Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (隣の八重ちゃん, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1934)

Our Neighbour Miss Yae posterRetrospectively, Japan in the 1930s looks like a time of misery and darkness, permanently overshadowed by oppressive government and coming tragedy. However, life went on much as it had before with all its customary joys and sorrows. The films of Yasujiro Shimazu are indeed among the least politicised of the era (which might make them, in an odd way, among the most politicised) and Our Neighbour, Miss Yae (隣の八重ちゃん, Tonari no Yae-chan) is no exception in its presentation of the everyday easiness between two very close families and the burgeoning romance between the younger daughter and older son of each.

Notably, the film opens with a scene of intense suburbia as the brothers, middle-schooler Seiji (Akio Isono) and university student Keitaro (Den Obinata), play catch in the yard training for Seiji’s big game at which he has a shot at playing at the legendary Koshien stadium. As young men are want to do, they break next-door’s window but luckily Mrs. Hattori (Choko Iida) across the way is a nice woman who hardly minds, especially as this is such a regular occurrence that the families almost have an account with the local glazers.

The Hattoris and the Arais are so close that it’s no problem at all for Keitaro to jump the fence and hang out with Mrs. Hattori, who even offers to feed him, when he arrives home early to find himself locked out while his mother (Ayako Katsuragi) has gone shopping. Despite his ease in the Hattoris’ home, he is flustered when the girl next-door, Yae (Yumeko Aizome), gets back from a school with a friend in tow. Even more so when he overhears the two girls’ typically teenage conversation in which they briefly touch on Yae’s possible feelings for him while somewhat provocatively discussing breast size – something Keitaro awkwardly chastises Yae for when she returns to the living room in more comfortable clothing.

Shimazu dramatises Keitaro’s embarrassment through his ongoing clumsiness – first of all spilling tea on his floor cushion and attempting to hide it by folding the cushion in half and placing it oddly between thighs and calves, and then by tipping pickles everywhere while awkwardly trying to share them with Yae (much to the amusement of her perspicacious friend who has missed absolutely nothing in this series of awkward exchanges). Yae eventually tries to take the cushion back as it’s a good one only meant for “guests” (which she evidently does not regard Keitaro to be) only to discover his mishap with the tea which is something they can all have a good laugh over. Through all of this Keitaro and Yae seem almost like a young couple already, gently bickering but with real affection. It’s all very innocent but also flirtatious to the extent that the offer to darn a pair of socks almost seems like an elaborate metaphor but then really what could say true love better than a willingness to deal with someone’s stinky footwear?

Seiji is forced to recall his brother’s cute and innocent piece of flirtatious banter when commiserating with Yae’s melancholy older sister, Kyoko (Yoshiko Okada), who returns home unexpectedly after having apparently walked out on an unhappy marriage. An act unthinkable to her mother, Kyoko resolves to have a divorce on account of her husband’s improper relations with the maid and generally frivolous character. Keitaro jokingly said that if he had a wife he’d make her put his socks on for him everyday and she’d have to do it. Keitaro might have been joking, but there’s something in what he said and in Kyoko’s insistence that she doesn’t want to be so “submissive”, preferring to be alone rather than spend another second with a man for whom she has no respect.

Kyoko is, after a fashion, the film’s antagonist in that she begins to come between Yae and Keitaro, destabilising the easy relationship between the families by introducing unexpected tension into the otherwise happy Hattori home. Longing to return to a more innocent girlhood but mindful that she can no longer be as “pure” as Yae, Kyoko is torn between two different kinds of being. She takes on the male role, using her status and position in an attempt at seduction. Becoming a third wheel on Yae’s attempt to ask Keitaro out to the pictures, Kyoko buys the whole gang dinner at an expensive restaurant at which she gets roaringly drunk and falls asleep on Keitaro’s shoulder in the cab on the way home. Noticing Keitaro’s discomfort and irritated on a personal level, Yae asks her to move only for Kyoko to state, ironically, that as she’s paid for the evening she’s sure he can put up with it.

In any case, Kyoko becomes an unanswered question. She remains trapped, wanting her independence but unable to access it. She refuses to return to her husband, but finds scant support from her family who remain preoccupied with potential scandal and the difficult future prospects for a divorced woman. Despite Mrs. Arai’s reassurance that perhaps those things no longer matter so much to younger people, which both women seem to view as a positive development, Mrs. Hattori fails to see the effect her disapproval is having on her daughter’s mental state until it is too late. 

Shimazu doesn’t seem to have much of answer for what to do about women like Kyoko save to leave the question dangling. He does not send her back to her (possibly abusive) husband or find a way for her to move past her difficult circumstances but allows her to become another lost woman whose sense of possibility has been gradually eroded by an oppressive society. Nevertheless, counter to her melancholy we have the girlish innocence of Yae who seems to be on a path of natural, easy connection with the straightforward Keitaro. Even so, her brief idyll is then ruptured by political interventions which might take her far away from her putative love. This potential disaster is eventually partially reversed, mimicking the familiar pattern that one family must be broken in order for another to be formed though in a somewhat perverse fashion that sees Yae become a temporary member of the Arai household but as something more like a sister.

This final intervention of the political is the only hint of external darkness. Shimazu’s vision of ordinary contemporary life is a cosmopolitan one filled with Hollywood glamour which references Fredric March and takes the gang to watch a fairly disturbing Betty Boop cartoon on the big screen while the boys dream of baseball glory and the parents look on mystified but happy. Yet despite the generalised happiness of the serene suburban world they inhabit, there is a mild note of disquiet presented by a deliberate lack of resolution which sends Yae, no longer a neighbour, skipping off happily into the future full of childish innocence while others make their way in a much less certain world.


So Goes My Love (愛より愛へ, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1938)

(C) Shochiku 1938Yasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomingeki” – naturalistic stories of ordinary lower middle class life, and his early career included several forays into the world of the “tendency film” which carried strong left-wing messages. By the late 1930s however his films have shifted upwards a little and often deal with the lives of the upper middle classes as they find themselves at another moment of transition during the turbulent militarist years. In contrast with many contemporary films, Shimazu’s may seem curiously apolitical but speak volumes solely through their subtlety and direct refusal to engage with the propagandist concerns of the ruling regime.

In So Goes My Love (愛より愛へ, Ai yori Ai e), our lead, Shigeo (Shuji Sano), is a struggling writer living with his girlfriend, Miyako (Sanae Takasugi), who supports them both with her meagre earnings as a bar hostess. As we later discover, Shigeo is the eldest son of a prominent family who have (temporarily) disowned him because they don’t approve of his relationship with Miyako. Realising his dreams of becoming a successful writer are unlikely to be fulfilled, Shigeo has become moody and taciturn. He wants to find a job but isn’t exactly equipped to get one especially when the times are as hard as they are. He asks his uncle for help and gets an interview at a newspaper, but quickly realises that his uncle has set him up – he can only have the job if he “legitimises” his living arrangements. Shigeo leaves in a huff but there’s no denying he’s in a financial fix.

Things start to change when Shigeo runs into his younger sister, Toshiko (Mieko Takamine), by chance at a cafe. Toshiko insists on coming back with him to his lodgings “for future reference” but also out of morbid curiosity as a kind of touristic exercise in surveying the lives of those less fortunate. Shigeo thought Miyako would have already gone out but walks in just as she’s leaving. Though Miyako is shy and quiet, a little perturbed over being suddenly ambushed with a visitor, she does her best to ease the awkwardness between herself and her potential sister-in-law with black tea (foregoing a cup herself) until Toshiko finally consents to sit on their floor cushion. Toshiko looks around the bare, depressing flat and spots Miyako’s sewing box with a pair of freshly darned socks sitting on top. It’s immediately clear to her that Miyako is not, as her parents had suggested, some kind of gold digger (no self-respecting gold digger darns their socks, after all). More than that, she seems “nice”, which is perhaps why she’s able to put up with the petulant Shigeo with so little complaint.

The central problem is a two fold one – Shigeo has attempted to choose his own bride and therefore “modernity” over the “traditionalism” of an arranged marriage. He doesn’t particularly care about being the head of a household or about living in relative squalor save for guilt and wounded male pride that he’s condemned Miyako to live there with him (not to mention sending her out to the degrading world of hostess bars and cabarets just so they can survive). The parents have reacted badly and produced a stand-off. Shigeo’s uncle is trying to manipulate the situation to his advantage by convincing Shigeo to leave Miyako and come home, but Shigeo is a proud young man, even if he leaves Miyako there’s no way he’ll come home with his tail between his legs. If the older generation wants to win the younger one over, it will have to compromise and learn to play by less stringent rules.

Making a knee-jerk judgment, Shigeo’s father and uncle have decided that Miyako is just a passing fad, a floozy or a gold digger best worked out of one’s system young and then forgotten about (preferably so that it wounds you so badly you’re ready to accept the cold comforts of a proper arranged marriage). Rather than the uncle, it’s Toshiko who becomes the bridge when she realises how kind and devoted Miyako really is. Shigeo’s mother is also sympathetic but, sadly, it’s still the men who have the final say and it’s not until uncle pays a Miyako a visit to try and persuade her to leave Shigeo that he too begins to see how “sweet” she is and that allowing her into their family wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all. In fact, as we later realise, Shigeo’s father perhaps wasn’t so opposed as he pretended to be and was simply playing his son at his own game, planning to consent to the match once he proved that it was really “serious” and not just a passing fling. Nevertheless, Miyako’s own meekness proves the final barrier as she finds herself suddenly afraid that Shigeo’s family might think her inherent goodness is some kind of trick and she’s been plotting all along. Only when Toshiko comes to fetch her and Shigeo himself calls her to come does she finally understand it’s going to be alright.

For 1938, this rather frivolous story might seem decadent especially with its warmhearted liberalism as the union of a lower-class woman and upper-class man is finally blessed through nothing more than common sense and empathy. Though Shimazu otherwise steers clear of political concerns, he does send Shigeo, Miyako, and Toshiko to the pictures where they end up watching part of a film made by Leni Reifenstahl featuring beautifully photographed visions of lithe young men in swimming trunks after which Shigeo gets up in a huff to smoke a cigarette. Toshiko didn’t seem to enjoy it much either and tries to improve Shigeo’s mood by insisting that the next one will be better but the message is clear – Shimazu didn’t like that film and he doesn’t think you did either. Among fans of Shimazu, at least, modernity is winning. It may not be perfect (Shigeo is an obvious prig whose self-conscious masculine posturing is almost a self parody), but it’s getting there and if everyone would just forget about the “rules” and treat others with respect, decency, and understanding then perhaps things wouldn’t be in such a mess.


Short scene in which the trio go to the cinema

The Lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937)

Lights of Asakusa posterThe lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Asakusa no Hi) still shone bright before the war. In this tiny corner of Tokyo well known for “low” entertainment, actors mingle with gangsters, lonely owners of amusement stalls, starving artists, bar girls, and wealthy industrialists each just trying to survive in an increasingly jittery city. Yasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomingeki” – stories of ordinary lower middle class people, and brings his characteristic wit and humanity to a tale of backstreet life where danger and ruin lurk on every corner and the only way to ensure one’s safety is to ensure you have the right defenders.

The main stage, if you will, is that of the Nippon-za “opera” company. This is, however, no great opera house but a run down little theatre presenting classical European opera for vaudeville audiences. The currently running show is Carmen, which will turn out to be appropriate for the events at hand. The trouble starts (or perhaps merely intensifies) when a young chorus member, Reiko (Mieko Takamine), begins attracting a range of wanted and unwanted male attention. Reiko, an orphan, had been taken in by a local bar mistress who later pushed her into the opera company but still expects her to make good on her investment by becoming a casual prostitute and taking on “customers” who present themselves at the bar (Reiko is around 16 or so, and therefore has just reached the age her foster mother thinks appropriate to join the business). The complication is that the man who’s taken a fancy to Reiko, Handa (Shunro Takeda), is a steel magnate who also finances the opera troupe meaning it’s not just the bar owner who’s coming under pressure but the financial security of the troupe too.

Being so young, Reiko finds her foster mother’s demands hard to refuse but is rescued by Sasaki (Seiji Nishimura) – the leading actor, married to leading lady Marie (Haruko Sugimura). The situation with Reiko exposes cracks already present in the group when Handa sends his goons in to disrupt the show, irking Sasaki to the point he takes off in a fit of artistic temperament. Meanwhile, another actor Yamagami (Ken Uehara), gets together with the rest of the troupe to ensure Reiko’s safety by hiding her with a feeble minded fan, Pokacho (Daijiro Natsukawa), so that she won’t be forced into a potentially life ruining situation.

Reiko’s plight is perhaps all too common on the streets of Asakusa. Having been orphaned she feels herself indebted to the bar mistress who took her in even if the relationship between them is not especially warm. She also feels grateful to have found a third family in the opera troupe and is afraid to lose her place there. Nevertheless, she is under extreme pressure to submit herself to this system of reciprocal arrangements and sleep with Handa solely to save making trouble for everyone else. Meanwhile her (sometimes) sympathetic roommate Beniko (Kayako Fujiwara) knows exactly what’s at stake through having been in a similar situation herself. She’s long been in love with the pure hearted Yamagami and is harbouring a degree of jealously in believing that Yamagami has a soft spot for Reiko, but she also half wants things to work out between them seeing as she has lost the “right” to love a man like Yamagami because she is no longer a virgin.

Shimazu had often been of a progressive mind, but sadly Beniko falls by the wayside, merely a sacrificial lamb prepared to give up on her dreams on Reiko’s behalf, so we never find out the limits of Yamagami’s justice loving heart or if he would be as bothered about Beniko’s past as she seems to fear he might be. Yamagami, brooding but righteous, would become one of matinee idol Ken Uehara’s best known roles though he too is teetering on the brink in Asakusa. Committed to defending the innocent, he tries to save Reiko’s honour but fails to declare a personal interest, entrusting her to the rather odd painter Pokacho who claims that his love for Reiko is of a spiritual, rather than carnal kind. Yamagami may succeed in his primary goal but still ends up in defeat, running away from the most important fight by retreating from Tokyo completely with a rebound girlfriend in tow, hoping to find kinder light in Osaka than he had on the dog eat dog streets of Asakusa.

Based on a novel by Hiroshi Hamamoto, Shimazu’s portrait of backstreet life sparkles with authenticity but also with a kind of hopelessness as each of these down on their luck “opera” stars laments their sorry fates and longs for a better gig somewhere less down and dirty. Meanwhile, the spectre of war lingers – when Carmen comes off the next show is to be “Two Honourable Soldiers”, filled with maudlin anthems of war which push the messages of patriotism and the glorification of offering one’s life for one’s country. The slimy Handa may have been defeated for now, but his kind are in the ascendent and the streets of Asakusa are unlikely to improve with only war and depression on the horizon.


Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1939)

Okayo's Preparedness title cardYasujiro Shimazu had been the pioneer of the “shomingeki” and a fierce chronicler of the lives of ordinary lower middle class people. The growing presence of the militarist regime, however, demanded a slight shift of focus. 1939’s Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Okayo no Kakugo) has its share of propaganda content, but it’s also mildly subversive. In the conventional narrative, a woman must get married and a man must find a purpose. Shimazu turns this upside-down – a man becomes a husband and a woman finds artistic fulfilment in the midst of heartbreak.

In the contemporary era, Osumi’s (Kuniko Miyake) husband has been drafted and is away fighting at the front leaving her alone at home where she makes ends meet running a traditional dance school while looking after their small daughter Mitsuko (Kazue Hayashi). Okayo (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the star pupil at school and also a live-in apprentice, functioning almost as a servant but regarded as a member of the family. The trouble begins when a Osumi gets a visit from her brother-in-law who has received a letter from her husband in which he requests some photographs of his wife and family going about their daily lives while he is unable to be with them. The amateur photographer he’s brought along is a young man of quality and the older brother of one of the school’s pupils. Okayo has developed a fondness for Shunsaku (Ken Uehara) during her time walking his little sister home and secretly hopes he returns her affections. Shy and nervous, she is nevertheless overjoyed when he takes her for tea while they wait for the photographs to be developed. Shunsaku, however, was just being kind. He actually has his eye on another pupil at the school (someone more of his social class) and Okayo is destined to experience her first real heartbreak.

Shimazu gets his propaganda obligations out of the way fairly quickly. We cut to a picture of a man in uniform proudly hanging on the wall whom we later realise to be Osumi’s absent husband. Though Osumi worries about him, his enlistment was regarded as a cause for celebration – Okayo felt obliged to have a rare cup of sake, and it’s clear Osumi is proud to be married to a man defending the nation. Nevertheless, it is also clear that he is experiencing suffering – Okayo and Osumi wonder if he too can enjoy the simple pleasures of warm sake and boiled tofu so far away from home, and Osumi also makes sure to send him a pair of of geta in her care package fearing that he may be missing the small but essential facets of his Japaneseness. Though this is only 1939 and the situation is not yet “serious” there is the betrayal of a mild anxiety in Osumi’s fears as well as in her husband’s letter which states the anxiety he feels after learning that a friend was told of trouble at home only after the fact. After all, it’s hard to put unpleasant news in a letter to someone you know to be already experiencing hardship. Hence the request for the photographs – real visual evidence that his wife and daughter are healthy and happy, rather than mere words which may be offered in the interests of comfort.

Meanwhile, Shimazu is secretly building a second argument behind the scenes. We expect the simple love story of Okayo and Shunsaku will proceed along the usual lines. He will come to appreciate her and they will marry despite the class difference and the difficulty of the times. That is not, however, what happens. Okayo’s attraction is apparently one-sided. Osumi’s brother-in-law warns her that Shunsaku is popular with the ladies, even if he also points out his rather stiff, respectable nature. Shunsaku’s mother has apparently had difficulty finding a suitable match for him which increases Okayo’s hopes, but the reason turns out to be that he has developed at attraction for another pupil at the school, as Okayo finds out listening at the door when Shunsaku’s mother comes to Osumi for an additional character reference. All at once Okayo’s world collapses. She remembers that she is a servant, forever separated from the “nice young ladies” who take classes at the school, and that her youthful romance has been little more than a distracting fantasy.

Earlier on, while taking tea with Shunsaku, Okayo had remarked on how important Osumi had told her her dancing training was as a means of achieving independence and self-sufficiency. The ability to dance well enough to teach (and acquire such well regarded pupils) is after all how Osumi has been able to support herself with a husband away in the army. Osumi’s brother-in-law also tells her something similar when he reminds her that it’s important for her to concentrate on her art rather than getting lost in a romantic daydream. Osumi, realising how hurt Okayo has become after overhearing her conversation with Shunsaku’s mother tries to comfort her with the same logic, convincing her that her infatuation in an entirely normal part of being young and that it will pass. Encouraging her to concentrate on her dancing so that she can turn it into a valid career, Osumi provides both a shoulder to cry on and a valid plan for the future, remaining both sympathetic and supportive in witnessing her pupil’s suffering.

Making a bold formal switch, Shimazu dramatises Okayo’s moment of self-actualisation as a dance sequence taking place in parallel to Shunsaku’s wedding. Sadly picking up a bow she slowly moves to the stage and begins to sing, eventually moving into dance before the scene dissolves and Okayo is in full costume, mid-performance playing the part of a brokenhearted woman watching her beloved marry another. Having danced through her pain and doubly experienced the suffering of her romantic disillusionment, Okayo collapses in exhaustion on the bare stage of the studio, gazing out at the windows and weeping once again as they remain empty yet perhaps open.