Beautiful Days (美わしき歳月, Masaki Kobayashi, 1955)

“Life is unpredictable” according to the protagonists of Masaki Kobayashi’s Beautiful Days (美わしき歳月, Uruwashiki Saigetsu, AKA The Beautiful Years), becoming something of refrain in the face of constant change. Among the most quietly angry of post-war humanists, Masaki Kobayashi’s later work is defined by a central question of how the conscientious individual can survive in an oppressive society. Like many directors, however, he had to do his time making regular studio programmers, in his case at Shochiku which was then, and to some extent still is, the home of polite melodrama. Like Kobayashi’s other films from this period, Beautiful Days conforms to the studio’s classic shomin-geki formula, but does perhaps display something of his resistance to the system in its tale of three former school friends scattered by the complicated post-war society but each in his own way attempting to make a break with the past in order to move into a more positive future. 

The action opens, however, with the old. Grandma Mrs. Tokioka (Akiko Tamura) is hit by a fancy car while out shopping, but the owner, retired CEO Shigaki (Eitaro Ozawa), turns out to be a kind and considerate man who insists on taking her to a hospital despite her protestations that she’s absolutely fine. Finally she gives in and asks Shigaki to take her to her regular doctor, Imanishi (Isao Kimura), only when she gets to the clinic Imanishi is getting a dressing down from his boss who accuses him of vanity in insisting on treating an emergency patient without checking his finances first. Imanishi storms out, recklessly quitting yet another job on a matter of principle. 

Mrs. Tokioka wanted to see Imanishi because he was a close friend of her grandson who was killed in the war, along with her son and his wife who were explosives experts, leaving her to care for her only remaining relative, 22-year-old Sakurako (Yoshiko Kuga) who works alongside her at their florist’s shop. Imanishi is from a relatively wealthy family of doctors which is perhaps why he feels so free to prioritise his integrity because the economic consequences are relatively marginal. For his friends, Hakamada (Junkichi Orimoto) and Nakao (Keiji Sada) the situation is different. Hakamada’s family are poor, living in a makeshift shack in the slums while he supports them all with a job in a factory run by an unscrupulous and exploitive boss standing in for heartless post-war capitalism. Nakao, meanwhile, graduated with a law degree but hasn’t been able to find any steady work since coming home from the war and is earning a living playing drums in a cabaret bar for 600 yen a night. 

Formerly close friends since their middle school days, the men maintain a deep yet increasingly distant connection not least because Tokioka’s death has left them with a sense of sad incompleteness. As the others say, Nakao has indeed changed. His experiences in the war along with the death of a close friend who was killed while trying to seek a better life in Brazil, have made him embittered and cynical. He buries himself in the inconsequential pleasures of pool halls and nightclubs to avoid having to think about a future he feels he doesn’t deserve. As Imanishi puts it, he struggles with his kindness towards others, pushing people away, overly cautious in choosing a policy of self-isolation rather than risk potential hurt. It seems he was in love before the war, but she (Toshiko Kobayashi) married someone else and is now a widowed single-mother. He wants to help her, getting Imanishi to visit her mother who was diagnosed with asthma that is most likely TB, and helping her with a job as a tea dancer at the club but feeling conflicted in inviting her into such a low environment while also resisting his continuing love for her, partly in resentment over her past, and partly in a lingering sense of hopelessness about the future. 

Imanishi’s problems meanwhile are mostly born of stubborn male pride. He refuses to work for the increasingly capitalist hospitals of the contemporary era and wants to be a socially responsible doctor but realises that he can’t go on quitting one job after another. He and Sakurako, Mrs. Tokioka’s granddaughter and the sister of his late friend, are in love and want to marry, but he’s too shy to ask for her hand as a man without a steady salary or future prospects. “Men always like to think things over on their own” Sakurako complains, immediately before Imanishi announces he’s about to do just that and wants to take a “break” in their relationship to sort himself out. He’s been offered a place in a research facility in Akita far in the North, but isn’t sure if he should ask Sakurako to go with him because Mrs. Tokioka won’t leave Tokyo, possibly won’t approve of their marriage, and will be disappointed if Sakurako chooses a life of hardship in the remoteness of snow country when all she’s ever wanted is for her to live happily. 

Mrs. Tokioka is in fact entirely ignorant of their relationship, which is why she’s receptive when Shigaki proposes a potential marriage between Sakurako and his younger son Yuji (Akio Satake). She thinks that’s a nice idea, but also acknowledges that times have changed and Sakurako’s marriage isn’t something she should have much say over. Shigaki agrees, and so they decide to introduce the young people casually and see if they hit it off, which they do but Sakurako remains conflicted in her relationship with the distant, to his mind noble, Imanishi who leaves her to think he’s got someone else rather than clear up a simple misunderstanding. 

In a strange way, it’s Mrs. Tokioka and Mr. Shigaki who are perhaps slipping into a romance, Sakurako even jokingly refers to him as her grandmother’s “boyfriend” using the trendy English word which adds an additional layer of incongruity. They each profess a deep confusion with the way the youngsters think, Mr. Shigaki disappointed with his older son who prioritises the bottom line and is cutting corners buying cheaper materials and reducing the quality of the product he worked so hard to perfect. Rampant and irresponsible capitalism is also the force which is currently destabilising Hakamada’s life as he finds himself exploited by his heartless boss but unable to simply quit as Imanishi has repeatedly done because jobs are hard to come by and he’s also supporting his parents. His boss even tries to frame him for stealing materials from the factory, later berating him for “talking like a freeloader” when he tries to bring up workplace conditions, and calling the police to have him charged with assault when he fights back after he hits him. 

Inverting the melancholy flower metaphor, Imanishi describes himself and his friends as horsetail in a field crushed when a dog comes by and defecates on it, but later remembers that horsetail eventually springs back up, while Mrs. Tokioka had wanted to see if her damaged bulbs would grow when planted in the right soil. The three friends are forced into a realisation that they’re heading out on different paths and will inevitably be scattered but they are at least finding their way, learning to come to an acceptance of the traumatic past to move into a happier future. “Life is unpredictable” but sometimes people surprise you and it’s best to give them the opportunity or risk losing your chance to seize happiness wherever you find it. 


The Last War (世界大戦争, Shue Matsubayashi, 1961)

As The Last War (世界大戦争, Sekai Daisenso) points out, by 1961 16 years had passed since the end of World War Two during which Japan had begun to rebuild itself, heading into a period of unprecedented economic prosperity with the Olympics already on the horizon. But the early 1960s were also a time of increased international tension as the Cold War mounted and many in Japan feared being pulled into another conflict especially with the Korean War not quite so much in the distant past. Toho had become the home of special effects cinema and such films were often coloured with strong messages of peace and social responsibility as humanity banded together to combat an existential threat be it a giant monster or mad scientist. The Last War is no different in that regard, but sadder in showing us that the end of the world may come suddenly and without warning and that if we for a second become complacent it could already be too late to stop it. 

Patriarch Mokichi (Frankie Sakai) has made a decent life for himself after the war working as a driver. His wife, Oyoshi (Nobuko Otowa), is in poor health and he dreams of buying a house by the sea where she can live in comfort. Meanwhile, they have a grownup daughter, Saeko (Yuriko Hoshi), born before the war, and two much younger children, a girl, Haru, and boy, Ichiro. They are a very happy, very ordinary family who are beginning to think that their days of hardship are finally behind them and they have escaped the war’s shadow. The only note of potential conflict lies in the fact that Saeko wants to marry a family friend, Takano (Akira Takarada), a sailor, and is afraid of Mokichi’s reaction, especially as he keeps trying to set up matches for her. 

In fact, having lived through the war Oyoshi and Mokichi are certain that nothing like that is going to happen again, even if the younger generation is filled with anxiety. “Who could ever profit from the destruction of the Earth?” Mokichi not unreasonably asks, signalling his newly consumerist world view. Mind you, he adds, everyone knows the alternative to calamity is hard work, “you have to work hard for peace”. 

Mokichi has indeed been working hard, but has perhaps begun to neglect other areas of his life in his desire to become rich even if that desire is only to make his family more comfortable and give his children better opportunities than he had. Brought over to see a new TV set now on sale, he scoffs that he already has one, “Who needs a second TV?” he asks, but on hearing the news that tensions are rising because a military plane has gone down off the coast of Africa, his first thought is to get on the phone to his broker and junk his real estate stocks for shares in aeronautics. Mokichi is unconvinced by an old man selling potatoes on their street who apparently lost everything in Hiroshima and has since become a devoted Christian donating most of his profits to anti-nuclear charities, describing him as just “showing off”, firmly believing that nothing like that is ever going to happen again. “I cannot accept it” he says, “what would be the point of the aspirations of humble folk like us if we’re all destined to go poof into extinction?”.  

As the only nation to have directly experienced nuclear war, the intense fear of its recurrence is indeed understandable. If a nuclear war escalates, it will be the end of everything. All human endeavours over thousands of years will be mere dust. There will be no weddings, no births, no graduations, no grand discoveries, just nothing. When the bomb does indeed hit, the scenes of devastation must have proved extremely traumatic for many in the audience as buildings crumble ominously, the sky turns a fiery red, the streets run with lava, and we can see the outlines of charred bodies lying among the wreckage. The tip of the Diet building sits neatly atop the rubble as if in rebuke of the political failures which, despite the best efforts of the Japanese politicians who make an effort to govern responsibly and are honest with the electorate while advocating strongly for peace through diplomatic channels, have led to the literal end of the world. “You have to work hard for peace” the closing title card reminds us. “We can stop this before it happens, but we have to work together”. “I won’t let you destroy our happiness” Mokichi had screamed at the void, but in the end he was powerless. All it takes is a minor slip, and the world as we know it will cease to be.


The Master Spearman (酒と女と槍, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

After the war during the American occupation, the samurai film encountered a de facto ban with the authorities worried that historical epics may encourage outdated fuedal and fascistic ideology. The period films of the post-war era, however, are often fiercely critical of the samurai order even as it stands in for the hypocrisies of the contemporary society. Two years before Masaki Kobayashi launched a similar assault on the notion of samurai honour in Harakiri, Tomu Uchida’s The Master Spearman (酒と女と槍, Sake to Onna to Yari) finds a loyal retainer similarly troubled when he is ordered to die only to be ordered not to and then finally told that yes he must commit suicide to serve a kind of honour in which he no longer believes. 

Takasada (Ryutaro Otomo) is a battlefield veteran with the Tomita clan much revered for his skill with the spear. As a retainer to the current regent, Hidetsugu (Yataro Kurokawa), he finds himself in trouble when the ageing Hideyoshi (Eijiro Tono) stages a coup to solidify his power, accusing his nephew of treason on abruptly “discovering” a stash of illegally obtained rifles. Takasada is outraged not to have been ordered to die with his master, but later resents being “strongly encouraged” to do so by his brother, the head of their clan. Storming out, he temporarily retreats into a drunken haze during which he convinces his favourite actress, Umeme (Hiromi Hanazono), to stay with him (just serving drinks, no funny business), before committing himself to public seppuku on a date of his own choosing. When the day arrives, Takasada is greeted by parades of “well wishers” keen to congratulate him for being such a fine samurai. Encouraging those in line to step out of it and stand horizontally without account of rank or status, he agrees to drink with them all, with the consequence that he becomes extremely drunk and passes out. 

Just as he’s about to cut his belly, a messenger arrives from Hideyoshi himself ruling Takasada’s suicide illegal. He if goes ahead and does it anyway, his clan will be disgraced. Takasada’s brother changes his tune and begs him not to proceed for the sake of the Tomita honour. Thoroughly fed up, Takasada has a sudden epiphany about the hypocrisies of the samurai code and decides to renounce his status, dropping out of court life to live simply in the country where he is eventually joined by Umeme who has fallen in love with him. 

Meanwhile, court intrigue intensifies. These are the quiet years leading up to the decisive battle of Sekigahara which in itself decided the course of Japanese history. While the elderly Hideyoshi attempts to hold on to power by ruling as a regent on behalf of his sickly son Hideyori, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Eitaro Ozawa) plots on the sidelines. Hideyoshi is advised by his steward Mitsunari (Isao Yamagata) to take a hard line with treachery, executing all 36 “spies” planted in his household by Ieyasu, including a number of women and children. Mitsunari is himself working with the other side, and the executions are nothing short of a PR disaster for Hideyoshi, provoking fear and resentment in the general populace who can’t accept the inherent cruelty of putting women and children to the sword. Sakon (Chikage Awashima), a kabuki actress and fiercely protective friend of Umeme, comes to a similar conclusion to Takasada, hating the samurai order for its merciless savagery. 

That’s perhaps why she’s originally wary of Takasada’s interest in Umeme, uncertain he will keep his promise to keep his hands off her and so staying over one night herself to make sure Umeme is safe. Umeme, meanwhile, may not have wanted him to be quite so honourable, leaving in the morning visibly irritated and exclaiming that Takasada is drunk on himself and understands nothing of women. That may be quite true, but it’s his sense of honour which eventually tells him that he must reject the samurai ideal. First they tell him honour dictates he must die, then that he must not, then when Hideyoshi dies and the prohibition is lifted, that he must die after all because his entire clan is embarrassed by his continuing existence. By this point, Takasada has decided to accept his “cowardice”. Sickened by the spectacle of his ritual suicide and the humiliation of its cancelation, he came to the conclusion that “loyalty and honour for world fame, glorious exploits etc” is all a big joke. He loves food, and wine, and his wife, and if that means others call him coward so be it because he’s finally happy and perhaps free. 

His spear, however still hangs over his hearth. He hasn’t truly let go of it or of the code with which he was raised. Sakon, perhaps on one level jealous and guarding her own feelings as she accepts that Umeme has chosen to leave the stage to retreat into an individual world with Takasada, warns her that her happiness will end if Takasada is convinced to accept a commission from the Tokugawa. He surprises her by once again renouncing his status as a samurai, choosing to stay a “coward” living a simple life of love and happiness. But as soon as he puts his hand on the spear intending to break it for good something in him is reawakened. He can’t do it. He finds himself at Sekigahara, confronted not only by samurai hypocrisy but by his own as Sakon does what he could not do to show him what he has betrayed. His rage explodes and he raises his spear once again but not for the Tokugawa, against the samurai order itself piercing the very banners which define it in an ironic assault on an empty ideology.  


Burden of Love (愛のお荷物, Yuzo Kawashima, 1955)

Two decades into the new century, Japanese society finds itself gripped by a population crisis. Supposedly “sexless”, young people constrained by a stagnant economy and a series of outdated social conventions have increasingly turned away from marriage and children to the extent that the birth rate is currently at the lowest it’s ever been. How strange it is then to revisit Yuzo Kawashima’s baby boom paranoia comedy Burden of Love (愛のお荷物, Ai no Onimotsu) in which the very same anxieties now expressed for the declining population are expressed for its reverse – that it will damage the economy, that it is the result of a moral decline, and that society as we know it is on the brink of destruction. 

All of these arguments are made by the Minister for Health, Araki (So Yamamura), as he tries to chair a committee meeting put together to find a solution to the baby boom crisis. The government policy he’s putting his name to is a birth control advocacy programme coupled with greater education to discourage couples from having so many children. Some object on the grounds that encouraging the use of birth control will inevitably lead to promiscuity and sexual abandon, which is why Araki’s government intends to limit its use only to married couples to be used for proper family planning. A feminist politician challenges him again, first citing the go forth and multiply bits from the bible to imply she objects to birth control on religious grounds only to trap Araki by reminding him that that is exactly what the government encouraged people to do during the wartime years. She thinks limiting birth control to married couples is little more than thinly veiled morality policing which will fail to help those really in need, suggesting that if this is the road they want to go down perhaps they should think about relaxing abortion laws so that those who become pregnant without the means to raise a child will have another option. Predictably, Araki is not quite in favour, but takes her point. In any case, events in his personal life are about to overtake him. 

The first crisis is that his son, Jotaro (Tatsuya Mihashi), is in a secret relationship with Araki’s secretary Saeko (Mie Kitahara), who has now become pregnant and is quite smug about it because Jotaro will finally have to sort things out with his family so they can marry. There are several reasons why he’s been dragging his feet: firstly, Saeko is a very good secretary and it’s customary for women to stop working when they marry (though as we later find out Jotaro is a progressive type who has no intention of stopping Saeko working if she wants to even after they marry and have children), secondly, his mother Ranko (Yukiko Todoroki) and younger sister Sakura (Tomoko Ko) are old fashioned and may feel marrying a secretary is beneath him, and thirdly he’s just a lackadaisical sort who doesn’t get round to things unless someone gives him a push. Sakura has an additional concern in that she’s engaged to an upperclass dandy from Kyoto (Frankie Sakai) and worries his family might object if they know that Jotaro has undergone a shotgun wedding to someone from the “servant class”. Araki’s oldest daughter, Kazuko (Emiko Azuma), is happily married to a gynaecologist (Yoshifumi Tajima) but ironically has been unable to conceive after six years of marriage. All of which is capped by the intense irony that his own wife at the age of 48 may be expecting a late baby of their own. 

The press is going to have a field day. Araki, for all his faults, is a surprisingly progressive guy, a moderate in the conservative party but one who, worryingly, doesn’t seem to believe in much of what he says as a minister of government, merely doing what it is he thinks he’s supposed to do. It’s perhaps this level of hypocrisy that Jotaro so roundly rejects, insisting he wants neither a career in the family’s pharmaceuticals company (which, it’s worth saying, also produces the birth control Araki’s policy seeks to promote), or a career in politics, and insists on being his own man. Tinkering with various bits of modern technology, he eventually gets a job in research and development of cheap TV sets, signalling his allegiance to the new all while dressing in kimono to visit kabuki clubs with Saeko. Saeko too is a modern woman – she speaks several languages and has a university degree, supporting herself independently even though she is “only” secretary albeit to a cabinet minister. Sakura, a more traditional sort, originally looks down her for being all those things, but later comes to a kind of admiration especially when she finds herself in need of advice from another modern woman. Jotaro’s mother, however, only comes around when she hires a detective who discovers Saeko might be posh after all. 

“Children have their own worlds to live in” one of Araki’s grownup kids later emphases, unwilling to rely their father for money or career advancement, they want to make their own way in the world. Jotaro, a kind man and something of a socialist, wonders if they shouldn’t be using some of this money the government has earmarked for defence on social welfare, suggesting perhaps that’s the best way to deal with the population crisis rather than pointlessly trying to police desire. Burden of Love was released in 1955, which is immediately before Japan instituted its anti-prostitution law doing away with the Akasen system that existed under the American occupation. Araki goes to visit an establishment in the red light district and declares himself horrified, but is unable to come up with a good solution when the women working there point out that they support entire families who will starve without their income. He may have a point that the pimp’s identification of himself as a social worker is disingenuous because he profits from the exploitation of women, but Araki’s later visit to a tavern staffed by geisha raises a series of questions about a continuing double standard. 

Araki exposes his own privilege when he tells Jotaro that he’d do anything for a single slice of bread before he’d ever do “that”, which is ignoring the fact that it’s very unlikely he’d ever have to consider it. Araki’s father, himself a retired politician, is also a fairly progressive sort who actively gets involved in the kids’ nefarious plans to get around their parents so they can marry the people the want when they want to marry them, while Araki remains largely preoccupied with his political position, even suggesting to his wife, despite what he said in the committee meeting, that she get an abortion to spare him the embarrassment caused by increasing the population while proposing a series of population control policies. Ranko is distraught because to her the child is the product of their love, even if to Araki it is also a “burden”, but being a traditional sort thinks first of her husband and is minded to do as he says. The younger generation think and feel differently. They want to make decisions for themselves, not just about what they do but who they love and how they live. The lesson is perhaps that this isn’t something to be overly worried about. Children are the “burden” of love, but we carry them together, and it’s a happier society that is content to figure it out rather than trying  to pointlessly police forces beyond its control. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Farewell to Dream (夕やけ雲, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1956)

Does adulthood mean the death of dreams, or simply accommodation with disappointment? Yoichi (Shinji Tanaka), the cheerfully romantic hero of Keisuke Kinoshita’s Farewell to Dream (夕やけ雲, Yuyake-gumo), has made his peace with “losing” out in the great game of life, comforting himself in working hard to provide for others while becoming good at what he does, but keeping one eye always on the past and the boy he once was whose horizons were boundless and future untethered. 

In his chipper yet somehow poetic opening monologue, 20-year-old Yoichi introduces us to the family fishmonger’s he runs with his mother. If he says so himself, standards have improved since his father’s day and he’s done quite well for himself. His mother even jokes about finding him a wife, but that’s a long way off. To show us how he got here, he picks up his binoculars, a present from an uncle who sailed away and never came back, to show us “the last chapter of his youth, full of innocent dreams”. At 16, Yoichi dreamed of becoming a sailor, staring out over the horizon and catching sight of a beautiful woman in a distant window far on the other side of town. He lives with his parents and three younger siblings, while his older sister Toyoko (Yoshiko Kuga) has an office job that supplements the family income seeing as there’s not much money in fishmongering. 

Yoichi describes his sister as beautiful yet cold. No one can quite believe such a fantastic beauty was born to a lowly family of fishmongers with a back alley shop in a small town, but her beauty has made her cruel and avaricious. She wants out of poverty and she doesn’t much care what she has to do to escape it. She knows the easiest way, and in real terms perhaps the only way, is to attach herself to a man of means, which is why she’s just agreed to marry a man named Sudo (Takahiro Tamura) who comes from a wealthy family and is head over heels in love with her. When he tells her that his family business has collapsed and he’s no more money, she abruptly calls the engagement off and begins courting her widowed boss, eventually marrying him despite the fact that it’s a second marriage and he’s more than twice her age. 

Toyoko may just be playing the only cards she’s been dealt, but she’s also a personification of selfish post-war individualism. She only cares about herself, has no real sense of morality, and a total disregard for the feelings of others. Sudo, who for some reason truly seems to have loved her, cannot let her go, turning up on her wedding day to punch her in the face. Toyoko is fully aware of the effect she has on men and skilled in manipulating it, drifting back into an affair with Sudo even after her marriage, leaving her irate husband forever ringing her parents with orders to return her to her new home as if they had any real influence over her. 

Despite himself, Yoichi is by contrast the “good son” who gives up the right to his individual future to take care of his family. At 16, he hates being a fishmonger’s boy because the other kids tease him that he always smells of fish, as if he can’t wash away the scent of poverty. He dreams of freedom as a sailor out on the wide ocean, forever staring at the horizon with his binoculars, and of the beautiful woman who, he decides rather romantically, must be suffering with some kind of illness which is why she’s always in her room. When his father becomes ill, suffering a heart attack brought on by Toyoko’s harsh words, Yoichi begins to realise that his dreams are dying. Like the fish in his shop, he’s trapped, no longer able to swim free but tethered to the ground. There can’t be anything more of life for him than becoming a fishmonger himself, whether he liked it or not. His fate was sealed before he was even born. 

Yet unlike the flighty Toyoko who seems unhappy in her marriage but doing her best to put up with it by continuing to do as she pleases, Yoichi has made peace with warmhearted practicality. At 16 he lost everything – his father, the image of Toyoko, his younger sister fostered out to a badgering uncle, his best friend, the beautiful woman in her lonely room, and finally the horizon and his dreams. “His dream was as fleeting and as beautiful as the clouds at sunset” the opening text tells us, echoing the film’s title with a poetic melancholy that makes plain that Yoichi has not so much abandoned his dream as made the memory of it a part of him, a relic of another time when all was possible. Still, in essence perhaps it’s only what it is to grow up, an acceptance of shrinking horizons and that dreams are by definition things destined not to be, but that’s it’s OK in the grand scheme of things because that’s just the way life is. Forced to become a fishmonger, Yoichi becomes the best fishmonger he could be, and even if he does so with a heavy heart, he has a lightness in his step in knowing he does it not for himself but for those he loves. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Shiro Toyoda, 1956)

A studio director at Toho, Shiro Toyoda was most closely associated with adaptations of well respected works of literature, often with an earthy, humanist touch. He might then be an odd fit for a tale of high romance co-produced with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers and inspired by a classic Chinese legend. Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Byaku Fujin no Yoren) effectively drops some of Toho’s top talent, including “pan-Asian” star Shirley (Yoshiko) Yamaguchi (AKA Li Xianglan / Ri Koran), into a contemporary Hong Kong ghost movie with Toyoda doing his best to mimic the house style. 

As in the classic legend, fate is set in motion when herbalist Xu-xian (Ryo Ikebe) allows “noblewoman” Bai-niang (Shirley Yamaguchi) and her maid Xiao-qing (Kaoru Yachigusa) to board a boat he is riding to escape a storm. The pair bond because they are both orphans out in the rain to pay their filial respects to their late parents on tomb sweeping day. Disembarking, Xu-xian lends the ladies his umbrella, vowing to visit their house the next day after his rounds to reclaim it. When he arrives, Xu-xian is greeted by a near hysterical and extremely romantic Bai-niang who has apparently fallen deeply in love with him because of his pure heart. She proposes marriage, but Xu-xian is wary. He is after all just a poor boy, a herbalist living with his older sister and her husband. He has no money to get married and Bai-niang is a noble woman from a good family, society simply wouldn’t allow it. Xu-xian tries to escape, but his gentle words of refusal only wound Bia-niang’s heart. 

Hoping to smooth the situation, Xiao-qing decides to give Xu-xian a small fortune in silver taels so the money issue will be solved. Strangely, the plan appears to work. Xu-xian quickly gets over his reluctance to accept money from a wealthy woman who wants to marry him and returns to being in love and excited, selling his newfound hope for the future to his sister by showing her the taels. It is, however, not quite that simple. The silver turns out to be stolen as evidenced by a mark of fire on its surface. Xu-xian falls under suspicion as a thief and comes to resent Bai-niang for placing him in such a difficult and embarrassing position. 

Nevertheless, despite all the strange goings on such as the suddenly “abandoned” house, the green smoke, and vanishing women, Xu-xian does not seem to suspect that Bai-niang is not fully human, and is only angry with her for misusing him. In a motif which will be repeated, however, he is eventually won over. After taking a job in his sleazy uncle’s inn, he re-encounters Bai-niang and realises she really is the one for him. But as they begin to build their life together, launched with an unwise loan from the sleazy uncle who can’t seem to keep his eyes (and occasionally hands) off Bai-niang, doubt begins to creep in. Those small cracks are deepened when Xu-xian is accosted by a man who announces himself as a Taoist from Mount Ji and tells him that he has an evil aura over his head, encouraging him to believe that an evil spirit is slowly capturing his heart which why he’s a little bit afraid to go home. The priest gives him some useful talismans, which are of course quite bad news for Bai-niang who now knows that her husband secretly doubts her. 

Meanwhile, prepared to do “anything” to make the man she loves happy, Bai-niang has come to the strange conclusion that Xu-xian’s moodiness is down to the fact that their medicine shop isn’t doing so well. Unfortunately, her big idea is poisoning the local well to make everyone think there’s a plague so they’ll have to buy more of her potions. It’s a fairly nefarious plan, but apparently all for love. As in the original tale, however, the real crisis once again comes with the randy uncle who uses the pretext of a local festival to try and get Bai-niang drunk on special wine that is known to unmask spirits. Realising that his wife is a little bit otherworldly sends Xu-xian into a coma, while Bai-niang goes to ask the gods for help, only to be undercut by the annoying Taoist priest who wakes Xu-xian up by convincing him his wife’s “evil”. 

If you don’t want people to think you’re “evil”, trying to drown the entire town might not be the best move. Bai-niang’s refusal to give up on Xu-xian even when he constantly tries to reject her places her at odds with loyal servant Xiao-qing who is equal parts enraged on her behalf and exasperated that she can’t see sense. Bai-niang tells the gods that the only witchcraft she used was the witchcraft of love even if that love caused her to try and poison the entire town, but now regards herself as nothing more than Xu-xian’s wife and is willing to renounce her powers in order to save him. Once again, Xu-xian has a sudden change of heart, avowing that there are human women with the heart of a snake, and Bai-niang is a woman to him even if she’s a snake spirit which is, apparently, the only thing that matters. Still, theirs is a love this world doesn’t understand, and so only in a better one can they ever be together.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Apostasy (破戒, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)

Hakai still 1For all his good hearted humanism and intense belief in the simple power of human goodness, the films of Keisuke Kinoshita can also be surprisingly conservative, most particularly in their attachment to the old, pre-war Japan which they often see as unsullied by the corruption and ugliness of the militarist era. A new constitution film, Kinoshita’s adaptation of the Toson Shimazaki novel The Broken Commandment, The Apostasy (破戒, Hakai), opens with a series of bold titles proclaiming “Freedom and equality”, and “respect for human rights” before breaking into an attack on the persistent feudalism which has managed to survive into the new era along with prejudice and contempt. Zooming back to the missed opportunity of Meiji-era liberation, Kinoshita too remains somewhat ambivalent about the the decline of a social order in a Chekhovian lament for the rise of the petty middleman and the fall of noble aristocracy.

In Meiji 35 (1902), despite the advent of the Meiji Restoration and abolishment of the class system, prejudice against the “burakumin” – untouchable “outcasts” who lived in isolated settlements and (historically) made their living in occupations connected with death, was still very much in existence. This is all too apparent to Segawa (Ryo Ikebe). A bright young man, Segawa’s father sent him out of their village to make something of himself with the solemn promise that he must never reveal his burakumin origins to anyone. The world being as it is, however, Segawa is conflicted especially as he has fallen in love with his mentor’s daughter Oshiho (Yoko Katsuragi) and wonders if it would be fair to marry a non-burakumin woman without telling her truth and live with the threat of discovery forever over their heads.

The Broken Commandment would later be adapted again by Kon Ichikawa whose focus is, perhaps quite surprisingly, very different to that of Kinoshita who, uncharacteristically, chooses to prioritise class concerns over the right to live freely and honestly in a compassionate society. Ichikawa’s adaptation deliberately widens the implications of Segawa’s dilemma, making it plain that he is talking not just about burakumin rights but directly to all oppressed peoples and most particularly to those who feel obliged to keep their true natures a secret in an oppressive and conformist society. Strangely, Kinoshita chooses not to engage with this theme which might otherwise seem tailor made for his persistent concerns if perhaps a little close to home, preferring to focus not on Segawa’s gradual shift into accepting his own identity and hearing the call to activism but on the reactions of the changing world around him which seems to be imploding while besuited upstarts enact their petty revenge on the chastened nobility.

This is most clearly seen in the unfair treatment of Segawa’s mentor and landlord, Kazama (Ichiro Sugai) – a former samurai and until recently the local school teacher. Mere months away from his retirement, Kazama has been instructed to resign so that the school will not need to pay his pension while his position has been taken by a pushy local man with limited education whose sole claim to the job is being of the people. Kazama is understandably resentful but stoic. Segawa’s liberal colleague, Tsuchiya (Jukichi Uno), takes the school board to task for its unreasonableness and underhanded attempt to save money by forcing an old man out of his position with no thought for his 30 years of service. Though Tsuchiya might be broadly in agreement with the changes taking place in Meiji-era society, he too worries about the greedy upstarts usurping privilege rather than seeking to eradicate it.

Stepping back for second, Apostasy is a post-war film designed to echo the egalitarian philosophies of the new constitution drawn up under the American occupation. It is then somewhat subversive that our villains are the Westernised lower middle classes of Meiji-era society who seem to have embraced “modernity” by dressing in suits but refuse to abandon ridiculous ancient prejudices such as that towards burakumin, doubtless because those prejudices largely work out in their favour. It would be tempting to read these prejudices as foreign imports, but that against the burakumin is wholly Japanese and truth be told somewhat backward in contrast to (the kimono’d) Tsuchiya’s forward looking socialist beliefs which superficially at least seem more in keeping with the age.

Yet it is in some senses Segawa himself who struggles to emerge from the feudal yoke. His promise to his father is a sacred vow underlined by loss and sacrifice. He feels it is his duty to live as his father wished, as a “normal” Japanese citizen in success and comfort, but also begins to become acutely aware that to do so may be cowardly and selfish. If he chooses to keep his promise to his father and never reveal himself as a burakumin, he will be complicit with the systems which oppress him and thereby ensure those like him will always be oppressed. His awakening comes, in a sense, from a second father – Inoko (Osamu Takizawa), a burakumin who has come out of the closet and loudly fought for burakumin rights along with the general liberty of all oppressed people. Caught between two fathers and his growing love for Oshiho, Segawa remains lost while one of the suited proto-militarists threatens to out him leaving him floundering in the face of intense social stigma and the possibility that those he loves may turn against him.

Segawa has to free himself or risk becoming like Kazama – a man haunted by the feudal past, as Tsuchiya puts it. Kazama himself is painted in broadly sympathetic terms, forced to endure the melancholy fate of being eclipsed by a Lopakhin-esque member of the insurgent middle-classes, but his prejudice is later exposed despite his original support of Segawa when he notices one of the suits smirking at him and instantly feels humiliated, turning his impotent rage back on the outcast as if his presence further dishonours him as a samurai. Segawa’s aim as a teacher had been to teach his children the power of individual thought, which would seem to be the best weapon against prejudice but his message has been cut off at source thanks to the self-interested school board who have been all to quick to claim the benefits of modernity with none of the responsibility. Resolved to fight for a freer future, Segawa finally accepts his responsibility as a burakumin spokesman in the knowledge that his calling is to educate and that only through education can anything ever change. The lessons of Meiji may have gone unheeded, but the opportunity presents itself again to abandon the feudal past in favour of an egalitarian modernity built on fairness and compassion rather than obligation and oppression.


Titles/opening (no subtitles)

Twilight Story (濹東綺譚, Shiro Toyoda, 1960)

Director Shiro Toyoda, closely associated with high minded literary adaptations, nevertheless had a talent for melancholy comedy and for capturing the everyday reality of ordinary people. A fierce condemnation of the patriarchal society at a moment of intense masculinity, Twilight Story (濹東綺譚, Bokuto Kitan), an adaptation of the novel by Kafu Nagai, follows an ambivalent author as he covertly observes the life and love of a former geisha daring to dream of romantic salvation while fully aware of the world’s cruelty.

Set in 1936, the film opens with an author on a research trip who guides us into the world of the Tamanoi pleasure quarter which he seems to disdain but is drawn to all the same. Whilst there he runs into a nervous middle-aged man, Junpei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), who is later accosted by sex worker Oyuki (Fujiko Yamamoto) for use of his umbrella during a violent storm. A mild-mannered sort, Junpei is unused to the ways of the red light district and quickly makes his escape after being invited into Oyuki’s home. After a swift drink, however, he returns and the pair begin an awkward semi-romantic relationship.

Despite his affirmation that he is single, Junpei is in fact already married if (for the moment) unhappily. Though he knew his future wife Mitsuko (Michiyo Aratama) had given birth to an illegitimate child fathered by her employer, Junpei chose to marry her anyway because he was in love. The pair married, they say, for “genuine” reasons but the father of Mitsuko’s son continues to send maintenance money for the boy’s education and his constant presence has begun to play on Junpei’s mind especially as his teacher’s salary is dwindling in this age of militarism in which educational hours are decreasing in favour of compulsory military drills. Meanwhile, Mitsuko also seems to have got religion and spends most of her time reciting sutras with the implication that she has begun to neglect her husband, emotionally, spiritually, and most particularly physically. In order to escape his depressing home life, Junpei hangs out in the Tamanoi where men’s hearts are lighter and people talk frankly about love.

This is, of course, not quite the case, but the fantasy the pleasure quarters sell of themselves. Our jaded author is perfectly aware of that and broadly sympathetic towards the women caught in its web. Oyuki, a former geisha, has “debased” herself in order to earn extra money to send home to her family and pay the medical fees for her sickly mother. Her uncles constantly pressure her for more and she wonders if they are not merely exploiting her, using her money for their own benefit and refusing to chip in for her mother’s care. Nevertheless, she is trapped. On meeting Junpei with whom she seems to develop a genuine emotional connection, she dares to dream that one day they might marry, that she could leave this life behind and build a stable family home of her own.

Of course, it’s not to be. Like all men in the Tamanoi, Junpei is misrepresenting himself for his own ends. He is only using Oyuki as an idealised point of refuge from the unhappy marriage he shows no other signs of leaving. As the author points out, the men think they’re using women but the women are also using them though they do so without calculation. Denied power or agency of their own, the women of the Tamanoi have no other option than to manipulate that of men, though the author sympathises with them so strongly that to expose the hidden “vulgarity” seems to him an act of intense cruelty.

Junpei falls in love with the world of the Tamanoi because he thinks it’s more emotionally honest, but the truth is quite the reverse. Wandering through the narrow streets at night, the author pities the women in the windows, knowing that men come here to escape their isolation but there is no escape for these women who are forced to delude themselves that a better future is waiting in order to go on living. Meanwhile Junpei’s colleague, looking back over his shoulder towards the young men in uniform, declares that he too has lost all hope for a promising future. With militarism on the rise, hyper-masculinity has led to a further decline in the already woeful status of women with even the girls’ sympathetic pimp lamenting that the army, who have been rounding up sex workers for forced service in Manchuria, regard them as little more than products to be poked and prodded and giggled over as they are cruelly bought and sold.

Reuniting with his wife, Junpei is forced to face his emotional cowardice, that he was just playing with Oyuki’s feelings in indulging the fantasy of an idealised romantic union. Oyuki, meanwhile, faces the destruction of all her dreams when she realises her uncle has betrayed her, her mother is dead, and all her sacrifices have been for nothing. On some level she may have known Junpei had another woman, but needed to believe in the fantasy of his love for her in order to make her life bearable. Even so, she now sees no other future for herself than a return to work shorn of all her hope. Toyoda’s condemnation of the red light district is bleak and total, even as the jaded author himself becomes an ambivalent part of it, but the Tamanoi is only a symptom of longstanding social oppression exacerbated by militarist fervour as the lights go out all over town.


Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Tomu Uchida, 1959)

Chikamatsu's love in Osaka poster“Money is the enemy” a dejected geisha declares in an attempt to explain her desperate circumstances to a naive young man part way  through Tomu Uchida’s Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Naniwa no Koi no Monogatari). Before a wartime flirtation with the militarist far right, Uchida had been closely involved with the leftwing “tendency film” movement and his post-war work perhaps displays much the same spirit only with a world weary resignation to the inherent unfairness of human society. Chikamatsu, as cited in the slightly awkward English language title, was a Japanese playwright of the 17th/18th century who also specialised in tales of social oppression, most notably in frustrated romance and eventual double suicides.

Uchida’s masterstroke is that he retells Chikamatsu’s well known bunraku play The Courier for Hell and its kabuki counterpart Couriers of Love Fleeing to Yamato from the inside out. Among Chikamatsu’s most famous works the play was in fact inspired by a real life event which took place in Osaka (then known as “Naniwa”) in 1710. Uchida places the grumpy, worldweary figure of the playwright directly into the action as a powerless observer, trapped on the wrong side of the stage able only to observe and comment but, crucially, with the ability to remake reality in altering his tale in the telling.

The tale is familiar enough and possibly a little too close to that of Chikamatsu’s previous hits including Love Suicides at Sonezaki which is given a grim namecheck as events begin to mirror one of his plays. Our hero, Chubei (Kinnosuke Nakamura), is an earnest young man who has been adopted into the Kameya family with the intention that he will marry its only daughter and take over the courier business now being run by stern widow Myokan (Kinuyo Tanaka). Early foreshadowing reminds us that immense responsibility is regularly placed in Chubei’s hands and he must remain above suspicion. Embezzlement is a capital offence in the increasingly austere 18th century society.

Chubei is an honest man, but meek. Unable to risk offending a bawdy client, he allows himself to be bamboozled into the red light district where Hachiemon (Minoru Chiaki) buys him the prettiest courtesan in the place, Umegawa (Ineko Arima). Chubei tries to leave as soon as Hachiemon disappears but is convinced to stay by Umegawa’s entreaties that his sudden exit will reflect badly on her and possibly result in censure or punishment. Struck by her predicament, Chubei falls in love. He makes repeated returns, dips into his savings, and finally makes the fateful decision to spend money not his own when he discovers that a lascivious magnate has made an offer to buy out Umegawa’s contract.

Meanwhile, Chikamatsu hovers on the edges conducting “research” for a new play to save his failing theatre company which itself is suffering due to lack of monetary receipts seeing as audience members obviously prefer the heartrending melodrama of Sonezaki to the more artistic fare he’s currently running. Though he is obviously a frequenter of the red light district and its surrounding drinking establishments, Chikamatsu has a noticeably ambivalent stance towards its existence. His sympathy is instantly caught by the melancholy Umegawa when he notices her tenderly bandage the hand of a little girl who serves in the brothel, only to have her beautiful gesture of human kindness immediately mocked by the lascivious magnate who witnesses the same thing but chooses to ask her to repeat the act on him.

Chikamatsu was supposed to come to the teahouse in order to schmooze the magnate so that he will invest in the theatre company which perhaps generates an odd commonality between the playwright and courtesan both at the mercy of wealthy patrons who, one might say, are all money and no class. Umegawa, however, as Chikamatsu is painfully aware is in no way free and entirely dependent on pleasing men like the magnate whether she likes them or not. As she tells Chubei, Umegawa didn’t choose this line of work but people judge her for it anyway. She has no bodily autonomy and is bought and sold daily with no right to refuse. She is “merchandise” that “talks, laughs, cries, and gets angry” and the sole concern in all of her life is money which she now regards as “the enemy” for the subjugated position in which the need for it has placed her.

Of course, the playwright (our stand-in) has been listening all along. He too would like to free Umegawa from her torment, but he is powerless and can only blame the world that created the circumstances that trap her. Chubei is no hero either, he is weak and feckless even if his eventual willingness to damn himself by embezzling other people’s money (and ruining his adopted family in the process) proves the depth both of his love and of his rage at the social injustice which prevents him from pursuing his romantic desires. Chikamatsu can’t save his fatalistic heroes, but he can create a more fitting vision of their love imbued with all world nearly grandeur of tragic romance that returns our eyes to the cruelty of the world that wouldn’t let them be. A stunning final shot pulls us from Chikamatsu once again in the background as he watches his own play onto the other side of the stage and then back again as the playwright’s eyes burn with silent rage and impotence as he offers the only kind of resistance he can in the face of a cruel and indifferent society.