Record of a Woman Doctor (女医の記録, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)

By 1941 it was becoming harder to make films which were strictly apolitical, though many directors were able to circumvent the constraints of a tightening censorship regime in focusing on the kinds of messages they could get behind. Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1941 drama Record of a Woman Doctor (女医の記録, Joi no Kiroku) is in essence a public information film hoping to foster better hygiene practices in rural areas while encouraging those who might have felt mistrust towards modern medical professionals that they need have no fear of doctors, but in its own way presents a challenge to the militarist line in implying that the humanist teacher and female doctor of the title are in a sense “re-educated” though their exposure to the rural poor. 

As the film opens, a collection of medical students from Tokyo Women’s Medical University is sent to a small rural village as part of a pop-up free clinic in an area which otherwise has little access to professional healthcare. As the school teacher, Kamiya (Shin Saburi), who is their liaison explains, the the major health problems faced by the villagers are largely those of poverty, i.e. malnutrition, while infant mortality remains high. Each of these is compounded by the contemporary economic and social realities in that the young often leave to work in cities and then bring back with them urban diseases such as tuberculosis to which the locals are especially vulnerable while in the absence of a professional doctor medical emergencies such as appendicitis or complications with childbirth which might be easily treated are often fatal. 

Even so, the villagers are not initially grateful for the doctors’ arrival for various interconnecting reasons. The first is obviously their poverty, not realising that the clinic is free and assuming they cannot afford to take advantage of it. Secondly, they have experience of being ripped off by duplicitous conmen calling themselves doctors and fear that they will simply incur a large debt to be paid at a later date, wary that though the consultation may be free the treatment may not be, the doctor suddenly discovering they are actually incredibly ill and must part with a lot of money in order to redeem their health. The third reason, meanwhile, is older still in the intense stigma surrounding sickness and particularly any respiratory condition. 

These are all the attitudes the doctors and the film intend to challenge in insisting that modern medicine is both safe and responsible, interested only in helping prevent the onset of sickness rather needlessly meddling in their way of life. All from the city, the conditions in this small mountain village necessarily shock the doctors noting that the villagers have no culture of regular bathing, often wear the same clothes day and night for indefinite amounts of time with no washing, never air their futons, and live in dark and poorly ventilated homes. The authorities have often recommended felling a thick circle of trees which surrounds the village to let more light in and allow the breeze to travel through though the villagers have always refused. 

The felling of the trees takes on a symbolic association of freeing the village from primitive superstition, literally enlightening it, as they shift closer towards modernity in learning the importance of proper sanitation. In a sense these ordinary rural people are being patronised, even sympathetic teacher Kamiya describing them as “culturally deprived” while later implying that he himself has been reformed by their simple way of life. Kamiya’s life is certainly not easy, effectively acting as something like a village headman called in to deal with any sort of local problem while often providing childcare to the infants brought in by his pupils who are supposed to be minding their siblings while the parents work in the fields but are not always completely responsible. Earnest doctor Natsuki (Kinuyo Tanaka) is later much the same, touched by the plight of a local girl suffering with TB kept like a secret in the back room by her mother after being sent back from her factory job. The mother is intent on sending the younger sister in her place even though she too is in poor health because the family is without a male earner and unable to support itself. 

The fact that the doctors are all female may in itself be somewhat progressive but also speaks of the times, the male medical students presumably diverted to the military ironically reinforcing the idea that “domestic” concerns are women’s concerns, something echoed in the film’s concluding scenes which see Natsuki, a qualified doctor, operating a daycare centre taking care of local infants while Kamiya runs a callisthenics session behind her. Conversely, it’s also implied that Natsuki must give up her womanhood or any sense of personal desire in order to dedicate herself to the village making it quite clear that there is no possibility of a romantic connection with Kamiya. Even so, the secondary message seems to be that the key to inspiring confidence lies in a process of mutual understanding, Natsuki belatedly realising she’s accidentally alienated some of the local children by usurping their position as caregivers to Kamiya, less relieving them of a burden than firing them from a job they were proud to do while the only real way to gain the villagers’ trust is to listen to their concerns and show them they really do care about their welfare. The subtext may be that their health is important because healthy bodies are needed to fuel the war effort, but even so you can’t argue with the humanist message even as Shimizu’s subversive implication that one can learn alot from the simple way of life cuts against the militarist grain. 


A Hen in the Wind (風の中の牝鶏, Yasujiro Ozu, 1948)

Sometimes melancholy as he might have been, the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu leans toward the wholesome. His families may experience crises, but they are good people who have generally learned how to be cheerful in the face of adversity. 1948’s A Hen in the Wind (風の中の牝鶏, Kaze no naka no Mendori), however, is unusually dark though perhaps not inappropriately so as it tries to make sense of a painful moment in time by re-envisaging it in terms of a marriage. 

Set very much in the immediacy of the contemporary era, the film opens ominously with an intimidating policeman taking a local census which introduces us to Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) who lodges in the upstairs of a small, run-down building along with her young son Hiroshi while her husband Shuichi (Shuji Sano) has not yet returned from the war. Times are tough for everyone, and Tokiko is finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet with her seamstressing job as prices rise everywhere. She’s down to her last kimonos which she asks an old friend, Akiko (Chieko Murata), to help her sell. Akiko turns to broker/madam Orie (Reiko Mizukami) who feigns exasperation to advise that a pretty woman like Tokiko, still comparatively young at 28, could make more money in her line of work. Akiko is offended on her friend’s behalf and the two laugh it off together, but when Hiroshi suddenly develops colitis and needs to be admitted to hospital Tokiko is left with no choice but throw herself on the mercy of Orie. 

Akiko scolds her friend, hurt that she didn’t come to her first and disappointed that she has chosen to degrade herself. Tokiko is sorry too, worried that if she had asked Akiko for the money she’d have found a way to get it even if she had none to spare and Tokiko would rather carry the burden herself. She wonders if she made the right choice. There was still furniture she might have been able to sell, but she wanted to keep it so that her husband would have a home to come home to. What else could a mother with a sick child do? This way at least she got the money quickly and Hiroshi recovered. It was a one time thing already in the past and no one needs to know. The friends agree to put it behind them as just another minor humiliation of life in the immediate post-war period. 

And then less than a month later Shuichi returns. The joyful reunion is disrupted when he idly asks about Hiroshi’s health and then becomes fixated on how Tokiko managed to pay the hospital bills. She doesn’t want to lie and would rather there be no secrets between them so she tells him the truth. Shuichi does not take it well. He tries to readjust to their married life but finds himself consumed with rage and unable to sleep. Intellectually, he knows his wife had no choice given the situation she was in and in one sense does not blame her but in the other he cannot accept it. 

Tokiko’s transgression undermines his fragile sense of masculinity in every possible way. He feels partly responisble. He wasn’t there to protect her because he was away at the war. If he’d returned a month earlier, she wouldn’t have needed to make such a sacrifice. Unlike many late returning soldiers, Shuichi walks straight back into his old job, easing the family’s financial hardship even as its harmony is strained by his ongoing resentment. Shuichi cannot help making this all about him. His wounded pride, his broken future, his romantic disappointment. He becomes obsessed with the idea of his wife defiled, insisting on tracking down the brothel where Orie brought her to ask if it really was just the one time while exploring the business for himself.

While schoolchildren sing cheerful folksongs in the playground behind, Shuichi talks to a 21-year-old who has only contempt for customers like him who ask too many hypocritical questions. She explains the she didn’t choose this sort of work, it’s the only way she can support her family, once again, ironically, because of a male failure in this case her father being unable to provide for them while her mother has passed away. Shuichi didn’t come for the full service, and so he eventually leaves, discarding money as he goes partly out of pity and partly in atonement. He runs into the girl again later and even shares her lunch during which he talks to her in a more fatherly fashion, encouraging her that she is not ruined and still has the right to strive for a brighter future. To further prove his point, he commits to finding her an “honest” job, asking with his friend at the company who is sympathetic and also wants to help. Only, his friend can’t understand. If Shuichi can sympathise so much with this young girl why can’t he forgive his wife who, to his mind, has done nothing wrong? 

Tokiko is perhaps a symbol of the pure Japan debased by the male violence that is militarism. Shuichi has come home from the war but carrying trauma of his own which he projects onto the loyal self-sacrificing wife who waited patiently for his return. Yet Tokiko blames herself, she begs him to beat her, hate her, only not to leave and not to be unhappy. Shuichi only comes round after accidentally pushing her down the stairs in a rare moment of shocking domestic violence totally unexpected in an Ozu movie (even if not quite unique). Suddenly overcome with post-war humanism, Shuichi forgives his wife essentially giving her the same speech he’d given to the girl only with greater emphasis. Life is long and their path is hard. They need to “be more accepting and love one another”, “conquer hardship through laughter and trust”, so that they might have a “true marriage”. Tokiko’s redemption, and perhaps that of her nation, is dependent on the former soldier Shuichi’s forgiveness, and of her acceptance of it, rather than a recognition of her blamelessness. In any case, a line has been drawn. The future starts now and it’s going to be a better one built on compassion and mutual forgiveness rather than selfishness and resentment.


A Hen in the Wind screens at BFI Southbank on 10th/14th September as part of Kinuyo Tanaka: A Life in Film

Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (戸田家の兄妹, Yasujiro Ozu, 1941)

Yasujiro Ozu made only two films during the height of the war. After being drafted for the second time in 1943, he famously sat out the main action from the relative safety of Singapore where he was able to indulge his love of Hollywood cinema to an extent impossible in Japan. Somewhat surprisingly, 1941’s Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (戸田家の兄妹, Toda-ke no Kyodai) does not seem to fit the censor’s ideal in that it contains little to no patriotic content and never mentions the war save for presenting the idea of “Manchuria” as a place to start again free of burdensome codes of social oppression but, crucially, embraces classic ideas of filial piety which is presumably how it came to be approved by the powers that be. 

Shortly after the Toda family gathers for the first time in quite a while to celebrate Mrs. Toda’s (Ayako Katsuragi) 61st birthday, Mr. Toda (Hideo Fujino) drops dead of a heart attack and it is discovered that the family firm is near bankruptcy. The large, Western-style mansion where the family photo so recently took place will have to be sold and Mrs. Toda and her unmarried daughter Setsuko (Mieko Takamine) will have to move in with one of the married children. 

Like the later Tokyo Story, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family concerns itself with the failure of filial piety in an increasingly corrupt society. Multigenerational homes might once have been a cultural norm, but perhaps it’s understandable that few people might be excited about the prospect of their mother suddenly moving in with them especially as the traditional Japanese house is not designed with personal space in mind. Power dynamics seem to be the problem at the first home where daughter-in-law Kazuko (Kuniko Miyake) makes no secret of the fact that the two women are in the way. She resents having to shift everything around and reorder her home to give them space upstairs, complains about their noisy pet bird, and is then put out when Setsuko and her mother fail to greet her guests even though she specifically asked them to absent themselves in order to avoid meeting them. 

At the next home, however, it’s more a question of maternal heirarchy. Daughter Chizuru (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) has two children and the oldest, her son Ryokichi (Masao Hayama), is very attached to his grandma, so much so that he confides in her about skipping school because he got into a fight and is worried about reprisals. Chizuru’s main objection to them moving in had been that it might distract Ryokichi from his studies, and it’s clear that she finds it difficult to assert her own maternity with her mother hovering in the background. She accuses Mrs. Toda of interfering by keeping her promise to Ryokichi and not telling her about skipping school, making it impossible for them to keep living in the same house. 

Rather than descend on the home of the last daughter, Ayako (Yoshiko Tsubouchi), who is hurt but perhaps relieved to hear they won’t be living with her, Mrs. Toda and Setsuko decide to move into a dilapidated summer house the family thought too worthless to sell. They are now thoroughly marginalised, living in a literal half-way home having lost their position in society. Setsuko, naive but earnest, is the keenest to adapt to her circumstances. Her best friend Tokiko (Michiko Kuwano) is from an “ordinary” family and tries to point out, as nicely as possible, that Setsuko is going to find it much more difficult than she thinks to move beyond her privilege. Aware of her precarious circumstances, she expresses the intention to work but is quickly shut down by Chizuru who finds the idea highly offensive and in fact embarrassing. She urges her to think about a socially advantageous marriage instead.  

Shojiro (Shin Saburi), the youngest and as yet unmarried son, urges her to do something much the same at the film’s conclusion but also offers his sister the freedom to fulfil herself outside the home by accompanying him to the land of the possible, Manchuria. Previously regarded as a feckless failure, Shojiro decided to take up the opportunity to make something of himself in Japan’s new colonial endevour. On his brief return to mark the first anniversary of his father’s passing, he appears in a China-style suit and fiercely takes his siblings to task for their disrespect of his mother. It has to be said, however, that he does not particularly take Mrs. Toda’s feelings into account and foregrounds his own duty of filial piety in insisting that she live with family rather than alone excluding the possibility that she too may prefer her freedom. In any case, it’s freedom he dangles before Setsuko in suggesting that in Manchuria you can do as you please without needing to worry about what others think. He offers her the possibility of marriage, but also of working and a kind of independence which is bound within the family. For herself, Setsuko wants to bring Tokiko too, positing a possible arranged match between her friend and her brother which other members of the family may find inappropriate in its transgressive breach of the class divide. 

The family is both dissolved and restored as the three Todas prepare to remove themselves from a corrupted Japan for, ironically, a new start in the home of old ideas, China, where there is both the promise of modernity and all the “good” aspects of the traditional, to whit filiality. Fulfilling the censors demands in subtly criticising the decadent, selfish, and hypocritical lifestyles of an impoverished nobility while presenting Manchuria as an opportunity remake a better, purer (and subversively progressive) Japan through imperialist pursuits, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family offers an ambivalent portrait of contemporary Japanese society in which the young save themselves but only by saving their parents first. 


Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family is available on blu-ray in the UK as part of the BFI’s re-release of Tokyo Story in its recent 4K restoration which also includes an introduction to Tokyo Story from Tony Rayns, and Talking with Ozu: a tribute to the legendary director featuring filmmakers Lindsay Anderson, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Aki Kaurismäki, Stanley Kwan, Paul Schrader and Wim Wenders. The first pressing also comes with a booklet featuring an essay by Professor Joan Mellen, archival writing by John Gillett and Lindsay Anderson, and a biography of Yasujiro Ozu by Tony Rayns.

It is also available to stream online via BFI Player as part of the BFI Japan Yasujiro Ozu collection.

Titles and opening (no subtitles)

The Fellows Who Ate the Elephant (象を喰つた連中, Kozaburo Yoshimura, 1947)

The Japan of 1947 was one still very much caught up in post-war chaos. In the cities, most particularly, hunger was a major problem. The Fellows Who Ate the Elephant (象を喰つた連中, Zo wo Kutta Renchu) may have a title that strongly recalls the screwball comedies of the ’30s, but is less slapstick comedy than dark satire in its central premise that a bunch of idiot mad scientists might actually eat a deceased elephant in extreme dedication to “mottainai” waste not want not philosophy coupled with the justification that all is permissible in the name of science. 

The elephant is, apparently, the last in Japan and was the childhood friend of zookeeper Yamashita (Chishu Ryu) who brought him all the way over the mountains from Thailand after the war. “Shiro-chan” is very ill with some kind of elephant cold but for some reason the doctors the zoo uses aren’t vets specialising in large, exotic animals but virologists. While they stand around apparently mystified, Yamashita enquires after the professor he usually deals with but is told that, despite being over 60 years of age, he’s currently away on honeymoon after marrying a very young and extremely beautiful woman. Sadly, Shiro doesn’t make it. The professor is saddened to learn of the death from the paper and wonders if it might have been a virus similar to one which attacks hoofed animals like donkeys and horses but is not usually found in Japan (Shiro is Thai after all). 

This is relevant because the disease is fatal and contagious but does not usually pass to humans and is only a risk if you come into direct contact with it, like say if you eat meat from an infected animal. No one would eat an elephant though so there’s nothing to worry about. Enter extremely unpleasant mad scientist Wada (Shinichi Himori) who decides that science dictates they must find out if it’s sanitary to eat elephant meat. Though Wada ropes in fellow scientist Baba (Yasumi Hara) with his scientific justifications, he tricks the other two into eating some without telling them what it is. Unforgivably, he even gives some to Yamashita and seems to get a kick out of feeding him his own childhood friend when Yamashita had only come on instruction from his boss to apologise for being over emotional the day before. Yamashita leaves feeling sick after Wada tells him what he was eating for additional effect, but his wife (Chiyoko Fumiya) later remembers a story he told her about fellow elephant drivers in Thailand who ate some elephant meat from an infected animal and were dead within 30 hours. 

After hearing Yamashita’s concerns, the scientists begin investigating and indeed find cases of people dying after eating contaminated meat. The only cure is the serum they use to treat the horse infection the professor mentioned, but it seems nowhere has any in stock (the disease is rare in Japan after all). The idiot scientists come to the conclusion they will die in exactly 30 hours’ time and decide to put their affairs in order rather than consult an actual doctor who might be able to help them. This mostly involves trying to explain their foolishness to their wives. Watanabe (Takashi Kanda) is a father of three with another child on the way. He regrets that he hasn’t been present enough in his family life and has failed to adequately provide for his wife who he will shortly be leaving to raise four children alone. Nomura (Toru Abe) meanwhile is an uxorious newlywed constantly worried that his wife (Kyoko Asagiri), who already dislikes Wada for being a bad influence on her husband, will not be able to bear the anxiety of knowing he may soon die. Baba who has only his parents retreats back to his old country home to apologise for not being a better son. 

Wada, meanwhile, moans about everyone else’s understandable desires to comfort their wives and families. He criticises Yamashita for trying to excuse himself because he’d rather go home and have dinner with his wife, while mocking Nomura for being a henpecked husband. This might partly be because he has no wife or family of his own and is currently chasing after Tomie (Akemi Sora), a maid at his boarding house, who seems pretty indifferent or even hostile to his attentions, joking that she’d celebrate on hearing of his demise. She eventually agrees to go out with him, but only if he really dies. Other than the wives, no-one quite believes the guys’ bizarre story. Baba’s parents even try to stop him going back to Tokyo when a potential cure is located in case he goes “even more mad”. 

In these trying times, the idea that someone might try to eat a dead elephant is perhaps not quite as ridiculous as it might first seem. The act of trying it, however, also plays into the constant critiques of bad or irresponsible science which are a mainstay of films in the immediate post-war era. Wada knows that he can and so he doesn’t bother to think about if he should, spinning tales of Jenner and Koch as if they’re about to make some grand lifesaving discovery. His brush with death does at least begin to humble him as he finally accepts responsibility for the unexpected consequences of his cruel prank, realising that as a man with no wife or family it should perhaps be him if anyone is going to have to make a sacrifice. Finally someone manages to get through to the professor on the phone who tells them they’re all very stupid and haven’t thought of something perfectly obvious that makes all their panicking completely pointless, but at least the surreal 30-hour near death experience has brought out a warmer side of Wada and given a few irresponsible scientists a quick lesson in social responsibility.