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.

The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

blue sky maiden dvd coverYasuzo Masumura is generally remembered for dark, erotic and disturbing explorations of human behaviour but the early part of his career was marked by a more hopeful innocence and a less cynical yet still cutting humour. His debut, Kisses, was very much in the mould of the youth movie of the day but its themes were both more innocent and more controversial as a boy and girl bond after running into each other at the prison where both of their parents are serving time. Marked by darkness as it is, the worldview of Kisses is much kinder than Masumura would later allow as the pair of lovers seem to shake off their respective concerns to embrace the youthful joy and boundless freedom young love can offer.

The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Aozora Musume), Masumura’s second film, does something similar but with added bite. Working for the first time with actress Ayako Wakao who would later become something of a muse, Masumura takes a typical melodrama storyline – the returned illegitimate child treated as a poor relation by her own “family”, and turns it into a genial comedy in which Wakao’s charming heroine shines brightly despite the often cruel and heartless treatment she receives. As far as the family drama goes, the genre was still in its heyday and the family unit itself fairly unquestioned yet as Masumura shows times were changing and perhaps the family is not the bedrock it initially seems to be.

18 year old Yuko (Ayako Wakao) stands at the gates of adulthood. Taking a last photo in school uniform with her high school friends as they prepare for graduation, Yuko expresses her nervousness about being sent to Tokyo to live with the family of a father she barely knows while her friends worry about getting married or getting stuck in their tiny village all alone respectively. Tragedy strikes when the girls’ teacher arrives on a bicycle and informs them that Yuko’s grandmother has been taken ill. On her death bed, the grandmother reveals the reason Yuko is the only one of her father’s four children to be raised in the country is not a concern for her health, but that she is illegitimate. Yuko’s father, unhappy in his marriage, fell in love with his secretary (Kuniko Miyake) who later gave birth to Yuko, but he was already married with two children and so Yuko’s mother went to Manchuria leaving her to be raised in secret in the country.

Having nowhere else to go, Yuko arrives at her father’s large Western style house to be greeted coldly by her half-siblings, and treated as a maid by her still angry step-mother while her father (Kinzo Shin) is away on business. It has to be said that this model middle class family are an extremely unpleasant bunch. Step-mother Tatsuko (Sadako Sawamura) is shrewish and embittered while oldest daughter Teruko (Noriko Hodaka) spends all her time chasing wealthy boyfriends (but failing to win them because she’s just as mean as her mother). The oldest brother (Yuji Shinagawa) idles away in a hipster jazz band while the youngest boy, Hiroshi (Yukihiko Iwatare), is rude and boisterous but later bonds with his new big sister when she is the only one to really bother interacting with him.

The Ono household has always been an unhappy one. Yuko’s father married his wife after being bamboozled into it by an overbearing boss trying to offload his difficult daughter. Feeling trapped and avoiding going home he fell in love with a kind woman at work, had an affair, and wanted to marry her but wasn’t strong enough to break off not only from his unwanted family but also from his career in pursuing personal happiness. By Masumura’s logic, it’s this failure to follow one’s heart which has poisoned the Ono family ruining not only the lives of Tatsuko and the children who have no respect for their father or capacity for real human feeling (as Yuko later tells them), but also that of Yuko’s poor mother  whose life has been one of constant suffering after being unfairly jettisoned by a man who was bold enough to have an affair, but not to defy social conventions and leave an unhappy home.

Yuko herself, however, refuses to allow her life to be ruined by the failings of others. Looking up at the bright blue sky with her teacher (Kenji Sugawara), she learns to create her own stretch of heaven if only in her own mind. Though others might have fought and complained at being forced into the role of maid in what is her own family home, Yuko bears her new circumstances with stoicism and good humour. Thanks to her kindness and enthusiasm, the family maid, Yae (Chocho Miyako), is quickly on her side and if Teruko’s latest target, Hirooka (Keizo Kawasaki) starts to prefer the “new servant girl” his defection is completely understandable. Unlike later Masumura heroines, Yuko’s “revenge” is total yet constructive. She refuses to be cowed by unkindness, remains pure hearted in the face of cruelty, and resolves to find her own happiness and encourage others to do the same. With a few cutting words offered kindly, Yuko gets to the heart of the Onos, essentially reminding her father that all of this unhappiness is his own fault – he made his bed 20 years ago, now he needs to lie it and be a full-time husband and father to the family of lonely misfits he created in the absence of love.

Light and bright and colourful, The Blue Sky Maiden is among Masumura’s more cheerful films, not least because it does seem to believe that true happiness is possible. Yuko does not so much defy social convention as ignore it. She lives openly and without rancour or regret. She takes things as she finds them and people (aside from the Onos) are good to her because she is good to them. Though Masumura’s later work would become increasingly dark and melancholy, Yuko bears out many of his most central themes in her steadfast claim to her own individuality and equally steadfast commitment to enabling the happiness of others in defiance of prevailing social codes.


The Little Runaway (小さい逃亡者, Eduard Bocharov & Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1966)

The little runawayTeinosuke Kinugasa maybe best known for his avant-garde masterpiece The page of Madness even if his subsequent work leant towards a more commercial direction. His final film is just as unusual, though perhaps for different reason. In 1966, Kinugasa co-directed The Little Runaway (小さい逃亡者, Chiisai Tobosha) with Russian director Eduard Bocharov in the first of such collaborations ever created. Truth be told, aside from the geographical proximity, the Japan of 1966 could not be more different from its Soviet counterpart as the Eastern block remained mired in the “cold war” while Japan raced ahead towards its very own, capitalist, economic miracle. Perhaps looking at both sides with kind eyes, The Little Runaway has its heart in the right place with its messages of the universality of human goodness and endurance but broadly makes a success of them if failing to disguise the obvious propaganda gloss.

Little Ken (Chiharu Inayoshi) is ten years old and lives with his violinist uncle, Nobuyuki (Jukichi Uno). Ken has obvious talent at the violin and, like most kids in this rundown area, his drunken uncle has roped him into helping out for a few extra pennies. One fateful night, Nobuyuki has tied one on and lets slip that Ken’s dad might not be dead, but stuck in a hospital in Moscow. Soon enough a Russian circus comes to town and Ken strikes up a strange friendship with the kindly clown, eventually stowing away to the Soviet Union to look for his long lost father.

From one point of view, The Little Runaway conforms to a certain type of family drama which centres on the disconnect between a father and a son. Ken feels abandoned (no reference is ever made to his mother), though he loves and respects the uncle who takes care of him even if recognising his standard of care often leaves a lot to be desired. His desire to find his father is not so much motivated by unhappiness (his life is difficult but it’s the only one he’s ever known), but by the desire for answers as regards his own ancestry and the emotional need to reconnect with the biological father he no longer remembers clearly.

From another point of view, The Little Runaway conforms to the genre of children’s cinema in its close following of Ken’s quest. With no word of warning, Ken takes off for Russia as if he were simply going to check out a neighbouring town. Unaware of the political context and hoping to use his friendship with the circus troupe to his advantage Ken stows away on a boat headed for the USSR, but his clowning friends aren’t on it and he doesn’t speak any Russian.

The central tenet of the story is that there are kind people everywhere willing to help a determined little boy with melancholy eyes. Ken manages to get to Russia but then escapes his “escort”, hoping to travel to the capital faster. Wandering through the empty landscape, he chances into a house and makes friends with a peasant boy who introduces him to his wider family and a man with many daughters who could use a son just like Ken. Ken also tries to support himself by taking casual work as a labourer, having learnt the Russian word for such a job and repeatedly emphasising it, trying to assure them that he’s stronger than his appearance suggests.

Despite not speaking the language Ken manages to make himself understood through sand paintings, though the Russians he meets are all eager to share their food and shelter with him without much by way of explanation. As might be expected, the Russia depicted may not be particularly realistic, the officials are kind and jovial, the streets are clean, the people healthy and happy, and you can even buy Moscow cigarettes from woman running a stand in the square. The Japan Ken knows, by contrast, is one down at heels in which children are being pressed into shady forms of employment from Ken’s violin playing to little girls selling flowers on the street.

Depicting events from an innocent, child’s eye view, The Little Runaway finds only goodness rather than political anxiety but it is quick to emphasis the importance of helping those in need as the clown later avows. More or less straightforward in shooting style, Little Runaway is more intent on seeing the virtues of the cooperation between the Soviet block and the burgeoning Japanese economy than resolving its central mystery but nevertheless provides another welcome addition to the plucky child adventure genre while urging a kind of universal kindness probably not much in evidence in the real life Tokyo or Moscow of 1966.


Original Japanese trailer (no subtitles)

Giants & Toys (巨人と玩具, Yasuzo Masumura, 1958)

91C6JzGDYTL._SL1500_Less acerbic than Masumura’s later Black Test Car, Giants & Toys (巨人と玩具, Kyojin to gangu) is an altogether more humorous, if no less piercing look at post-war consumerism. This time the battle ground is confectionary as the Japanese sweets industry laments the all powerful American candies taking over the Japanese landscape. Three sweet companies are duking it out for the hearts of Japanese consumers and the hard working salarymen in the PR & marketing departments are becoming ever more desperate to find the key to becoming Japan’s top selling sweet maker.

The three companies are Giant, Apollo and World. Each of whom are currently trying to come up with an advertising campaign which has a competition element that will really hook in the populace. Our main focus is with World whose top PR man, Goda, is currently stumped when he spots quirky hillbilly Kyoko in a bar and hatches on an idea to make her the central poster girl of his ad campaign. Kyoko is 18 with gap teeth and a childlike innocence that makes her a great fit for selling their confectionary products to the adult market. At the same time, Goda’s assistant Nishi meets an older female executive from Apollo who’s trying to shift a set of spacesuits. This fits in neatly with another of Goda’s space themed ideas and a suitably bizarre campaign is launched with the gangly Kyoko dressed up in a kitsch spacesuit and pointing a ray gun which is somehow supposed to encourage people to buy sweets. Kyoko is a hit! However, the more popular Kyoko becomes the more her innocent charms begin to dissipate. What will become of her, and of the campaign, as the competition mounts?

For an area that’s supposed to be so totally frivolous and cheerful, confectionary sales are serious business. Goda is working himself into an early grave just to sell sweets to grownups and old people. It’s advertising and marketing but like everything else in life it’s just so much spin. What they’re really trying to sell is frivolous fun and a return to childhood’s freedom all packed into a momentary suck on a salted caramel. In the Japan where “everyone works all the time” this may be quite an attractive idea, especially to the put upon members of the confectionary marketing board.

However, trivial as sweets are, they represent the fleeting unimportance of pop culture memes. During one of Kyoko’s recording sessions we meet one of the solitary female producers (labled a “machine” by two of the other women waiting to be seen) who laments that a has been star keeps hassling her for work though her time has passed and no one’s interested. This is most likely how things will wind up for Kyoko, five minutes of being everywhere followed by a lifetime of being nowhere at all. After signing with World for their TV and radio advertising she becomes a break out personality attending events as a celebrity in her own right and later even becoming a pop star complete with a totally strange, South Pacific themed musical number referencing some kind of cannibalistic genocide where they’ll sell back the remains of the men they’ve killed to the native wives. Pointed satire in more ways than one.

Goda wants to build a kind of mass media dictatorship, cleverly controlling the public mood through all pervasive advertising (a prescient thought, if ever there was one). Having taken things too far, he’s taken to task by his underling, Nishi, who’s had a bit of a rethink following a series of heartbreaks involving friends and lovers. “I won’t sacrifice my dignity” he says, only to be shown doing just that a couple of minutes later as he himself dons the ridiculously camp space suit, takes the ray gun in hand and wanders out into the streets to be met by a series of bemused stares from the passersby. Eventually, the woman from Apollo with whom he’d been having an affair spots him and with an equally amused expression instructs him to “smile warmly”, at which point he grimaces before managing to turn it into a robotic grin.

Still oddly current, Giants & Toys is an absurdist’s guide to corporate politics where personal integrity is sacrificed on the altar of commerce. Everyone runs round in circles working hard to sell things no one really wants or needs to other hardworking people just to keep the wheel spinning. Kanban Musume come and go, one ridiculous meme follows another and we all just fall over ourselves to chase whichever unattainable ideal they pitch us. It would be nice to think the world has moved on since 1958, however…


Giants & Toys is available on R1 DVD with English subtitles courtesy of Fantoma.

No trailer but here’s the beautifully bizarre cannibalistic genocide themed music video

 

Black Test Car (黒の試走車, Yasuzo Masumura, 1962)

tumblr_n2w2l2mX1a1tvmqcgo1_1280The automobile business is a high stakes game. Do you want to play faster, shinier and sleeker, or safer, family friendly and reliable? Family cars are the best sellers – everyone one wants something that’s reliable for getting to work every morning, getting the grocery shopping done and that you won’t worry about taking your kids to the park in. However, it’s the 1960s and lifestyles are shifting, men (in particular) are marrying later and they want to have fun before they do – hence having quite a lot of disposable income they can blow on a flashy two-seater sports car with no wife to complain about it. Tiger have just finished a new prototype called the Pioneer they plan to launch as a revolution in commercial sports cars which is super speedy but with the convenience of an everyday sedan. However, the Yamato company are also set to launch a new car and it keeps looking suspiciously like the Pioneer – does Tiger have a mole?

Black Test Car (黒の試走車, Kuro no Test Car) begins with the prototype model of the Pioneer bursting into flames during a test run. Not the best start, but it’s early days and at least the driver wasn’t hurt. The guys at Tiger suspect sabotage as they can’t find anything wrong with car’s design. Onoda, the man who’s in charge of the project, has summoned some of his best employees to become the “industrial spying” department to flush out the mole. However, their first few plans fail and Yamato always seems to get there ahead of them. Yamato’s “chief of spying” is a slightly sleazy older man by the name of Mawatari who lost his wife and daughter during the Manchurian campaign (where he also may have been a more official kind of spy). Luckily (for some more than others), Onoda’s protege, Asahina, is dating a girl who works in the hostess industry and it’s suggested to him that he get his girlfriend to spy on Mawatari as he has a particular fondness for a certain hostess bar. The shady dealings only get worse from here on in, blackmail, bribery, pimping and prostitution – is this the yakuza or the automobile industry?

Yasuzo Masumura turns his cynical eye to big business and finds just as must drama as in your cold war spy epic. Onoda is a fanatical company man whose primary reason for living is his work. He barely comes home, rarely sees his children and views his precious Pioneer as his legacy. As such, he’s determined to find the man who’s betraying all his secrets and has become something of a petty dictator in the process. “We’re industrial spies!” he keeps declaiming, as if those words had any kind of authority. He’s not a policeman, he’s not a warrior for justice, he’s just a guy at a car firm who’s poured altogether too much of himself into a few scraps of metal.

His assistant, the up and coming Asahina, seems set to follow in Onoda’s footsteps. He’s young and ambitious, he wants to get the head of department job so he can marry his girlfriend who is still working as a bar hostess (which he doesn’t actually seem to mind about if she doesn’t mind about it either). The girlfriend, Masako, worries that work is changing him. When Asahina asks her to spy on Mawatari she refuses, but when he half jokes that he might not want to marry her she if won’t do as he says, she eventually agrees. Later he asks her for more than that which might just be enough to nip this young love story well and truly in the bud.

Having lost out several times already, the Tiger guys think they’ve got an angle and decide to launch the Pioneer way ahead of schedule to undercut Yamato’s price and release date. However, right away there is a scandalous accident which ends up all over the papers as the driver of the car (who survived unscathed, there were no serious injuries involved) drags the wreck all over town with a loud speaker to announce just how dangerous he believes the car to be. Of course, he’s a stooge, set up by Yamato and aided by another undiscovered mole in the Tiger camp. This incident is the last straw for those who still have a moral backbone at Tiger – culminating in violence and suicide, it leaves the fresh faced executives wondering whether they’re on the career ladder at a respectable firm or among the ranks of thuggish gangsters prepared to lie, cheat and extort to get along.

Shot in a noirish black and white with a moody jazz score, Black Test Car has its film noir overtones with the immorality of big business at its centre. At the beginning of the film everything is for the company – no one thinks of themselves or their own soul, they just want in and to climb the ladder while its there. Or so it seems because everyone is also taking kickbacks whilst blackmailing other people for doing exactly the same thing. There are spy cams interpreted by lip readers, undercover prostitutes masquerading as nurses and men in bushes with microphones – not a dignified way of doing business. At one point Onoda scoffs “you can’t get hung up on  morals. You’ll just have remorse” – this is the choice that presents itself, would you rather have the flashy sports car or retain your humanity?


Black Test Car is available on R1 DVD with English subtitles courtesy of Fantoma.

(unsubbed trailer)