Phoenix (不死鳥, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1947)

“Life is about facing your loneliness” according to the heroine of Keisuke Kinoshita’s Phoenix (不死鳥, Fushicho), a woman who’s known her share of suffering but has learned to endure. She knows not only war widows are lonely, and she’s not the only war widow, so she’s doing her best to be as happy as one can be under the circumstances. As much about its nation’s rebirth from the ashes, Phoenix is also quietly subversive in its critique of outdated social conventions and enthusiasm for a woman’s right to seek her independence rather than rely on the support of the traditional family. 

In 1947, Sayoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a much loved daughter-in-law and mother to Ken, who is about to celebrate his fourth birthday. She takes care of the household and looks after the numerous Yasaka siblings while putting up with her sometimes grumpy father-in-law (Isamu Kosugi) who harshly scolds little Ken when he throws a stone through the side window but feels guilty about it afterwards and vows to come home with sweets to make it up to him. Life with the Yasakas is peaceful and happy, though the present crisis, which isn’t really a crisis so much as a matter for consideration, is the potential marriage of younger son Yuji (Akira Yamanouchi) who has been wanting to marry his girlfriend Yoko but had been worried both that his parents would object to him trying to choose his own bride without their input, and that bringing another young woman into the house as a new wife might be insensitive, leaving Sayoko feeling sad and unwelcome. 

Yuji’s mother tells him that he doesn’t need to worry on either point, she and his father have long been in favour of the marriage which hints at something of a sea change in contemporary social attitudes. In Sayoko’s flashbacks to her early courtship, we see Shinichi (Keiji Sada), her later husband, bring her to his family home with the intention of introducing her to his parents as his future bride, but his father won’t even see her, loudly shouting that Shinichi should immediately ask her to leave. His objections are largely feudal in nature, Shinichi is the oldest son and his marriage is therefore of great importance to the family name. Not only does he not know anything about Sayoko, whom he basically calls a loose woman for daring to date while in high school, but he deeply resents that Shinichi has gone behind his back, defied his authority, and tried to arrange his own marriage without his father’s input. 

Despite the clear intention of the pair to continue their association with or without his consent, Mr. Yasaka continues to object. Shinichi insists that “nothing can separate us” despite knowing that he has already enlisted for the army and will shortly be leaving for the war. Sayoko holds the line, resisting even when her father dies and pushy relatives try to railroad her into an arranged marriage which will benefit them financially, and supporting her younger brother who is spared the war but only because he is already in the later stages of incurable TB.

Mr. Yasaka’s objections gain more weight with the war’s intensity. With her brother on his deathbed, he turns up to ask Sayoko not to see Shinichi on his brief leave before he’s shipped abroad during which they plan to get married because he thinks it’s irresponsible for his son to marry a woman knowing there is a good chance he will leave her a widow. Overwhelmed by the scale of her tragedies, Sayoko has had enough, rounding on Mr. Yasaka and letting him know that his concerns are moot because every healthy young man is in the same position and if he’d only given up his stubborn insistence that Shinichi has wronged him by undercutting his authority and given his consent to their marriage at any point during the last six years he wouldn’t have had to come here on this day with her brother dying in the next room to tell her that she shouldn’t marry the man she loves because her marriage is somehow his decision to make. 

Mr. Yasaka is clearly moved by Sayoko’s distress, moving to comfort her but then withdrawing and getting up to leave without saying anything. Petitioned again by Sayoko’s faithful housekeeper, he catches sight of the blooming flowers Sayoko has grown in adversity and is minded to reconsider. Several years later we can see that Mr. Yasaka has grown fond of Sayoko and his grandson even if he has a bit of temper, while she is very happy as a member of their family and not at all minded to remarry despite their desire for her to lead a fulfilling life. That is, as she tells Yuji encouraging him not to feel bashful about his bride, not because of a romantic notion of faithfulness or being hung up on old memories, but for the practical reason that she has nowhere else to go, or at least she is certain there is nowhere where she would be so happy. Later, however, she hopes to open a shop of her own and strive for her independence together with her son rather than remaining dependent on her husband’s family or marrying again for practical rather than emotional reasons.

Shinichi had been fond of talking about the life they’d lead once the war was over, that they’d only be apart for a few years and then never again, but the war stole their future from them as it did for so many other young people whom the film was doubtless intended to comfort. Nevertheless, Sayoko is forever telling people how happy she is. Mr. Yasaka seems to have relented, is going to let his younger son marry a woman of his choosing, and the younger siblings are all bright and cheerful. The future looks rosy, and Sayoko is going to do her best to enjoy it, striving for independence in a now less restrictive society. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

Introspection Tower (みかへりの塔, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)

vlcsnap-2016-12-10-01h34m55s187Shimizu, strenuously avoiding comment on the current situation, retreats entirely from urban society for this 1941 effort, Introspection Tower (みかへりの塔, Mikaheri no Tou). Set entirely within the confines of a progressive reformatory for troubled children, the film does, however, praise the virtues popular at the time from self discipline to community mindedness and the ability to put the individual to one side in order for the group to prosper. These qualities are, of course, common to both the extreme left and extreme right and Shimizu is walking a tightrope here, strung up over a great chasm of political thought, but as usual he does so with a broad smile whilst sticking to his humanist values all the way.

Introspection Tower opens with a tour being given to a group of women guided by one of the teachers (Chishu Ryu) in which he outlines the qualities of the school. There are no high walls or barbed wire fences, the front gate remains open at all times for the children to feel free within their new environment so they can learn to want to stay until they can be reintegrated into society. The school is run like mini commune with several houses segregated by sex and headed by a teacher and a female guardian – usually his wife, though the female houses also have a female teacher. The kids spend time in conventional education in the morning followed up with physical activity and vocational training in the afternoons to help them find work later in life. Parents are welcome to visit and also encouraged to write letters (notably, all of these kids seem to be able to read and write, at least to a degree). The kids also take care of the housework amongst themselves so they learn life skills like cooking and cleaning, again meant to help them as they return to regular society.

Rather than a straightforward narrative, Shimizu concentrates on the general life of the school with particular interest in four difficult pupils – new arrival Tamiko (Yuiko Nomura), a naughty upperclass girl who has difficulty learning to muck in with everyone else, Yoshio (Jun Yokoyama, formerly known as Bakudan Kozo) who likes get into fights, Masao (Norio Otsuka) who has his head in the clouds, and Nobu who can’t seem to get on with his stepmother no matter how hard she tries. Several times the kids get fed up with their reform school lives and try to escape, only to be brought back with their tails between their legs and, being children, they are apt to fight, grouse and get upset over nothing.

Perhaps unusual given Shimizu’s reputation the film is not exclusively told from the point of view of the kids but also looks at the often difficult lives of the adults who’ve dedicated their entire existences to caring for them. Each of the teachers and guardians is fully committed to looking after the children and trying to teach them how to be functioning members of society, living with kindness and responsibility. The house leaders are referred to as “mother” and “father” and the kids are intended to think of the other residents as siblings as if they’re all part of one big well functioning family. Discipline is carried out through self reflection, penance, and apology as the offending child is encouraged to realise why the way they’ve behaved is unacceptable and why they should avoid acting in that way in the future. Endlessly patient and giving, the adults’ lives are not easy ones as a female teacher finds herself snapping and hitting a pupil while another couple wonder if they’re really making that much difference when the children continue to misbehave.

About half way through, one naughty boy causes a huge problem by temporarily draining the well which is the school’s only source of water. Faced with a number of serious issues, the teachers decide to try channelling a riverbed from the nearby lake down to the school but they obviously don’t have money to pay for it. You can see where this is going and it’s certainly the most problematic aspect of the film as these young children are suddenly expected to do the strenuous, sometimes dangerous, work of physically carving a channel in the land with shovels and pick axes. Intended to sell the virtues of togetherness and responsibility, the river construction is, in essence, the forced labour of imprisoned minors who are given no rights to refuse, are not compensated for their efforts, and are children who are not equipped to handle this physically taxing work. Shimizu films the sequence like some kind of Soviet propaganda film as the axes rise and fall rhythmically as a hymn to the beauty of physical labour, but this particular celebration of the strength of the group over the individual is very difficult to take at face value.

Whatever Shimizu intended with the river building sequence, several of the pupils earn their freedom through taking part in it, supposedly reformed by hard work and community. Their “graduation” ceremony involves them reading poems and inspirational phrases aloud as a tribute to the school, but Shimizu neatly undercuts the happily ever after image with the presence of an older boy who has returned to visit. Regarding the school as his home, he has nowhere else to go and it quickly transpires he’s lost yet another job. Even when things seem to be going well, people find out he was in a reform school and it all falls apart. No matter how good the efforts of the teachers, the kids will face constant stigma and internalised shame for the rest of their lives making reintegration into society a difficult prospect. Nevertheless, Shimizu does seem to want to believe the school can do some good in looking after these troubled children who often come from difficult family circumstances.

An odd, confused effort from Shimizu, Introspection Tower still does its best to emphasise his humanist philosophy in the broadly progressive approach of the school which truly is dedicated to to teaching these children how to live in the Japan of the day without getting into trouble. The tone is one of good humour mixed with Shimizu’s naturalistic approach to filming children which shows them for all of the complicated young people they really are, deriving both great comedy and heartrending drama from their comic escapades and melancholy backstories. Making fantastic use of location shooting once again with an approach closer to his silent work than his talkies, Shimizu’s return to the world of progressive education is a strange and occasionally problematic one which is at times hard to read but, worryingly enough, seems to have its heart in the right place.


 

Children in the Wind (風の中の子供, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2016-12-06-23h27m52s218It would be a mistake to say that Hiroshi Shimizu made “children’s films” in that his work is not particularly intended for younger audiences though it often takes their point of view. This is certainly true of one of his most well known pieces, Children in the Wind (風の中の子供, Kaze no Naka no Kodomo), which is told entirely from the perspective of the two young boys who suddenly find themselves thrown into an entirely different world when their father is framed for embezzlement and arrested.  Encompassing Shimizu’s constant themes of injustice, compassion and resilience, Children in the Wind is one of his kindest films, if perhaps one of his lightest.

Brothers Zenta (Masao Hayama) and Sampei (Bakudan Kozo) live a fairly comfortable life in a small town with their accountancy clerk father (Reikichi Kawamura) and doting mother (Mitsuko Yoshikawa). Older brother Zenta is the stereotypically good boy who studies hard, gets good grades, and causes no trouble. Sampei, by contrast, is a handful. Running out of the house to play Tarzan with the other neighbourhood kids even though he’d promised his mother he’d stay home to study to improve his awful performance at school, Sampei is the loveable rascal that no one quite knows what to do with. Despite their mother’s protestations, the boys’ father is content to let Sampei run riot for now, he’s only young after all.

When their father is accused of embezzling company funds, sacked, and later arrested, the boys’ world begins to crumble. The other kids won’t play with them anymore, their dad isn’t home, and their mother is worrying about money now that her husband has lost his job. Sampei is packed off to an uncle’s while Zenta stays behind to try and get a job to help out. Unfortunately, Sampei does not take well to his new environment and starts misbehaving even more than usual by disappearing up trees, riding a bucket down a river, running off to meet kappa, and even trying to run away with the circus!

All of this is told more or less from Sampei’s point view meaning that the facts of his father’s case recede into the background while Sampei’s worry and confusion comes to the fore. Having been in the office to deliver his father’s lunch when the coup occurred, Sampei can tell something awful has happened and tries to comfort his dad by closing all the blinds to block out the nosy kids’ faces peeking in from outside, and grabbing his father’s hat to get him to come home. Reassuring his dad that it’s all fine because he can just start a better company of his own, Sampei puts a childishly brave face on things while his ashen faced father walks home in silence. Of course, because Sampei is a child, no one explains to him exactly what’s happened, so no one explains it to us either, but we can perhaps infer a little more from the adults’ passing conversation than the still innocent Sampei.

The boys’ relationship with their father is one of the film’s warmest elements as, in contrast to the stereotypically austere salaryman dad, he delights in playing with his children, even breaking off from worrying about his impending doom by launching into a game of sumo. Sampei and Zenta know their father couldn’t have really done anything bad, so they aren’t really worried and though they miss him, they are sure he’ll be home soon. It’s not until fairly late on that they start to realise the gravity of the situation and how difficult things are for their mother, but once they do they become determined to support her too.

This being a (happy) Shimizu film, the injustice is finally undone and everything goes back to normal which what all children always want. Children, more than adults, are apt to forget quickly and so it’s not long before the other neighbourhood kids start responding to Sampei’s Tarzan call once again. In a typically nice touch, Sampei even invites his arch rival, Kinta – the son of the man who framed his dad for embezzlement in the first place, to come and see the approaching circus with him. A final gesture of reconciliation signals the end to hostilities as a possibly life changing event becomes a humorous summer interlude in the boys’ early lives. Warm and lighthearted, Children in the Wind is perhaps not as cutting or incisive as some of Shimizu’s more socially conscious efforts, but is filled with his characteristic compassionate humanism in its childlike certainty in justice and the willingness to forgive and forget.