That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, Yasujiro Ozu, 1930)

Most closely associated with his late career family dramas, Yasujiro Ozu has acquired a reputation for geniality which may in a sense be slightly unfair. He was always an astute chronicler of his times, often choosing to view them through the frame of family, and was never as blind to the issues of the day as some would have it. Ozu’s ‘30s work, that which survives at least, is in a sense fiercely political in its critique of the inequalities of the depression-era society. One of his early crime movies, the silent That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, Sono yo no Tsuma) insists that justice must be done but does so with compassion in its full and total empathy for a man driven to extremes by the depth of his paternal love. 

Indeed, the early part of the film is tense noir chase as the hero, desperate father Shuji (Tokihiko Okada), attempts to evade a police dragnet to make his way home after robbing a bank to get money to pay for his sick daughter Michiko’s (Mitsuko Ichimura) medical care. Meanwhile, loyal wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo) has been patiently waiting at home tending to the child who refuses to sleep because she only wants her father and constantly asks where he is. Shuji eventually makes it back and tells his horrified wife what he has done, agreeing that he will turn himself in to the police once Michiko is well, but he’s already out of luck. The taxi he darted into was being driven by an undercover cop (Chishu Ryu) who installs himself in the apartment but agrees to wait until the doctor comes in the morning before taking Shuji in. 

Out of keeping with the rest of Ozu’s career but very much in the vein of his depression-era silents, That Night’s Wife concerns a poor but happy family mustering what little resources they have in the face of despair. Filled with tension as the policeman waits impatiently, the camera pans around the one room apartment where the family live and finds it to be a homely, bohemian space, apparently an artist’s studio with foreign film posters and travel souvenirs hanging from the walls. By all indications a starving painter, Shuji is a poor man brought to ruin by accidental tragedy. His daughter is deathly ill and doctors cost money. We can see that, by the standards of the time, he is a very hands on father beloved by his little girl and is obviously willing to sacrifice himself and his future to ensure her survival

It’s Mayumi, however, to whom the film’s title refers and in her role as wife rather than mother. The doctor (Tatsuo Saito) worries that she has not slept in the last few days, how could she when her child is so ill, but it’s she who eventually picks up the gun to protect the family by disarming the policeman and, essentially, keeping him hostage until the morning when, she claims, Shuji will willingly go with him after confirming Michiko’s survival. The world is turned upside down, no one quite plays the role they’ve been assigned. The loving father, an effete artist, turns unconvincing master criminal, the loyal wife gangster’s moll, and the policeman a calm and compassionate guardian deeply moved by the family’s predicament but also knowing that the law must be served. 

In a typically Ozu touch, the policeman pretends to be asleep with the intention of letting Shuji escape, but he once again makes an atypical choice. He refuses to run, swearing off “crazy ideas” but unrepentant in his crime. Shuji determines to pay his debt to society so that he can return home as a redeemed father and hold his daughter as a man unburned by his transgression. The message isn’t so much that crime doesn’t pay as that crime must be paid for. Shuji is acquitted in the moral courts of the audience’s hearts and not even the policeman blames him for what he has done which is all he could do as a father in an oppressive and indifferent society. A strange complicity develops between the two men who are restored to their original roles, both acknowledging that of the other and sorry for what they each know must happen next but already resigned. The father saves his family only through accepting his exile from it, but unlike Ozu’s wandering fathers of the 1930s, seems destined to return after redeeming himself in the eyes of a society which had long since abandoned him. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Tokyo Chorus (東京の合唱, Yasujiro Ozu, 1931)

“Tokyo – city of the unemployed” runs a rather unexpected caption part way through Yasujiro Ozu’s depression-era silent comedy, Tokyo Chorus (東京の合唱, Tokyo no Chorus). Putting an unconventional spin on the reality of the contemporary capital, Ozu nevertheless retreats into his favourite themes as good people attempt to remain cheerful in the face of increasing adversity while embracing an often latent interest in class politics as the hero finds himself losing out at the hands of heartless capitalists when he alone is brave enough to stand up for a friend treated unfairly. 

Ozu opens however with an amusing prologue set some years before the main action in which the hero, Okajima (Tokihiko Okada), is a poor student goofing off during a military-style drill. While another boy arrives late to practice and is mocked for having arrived in geta, Okajima’s problem is that he didn’t want to take his jacket off because he isn’t wearing a shirt. A little less well off than some of the others, he brazens things out by ribbing the teacher, Mr. Omura (Tatsuo Saito). Flashforward some years and Okajima has become an insurance clerk, married with three children. His oldest child, a son, is desperate for a bicycle because the other kids have one and as Okajima is supposed to be getting his bonus today, the parents have decided to give in. 

Things do not, however,  go quite to plan. After picking up his pay packet, Okajima gets talking with an old timer who laments he’s just been fired. He thinks it’s because he sold some unlucky policies in which the beneficiary died shortly after signing the paperwork, but it seems obvious to Okajima that they’re firing him because they don’t want to pay his pension. He talks things over with the other employees who all agree it’s unfair, but is the only one brave enough to march into the boss’ office and say so. Unfortunately, Okajima gets nowhere and loses his own job in the proccess. Dejected, he buys his son a much cheaper scooter on the way home but the boy is unimpressed, as is his wife (Emiko Yagumo) when he hands her his notice of termination. 

It is of course a good and proper thing that Okajima stood up for colleague, but he’s lost out because of his pride, smugly explaining to his wife that he was in the right while arguing with his boss and resentfully refusing to admit the irresponsibility of his actions as a husband and a father. Pride becomes a persistent secondary concern as he tries to find another steady job in the economically straitened world of 1931. Despite telling his colleague he envied him for his job as a sandwichboard man and claiming that having a college degree makes him overqualified for casual work, Okajima struggles with himself intellectually knowing that any job will do to feed his family but embarrassed in having to resort to work he feels is beneath him. When he runs into Mr. Omura and he offers to help him with a job in the curry rice restaurant he now owns after retiring from teaching, Okajima is conflicted, telling him he won’t accept help if it’s offered out of pity but only if extended in friendship. When his wife spots him out delivering leaflets, however, she is scandalised and humiliated rather than proud or grateful, only later coming round and agreeing to help out in the Omuras’ restaurant herself. 

Meanwhile, family life is obviously strained by their ongoing financial predicament. When their daughter is taken ill and needs hospital treatment, Mrs. Okajima is upset to discover that her husband sold all her kimonos to pay the fees, their eyes aflash with anger and despair as they put on a brave face for the children but eventually brightening as they continue on with a family game of pat-a-cake. Despite her distress, Mrs. Okaijma maintains faith in her husband and the family is as happy as it can be under the circumstances. At a reunion organised for some of his former students now no longer the rambunctious young men they were at the film’s opening but wistful for the spent freedoms of their youth, Omura makes a toast hoping that everyone continues to prosper through “hard-work and self-reliance”, but it is the mutual solidarity which Okajima showed when he stood up for his mistreated colleague which eventually proves his salvation. Humbled by his experiences, no longer looking down on honest work, he gets the offer of another job which is not quite of the kind he was hoping for, but is perhaps a new start even if it means leaving Tokyo, city of the unemployed, behind for the greener pastures of provincial Tochigi and a simpler, but perhaps kinder, existence. 


Eternal Heart (不壊の白珠, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1929)

Eternal Heart still 1Hiroshi Shimizu is most often remembered for his sensitive depictions of childhood, but his career, which spanned more than 160 films many of which are presumed lost, was much more varied than might be assumed. His earliest completely extant feature, 1929’s Eternal Heart (不壊の白珠, Fue no Shiratama, AKA Undying Pearl), is a case in point. Set in the heady days of early Showa long before militarism took hold, Eternal Heart bears early witness to Shimizu’s distrust of romantic solutions as its wounded protagonists are forced to accept that they have lost out in the great game of love and there’s nothing they can do about it except learn to endure their sadness.

The heroine, Toshie (Emiko Yagumo), is an earnest young woman working as a typist. She has developed a crush on a nice young man, Shozo (Minoru Takada), who works at the same company but unfortunately for her, her “modern girl” sister Reiko (Michiko Oikawa) has taken a liking to him too. To Reiko, Shozo is just one of the guys she likes to string along, but to the seriously minded Toshie he’s the only man she’ll ever love. Plucking up the courage, Toshie writes a cryptic note asking to talk to Shozo about something important and has it sent to him in the interoffice mail to avoid the embarrassment of giving it to him directly. In a spectacular case of bad timing, however, she discovers that Shozo has proposed to Reiko. He thinks the letter is about the possible marriage and that perhaps Toshie is worried he’s not a suitable person to become her brother-in-law, never dreaming that Toshie herself meant to declare her love to him. Hugely embarrassed, Toshie does not handle the situation well but agrees to put a good word in with her mother, after all she does think that Shozo is the best of men and so could never speak ill of him.

The marriage is agreed and Toshie tries to make her peace with it, only to have some kind of episode at the wedding party that leaves Shozo feeling guilty, as if he might have somehow alienated his new sister-in-law. Meanwhile, Toshie also receives the solicitous attentions of the company’s boss, Katayama (Arai Atsushi), a middle-aged widower with three children who makes a clumsy pass at her in the coach home but later apologises and embarks on a more appropriate style of courtship.

The irony is that Shozo and Toshie are actually perfectly suited, only he never saw her because he was distracted by her sister’s modern sparkle. It would be easy enough to see the contrast between the two women as one between tradition and modernity, Toshie the perfect exemplification of traditional Japanese values and her sister the avarice of the flapper generation, but the distinction is more nuanced than it might at first seem. Despite her presentation as a “traditional” woman, Toshie is more progressive than her sister in that she has made a free choice to be a working woman and takes her job seriously, quickly becoming irritated by those who don’t, whereas Reiko is never in search of direct independence only of the freedom to move between one man of means and another. Toshie wants real love, but also her independence and perhaps does not feel that one must necessarily conflict with another.

While the relationship between Shozo and Reiko sours as she becomes bored with his niceness and lack of consumerist avarice, Toshie finds herself filled with hostility towards her former object of affection and consenting to date Katayama partly in romantic rebound. Though he eventually turns out to be a little nicer than that first unpleasant incident in the taxi might have suggested, Toshie cannot escape the sense of social inferiority which keeps her in a subordinate position to a man who ought, in her view it seems, to be her equal if they were married. On an abrupt visit to his family home, she finds herself waiting in the hallway where Katayama’s precocious son (Shoichi Kofujita) mistakes her for the new maid, while his daughters and nieces, dressed in the modern style, openly mock her for being a career woman, suggesting that “typist” is a synonym for “loose woman” while Katayama fails to help the situation by countering only that “some of them are decent”. In response, Toshie calmly and confidently reaffirms that she is proud of her job and ashamed of nothing, only for the kids to chime in with a show of banging a keyboard as if it were something that a baby could do for amusement and little more than noisemaking.

Toshie leaves humiliated, but seemingly continues seeing Katayama at least superficially. It’s at this point she re-ecounters Shozo, who now has something important he wants to discuss with her. Having married Reiko believing her to be playful and innocent, Shozo has awoken to her coquetry and figured out she’s been going on drives with the moustachioed man we saw her glare at on the train on her honeymoon. The implication is that Reiko is only dating the other guy, whom she knows to be married with children, because he has a fancy car – something Shozo showed no interest in getting even if he had the money because like Toshie what he wanted was love. Shozo is understandably hurt and angry but wants to reconcile. Toshie vows to help him, overcoming her timidity to head into one of the modern bars frequented by her sister to convince her to come home, which she does but only to collect her things. Reiko claims that it’s Shozo who is being “selfish” for asking about her life before their marriage. In that she might have had a point, but it’s not something Shozo particularly cared about and he is not in that sense jealous only confused and embarrassed. Reiko refuses to accept her role as a wife, but unlike Toshie she never means to be independent and decamps to the home of her married lover, presumably intending to live off him until something better comes along.

In that sense, Reiko’s “modernity” is not so much the problem as her innate selfishness which the modern world perhaps enables. Reiko, amoral, claims her individuality by reserving the right to do as she pleases ignoring both social convention and other people’s feelings. She married Shozo because he was kind of a catch only to grow bored with him and wonder if she might do better. Toshie, meanwhile, nurses her broken heart with as much grace as she can manage, desperately trying to save her sister’s failing marriage in order to preserve Shozo’s happiness more than to avoid the scandal of marital breakdown. Despite his disillusionment with Reiko’s Westernised “modernity” Shozo finds himself considering emigrating to America in order to escape his heartbreak, resolving that a separation would be “socially unacceptable” and hoping that Reiko will continue to live as “Mrs. Narita” at least superficially even in his absence. Toshie loses Shozo twice. Having married her sister there was no longer any way for her be with him other than as a relative, but now she must watch the pearl her sister cast aside sail away from her never to be seen again. United only in heartbreak they part, Toshie selflessly reflecting on Shozo’s sadness rather than her own, but in even in the midst of her disappointment she stands stoically alone, independent and self-possessed like truly “modern” woman.