Record of a Tenement Gentleman (長屋紳士録, Yasujiro Ozu, 1947)

There are no real villains in the world of Ozu, though the immediate post-war world does its best to create them despite the best efforts of those quietly trying to live amidst the devastation. The misleadingly titled Record of a Tenement Gentleman (長屋紳士録, Nagaya Shinshiroku), the Japanese title a more ironic “a tenement who’s who”, is, like Hen in the Wind, a kind of manifesto statement for the postwar era only a much warmer one which looks forward to Ozu’s celebrated family dramas as its decidedly frosty heroine finds her emotional floodgates breached by the unexpected arrival of a problematic little boy. 

The little boy, Kohei (Hohi Aoki), is brought home by tenement gentleman Tashiro (Chishu Ryu) who found him wandering around in the town after becoming separated from his father. Tashiro’s roommate Tamekichi (Reikichi Kawamura) is unwilling to shelter the boy and so they decide to foist him on the grumpy old woman opposite, Tane (Choko Iida), who doesn’t want him either but is left with little choice. Tane is quickly angry with the boy because he wets the bed, ruining her spare futon, and tries to convince another neighbour who already has three children to take him in instead but is tricked into taking him back to the place he was previously living after Tamekichi rigs a game of straws. Travelling with him in the hope of finding his father, Tane wanders bombed out Tokyo and comes to the conclusion that Kohei’s dad has most likely abandoned him. 

A widow with no other family, or so it would seem, Tane is a cold and wily woman supporting herself with a small tenement shop. A sharp contrast is drawn when a childhood friend of hers, Kiku (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), arrives to ask about the best way to acquire a hose and shares some dorayaki sweets which have become a rare luxury in an age of rationing and privation. Kiku has married well and become a fine lady, not quite boasting but obviously very pleased with the walnut dressing table she had made with the mirror Tane helped her get on a previous occasion. Still, Tane is not embittered or especially unhappy just cynical and used to practicality. She didn’t see herself as the maternal type and had been intent mainly on ensuring her own survival.

Even so, she is touched and saddened to think a man might abandon his child even if she herself did not want to be burdened with him. She often scolds Kohei, frightening him with her stern expression, but later apologises when Tameshiro takes the blame for supposedly eating some of the persimmons Tane was drying at the window, even handing him the remaining fruit from the line. Talking with Kiku she recalls her own childhood as happy and carefree, tugging on her parents’ sleeves asking for pocket money while Kohei’s pockets are filled with cigarette butts and nails for the carpenter father Tane is sure has abandoned his son. This last fact is the one that finally touches her heart. Despite his fear and his hurt, Kohei has continued to think of his father and has been selflessly collecting little presents on his behalf to give to him when they are reunited. 

The innocence and selflessness of children is further emphasised by the son of a neighbour winning a prize in the lottery leading some of the other residents to insist that children are more likely to win precisely because they enter with a pure heart not with the intention of winning or monetary gain. Tane tries the theory out by making Kohei buy a lottery ticket with money Kiku had given him as a treat but of course he doesn’t win and Tane is upset, blaming him for not being as goodhearted as she’d assumed, but later giving him the money back when he bursts into tears (which is something he does often, perhaps understandably but out of keeping with the mentality of the times). Nevertheless, despite herself Tane becomes fond of the boy and even begins to think about adopting him as her own son. 

Eventually Kohei’s father returns, but Tane’s conversion is so complete and absolute that the tears she cries are not in lament for herself but in happiness to know that the boy’s father was not the awful man she thought he was but a doting parent distraught at the thought of his missing son. She is moved by the happiness they must feel in their reunion and realises that her time with Kohei has taught her many things, not least among them that she has allowed the times to cool her heart. The post-war world, the ruins and devastation we can glimpse beyond the tenement, has forced people to become self-interested, little caring if others starve so long as they aren’t hungry. She regrets that she wasn’t warmer to the boy when he arrived, and wishes we could all be more like children kind to others without thinking of ourselves. Cementing what would come to be his iconic signature style, Ozu ends, somewhat uncharacteristically, on a melancholy scene of street children, a crowd of war orphans abandoned by the society which created them through militarist folly. As much a chronicle of everyday life in the ruins of a major city, Record of a Tenement Gentleman is also an unsubtle argument for post-war humanism in a society it sees as in danger of failing to learn from past mistakes. 


Nobuko (信子, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1940)

vlcsnap-2016-12-09-01h11m57s027The well known Natsume Soseki novel, Botchan, tells the story of an arrogant, middle class Tokyoite who reluctantly accepts a teaching job at a rural school where he relentlessly mocks the locals’ funny accent and looks down on his oikish pupils all the while dreaming of his loyal family nanny. Hiroshi Shimizu’s Nobuko (信子) is almost an inverted picture of Soseki’s work as its titular heroine travels from the country to a posh girls’ boarding school bringing her country bumpkin accent and no nonsense attitude with her. Like Botchan, though for very different reasons, Nobuko also finds herself at odds with the school system but remains idealistic enough to recommend a positive change in the educational environment.

Travelling from the country to take up her teaching job, Nobuko (Mieko Takamine) moves in with her geisha aunt to save money. When she gets to the school she finds out that she’s been shifted from Japanese to P.E. (not ideal, but OK) and there are also a few deductions from her pay which no one had mentioned. The stern but kindly headmistress is quick to point out Nobuko’s strong country accent which is not compatible with the elegant schooling on offer. The most important thing she says is integrity. Women have to be womanly, poised and “proper”. Nobuko, apparently, has a lot to learn.

As many teachers will attest, the early days are hard and Nobuko finds it difficult to cope with her rowdy pupils who deliberately mock her accent and are intent on winding up their new instructor. One girl in particular, Eiko (Mitsuko Miura), has it in for Nobuko and constantly trolls her with pranks and tricks as well as inciting the other girls to join in with her. As it turns out, Eiko is something of a local trouble maker but no one does anything because her father is a wealthy man who has donated a large amount of money to the school and they don’t want to upset him. This attitude lights a fire in Nobuko, to her the pupils are all the same and should be treated equally no matter who their parents are. As Nobuko’s anger and confidence in her position grow, so does Eiko’s wilfull behaviour, but perhaps there’s more to it than a simple desire to misbehave.

Released in 1940, Nobuko avoids political comment other than perhaps advocating for the importance of discipline and education. It does however subtly echo Shimizu’s constant class concerns as “country bumpkin” Nobuko has to fight for her place in the “elegant” city by dropping her distinctive accent for the standard Tokyo dialect whilst making sure she behaves in an “appropriate” fashion for the teacher of upper class girls.

This mirrors her experience at her aunt’s geisha house which she is eventually forced to move out of when the headmistress finds out what sort of place she’s been living in and insists that she find somewhere more suitable for her position. The geisha world is also particular and regimented, but the paths the two sets of female pupils have open to them are very different. Nobuko quickly makes friends with a clever apprentice geisha, Chako (Sachiko Mitani), who would have liked to carry on at school but was sold owing to her family’s poverty. Though she never wanted to be a geisha, Chako exclaims that if she’s going to have to be one then she’s going to be the world’s best, all the while knowing that her path has been chosen for her and has a very definite end point as exemplified by Nobuko’s aunt – an ageing manageress who’s getting too old to be running the house for herself.

Eiko’s problems are fairly easy to work out, it’s just a shame that no one at the school has stopped to think about her as a person rather than as the daughter of a wealthy man. Treated as a “special case” by the teachers and placed at a distance with her peers, Eiko’s constant acting up is a thinly veiled plea for attention but one which is rarely answered. Only made lonely by a place she hoped would offer her a home, Eiko begins to build a bond with Nobuko even while she’s pushing her simply because she’s the only one to push back. After Nobuko goes too far and Eiko takes a drastic decision, the truth finally comes out, leading to regrets and recriminations all round. Despite agreeing with the headmistress that perhaps she should have turned a blind eye like the other teachers, Nobuko reinforces her philosophy that the girls are all the same and deserve to be treated as such, but also adds that they are each in need of affection and the teachers need to be aware of this often neglected part of their work.

Lessons have been learned and understandings reached, the school environment seems to function more fully with a renewed commitment to caring for each of the pupils as individuals with distinct needs and personalities. Even Chako seems as if she may get a much happier ending thanks to Nobuko’s intervention. An unusual effort for the time in that only two male characters appear (one a burglar Nobuko heroically ejects assuming him to be Eiko playing a prank, and the other Eiko’s father) this entirely female led drama neatly highlights the various problems faced by women of all social classes whilst also emphasising Shimizu’s core humanist philosophies where compassion and understanding are found to be essential components of a fully functioning society.


 

Ornamental Hairpin (簪, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)

ornamental hair pinShimizu goes on holiday! Again! Actually, when you think about it going on holiday is always inherently sad because just like everything else holidays end and you have to return to whatever it was that made you want to go on holiday in the place only with the painful reminder that a more cheerful world exists and you’re no longer in it. That rather depressing preamble out of the way, it’s time to join the temporary residents of a small hot springs resort in the picturesque countryside where a mislaid hairpin is about to kickstart a series of mini epiphanies in the diverse collection of guests.

We arrive at the inn in the company of Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and her friend Okiku (Hiroko Kawasaki) on a brief visit from the city. The inn is very full right now with a festival in town and everybody seems to want a massage! Another guest, the extremely grumpy professor Katae (Tatsuo Saito), is put out that the tour groups are sapping all the hotel’s resources and complains vociferously to his go partner who is staying at the inn with his two grandsons Jiro and Taro. Other guests at the inn include a mild mannered husband and his wife, Mr. (Shinichi Himori) and Mrs. (Hideko Mimura) Hiroyasu, and a recuperating soldier, Mr. Nanmura  (Chishu Ryu). Eventually the tour groups go home taking Emi and Okiku with them, but Emi discovers she’s left her ornamental hairpin behind and sends a letter offering to pay for the return postage if anyone should find it.

Mr. Nanmura finds it in his foot one day as he’s enjoying the hot springs and even though he’s not that bothered about it, complaining expert Professor Katae can’t make enough of a fuss about the supposedly shoddy conditions at the hotel. When the hotel owners write to Emi and explain to her what’s happened she jumps straight on a train to apologise in person.

Nanmura had actually been quite happy about getting skewered by the pin. He says he found it “poetic”, as if the atmosphere of the place had penetrated deeply into his skin. The supposedly learned Katae doesn’t quite understand the soldier’s poetic leanings and starts debating whether the owner of the pin will be pretty or not, as if that would make a difference to the soldier’s romantic construction of events. Emi is indeed very beautiful, through perhaps a little sad and obviously contrite about the pin. Everyone in the inn is quite invested in witnessing a true love miracle between the bizarrely crippled soldier and the wounded beauty from Tokyo.

Once again the inn is a constructed world, a safe haven far away from the trouble and strife which exists outside it. The guests indulge themselves in the tranquil atmosphere taking in the beautiful scenery and killing time on otherwise trivial pursuits which occasionally include projecting a kind of narrative on their new found friends. The two boys, totally bored by this deliberately unstimulating environment, turn everything into a competition – even cheering on their grandfather as snores along side the equally noisy professor with the result that pretty much no one else is getting any sleep. Later they help the injured soldier recover with a set of endurance games which see him trying to walk unaided from one tree to another and eventually across a bridge.

Further comic relief is provided by the Hiroyasus with the husband being the sort of mild-mannered man who has no idea what he actually thinks so he just goes along with everything everyone says (and later checks with his wife who has the ultimate authority). Hiroyasu often defers to the professor whose authoritative tone gets things done for him though he is in fact an extremely self centred prig who just loves to complain out of a desperate need to be validated. He’s the loudest snorer of all and is keeping everyone awake yet he constantly complains about the noise of the other guests and is quick to shout at the inn keeper when he can’t get a massage because they’ve been booked by the visiting tour groups the very presence of which also annoys him. Eventually he gets so grumpy he just goes home which is probably a win/win for everyone.

But what of Emi herself? She too is escaping from something. The loss of the ornamental hair pin and its rediscovery leading her to the inn and perhaps to Nanmura has pushed her into a further consideration of her life in Tokyo. She doesn’t want to go back, this brief respite has been too pleasant and she wishes it could go on like this forever, though she knows, of course, that it can’t. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do now, but at least while she stops at the inn the sun will light the way. This is 1941, Nanmura will probably be going back to the war, the future is uncertain for everyone, but in here everything is beautiful, calm, safe. It’s just a shame it can’t last.


Ornamental Hairpin (簪, Kanzashi) is the fourth and final film in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu box set.

Clip of one of Nanmura’s “trials” (no subtitles):