Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

Killing Yoshiwara posterHaving led a somewhat floating life, Tomu Uchida returned to Japan in only in 1953 after a sustained period with the Manchurian Film Cooperative followed by a brief flirtation with Maoism. Before the war Uchida had been closely identified with the Keiko Eiga movement of broadly left-wing filmmaking but later fell hard for the inherent romanticism of militarist ideology during his time in Manchuria. Nevertheless it was apparently the Maoist doctrines of progress through contradiction that influenced his later dramatic philosophy in which he came to think of narrative as a series of conflicts which culminate in an explosive act designed to resolve them (or not, as we will see). 1960’s Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Yoto Monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara Hyakunin-giri, AKA Hero of the Red Light District) is perhaps a prime example as it takes a seemingly generic story inspired by a kabuki play and uses it to tell a melancholy tale of parallel yet mutually thwarted desires for vengeance against a cruel and oppressive society.

Ostensibly, our “hero” is Jiro (Chiezo Kataoka) – a successful silk merchant. A good and kind man, Jiro is beloved of all his staff for his careful consideration of them as people as well as employees. This concern is, however, perhaps not as wholly “good” as it seems. Jiro’s major problem in life is that he is an adopted child, taken in by his parents who auspiciously discovered him abandoned on the anniversary of their own child’s death. Jiro, apparently of noble birth, was abandoned because he has a prominent grey birthmark “staining” his face. This is the reason he has so far been unable to find a wife despite his good character and relative wealth. Desperately grateful to the couple who took him in “despite” his “imperfection”, Jiro feels this failure heavily in his current inability to provide them with a male heir to take over the family business.

Being good and earnest, Jiro has never dared to fritter money away in the red light district but is tempted when invited by a valued client whom he would not want to offend by refusing. Nevertheless, his first visit to the Yoshiwara is not an altogether pleasant experience as even the seasoned courtesans find it difficult to bear the sight of his “monstrous” face. Embarrassed, the innkeepers finally decide to employ a lowly servant, Otsuru (Yoshie Mizutani), who is not a trained courtesan but a woman convicted for illegal prostitution, to minister solely to Jiro. Otsuru does her work and is relatively unbothered by Jiro’s facial abnormality – something which endears her to Jiro’s heart and has the desired effect of hooking him through his weakness.

Otsuru, later “Tamarazu” the courtesan, is in many ways our villainess but she is also Jiro’s mirror and merely another outsider trying to escape oppression through any means possible. Uchida is careful to frame Otsuru not as a cruel and amoral adventurer, but someone who has decided to survive and can at least be honest about her intentions. We see her caged, imprisoned inside the Yoshiwara to do inside it what was declared “illegal” outside and acknowledging that she may well die here to met by a lonely funeral and rest unnamed in a communal grave. Otsuru decides that if she has to stay in the Yoshiwara then she will be its queen and then use that success to catapult herself into a more comfortable life even if she knows that it will be little more than a nicer kind of cage.

Jiro and Otsuru are each victims of the oppressive society in which they live as symbolised by the cruelly hypocritical worldview of the brothel owners who set out to exploit them both. Otsuru, worldly wise, is fully aware of the ways in which she is and will continue to be exploited but has chosen to be complicit within them as a means of effecting her escape. Jiro, meanwhile, is obviously aware that the “stain” across his face is the reason for his unhappy destiny but has only ever sought to minimise the distress his appearance causes to others. Thus he overcompensates by being relentlessly nice and infinitely humble, grateful for each and every concession which is extended to him as a fully human being rather than the “monster” which he is later branded by the innkeepers in a rare moment of candour which exposes their venial desires. 

This extreme desire for acceptance is in itself a symptom of his self loathing and internalised shame regarding his appearance which is after all merely an accident of birth over which he had no control. Abandoned by his birthparents who left him with a “cursed” destiny in the form of an unlucky sword, Jiro has been working overtime to overcome social prejudice but finding his path continually blocked. He latches on to Otsuru simply because she was nice to him without understanding the peculiar rules of interactions within the Yoshiwara, or as she later puts it “no money, no love”. Jiro ruins himself out of frustrated loneliness and a forlorn hope of repaying the debt he owes the couple who took him in by being able to provide them with a male heir to inherit the family business.

It is these mutual conflicts which eventually lead to the explosive finale hinted at by the violence of the title. Otsuru’s star rises while Jiro’s falls – not only is he fleeced by the innkeepers and an unrepentant Otsuru, his business also fails thanks to an act of God while his reputation lies in tatters once his associates get to know of his “frivolous” behaviour in the Yoshiwara. This in itself is doubly hypocritical as it was this same major client who introduced Jiro to the “pleasure” quarters in the first place only to remind him that business is a matter of trust and that they no longer trust him because he has broken his promise of keeping away from the Yoshiwara.

Pushed to the brink by successive humiliations, Jiro’s rage erupts in a singular act of violence which takes the sword not only to the Yoshiwara but the entrenched systems of oppression and exploitation which it represents. Otsuru, now an oiran, is literally trapped by her ostentatious outfit (in reality the very purpose it is designed to serve) as she struggles to escape male violence, her hand on the gate of the Yoshiwara which refuses to release her. Their parallel quests for revenge eventually converge only to defeat each other in a staggering act of futility which remains unresolved as the curtain falls on a moment of unanswerable rage.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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