Early Spring (早春, Yasujiro Ozu, 1956)

By the mid-1950s, Japan’s economy was beginning to improve but now that the desperation that went with hunger had dissipated it freed those who’d managed to climb out of post-war privation to wonder just what the point of their ceaseless toil was. Yasujiro Ozu’s primary subject matter remained the modern family, but 1956’s Early Spring (早春, Soshun) sees him heading in a darker direction as he weighs up the delusions of the salaryman dream and discovers that whichever way you swing it, life is disappointing. 

So it seems to be for salaryman Shoji (Ryo Ikebe). He and Masako (Chikage Awashima) married for love a long time ago, but it’s clear that there is distance in their relationship. They sleep in the same room but their futons are slightly too far apart, and the few words they exchange with each other in the morning are terse in the extreme. The truth is that for many a salaryman for whom long hours and interoffice bonding sessions are compulsory, work is the new family. Wives are welcome to join the Sunday hiking outings but it seems few do. Masako too declines, telling her mother she felt it to be too expensive, already irritated with her husband’s irresponsible spending on mahjong games and drinking with friends. 

Money is certainly a constant worry for her and as we learn from her mother they’re behind on the rent despite it being “very cheap”. Masako had made a visit home in part to ask for another loan, which her mother seems reluctant to give, offering her daughter a takeout of the oden her restaurant sells which is first declined but then accepted. Her mother also flags up the other problem in their marriage which is that they sadly lost a child in infancy and have had no more. Sorrow may have killed their love, but the fact her husband stays out all hours and wastes the little money he earns while failing to win promotions only makes the situation worse. 

As for Shoji, he is becoming very aware of the delusions of the “salaryman dream”. He is one of thousands of men identically dressed in white shirts and grey trousers that board the packed rush hour trains every day heading into the city. His life is one of pointless drudgery and its only victory is that keeps hunger from the door, not even quite stretching to a roof over his head. “All that’s waiting for us is disillusion and loneliness” according to a veteran salaryman growing close to his retirement and realising that he has little left to live on, his dream of buying a small stationary shop all but unobtainable. He was dead set against his own son joining the ranks of the salaryman, but in the end failed to prevent it.

It is perhaps this sense of frustration and impotence that draws Shoji into an affair with a younger woman, Chiyo (Keiko Kishi), who is admittedly very pretty but seems to hold little interest for him aside from her youth and beauty. Chiyo openly pursues her older colleague, declaring that she doesn’t care he has a wife but has come to hate her after the first time they slept together. Shoji meanwhile remains guilty and conflicted. He evidently continues seeing Chiyo, lying to Masako that he’s visiting a sick friend, but otherwise regards her as an irritation. When his co-workers figure out what’s going on they try to stage an intervention, but Shoji doesn’t show up and Chiyo angrily denies everything before arriving at Masako’s looking for Shoji only this time he really is out visiting a sick friend. 

Miura (Junji Masuda), the sick friend, is a true believer in the salaryman dream. Now that he’s ill, he misses the packed trains and elevators, not to mention his old workplace friends. All he wants is to be well enough to return to the office and his predicament perhaps has Shoji thinking that at least he has his health and things aren’t so bad for him after all. Masako, meanwhile, turns to other women for advice. The woman across the way recounts how she caught her husband out with his mistress and made a scene that’s rendered him docile and obedient ever since (a rare man in an Ozu film putting his socks neatly in the laundry basket and hanging up his own coat rather than throwing it on the floor for his wife to deal with). Her widowed friend is more sanguine, admitting that caution is necessary but it’s a little dark to envy the life of a widow for its “freedom”, while her mother thinks she’s overreacting because that’s just how men are in this generation or any other. 

Shoji’s old mentor agrees that “everyone’s disappointed” and all that remains is to try and make the most of it, but still he sees that Shoji has been reckless and inconsiderate in his treatment of both women. He avoids his wife because of the emotional distance between them born of grief, and only really has an affair with Chiyo because it was easier than refusing her. He didn’t even enjoy it, and doubtless it did not quite quell the sense of despair he feels with the utter pointlessness of the “salaryman dream”. Masako, in turn, is disappointed with married life, with her husband’s emotional cowardice, and with her own lack of options. Ultimately, Ozu sides with the mother, not quite condoning Shoji’s behaviour while perhaps excusing it as a direct consequence of dullness of his life while forcing Masako to accept complicity in her husband’s weakness. They may reunite, the stressors of their Tokyo life from the high cost of living to the lure of mahjong now absent, but there is a sense of futility in their eventual insistence that they will “make it work” through starting over in a new place while gazing at the train that, they assume, will eventually carry them back to the city and all of its false promises of a brighter future. 


Early Spring screens 19th/20th/21st October & 20th/23rd November at London’s BFI Southbank as part of BFI Japan. It is also available to stream in the UK via BFI Player and in the US via Criterion Channel.

Repast (めし, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

“Must every woman grow old and die feeling empty?” asks the unhappy heroine of Naruse’s 1951 melodrama Repast (めし, Meshi) only to conclude that yes, she must, but that this in fact constitutes “happiness” as a woman. The first of Naruse’s Fumiko Hayashi adaptations Repast arrived in the year of the author’s death and is inspired by a short story left unfinished at the time of her passing. Screenwriter Sumie Tanaka was apparently convinced that the film should end with a divorce, as Sound of the Mountain would two years later, and consequently left the project after the studio mandated a more “sympathetic” ending. Superficially happy as it might seem, however, the conclusion is as bleak as one might expect from Naruse in which the heroine simply accepts that she must recalibrate her idea of happiness to that which is available to her and learn to find fulfilment in shared endeavour with her husband. 

As she explains in her opening voiceover, Michiyo (Setsuko Hara) married her husband Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara) five years ago in Tokyo against her family’s wishes and has been living on the outskirts of Osaka for the past three. Marital bliss has quite clearly worn off. As we see from the repeated morning scenes of the local community sending their sons off to school and husbands to the office, every day is the same and all Michiyo ever seems to do is cook and clean. The only words Hatsunosuke says to her are “I’m hungry”, and the only source of solace in her life is her cat, Yuri. Yet even this constant state of unhappy frustration is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Hatsunosuke’s spoilt and immature niece Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki) who has apparently run away from home in rebellion against an arranged marriage. 

There is obviously a blood relation between Hatsunosuke and Satoko, but Michiyo’s jealously is not exactly unreasonable given the young woman’s childish flirtation with her uncle, perhaps an adolescent extension of her propensity to pout and preen to get her own way. Aside from all that, finances weigh heavily on Michiyo’s mind. Other than her drudgery, the constant source of friction in the relationship is Hatsunosuke’s low salary and lack of career success. Satoko’s family are a little wealthier and having been brought up in relative comfort she has little idea of the real world and is often tactless, remarking on Hatsunosuke’s worn out tie much to Michiyo’s chagrin. Hatsunosuke is happy enough to have her, but Michiyo is wondering if there’s enough rice in the jar to see them through and Satoko never stops to consider that they’re feeding her for free even falling asleep when Michiyo enjoys her one and only day off reuniting with old friends rather than preparing dinner as she’d been asked. Perhaps aware of the disruptive effect of her presence, Satoko pours salt on the wound by constantly asking her uncle if Michiyo doesn’t like her or is angry, further placing a wedge between husband and wife. 

For all that, however, Hatsunosuke would not be accounted a “bad” husband for the time save perhaps for his lack of career success. He is not cruel or violent, merely insensitive and distant, taking his wife for granted and unable to see that she is deeply unhappy while otherwise internalising a sense of guilt and failure in his inability to adequately provide for her. She meanwhile sometimes takes her dissatisfaction out on him in barbed comments about his low salary, her barely hidden contempt never far from the surface. Yet as her mother later points out in encouraging her go back to him he is “reliable, discreet, and honest”, qualities borne out by his later refusal to go along with a dodgy scheme organised by the old elite along with his nervous rebuttal of the attentions of the “mistress” from across the way. 

At heart a conservative woman, Michiyo too looks down on Ms Kanazawa (Kumeko Otowa) for her taboo status as the illicit lover of a wealthy man which is only in a sense her way of seizing her future as an independent woman running her own bar. Satoko, a woman of the modern era, sees less of a problem with it and is far less judgemental, though her own attempts are destined to end in failure thanks to her inability to work out that her present lifestyle is far above her current reach. Retreating to her Tokyo home, Michiyo looks for other options, admiring the apparently happier relationship between her younger sister and brother-in-law who now run the family shop. She asks a sympathetic cousin, Kazuo (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) who provides an alternate love interest, to help her find work but encounters the brutalising line outside the local employment office and then an old friend now a war widow desperate for employment because her benefits are about to run out and she has a young son to support. Later she spots the same woman handing out flyers, suddenly realising the fallacy of her fantasy of starting again as an independent woman. She pens a letter to her husband admitting that she’s realised how vulnerable she is without his protection, but remains undecided enough to avoid sending it. 

Hearing that Satoko, still childish but perhaps not quite as naive as she assumed her to be, has been laying her claws into Kazuo the final nail seems to have been struck. Michiyo knows she will return to Osaka, but does so not because she has rekindled her love for her husband but because she has accepted there are no better options. Hatsunosuke is dull, but he is in a sense reliable, and honest to the extent that he may be about to be rewarded for his moral unshakability. He cares enough about her to show up in Tokyo hoping, but not insisting, she will return with him which is perhaps as close to a declaration of love that one could hope for. On reflection she decides that a woman’s happiness is found in sharing the journey with her husband, accepting that she must subsume her own desires into his and cannot hope to expect emotional fulfilment other than that found in his satisfaction. Even for a Naruse film, and one as peppered with moments of slapstick humour as this one is, it’s an extraordinarily bleak conclusion subtly hinting at the iniquities of life in a patriarchal society in which the best a woman can hope for is a life of unrewarded drudgery. 


Snow Country (雪国, Shiro Toyoda, 1957)

Closely associated with literary adaptation, Shiro Toyoda had been wanting to adapt Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (雪国) since its serialisation and apparently spent four years preparing his treatment ahead of the 1957 film starring Ryo Ikebe as the solipsistic aesthete at the novel’s centre. Characteristically, however, he takes several liberties with the source material, notably introducing an entirely different conclusion which perhaps helps in re-centring the tale away from the hero Shimamura to the melancholy geisha who apparently falls for him because of his intense loneliness. 

A brief reference to a failed military insurrection in Manchuria sets us firmly in the mid-1930s as do repeated mentions of the ongoing depression which causes additional anxiety to local business owners in a small holiday resort town. Mimicking the novel’s famous opening, Toyoda opens with a POV shot of a train exiting a tunnel into the snow-covered landscape, the hero Shimamura (Ryo Ikebe) sitting sadly gazing out of a window and eventually captivated by the reflection of a young woman devotedly caring for a young man who appears to be in poor health. Meanwhile, another young woman, Komako (Keiko Kishi), gazes at her own reflection in a train station window, waiting once again as if unable to depart. As we discover, Shimamura has returned with the intention of seeing Komako with whom he’d struck up a relationship during a summer trip but is somewhat disappointed to learn that she has since become a geisha.

In a flashback to their first meeting, Komako asks Shimamura if he has come for “escape”, a question he doesn’t exactly answer while petulantly complaining about his lack of artistic success as someone who paints pictures apparently out of step with his times. When the head of the local commerce association tries to involve him in conversation about the failed insurrection, he bluntly tells him that he’s an artist and as such has no interest in such things, but it does indeed seem that he is looking for some kind of escape from the turbulent times, expressing that here the war seems very far away as does “the depression”. Komako, a more modern and perhaps prophetic figure than it might at first seem, is the only one to bring up the war directly speculating that it may be about to intensify while the frustrated affair between the two seems to be informed by the mounting tensions against which they are attempting to live their lives. 

Rather self-absorbed, Shimamura in a sense may even identify with Komako explaining that he too has a “patron” and implying that his flight is perhaps a response to his sense of powerlessness, that he feels constrained by his financial dependency presumably on his father-in-law though his relative economic superiority which leads Komako to frequently remark on his “extravagance” obviously affords him the freedom to make these random solo trips to ski resorts and indulge his career as a painter regardless of its capacity to support himself and his family. Komako must know on some level that the relationship is a fantasy, yet she believes in it enough to end her connection with an elderly patron on suspecting that she is carrying Shimamura’s child only to have her hopes dashed when he does not turn up for a local festival as promised with the consequence that all of her dependents are turfed out of the home he had provided for her. 

Komako is not “free” in the same way that Shimamura evidently is, her entire life dictated by the fact that she is poor and female. Fostered by a shamisen teacher, she may have been technically engaged to the young man, Yukio (Akira Nakamura), Shimamura saw on the train being cared for by Yoko (Kaoru Yachigusa), Komako’s foster sister in love with him herself, but intensely resents the burdens she is expected to bear quite literally with her body. She later tells Shimamura that she didn’t become a geisha for Yukio in order to pay his medical bills but out of a sense of obligation, while she is also responsible for her birth family, the now bedridden shamisen teacher, and Yoko who intensely resents her for her callous treatment of Yukio and generally “dissolute”, selfish way of living. During the famous fire in a cinema that closes the novel (but not the film), Komako even exclaims that her life would be easier if Yoko burned to death, but on witnessing her either fall or jump from the burning building she can do nothing other than run to her side. 

Indeed, the novel’s climax finds Shimaura standing alone indifferent to the fate of Yoko, a young woman he had come to admire if only for her contrary qualities, admiring instead the beauty of the night sky. In Toyoda’s characterisation, Yoko is in one sense the conventionally good woman whose selfless devotion to the sickly Yukio so captivates Shimamura, but her goodness is nevertheless undercut by the degree of her animosity towards Komako even as the two women remain trapped in a complex web of frustrated affection and intense resentment, each perhaps knowing they neither can have the man they want and are condemned to an eternal unhappiness as the snow mounts all around them in this perpetually cold and depressing moribund resort town. Switching between studio matte paintings ironically mimicking Shimamura’s art and on-location footage of the deepening snows, Toyoda’s sense of near nihilistic melancholy evoking the atmosphere of Japan in the mid-1930s hints at grand tragedy but finds resolution only in stoicism as the heroine picks up her shamisen and trudges onward amid the quickening blizzard.  


Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Yasujiro Ozu, 1957)

Closely associated with the family drama, Yasujiro Ozu is perhaps the most socially conservative of golden age directors. Unlike Naruse or Mizoguchi, he cheerfully reinforces patriarchal social norms and foregrounds the paternal experience while upholding the primacy of the traditional family in a rapidly modernising society. In his later career he’d come to sympathise more strongly with the young, but 1957’s Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Tokyo Boshoku), perhaps his bleakest take on familial failure, is essentially a treatise on the legacy of corrupted motherhood and rebuke to growing post-war freedom in which a young woman is made to feel that her future is impossible because of maternal betrayal while her sister is forced back into an unhappy marriage to an abusive husband in order to avoid the same fate befalling her own daughter. 

Unlike most Ozu families, the Sugiyamas do not seem to be particularly happy in each other’s company, living in superficial politeness rather than true intimacy. This may partly be because the sisters had a brother who passed away young in a mountain climbing accident, but it also seems that Mr. Sugiyama (Chishu Ryu), though kind and polite, is a typically authoritarian, distant father. Oldest daughter Takako (Setsuko Hara) has returned home declaring herself unable to go on living with her professor husband Numata (Kinzo Shin) who, she says, has become increasingly erratic, taking out his petty professional disappointment on their small daughter Michiko whom he seems to resent. Younger sister Akiko (Ineko Arima) meanwhile is sullen and introverted. Unmarried, she lives at home and is studying to become a stenographer. 

As we later discover, the girls’ mother Kikuko (Isuzu Yamada) left the family during the war after falling in love with the junior officer Mr. Sugiyama enlisted to look in on the family while he was away in Seoul. Akiko was only three when their mother left and barely remembers her. Takako attributes her wayward behaviour to “loneliness”, that she has been forever corrupted through never knowing a mother’s love. Mr. Sugiyama admits he tried his best, but both agree that children need two parents and no matter how much he wants to a father cannot make up a mother’s share. 

This atmosphere of alienation is perhaps why Akiko feels as if she has no one to turn to in her own moment of maternal crisis. She has become pregnant by her college student boyfriend who has been avoiding her and even has the audacity to ask if the baby’s his when Akiko finally manages to pin him down. Trying to borrow money for an abortion, Akiko visits her aunt who declines to give it to her without knowing why, eventually turning to a family friend who apparently provides no questions asked. The woman at the clinic assumes she is a bar girl, as does a policeman who eventually “arrests” her for loitering in a sleazy cafe where her boyfriend has obviously stood her up which is quite openly being used as a place for men to pick up call girls. All of this contributes to Akiko’s increasing sense of shame and worthlessness. She sees herself as a fallen woman, convinced that she is all her mother’s child contaminated by her “bad blood” which makes a conventionally successful life as an ordinary wife and mother an impossibility. 

Akiko’s aunt wants to set her up with arranged marriage matches, but Akiko declares she has no intention of marrying or having children. Without knowing anything of Akiko’s circumstances, Takako assumes this is because of her obviously unhappy marriage, trying to convince her sister that there are plenty of happy couples she is merely unlucky. Mr. Sugiyama attempts to talk to his son-in-law but finds him strange and indifferent, offering treatises on familial love while implying that he has little of it. He regrets pressuring Takako to marry him when he knew that she preferred someone else while Takako is once again haunted by the spectre of corrupted maternity in her mother’s decision to leave the family for emotional fulfilment and is fearful of making the same mistake creating another troubled daughter just like Akiko in denying her a father’s love (which seems a moot point given that Numata does not care for the child). 

Neither woman is able to escape paying for their mother’s transgression. Akiko is punished firstly for embracing her sexuality and secondly for the rejection of motherhood in choosing to have an abortion. Alone and humiliated by her unreliable boyfriend, she is denied the opportunity to start over, while Takako meditates on female failure and believes that her only option is to live in misery with a cruel and narcissistic husband because that is the “proper” thing to do and the only way to bring her daughter up “right”. The absent mother, meanwhile, is denied reconciliation and left only with the painful separation from her daughter who finally rejects her in order to reclaim the image of the good wife and mother by returning to her unhappy home. Bleak as it is, all of this is presented as a kind of happy ending in that it restores the idea of the traditional family, increasingly threatened by post-war modernity, to its original primacy. We leave with Mr. Sugiyama rehiring his maid and heading cheerfully back to the male world of work, making the fresh start that his daughters have been so cruelly denied.  


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

Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

1951’s Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Ginza Kesho) is often said to mark a kind of rebirth in the career of director Mikio Naruse whose output in the 1940s was perhaps unfairly denigrated not least by Naruse himself. As in much of his golden age work and in anticipation of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Ginza’s heroine is a resilient bar hostess whose brief hopes of escape through romance are doomed to failure, but it’s also, like the slightly later Tokyo Profile (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1953) and Tales of Ginza (Yuzo Kawashima, 1955) an ode to the upscale district and all the defeated hopes of its illusionary glitz and glamour. 

Yukiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), the heroine, is a single-mother approaching middle age and working as a hostess in a Ginza bar. Her landlady who runs a nagauta school on the ground floor and constantly complains about her feckless though goodnatured unemployed husband seems to think she could do better, pointing out that she is an educated woman who seems slightly out of place in the rundown backstreets of this otherwise aspirational area. Even for educated women, however, there may not be many other opportunities in the straitened and socially conservative post-war economy especially for those without connections, and Yukiko also needs to provide for her young son Haruo (Yoshihiro Nishikubo), born out of wedlock after an affair with a customer with whom she had fallen in love but abandoned her when she became pregnant. 

As a slightly older woman who has been working at the Bel Ami bar for many years, seemingly from war to occupation, Yukiko is both looked up to by the younger women and resented as a stern older sister who does not approve of the way some of them ply their trade. She’s taken one, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), who often babysits for her, under her wing, cautioning her against making the same mistakes that she once made in taking the kinds of men that come into the bar at their word. “Men are all animals” she warns her, supporting her desire not to give in to her parents’ attempts to arrange for her not a marriage but a “position” as a mistress. Unlike Yukiko, Kyoko still has hope of leaving the Ginza bar world behind to become a respectable wife even if those hopes are fading with the relative unlikelihood of finding a “good” man with a salary good enough to support a wife who is not already married and can be understanding of her bar girl past. 

The bar world may be on the fringes of the sex trade, but the bar girls are not necessarily sex workers even if some of the younger women are clearly engaging in the kinds of casual sex work of which Yukiko clearly disapproves even while not against consensual romantic liaisons. For her own part, she finds herself in the awkward situation of a continuing non-relationship with a failed businessman, Fujimura (Masao Mishima), who was fairly wealthy during the war but apparently no longer. Yukiko attributes this to him being in someway too good to prosper, though having money in the war which disappeared afterwards perhaps implies the opposite. She does not love him and seems to find his presence a little irritating, but feels indebted because he stood by her when she was pregnant and alone. In any case, he has a wife (whom he apparently resents) and children (whom he claims to adore) and so she feels at best conflicted, especially as the tables have turned and it’s him now constantly asking her for money. Money is not something Yukiko has a lot of, but she isn’t mean and often consents to losing it with a resigned shrug as she does by taking on Kyoko’s bar debt after a customer runs out on the bill and then tricks Yukiko into buying more drinks while waiting for a “friend” to arrive. 

Men, it seems, will always be predatory and unreliable. On hearing from her boss and longtime friend that the bar is in trouble and may have to close, Yukiko ends up acting on an introduction from an acquaintance, Shizue (Ranko Hanai), to meet a “stingy” industrialist who had expressed an interest in her. Shizue has escaped the bar world by becoming a wealthy man’s mistress and with it has claimed a kind of independence. He splits his time between Tokyo and Osaka, leaving her free to do whatever she likes (including meeting other men) for most of her time with none of the strings that go with being a wife. Yukiko is perhaps too “pure” for that kind of arrangement, hinting at the Ginza paradox that only those who learn to accept a certain level of complicity can ever truly be happy there. She agrees to meet Kanno (Eijiro Tono), the businessman, in order to ask him to “invest” in the bar, suggesting they talk things over in a coffeeshop while he tries to pull her into various shady establishments before pushing her into a warehouse and attempting to rape her to get his money’s worth. Yukiko escapes and resolves not to see him again. After all, the point of getting the money to keep the bar open was precisely to avoid having to make arrangements with men like Kanno. 

It’s Shizue, however, who later gives her a last shot at escape when she introduces her to her “true love”, Ishikawa (Yuji Hori), making a brief trip into the city. Shizue can’t entertain him herself because her patron is in town and so entrusts him to Yukiko with the strict instruction not to try it on. Despite herself, however, Yukiko becomes fond of him, reassuming something of a past persona in engaging in intellectual conversation, once again an educated, middle-class woman rather than a bar hostess used to telling men what they want to hear. She has been warned, however, that Ishikawa hates anything “low culture” which is why Shizue has told him they are both war widows and discovers that he has a strong dislike for Ginza which sees him longing for the wholesome charms of home. 

The crisis occurs when Yukiko has to break a promise to Haruo to take him to the zoo in order to look after Ishikawa, causing him to go temporarily missing when he wanders off on his own roaming all over the endless construction site of the contemporary city standing in for the makeshift, in-progress reconstruction of the post-war society. She perhaps feels she’s being punished for choosing to disappoint her son in order to pursue a dream of romantic escape she might also feel is somehow undeserved, but pays in quite a different way after accidentally setting Ishikawa up with Kyoko whom she introduced as her “sister”. Originally angry and resentful, proclaiming herself disappointed with Kyoko in assuming she is the same as the other young women at the bar, Yukiko’s good nature eventually wins out as she realises that Kyoko and Ishikawa seem to have fallen in love in a single night. She has told him everything, and he apparently wants to marry her anyway. Kyoko, at least, is getting out, and Yukiko can be happy about that while privately internalising defeat. Acknowledging that Haruo is the only one on whom she can depend, she resolves to live on as a mother only, trapped in the deceptive diminishing returns of a Ginza bar life even while knowing it has increasingly little place for her.  


Snake Princess (新蛇姫様 お島千太郎, Tadashi Sawashima, 1965)

Hibari Misora fights Edo-era corruption once again in another jidaigeki musical adventure from Tadashi Sawashima. Snake Princess (新蛇姫様 お島千太郎, Shin Hebihimesama Oshima Sentaro) sees her doing double duty as a sake-loving stage performer in love with a reluctant revenger, and an austere princess mourning the murder of her confidant and only friend but, as in some of her other films, the resemblance is never remarked upon nor is it any kind of plot point. There isn’t even really a “snake princess”, though snakes and the supernatural do play their part and there is perhaps less space for the derring-do and swashbuckling musical numbers which typically characterise a Hibari picture. 

The film opens with stage performer Oshima (Hibari Misora) waking up from a drunken snooze on a riverbank and realising she’s been left behind by her acting troupe. Running into the mysterious Ittosai (Minoru Oki) on her way, she hurries on to the next town to catch them up while he heads in the opposite direction towards Karasuyama and the Princess Koto (also played by Hibari Misora). Meanwhile, in the town, a rowdy samurai starts a drunken fight in an inn, demanding to drink with the innkeeper’s pretty daughter Suga (Tomoko Ogawa). The innkeeper refuses, offering the excuse that his daughter is at the palace with the princess, but the samurai doesn’t take no for an answer and starts thrashing about with his sword eventually killing the innkeeper for the offence he feels has been caused to him. The innkeeper’s son Sentaro (Yoichi Hayashi), a former pupil of Ittosai, then kills the samurai in revenge and is forced on the run, taken in by the leader of Oshima’s acting troupe, Juzo (Takashi Shimura), who apparently knew his father well. 

What ensues is of course a tale of intrigue and revenge mixed with mild romantic melodrama. Oshima begins to fall for Sentaro, but is warned that he is from a prominent non-samurai family and as such is unlikely to marry a travelling actress, itinerant players then belonging to a kind of underclass which is in part one reason why it is so easy for Sentaro to hide among them. Even so he is also subjugated by the samurai who frequently object to being ordered around by “commoners”, insistent on their privilege the refusal of which is the reason Sentaro’s father had to die. 

Meanwhile,  the Princess Koto is herself oppressed within the feudal system as a female ruling a clan in the absence of her father who has placed her in charge while he remains in the city. While Oshima falls for Sentaro, the relationship between Koto and Suga is perhaps transgressively equally close, Koto describing Suga as the only one she can trust within her own court and plaintively asking her to stay by her side forever. Unfortunately however Suga is murdered by the male court conspirators attempting to wrest power from the princess on her way back with evidence of their smuggling plot after meeting Ittosai on Koto’s behalf. Misled into thinking that Koto had his sister killed, Sentaro plots revenge but on learning the truth asks her why she hasn’t dealt with the wrongdoing among her own retainers, only later realising that even as the leader of the clan she lacks the power to do so and remains in a precarious position. 

Arguably, Oshima has more freedom, fearlessly walking the roads alone, drinking and gambling with the men refusing to abide by traditional social codes though perhaps in some ways permitted to do so precisely because of her position within the entertainer underclass. A further gender reversal sees the fallen Sentaro temporarily resorting to sex work as a host at an inn drinking with a melancholy noblewoman who fully expects to bed him for her five Ryo only for Sentaro to become indignant and throw the money back in her face, much to Oshima’s approval though she later becomes jealous and irritated questioning him if he’s ever done this sort of work before as if it would actually change her feelings for him. While Sentaro is forced into but then rejects the subjugated female role, Oshima chooses the male solution of trying her luck at the gaming tables, occasionally charging into a fight wielding a nearby object such as a handy water bucket. 

The snake theme of the title links back to the supernatural appearances of Suga’s silent ghost, protecting the princess with a wall of serpents when Sentaro plans to attack under the false assumption that she was responsible for his sister’s death. Musical numbers are largely restricted to a lengthy stage performance featuring Oshima and Sentaro’s evolving act utilising several sets and elaborate design while Sawashima ups the game a little from the lower tier Toei norm with varying locations shifting from a set-bound snowscape as Oshima is carted off by local goons, to a shot-on-location set piece as the conspirators take down a spy in the rocky desert. Revenge is eventually taken not only for the murders of Sentaro’s father and sister, but for the samurai transgressions of the Edo era, restoring order by wiping out the bad apples but also allowing Sentaro to free himself from his class-bound destiny and pursue a life, and love, of his choosing regardless of contemporary social codes.


Musical sequences (no subtitles)

Shozo, a Cat and Two Women (猫と庄造と二人のをんな, Shiro Toyoda, 1956)

Post-war melodrama is largely concerned with the place of women, in particular, in a rapidly changing society, but given the centrality of domestic life, were men yearning for “independence” too? Shiro Toyoda was closely associated with comedic tales of strong women and weak men, and Shozo, a Cat and Two Women (猫と庄造と二人のをんな, Neko to Shozo to Futari no Onna) is as its title implies no exception. Adapting the novel by Tanizaki, Toyoda offers a subtle critique of the traditional family as its hapless hero finds himself caught between the conflicting demands of his feudalistic mother, stoic first wife, hedonistic second, and his much loved but perhaps mercenary feline, Lily. 

Shozo (Hisaya Morishige) is perhaps a typical spoiled only son, lazy, feckless, and essentially passive. Shinako (Isuzu Yamada) who agreed to an arranged marriage with him four years previously is walking out, thoroughly fed up with her mother-in-law Orin’s (Chieko Naniwa) constant complaints not least among them that the couple have no children. Unbeknownst to Shinako, however,  Shozo has been carrying on with his slightly younger cousin, Fukuko (Kyoko Kagawa), who is a free spirited modern woman. In fact, Fukuko has already run away from home three times in the company of various men so her wealthy father would be only too pleased to see her settle down and is so desperate to offload her that he’s even offering a huge dowry. All of this is complicated by the fact that Fukuko’s father already owns the mortgage on Shozo’s family store, which presents a serious challenge to typical family dynamics. 

Shozo, meanwhile, is only really interested in his pet cat, Lily, something which was a bone of contention in his failed marriage to Shinako (and perhaps a reason they have not been blessed with children). On learning that Orin has already moved Fukuko into the family home mere seconds after she vacated it, Shinako is suddenly struck by remorse and feels the need to vindicate her pride through revenge. Plotting how best to drive a wedge between Fukuko and her new husband, she settles on petitioning Shozo to give her custody of Lily, and then suggests the same thing to her rival knowing that whatever happens it will cause a series of problems in the Oyama household. 

The irony is, in a sense, that it’s Shozo who has been displaced from his own home. Perhaps surprisingly, he often tries to help out with household tasks but his mother always stops him, insisting that housework isn’t something a man should pay attention to. Orin is of course perpetuating outdated ideas of traditional gender roles, but there is also an obvious anxiety in her need to protect her territory from possible incursion. She doesn’t necessarily trust the idea that she and Shozo are connected by anything deeper than practicality and filial obligation and her only currency is her ability to provide the services that Shozo “cannot” provide for himself. His learning to take care of himself is an existential threat to her position as his caregiver even though he is a grown man in his 30s perfectly capable of doing his own laundry and preparing his own meals (as he already does for Lily who particularly enjoys grilled chicken). 

When they brought Shinako into the house, they did so apparently because she was known to be a “good worker” at her job as a maid for a wealthy family. Since then she has indeed worked hard, but is viewed as little more than a glorified servant by Orin who has delegated much of the feminine labour to the younger woman, while Shozo emotionally neglects her in favour of the cat and apparently satisfies his carnal urges outside the home. They accept Fukuko for her money, but take the opposite approach, treating her as the lady of the manor. Fukuko does no housework (a cupboard is later discovered where she’d thrown all the washing she couldn’t be bothered to do), but Orin simply picks up her share and more, becoming maid to her daughter-in-law who frequently reminds them that it’s her money paying for everything so she is the one who is really in charge. 

Shozo does not seem to react too closely to these assaults on his masculinity, but only wants to escape to be alone with Lily whom he believes is the only one who really loves him. In this he is perhaps the truly modern man who wanted his family relations to be “real” rather than defined by social obligation, but he’s also self-centred and childish, still seeing the women (even Lily) as providers of service rather than fellow human beings. His mother satisfied his hunger, Shinako kept him financially by managing the business, and Fukuko sated his passion, but he feels oppressed by all of them in different ways and in the end does not want the responsibility of dealing with human emotions. Lily may be capricious, but her needs are easily satisfied and to that extent she is dependent on him. His desire to be “independent” and find emotional fulfilment only with his cat is just as much of a challenge to the social order as a woman who rejects marriage or seeks to fulfil herself outside of the home. 

Shozo’s dilemma is however presented as comedic until its unexpectedly melancholy conclusion which reduces him to the status of a stray cat as the women come to literal blows, fighting not quite over him (he isn’t worth fighting over) but for their own self-esteem and particular brand of womanhood. Shinako sits at home and calculates all the back pay she’d be entitled to for the labour she performed at the Oyama household in recognition that being a wife is also a job and they treated her as a maid anyway (which is to say as an outsider with no intention of love or loyalty), while Fukuko begins to see the “emptiness” in her party girl lifestyle but prefers to be pampered and resents being “beaten” by a mere housemaid. This system traps everyone, forcing them to manipulate the desires of others while suppressing their own. Shozo and his cat are left out in the cold, trapped between tradition and modernity but no more free than they were before even in their mutual dependency.


Inferno of Torture (徳川いれずみ師:責め地獄, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

“There’s no hope for us anymore” cries the hero, redeeming himself with one last act of humanity before allowing himself to be consumed by the flames of Edo-era barbarity. Another tale of feudal exploitation, Teruo Ishii’s Inferno of Torture (徳川いれずみ師:責め地獄, Tokugawa Irezumi-shi: Seme Jigoku) opens with an otherwise unrelated scene of female crucifixion followed by an elaborate beheading, presenting both of these events with a degree of historical authenticity they do not perhaps possess. Nevertheless, his central tale which turns out to be less about two women than two men, turns on the exploitation of female bodies, subtly suggesting that the modern society is itself founded on female exploitation. 

Though dropping the portmanteau structure frequently employed in the Joys of Torture series, Ishii returns from the prologue with the end of the first arc in which the presumed heroine, Yumi (Yumiko Katayama), makes a stealthy visit to a ghostly cemetery in which she trashes the grave of a man named Genzo (Shinichiro Hayashi), digs him up and dismembers his body to retrieve a key we later see him swallow which she hopes will unlock her womanhood currently imprisoned by an ornate chastity belt, only the key doesn’t fit. 

Flashing back again, we see Yumi forced into sex work in payment of a debt and imprisoned in a labyrinthine brothel which specialises in bondage and torture under the guidance of lesbian madam Oryu* (Mieko Fujimoto) and her samurai fixer Samejima (Haruo Tanaka). The brothel’s USP is in its tattooed women which neatly leads us into the main narrative as Yumi’s body becomes a battleground contested by two men, top tattoo artists in search of the perfect canvas in order to win, ironically, the hand of their master’s pure and innocent daughter Osuzu (Masumi Tachibana). 

Horihide (Teruo Yoshida) and Osuzu are in love, but the dark and brooding Horitatsu (Asao Koike) is determined to frustrate his rival’s desires by becoming the successor to Osuzu’s dying father, the tattooist Horigoro. The “hori” which prefixes each of the men’s names relates to the process of tattooing and comes from the verb to chisel, hinting at the way they prick and channel their desires into the canvas which is human skin. Horihide is our “hero”, described by Horigoro as the light to Horitatsu’s dark, Horitatsu currently making more of an impact with his designs of violent intensity, but each of them is in a very real way content to use and exploit the bodies of women without their full consent in order to practice their art. It is essentially an act of violence if not of “torture”. 

Meanwhile, Oryu and Samejima are profiting off their “merchandise” more directly in participating in the trafficking of tattooed ladies to lecherous foreigners displaying an early fetishisation of Asian women. This being late Edo, Japan is still in its isolationist period in which fraternising with foreigners was illegal which is why the action eventually takes us to Nagasaki and the Dutch trading port of Dejima, here presented as a nexus of corruption, where Samejima and Oryu prove themselves very much in league with foreign powers dealing with powerful businessman Clayton (Yusuf Hoffman), despite his name apparently a Dutchman, and his Chinese associates. Like Nikkatsu’s borderless action films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Inferno of Torture indulges in an unpleasant Sinophobia which culminates in a chase through a crowded Chinese wet market in which we catch sight of dogs hanging bound ready for the slaughter in similar poses to those of the women in the brothel, not to mention thrusting snakes, before being confronted by a basket full of adorable puppies presumably headed for a dark destination, while we finally rediscover Hidetatsu collapsed in an opium den after being forcibly addicted by Oryu as a means of control. 

“This is a house of horrors” the Chinese gang leader tells a group of women bought by Samejima from a prison and promised a life of wealth and ease as geisha catering to high class clients. It’s difficult to tell if Ishii is critiquing Edo-era misogyny or that of the present day, or merely revelling in it with increasingly perverse scenes of sexual violence and degradation which continually imply that women have no role or value outside of reflecting the desires of men while those who try to claim their own agency are brutally put down by an inherently misogynistic, patriarchal society. After a Count of Monte Cristo-esque subplot in which Horihide is framed for murder but escapes to plot his revenge, the psychedelic final showdown returns us to the tattooists’ artistic face off as they again weaponise female bodies to embody their own ambitions, Horihide turning a blameless young woman into an iridescent peacock to get back at her father. Nevertheless, he finally reassumes his humanity in ending his mission of vengeance before it takes more innocent lives while accepting that he may now be too corrupted to return to his former life. Elegantly composed often unconsciously recalling the keyhole in Yumi’s chastity belt as it imprisons women within the peephole of the frame, Inferno of Torture ends exactly as it began, with a scene of grim and ironic punishment in which the female form is itself obliterated. 


Inferno of Torture is available on blu-ray from Arrow Video in a set which also includes an in-depth commentary from Tom Mes discussing the treatment of the various actresses involved with the series, Ishii, and Toei in general; Jasper Sharp’s Miskatonic lecture Erotic Grotesque Nonsense & the Foundations of Japan’s Cult Counterculture; and a booklet featuring new writing by Chris D.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

*This character’s name is rendered as “Oryu” in the subtitles but “Otatsu” (different ways of reading the same character which means “dragon”) in the accompanying booklet.

The Rickshaw Man (無法松の一生, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1958)

Japanese cinema has a special affinity with loveable rogues. We forgive their mischief and inconvenient troublemaking because deep down we know they’re kindhearted and even when they act impulsively it’s only out of an abundance of misplaced emotion. The wild Matsu is a case in point, brought to life by the great Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s remake of a story he first adapted 15 years previously but was apparently unhappy with because of the censorship demands of the time. What is surprising, therefore, is that despite his otherwise liberal outlook Inagaki largely echoes those problematic pre-war views, opting to focus on the tragic comic figure of Matsugoro rather than engage with the destructive visions of toxic masculinity that his well-meaning paternalism represents or with the latent feudalism which continues to inform the later course of his life. 

Beginning in 1897, Inakagaki introduces us to “The Wild Matsu” (Toshiro Mifune) on his “illegal” return to Kokura from which he had apparently been “banished” because of an “incident” the previous year. This time, Matsugoro has crawled back home apparently ill in bed and nursing his head after getting into an argument with a man who turned out to be the kendo instructor for the local police. Unafraid to embarrass himself, Matsugoro later relates the tale as a funny anecdote, admitting that the kendo master put an end to their fight in record time by striking him on the head and knocking him out. Typical Matsugoro, seems to be the reaction from all around him. Later he takes offence with a ticket seller who refuses him a comp to the show when free tickets are usually available to rickshaw drivers (publicity tools haven’t changed as much as you’d think), returning later in the evening and buying a ticket with a friend but setting up a mini stove to bake garlic and stink the place out as his revenge. A calm and rational mediator later explains to him that though he can understand why he was upset because it causes confusion when people refuse to abide by longstanding traditions, his stunt has ruined the evening of a lot of people who weren’t really involved in his vendetta. Immediately seeing the error of his ways, Matsugoro determines to make a full and complete apology to the spectators whom he’d so thoughtlessly inconvenienced. 

This incident demonstrates Matsugoro’s essential goodness. He may be impulsive and easily offended, but he means no harm and even his “revenge” is an amusing, petty affair rather than something dark or violent. The main thrust of the narrative, however, kicks in when he spots a lonely little boy being made fun of by his friends because he’s too scared to climb a tree. Matsugoro pauses to tell him that he needs to man up, but on his way back finds the other kids running away and the boy on the floor crying after having fallen and broken a leg. Finding out where he lives, Matsugoro picks the boy up and takes him home to his mother (Hideko Takamine) who further enlists him to take the child to a doctor. 

The boy, Toshio, lives in the old “samurai district” and is the son of army officer Kotaro Yoshioka (Hiroshi Akutagawa), a cheerful man who though holding similar views on manliness to Matsugoro, finds the incident faintly amusing. In fact, Kotaro had heard of “The Wild Matsu” because he was once very rude to an army general he was charged with conveying from place to place during a series of official events. He decides to invite Matsugoro to dinner and the two men hit it off, but Kotaro suddenly dies of a fever leaving his wife Yoshiko alone with their son, worrying that she won’t be able to cure his sensitivity and turn him into a “strong” young man now that he lacks a male role model. 

Matsugoro is perfectly happy to fill that role, bonding with the little boy but always encouraging him to be “manly” which, in this age, largely means strong and athletic, rational and obedient while manfully repressing his feelings, and finally a willingness and ability to fight. While all of this is going on, we see the tides of militarism rising even in the early years of the century. The Russo-Japanese war giving way to the taking of Qingdao while flags go up everywhere and patriotic celebrations of martial glory become ever more frequent, but the problematic quality of this age of hypermasculinty is never questioned even as it leads the nation towards a decidedly dark destiny. 

Meanwhile, Matsugoro seems to have fallen in deep yet impossible love with Yoshiko but is prevented from voicing his feelings because of a deep seated sense of social inferiority. Matsugoro’s life has been limited not only because he was born poor, but because of a traumatic childhood with a cruel step-mother. Denied a proper education, he is largely illiterate and rickshaw driving, which depends only on his physical strength and stamina (the most highly praised qualities of the age), is all that he can expect out of life. We never have any inkling of how Yoshiko views Matsugoro, if there are any romantic feelings on her part or she simply admires him as a robust and good hearted friend, but the futility of Matsugoro’s unresolvable longing eventually drives him to drink which he had previously given up, along with his “wild” nature, in the need to provide a more respectable example to the young Toshio. 

Similarly, we aren’t privy to the parallel tragedy which will inevitably leave Yoshiko lonely as comparatively young widow whose only son will naturally become distant from his mother, grow-up, and find a wife to start a family of his own. Her anxiety over her son’s participation in a group fight is dismissed as hysterical womanliness, destructive maternity that may prevent Toshio from becoming a “proper” man. Something which is perhaps borne out when Matsugoro, who’d gone to watch over him just in case, has to wade in to defend Toshio who is too frightened to participate.

Nevertheless, Matsugoro is a big hearted man despite his intense masculinity, always acting with selfless kindness but also meekly accepting the fate his cards have dealt him rather than railing against the systems which have caged him all his life from his poverty to the perceived class differences which demand he keep his distance from the beautiful Yoshiko. The wheels of his rickshaw turn on ceaselessly as if relentlessly pulling him on towards his inescapable destiny, but shouldn’t we be asking more for men like Matsugoro whose hearts are good than being resigned to loneliness because of a few outdated social codes?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Shiro Toyoda, 1956)

A studio director at Toho, Shiro Toyoda was most closely associated with adaptations of well respected works of literature, often with an earthy, humanist touch. He might then be an odd fit for a tale of high romance co-produced with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers and inspired by a classic Chinese legend. Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Byaku Fujin no Yoren) effectively drops some of Toho’s top talent, including “pan-Asian” star Shirley (Yoshiko) Yamaguchi (AKA Li Xianglan / Ri Koran), into a contemporary Hong Kong ghost movie with Toyoda doing his best to mimic the house style. 

As in the classic legend, fate is set in motion when herbalist Xu-xian (Ryo Ikebe) allows “noblewoman” Bai-niang (Shirley Yamaguchi) and her maid Xiao-qing (Kaoru Yachigusa) to board a boat he is riding to escape a storm. The pair bond because they are both orphans out in the rain to pay their filial respects to their late parents on tomb sweeping day. Disembarking, Xu-xian lends the ladies his umbrella, vowing to visit their house the next day after his rounds to reclaim it. When he arrives, Xu-xian is greeted by a near hysterical and extremely romantic Bai-niang who has apparently fallen deeply in love with him because of his pure heart. She proposes marriage, but Xu-xian is wary. He is after all just a poor boy, a herbalist living with his older sister and her husband. He has no money to get married and Bai-niang is a noble woman from a good family, society simply wouldn’t allow it. Xu-xian tries to escape, but his gentle words of refusal only wound Bia-niang’s heart. 

Hoping to smooth the situation, Xiao-qing decides to give Xu-xian a small fortune in silver taels so the money issue will be solved. Strangely, the plan appears to work. Xu-xian quickly gets over his reluctance to accept money from a wealthy woman who wants to marry him and returns to being in love and excited, selling his newfound hope for the future to his sister by showing her the taels. It is, however, not quite that simple. The silver turns out to be stolen as evidenced by a mark of fire on its surface. Xu-xian falls under suspicion as a thief and comes to resent Bai-niang for placing him in such a difficult and embarrassing position. 

Nevertheless, despite all the strange goings on such as the suddenly “abandoned” house, the green smoke, and vanishing women, Xu-xian does not seem to suspect that Bai-niang is not fully human, and is only angry with her for misusing him. In a motif which will be repeated, however, he is eventually won over. After taking a job in his sleazy uncle’s inn, he re-encounters Bai-niang and realises she really is the one for him. But as they begin to build their life together, launched with an unwise loan from the sleazy uncle who can’t seem to keep his eyes (and occasionally hands) off Bai-niang, doubt begins to creep in. Those small cracks are deepened when Xu-xian is accosted by a man who announces himself as a Taoist from Mount Ji and tells him that he has an evil aura over his head, encouraging him to believe that an evil spirit is slowly capturing his heart which why he’s a little bit afraid to go home. The priest gives him some useful talismans, which are of course quite bad news for Bai-niang who now knows that her husband secretly doubts her. 

Meanwhile, prepared to do “anything” to make the man she loves happy, Bai-niang has come to the strange conclusion that Xu-xian’s moodiness is down to the fact that their medicine shop isn’t doing so well. Unfortunately, her big idea is poisoning the local well to make everyone think there’s a plague so they’ll have to buy more of her potions. It’s a fairly nefarious plan, but apparently all for love. As in the original tale, however, the real crisis once again comes with the randy uncle who uses the pretext of a local festival to try and get Bai-niang drunk on special wine that is known to unmask spirits. Realising that his wife is a little bit otherworldly sends Xu-xian into a coma, while Bai-niang goes to ask the gods for help, only to be undercut by the annoying Taoist priest who wakes Xu-xian up by convincing him his wife’s “evil”. 

If you don’t want people to think you’re “evil”, trying to drown the entire town might not be the best move. Bai-niang’s refusal to give up on Xu-xian even when he constantly tries to reject her places her at odds with loyal servant Xiao-qing who is equal parts enraged on her behalf and exasperated that she can’t see sense. Bai-niang tells the gods that the only witchcraft she used was the witchcraft of love even if that love caused her to try and poison the entire town, but now regards herself as nothing more than Xu-xian’s wife and is willing to renounce her powers in order to save him. Once again, Xu-xian has a sudden change of heart, avowing that there are human women with the heart of a snake, and Bai-niang is a woman to him even if she’s a snake spirit which is, apparently, the only thing that matters. Still, theirs is a love this world doesn’t understand, and so only in a better one can they ever be together.


Original trailer (no subtitles)