Wild Geese (雁, AKA The Mistress, Shiro Toyoda, 1953)

(C) Daiei, 1953In the extreme turbulence of the immediate post-war period, it’s not surprising that Japan looked back to the last time it was confronted with such confusion and upheaval for clues as to how to move forward from its current state of shocked inertia. The heroine of Shiro Toyoda’s adaptation of the Ogai Mori novel, Wild Geese (雁, Gan, AKA The Mistress), finds herself at a similar crossroads to the women of the 1950s, caught between tradition and modernity as they embrace the new freedoms but remain constrained by a conservative society. Toyoda, well known for his adaptations of great literature, makes a few key changes to Mori’s novel in effect placing a Showa era heroine in a recognisably “Meiji” world.

The Japan of the 1880s is one of extreme contrast and rapidly unfolding modernity. Having finally opened its doors to the outside world, the nation is in a big hurry to “catch up” to those it sees as its equals on the world stage. Consequently, Western thoughts and values are flooding into the country, bringing both good and ill. Arranged marriages are still common and Otama (Hideko Takamine) has been married once but the marriage has failed – she was deceived, the man she married already had a wife and child. Still, having lived with a man as his wife, Otama is considered “damaged” goods and will find it difficult to make a good match in the future (especially given the whiff of scandal from being involved in an illegitimate marriage with a bigamist).

When a matchmaker (Choko Iida) arrives with a potential husband it proves hard to turn down but the matchmaker is not quite on the level. Suezo (Eijiro Tono), she says, is a recently widowed man with a young child who is in need of a new wife but cannot marry again immediately for propriety’s sake. Otama will be his mistress and then in due course his wife. However, the matchmaker is an unscrupulous woman who has spun Otama a yarn in the hope of getting her debt written off by getting the shady loanshark she owes money to a pretty young woman to have some fun with.

The position Otama finds herself in is one of impossibility. A woman cannot survive alone in the Meiji era and its lingering concessions to feudalism. For a woman as poor and lowly as Otama whose marriage prospects are slim there are few options available. Otama’s neighbour (Kuniko Miyake) has managed to carve out a life for herself as a single woman through teaching sewing classes but such opportunities are few and far between, as Otama is warned when she considers following her example. The “arrangement” with Suezo may not seem too bad on the surface – he looks after her and her father, has set her up in a house, and treats her well even if his behaviour leans toward the possessive. Despite confessing to her father that she feels trapped and miserable, humiliated on learning she has been ostracised as the mistress of a married loanshark, Otama finds little sympathy as her father declares himself “very happy” and councils her against leaving because he has no desire to return to a life of poverty, remaining selfishly indifferent to his daughter’s suffering.

Resigned to her fate, Otama does her best to adapt to her new life but remains as trapped within Suezo’s house as the caged bird he presents her with “for company”. Jealous and fearing that his wife will find out about the affair, Suezo’s preference is for Otama to stay indoors waiting for him to call. His visits are routine and perfunctory. Handing the maid a few coins to go to the public bath, Suezo signals his intentions in the least romantic of ways, pausing only to lock the garden gate.

Catching sight of an earnest student who passes by everyday at 4, Otama begins to dream of something better. The student, Okada (Hiroshi Akutagawa), is a source of fascination for all the young women in the neighbourhood but he too is instantly captivated when he glimpses the beautiful Otama trapped behind the bar-like slats of Suzeo’s love nest. Adding a touch of biblical intrigue, it is a snake which eventually leads to their meeting but no matter how deep the connection this is a love destined to fail – Otama is the kept woman of a loanshark, and Okada is a medical student with international ambitions. They inhabit different worlds and, as his friend (Jukichi Uno) puts it, this is still the Meiji era, the times will not allow it.

Nevertheless, even if her brief infatuation seems doomed, the mere act of wanting something else provokes a shift in Otama’s way of thinking. This act of fierce individualism which prompts her to defy the dominant male forces in her life whose selfish choices have caused her nothing but misery would normally be severely punished in the name of preserving social harmony but Otama’s epiphany is different. The opening title card reminded us that this was a time wild geese still flew in the skies above Tokyo. It seems to imply that birds no longer fly here, that there is no true freedom or possibility for flight in the modern age of Showa, but Otama is a woman trapped in the cage of Meiji suddenly realising that the doors have been open all along. Her choices amount to a humiliating yet materially comfortable life of subjugation, or the path of individualistic freedom in embracing her true desires. Her dream of true love rescue may have been shattered, but Otama’s heart, at least, is finally free from the twin cages of social and patriarchal oppression.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Composition Class (綴方教室, Kajiro Yamamoto, 1938)

composition class posterChildren’s essay classes can yield unexpected revelations but sometimes it’s the tragedy behind the humour which catches the attention rather than a unique way of describing a situation not fully understood. Composition Class (綴方教室, Tsuzurikata Kyoshitsu) has something in common with the later Korean classic Sorrow Even Up in Heaven or even the more temporally proximate Tuition in drawing inspiration from the diaries of school age children but predictably it’s far less bleak in outlook. Though young Masako (nicknamed Maako) has her share of problems, her troubles are met with characteristic cheerfulness and a determination to carry on no matter what.

In a small town in North East Tokyo, 1938, Masako Toyoda (Hideko Takamine) lives with her parents and her two brothers in a humble home her family can barely afford. Disaster strikes when dad gets a letter from the court which he can’t read – Masako usually reads for him but letters from the court are still too difficult for a preteen schoolgirl. The family are behind on their rent and have heard that someone is trying to buy up the area with other families also facing possible eviction. Bright though she is, Masako might have to give up school and find a job as a maid while the family moves to stay with relatives who own a shoe shop. Luckily, none of that happens because the note was only about a rent increase (on the rent that haven’t paid for months).

The second crisis occurs when Masako’s teacher is taken with the essays she’s writing in class which are so real and honest that they espouse all the values he wants to teach the children. Around this time, the lady from next door, Reiko’s mother Kimiko, is leaving town (and her husband) and so gives away some her breeding rabbits as pets believing that a nice girl like Masako will be sure to take care of them and that they could use the extra money from selling the babies. Kimiko, thinking Masako is out of earshot, remarks that she was going to give some of the rabbits to the local bigwigs, the Umemotos, but even if they’re wealthy, they aren’t very nice and she wouldn’t like to think of her rabbits not being looked after. Masako naively records this minor detail in one of her essays which the teacher then sells to a local magazine. The Umemotos find out and aren’t happy which is a problem because dad gets most of his work through Mr. Umemoto who has a stranglehold on the local economy.

Through Masako’s diary and child’s eye view of the world, Kaijiro Yamamoto paints an oddly relaxed picture of depression era privation as the Toyodas endure their penury with stoicism and a belief the bad times will sometime end. Masako and her family have it a little better than some, but when bad weather puts an end to dad’s tinsmithing business and he’s forced into the precarious life of a day labourer things go from bad to worse. Now out of work more than in, the family are reliant on rice coupons to get by and spend one miserable New Year’s with no money for the first week of January when the biting cold makes it impossible to go out and forage for food. Masako writes of her embarrassment the first time her mother sent her to the shop with coupons and that she eventually got used to it, save for one occasion she ran into friends and had to quickly cover by saying she’d bought rice bran rather than collecting the rice dole. Like Masako, dad is a good natured soul though he’s also fond of drinking and is often let down or tricked out of his money, even being cheated out of his bicycle which he needs to keep working.

Sadness is all around from the man next door who’s so poor he doesn’t even have money for sake to the dejected Kimiko who eventually returns pale, drawn, and barely recognisable only to find her husband remarried to a much younger woman. Though Masako is a bright girl with a talent for writing her future is already limited. At one low point, her mother seems excited about the idea of selling Masako off to a geisha house where she will at least be fed, have pretty clothes, and maybe make a good match with the sort of man who marries former geishas. Needless to say, Masako is not very enthusiastic, and neither is her teacher who pledges to save her from such an unpleasant fate but luckily it never comes to that. Other girls will be going on to high school and university, but Masako counts herself lucky to have got a job in the local factory which will provide a steady income for her family. Though it’s a shame Masako is denied the same opportunities as the other girls because of her family’s poverty, she does at least pledge to keep writing even as she marches happily towards work and a (possibly) brighter future.


Seven Seas (七つの海, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1931-1932)

vlcsnap-2017-02-19-01h57m24s364Hiroshi Shimizu is best remembered for his socially conscious, nuanced character pieces often featuring sympathetic portraits of childhood or the suffering of those who find themselves at the mercy of society’s various prejudices. Nevertheless, as a young director at Shochiku, he too had to cut his teeth on a number of program pictures and this two part novel adaptation is among his earliest. Set in a broadly upper middle class milieu, Seven Seas (七つの海, Nanatsu no Umi) is, perhaps, closer to his real life than many of his subsequent efforts but notably makes class itself a matter for discussion as its wealthy elites wield their privilege like a weapon.

Split into two parts each around an hour long, Seven Seas begins with the chapter entitled Virginity in which we meet the closely interconnected circle of friends around whom the narrative turns. Yumie (Hiroko Kawasaki) is a young woman from a middle class background but fallen on hard times as her father, a former government official, is now bedridden and supporting the family only on his pension. She is about to announce her engagement to the upperclass boy Yuzuru (Ureo Egawa) but when his playboy brother Takehiko (Joji Oka) returns from abroad he takes a fancy to her himself, eventually raping her whilst she is a guest in their house. Devastated, Yumie’s father marches over to sort things out but even more tragic events occur, breaking the family forever as Yumie’s sister Miwako (Kinuko Wakamizu) has a breakdown and is committed to an asylum. In desperate need of money, Yumie eventually agrees to become the wife of the man who has so brutalised her, though she also contrives to turn the situation to her advantage in an act of revenge.

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Part two is entitled “Chastity” as this is to be Yumie’s primary method of resistance. Refusing her new husband his conjugal rights, Yumie spends his money with gay abandon making huge donations to her sister’s hospital and eventually also providing a kind of “salary” for her husband’s long term mistress whom he has been seeing for some years and had neglected to inform about his marriage. Meanwhile, Yumie’s friend Ayako (Sachiko Murase) has also fallen in love with Yuzuru who is still nursing a broken heart having separated from his family and taken refuge with the couple’s friends working in a sports equipment shop in the city.

Unusually for a Shimizu hero, Yuzuru is an uncomplicated, innately good person who instantly rejects his family following their heinous treatment of the woman he loves, remaining committed to her even after she has been assaulted by his own brother. This decision is, however, difficult as he no longer has access to the familial fortune and has few options for earning his own. He eventually finds work as a French translator but it doesn’t pay enough to make up for all the extra expenses incurred as a result of his brother’s actions from the loss of Yumie’s father’s pension to the ongoing medical costs for her sister’s treatment. Times being what they are, moralising forces creep into the frame suggesting all of this “made right” by Takehiko doing the “honourable” thing and marrying the woman he’s “bought” by force.

The Yagibashi family think they can sweep all of this under the carpet by throwing money at Yumie and otherwise ignoring the problem but this is not good enough for the morality police. Forced to marry her rapist, Yumie maintains an air of cool distain, detailing her plans for vengeance in her daily diary and arming herself with a pistol in case Takehiko tries his old tricks once again. Takehiko, a vain and selfish man, seems to be filled with a kind of resentment born of his class in which he remains a perpetual child controlled by his father who holds all of the purse strings. He does at least attempt to be a proper husband to Yumie, defending her from his snobbish parents and providing her with everything she asks for but he retains his tendency to believe that he can behave however he likes because he’s the eldest son of the wealthy Yagibashi family. Yumie may be reduced in circumstances but thanks to her father’s position would be considered from a “good family”, yet to Takehiko and the Yagibashis she is just another faceless person from the lower orders, unworthy of consideration or compassion and simply one of the exploitable masses.

Takehiko is also the bearer of the frequently ambivalent attitude to the Western world found in many of Shimizu’s other films of the period. Returning from a trip abroad, he belittles another woman in the carriage for her supposed snobbery. Having been abroad, they say, she feels herself superior to ordinary Japanese – unlike the two of them, obviously. Ironically when they arrive Takehiko discovers that the woman in question is the daughter of his former professor, recently returned from studying music in Italy. The other major foreigner we meet is Ayako’s boss at the newspaper where she has a good job as a female reporter. The diffident Englishman attempts to confess his love for her, leaping straight into a proposal. Shocked, Ayako eventually informs him that unfortunately she’s in love with someone else – Yuzuru. Reacting badly, he tries to stop Ayako from leaving but once she does he abruptly shoots himself! Unusual passion for an Englishman, this side of foreignness is a definite cultural difference though one perhaps imbued with a degree of entitlement that also speaks of a kind of oppressive arrogance.

This is however, contrasted with Yuzuru’s gentle career as a translator of French. These creative, cultural influences seem to be broadly positive ones adding to Japan’s already impressive artistic history which brings both pleasure and new ways of thinking which will help the fledgling nation interact with the new global order. The Yagibashis’ dependence on their inherited wealth and social status proves their downfall when they are the subject of an ongoing scandal but the family name is, in part, saved by Yuzuru’s artistic endeavours in turning his traumatic life story into a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel. The creative instinct triumphs over the passivity of the established order.

Remaining mostly straightforward in terms of approach, Shimizu experiments with his trademark tracking shots coupled with dissolves which are unusually impressive and innovative in terms of their setting. The narrative may be melodramatic but the setting is naturalistic, giving an ordinary picture of these upper class and lower middle class lives as people lived them in the early 1930s. From crowded city streets and rooms above shops to spacious country mansions these class divisions are neatly drawn though it’s perhaps interesting that friendship groups have begun to ignore these lines in spite of the differing possibilities offered to each of the differently troubled friends. As in much of Shimizu’s output, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, fulfilling the need for narrative justice as Yumie finds an unusual path for restitution after having been so cruelly misused by those who held her existence so cheaply as to rob her of her future, family and dignity solely because of their own sense of social superiority.


 

Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky (この広い空のどこかに, Masaki Kobayashi, 1954)

somewhere-beneath-the-wide-skyOf the chroniclers of the history of post-war Japan, none was perhaps as unflinching as Masaki Kobayashi. However, everyone has to start somewhere and as a junior director at Shochiku where he began as an assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi was obliged to make his share of regular studio pictures. This was even truer following his attempt at a more personal project – Thick Walled Room, which dealt with the controversial subject of class C war criminals and was deemed so problematic that it lingered on the shelves for quite some time. Made the same year as the somewhat similar Three Loves, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky (この広い空のどこかに, Kono Hiroi Sora no Dokoka ni) is a fairly typical contemporary drama of ordinary people attempting to live in the new and ever changing post-war world, yet it also subtly hints at Kobayashi’s ongoing humanist preoccupations in its conflict between the idealistic young student Noboru and his practically minded (yet kind hearted) older brother.

The Moritas own the liquor store in this tiny corner of Ginza, where oldest brother Ryoichi (Keiji Sada) has recently married country girl Hiroko (Yoshiko Kuga). The household consists of mother-in-law Shige (Kumeko Urabe), step-mother to Ryoichi, unmarried sister Yasuko (Hideko Takamine), and student younger brother Noboru (Akira Ishihama). Things are actually going pretty well for the family, they aren’t rich but the store is prospering and they’re mostly happy enough – except when they aren’t. Ryoichi married for love, but his step-mother and sister aren’t always as convinced by his choice as he is, despite Hiroko’s friendly nature and constant attempts to fit in.

As if to signal the dividing wall between the generations, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky opens with a discussion between two older women, each complaining about their daughters-in-law and the fact that their sons married for love rather than agreeing to an arranged marriage as was common in their day. These love matches, they claim, have unbalanced the family dynamic, giving the new wife undue powers against the matriarchal figure of the mother-in-law. While the other woman’s main complaint is that her son’s wife is absent minded and bossy, Shige seems to have little to complain about bar Hiroko’s slow progress with becoming used to the runnings of the shop.

Despite this, both women appear somewhat hostile towards Ryoichi’s new wife, often making her new home an uncomfortable place for her to be. Though Hiroko is keen to pitch in with the shop and the housework, Shige often refuses her help and is preoccupied with trying to get the depressed Yasuko to do her fair share instead. At 28 years old, Yasuko has resigned herself to a life of single suffering, believing it will now be impossible for her to make a good a match. Yasuko had been engaged to a man she loved before the war but when he returned and discovered that she now walks with a pronounced limp following an injury during an air raid, he left her flat with a broken heart. Embittered and having internalised intense shame over her physical disability, Yasuko finds the figure of her new sister-in-law a difficult reminder of the life she will never have.

A crisis approaches when an old friend (and perhaps former flame) arrives from Hiroko’s hometown and raises the prospect of abandoning her young marriage to return home instead. No matter how her new relatives make her feel, Hiroko is very much in love with Ryoichi and has no desire to leave him. Thankfully, Ryoichi is a kind and understanding man who can see how difficult the other women in the house are making things for his new wife and is willing to be patient and trust Hiroko to make what she feels is the right decision.

Ryoichi’s talent for tolerance is seemingly infinite in his desire to run a harmonious household. However, he, unlike younger brother Noboru, is of a slightly older generation with a practical mindset rather than an idealistic one. Ryoichi simply wants to prosper and ensure a happy and healthy life for himself and his family. This doesn’t mean he’s averse to helping others and is actually a very kind and decent person, but he is quick to point out that he needs to help himself first. Thus he comes into conflict with little brother Noburu from whom the film’s title comes.

Noburu is a dreamer, apt to look up at the wide sky as symbol of his boundless dreams. His fortunes are contrasted with the far less fortunate fellow student Mitsui (Masami Taura), who comes from a much less prosperous and harmonious family, finding himself working five different jobs just to eat twice a day and study when he can. Noburu wants to believe in a brighter world where things like his sister’s disability would be irrelevant and something could be done to help people like Mitsui who are struggling to get by when others have it so good. Ryoichi thinks this is all very well, but it’s pie in the sky thinking and when push comes to shove you have to respect “the natural order of things”. Ryoichi wants to work within the system and even prosper by it, where as Noburu, perhaps like Kobayashi himself, would prefer that the “natural order of things” became an obsolete way of thinking.

Nevertheless, it is the power of kindness which cures all. Gloomy Yasuko begins to live again after re-encountering an old school friend and being able to help her when she is most in of need of it. Being of use after all helps her put thoughts of her disability to the back of her mind and so, after hiding from a man who’d loved her in the past out of fearing his reaction to her current state (and overhearing his general indifference on hearing of it), she makes the bold decision to strike out for love and the chance of happiness in the beautiful, yet challenging, mountain environment.

Like many films of the era, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky is invested in demonstrating that life may be hard at times, but it will get better and the important thing is to find happiness wherever it presents itself. This is not quite the message Kobayashi was keen on delivering in his subsequent career which calls for a more circumspect examination of contemporary society along with a need for greater personal responsibility for creating a kinder, fairer and more honest one. A much more straightforward exercise, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky is Kobayashi channeling Kinoshita but minimising his sentimentality. Nevertheless, it does present a warm tale of a family finally coming together as its central couple prepares to pick up the reins and ride on into the sometimes difficult but also full of possibility post-war world.


 

Carmen Comes Home (カルメン故郷に帰る, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

Carmen Comes HomeShochiku was doing pretty well in 1951. Accordingly they could afford to splash out a little in their 30th anniversary year in commissioning the first ever full colour film to be shot in Japan, Carmen Comes Home (カルメン故郷に帰る, Carmen Kokyou ni Kaeru). For this landmark project they chose trusted director Keisuke Kinoshita and opted to use the home grown Fujicolor which has a much more saturated look than the film stocks favoured by overseas studios or those which would become more common in Japan such as Eastman Colour or Agfa. Fujicolour also had a lot of optimum condition requirements including the necessity of shooting outdoors, and so we find ourselves visiting a picturesque mountain village along with a showgirl runaway on her first visit home hoping to show off what a success she’s made for herself in the city.

Famous Tokyo showgirl “Lily Carmen” (Hideko Takamine) was once plain old Kin from the cow farm. When the family receives a letter written in grand style and signed with Kin’s stage name explaining she’ll be coming to visit, her sister may be excited but her father has much more mixed emotions. When Carmen comes home she does so like she’s on a victory parade. Wearing her Westernised, colourful outfits fashionable in the city but like something from outer space here, Carmen becomes the show but oddly seems uncomfortable with the predictable amount of attention she’s getting around town. The presence of Carmen and her equally pretty friend, Maya (Toshiko Kobayashi), threatens to destabilise this otherwise peaceful mountain village but just what sort of chaos can two beautiful women really create over the period of a few days?

The villagers react to Carmen’s return with a series of ambivalent emotions. Of course, they’re glad to see their own girl back, especially as she’s been so successful in the city, but this Carmen is not the same as the Kin who ran away. Slightly in awe of all this visiting urban sophistication, the villagers are also scandalised by Carmen’s modern attitudes to fashion and vulgar behaviour. Striding around the village like as it were a tourist attraction and she a visiting monarch, Carmen chews gum, breaks in to song at random and dances happily in her underwear on the green mountain hillsides.

The village is smallish community but fiercely proud of their local traditions. Many of the residents are happy to think that a “great artist” of the pedigree of Lily Carmen could have been born in their little village. In fact, this tiny settlement is something of a crucible for artistic talent and the extremely pompous school headmaster has a bee in his bonnet about bringing forth the future of Japan through cultural education. However, not quite all of the residents are so liberal and many live in fear of a feudalistic money lender named Maruju (Koji Mitsui) who runs the local transportation business (such as it is) but makes most of his money out of issuing exorbitant loans to desperate local people. Recently, he’s pointlessly repossessed an organ from the home of a man who was blinded during the war.

The headmaster is very keen for Carmen to come and bring some of her city sophistication back to the village, but no one has actually asked what kind of “art” Carmen is involved in. After a lot of chat from Carmen about how seriously she takes her work, people start wondering about this cutting edge performance art that their homegirl has apparently surrendered her life to. As if it weren’t obvious from her name, Carmen is a burlesque dancer. Quite a good, high grade burlesque dancer and, in fact, an artist, but essentially a stripper who really does take it all off in the end. Ever the enterprising businessman, Maruju decides to put on a show which he advertises with a big cart bearing the slogan “wild dancing by nude beauties” plastered on the side.

Needless to say this does not go down well with pompous headmaster and his plan to create a great city of highbrow artists. Striding straight over to talk to Carmen’s father Shoichi who’s only just got up from a few days in bed after Carmen’s last embarrassing faux pas, the principal intends to talk Carmen and her friend out of their scheduled performance. Her father, however, has a surprising reaction. He had an inkling what kind of life his runaway daughter must have been living. Shoichi put much of Carmen’s lack of acumen down to being kicked in the head by a cow as a child and realised it would be hard for her to find “respectable” work. He doesn’t want to see her “indecent” show and thinks the professor shouldn’t go either, but also thinks that if she’s good at it and it makes her happy then maybe that’s OK. After all, if it was that bad they wouldn’t allow it in the city and whatever’s good enough for the city ought to be good enough for the mountains. The headmaster, momentary stunned, is now confused and wondering if stopping the performance is an infringement on Carmen’s human rights.

Kinoshita refuses to take a side, he shows the ridiculousness of both the isolated villagers and the sophisticated city dwellers to great comic effect. Hideko Takamine is something of a revelation, cast completely against type as a bubbly, airhead showgirl. As is true with a lot of early colour films, or even a lot of early talkies, Carmen Comes Home has a built in gimmick and doesn’t really worry about doing very much beyond it. As such it keeps things light and bright and breezy, emphasising its high contrast colour palate every step of the way. A gentle comedy of manners as small town comforts rival big city liberalism with the obvious trade offs involved on either side, Carmen Comes Home might lack the substance of some of Kinoshita’s other work but makes up for it with general sunniness and effortlessly timeless humour.


Original trailer(s) (no subtitles):

Where Chimneys are Seen (煙突の見える場所, Heinosuke Gosho, 1953)

vlcsnap-2016-07-07-01h01m06s792Where Chimneys are Seen (煙突の見える場所, Entotsu no Mieru Basho) is widely regarded as on of the most important films of the immediate post-war era, yet it remains little seen outside of Japan and very little of the work of its director, Heinosuke Gosho, has ever been released in English speaking territories. Like much of Gosho’s filmography, Where Chimneys are Seen devotes itself to exploring the everyday lives of ordinary people, in this case a married couple and their two upstairs lodgers each trying to survive in precarious economic circumstances whilst also coming to terms with the traumatic recent past.

Ryukichi Ogata (Ken Uehara) is our primary narrator, introducing us to his humble circumstances and, for the moment, happy home. He’s married to a cheerful and kindly woman, Hiroko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who was widowed during the war, and the couple rent out their upstairs to a man, Kenzo (Hiroshi Akutagawa), and a woman, Senko (Hideko Takamine) , who aren’t a couple but each rent a room separately. They’re desperately poor, so much so that they have complicated measures in place to try and avoid having any children – a luxury which they can in no way contemplate. However, unbeknownst to Ryukichi, Hiroko has taken on a part-time job outside the home by working at the bicycle races. He’s upset by this because he resents feeling as if his wife has been hiding things from him, though his pride is wounded too. The worry planted in his mind by the idea of not knowing everything there is to know about his wife’s past is brought to the fore when a baby is suddenly abandoned on their doorstep with a note claiming to be from Hiroko’s first husband which states this is “her” child and she ought to look after it from now on.

The titular “magic” chimneys belong to a large scale factory and, in truth, there are four of them, but depending on where you stand they blend into each other, increasing or decreasing in number. This rundown, backwater town is a three chimney sort of place – not quite rock bottom, but almost. All anyone can think about is trying to keep their head above the water and food on the table. Upstairs lodger Senko works as a public announcer in the shopping district along with another woman who has a rather different approach to life and is in some kind of compensatory relationship with a businessman whom she’s apparently going to marry. Senko is a little upset about this, possibly envious, but at any rate is going to lose a friend at work and in a way she doesn’t entirely approve of. At one point she declares that she envies the baby in one sense – children are allowed to cry whenever they want and make as much noise as they please, but adults are expected to grin and bear it no matter how painful it might be.

Kenzo, by contrast, is a government official in that he’s a kind of bailiff trying to enforce taxation fines and threatening to seize the property of those that can’t pay. This kind of work contrasts strongly with his sense of social justice as he can see that most of the people he visits just don’t have the means to pay but do have plenty of other problems of their own, what good will it serve turning them out onto the streets? Predictably he’s developed a bit of a crush on Senko though given both of their dire financial circumstances, he’s afraid to pursue it. His need for “justice” sends him out on a quest to track down Hiroko’s former husband and find out what’s really going on though his investigation takes far longer than expected and soon begins to depress him. When eventually uncovered, the facts of the matter shock and upset, leaving Kenzo wishing that he’d never bothered in the first place.

Having gone to so much trouble to avoid having children (they have a very prominently marked calendar hanging on the wall), that Ryukichi and Hiroko should be saddled with an abandoned child is especially ironic though the baby serves as more than a physical burden, becoming a manifestation of a hitherto buried past. Both of the women in the film have suffered heavily in the war. Hiroko lost her entire family and was reduced to stealing scraps of discarded food behind the evacuation centre. After losing everything she came to resent the whole of humanity for becoming involved in this senseless war and just wanted to live alone, but came to feel a life of mere subsistence was not worth living. She got herself a new family register and started again planning not to look back. She didn’t tell Ryukichi much about her former life because she wanted to forget it, it was painful to her.

Senko had similar experiences, losing family members in extremely cruel ways leaving her with a degree of resistance to forming new bonds. The baby, perhaps a temporary visitor, perhaps not, forces them to reconsider their choices, reawakening an emotional connection that had been severed due to the war’s hardships. The past is quite literally visited upon them, but how they decide to deal with it is very much a matter for the present. In the end, this extreme stress test on the various relationships of the central characters proves effective as their bonds eventually strengthen rather than break.

Using the four chimneys as an effective, if occasionally overworked, metaphor, Gosho remains resolutely non-judgemental, reminding us that things often look very different depending on where you stand. Everybody here is struggling, but everyone is trying to survive. If the film has a central message, it’s that you have to let the past go. The “right time” may never come, so you just have to make the best of things now. Happiness is fragile, but possible, if only you can learn to accept the various compromises which necessarily accompany it.


A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.