Floating Clouds (浮雲, Mikio Naruse, 1955)

(C) 1955 Toho

floating clouds poster“The past is our only reality” the melancholy Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) intones, only to be told that her past was but a dream and now she is awake. Adapted from a novel by Fumiko Hayashi – a writer whose work proved a frequent inspiration for director Mikio Naruse, Floating Clouds (浮雲, Ukigumo) is a story of the post-war era as its central pair of lovers find themselves caught in a moment of cultural confusion, unsure of how to move forward and unable to leave the traumatic past behind.

We begin with defeat. Shifting from stock footage featuring returnees from Indochina, Naruse’s camera picks out the weary figure of a young woman, Yukiko, drawing her government issue jacket around her. She eventually arrives in the city and at the home of an older man, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), whom we later find out had been her lover when they were both stationed overseas working for the forestry commission but has now returned “home” to his family. Kengo had promised to divorce his wife, Kuniko (Chieko Nakakita), in order to marry Yukiko but now declares their romance one of many casualties of war. With only the brother-in-law who once raped her left of her family, Yukiko has nowhere left to turn, eventually becoming the mistress of an American soldier but despite his earlier declarations the increasingly desperate Kengo cannot bear to let her go and their on again off again affair continues much to Yukiko’s constant suffering.

Floating Clouds is as much about the post-war world as it is about a doomed love affair (if indeed love is really what it is). Kengo and Yukiko are the floating clouds of the title, unable to settle in the chaos of defeat where there is no clear foothold to forge a path into the future, no clear direction in which to head, and no clear sign that the future itself is even a possibility. Naruse begins with the painful present marked by crushing defeat and hopelessness, flashing back to the brighter, warmer forests of Indochina to show us the lovers as they had been in a more “innocent” world. At 22, Yukiko smiles brightly and walks tall with a lightness in her step. She went to Indochina in the middle of a war to escape violence at home and, working in the peaceful environment of the forestry commission, begins to find a kind of serenity even whilst dragged into an ill-advised affair with a moody older man more out of loneliness than lust.

Yet, Yukiko’s troubles started long before the war. Assaulted by her brother-in-law she escapes Japan but falls straight into the arms of Kengo who is thought a good, trustworthy man but proves to be anything but. Kengo, frustrated and broken, attempts to lose himself through intense yet temporary relationships with younger women. Every woman he becomes involved with throughout the course of the film comes to a bad end – his wife, Kuniko, dies of tuberculosis while Kengo was unable to pay for treatment which might perhaps have saved her, an inn keeper’s wife he has a brief fling with is eventually murdered by a jealous husband (a guilty Kengo later attempts to raise money for a better lawyer to defend him), Yukiko’s life is more or less destroyed, and goodness only knows what will happen to a very young errand runner for the local bar whom he apparently kissed in a drunken moment of passion.

The lovers remain trapped by the past, even if Kengo repeatedly insists that one cannot live on memory and that their love died in Dalat where perhaps they should have remained. Yukiko’s tragedy is that she had nothing else than her love for Kengo to cling to, while Kengo’s is that he consistently tries to negate the past rather than accept it, craving the purity of memory over an attainable reality, chasing that same sense of possibility in new and younger lovers but once again squandering each opportunity for happiness through intense self obsession. “Things can’t be the same after a war”, intones Kengo as an excuse for his continued callousness, but they find themselves retreating into the past anyway, taking off for tropical, rainy Yakushima which might not be so different from the Indochina of their memories but the past is not somewhere one can easily return and there can be only tragedy for those who cannot let go of an idealised history in order to move forward into a new and uncertain world.


Tokyo Profile (都会の横顔, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1953)

Tokyo Profile posterJudging by the vision presented in the cinema of the time, the Japan of 1953 was one still fighting to emerge from post-war disillusionment and destruction. Set in the glittering Ginza, Hiroshi Shimizu’s Tokyo Profile (都会の横顔,Tokai no Yokogao) is, like much of the director’s work, a more cheerful affair. This world is a very different one from the dingy attics and rundown tenements of the average social drama in which the struggling urban poor battle economic impossibilities while earnestly investing in their future, a somewhat barbed aspirational comedy which lays bare the increasing gap between rich and poor but in a humorous, perhaps resigned fashion save for its strangely cutting finale.

Shooting once again almost entirely on location, Shimizu opens with a lengthy shot captured from the back of a tram traveling through contemporary Ginza – then and now an elegant and refined part of town home to numerous upscale department stores from all around the world. It’s an ordinary Saturday afternoon and the streets are only middling busy. A crowd has gathered around something mysterious, gradually attracting more people and becoming a spectacle in its own right. Thankfully there hasn’t been an accident. A shoeshine girl (Ineko Arima) is trying to comfort a crying child, Michiko (Sachiko Atami), who has become separated from her mother. Michiko is five years old and knows her parents’ names by rote, but all she can tell the concerned people trying to help about her home is the general vicinity it might be located in and that it’s next to Yoshiko’s house, which is not very helpful. Luckily a young man, nicknamed “Mr. Sandwich”  (Ryo Ikebe) because he’s one of Ginza’s many sign carriers, offers to take her to the police station while looking around and attracting attention with his sign (and patented silly walk) in case they spot her mum in the street.

Meanwhile, Michiko’s mother Asako (Michiyo Kogure) is wandering around frantically terrified she might never see her daughter again. Unfortunately she is accosted by a pushy neighbour who promises to help her look for Michiko but keeps pulling her into other business before finally landing her with the bill for two cream sodas which, needless to say, she cannot afford (and didn’t even want).

Michiko and her family are from Meguro which is quite a way out from the centre of the city and one gets the impression this is quite a rare day out for them. Michiko is very excited when she tells the shoeshine girl that they came to buy her a hat and a pair of red shoes, but as we later hear from Asako, Michiko’s presents are tiny splash of luxury in an otherwise economically anxious home. Shinji, Michiko’s father, was a Lieutenant-Commander during in the war but like many of his generation found himself unwanted after its end and struggled to find proper employment. Much to the family’s relief, he’s recently got a steady job as an accountant, but it still doesn’t pay enough to live on. Wanting to buy summer clothes for the children, Shinji worked overtime and walked to work rather than taking the train but little Yoshiko’s parents have bought her little red shoes and now Michiko wants a pair too. Doting parents, Asako and Shinji feel dreadful that they aren’t able to buy their daughter the things that other children have, but today she’s come to Ginza to see what she can do with what she has (which isn’t much either way).

Shimizu follows Michiko as she travels round the city with various adults looking for her mum but also having a grand adventure. Though she was originally quite distressed, Michiko is a clever little girl and quickly decides to start having fun instead of being sad. The sandwich man takes her all around Ginza, bumping into various people that he knows including a philandering boyfriend and the girl waiting for him, the girl he was with who has several boyfriends but has the most fun when standing them up, a shady gangster type not normally around during the day (he’s on his way to Osaka), and a geisha girl who’s taking classes in English for the “service” industry from an extremely camp instructor.

The irony is that Michiko and her family aside, the sandwich man, shoeshine girl, and everyone else they meet are people with no money who earn their living on the streets where rich people come to play. The gangster offers sandwich man a cigarette and he takes it, only to consider throwing it away when he sniffs it and realises it’s a cheap and nasty variety. Meanwhile, Asako’s horrible neighbour convinces her to ask a streetside psychic to help finding Michiko but he keeps interrupting their consultation to chase after discarded cigarette butts which he puts in a big pot and later smokes with the help of his pipe-like cigarette holder. The people who come to Ginza to play don’t care about smoking their cigarettes down to the last because they know they can buy more. Streetside psychics can’t even afford to buy any.

Nevertheless, no one seems to be unhappy with their life in Ginza. Sandwich man is nursing a crush on shoeshine girl which she might or might not return. So obviously good with children he longs for many, which is a problem because the one thing shoeshine girl dislikes about the city is that there are too many people – she only wants two. His desire for a big family means he doesn’t envisage spending the rest of his life as a sandwich man, but then it seems to be alright for the time being while he waits for something better to come along (which he seems to think it will). Shimizu takes us on a jaunty journey through the glitzy Ginza, taking in the musical halls and cafes while now famous tunes celebrating the area play unironically in the background, but as much as he celebrates the aspirational swankiness of the recovering city he’s always keen to remind us that not everyone who lives here lives in the same world and little girls like Michiko risk getting left behind for good if no one stops to think about that.


A Woman in the Typhoon Area (颱風圏の女, Hideo Oba, 1948)

vlcsnap-2017-12-14-23h50m20s302Setsuko Hara acquired the nickname “the eternal virgin” from her fans inspired by the genial ingenue roles she was most associated with especially in her long career with Yasujiro Ozu in which she often played a reluctant daughter finally getting married (though only at the end of the picture). The nickname took on something of an ironic quality after her abrupt retirement from the acting world in which, rather than getting married, she remained single and locked herself away in her quaint little house in Kamakura, refusing all subsequent requests relating to showbiz. Woman in the Typhoon Area (颱風圏の女, Taifuken no Onna) is a rare entry in her filmography in which she plays completely against type (and does so brilliantly) as a damaged, brassy, and sensual woman caught up in a storm of her own as the sole female between a gang of vicious smugglers and a nerdy group of weather scientists marooned on an island by a typhoon.

As the film opens, the smugglers have been spotted by the coastguard and are engaged in a lengthy firefight trying to escape. Eventually they manage to evade government forces, but they’re way off course and running out of fuel while one of their number is also badly injured. Luckily they eventually run into an island which is home to a Japanese weather station. Unfortunately, the weather station has received a telegram from the coastguard and works out who the smugglers are. There isn’t enough fuel or food for the smugglers to steal and escape, but even if there were the approaching typhoon means it would be unwise to try.

The set-up is uncannily close to that of John Huston’s Key Largo, released the same year, though the tiny band of smugglers is nowhere near as intimidating as Edward G. Robinson’s band of thugs, nor are they particularly emblematic of a persistent lingering threat of fascism in the rise of bullies making their way through fear. What the smugglers are is mildly pathetic and intensely self interested. The weather station staff, government officials, are the good guys but they’re also easily cowed by three men (and a sympathetic/indifferent woman) with a single gun. The major conflict is over control of the radio which the smugglers have temporarily broken in fear of someone calling the coastguard. The weathermen want to repair it because it’s imperative they let the surrounding area know that a dangerous typhoon is on the way.

Like many films of the immediate post-war era, the central theme is one of the common good vs selfish interest. The radio operator, Amano (Jun Usami), is determined to act for “the common good” and is confident that he is the sort of person who will do the “right” thing at the right time. The smugglers don’t particularly care if a lot of people end up dying because they weren’t warned about the storm as long as they don’t get caught by the coast guard. For Kijima (So Yamamura), the boss of the smugglers, all that matters is strength – a strong man will never kneel but Amano would kneel if it meant he could get up later and do the right the thing even if it then costs him his life.

Where gangster narratives are often about surrogate families, the band of smugglers actively rejects familial bonds and only maintains cohesion through shared suspicion. Kuriko (Setsuko Hara) is Kijima’s girl, but Kataoka (Isao Yamaguchi) continually goes behind his boss’ back to seduce her finally even attempting rape. Though second mate Yoshii (Eijiro Tono) may seem more loyal, he too holds little love for his boss and will betray him if he thinks Kijima no longer strong enough to rule. Trapped within the claustrophobic environment of the weather station, the gang destroys itself in petty rivalries and long standing suspicions. Kijima was right when he said you couldn’t trust anyone on a ship, but he can’t trust his guys on land either.

The war is an obvious and recurrent theme but Kuriko’s troubles were only exacerbated rather than caused by it. An abandoned child, she recounts eating cold rice with strangers at 11 and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what she means when she says she remembers the name of her first man but not his face. Kuriko is a good girl turned bad by persistent social indifference and subsequent trauma experienced as a nurse in frontline field hospitals. She’s distant and embittered, living as a man on ship, dressing in slacks and shirts and chain smoking her life away. Trapped in the station and exposed to the “goodness” of Amano she starts dressing in more feminine fashions and reconsidering her gangster lifestyle. Though she starts to change, helps the weather station to save the locals, it’s clear that it’s already too late for her to save herself other than through a final act of sacrifice in service of a new ideal and an old love.

Only 70 minutes long Woman in the Typhoon Area is a taught, tense character piece which doesn’t quite manage to make the most of its intensely claustrophobic settings but still manages to reinforce its central message of selfishness being bad and altruism good. Hara is a revelation in such an unusual role, stealing each and every scene in steely uncertainty, giving the impression of a woman whose ongoing fall is as much a willing act of self harm as it is a natural consequence of her impossible circumstances.


Invisible Man (透明人間, Motoyoshi Oda, 1954)

invisible man 1954 posterThe Invisible Man is a frightening presence precisely because he isn’t there. The living manifestation of the fear of the unknown, he stalks and spies, lurking in our imaginations instilling terror of evil deeds we are powerless to stop. Daiei made Japan’s first Invisible Man movie back in 1949 – a fun crime romp with the underlying message that scientific research is important but not as important as ensuring knowledge is placed in the right hands. Toho brought Eiji Tsuburaya back for another go at the same material in 1954 as part of their burgeoning tokusaku industry fathered by Godzilla. The 1954 Invisible Man (透明人間, Toumei Ningen), directed by Motoyoshi Oda, is once again a criticism of Japan’s wartime past but also perhaps of its future. This Invisible Man is an invisible hero but one whose heroism is only recognised once the mask is removed.

Opening in grand style, the film gets off to a mysterious start when a speeding car hits “something” in the road. The “something” turns out to be a previously invisible man whose appearance is returned to him as blood leaks out from under the now stopped car. In his pocket, the man has a suicide note explaining that living life invisible is just too depressing and he can’t go on. Seeing as the note is addressed to a “friend” who is also apparently an Invisible Man that means there are more out there. Despite there being no real threat involved in any of this, the newscasters are alarmed and the public frightened.

This is quite useful for some – a shady gang quickly starts putting on Invisible Man suits including wrapping their heads in bandages just like in the movies, and robbing banks. Admittedly this makes no practical sense but adds to the ongoing fear of an “invisible” threat. An intrepid reporter, Komatsu (Yoshio Tsuchiya), links the crimes to a nightclub where the head of the gang is also trying to pressure the headline star, Michiyo (Miki Sanjo), into a career as a drug mule. Besides violence, their leverage is the little girl who lives across from Michiyo and is blind – the money they would be paying her could also be used to pay for the girl’s eye surgery. Mariko is waiting patiently for her grandfather to make the money, unaware that he has also fallen under the spell of the criminal gang.

The real “Invisible Man” is doing a good job of hiding in plain sight by proudly standing out in a traditional clown outfit complete with makeup and a fluffy nose. Nanjo (Seizaburo Kawazu) works as a promoter for the club and is also good friends with little Mariko who is unable to see him either with or without his clown suit. Unlike other Invisible Men, Nanjo is good and kind – the curse of his condition has not ruined soul.

He is, however, afraid of being exposed. Aside from social ostracism (perhaps someone who wears a clown suit 24/7 isn’t particularly bothered about that), Nanjo fears what his government would do to him if they discovered he was still alive. Like his friend who later committed suicide, Nanjo was a member of an experimental army squad recruited towards the end of the war as Japan sought to create the ultimate warriors to turn the tide in the battle against the Americans. The Invisible Men were born but the war lost, and it was assumed that they had all fallen. Nanjo, surviving, has been abandoned by the land that he fought for. His existence is a secret, an embarrassing relic of Japan’s attempt at scientific warfare, and something which no one wants to deal with. Nando’s friend could no longer cope with his non-existence. Unable to return home, unable to work, unable to marry, there was no “visible” future which presented itself to him.

In this sense, Nanjo represents a point of view many might have identified with in 1954. These men fought and risked their lives for a god they now say is only a man, to come home to a land ruled by the “enemy” in which they can neither criticise the occupation or the former authorities. These men may well feel “invisible” in the new post-war order in which the younger generation are beginning to break free while they suffer the continuing effects of their wartime service even if not quite as literally as Nanjo.

Yet there’s a kind of internalised resentment within Nanjo who describes himself as a “monster created by militarism”. Disguising himself as a clown he attempts to live a “normal” life though one segregated from mainstream society. A half-hearted romance with club girl Michiyo and a well meaning paternalism for the orphaned little blind girl point to Nanjo’s altruistic heroism but also to a reluctance to fully engage with either of them due to a lingering sense of guilt and shame.

The Invisible Man is the hero here while the bad guys subvert and misuse his name to do their evil deeds, terrorising women and threatening to burn the city down rather than surrender to authority. Even more than others in Toho’s expanding universe of tokusatsu heroes, Invisible Man is a defence of the other as not only valid but morally good even in the face of extreme prejudice and violence. It is, however, also one of their less well considered efforts and Tsuburaya’s effects remain few and far between, rarely moving beyond his work on Daiei’s Invisible Man five years previously. Bulked out with musical numbers and dance sequences, Toho’s Invisible Man is a less satisfying affair than Daei’s puply sci-fi adventure but is nevertheless interesting in its defence of the sad clown who all alone has decided to shoulder the burdens of his world.


 

The Secret of the Telegian (電送人間, Jun Fukuda, 1960)

The-Secret-of-the-Telegian-images-df0ac23f-302b-4e88-8ec7-5423f55f51cPlaced between The H-Man and the Human Vapor, The Secret of the Telegian (電送人間, Denso Ningen) is another in Toho’s series of “mutant” movies in which “enhanced” humans find themselves turning monstrous because of ill-advised scientific endeavours. Like many in the series, Telegian has an ambivalent attitude towards scientific research, both proud and fearful. This might be 1960, but the roots of the threat once again stem back to wartime crimes and the impossibility of trust as a man long thought dead teleports himself out of his fictitious grave to wreak a terrifying and bloody revenge on those who have wronged him.

People running screaming out of the “Cave of Horrors” might not be such an unusual sight but this time it’s not papier-mâché ghosts or fancy tricks which have produced such a reaction but a real life bloody murder. The dead man, Tsukamoto, has the end of a bayonet in his chest and a cryptic letter in his pocket asking him to come to this very spot in order to learn “the truth about what happened 14 years ago”. The police are baffled, as is science journalist Kirioka (Koji Tsuruta) who is excited to discover a strange wire at the crime scene. Eventually, the trail leads to a nationalistic, military themed cabaret bar run by former lieutenant Onishi (Seizaburo Kawazu).

The bar is more or less a front for Onishi’s smuggling operation but what has him worried is that a former associate, Taki (Sachio Sakai), may think that he and another former solider, Takahashi, may have reclaimed some stolen gold and declined to share the proceeds. Onishi, Takahashi, and Taki have all received ominous gold discs which seems to point back to their failed bid to pocket some of the Emperor’s gold during the last days of the war. Charged with looking after a top scientist working on teleportation technology, Onishi decided he’d rather have the cash instead stooping so low as to kill both the researcher, Nikki (Takamaru Sasaki), and one of his subordinates who tried to stop him – Tsudo (Tadao Nakamaru). The gang were interrupted stealing the gold but went back a year later only to find the bodies and the treasure vanished without a trace.

Tsudo, now living under an alias, is hellbent on revenge not only against the men who left him for dead but indirectly against their entrenched treacheries as betrayers of their duty, country, and morality. Unlike the the villain of The Invisible Man Vs Human Fly, Tsudo is not among those who feel themselves betrayed or abandoned by their country, left out in the cold in the new post-war world, but one who has a deep seated need to make those who’ve wronged him pay for their treachery. Onishi’s strange militarism themed bar only adds insult to injury given his extremely unpatriotic conduct, though it is perhaps in keeping with the traditionally opportunist nature of nationalists throughout history.

Despite the familiar setup, the science takes a back seat as Fukuda pushes the procedural over the sci-fi and so it remains unclear to what extent, if any, the presence of the teleportation equipment is responsible for Tsudo’s strange behaviour. The teleporting Tsudo is, it has to be said, an odd man. Turning up to complain about late deliveries of the refrigeration equipment he needs for the special metals involved in the experiments,  Tsudo’s manner is creepy in the extreme, robotic yet somehow malevolent. Predictably he develops a fondness for the saleswoman, Akiko (Yumi Shirakawa), who coincidentally lives near to the first murder victim and also becomes the love interest of intrepid reporter Kirioka.

Fukuda keeps things simple over all, stopping to pay an extensive homage to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, though there’s a wry sense of humour at play in the bizarre fairground beginning and odd production elements such as the incongruous club and its dancing girls who are, ironically enough, entirely painted in gold. Eiji Tsuburaya’s involvement is largely limited to the transportation effect which is extremely impressive in its execution and has an appropriately unsettling feeling. Not quite as coherent as other examples of its genre, The Secret of the Telegian has a slight tonal oddity in its almost nationalistic discussion of false nationalism, literally taking aim at those who preach patriotism yet cynically betray their country, robbing it not just literally but spiritually. Even so, Fukuda’s take on the mutant formula has enough tongue in cheek humour and sci-fi inflected drama to keep most genre fans happy.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Battle in Outer Space (宇宙大戦争, Ishiro Honda, 1959)

battle in outer spaceIshiro Honda returns to outer space after The Mysterians with another dose of alien paranoia in the SFX heavy Battle in Outer Space (宇宙大戦争, Uchu Daisenso). Where many other films of the period had a much more ambivalent attitude to scientific endeavour, Battle in Outer Space paints the science guys as the thin white line that stands between us and annihilation by invading forces wielding superior technology. Far from the force which destroys us, science is our salvation and the skill we must improve in order to defend ourselves from hitherto unknown threats.

In 1965 Japan is a hit in space. Having launched their first space station, things are going well but after it is destroyed by flying saucers there is cause for concern. The problem intensifies as strange events occur across the Earth with bridges suddenly collapsing, boats being lifted from the sea and the waters of Venice conspiring to drown the town. World leaders gather in Tokyo to come up with a plan but one of the scientists’ key assets, Iranian professor Dr. Ahmed, is possessed by the Natalians via their high-tech remote control radio waves and procedeeds to do their dirty work for them. The Natalians will settle for nothing less than enslavement of the entire planet and have even set up a base on the moon to make it happen! Time to put those shiny new spaceships to good use!

Scientists may be the heroes of this particular story but the scientific basis for their actions is just as silly as your average B-movie. According to our top professor, the Natalians’ anti-gravity shenanigans can be put a stop to by means of a freeze ray – gravity is, of course, caused by the movement of atoms which is impeded by cold hence the freeze ray. A likely story, but it’s the best they’ve got. The other major problem is that the Natalians are able to possess various people and force them to do their bidding, apparently through “radio waves”. Less about the enemy within, the possibility of becoming a Natalian sleeper agent is more plot device than serious philosophical discussion.

Battle in Outer Space is, in this sense at least, one of the most straightforward of Toho’s B-movie leaning SFX extravaganzas. There is little hidden message here bar the importance of international collaboration as the whole world comes together to fight the alien threat – Middle Eastern and Indian scientists are at the forefront of research and Japan leads the charge flanked by Americans one side and Russians on the other.

Our intrepid band of scientists are the vanguard sent to see off the Natalian threat by jetting off into space and fighting them in their own territory. Honda and Tsuburaya outdo themselves with the special effects which are pretty astounding for 1959 making use of large scale models and matt painting. The scientists travel to the moon to look for the Natalians’ base only to encounter them in space and engage in exciting dogfight. Eventually landing they meet the Natalians face to face and discover they are very tiny and sort of cute but also hellbent on enslaving the Earth. Engaging them in a firefight using heat rays and laser guns, the scientists manage to escape but the Natalian threat follows them all the way back to Tokyo. In true Toho fashion, buildings are destroyed and people knocked flying as the Natalians take the city but our brainy scientists have thought of that and so the aliens have a whole barrage of heat ray guns to welcome them to Earth.

Battle in Outer Space might not have an awful lot going on in the background, but it makes up for it with sheer spectacle both in its effects and in production design. The Natalians are a scary bunch, until you actually meet them, but this time science is on our side as the good guys manage to figure out a way to save the Earth rather than destroy it through fear and angst. In the end it is determination and togetherness which finally lets the Natalians know humanity is not a good prospect for colonisation, only by coming together and making the best of their collective strengths is humanity able to triumph over a superior force – sadly a still timely lesson.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Mikio Naruse, 1959)

vlcsnap-2016-08-03-02h37m50s119The Ainu have not been a frequent feature of Japanese filmmaking though they have made sporadic appearances. Adapted from a novel by Nobuo Ishimori, Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Kotan no Kuchibue, AKA Whistle in My Heart) provides ample material for the generally bleak Naruse who manages to mine its melodramatic set up for all of its heartrending tragedy. Rather than his usual female focus, Naruse tells the story of two resilient Ainu siblings facing not only social discrimination and mistreatment but also a series of personal misfortunes.

Masa and Yutaka are a teenage brother and sister living with their alcoholic father who has been unable to get things together since their mother passed away. They also have their grandmother and cousin, but otherwise they’re pretty much fending for themselves. At school, both children are shunned and picked on by some of their classmates solely for being Ainu. When one girl reports that her purse has gone missing, she immediately points to Masa and though another girl defends her, the obvious racial overtones continue to get to her. Similarly, Yutaka finds himself getting into trouble with one of the other boys after he beats him on a test. Yutaka pays a heavier price (at least physically) but both children are left wondering about their place in the world and what the future might hold for them.

Masa’s bright hope revolves around her art teacher who draws a picture of her at a local watering hole which he intends to enter into a competition. The teacher has his sights firmly set on a career as an artist in Tokyo but like everyone else’s dreams, it proves harder to realise than he might have hoped. Perpetually left behind, Masa’s dreams crumble too as do those of her friend who has her romantic hopes crushed firstly by her well meaning grandmother and then secondly by an unexpectedly racist action by someone who had always been seen as a friend. If all of these difficulties weren’t enough, fate is about to deal Masa and Yutaka a very cruel blow indeed which leaves them at the mercy of an evil uncle worthy of any Dickens novel.

Like much of Naruse’s work, the outlook is extremely bleak. The children face such a hopeless future that the most they can do is affect a kind of false cheerfulness to try and raise their spirits. Masa and Yutaka are both mistreated by the general population, leaving them with a lingering sense of anger and resentment towards those that seem incapable of treating them like regular human beings. Their cousin, Koji, has apparently come to the conclusion that he has to stand up against such mistreatment, however, the ultimate harm that is done to the pair is done by a member of their own family acting with total disregard their feelings and wellbeing. At this point Koji reconsiders and says he understands now that it isn’t about Ainu or Japanese, there are just awful people everywhere. An odd, if depressingly stoic, late in the game plea for empathy and tolerance, this ironically positive statement sits very well with Naruse’s general feelings on human nature.

Whistling in Kotan is not one of Naruse’s more subtle efforts. The tone is relentlessly bleak as the children experience ever more degrading treatment solely because of their ethnic group. Even their supposed ally eventually turns on them exposing the last lingering threads of prejudice among even those who portray themselves as forthright liberals. The message is one of forbearance and patience, that times have changed and will change more but that one has to grin and bear it while they do. Pragmatic as that is, it does let society of the hook when it comes to the refusal to acknowledge and deal with consistent prejudice. Filled with Naruse’s sense of despair, Whistling in Kotan is an uneven yet interesting exploration of this sensitive subject though perhaps undoes much of its good work with its ambiguous and often blunt approach to the material.