Dispersed Clouds (わかれ雲, Heinosuke Gosho, 1951)

Heinosuke Gosho made his name before the war as a master of “shomingeki” – often humorous but generally naturalistic portraits of lower middle class life. Becoming synonymous with a Chekhovian mix of laughter and tears later dubbed “Goshoism”, he continued into the post-war era as one of its most prominent humanists, less directly sentimental than Kinoshita but with no less faith in human goodness. Always ahead of the curve, he was among the first Japanese directors to break with the studio system, setting up his own production company (along with director Shiro Toyoda, cameraman Mitsuo Miura, and writers Jun Takami, Junji Kinoshita, and Sumie Tanaka), Studio Eight, after becoming embroiled in the industrial disputes which engulfed Toho in the late ‘40s. Gosho’s participation was apparently more out of a sense of loyalty to his mistreated colleagues than it was political conviction, but in any case he found himself unable to continue working in a system which prevented him from expressing himself to the fullest of his intentions.

1951’s Dispersed Clouds (わかれ雲, Wakaregumo) was the first film released by Studio Eight, distributed by Shin Toho (the “new Toho” set-up by those same colleagues Gosho had supported in the ‘40s). In a sense it addresses similar themes to other post-war films making use of the familiar “cloud” metaphor, but these clouds are dispersing in more positive directions in that they are wilfully floating away from the traumatic past towards a brighter, more compassionate future, as perhaps was Gosho as he embarked on a new phase of his career.

The heroine, Masako (Keiko Sawamura), is a woman caught between old worlds and new. Very much of the post-war era, she is a university student who intends to work after graduation and values her independence but nevertheless is also looking back towards a childhood she feels she was denied, gradually coming to understand that it was she who denied herself in her resentful mistreatment of her young step-mother in mourning of the birthmother she lost at only six years old. The cloud from which she originally disperses is a group of five fellow students with whom she has gone on a walking holiday exploring rural Japan – an increasingly common pastime in the post-war era but one perhaps still a little unusual for five young women travelling alone. Accompanying her friend into a local photography shop in search of an extra roll of film for her camera, Masako receives the unwanted attentions of the storeowner and makes a speedy escape only to fall ill outside the station and cause the gang to miss their train. Irritated, Masako tells the others to go on without her while she stays in a nearby inn convalescing from what is apparently light pneumonia but also, it has to be admitted, an intense bad mood. 

Masako’s friends are keen to help her, but also exasperated. “You never accept the kindness of others” they lament to her passive aggressive desire not to bother them on their trip, while later plotting how best they can help her seeing as she wouldn’t accept their money if they tried to give to her so she’ll be able to pay for the doctor after they’ve left. They never really consider waiting for Masako to recover, resolving to continue on with their holiday, but do check in on her from time to time from the road with the offer to join them later seemingly open. Meanwhile, they’re all swooning over the improbably handsome country doctor, Minami (Yoichi Numata), who swoops in to treat Masako with a no-nonsense yet caring bedside manner.

Only six years older than Masako, Minami is a certain young man who has found his forward path in life. He has his own small practice which is woefully ill-equipped to cater for the entire town (he can’t admit Masako because he is already overflowing with patients sleeping on the floor), but dreams of building another clinic in an even smaller village further up the mountain where they don’t even have electricity. Despite her friends’ giggling, Masako is in too much of a mood to notice Minami much from her sick bed but later takes a liking to him though mostly in flight when her hated step-mother Tamae (Taeko Fukuda) finally arrives to take her back to Tokyo.

While at the inn, Masako bonds with the kindly maid, Osen (Hiroko Kawasaki), who brought her to there in the first place after noticing her in distress at the station. The innkeeper, who has a flighty modern daughter of her own, is not best pleased that Osen has brought sickness into the house and even less so that it’s a young woman whom she is not convinced is the right kind of clientele (her attitude changes when Tamae arrives laden with expensive gifts). Osen, who lost a husband in the war and daughter in infancy, takes to the young woman with maternal warmth – something which Masako has been seeking ever since losing her birth mother. A woman without a child and a child without a mother easily slip into a familial relationship, but rather than jealous Osen is only sad when she sees how much Tamae is trying and failing in the same role while Masako resolutely rejects her out of nothing more than childish resentment.

Masako, self aware to a point, describes herself as “spoiled, nervous, and selfish” and seems to want to change without knowing how. She tells Minami that she dislikes people in general because they’re all liars and can’t be trusted. Nevertheless, she finds herself hanging around Minami’s clinic in order to avoid Tamae and half convinces herself she is in love with him. An ill-advised five mile hike to the next village to find the earnest young doctor provokes an awkward encounter between the two in which it becomes perfectly obvious that Minami is devoted to his practice, sees Masako only as a patient, and is not really interested in her newfound desire to pursue a deeper union. He tells her, politely, that she is too much trouble and would only be an inconvenience. He doubts that she, a middle-class woman from Tokyo, will be able to adjust to the privations of life in the mountains and is perhaps unconvinced that she has acquired the sufficient maturity to try after just one night of having fun “helping people”.

Masako is not wounded by his words but is enlightened by them on discovering that Minami has lost people too – his brother and friends in the war, but where her childhood loss has made her self-involved and resentful, his grief has made him generous and openhearted. Minami has dedicated himself to the wellbeing of all mankind, which might or might not mean that he has little time for deeper individualised connections, but in any case though she doesn’t realise it herself what Masako is seeking isn’t Minami or a romance but a path back into the world as someone less closed off and unforgiving. Thanks to Osen’s warmth and Minami’s generosity she is able to escape her sense of self-imposed inertia and let her mother go.

Because of this she gives to Osen the precious silver spoon she had treasured as a keepsake from her mother, remarking that she doesn’t need it anymore, while Osen then gives her the rather ironic gift of a spoon case she’d knitted as a present. Though the ending is positive with Masako preparing to leave the transitory space of the mountain town to return to Tokyo “healed”, it is also filled with a quiet anxiety for the older Osen who has, in a sense, been bereaved twice in losing another daughter and being left all alone, knowing that Minami will soon be off to his own bright future. Osen made her new start some time ago after reaching the forward-thinking conclusion that she wasn’t happy with the idea that women must have soft hands. She declares herself happy in a calm sort of way, but is also filled with regrets from the past in having chosen to marry the man chosen for her over the one she loved and finding only unhappiness. Her counselling of Masako not to make the same mistake is perhaps one of the things that sends her, mistakenly, off towards Minami, but unlike the younger woman Osen seems primed to remain in the liminal space of the mountain town unable to leave the past behind in order to move forward in a more positive direction. 

“This world is not so easy” Masako is repeatedly told, but in true Gosho style, it needn’t be so hard if only you learn to live generously with a forgiving heart. The rather mercenary relationship between the innkeeper and her flighty but shrewd daughter is directly contrasted with the innocent yet melancholy one between Osen and Masako, but perhaps neither is really more positive than the other only different. In any case, Osen and Masako, like any parent and child, must eventually part. Masako boards the train into the future smiling brightly, a cloud dispersing from the whole, unburdened by the traumatic past and floating defiantly forward on a path of her own choosing resolved to live for others rather than fixating on her personal pain.


The Eternal Rainbow (この天の虹, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

Eternal rainbow poster 1Famously, towards the end of the war, Keisuke Kinoshita got himself into trouble with a dialogue free scene of a mother’s distress as she sent away the son she’d so carefully raised “for the emperor” towards an uncertain future in the midst of hundred of other, identically dressed faceless boys. Army might have showcased the director’s propensity for resistance, but one could also argue that there was just as much propagandistic intent in the post-war films as their had been in the militarist era even if the messages they were selling were often more palatable. 1958’s The Eternal Rainbow (この天の虹, Kono Ten no Niji) is a case in point. A portrait so positive one wonders if it was sponsored by Yahata Steel, The Eternal Rainbow is nevertheless conflicted in its presentation of defeated post-war hope, exploitation, and growing social inequality even as it praises its factory city as a utopian vision of happy industry and fierce potential.

A lengthy opening sequence featuring voice over narration recounts the history of the Yahata Steel Works which began operations in 1901 in Northern Kyushu and now employs thousands of people, many of whom live nearby in the ever expanding company dorms the newer models of which feature bright and colourful modern designs in contrast to the depressing grey prefab of the traditional workers’ homes. Gradually we are introduced to our heroes – chief among them Mr. Suda (Yusuke Kawazu), a young man from the country who saw a factory job as his over the rainbow but is rapidly becoming disillusioned with its dubious gains. Rather than the company dorms, Suda rooms with the foreman, Kageyama (Chishu Ryu), and his wife Fumi (Kinuyo Tanaka) whose young son Minoru (Kazuya Kosaka) didn’t qualify for a factory job on account of his small frame and his been unable to stick at anything in the precarious post-war economy. Meanwhile, Suda has made friends with an older worker, Sagara (Teiji Takahashi), who has fallen for a secretary, Chie (Yoshiko Kuga), but her family are dead against her marrying a factory worker while she is also in a relationship with a college educated engineer, Machimura (Takahiro Tamura), but is beginning to doubt the seriousness of his intentions.

The drama begins when Sagara employs Kageyama to act as a go-between in a formal proposal of marriage to Chie’s parents, the Obitas. Kageyama didn’t really want to be a go-between because it’s gone badly for him before and he thinks this one is a non-starter too – women around here have their sights set on office workers, no one in the arranged marriage market is looking to marry someone on the shop floor. The Obitas feel much the same. Mrs. Obita is keen for Chie to marry up and is somewhat offended by the proposal, granting it only the customary consideration time to not seem rude in turning it down flat. Sagara is stoic about the matter, but the abruptness of the rejection greatly offends Suda who cannot stand for the Obitas snobbish put down of working people.

Herein lies the central conflict. Suda was a country boy who’d been sold an impossible dream. He believed that a job in the factory, for which he had to sit an exam and has been chosen out of thousands of other hopefuls, was his ticket out of rural poverty. Now that he’s working there he realises he is little more than a wage slave, working long hours for almost nothing with the only goal of his life being to earn enough to feed a family with a little (very little) left over for his old age. Minoru, the Kageyamas’ son, feels much the same and has already turned cynical and desperate. He can’t abide his father’s work ethic and wants more out of life than there perhaps is for it to give him. Suda repeatedly asks how people can learn to be happy in this sort of life, wondering if those that claim to be have simply given up their hopes and aspirations in resignation. When Minoru decides not to go to Tokyo it ought to be a victory, but then perhaps it is more that he has simply accepted that there is no hope there either.

Nevertheless, the depiction of Yahata as a place to work is ridiculously positive even as Kinoshita undercuts it with the disillusionment of both Suda and Sagara. A factory city, Yahata is characterised as a cornerstone of the burgeoning post-war economy, literally making the rails on which the new Japan will run. The works provides affordable accommodation for families, guaranteed employment, insurance, a “self service” supermarket right on site, social clubs, cultural activities, and festivals. They even get a large scale show from Tokyo every year.

Even so, an immense and seemingly unbridgeable gap exists between the steelworkers and the company men. Mrs. Obita might seem self serving and mercenary, but she’s had a hard life and perhaps it’s only natural that wants better for her daughter. Suda is angry to think a good man like Sagara who might be a bit old fashioned and unsophisticated but has taken the trouble to do things the “proper” way would be dismissed out of hand simply out of snobbery. His attitude is, however, somewhat problematic in that he begins bothering Chie to find out her reasons for declining the proposal, refusing to recognise that she doesn’t need to offer any reason besides her own will. Chie, meanwhile, is conflicted. A proposal of marriage from a man she doesn’t even really know is not something she was minded to consider in any case, but her feelings for Machimura are tested once she becomes aware that he is not quite in earnest and may have been messing around with his landlady while enjoying the attention he receives as an eligible bachelor around town.

Machimura, like Suda, Sagara, and Minoru, is somewhat listless and apathetic even if for the opposite reason in that his life is far too easy and he hasn’t had to make a lot of concrete decisions about his future. Chie doesn’t deny that his college education and urban sophistication are part of the reason she was attracted to him, but as she later tries to explain to Suda, she wasn’t simply angling to marry up – she just fell in love with someone who happened to be of a higher social class which isn’t the same as looking down on working people. She has a right to her feelings whatever political label an increasingly resentful Suda might like to put on them. Even so, if she had been trying to marry up who could really blame her for that? In a society in which women are still entirely dependent on a man, being largely prevented from pursuing a career in their own right, a marriage is effectively a job for life. Shouldn’t she pick the offer with the best benefits, just as Suda did when he chose to leave the country for a factory job?

Progressive factories are often presented as an ideal solution the problem of post-war poverty, but here Kinoshita does not seem so sure. Despite the emphatic tone of the infrequent voice over and the central messages that factory jobs are good jobs and looking down on manual work nothing more than snobbery, Suda and Sagara remain conflicted. This work is dangerous, pays little, and offers nothing more than false promise. If the vast cities like Yahata are the engines repowering the economic growth of a still straitened Japan, what will be the end result? Metropolis made flesh, the “eternal rainbow” is exposed as a self serving lie but what, Suda might ask, else is there for men like him in a society like this?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1961)

vlcsnap-2019-03-15-00h18m28s351Working from a Keisuke Kinoshita script, Kinuyo Tanaka’s first film as a director, Love Letter, made a point of exploring the often hypocritical and contradictory attitudes towards women who had engaged in sex work or become the mistresses of American servicemen in the immediate aftermath of the defeat. For her fifth film, Tanaka returns to the same subject but this time adapting a novel by Masako Yana scripted by Sumie Tanaka (no relation) with whom she’d previously collaborated on The Eternal Breasts. Somewhat suggestively retitled Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Onna Bakari no Yoru), Tanaka’s adaptation tones down the novel’s sensuality but dares to ask a series of subversive questions regarding female agency and sexuality in the rapidly changing post-war society.

Set in the contemporary era, the film opens with reportage-style voiceover and newspaper clippings highlighting the enforcement of the anti-prostitution laws of 1958. According to the voiceover, the red light districts of Japan may have all but disappeared but streetwalking and other forms of casual sex work are still very much a part of the post-war economy. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the old ways and new, those arrested by the police are divided into two camps – those deemed beyond “redemption” sent to prison, and the rest to reform centres such as the Shiragiku Protective Facility for Women which is where we find our heroines.

The reform centre itself is a fairly progressive place and much more forward looking that seen in the earlier Women of the Night though perhaps sometimes patronising even as it makes a strenuous attempt not look down on the women who enter its care. Our first entry into the facility is in the company of a similarly well meaning women’s association whose misplaced pity only reinforces their innately privileged position. They are as far from many of these women as it is possible to be and struggle to understand how it is possible that they found themselves engaging in a practice they find both shameful and degrading. Having got to know many of the women through trying to help them, the school’s headmistress Nogami (Chikage Awashima) and her assistant are better placed to understand even if they also apologise that many of the women in their care are of “low IQ” and fail to convey the kinds of pressures that many have been subject to from desperate poverty to bad family situations and abusive relationships.

Abuse and the trauma of abuse remains one of the barriers to the women moving on, as in the reason many of them found themselves in sex work was because of their relationship with an exploitative partner who either forced them to sell their bodies or left them with no other choice in order to support themselves through being unable or unwilling to work. Nogami, a compassionate and understanding woman, is at pains to insist that the reason many of these women see nothing wrong in sex work is that they have an insufficient level of self respect and value their bodily autonomy too cheaply in allowing others to buy and sell access to it without full consideration of everything that implies.

Then again, asked by one of her most promising cases, Kuniko (Hisako Hara), what is actually so “bad” about sex work, Nogami is forced to admit that she doesn’t know – only that it is now illegal and her job is to help these women live “honest” lives within law. It is difficult to evade the hypocrisy that Nogami is telling these women that they should exercise full agency over their bodies while simultaneously telling them what they shouldn’t be doing with them, but then for all the centre’s talk about “purity” Nogami herself is refreshingly frank and practical in her approach to helping these women towards reintegration into mainstream society in the assumption that that is something they would want rather than out of any quasi-religious ideas of moral goodness.

Shame and social stigma, however, become another barrier as Kuniko finds to her cost in her attempts to move on from the centre. At her first placement as a live-in assistant at a grocer’s, she is quickly outed by a nosy deliveryman already acquainted with the true nature of the Shiragiku centre. The exposure of Kuniko’s past provokes not only mild disgust and suspicion among “respectable” people but also unwanted male attention from those who assume her former life as a sex worker means that they are already entitled to her sexuality with or without her consent.

Thinking the direct approach might be better, Kuniko decides to share her past with the ladies in the dorm at her next job in a factory but they are not quite as supportive as she might have hoped. Despite the fact that many of these young women are sexually active and in fact involved in what might be thought of as acts of casual sex work, they collectively look down on Kuniko while also seeking to exploit her both for the practical knowledge they assume she must have and by attempting to pimp her out to other men they know. When the attempt fails (Kuniko humiliates the three men who try to pressure her into sex by frightening them off with nothing more than confidence and self-possession), the women turn on her and enact an extremely violent and sadistic revenge.

Despite what she observed at the centre, Kuniko learns to her cost that she cannot necessarily rely on female solidarity as a bulwark against male exploitation. Nevertheless, it is to female communities and friendships that she ultimately returns. The leader of the women’s group from the beginning turns out to be less of a dilettante than she first seems and eventually takes Kuniko in with a promising job in a rose a garden which seems to suit her perfectly. Roses, however, have thorns – this one’s being her tentative relationship with gardener Hayakawa (Yosuke Natsuki) who is aware of her past but falls in love with her anyway only for her romance to hit the barrier of entrenched social mores when she discovers that Hayakawa is in fact a member of a noble family. In another instance of women not helping women, Hayakawa’s mother puts the kibosh on her daughter-in-law being a former sex worker which both reinforces Kuniko’s sense of being irreparably damaged and makes her feel as if she has become a problem for a man with whom she has fallen in love. Vowing to live up to Hayakawa’s vision of her as a “pure” woman, Kuniko retreats once again to a supportive community of women – this time of pearl divers in what seems to be an act of spiritual cleansing.

In Kuniko’s final identification of the “disgracefulness” of her past and declaration that she does not hate the world but only herself, Girls of the Night shifts into a more conventional register than the broadly empathetic, subversively positive attitude it had hitherto adopted towards the idea of sex work and the women who engage in it, opting to blame the woman rather than engage with the various forces of social oppression which attempt to micromanage female sexuality. Nevertheless, Tanaka’s deft touch remains as sympathetic as it’s possible to be in affirming that there is a path forward for those who might feel trapped by past transgression even if it simultaneously insists that its heroine save herself only by rejecting her happy ending in atonement for her past “sins”.


Woman of the Mist (朧夜の女, Heinosuke Gosho, 1936)

vlcsnap-2019-01-21-00h29m30s692The 1930s are often thought of as an era of social rigidity and implacable conservatism, yet even before the war things were changing. The young wanted something different than their parents often had and dared to dream of getting it even if their hopes were often dashed by the times in which they lived. Heinosuke Gosho’s Woman of the Mist (朧夜の女, Oboroyo no Onna) is the story of two youngsters who find themselves in a difficult situation and are offered a solution by elders acting kindness which they are persuaded to take only to find themselves progressively more miserable, burdened by the weight of the sacrifice their society has asked them to make.

Set in the jovial working class world of Shitamachi, Woman of the Mist opens with the hero of the tale, Fumikichi (Takeshi Sakamoto), enjoying a historical lecture regarding Edo era sacrifice for the common good during which his wife, Okiyo (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), comes to fetch him. Members of a local association he belongs to have come looking for him, it turns out for a favour. They want him to assist with some fundraising for a stone lantern to mark the association’s anniversary. Much to his wife’s exasperation, Fumikichi is only too happy to comply. It might seem that Fumikichi is a much respected pillar of the community only it is also true enough that he basks in the flattery of being regarded as someone to be depended upon and is therefore a soft touch (something undoubtedly well known to all around him).

Nevertheless, despite his slight tendency towards narcissistic attention seeking, Fumikichi is a salt of the earth type and willing to help those who need it for largely altruistic reasons. He therefore finds himself a surrogate father (though childless himself) to the son of his widowed sister Otoku (Choko Iida) who enlists him to talk some sense into his law student nephew, Seiichi (Shin Tokudaiji), who has apparently been “disrespecting” his mother and neglecting his studies by reading too many novels. Fumikichi has a word but counsels Seiichi that there’s nothing wrong with reading novels save that it obviously upsets his mum who has worked herself to the bone for the last 20 years dreaming of the day Seiichi becomes a fully fledged lawyer, which is to say a member of the middle classes.

Fumikichi, as he often will, becomes the conciliatory voice at the centre of generational conflict. Seiichi is a young man at the crossroads of life and finds himself torn between youthful idealism and a duty towards his family. He has become disillusioned with the law and would rather transfer to literature, secure in the knowledge that only in novels can you find the truly humane. Fumikichi is careful not to patronise but gives him a knowing look, realising that his confusion is partly born of resentment towards his well meaning yet accidentally possessive mother who has railroaded him into a career he doesn’t want to buy him a future which is her only dream. What he wants is control over his life, but when it comes to it he is still a boy and woefully unprepared for the demands of adulthood.

This becomes obvious when he falls in love and gets his girlfriend into trouble. Teruko (Toshiko Iizuka), a former geisha apparently known to Fumikichi in his younger days now working as a bar hostess, is not exactly the kind of wife his mother might have had in mind. The pair are careful to keep their relationship a secret for just this reason as Seiichi remains conflicted – one moment declaring that he no longer cares if everyone finds out and lying to his mother about her the next. Pregnancy forces the issue. Teruko, mindful of Seiichi’s bright future, declares that she can raise the child alone, glancing sadly at a picture of herself in her former life as a sex worker as if accepting what future sacrifices might be expected of her while half hoping Seiichi will rush forward to save her from such a fate. Seiichi doesn’t exactly rush but does tentatively accept his responsibility in reassuring her that he will soon come of age and is ready to become a father with all of the joys and obligations that entails.

Lost he turns to Fumikichi who hatches a plan which might be accounted a neat solution but is also another instance of the older generation making decisions on behalf of the young without really asking them. Despite being a rather feckless old man, Fumikichi tells his wife the child is his and asks for her forgiveness while also suggesting that they adopt the baby as their own. As expected, Okiyo is not exactly enthused but as Fumikichi calculated she would eventually comes around, ironically enough after a conversation with Otoku who has no idea the baby is really her grandchild. Once the decision is made, everyone rallies round to look after Teruko who finally becomes a (temporary) member of Seiichi’s family even whilst barred from ever becoming his wife and in fact of ever seeing him again as a result of the bargain which has been struck by Fumikichi. Nevertheless, Seiichi vacillates and attempts to change his mind by asking Teruko to marry him only for her to urge him to study hard and live well, sacrificing her happiness for his future.

Uncomfortably enough, it is Teruko who must pay for a series of transgressions against the norms of her society – for being a young woman with a past who seduced a nervous young man and dared to dream of a happier future with a person of her own choosing, though the very fact of her suffering is in itself an attack on these rigid and unfair social codes which do their best to destroy the happiness of ordinary, basically good people who have done nothing wrong other than attempt to live their lives. Fumikichi and his wife are doing their best and they too are good, compassionate people who have made good compassionate choices hoping for the best in a difficult situation even if their choices are defined by the prevailing conservative morality which places Seiichi’s future above a young woman’s life and love.

Then again, Fumikichi’s objections are largely practical – it’s hard to keep a family with no money coming in and Seiichi is still a student with no prospect of immediate employment that would pay enough for a wife and child. Could they be happy after a shotgun wedding and years of penury? Seiichi’s diffidence hints at no, but Teruko’s “purity” hints at yes as she vows to make the kind of sacrifice that proves her “goodness”. The youngsters find themselves beholden to the demands of their elders, torn between their personal desires and duties to those they love. Whatever they do, they lose and are destined to remain unhappy, unable to seize their individual chance of happiness in an oppressive, conformist society. Gosho may leave them at the mercy of such a system, but he does so with immense sympathy and not a little anger as we watch these good people making the best of things while asking ourselves if all of this is really for the best.


The Lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937)

Lights of Asakusa posterThe lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Asakusa no Hi) still shone bright before the war. In this tiny corner of Tokyo well known for “low” entertainment, actors mingle with gangsters, lonely owners of amusement stalls, starving artists, bar girls, and wealthy industrialists each just trying to survive in an increasingly jittery city. Yasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomingeki” – stories of ordinary lower middle class people, and brings his characteristic wit and humanity to a tale of backstreet life where danger and ruin lurk on every corner and the only way to ensure one’s safety is to ensure you have the right defenders.

The main stage, if you will, is that of the Nippon-za “opera” company. This is, however, no great opera house but a run down little theatre presenting classical European opera for vaudeville audiences. The currently running show is Carmen, which will turn out to be appropriate for the events at hand. The trouble starts (or perhaps merely intensifies) when a young chorus member, Reiko (Mieko Takamine), begins attracting a range of wanted and unwanted male attention. Reiko, an orphan, had been taken in by a local bar mistress who later pushed her into the opera company but still expects her to make good on her investment by becoming a casual prostitute and taking on “customers” who present themselves at the bar (Reiko is around 16 or so, and therefore has just reached the age her foster mother thinks appropriate to join the business). The complication is that the man who’s taken a fancy to Reiko, Handa (Shunro Takeda), is a steel magnate who also finances the opera troupe meaning it’s not just the bar owner who’s coming under pressure but the financial security of the troupe too.

Being so young, Reiko finds her foster mother’s demands hard to refuse but is rescued by Sasaki (Seiji Nishimura) – the leading actor, married to leading lady Marie (Haruko Sugimura). The situation with Reiko exposes cracks already present in the group when Handa sends his goons in to disrupt the show, irking Sasaki to the point he takes off in a fit of artistic temperament. Meanwhile, another actor Yamagami (Ken Uehara), gets together with the rest of the troupe to ensure Reiko’s safety by hiding her with a feeble minded fan, Pokacho (Daijiro Natsukawa), so that she won’t be forced into a potentially life ruining situation.

Reiko’s plight is perhaps all too common on the streets of Asakusa. Having been orphaned she feels herself indebted to the bar mistress who took her in even if the relationship between them is not especially warm. She also feels grateful to have found a third family in the opera troupe and is afraid to lose her place there. Nevertheless, she is under extreme pressure to submit herself to this system of reciprocal arrangements and sleep with Handa solely to save making trouble for everyone else. Meanwhile her (sometimes) sympathetic roommate Beniko (Kayako Fujiwara) knows exactly what’s at stake through having been in a similar situation herself. She’s long been in love with the pure hearted Yamagami and is harbouring a degree of jealously in believing that Yamagami has a soft spot for Reiko, but she also half wants things to work out between them seeing as she has lost the “right” to love a man like Yamagami because she is no longer a virgin.

Shimazu had often been of a progressive mind, but sadly Beniko falls by the wayside, merely a sacrificial lamb prepared to give up on her dreams on Reiko’s behalf, so we never find out the limits of Yamagami’s justice loving heart or if he would be as bothered about Beniko’s past as she seems to fear he might be. Yamagami, brooding but righteous, would become one of matinee idol Ken Uehara’s best known roles though he too is teetering on the brink in Asakusa. Committed to defending the innocent, he tries to save Reiko’s honour but fails to declare a personal interest, entrusting her to the rather odd painter Pokacho who claims that his love for Reiko is of a spiritual, rather than carnal kind. Yamagami may succeed in his primary goal but still ends up in defeat, running away from the most important fight by retreating from Tokyo completely with a rebound girlfriend in tow, hoping to find kinder light in Osaka than he had on the dog eat dog streets of Asakusa.

Based on a novel by Hiroshi Hamamoto, Shimazu’s portrait of backstreet life sparkles with authenticity but also with a kind of hopelessness as each of these down on their luck “opera” stars laments their sorry fates and longs for a better gig somewhere less down and dirty. Meanwhile, the spectre of war lingers – when Carmen comes off the next show is to be “Two Honourable Soldiers”, filled with maudlin anthems of war which push the messages of patriotism and the glorification of offering one’s life for one’s country. The slimy Handa may have been defeated for now, but his kind are in the ascendent and the streets of Asakusa are unlikely to improve with only war and depression on the horizon.


The Trio’s Engagements (婚約三羽烏, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2017-09-08-02h54m10s546Yasujiro Shimazu may not be as well known as some of his contemporaries such as the similarly named Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu, but during in his brief yet prolific career which was cut short by his early death just before the end of the war, Shimazu became the father of one of the most prominent genres in Japanese cinema –  the “shomingeki”, which focussed on the lives ordinary lower middle-class people. Shimazu’s early films were noted for their unusual naturalism but 1937’s The Trio’s Engagements (婚約三羽烏, Konyaku Sanbagarasu) is pure Hollywood in its screwball tale of three silly young men and their respective romantic difficulties which are sorted out with the amusing kind of neatness you can only find in a 1930s cinematic farce.

Shuji Kamura (Shuji Sano) has been looking for a job in Japan’s depression hit Tokyo for some time and his long suffering girlfriend, Junko (Kuniko Miyake), has finally gotten fed up with his listlessness and decided it might be better if she left him on his own for a while to sort himself out. Slightly panicked, Shuji heads off to see about a job at a department store specialising in rayon fabrics. Undergoing a rather odd interview, he meets two other men in the same position – well to do Ken Taniyama (Ken Uehara), and down on his luck chancer Shin Miki (Shin Saburi). Luckily all three are employed that day and start working in the store but trouble brews when they each fall for the charms of the boss’ daughter, Reiko (Mieko Takamine).

Despite the contemporary setting and the difficulty of finding work for even educated young men providing a starting point for the drama, Shimazu creates a truly “modern” world full of neon lights and Westernised fashions. The trio work in a department store which sells rayon – a cheap substitute for silk being sold as the latest sophisticated import from overseas, and the store itself is designed in a modernist, art deco style which wouldn’t look out of place in any Hollywood film of the same period. Likewise, though the store is largely staffed by men catering to a largely female clientele, it maintains a sophisticated atmosphere with staff members expected to provide solicitous care and attention to each and every customer.

The guys do this with varying degrees of commitment as Shin and Ken pull faces at each other across the floor and Shuji wastes time on the roof. Shimazu packs in as many quick fire gags as possible beginning the the bizarre job interviews in which Shuji ends up doing some very in-depth role play while Shin expounds on the virtues of rayon as if he were some kind of fabrics genius. Shin Miki is your typical chancer, turning up to his job interview with a thick beard which he later shaves making him all but unrecognisable, and even cheating Ken out of a few coins he’s been using to show off his magic tricks before bamboozling his way into Shuji’s flat.

The central, slapstick conceit is that each of the guys is about to jettison their previous partners for a false infatuation with the beautiful Reiko. Shuji is mostly on the rebound from Junko who may or may not come back to see if he’s sorted himself out, while Ken is uncertain about an arranged marriage, and Shin has a secret country bumpkin girlfriend he doesn’t want anyone to know about. Their respective crushes nearly spell the end for their friendship but then Reiko has her own ideas about marriage which don’t involve shop boys or a future in the rayon business. Eventually the guys realise they’ve all been a little silly and run back into the arms of the women they almost threw over, finding happiness at last in their otherwise ordinary choices.

Shimazu makes brief use of location shoots as Shin and Reiko walk along the harbour but mostly sticks to stage sets including the noticeably fake cityscape backdrop on the shop’s roof. The major draw is the “trio” at the centre which includes some of Shochiku’s most promising young leading men who would all go on to become huge stars including 30s matinee idol Ken Uehara, Shuji Sano, and Shin Saburi. Light and filled with silly, studenty humour The Trio’s Engagements is a deliberately fluffy piece designed to blow the blues away in increasingly difficult times, but even if somewhat lacking in substance it does provide a window onto an idealised 1930s world of Westernised flappers, cheap synthetic products, and frivolous romance.


Aizen Katsura (愛染かつら, AKA The Tree of Love/Yearning Laurel, Hiromasa Nomura, 1938)

aizen katsura posterJapan’s political climate had become difficult by 1938 with militarism in full swing. Young men were disappearing from their villages and being shipped off to war, and growing economic strife also saw young women sold into prostitution by their families. Cinema needed to be escapist and aspirational but it also needed to reflect the values of the ruling regime. Adapted from a novel by Katsutaro Kawaguchi, Aizen Katsura (愛染かつら) is an attempt to marry both of these aims whilst staying within the realm of the traditional romantic melodrama. The values are modern and even progressive, to a point, but most importantly they imply that there is always room for hope and that happy endings are always possible.

The heroine, Katsue (Kinuyo Tanaka), has found herself in a difficult position for a woman of 1938. Married off at a young age in payment of a family debt yet rejected by her husband’s family, Katsue’s fortunes fall still further when her husband passes away suddenly leaving her alone and eight months pregnant. Her daughter, Toshi (Kazuko Kojima), is now five years old and Katsue has a good job as a nurse at a local hospital. The job allows her to support herself, her daughter, and her older sister but the problem is that the hospital has a strict policy of not employing married women. Katsue isn’t married anymore, she’s a widow, but the fact that she has a daughter she is raising alone makes her familial status a grey area. She’s been hiding her daughter’s existence from her colleagues in case it costs her the job she needs to survive, but a chance encounter in a park threatens to ruin everything.

Thankfully, Katsue’s colleagues at the hospital turn out to be nice, reasonable people who respond sympathetically on hearing Katsue’s explanation about why she’d avoided telling them the truth about her daughter (and that, crucially, she had been married and the child was conceived legitimately). Her next problem occurs when the son of the hospital’s chief doctor, Kozo (Ken Uehara), returns after graduating university and the pair strike up a friendship which eventually blossoms into romance. Kozo’s father, however, is intent on arranging his marriage to a girl from another medical family – a long held tradition and, in an odd mirror of Katsue’s situation, the marriage is a way of getting additional investment for the rapidly failing clinic. Kozo asks Katsue to run away with him to Kyoto but she still hasn’t told him about Toshi or her previous marriage out of fear of losing not only her new love but her position at the hospital if he rejects her. Just as Katsue is about to go to meet Kozo at the station, Toshi falls ill.

Despite the austerity and conservatism of the times, Aizen Katsura is a very “modern” story in which Katsue’s pragmatic solution to her difficulties is praised and even encouraged. Her life has been an unhappy one in many ways – sold into an arranged marriage at 18, forced out of her hometown after rejection by her husband’s family, and finally widowed in the city, Katsue has been let down at each and every juncture. Alone with a baby, her choices were few and her only support seems to come from her older sister who has no husband of her own (at least, not one that is present), and takes care of Toshi while Katsue has to go out and earn the money to support the family.

Society does not quite know what to do with an anomaly like Katsue who cannot rely on extended family. She needs to support herself and her child but many jobs still have a marriage bar which extends to widows with children. The only options for women who can’t find a solution as elegant as Katsue’s aren’t pleasant, the hospital is a dream come true as it both pays well and is a respectable profession, but if the management found out about Toshi, Katsue could be left out in the cold with little prospect of finding more work despite her nursing qualifications.

The times may be harsh, but the world Katsue inhabits places her on the fringes of the middle classes. Kozo, as young doctor and heir to the clinic (Japanese hospitals are often family businesses) is far above her but is, in some ways, equally constrained. Whilst recognising a duty to his father, Kozo is resolute in refusing the idea of an arranged marriage conducted for financial purposes. He determines to set his own course rather than be railroaded into something which is for his father’s benefit and not his own. Deeply hurt by Katsue’s actions but not attempting to find out why she acted as she did, Kozo enters a depressive spell, sitting around resentfully and not doing much of anything. Luckily for him, the woman his father has picked out, Michiko (Sanae Takasugi), is a thoroughly good person who, once she finds out about Katsue, becomes determined to see that true love wins rather than being shackled to a moody young man and spending the rest of her life in a one sided relationship with someone still pining for a first love.

Katsue’s dreams come true only once she begins to give up on them. Leaving the hospital and returning to her home town with no firm plans, Katsue gets herself a career through luck and talent when a song she enters in a competition is picked up by a leading record label. Music rewards her financially but also gives her a sense of confidence and a purpose which puts her on more of an even footing with Kozo even if he sits in the stalls while her colleagues fill the balcony. Her salvation is both self made and something of a deus ex machina, but the broadly happy ending is intended to give hope to a hopeless age, that miracles can happen and second chances appear once two meet each other openly with full understanding and forgiving hearts.