The Trio’s Engagements (婚約三羽烏, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2017-09-08-02h54m10s546Yasujiro Shimazu may not be as well known as some of his contemporaries such as the similarly named Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu, but during in his brief yet prolific career which was cut short by his early death just before the end of the war, Shimazu became the father of one of the most prominent genres in Japanese cinema –  the “shomingeki”, which focussed on the lives ordinary lower middle-class people. Shimazu’s early films were noted for their unusual naturalism but 1937’s The Trio’s Engagements (婚約三羽烏, Konyaku Sanbagarasu) is pure Hollywood in its screwball tale of three silly young men and their respective romantic difficulties which are sorted out with the amusing kind of neatness you can only find in a 1930s cinematic farce.

Shuji Kamura (Shuji Sano) has been looking for a job in Japan’s depression hit Tokyo for some time and his long suffering girlfriend, Junko (Kuniko Miyake), has finally gotten fed up with his listlessness and decided it might be better if she left him on his own for a while to sort himself out. Slightly panicked, Shuji heads off to see about a job at a department store specialising in rayon fabrics. Undergoing a rather odd interview, he meets two other men in the same position – well to do Ken Taniyama (Ken Uehara), and down on his luck chancer Shin Miki (Shin Saburi). Luckily all three are employed that day and start working in the store but trouble brews when they each fall for the charms of the boss’ daughter, Reiko (Mieko Takamine).

Despite the contemporary setting and the difficulty of finding work for even educated young men providing a starting point for the drama, Shimazu creates a truly “modern” world full of neon lights and Westernised fashions. The trio work in a department store which sells rayon – a cheap substitute for silk being sold as the latest sophisticated import from overseas, and the store itself is designed in a modernist, art deco style which wouldn’t look out of place in any Hollywood film of the same period. Likewise, though the store is largely staffed by men catering to a largely female clientele, it maintains a sophisticated atmosphere with staff members expected to provide solicitous care and attention to each and every customer.

The guys do this with varying degrees of commitment as Shin and Ken pull faces at each other across the floor and Shuji wastes time on the roof. Shimazu packs in as many quick fire gags as possible beginning the the bizarre job interviews in which Shuji ends up doing some very in-depth role play while Shin expounds on the virtues of rayon as if he were some kind of fabrics genius. Shin Miki is your typical chancer, turning up to his job interview with a thick beard which he later shaves making him all but unrecognisable, and even cheating Ken out of a few coins he’s been using to show off his magic tricks before bamboozling his way into Shuji’s flat.

The central, slapstick conceit is that each of the guys is about to jettison their previous partners for a false infatuation with the beautiful Reiko. Shuji is mostly on the rebound from Junko who may or may not come back to see if he’s sorted himself out, while Ken is uncertain about an arranged marriage, and Shin has a secret country bumpkin girlfriend he doesn’t want anyone to know about. Their respective crushes nearly spell the end for their friendship but then Reiko has her own ideas about marriage which don’t involve shop boys or a future in the rayon business. Eventually the guys realise they’ve all been a little silly and run back into the arms of the women they almost threw over, finding happiness at last in their otherwise ordinary choices.

Shimazu makes brief use of location shoots as Shin and Reiko walk along the harbour but mostly sticks to stage sets including the noticeably fake cityscape backdrop on the shop’s roof. The major draw is the “trio” at the centre which includes some of Shochiku’s most promising young leading men who would all go on to become huge stars including 30s matinee idol Ken Uehara, Shuji Sano, and Shin Saburi. Light and filled with silly, studenty humour The Trio’s Engagements is a deliberately fluffy piece designed to blow the blues away in increasingly difficult times, but even if somewhat lacking in substance it does provide a window onto an idealised 1930s world of Westernised flappers, cheap synthetic products, and frivolous romance.


Notes of an Itinerant Performer (歌女おぼえ書, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)

notes-on-an-itinerant-performerFilmed in 1941, Notes of an Itinerant Performer (歌女おぼえ書, Utajo Oboegaki ) is among the least politicised of Shimizu’s output though its odd, domestic violence fuelled, finally romantic resolution points to a hardening of his otherwise progressive social ideals. Neatly avoiding contemporary issues by setting his tale in 1901 at the mid-point of the Meiji era as Japanese society was caught in a transitionary phase, Shimizu similarly casts his heroine adrift as she decides to make a break with the hand fate dealt her and try her luck in a more “civilised” world.

At 25 years old, Uta (Yaeko Mizutani) jumps ships from one acting company to another having been promised better work by a roguish fellow performer. Tired of the strenuous life of travelling from village to village, putting on folk plays and street performances, Uta is thinking of quitting the business and looking for a job as a maid or something similar which is at least in the same place everyday. In a stroke of luck, she comes into contact with a kindly tea merchant who takes pity on her and suggests she come to live with him where she can teach his teenage daughter how to dance.

Uta becomes a member of the Hiramatsu household but not all of the inhabitants are as generous of spirit as Mr. Hiramatsu (Hideo Fujino) himself. The oldest son is away at college but the daughter, Nuiko (Kyoko Asagiri), has no interest in learning to dance and resents her father’s “adoption” of such a “common” woman. Youngest son Jiro (Haruhiko Tsuda) is similarly unimpressed with Uta’s presence, making her new home less than welcoming. To make matters worse, Mr. Hiramatsu abruptly dies leaving his business and household in disarray. Oldest son Shotaro (Ken Uehara) returns and feels as if he ought to abandon his studies and take over the company, but as a student he has no experience of running a business and lacks his father’s knowledge of the tea industry. Uta encourages him to return to university and finish his studies if only so that the prestige of a degree might help him later if he decides to restart the business. She also volunteers to act as a guardian for Jiro and Nuiko though Shotaro is wary seeing as they know each other so little. He then makes a surprising suggestion – that he and Uta marry, making it perfectly natural that she take care of everything at home while he’s away studying in the city.

Like many a Shimizu hero, Mr. Hiramatsu is a good hearted man but perhaps lacking in practical skills. Though he seemed to be prosperous and successful, the business was on the rocks and he dies leaving a number of debts behind him and total admin chaos for Shotaro as there is no clear successor to keep the business running in Mr. Hiramatsu’s absence. Luckily for Uta, Shotaro is also a kindhearted man like his father (in contrast to his siblings) and has no desire to suddenly throw her out when his father promised to look after her. He is, however, at a loss as of how to take care of everyone with no money coming in.

Even before Mr. Hiramatsu died, not everyone was happy about his decision to take in a travelling performer and an old friend begins to warn him about the danger of rumours. Friend of the family Kajikawa feels he has a stake in this as he intends his daughter Ayako to marry Shotaro and thinks it’s a done deal (though Mr. Hiramatsu does not seem particularly wedded to the idea). Ayako and Nuiko are also good friends and Ayako does seem like the ideal bride for Shotaro as a member of his own social class and a business connection for the family. Shotaro, however, proposes to Uta without really thinking things through. It is, in one sense, a purely practical decision but one that is likely to meet with a degree of social opposition.

Uta left her life as a travelling performer because she wanted something more conventional. Her mother died when she was six and she never knew her father. Her only happy memory of family is the time spent with her grandmother who died when she was twelve. Uta resents her lack of status as a member of a lowly order of entertainers and longs for something grander but has also internalised a deep seated sense of inferiority. Hence when Jiro and his school friends refer to her as a “monster” living in the house, she half accepts their prejudiced view of her. Nevertheless, she wants to honour the kindness that Mr. Hiramatsu offered her and also deeply respects his son, Shotaro, possibly even developing romantic feelings for him. Despite continuing to feel herself unworthy, Uta does the unthinkable by almost singlehandedly resurrecting the tea business when presented with an opportunity from a foreign company. Even after becoming a formidable business woman and winning the respect of Nuiko and affection of Jiro, Uta still feels herself out of place in the mercantile world and ultimately opts to leave in order to pave the way for the “proper” union of Ayako and Shotaro.

When Shotaro and Uta meet again she tells him that she left because she found his middle class world of “decency” too rigid and full of dull formality. Her “housewife” life was a hard one – getting up early, no smoking, no drinking. At least as a travelling performer she can sleep in and have her share of fun. This produces a quite shocking and strange scene in which Shotaro strikes Uta violently, knocking her to the floor. He repeats his earlier promise to marry her and invites her to come home as his wife, a “decent” woman, and full member of his social class whatever anyone else might have to say about it. Shotaro is apparently a man of his word but there is real feeling implied in his actions as opposed to duty or obligation. Nevertheless, this quite surprising scene of domestic violence used as a tool of coercion does not speak to Shotaro’s otherwise kindly personality and undercuts the “romantic”, if melodramatic, quality of the scene. This may be another instance of Shimizu’s aversion to romantic resolutions or romance as a solution to crisis, but one expects better from a director generally so keen to underline the hardships faced by women in his society.

Despite being filmed well into the era of the talkies and long after Shimizu himself had made the jump to sound, Notes of an Itinerant Performer makes use of frequent intertitles setting the scene or providing explanatory background material. Conversely, it also anticipates a more recent trend by allowing the discussions between the “American” (actually heavily accented European) and his interpreter to take place in English with Japanese sidetitles for parts not subsequently translated in the dialogue. In fact, this broadly positive foreign presence seems an odd inclusion for the fraught political world of 1941 (the film was released in March, just nine months before outright hostilities would commence with the USA which had been effecting a series of trade sanctions with the expansionist nation since 1938) even if the deal itself is taking place in the comparatively more open society of 1901.

In many ways about transitionary periods both in terms of society and of the self, Notes of an Itinerant Perfomer seems conflicted right up until its “Reader, I married him” inspired intertitle. Uta crosses a class border, transcending her lowly origins through selfless sacrifice, pure heartedness, and perseverance yet finally she is dragged across by violence and condescension rather than self acceptance or personal transformation. Filled with ambiguity, Notes of an Itinerant Performer reflects the uncertainties of its times and is noticeably less forgiving than Shimizu’s general outlook as its problematic finale demonstrates.


 

The Golden Demon (金色夜叉, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2016-09-22-02h33m21s455Perhaps best known for his work with children, Hiroshi Shimizu changes tack for his 1937 adaptation of the oft filmed Ozaki Koyo short story The Golden Demon (金色夜叉, Konjiki Yasha) which is notable for featuring none at all – of the literal kind at least. A story of love and money, The Golden Demon has many questions to ask not least among them who is the most selfish when it comes to a frustrated romance.

Poor relation Kanichi (Daijiro Natsukawa) is a university student living with friends of his deceased father. He and the daughter of the family which took him in, Miya (Hiroko Kawasaki), have grown up together and formed an emotional attachment they each believed would naturally lead to marriage. However, Miya has received a proposal from a wealthy gentlemen which her cash strapped father is strongly advising her to accept. Though she loves Kanichi deeply, Miya is torn – both by a feeling of duty to marry well and keep her parents in comfort, and by a fear of leaving her middle-class lifestyle for a life of uncertain poverty with the still studying Kanichi.

When she ultimately agrees to the arranged marriage, Kanichi becomes angry and accuses Miya of placing monetary concerns over true feeling. Disappearing from Miya’s life entirely, Kanichi determines to destroy himself in a vicious quest for revenge. Abandoning his idealistic, progressive concerns, Kanichi becomes a heartless money lender with a plan to one day amass a great fortune only to throw it in the face of his former love. When Miya’s husband, Tomiyama (Toshiaki Konoe), appears at his door apparently fallen on hard times, Kanichi’s plan looks set for success.

In true Shimizu fashion, he remains non-judgemental of his characters save for that of the elderly money lender who, when questioned by his son, offers a series of flimsy justifications for his line of work which his son brands dirty and disgraceful. The money lender points out that he’s only operating a business – he never attempts to hide his terms so customers know they will pay a heavy price for the loans, and thereafter the decision is their own. When his son points out how selfish a point of view that is and that all he’s doing is exploiting the desperation of vulnerable people, he’s told that he reads to many books and should learn to live in the “real world”. If Shimizu wants to criticise anything at all (even obliquely, this is 1937), it’s this “real world” thinking which legitimises the selfishness of those who seek to profit from the misfortune of others.

The same money lender has a somewhat strained relationship with his equally cynical wife. After she complains about his complaint about how much makeup she’s putting on “to go to a temple”, he tells her that his jealously proves he loves her. She’s a precious object that he’s afraid of losing to another man. To him all is about possession. Kanichi, who once thought himself so different is more or less the same as he refuses to think about why exactly Miya has made the decision she has, or even allow her the right to make that decision. Obviously broken hearted, he decides to abandon emotion all together as “you can’t trust the human heart.” He even attempts to enact the final terms of the usurious loans on the contracts of some of his university friends who, just as he was with Miya, are unable to understand how he could be so cruel to those he was once so close to. Even Tomiyama, who had hitherto looked after Miya as a husband should finally exclaims “I can’t love you without money” as if in a tacit acceptance of the fact that he essentially bought her, obtaining her duty and service but not, perhaps, her heart.

In contrast some of Shimizu’s other work he focusses much more on Kanichi’s moral meandering than on Miya’s suffering but she herself pays a heavy price throughout. In sacrificing her love for Kanichi and a chance at a self directed future in agreeing to the arranged marriage, Miya ultimately chose to familial duty over romantic feeling. Having grown up in comfort, a degree of fear may have also influenced her decision but the choice has broken her own heart just as much as Kanichi’s. Guilt and a regret threaten to frustrate her new married life even though she does her best to become the ideal wife. Miya searches for Kanichi to obtain his forgiveness but Kanichi is nowhere to be found.

The eventual reunion is one of chilling coldness and repressed emotions which causes only more pain for everyone involved. Neatly avoiding melodrama, Shimizu opts for a more realistic solution in which everyone realises the error of their ways. Kanichi perseveres in his desire for vengeance yet leaves feeling like “the stupidest man in the world”, pausing only to offer a few words of parting encouragement to Miya if stopping short of forgiveness (or an apology which she is most likely owed if only for the previous ten minutes of cruelty). The past remains the past and must be accepted as such, yet there is at least a glimmer of hope for Kanichi whose abortive plan of revenge may have reawakened within him the very thing he’d been trying to bury even if the future for Miya seems nowhere near as certain.