An Autumn Afternoon (秋刀魚の味, Yasujiro Ozu, 1962)

an-autumn-afternoonAn Autumn Afternoon (秋刀魚の味, Sanma no Aji) was to be Ozu’s final work. This was however more by accident than design – despite serious illness Ozu intended to continue working and had even left a few notes relating to a follow up project which was destined never to be completed. Even if not exactly intended to become the final point of a thirty-five year career, An Autumn Afternoon is an apt place to end, neatly revisiting the director’s key concerns and starring some of his most frequent collaborators.

Returning to the world of Late Spring, An Autumn Afternoon once again stars Chishu Ryu as an ageing father, Shuhei, though this time one with three children – the oldest, a son, married and left home, the middle one a daughter not yet married at 24, and the youngest boy still a student living at home. Michiko (Shima Iwashita), like Noriko, is devoted to the family home and has no immediate plans to marry despite the urgings of her father’s good friend who has already picked out a good prospect for an arranged marriage.

Shuhei had been content with this arrangement, after all as a 50-something man of 1962 he’s in need of someone to look after him and likes having his daughter around the house. A class reunion with some of his friends and an old teacher begins to change his mind when “The Gourd” (as the boys liked to call him) speaks somewhat unkindly of his unmarried, middle-aged daughter, later regretting that he acted selfishly in turning down marriage proposals which came her way because he wanted to keep her at home for his own upkeep. Taking the extraordinarily drunk The Gourd home, Shuhei and his friend encounter the daughter for themselves (as played by frequent Ozu collaborator Haruko Sugimura) and find her just as embittered and shrewish as The Gourd had implied. What they don’t see are her tears of heartbroken frustration at being left all alone to deal with this hopeless case of her dead drunk, elderly father.

At the end of the film, following the inevitable marriage, Shuehei retreats to a friendly bar just as the father of Late Spring had done before him though this time he goes there alone, not wanting to return to his now much quieter home before time. Whilst there the mama-san (Kyoko Kishida) for whom Shuhei has developed a fondness as something about her reminds him of his late wife, notices his attire and asks if he’s just been to a funeral. “Something like that”, he replies. Shuehei is being a little maudlin and self indulgent but what he says is almost true – he has, in a sense, lost a daughter though the Japanese way of doing things does not quite allow for the rejoinder of gaining a son.

All of this is to be expected, it is the best outcome. Time moves on and the baton passes from one generation to the next, one family is broken so that another may be created. Ozu revisited this universally tragic element of the life cycle several times throughout his career and even echoes himself in the final shots as Chishu Ryu sits with his back to the camera, less visibly shaken than in Late Spring but no less bereft. What Ozu gives us next is not the image of transience in the ebbs and flows of a stormy sea, but a parade of emptiness in which Michiko is ever present in her absence. Shuehei is not alone, he has his younger son Kazuo, but the house is now a soulless and colourless place filled with uninhabited rooms and mirrors with nothing to reflect.

In the end, life is defined by this final loneliness as children depart, setting off on a path which has to be entirely their own. The Gourd laments that he is all alone despite having, in part, destroyed his child’s chances of personal happiness in order to maintain his own, but Shuhei and his friends are also left to reflect on the same problem as fathers who’ve each successfully married off daughters only to find themselves rendered obsolete in the new family order. The times have changed, but they have not changed in this. Shuhei is left alone with his memories of youth, trying to bully his sadness into submission by humming a popular military march from his wartime glory days but the pleasures of the past are always hollow and melancholy, at best a mirage and at worst quicksand.

Ozu maintains his trademark style, mixing humour with wistful sorrow, resigned to the inherent sadness of life but determined to find the warmth there too. His sympathies, however, have shifted as he reserves a little of his bite for the modern young couple as exemplified by Shuehei’s oldest son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), and his wife (Mariko Okada) whose concerns are material (refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, handbags and golf clubs) rather than existential as they struggle to attain the “aspirational” quality of life the burgeoning post-war boom promises and have to rely on frequent “loans” from Shuehei to maintain it. The world moves on apace and leaves old sailors behind, alone and adrift on seas now much quieter than they have ever been but the peace and solitude is the sign of a life well lived and in a strange way its reward as the time slips by unhurriedly and only as painful as it needs to be.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kochiyama Soshun (河内山宗俊, Sadao Yamanaka, 1936)

kochiyama soshunThe second of the only three extant films directed by Sadao Yamanaka in his intense yet brief career, Kochiyama Soshun (河内山宗俊, oddly retitled “Preist of Darkness” in its English language release) is not as obviously comic or as desperately bleak as the other two but falls somewhere in between with its meandering tale of a stolen (ceremonial) knife which precedes to carve a deep wound into the lives of everyone connected with it. Once again taking place within the realm of the jidaigeki, Kochiyama Soshun focuses more tightly on the lives of the dispossessed, downtrodden, and criminal who invoke their own downfall by attempting to repurpose and misuse the samurai’s symbol of his power, only to find it hollow and void of protection.

The primary players are the virtuous and innocent Onami (Setsuko Hara) who runs a small sweet sake stall and her errant young brother, Hiro, who spends all of his time in a local drinking establishment run by the wife of the titular Kochiyama Soshun. Despite his priestly get up, Kochiyama is a conman, swinder, gambler and petty gangster but for some reason he takes a liking to Hiro not knowing that he’s Onami’s brother because he’s been using the fake name of “Nao” to prevent his sister tracking him down and bringing him home again. There’s a bigger criminal outfit in town run by a guy named Morita but mostly everyone knows Kaneko who comes and collects his protection money. Kaneko also has something of a crush on Onami and generally lets her off the payments.

Everything starts to go very wrong when Hiro pinches the dagger of a careless samurai. It turns out that the sword and dagger set were a gift from his lord who received them from the shogun so this loss is particularly embarrassing and if he were asked to produce the dagger but couldn’t, he’d be duty bound to commit harakiri. Hiro gets himself into even more trouble when he spots a childhood friend working in the red light district and tries to run off with her. If things weren’t difficult enough, Onami is now firmly pulled into his web of trouble as Morita’s gang want the compensation money for the loss of their girl, a sum so vast there is no way Onami could ever be able to repay it leaving her with only one, unthinkable, option.

Everything here is pretence – the “priest” who cheats and gambles, the young man who uses a fake name, the samurai with no real power, and the dagger itself with its uncertain authenticity. Onami is the only true and honest thing in the entire film, unsullied by the meanness of the world which surrounds her, yet even she finds herself sucked in by the reckless actions of her brother. She too becomes a commodity to be bought, traded, and sold, placed as a bargaining chip between the competing forces of Kochiyama and Kaneko. Kaneko, though he works for the “bad guys” is not a bad man (more mirroring) and has a noble heart unwilling to carry out the service of his master when it conflicts with his own desire for justice.

Onami’s essential goodness has infected both of them as they now see that they have lived morally disappointing lives but have also been given a chance for a final bid at redemption, albeit in the service of an idiotic, self centred teenager whose selfish and reckless actions have destabilised the lives of everyone around him. The film ends on a note of uncertainty as one character is permitted to escape with the means to save another in hand, paid for by the sacrifice of others, but whether they will be in time or opt to selfishly run away is very much open for debate.

In a more serious mood here, Yamanaka is less playful than in the more obviously comic Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot but nevertheless continues to push his art to the visible limit. Like Tange Sazen, Kochiyama Soshun is an ensemble led film but its plotting is far more intricate and involved. It’s possible that the film is incomplete, but events often seem hard to follow and we only learn of one extremely important incident during a throwaway conversation between two characters who clearly don’t know its import. Even so it’s no great hardship to piece things together as we go, and Yamanaka makes sure to draw his characters well enough that it doesn’t really matter. Even if the weaker of Yamanaka’s surviving films, Kochiyama Soshun is another characteristically innovative piece filled with wry humour but a fair degree of warmth too.


Unsubtitled clip:

A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.


 

I Want to Be a Shellfish (私は貝になりたい, Shinobu Hashimoto, 1959)

shellfishAfter Japan was defeated and later occupied by the Americans, there came the painstaking exercise of examining what exactly had happened during the conflict and assessing is who, if anyone, could be held accountable for any wrongdoing. The so called “war criminals” were divided into classes according to the severity of their crimes with Tojo himself at the top who eventually paid with his life. However, many of the men who were given the same Class A rating were just rank and file soldiers who had been “following orders”, often because they feared for their own lives if they refused. The debut directorial effort from writer Shinobu Hashimoto who provided scripts for some of Akira Kurosawa’s most famous works, I Want to be a Shellfish (私は貝になりたい, Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai), examines just one of these tragically absurd cases.

Barber Shimizu has finally started to make headway in his very own shop where he lives happily with his wife and son when he’s unexpectedly drafted into the army towards the end of the war. Unused to heavy physical labour and a fairly gentle man, he doesn’t take well to the soldier’s life and gets himself into trouble with his C/O. Stationed near Tokyo, Shimizu’s squad is charged with searching for a pair of US airmen thought to have bailed out after their plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid over the city. When they eventually find the pilots, both have already died of their injuries.

At this point Shimizu’s captain makes a cruel and rash decision – rather than sending the bodies back to HQ or burying them there, he decides to use them as target practice for his raw recruits. When ordered to pick out the two weakest soldiers, the NCO picks Shimizu and another man, Takita, who are then ordered to bayonet the corpses to prove what fine soldiers they have become. Though they both fail the first time the captain berates them until they finally comply.

The war ends and Shimizu goes home to his family only to receive a knock on the door from the war crimes commission who drag him off to Tokyo for trial. The trial itself is a farce, Shimizu is charged with executing a prisoner of war – the fact the pilots were both dead when found and therefore were never executed and were never even prisoners is never revealed by anyone. Finally classified as a Class A War Criminal, Shimizu is sentenced to death for having stabbed a corpse.

It goes without saying that, yes, terrible crimes were committed during the war and some of them deliberately and wilfully. However, in Shimizu’s case his crime is an absurd one. Though the way in which his superiors have treated the fallen soldiers of their enemies is far from humane, Shimizu has committed no murder and was just following the orders of his superiors. Improper as it may have been, it hardly warrants the loss of his own life and that he’s being placed in the same category as members of execution squads and those who wilfully participated in crimes against civilians is more than a little disproportionate.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the film is that Shimizu seems to have been denied a fair trial. To those who can understand both languages, or even just from the subtitles provided for the translation of the American prosecutor’s questions, it’s obvious that the way in which his questioning is being conducted is far from ideal. The translation gap between the two languages is immense and leads to a series of misunderstandings which in no way aid Shimizu’s case.

It’s also clear that the panel in charge of the trial have very little understanding of how the Japanese military works and how this might differ from American military law. Shimizu is repeatedly questioned about how he feels about the order he was given – a strange question given that the idea of not following an order is not one which immediately presents itself. Shimizu repeats the credo he was taught that an order from his C/O is the same as one coming directly from the Emperor. However, when translated, the prosecutor infers that Shimizu thinks his order came from the Emperor himself and stupidly asks if Shimizu actually met the Emperor in person. Likewise, they ask why he didn’t simply refuse to follow the order and when he replies that he believed he would be shot, they ask why he didn’t ask to be referred to a military court which is just not something that would have been reasonably feasible for a Japanese soldier in this sort of situation.

The fact that the soldiers were already dead to begin with is never even mentioned, by anyone. The highest ranking officer who ordered the search is held responsible even though his orders were to bring the men in alive. Shimizu’s captain has since killed himself, conveniently, leaving everyone else to take the fall for his inhumane decision.

At the end of the film as Shimizu is faced with saying goodbye to a world which has dealt him nothing but hardship other than the wife and son he will be forced to leave behind, Shimizu utters the film’s title. He wishes he were a shellfish buried deep at the bottom of the ocean far from humans and their capacity for cruelty. No poverty, no draft, no war, no absurd trials – free from this world of torment. A lament for the little guy paying the price for world gone mad, I Want to be a Shellfish is a bleak and tragic tale which is filled with universal quality of melancholic absurdity which continues into its heartbreaking final moments.


Bonus trivia – Frankie Sakai (more usually seen as a singer or in comedic roles) also played Shimizu the previous year in an enormously successful TV drama. This story has in fact been filmed several times, most recently as a feature film in 2008 and was inspired by the book by Tetsutaro Kato who was sentenced to death as a war criminal though later had his sentence commuted and was released for “good behaviour” in 1952 (but may not have been quite as innocent as poor old Shimizu).