The “shomin-geki” is generally associated with naturalistic depictions of the lives of “ordinary people”, but in reality most often focuses on the polite lower middle classes – white collar workers, shop keepers, small business holders etc, in short the sort of people who aren’t wealthy but aren’t starving either and generally live in moderate family homes rather than tenements or cramped apartment blocks. Blue collar lives are a less frequent sight on screen – something director Kirio Urayama seems to highlight in his mildly exoticised opening which introduces us to Kawaguchi, Saitama, a small town across long bridge not so far from Tokyo.
Unlike the bustling city still fighting its way back from post-war privation, Kawaguchi is a “town of fire and sweat” where the landscape is dominated by the “cupolas” of the title (Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow , キューポラのある街, Cupola no aru Machi, AKA Foundry Town). Rather than the beautiful architectural domes the name might imply, these cupolas are the industrial kind – chimneys from the 500 foundries which are the area’s dominant economic force. There is, however, trouble in that the steel industry has been decline since the immediate post-war heyday and increasing automation is changing the face of working life.
Our heroine, Jun (Sayuri Yoshinaga), is a young woman with post-war ambitions trapped in the depressing blue collar world of Kawaguchi. She’s currently in her last year of middle school and is determined to carry on to high school and perhaps even beyond, but the family is poor and her father, Tatsugoro (Eijiro Tono), has just lost his job at the local steel works. The family’s neighbour, Katsumi (Mitsuo Hamada), is big into the labour movement and has been protesting the changes at the works which has been bought by a bigger concern who are intent on compulsory layoffs. Tatsugoro, however, likes to think of himself as a “craftsman” rather than a “worker” and refuses to join the union partly out of snobbery and partly out of an entrenched fear of “communism”. He refuses to fight his compulsory redundancy because he is still wedded to the old ideas about loyalty to one’s superiors whilst simultaneously viewing himself as “better” than the other workers because of his long experience and skilled craftsmanship.
Nevertheless, Tatsugoro continues to selfishly abnegate his responsibilities to his family, refusing to insist on his severance pay and drinking the little money he still has left. Tatsugoro has four children ranging from teenager Jun to an infant born just as he lost his job. Some way into the film, Jun and and her younger brother Takayuki (Yoshio Ichikawa) take their father to task for his continued selfishness but the confrontation ends only in defeat. Tatsugoro simply doesn’t care. Loudly exclaiming that he has no daughter and will send Takayuki to the boys’ home, Tatsugoro destroys their hopes by reminding them that their fate is the same his – leave school early, work in a factory, marriage, children, drink yourself into an early grave. The argument proves so disheartening that Jun gives up on a school trip she’d been given a special subsidy to attend to roam around the streets, sadly visiting the prefectural high school that she has now given up on attending and accidentally witnessing another reason to give up on life that she, naively, misunderstands.
Meanwhile, Jun and Takayuki have also made friends with a family from North Korea who will be returning (without their mother) under a preferential “repatriation” programme organised by North Korean officials in Japan with the backing of the US and the Japanese government which, uncomfortably enough, saw only advantage in reducing the ethnic minority population. Though the film adopts a mildly positive view of repatriation – after all, no one really knew what North Korea was like in 1961 and many saying goodbye to their friends fully expect to stay in touch and perhaps meet again one day, it does highlight the persistent layer of xenophobic prejudice that the children face. Sankichi (Hideki Morisaka), one of Takayuki’s best friends, is taunted from the audience whilst on stage in a children’s play by cries of “Korean Carrot” (he is wearing a funny wig at the time) while Jun’s mother makes no secret of her dislike of the children’s friendships, believing that the Koreans are “dangerous”. Others associate the North Korean (in particular) population with communism and possible insurrection, fearing that Japan might be pulled into another nuclear war in Asia by political troubles across the sea.
The repatriation program is attractive not only as a means of escaping a world of constant oppression, but because of the entrenched poverty of the Kawaguchi area and the relative impossibility of escaping it. In a poignant, resentful school essay Jun wonders why her future is dictated by a lack of money, why she alone will be prevented from going on to high school and pulling herself out of the lower orders solely because of her responsibility to her family and father’s fecklessness. Tatsugoro is eventually offered another job thanks to the kindness of the father of one of Jun’s wealthier school friends, but continues to view himself as a “craftsman” and resents being ordered around by youngsters. What’s more, the factory is much more advanced – doubtless, the father of Jun’s friend (so different from her own) thought it might be better for Tatsugoro whose health is poor because the work would be less physically strenuous, but Tatsugoro finds it impossible to adapt to automated working methods and soon quits, leaving the family cash strapped once again.
An inability to adapt is Tatsugoro’s tragedy though he later makes amends when he consents to join Katsumi’s union and takes a job in a new factory, confident that he can’t be summarily dismissed ever again. Jun, meanwhile, has discovered a third way. Longing to escape the burden of her family she resolves to step forward alone but also instep with her society. Having discovered the existence of a progressive factory which is run with friendliness and consideration and even provides education for employees, Jun realises she can have the best of both worlds. Though Jun’s decision is perhaps one of individualism and a bold assertion of her own agency, it’s also in keeping with the broadly socialist message of the film which insists that a problem shared is a problem halved and places its faith in ordinary people to look after each other. Optimistic, perhaps, but a perfect encapsulation of post-war humanism and growing hopes for the future for those who are prepared to work hard on behalf not only of themselves but also for the social good.
Original trailer (no subtitles)
Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow was scripted by Shohei Imamura whose work often focusses on the working classes and rural poor. As such it shares some similarity with his early film My Second Brother which also touches on the lives of ethnic Koreans living in Japan though this time in a mining village where the labour movement is engaged in actively opposing the exploitative practices of the corporate mine owners.