The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (お茶漬けの味, Yasujiro Ozu, 1952)

Famously, many of Yasujiro Ozu’s films end with a young woman getting married and the emotional desolation that it provokes in those left behind. Ozu, unlike some of his contemporaries, generally comes down on the side of marriage. His heroines always succumb, rarely finding independence or resignation and settling for a second choice even if their first proved unavailable. The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (お茶漬けの味, Ochazuke no Aji), however, takes him in a slightly different direction in asking what, if anything, is to blame when a marriage is unhappy, repurposing the arranged married debate to perhaps imply that wedded bliss is less about romance than it is about endurance and mutual understanding. 

Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), a middle-aged woman, consented to an arranged marriage to Mokichi (Shin Saburi) at the usual age but seems to feel little more than contempt for him. A friend from school, Aya (Chikage Awashima), invites her on an impromptu trip to an onsen and for reasons not entirely clear, Taeko feels she has to lie rather than simply telling Mokichi that she would like to go away with a friend for a couple of days. Aya encourages her to spin a tale that her niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), who often stays with them in the city, has been taken ill and is in need of urgent care, but the plan is foiled when she swans into their home right as rain before Aya could give her instructions. Caught on the hoof, Taeko is forced to improvise that a different friend is ill, the four women eventually heading off on a girls’ trip leaving Mokichi at home alone and apparently none the wiser. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Mokichi turns out to be a kind and considerate, if perhaps dull, kind of man. We later discover that he knew all along that Taeko was lying but thought it wasn’t worth making a fuss over. He makes a point of chatting with the maid, asking after her family and is apparently well acquainted with her circumstances. Unlike other men, he doesn’t spend his time out drinking or gambling or even overworking, coming home to read instead, but still Taeko is put out when she phones him at work to kickstart the onsen plan and discovers his desk to be empty. It turns out that he met up with the younger brother of an old friend killed in the war who had asked for his help with a recruitment exam. Non-chan (Koji Tsuruta), as everyone calls him, is a cheerful sort guy who openly admits he wears army surplus suits and likes to eat in restaurants which are “good and cheap”, all of which suits Mokichi much better than his wife’s rather more sophisticated tastes. The younger man is quick to introduce him to the pleasures of the age including bicycle racing and pachinko parlours which is where he runs into an old army buddy, Hirayama. 

While Taeko and her old friends break into a rendition of a song from their student days with Setsuko looking on in minor confusion, Mokichi sits around a small table with Hirayama and an equally out of place Non-chan recalling his glory days in Singapore and singing old army songs. They are each, in their own and infinitely parallel ways, mourning the promise of their youth. Taeko’s friends, Aya and Takako, have an equally cynical view of marriage. Takako’s husband has gone to Paris and she, it seems, couldn’t be happier with her newfound freedom, while Aya runs a small boutique and regards hers as little more than a necessary inconvenience. When the ladies take in a baseball game, Aya is surprised to spot her sports-hating husband on the bleachers apparently escorting a woman she recognises from a nearby bar, but she isn’t in any way jealous or angry merely amused and planning to use it as extra leverage to persuade him to buy her a new kimono despite the fact that we later see him asking her for money (which she snatches back as punishment). 

Despite all of that however Taeko’s tragedy maybe that somewhere deep down she wanted her marriage to work. Her open contempt for Mokichi, likening him to a big fat carp and referring to him as “Mr. Bonehead” in assuming he is stupid enough to believe all her lies, annoys the otherwise modern Setsuko who sees their unhappy union as definitive proof that arranged marriages do not work. Interrogated by her exasperated niece who was sure her aunt would support her in her resistance to her parents’ matchmaking, Taeko claims that she is happy and perhaps she is even if in her unhappiness, but Setsuko’s unexpected seizure of her agency though rudely walking out on the omiai brings her own marriage to a crisis point. Mokichi cannot quite say so but tacitly supports Setsuko’s desire to decide her own romantic future even if he disapproves of her irresponsible rudeness to her prospective suitor. “Forcing her to marry against her will would just create another couple like us” he eventually explains to Taeko in boldly saying that which should not be said. 

It would be easy to think that the problem is Taeko and Mokichi simply aren’t suited. There is an obvious class difference that seems to be a continuing problem for the snooty Taeko. It annoys her that he insists on pouring his miso soup into his rice bowl which she feels is common, like his cheap cigarettes and preference for third class rail travel. He explains that it’s not that he’s cheap, simply that these are the things he likes, that he’s familiar with, that make him feel relaxed. Their upbringings are different. Taeko feels relaxed in first class because that’s how she’s always travelled and she likes the finer things because they reassure her in her status. That might be one reason they occupy different areas of a shared home, he with a traditional futon in a tatami mat room, she in a well appointed Western-style boudoir even as she exclusively wears kimono. 

Yet the problem isn’t that they like different things so much as an essential misconnection. Without perhaps knowing, Taeko is so filled with resentment over her lack of control of her romantic destiny that she’s never warmed to her husband or felt secure in her marital home. It’s a cliche to say she doesn’t understand him, but perhaps she wanted something different to what she eventually got. A sudden crisis after the Setsuko episode sees Taeko make a temporary retreat only for Mokichi to be abruptly sent abroad. Sharing the homely comfort food of green tea poured over rice, she finally begins to understand that what she took for indifference was perhaps merely a different way of showing love. Mokichi really is a man who likes the simple things, affection without ceremony, like the flavour of green tea over rice. She knows that unlike Aya’s husband Mokichi will never betray or hurt her. He is infinitely “reliable” which might not sound romantic, but is perhaps the only solid basis for a successful marriage. 

That’s the advice she eventually offers to Setsuko, walking back on her commitment to arranged marriage, a “feudal” tradition she and all the other women had been determined to force onto her despite the fear and pain it caused them in their own youth and beyond, to remind her that marriage is for life. Find someone “reliable”. A flashy suit and a handsome face might look good now, but they might not in 20 years’ time. Setsuko has taken a liking to Non-chan who claims to be “reliable” but his taste for pachinko and bicycle races might suggest otherwise. In any case, after a heartwarming resolution that repairs the fractured marriage of Mokichi and Taeko, Ozu ends on a moment of cheeky ambivalence in which Non-chan says the wrong thing, upsetting Setsuko who retreats into a small hut. Non-chan repeatedly apologises and tries to enter, while she pushes him back out, neatly symbolising the arc of a marriage as an accidental battleground of intimacy though in this case one with a playful resolution. 


The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is released on blu-ray in the UK on 18th May courtesy of BFI in a set which also includes an audio commentary by Tony Rayns. The first press edition also comes with a booklet featuring an essay by Tom Milne.

Short clip (English subtitles)

The Tattered Wings (遠い雲, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1955)

“Why can’t a woman have the freedom to pursue her own happiness?” wails an extremely conflicted woman in Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Tattered Wings (遠い雲, Tooi Kumo), though it appears she may have completely misinterpreted the desires of the woman she is speaking to. By 1955, provincial Japan had perhaps returned to a kind of peaceful normality but times were changing here too, just in ways that seem slightly unexpected. In this case, the problem is not curtain twitching grannies keen to enforce the social order, but a pair of young punks hoping to stir up trouble through malicious gossip for motives which are entirely unclear save resentment and desire to rebel against their own lack of prospects in an otherwise rigid society. 

All the trouble starts when brooding intellectual Keizo (Takahiro Tamura) returns from Tokyo for a 10 day visit with his family before taking up a job transfer to Hokkaido after which he claims he will not be able to see them for several years. Before he left, Keizo had been sweet on Fuyuko (Hideko Takamine), but she eventually consented to an arranged marriage to support her parents’ failing business and is now a widow with a small daughter. Though the marriage was abusive, since her husband’s death Fuyuko has been happy in her married home, spending time with her husband’s sensitive younger brother Shunsuke (Keiji Sada) and there is some talk that they may later marry. 

Though this kind of quasi-incestuous union of a widow and her brother-in-law may have fuelled countless other melodramas, it is not the problem here so much as its potential solution. After running into him by chance at her husband’s grave, a strange place to reencounter an old lover, Fuyuko is seen in several places around the town walking and talking with Keizo. There is nothing more to their relationship than that, a man and a woman talking at a respectful distance in public, but the young toughs at the station who always carried a torch for the beautiful Fuyuko decide to start a nasty rumour that there is something improper going on. 

In real terms, of course, there isn’t, but there is a kind of silent pull between Keizo and the lonely Fuyuko that is much more difficult and ambiguous than one might expect it to be. Keizo clearly wants to pick up where they left off, but is intense and awkward, motivated to urgency by the briefness of his stay. He forgets that he’s been gone a long time and Fuyuko is no longer the carefree 19-year-old she was when he left, but the mother of a young girl who claims that she has long since lost the ability to dream. Brutalised by her abusive husband, she is unwilling to stake her hopes on new romance and is wary of becoming a middle-aged woman chasing a return to the past in embracing an idealised first love in flight from its complicated reality. She accuses Keizo of trying to project his own dream of the past onto her, wanting to return to the possibilities of his youth rather than really in love with a woman he now barely knows. 

Meanwhile, Fuyuko is pulled in two directions by her respective families. Her older sister is embittered, resentful of their mother who refused her permission to marry a man she loved because he wasn’t wealthy and they wanted a son to marry in, while her younger sister has herself long carried a torch for Keizo and is acting more out of jealousy than genuine concern. Faced with crisis, the families of both Fuyuko and Keizo affirm that they don’t care what anyone might say about it so long as their children are happy, but the problem is that Fuyuko no longer knows what she wants. Keizo accuses her of tearing off her wings rather than using them to fly, but perhaps what she wanted all along wasn’t an excuse to leave but one to stay. Maybe what she wants isn’t actually what everyone expects it to be, and the permission she’s trying to give herself is the right to be comfortable with a slow and steady kind of love at the side of a patient and compassionate sort of man who’d be content to let her choose and know he’d been her choice. Fuyuko’s wings may be tattered, but she is in a sense pursuing her own happiness in choosing the present over an unrealistic dream of adolescent romance.


Opening and titles (no subtitles)

The Scent of Incense (香華, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1964)

Scent of Incense still 1Sometimes regarded as overly sentimental, Keisuke Kinoshita’s later career grew progressively harder around the edges, as if he began to lose faith in the efficacy of human goodness but never it seems in its capacity for endurance. Spanning more than 50 years in the turbulent history of mid-20th century Japan, The Scent of Incense (香華, Koge) reverses the path of the hahamono in dramatising the complicated relationship of two women – a “selfish” mother and her “self-sacrificing” daughter who finds herself unable to give up on maternal approval despite the many disappointments of her life.

We open in late Meiji with a funeral interrupted by news from the Russo-Japanese war. Shortly after, young widow Ikuyo (Nobuko Otowa) argues with her mother, Tsuna (Kinuyo Tanaka), over custody of her five-year-old daughter Tomoko. Ikuyo is planning to remarry and her new husband has three children of his own. Fearing Tomoko would be an inconvenience, Ikuyo proposes to make her heir to her mother’s family, leaving her behind in her grandmother’s care. Though Tsuna loves Tomoko dearly, she resents her daughter’s intention to abandon them just because she’s got a better offer, and perhaps privately wonders how long she’ll actually stick it out for seeing as, as we later see, she has a strong tendency to give up when the going gets tough.

The prediction proves accurate. Ikuyo persuades her new husband to abandon his existing children and family home for the bright lights of Tokyo, while Tomoko and her grandmother live on alone in the country. Ikuyo has another daughter, Yasuko, but the couple quickly become impoverished without access to her husband’s family money. When Tsuna dies, Ikuyo decides to fetch Tomoko from the family residence, but then sells her to a geisha house. A few years later, she too falls into the sex trade but as a less exulted “oiran”, embarrassingly re-encountering her daughter from the other side of a brothel. Despite her abandonment and shame over her mother’s profession, Tomoko (Mariko Okada) continues to try to help her, maintaining an awkward familial relationship with a woman who only pays attention to her when she needs something.

Perhaps ironically, in one sense, Tomoko ends up becoming a successful, independent woman in pre-war Japan but is forever denied the kind of familial life she craves as a conventionally respectable wife and mother of the kind her own was not. In the course of her work, she meets dashing military cadet Ezaki (Go Kato) and, despite the warnings of her madam (Haruko Sugimura) who cautions her that she’s the type to fall in love too deeply, embarks on a longterm affair with him. Though he is obviously aware that she is a geisha, he is confident that his family would accept a marriage, but Tomoko’s hopes are later dashed when his pre-marital investigations turn up the fact that Ikuyo has worked as a “common prostitute”. Heartbroken, she resents once again paying the price for her mother’s transgressions, but does not break with her completely.

Tomoko’s liminal status is further brought home to her when her elderly patron, who has set her up with a geisha house of her own, suddenly dies and not only is she informed some days later by the madam at another house, but she’s not even permitted to attend the funeral. Another man, Nozawa (Eiji Okada), who’d had his eye on her but honestly admits that men of his class do not engage in “serious” relationships with geisha, asks her to become his mistress but she has had enough of the shadow life, vowing both that she doesn’t want to be “owned” anymore, and that her next man (if there is one) will have to marry her.

Loneliness renders that particular vow void as she finds herself embarking on a casual affair with Nozawa while Ikuyo considers getting married for the third time – this time, rather transgressively, with the family’s recently widowed former servant, Hachiran (Norihei Miki), who married into a wealthy family and apparently made something of himself. Hachiran, however, finds it difficult to shake off the old class attitudes, treating Ikuyo like a goddess while she bosses him around and makes a pretence of leaving every time she gets fed up.

Later we might wonder if Ikuyo’s sudden exit from Hachiran’s distant home is more that she missed her daughter than it was boredom with her husband. “I don’t think of her as a mother” each woman says, Ikuyo on learning that Tsuna is dangerously ill, and Tomoko when Nozawa suggests making a detour to visit Ikuyo and Hachiran. Ikuyo, it is true, is a cold woman who abandoned her daughter only to reclaim her in order to sell, later giving up two more children one of whom apparently disappears without trace. The proof of her love is found only in its end, while Tomoko suffers on all the long years otherwise alone, until in an immense act of circularity she at last becomes a kind of mother to another woman’s son.

Forever haunted by the spectre of soldiers, Tomoko loses everything in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but perseveres and rebuilds. She loses everything again in the firebombing of Tokyo, only later remembering her foresight in burying a large collection of crockery in the cellar which might allow her to open a restaurant. She resents her mother but keeps her close, while Ikuyo’s affections seem to ebb and flow as she disappears off to greener pastures only to resurface again when they’ve been thoroughly grazed. A flighty, perhaps selfish woman, Ikuyo too proves unable to sever connection from her daughter. Tomoko disapproves of her mother’s gaudiness, her unbridled lust for life and disregard of social conventions, but the two women are more alike than they first seem – each in their own way fiercely independent and unwilling to allow their desires to be defined or defeated by the world around them.


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)

An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化, Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

An Actor's Revenge blu-ray cover“Revenge is difficult even for an actor” our secret observer tells us, watching quietly from the rooftops like a spectator at a play. In celebration of his 300th screen appearance, Kazuo Hasegawa stars once again as vengeful onnagata Yukinojo in another version of An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化, Yukinojo Henge), this time directed by Kon Ichikawa with a script written by his wife, Natto Wada, which was itself based on the earlier film with minor adaptations. Recasting the scope frame for the Kabuki stage, Ichikawa shows us a maddening world of theatricality, defined by artifice and governed by the rules of narrative determinism.

Orphaned after his parents were driven to suicide, Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) was taken in by an actor at a young age and trained as an “onnagata” – an actor specialising in female roles on the kabuki stage where women were forbidden to tread. Years later Yukinojo is one of the most popular actors of the age and lives more or less as a woman on stage and off. Having brought his Osakan theatre company to the Edo capital he finally sees his chance for revenge against the trio of corrupt and ambitious merchants who conspired to ruin his father for personal gain. He is, however, conflicted – not in his desire for vengeance but in the strain it continues to place on his mental state as well as the moral corruption need for it provokes.

Despite his feminine appearance, Yukinojo is regarded as male and most assume that his (volitional) romantic attachments will be with women. His gender ambiguity is, however, a problem for some such as the spiky pickpocket Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) who describes him as “creepy” in being neither male nor female. Then again, Ohatsu’s gender presentation is also atypical in that though she dresses and acts as a woman, most regard her as inappropriately masculine in the independence and authority which make it possible for her to act as the leader of a gang of street thieves. Lamenting her tomboyishness, some of her minions make the suggestion common in these kinds of films that Ohatsu will rediscover her femininity on falling in love (with a man). Despite her supposed hatred of men, Ohatsu finds herself falling for Yukinojo possibly precisely because of his gender ambiguity in that she is in some sense permitted to fall in love with him as a woman because he is a man.

Meanwhile, Yumitaro (also played by Kazuo Hasegawa) – another street thief only a much more egalitarian one, has no desire for women and has also developed some kind of fascination with Yukinojo as man who presents as female. Yukinojo is remarkably uninterested in Ohatsu, but seems drawn both to the mysterious Yumitaro and to the pawn in his revenge plot, lady Namiji (Ayako Wakao). The daughter of Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), the ambitious lord who orchestrated the plot against Yukinojo’s father, who has sold her to the Shogun as a concubine in order to buy influence, Namiji develops a deep fascination with the feminine actor which is then manipulated both by Yukinojo who plans to break her heart solely to get at Dobe, and by Dobe who intends to indulge her fascination in order to persuade her to return to the Shogun. Namiji is entirely innocent and effectively powerless. Involving her in the plot weighs on Yukinojo’s conscience but he refuses to look back, preparing to sacrifice her solely in order to a strike blow towards her father.

Meanwhile, chaos reigns in Edo as the corruption of the ruling elite provokes a rebellion by the ordinary people fed up with their persistent profiteering. This too Yukinojo harnesses as a part of his plot, setting his greedy merchants one against the other as they weigh up the benefits of making themselves look good to the people and the Shogun through engineering a crash in the price of rice by dumping the stocks they’ve been hoarding. The theatrical world and the “real” begin to overlap as Yukinojo performs the ghosts of his parents to bring the merchants’ crimes home to them, but his revenge plot has devastating and unforeseen consequences which perhaps begin to eat away at his carefully crafted chameleonism. Possessing no true identity of his own, Yukinojo passes into legend, retreating back to his natural home of the stage the shadow of an avenger disappearing over the horizon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Deep River Melody (風流深川唄, So Yamamura, 1960)

Deep River Melody poster 2An actor with a long and distinguished career, So Yamamura first stepped behind the camera in 1953 with an adaptation of the famous proletarian novel by Takeji Kobayashi, The Crab Cannery Ship (later adapted by Sabu in 2009), and eventually completed six features. Deep River Melody (風流深川唄, Furyu Fukagawa Uta), released in 1960 and adapted from a novel by Matsutaro Kawaguchi, was last among them and starred post-war singing sensation Hibari Misora in the leading role. Hibari Misora was a frequent presence at Toei through the ‘50s and ‘60s, appearing in a series of musical dramas both period and contemporary but Deep River Melody is among the small number of purely dramatic pieces in which she starred which do not feature any musical numbers even over the opening and closing.

Set in the early years of militarism, the story revolves around Setsu (Hibari Misora) – the daughter of a restaurant owner, and her head chef, Cho (Koji Tsuruta). Having grown up together, Setsu and Cho have quietly fallen in love but these are times in which it is difficult to state one’s feelings plainly. Luckily, Setsu’s father, Isaburo (Kan Ishii), and his warm hearted mistress (Isuzu Yamada), have noticed the growing affection between the pair and are only too happy for them. What could be better after all than the head chef marrying into the family? Despite some qualms on Cho’s side in breaking a class ceiling taboo, the matter appears to be settled and both he and Setsu are blissfully happy.

However, tragedy soon strikes. Isaburo unwisely agreed to become the guarantor of a loan taken out by Shunsuke Ohta (So Yamamura) – the leader of the communist party in Japan (not an easy thing to be amid the rising tides of militarism). He, of course, defaults on the loan putting the restaurant at risk. The other relatives, learning of the prospective marriage between Setsu and Cho are extremely unhappy, viewing it as improper for mere servant to inherit the restaurant. Isaburo stands firm, but matters are pushed to crisis point by grumpy uncle Koshikawa who is determined to act as a go-between for the wealthy son of a rival restaurant who has long had designs on Setsu.

Though this is definitively a pre-war story, many of the problems faced by Setsu and Cho are the same as those in Hibari Misora’s contemporary movies in that she, in particular, finds herself trapped by a series of outdated social codes in which her extended family expect her to consent to marry a man she does even like for money in order to save their “good” name. They believe Isaburo is a feckless fool who has lost the restaurant through a needless gesture of loyalty towards a man who had been good to him in the past and was now in trouble. Isaburo places human relationships above money and politics, remaining uninterested in the relatives’ insistence on class hierarchies and preservation of the family’s good standing. Though he may, to a degree at least, be sympathetic towards Ohta’s political intentions, he acts as guarantor out of respect and gratitude rather than deep belief in a cause.

Nevertheless, the barriers between Cho and Setsu are less physical than they are psychological. Cho, raised as a servant, feels himself inferior and has difficulty accepting Isaburo’s talk of marriage owing to their differing social status. Isaburo, somewhat embarrassed, has not yet spoken with Setsu, but then knows his daughter well and is right in assuming the pair will eventually sort things out on their own if given a gentle push. When the relationship is tested by the restaurant’s failure, Isaburo and Setsu stand firm. No one entered this relationship for the wrong reasons – Cho loves the restaurant and everyone who works in it, but he fell in love with Setsu independently and would marry her for nothing. He remains uncertain, however, if his devotion is selfish and if the best way to love her is to leave her and allow her to save her familial legacy by marrying a man with money.

Like many post-war films, Deep River Melody is essentially about learning to let go of outdated ideas and that the maintenance of tradition is less important than individual happiness. Setsu and her father are ready to let go rather than commit themselves to a course of lifelong unhappiness solely to please their snooty relatives. Cho, however, struggles to free himself of a feeling of social inferiority. His own family tell him that his desire to marry Setsu is not only wrong but dangerous, that they have built a life for themselves though being loyal servants and that crossing the class divide risks all of their futures. Conflicted, Cho remains unwilling to fight for his love because he does not believe he can win and not only that, he feels it would be inappropriate to even try. If the pair are to find true happiness, they will have to find the courage to move on from the past and build their own future free of feudal ideas but to do so will require both sacrifice and support in the belief that a better life is possible.


Growing Up (たけくらべ, Heinosuke Gosho, 1955)

Gosho Growing UpCaught in a moment of transition, it’s no great mystery that post-war Japanese cinema began to look back at the Meiji past. Progress had indeed been rapid but ended in national tragedy and collective madness. The post-war humanists were eager for a different outcome, to avoid the mistakes of the last fifty years and build a society that was kinder and freer than that which had come before. Though on the surface it might seem as if much had changed since the dawn of a new century, the problems were still the same and a failure to address them only likely to add new tragedies in place of the better future many hoped for. Among the foremost proponents of post-war humanism, Heinosuke Gosho made a rare trip back into the Meiji past in 1955’s Growing Up (たけくらべ, Takekurabe), an adaptation of the well known short story by Ichiyo Higuchi, finding that nothing much had really changed when it came to the fates of women and the poor in an often wilfully indifferent society.

The action opens on the outskirts of the Yoshiwara in 1894. Our heroes are a collection of children who find themselves dealing with typically adolescent problems but also, by modern standards, expected to grow up all too fast. Chief among them is 13-year-old Midori (Hibari Misora) whose sister, Omaki (Keiko Kishi), is the most famous courtesan of the red light district. Although she knows on some level that her parents have already sold her to the brothel owner in whose house they live as servants, Midori has not yet quite processed the full implications of her destiny or that her world of childhood innocence is rapidly drawing to a close. She is in love with a local boy, Shinnyo (Takashi Kitahara), who seems to return her feelings but is as awkward and confused by them as any teenage boy and treats her by turns with coldness and contempt mixed with grudging affection.

Shinnyo, meanwhile, is the son of a greedy and heartless monk (Takamaru Sasaki) who has decided to sell his older sister as a concubine to a wealthy man who already has a wife. As he loves his sister dearly and has a naive, childish sense of absolute morality, this is a sin Shinnyo cannot forgive. He argues with his father but has no real power to change the situation and then decides on rebelling against his father’s wishes that he not become a monk by leaving for the main temple in Kyoto to take holy orders. Of course, this also means he must sacrifice any youthful idea he might have had of pursuing his love for Midori.

The title, in a sense, could refer not only to the increasingly melancholy youngsters coming of age in an oppressive society, but also to Japan itself as it emerged into modernity in an effort to prove itself the equal of any other major power in the late 19th century. It is, however, an ironic a title as any could be. To “grow up” here is to abandon one’s humanity and conform to the kind of “real world” thinking that codifies cruelty and makes a virtue of heartlessness. Still an innocent child, Midori bounces her ball and basks in her somewhat elevated position as a wealthy young girl and sister of a “notorious” woman without fully understanding all that entails. When her sister tells her about a dream she had of climbing trees and picking persimmons, she is incapable of understanding her warning about the loss of innocence she’s about to experience, but her world is brought crashing down when a gang of rival boys rudely attack her and point out that all her finery was bought through “whoring” and that she is nothing more than a “whore” in waiting.

Another of the boys, Sangoro (Masanori Nakamura), whose family is poor, says he can’t wait to be “grown up”, reacting with less than sensitivity to Midori’s pained pleas that she wishes everything could stay as it was and they could be children forever. Sangoro sees adulthood as freedom. He’ll be free to earn his own living and maybe he won’t have to be like his father, too afraid to stand up to people with money because when you don’t have any you’re always reliant on their kindness. Sangoro may be poor, but he’s a man (or will be) and can’t process the total lack of agency that comes with being an adult female whose future is decided entirely by her closest male relative. Midori, like Shinnyo’s sister, has been sold by her father and there’s nothing she or anyone else can do about it now.

Nevertheless, confronted by her fate, Midori decides to own it. She encourages her parents to think of her as dead, cooly hitting back at their callousness but acknowledging an obligation as she goes. The final scenes preceding her passage across the small bridge which will forever sever her from her childhood are filled with dread and anger as if crying out for someone to stop the inevitable from happening, but of course, no one can. An old woman and former courtesan, Okichi (Isuzu Yamada), who owns a shop where Midori used to spend time and is indirectly responsible for Midori’s acceptance of her fate in some cruel, drunken words she threw at her, puts it best when she briefly feels as if she could have done something in affirming that it isn’t her fault, and it isn’t Midori’s, it’s simply “the world”.

Midori meets her fate not with resignation but rage and defiance. Shinnyo, who runs away from his inability to help his sister by becoming a monk, is forever incapable of declaring his real feelings in words but leaves a flower in front of her window in echo of another he gave her long ago. At first Midori picks it up and cherishes it for the innocent symbol of love that it is, but by the time she has travelled half way along the bridge which will take her to the Yoshiwara, she has realised this kind of innocence does not belong inside. She throws the flower to the mud and leaves her youthful dreams of love and happiness behind as she prepares to step through the doorway into a future which is not of her making and over which she has no say. To “grow up”, in this world, is a kind of spiritual death in which there exists nothing other than emptiness and indifference.