Five Men in a Circus (サーカス五人組, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

“Life is a journey” according to the melancholy heroine of Mikio Naruse’s Five Men in a Circus (サーカス五人組, Circus Goningumi), one of the director’s early anti-comedies in which a collection of itinerant performers find not so much hope for the future as accommodation with despair. Though the Japan of 1935 was not perhaps as straitened as the nation was to become, an all pervasive sense of hopelessness traps these travelling players in perpetual motion, burdened by the unattainability of their dreams as they find themselves continually moving forward while standing still. 

The five men of the title are an itinerant jinta brass band, though to tell the truth not a very good one. They were supposed to be on their way to play at a primary school sports day, only when they get there they’re told the event has been postponed to the following spring. After having wasted the afternoon killing time playing on the monkey bars and children’s slide, they decide to give a little concert anyway, not that anyone’s listening and there’s no real chance of getting paid. It’s in the next town, however, that they make a series of serendipitous meetings connected with a travelling circus which is currently undergoing a crisis as the entire male company has gone on strike against the boss’ tyrannical management style in a subversive dig at rising authoritarianism. 

All things considered, the circus seems to be doing pretty well for itself. It has a sizeable company with several accomplished performers and appears to be drawing good audiences. The boss (Sadao Maruyama) dresses in fancy outfits and there doesn’t seem to be much anxiety over hunger or any sign of the usual worries with which films about itinerant performers are usually concerned, all of which is in direct contrast to the jinta guys whose ragged appearance and habit of pinching yukata from the various inns on their route make plain their relative poverty. “None of us do jinta because we like it” the oldest of the players Seiroku (Ko Mihashi) points out, a woman behind in the bar him echoing that no one becomes a hostess because they like it either. None of these men had a burning desire to be in a band, they simply ended up there and now they can’t get out. Young orphan Kokichi (Heihachiro Okawa), however, dreams of going to Tokyo to study the violin carrying around a record of Western classical music to refresh his soul while worrying that his jinta life is corrupting him.  

Kokichi’s earnestness finds a fan and a mirror in Chiyoko (Masako Tsutsumi), the older daughter of the circus master who claims that she has long since given up hope of a better life even as she continues to dream her small dream of living in an ordinary house with a man she loves. Trapped by filial duty to her cruel father, Chiyoko actively encourages the escape of her younger sister Sumiko (Ryuko Umezono) who is in love with the ringmaster Kunio (Koji Kaga) though their father won’t let them marry. Kunio is also the instigator of the strike which is currently engulfing the circus, placing a strain on Sumiko’s conflicted loyalties as she struggles with her desire to leave the intinerant life behind. 

After the band is taken on as ringers to replace the striking musicians they also find themselves required to perform on stage, with varying degrees of success. Kokichi pleads to be given a chance to perform with a violin, even foregoing his pay as he’s warned the target audience is unlikely to find much to entertain them in a violin recital. His inexpert playing is roundly rejected by the baying mob who quickly begin throwing their rubbish at him until he’s forced to leave the stage in a moment of pure and crushing tragedy. Chiyoko tries to comfort him that she at least enjoyed the performance, but her words fail to cheer him more than superficially. He knows he’ll never go to Tokyo, or be anything more than a jinta player with only false hope to sustain him in the same way that Seiroku realises he’ll never never make peace with his past when he’s slyly conned by a 10-year-old girl he half suspected was the baby he abandoned out of economic desperation following the death of his wife. 

Yet it is in a sense romance that eventually eventually brokers resolution in the eventual implosion of Sumiko’s conflicted desires which cause her to “fall” from the trapeze, a moment of crisis daringly filmed through the use of double exposure superimposing Sumiko’s face over her POV of the men fighting in the ring. This narrowly averted tragedy apparently awakens something in her father who, she tells Kunio, only became cruel when their mother left, forcing him to relent and agree to be nicer to his employees while approving his daughter’s marriage. Yet romance cannot solve everything, and the only other romantic resolution we discover is in the roguish Torakichi (Hiroshi Uruki) who relents and accepts a woman he callously seduced and abandoned but who followed him because of the strength of a woman’s “passion”. Though we can see a connection has arisen between Chiyoko and Kokichi, it is not one which can be fulfilled, fate is pulling them in different directions. Forever a jinta player, he is pulled on to the next gig, the camera pulling back tragically from the bereaved Chiyoko, rooted to the spot as she watches her last hope walk away from her. “Life is a journey” she offers as a note of grim resignation, while knowing she’s going nowhere at all.


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.