social conventions has meant that he doesn’t quite know himself, though at heart he is good and kind. She may indeed have a point, honest in his love, at least, both for his daughter and for Choko, Ryukichi finds he lacks the moral compass which comes with needing to live in an interconnected society rather than the deference associated with being “the young master”. Subtle political commentary aside, Marital Relations is a wry, humorous look at an unconventional family life as its put upon heroine does her best to rescue her consistently disappointing (if often amusing) unofficial spouse.


 

The Fireflies (螢火, 1958, Heinosuke Gosho)

bxbnzqmccaa5-cg-jpg-largeHistory marches on, and humanity keeps pace with it. Life on the periphery is no less important than at the centre, but those on the edges are often eclipsed when “great” men and women come along. So it is for the long suffering Tose (Chikage Awashima), the put upon heroine of Heinosuke Gosho’s jidaigeki The Fireflies (螢火, Hotarubi). An inn keeper in the turbulent period marking the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and with it centuries of self imposed isolation, Tose is just one of the ordinary people living through extraordinary times but unlike most her independent spirit sparks brightly even through her continuing strife.

Beginning in the “present” – the late 1860s, Tose is the de facto manager of Teradaya, a successful inn in Kyoto. Japanese history buffs will instantly recognise the name of the establishment, as well as that of Tose’s 18 year old adopted daughter, Oryo (Ayako Wakao). Nevertheless, that story can wait as we flashback with Tose as she gazes blankly at a stretch of water, remembering the time she first came to Teradaya as a young bride. The daughter of peasant farmers, Tose was not welcomed by her mother-in-law, Sada, both because of the class differences, and because the man she’s married is not Sada’s son but that of a concubine and she would prefer her biological daughter, Sugi, to inherit. Tose’s husband Isuke, though by no means unpleasant towards her, is a feckless man obsessed with cleaning and singing folk songs, leaving the bulk of the work to his wife.

Tose bears all, taking on the running of Teradaya and making it the most popular inn in town thanks to her friendliness, efficiency, and discretion. However, her position is threatened when she is almost ruined by a bizarre scam involving dummies and ventriloquism. Vindicated, Tose’s position is strengthened but there is more trouble in store when Sugi runs off with the conman leaving her infant illegitimate daughter in Tose’s care. Becoming a mother as she’s always wanted, Tose begins to find a little more fulfilment in her life only to have her dreams cruelly dashed once again. In an act of kindness she later adopts another orphaned girl, Oryo, who arrives at the inn starving and in the care of an older man who’d been looking after her since her doctor father was murdered for supposedly collaborating with the rebel ronin trying to over throw the shogunate.

This is the first mention of the ongoing political instability present in the country at large but largely unseen in the peaceful world of a small inn in Kyoto. Of course, you can’t say Teradaya and Oryo without eventually saying Sakamoto Ryoma (Miki Mori). Ryoma does eventually arrive in all his revolutionary glory albeit in an appropriately humanised form and proceeds to turn Tose’s life upside down in more ways than one. Locked into her loveless, but far from cruel, marriage Tose’s spirited nature is reignited by Ryoma’s fervour. Falling in love with him for his commitment to creating a better world for all, Tose’s dreams drift a little but are dashed again when she realises he and Oryo are the more natural pair.

Though Tose reacts badly to the discovery that Oryo is also in love with Ryoma, she is later able to patch things up, entrusting the man she loves to her daughter in an act of maternal sacrifice. Tose talks about her admiration for those who sacrifice all of themselves for other people but this is exactly what she has done with her own life, only in a much quieter way. Where Ryoma was a father to a movement, Tose is a mother to the world. Denied a child of her own through her husband’s indifference, Tose first adopts her niece and then an orphaned girl but consistently acts in the best interests of others rather than herself. Hearing the cries of betrayed revolutionaries, she describes them as sounding like howling babies – an idea she repeats several times including when describing Oryo’s famous naked dash from the bath to warn Ryoma of the impending arrival of the Shinsengumi. Tose’s only instinct is to silence those cries through maternal warmth, even if it ultimately causes her pain.

Tose, for Gosho at least, is no less a heroic figure than Ryoma as her everyday acts of kindness and strength contribute to an ongoing social change. Where other inn owners turn in the rebels either for material gain, active opposition, or desire to avoid the hassle, Tose stands firm and allows Teradaya to become known as a safe haven for the revolutionary movement. Ryoma shone brighter but for a short time, whereas Tose’s life goes on and Teradaya continues to be the favourite stop for beleaguered travellers passing through the old capital in these difficult times. Reconciling with her husband who finally offers the possibility of having a child of their own to inherit the inn, there is a glimmer of hope for Tose once again even if it’s clear that Isuke hasn’t really changed. It may seem that Tose’s firefly has blinked out as she takes her dull and self centred husband back, vowing to spend less time on the inn as she does so, but there is a glint of light in her few final words which are followed by putting her apron straight back on to meet the first boat, shouting the virtues of her beloved Teradaya all the way.