Elegant Beast (しとやかな獣, Yuzo Kawashima, 1962)

elegant-beast-poster-2.jpgBy 1962 the Japanese economy had begun to improve and with the Olympics on the horizon the nation was beginning to look forward towards hoped for prosperity rather than back towards the intense suffering that had defined the post-war era. There would be, however, a kind of reckoning to be had if not quite yet. Yuzo Kawashima’s Elegant Beast (しとやかな獣, Shitoyakana Kedamono) is perhaps among the first to start asking questions about what the legacy of the immediate aftermath of the war might be. It may have been impossible to survive with one’s integrity entirely intact, but how should one proceed now that there is less need to be so self serving, calculating, and cruel when there is more food on the table?

The Maedas may not be the best people to ask. Carrying the scars of their poverty, they have made a “comfortable” life for themselves in a cramped flat on the fifth floor of an ordinary walk-up apartment building. When we first meet them, dad Tokizo (Yunosuke Ito) and mum Yoshino (Hisano Yamaoka) are having a furious tidying up because they’ll shortly be receiving visitors, only unlike most they’re quickly trying to scuzz up the apartment so that they look sufficiently humble. When their guests arrive, it turns out to be the boss of their only son Minoru (Manamitsu Kawabata) who has come along with one of the artists he represents and his accountant, to have a word about possible embezzlement. Tokizo and Yoshino outdo themselves with humility, pointing out the simplicity of their surroundings, and appear offended that their son is being accused of thievery but of course in reality they know all about it and are willing accomplices in his scheming. Tokizo hasn’t had a steady job since coming back from the war and the entire family is supported by the kids with the remainder of their income coming from daughter Tomoko (Yuko Hamada) who has become the mistress of a famous author (Kyu Sazanka).

Universally unrepentant, cracks start to appear in the Maeda’s morally dubious existence when they begin to realise that Minoru is not quite on the level. He’s only been giving them a portion of the money he’s been stealing – something they can understand and perhaps even admire, if it were not that he’s given most of it to a lover to fund her hotel business. The surprise twist is that the lover is none other than the accountant at the company Minoru had been working for, Yukie (Ayako Wakao), who is a widow with a 5-year-old son (which is to say, not Minoru’s usual type). Now that the hotel is fully funded and the scam has been exposed, Yukie feels there’s no more need to associate herself with lowly punks like Minoru and draws the affair to a businesslike conclusion.

Yukie is, perhaps, the “elegant beast” of the title. Refined, seemingly sweet and innocent, she inspires trust and affection. The slightest suspicions are unlikely to fall on her – something she well knows and is prepared to use to her advantage, along with her sex appeal and, ironically, reduced desirability in the marriage stakes as a widow with a child. Yukie has her dreams and they are ordinary enough. She wants a peaceful, stable life in economic comfort alone with her son. She does not want to remarry and means to be independent which necessarily means industrious. Thus she needs to get her hotel business off the ground as quickly as possible. She needed money, a lot of money, much more than she could get “honestly” but she didn’t want to dirty herself with crime and so she used the tools at her disposal, making her “weakness” a strength as she later puts it. Using her womanliness as a weapon against venial men, she convinced them to ruin themselves on her behalf and thereafter resolved to put the past behind her.

The past is, however, difficult to forget. “Your mind still wears an old fashioned coat”, the quip happy Minoru tells his father as he laments the new society’s tolerance for youthful ebullience and reluctance to forgive the wartime generation for even its most recent transgressions. As much as they resent her, there is perhaps a grudging admiration for a woman like Yukie who has managed to outsmart them all while, technically at least, remaining on the right side of the law. Tomoko, on the other hand, seems to be losing out in playing much the same game by the old rules. Essentially pimped out by her dad, she’s damned herself by becoming the mistress of one man who is becoming rather bored of her family’s obvious attempts to bleed him dry, rather than fleecing several at the same time and bending them to her will as Yukie has managed to do. Old fashioned thinking won’t get you far in this world. The Maedas, however, seem to be out of ideas.

In the closing moments, they may ponder abandoning their hard-won apartment, believing that there’s always trouble brewing in the big city and the clean country air may be what they really need to thrive but, it’s clear that this insular claustrophobic environment filled with peep holes and tiny imprisoning windows will be near impossible to escape. Tokizo hasn’t left the apartment for the entire picture. A woman ascends the stairs, walking purposefully towards a future of her own making, while the Maedas remain locked inside unable to escape the painful legacy of post-war poverty for the bright, if no more ethical, lights of a consumerist future dancing quietly on the horizon.


The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

blue sky maiden dvd coverYasuzo Masumura is generally remembered for dark, erotic and disturbing explorations of human behaviour but the early part of his career was marked by a more hopeful innocence and a less cynical yet still cutting humour. His debut, Kisses, was very much in the mould of the youth movie of the day but its themes were both more innocent and more controversial as a boy and girl bond after running into each other at the prison where both of their parents are serving time. Marked by darkness as it is, the worldview of Kisses is much kinder than Masumura would later allow as the pair of lovers seem to shake off their respective concerns to embrace the youthful joy and boundless freedom young love can offer.

The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Aozora Musume), Masumura’s second film, does something similar but with added bite. Working for the first time with actress Ayako Wakao who would later become something of a muse, Masumura takes a typical melodrama storyline – the returned illegitimate child treated as a poor relation by her own “family”, and turns it into a genial comedy in which Wakao’s charming heroine shines brightly despite the often cruel and heartless treatment she receives. As far as the family drama goes, the genre was still in its heyday and the family unit itself fairly unquestioned yet as Masumura shows times were changing and perhaps the family is not the bedrock it initially seems to be.

18 year old Yuko (Ayako Wakao) stands at the gates of adulthood. Taking a last photo in school uniform with her high school friends as they prepare for graduation, Yuko expresses her nervousness about being sent to Tokyo to live with the family of a father she barely knows while her friends worry about getting married or getting stuck in their tiny village all alone respectively. Tragedy strikes when the girls’ teacher arrives on a bicycle and informs them that Yuko’s grandmother has been taken ill. On her death bed, the grandmother reveals the reason Yuko is the only one of her father’s four children to be raised in the country is not a concern for her health, but that she is illegitimate. Yuko’s father, unhappy in his marriage, fell in love with his secretary (Kuniko Miyake) who later gave birth to Yuko, but he was already married with two children and so Yuko’s mother went to Manchuria leaving her to be raised in secret in the country.

Having nowhere else to go, Yuko arrives at her father’s large Western style house to be greeted coldly by her half-siblings, and treated as a maid by her still angry step-mother while her father (Kinzo Shin) is away on business. It has to be said that this model middle class family are an extremely unpleasant bunch. Step-mother Tatsuko (Sadako Sawamura) is shrewish and embittered while oldest daughter Teruko (Noriko Hodaka) spends all her time chasing wealthy boyfriends (but failing to win them because she’s just as mean as her mother). The oldest brother (Yuji Shinagawa) idles away in a hipster jazz band while the youngest boy, Hiroshi (Yukihiko Iwatare), is rude and boisterous but later bonds with his new big sister when she is the only one to really bother interacting with him.

The Ono household has always been an unhappy one. Yuko’s father married his wife after being bamboozled into it by an overbearing boss trying to offload his difficult daughter. Feeling trapped and avoiding going home he fell in love with a kind woman at work, had an affair, and wanted to marry her but wasn’t strong enough to break off not only from his unwanted family but also from his career in pursuing personal happiness. By Masumura’s logic, it’s this failure to follow one’s heart which has poisoned the Ono family ruining not only the lives of Tatsuko and the children who have no respect for their father or capacity for real human feeling (as Yuko later tells them), but also that of Yuko’s poor mother  whose life has been one of constant suffering after being unfairly jettisoned by a man who was bold enough to have an affair, but not to defy social conventions and leave an unhappy home.

Yuko herself, however, refuses to allow her life to be ruined by the failings of others. Looking up at the bright blue sky with her teacher (Kenji Sugawara), she learns to create her own stretch of heaven if only in her own mind. Though others might have fought and complained at being forced into the role of maid in what is her own family home, Yuko bears her new circumstances with stoicism and good humour. Thanks to her kindness and enthusiasm, the family maid, Yae (Chocho Miyako), is quickly on her side and if Teruko’s latest target, Hirooka (Keizo Kawasaki) starts to prefer the “new servant girl” his defection is completely understandable. Unlike later Masumura heroines, Yuko’s “revenge” is total yet constructive. She refuses to be cowed by unkindness, remains pure hearted in the face of cruelty, and resolves to find her own happiness and encourage others to do the same. With a few cutting words offered kindly, Yuko gets to the heart of the Onos, essentially reminding her father that all of this unhappiness is his own fault – he made his bed 20 years ago, now he needs to lie it and be a full-time husband and father to the family of lonely misfits he created in the absence of love.

Light and bright and colourful, The Blue Sky Maiden is among Masumura’s more cheerful films, not least because it does seem to believe that true happiness is possible. Yuko does not so much defy social convention as ignore it. She lives openly and without rancour or regret. She takes things as she finds them and people (aside from the Onos) are good to her because she is good to them. Though Masumura’s later work would become increasingly dark and melancholy, Yuko bears out many of his most central themes in her steadfast claim to her own individuality and equally steadfast commitment to enabling the happiness of others in defiance of prevailing social codes.