Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (乙女ごころ三人姉妹, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Three sisters with maiden heart title card“From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us” Mikio Naruse is often quoted as saying, and it’s certainly an idea which informs much of his filmmaking. 1935’s Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (乙女ごころ三人姉妹, Otome-gokoro  Sannin-shimai), adapted from a short story by Yasunari Kawabata, is indeed a tale of the world’s cruelty as its saintly heroine attempts to escape her austere mother’s icy grip through kindness alone but finds her efforts frustrated by the world in which she lives.

Osome (Masako Tsutsumi) is the middle of three sisters raised by a cold woman (Chitose Hayashi) who forced her daughters to earn their keep by playing the shamisen on the streets of Asakusa. Oldest daughter Oren (Chikako Hosokawa) left the family some time ago after falling in love with a salaryman and hasn’t been heard from since, and while Osome is still expected to ply her trade, youngest daughter Chieko (Ryuko Umezono) has been spared, becoming a “modern girl” currently working as a dancer in a revue. Unbeknownst to her family, Chieko has also got a boyfriend – the handsome and seemingly quite wealthy Aoyama (Heihachiro Okawa) who runs into Osome by chance in the street and offers her a handkerchief to help fix her broken geta. This is not the story of a love triangle, however, so much as cruel fate accidentally bringing the sisters back together through a shared destiny.

While Chieko idly muses that it might have been better if her mother had opted for group suicide (joking with her lover about dying together as was apparently a fad at the time), Osome tearfully asks her to “please accept us as we are” but her pleas largely fall on deaf ears. Having taken in a series of apprentices, Osome’s mother continues to treat them cruelly, berating them for not picking up the shamisen, and insisting on “discipline” when she discovers one of the girls has had the temerity to buy a magazine with some of the money she herself has earned. Osome, in a characteristic act of kindness, insists she bought the magazine as a morale booster only to receive her mother’s scorn. “I put so much effort into raising you, but you still haven’t become people who’ll give an honest day’s work” she complains, commodifying them once again. “You don’t know how much easier it would be to go out and earn money myself”, she adds unconvincingly, telling her daughter she can always leave if she doesn’t like it despite having irritatedly complained about Chieko’s increasingly late return home and the possibility she may leave just like Oren did.

As Osome tells us, she and her sister were forced to play the shamisen in unsavoury Asakusa from only eight years old. As they got older, Osome was worried about the attention Oren seemed to be getting from “rough” men in the streets. Eventually Oren stopped carrying her shamisen at all and fell in with a bad crowd, only escaping when she met her husband Kosugi (Osamu Takizawa). Kosugi, however, is ill with TB and finding it difficult to hold down a job. Increasingly jealous and paranoid, he is afraid Oren will hook up with her old gangster friends and fall back into bad habits. Meanwhile, Osome is still playing her shamisen and putting up with rough treatment from the drunken clientele who sometimes try to manhandle her or make unreasonable requests. An irritated bar owner eventually knocks on a record to drown her out as if signalling her impending obsolesce.

Nevertheless, the older two sisters have largely remained traditional. Oren’s fall into the gangster underworld is signalled by a sighting of her in Western clothes, looking like a well to do young lady as Osome puts it, but once with Kosugi she soon reverts to kimono and fully embraces the role of a conventional housewife supporting her husband with all her strength. Chieko, however, is a “modern girl”, dancing in a nightclub revue and dressing exclusively in Western fashions. Some horrible boys who make a point of singing the rather vulgar song back at the girls through the window yell “modern girl” at her in the street, indicating just how shocking and unconventional her appearance was back in 1935 even in the backstreets of Asakusa. Nevertheless, Chieko appears to have found a satisfying romance with a “modern boy” in Aoyama who dresses in suits and seems to have a bit of money but is undeterred by a possible class difference and just as nice as his potential sister-in-law.

Despite Osome’s attempts to reunite the sisters, fate conspires against her. Oren hooks back up with her lowlife friends who use her in a plot to extort Aoyama while she remains completely unaware that she’s targeting her sister’s young man. Osome tries to tries to stop them but is stabbed by thugs in the process and, figuring out what’s happened, keeps Aoyama and Chieko away from the station where she has arranged to bid Oren goodbye on the last train out of Ueno. Poignantly, Oren seems happy that her sister has found someone nice, saying that she’d have liked to meet him still unaware she already has. The sisters know they likely won’t meet again, and Osome is content only in knowing that in theory at least she has saved the memory of the bond they once shared through preventing Oren’s involvement in the incident with Aoyama from coming to light.

Osome’s kindness is her undoing. Her world betrays her, she is simply too good, too pure-hearted to be able to survive in it. The three sisters struggle to overcome neglectful parenting, but their mother has at least survived if unhappily, suggesting the world is kinder to those whose hearts are colder. Oren and Chieko go their separate ways, into the past (on a train) and the future (by car), but Osome remains stubbornly in the waiting room with only the inevitable awaiting her.


The Actress and the Poet (女優と詩人, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Actress and the Poet title cardAmong the directors most closely associated with the golden age of Japanese cinema, Mikio Naruse is not usually remembered for his sense of humour but his pre-war work often saw him making uncomfortable forays into the shomin-geki comedy. The Actress and the Poet (女優と詩人, Joyu to shijin), Naruse’s second film after leaving Shochiku for P.C.L, is among the more successful but also tinged with characteristic irony that says this is funny because it’s not funny at all.

The generic shomin-geki setup finds us in a small community of suburban houses where mild-mannered poet Geppu (Hiroshi Uruki) lives with his successful actress wife Chieko (Sachiko Chiba). Amusingly enough, and in a motif which will be repeated, the film opens with an high impact scene of a woman screaming after being threatened with a knife, but thankfully it turns out that Chieko and her friends are simply rehearsing for a play. The actors dispatch Geppu to fetch them some cigarettes, which brings him into contact with his no good “friend” Nose (Kamatari Fujiwara), a struggling writer who is absolutely sure his latest work is going to win a big prize which is why it’s not a big problem that he’s so behind on his rent that he’s been coming and going through the upstairs window so he doesn’t attract the attention of his landlady.

When we first meet Geppu he’s wearing a pinny and cheerfully hanging up the washing. A young man passes by on a bicycle and seems surprised, asking if he himself really did all that laundry to which Geppu somewhat improbably replies that it’s all second nature when you’ve been in the army. Even though this is obviously a very “normal” day for Geppu, the questions keep coming. Ohama (Haruko Toda), the nosy woman from next-door, remarks that everyone in the neighbourhood loves Geppu because he’s just so nice but he’s also become a hot topic with the ladies at the bathhouse because no one’s quite sure what it is he “does”. In the modern parlance, Geppu is a basically househusband who dabbles in “poetry”, or as Ohama later explains “songs for children”.

In this fiercely modern environment, it’s Chieko who wields the financial power while her husband appears not to mind trailing behind. She wears kimono but often with luxurious furs which might lead to us ask why they live in this modest suburban house rather than in the bright lights of the city, but even so the marriage appears to be a happy and progressively equal one. In fact, as we later discover, there’s never been a cross word between Geppu and his wife, which is a problem because Chieko’s latest role involves a marital tiff and she’s struggling to get to grips with it because she doesn’t know what it’s like to fall out with your spouse. To figure it out she gets Geppu to read lines with her in a situation which eventually repeats in their real life when Nose bamboozles Geppu into letting him stay in the upstairs room rent free, leading to an almost identical fight watched calmly by Nose and Ohama who think they’ve got ringside seats to a play they could never afford to see.

Nose’s intervention unbalances the couple’s relationship in that it forces Geppu to reassert his masculinity. “A promise between men is a serious thing”, Geppu affirms “I can’t just go back on it because my wife says no”. Chieko reminds him, however, that this is technically her house – she pays all the bills, while his “writing” career is good only for the odd box of sponge cake. She doesn’t like it, perhaps understandably, that he’s “invited” a ne’er do well to come and live with them without even bothering to talk to her about it. She tries to put her foot down, but Geppu remains as irritatingly passive as ever only slightly putout to have his subjugated status suddenly used against him.

Naruse ends the picture with a comic sequence in which Chieko sees the light. Thanks to her real life argument with her husband, she’s figured out how to perfect her performance but she’s apparently so method that she also begins to embrace her role as a conventional wife off stage too. Rather than Geppu letting her sleep in and cooking the breakfast himself, this time it’s Geppu wrapped up in a futon while Chieko chops veg downstairs. Nevertheless, there is a minor irony in this moment of domestic bliss in that it directly follows the news that the nice young couple who just moved in across the road have committed double suicide because of his embezzlement and subsequent debts. Neatly underlining the consumerist trends of the age, the couple wanted to die in their own home even if it was only “theirs” for a few moments. Meanwhile, Ohama and her insurance salesman husband are busy having a blazing row next-door which just goes to show that old-fashioned marriages aren’t so happy either.

Chieko superficially plays the conventional wife, engaging in a little role-play with her husband while Nose listens on from the stairwell, but theirs remains a very modern marriage in which she is free to fulfil herself outside the home and her husband is seemingly unbothered (to a point at least) by the mild censure of the local ladies who both love him for his niceness and perhaps dislike him for it too. Naruse undercuts the conventionally “happy” ending in which traditional gender roles are restored and the family rebalanced by ending on a note of irony as the home of Ohama, a traditional wife dominating her henpecked husband in a comic yet socially accepted fashion, is thrown into violent discord while all is peaceful in the decidedly modern house of Geppu.


Wife! Be Like a Rose! (妻よ薔薇のやうに, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Wife be like a rose posterIt’s tempting to view the cinema of the 1930s as a gloomy affair, facilitating the rise of militarism and increasingly at mercy of the censors, but the early sound era was nothing if not playful and generously open to international influences. It was also often surprisingly progressive, evidencing the fact that pre-war Japan was also changing or, at least, that there was an appetite for change especially among the young. Mikio Naruse’s delightfully charming (perhaps uncharacteristically so) comedy, Wife! Be Like a Rose! (妻よ薔薇のやうに, Tsuma yo bara no yo ni) dramatises just this change as its modern girl heroine tries to process the definitive end of her parents’ relationship as she prepares to marry.

Kimiko (Sachiko Chiba) has a job in an office which is more or less supporting herself and her mother seeing as her father, Shunsaku (Sadao Maruyama), left the family over 15 years previously and has been living with former geisha with whom he has two other children. Despite his long absence, Kimiko’s mother Etsuko (Toshiko Ito) has continued to pine for her absent husband and makes a little money on the side writing sad love poems for the newspapers. A request to stand as a go between at a wedding, traditionally a role only performed by married women, forces Etsuko to accept that she has been abandoned but the snag is that Kimiko and her boyfriend Seiji (Heihachiro Okawa) want to get married themselves and so his father wants to meet Kimiko’s dad which is obviously a problem.

Despite her “modern girl” appearance, Kimiko has some quite old fashioned ideas. She looks down on her maudlin mother, believing that she’s brought her apparent romantic heartbreak on herself through being a bad wife. Etsuko never seemed very interested in Shunsaku when he was around and never did any of the little wifely things Kimiko thinks a wife ought to do like vacuous chat and helping her husband change out of his work clothes. Kimiko thinks a good wife “acts childish and cajoling, or jealous sometimes, or motherly and protective”, believing that Etsuko knows this and has the ability to play the part of the ideal spouse but refuses to and therefore has only herself to blame. Kimiko’s uncle (Kamatari Fujiwara), however, corrects her. He piles the blame on the irresponsible Shunsaku who ran out on a wife and daughter to shack up with geisha.

Shunsaku, meanwhile, may be irresponsible in one sense, but perhaps it’s equally irresponsible to stay in an unhappy marriage. Now a gold prospector in the mountains, he is poor and unsuccessful but has built a happy family home with a kindly wife and two sweet children. Kimiko’s desire to drag him back to the city is partly practical in that she needs him to be her father so she can marry Seiji, but there’s also a part of her that thinks that her father’s transgression must be corrected by forcing him to resume his paternal role. Unlike Etsuko, however, Oyuki (Yuriko Hanabusa) is the classically “good” wife and Kimiko can’t deny she’s good for her father. Seeing him in the mountains and remembering him at home, Kimiko begins to realise that it would be wrong to take him away from his new family even if she thinks she has the better claim, especially when she finds out that it’s Oyuki who’s been sending her mother maintenance cheques every month for the past few years.

In fact, Oyuki feels so guilty about stealing Shunsaku away that she’s been putting money aside to pay for Kimiko’s wedding/education while keeping her own daughter home from school. Far from the gold digger Kimiko had assumed her to be, she’s been the one supporting the feckless Shunsaku as he pursues his get rich quick dream of gold prospecting. Realising that the pair of them “act in perfect harmony”, Kimiko comes to the conclusion that her father belongs in the mountains but finds her resolve wavering after returning to civilisation. She begins to wish he’d stay and hatches a plan to get her parents back together only to see how out of sync they are after 15 years apart. They swap pleasantries like strangers, and the mild-mannered Shunsaku visibly shrinks in the presence of the shrewish Etsuko who allows her pride to ruin any attempt at reconciliation.

What the modern girl Kimiko discovers is that sometimes things don’t work out like they’re supposed to, and that’s OK. Though it is in one sense a “happy” ending in that it obeys a justice born of human feeling, it’s also a melancholy moment of defeat both for the lovelorn Etsuko who has, as Kimiko says “lost”, and the now resigned Kimiko who harbours a degree of contempt towards her mother for not fighting harder for love. Standing at a crossroads of modernity, Kimiko looks both forward and back. She vows to be a “good wife” but her foundations have been shaken. Is this tragedy, or farce? She asks herself. It’s almost impossible to say.


Tochuken Kumoemon (桃中軒雲右衛門, Mikio Naruse, 1936)

Tochuzen KazoemonIt’s an age old question, but does being a great artist give you the right to treat other people terribly? Hopefully, most people would say no, it does not. Most “great artists”, however, may have a different opinion. The hero of Mikio Naruse’s 1936 biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (桃中軒雲右衛門, AKA Man of the House) is very much of the opinion that inflicting suffering on others, and thereby vicariously suffering himself (but not really because who cares about them), is the source of all his supposedly “great art”.

Tochuken Kumoemon was in fact a real person who died twenty years before the film’s release and had his heyday as a renowned yet scandal ridden performer of “rokyoku” in late Meiji. To brings things full circle and explain why perhaps his life was fit for cinematic exploration in the politically fraught atmosphere of 1936, it’s helpful to remember that Tochuken Kumoemon’s performances of such patriotic fare as the 47 Ronin helped to rouse nationalist sentiment during the Russo-Japanese conflict. “Rokyoku”, also known as “naniwabushi”, is a traditional art of narrative singing accompanied by shamisen which found favour with the militarists for its essential Japaneseness and hearty rustic vulgarity.

In any case, we meet Tochuken Kumoemon (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) on a train drawing closer to his planned return to Tokyo after having been forced to flee it eight years previously because of a sex scandal which led him to separate from his first wife, leaving a son, Sentaro (Kaoru Ito), behind, and marry Otsuma (Chikako Hosokawa) – his shamisen player with whom he is currently travelling. The troupe are supposed to be breaking their journey at Kozu, but for reasons unexplained, Tochuken Kumoemon decides to get off the train at Shizuoka and promptly disappears without a word to anyone. 

The disappearance is problematic on several levels, the first being that the stop was only engineered to allow Tochuken Kumoemon to visit his estranged son Sentaro. Some in the group posit that Tochuken Kumoemon has come down with a rare case of stage fright seeing as this Tokyo show will be his biggest to date, while others assume he is embarrassed to go back to the city because of the scandals which previously engulfed him there, and some believe he is simply conflicted about visiting the son he abandoned to run off with another woman.

Anyone who knows him, however, might be better placed to realise that the great Tochuken Kumoemon rarely has a reason for doing anything save that it pleased him to do so at the time. Nevertheless, what we discover about him as he tours the inns of Kozu throwing his money about like some crazed libertine, is that he apparently liked his life better when he was poor but is bravely suffering under the burdens of wealth “for his art”. In fact everything in Tochuken Kumoemon’s life is “for his art”, including the thoughts and feelings of those closest to him.

Tochuken Kumoemon’s story may be intended as a kind of militarist parable about a man who devoted everything of himself to a particular ideal, in his case art but for the militarists perhaps country. The major problem here is that Tochuken Kumoemon never particularly suffers himself, grinning broadly throughout, but forces others to suffer on his behalf while he extracts from them qualities he can use to enhance his performance. Pain may be good for art, but it’s rarely good for life, and most would find themselves questioning why it is those around him remain contented to suffer solely to facilitate Tochuken Kumoemon’s artistic fulfilment.

Loyal wife Otsuma begins to reconsider, bravely challenging Tochuken Kumoemon on the inauthenticity of his performances which, though growing in popularity, she feels to be increasingly hollow. She remembers the early days of their courtship which were apparently marked by a fierce competitive rivalry which proved artistically beneficial to them both before spilling over into other kinds of offstage passion which now appears to have cooled. Otsuma, now weakened as she finds herself succumbing to the later stages of consumption, something Tochuken Kumoemon refuses to acknowledge, fears that she is now unable to inspire him with her playing which is why he’s been up to his old tricks consorting with geishas. Claiming that Otsuma wouldn’t care about his affairs because she’s an artist too and will therefore “understand”, Tochuken Kumoemon has taken up with a pretty little thing, Chidori (Sachiko Chiba), from whom he intends to steal “youth and innocence” for his performances, little caring what he might leave behind.

For Tochuken Kumoemon everything is simply fuel for art and so he’s excused himself from the need to treat others with respect or kindness. Sentaro, his rejected son, rejects this aspect of his father’s philosophy, immediately bonding with his kindly step-mother and resenting his absent father’s treatment of her. In “raising” his son, Tochuken Kumoemon bangs on about traditionally “militarist” values of manliness, explaining that he is imperfect because he is a “great artist” and that his life has been full of problems but that he has overcome them with strength and perseverance. He tells his son that “weakness is the worst thing in a man”, but appears primed to hit the roof on learning that Sentaro may be expelled from school for fighting with his schoolmates because they mocked his unconventional family setup. Worst of all he casts his son away as one of the many who unfairly demand “perfection” from him even though he is an artist and cannot be expected to abide by the rules of “normal people”.

Meanwhile, Otsuma lies dying in a hospital. Tochuken Kumoemon won’t see her because he refuses to view her as “just a woman”, preferring to remember her as “a woman who lived only for art”. The subtext being for “his” art, rather than her own. He betrays himself when he admits that he “doesn’t want to be any more sad” than he is now, simply refusing to deal with the unpleasantness and personal suffering of facing the fact that someone important to you is in pain and will soon be gone. Yet despite a brief rebellion after an ill-advised gift from Chidori, Otsuma eventually agrees to sacrifice herself for Tochuken Kumoemon’s art, to die “quietly” as an artist and not as a woman. 

It’s only at this point that Tochuken Kumoemon decides to embrace the romance of the moment, finally travelling to her deathbed in order to sing a song. If Tochuken Kumoemon is a militarist hero, he’s not a particularly sympathetic one. He remains monstrously self-involved, hypocritical, an emotional coward who uses the suffering of others for his own ends with only the justification of the primacy of his art. Naruse undercuts the propaganda potential of the piece by painting his patriotic singer as a ridiculous prig who embodies the militarists’ coldness towards the thoughts and feelings of their fellow humans but displays none of their supposedly romantic heroism in his empty swagger and well worn platitudes. Is naniwabushi really worth all this pain? No. Someone needs to tell Tochuken Kumoemon he’s not as important as he thinks he is. And while they’re at it, they could have a word with the militarists, too.


The real Tochuken Kumoemon

Real TOCHUKEN KUMOEMON

Mr. Shosuke Ohara (小原庄助さん, AKA Ohara Shosuke-san, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1949)

vlcsnap-2016-09-25-01h34m07s636Ohara Shousuke-san (小原庄助さん) is the name of a character from a popular folk song intended to teach children how not to live their lives. The Ohara Shosuke-san of Aizu Bandaisan has lost all his fortune but no one feels very sorry for him because it’s his own fault – he spent his days in idleness, drinking, sleeping in, and bathing in the morning. The central character of Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1937 film has earned this nickname for himself because he also enjoys a drink or too and doesn’t actually do very much else, but unlike the character in the song this a goodhearted man much loved by the community because he’s a soft touch and just can’t refuse when asked for a favour. An acknowledgement of the changing times, Shimizu’s Mr. Shousuke Ohara is a tribute to the soft hearted but also an argument for action over passivity.

If you turn up one day and ask for directions to the Sugimoto household, everyone will look at you with confusion but if you ask for Mr. Shousuke Ohara everyone will gladly walk you over and introduce you. Saheita Sugimoto (Denjiro Okochi) is the head of a once proud samurai household but his fortunes are far from those of his ancestors. Despite his pecuniary difficulties, Sugimoto is good hearted man who wants to help everyone that he can (out of a sense of altruism rather than duty or vanity). Consequently he is deeply in debt and nearing bankruptcy yet he can’t give up any of his three vices – drinking, gambling, and generosity.

The nature of the changing times is at the centre of this 1949 film. As Sugimoto is fond of telling people, his noble house used to stand for something but all of that historical influence is next to meaningless now. Though Western dress is not uncommon, the village is pretty much as it’s always been – children play in the fields and Sugimoto travels everywhere by donkey. Other than the tale of Sugimoto’s fall from grace, the central narrative concerns an election for a new village chief. Yoshida, a youngish man, wants Sugimoto’s support for his election campaign. His main campaign policy is modernisation – the introduction of electricity, modern transportation and communications, as well as greater cultural involvement starting with opening Western style ballroom dance classes for the children. Unfortunately his policies are not that firm and his motto seems to be “I’ll do that first!” to all aspects of his plan which is not very encouraging but still the desire is very much to move away from old fashioned village life towards a more sophisticated urbanism.

This of course also means an end to the inherited influence of idle nobleman such as Sugimoto. Though he’s a kind man who likes nothing other than helping other people, Sugimoto has been a passive steward, more consumed with his own idle pursuits than with making an active attempt at leading the village. This passivity has contributed to his downfall as he’s neglected the business of maintaining his own fortune. After taking out numerous loans which he only ever uses to help the villagers, Sugimoto has let the estate which ancestors founded, and which he was supposed to look after in the names of all that have gone before and all were to come after him, slip away. The ultimate failure and a disgrace to his ancestors, this loss of the ancestral home is an unforgivable betrayal yet there is something in Sugimoto which seems to regard it as right and proper that it should go.

Change is coming to the village, even if it isn’t coming with the speed that a young man like Yoshida may be hoping for. Change is also coming to Japan which is in the progress of rebuilding itself anew following long years of folly followed by confusion. There is no room for genial idleness anymore. “If you can work honestly with your hands you can make a living”, Sugimoto tells two would-be-burglars that he invites in for a drink as a apology for not having anything left for them to steal, but means the advice more for himself than anyone else. It’s time to say goodbye to Shousuke Ohara and the burden of inherited privilege and chart a new course as Seihata Sugimoto. Finishing on another of Shimizu’s much loved road shots, Sugimoto, like his nation, walks confidently along the road to an uncertain future yet he is not alone as he goes and may make something of himself yet.