Travelling Actors (旅役者, Mikio Naruse, 1940)

“You can’t have a horse without the ass” admits a travelling actor, inwardly preparing to meet his obsolescence. Anything’s an art if you care to practice it, but there is such a thing as taking yourself too seriously. A masterclass in tragicomedy, Naruse’s 1940 character study Travelling Actors (旅役者, Tabi Yakusha) finds two ends of a pantomime horse about to be torn apart when their act is unwittingly destroyed by a resentful punter whose drunken attempt to escape his sense of humiliation in being tricked by unscrupulous promoters leaves their horse without a head. 

Hyoroku (Kamatari Fujiwara) prides himself on being the “Danjuro of pantomime horses”, performing with the younger Senpei (Kan Yanagiya) who looks up to him as if he really were a great master of the arts. The guys are part of a group of travelling players touring rural Japan performing traditional skits for an audience starved of entertainment. The troupe is not, however, above exploitative business practices, proudly advertising the appearance of “Kikugoro” but neglecting to mention that it’s not the famous one, just another guy with the same name. Meanwhile, someone has to foot the bill for “producing” the show wherever the actors land, leading the exploitative producers to convince a local barber (Ko Mihashi) to invest, hoping to get a little free publicity because he’s known to be the town gossip and can spread the word through his shop. The plan backfires, however, when he travels to the station to see them arrive and immediately realises they are not a fancy acting company from Tokyo but a bunch of ragged bumpkins. Feeling thoroughly fed up, he demands to be allowed to perform in the show as the price of his silence before getting black out drunk and passing out backstage, crushing the papier-mâché horse’s head in his desperation to find somewhere soft to land. 

As “Kikugoro” points out, the “guy who plays the pantomime horse is really picky” so they know they’re in for some trouble as soon as he finds out what’s happened to his head. In fact, Hyoroku was just in the middle of some remodelling, trying to make the head look even more realistic to improve his art. While the barber is destroying his life’s work, Hyoroku and Senpei are drinking with a pair of geishas who are pretending to be interested in Hyoroku’s mini lecture about his process in which he tells them all about how he’s really captured the true essence of the horse through patiently honing his craft all these long years. 

There might be something in that, that Hyoroku is a workhorse of the theatre now more beast than man. Just occasionally, his horsey mannerisms come out in his offstage life, scratching the floor with his feet or pacing the room like a penned in pony. Though there are other sides of him which are painfully human. He makes a point of belittling Senpei in front of the geishas, insulting his art to assert his place as the teacher, always keen to keep his pupil in his place. But as Senpei points out, you can’t have a horse without the ass, and his “art” is no less important than Hyoroku’s. Continuing to take himself way too seriously, Hyoroku refuses to perform with the broken head, flatly objecting to the suggestion of substituting one from the fox costumes because he can’t get into character when his head’s in the wrong place. 

Faced with the prospect of cancelling the show, the producers come up with a radical idea – hiring a real horse. In a still more ironic touch, they even sell this horse who is making his stage debut as a star in his own right, only realising the dangers of their situation when it urinates right in the middle of the act. Weirdly, that only makes the horse a hit and convinces the troupe they’re on to a winner, which is bad news for the boys because who wants to see two guys in an ugly costume when they could be gazing at the real thing. The days of the pantomime horse are ending, but where does that leave a “great master” like Hyoroku who has spent his life becoming more horsey than a horse? Kicked out of the inn and forced to sleep backstage as non-performers, the guys eventually suffer the indignity of being offered jobs as stable boys, mere servants to the star who has replaced them. 

In an unguarded moment, Hyoroku and Senpei reflect on where they are as a young man in a soldier’s uniform leads a patient horse off to war. “That could be us” they sigh, though it’s not clear if they mean the man or the horse, before going back to horsing around eating shaved ice and flirting with the store owner. “I’m just the horse’s ass”, Senpei laments, secretly hoping to become a “real” actor at last, only for Hyoroku to uncharacteristically start encouraging him before dragging him off on another crazy adventure. Putting the fox’s head on to make a point, Hyoroku disappears into the role, chasing his rival right out of town, dragging his back legs behind him as he goes. 


A Slope in the Sun (陽のあたる坂道, Tomotaka Tasaka, 1958)

Slope in the sun posterYujiro Ishihara had become the face of the “Sun Tribe” movement thanks to roles inspired by his brother Shintaro’s novels including the seminal Crazed Fruit in which he starred opposite his later wife, Mie Kitahara. Tomotaka Tasaka’s A Slope in the Sun (陽のあたる坂道, Hi no Ataru Sakamichi), adapted from the novel by Yojiro Ishizaka, is a much less frenetic affair than Nakahira’s famously intense youth drama, but retains the Sun Tribe’s world of purposeless youth whose inherited wealth has driven them to a life of listless ennui. Like Crazed Fruit, Slope in the Sun is the story of two brothers chasing the same girl, only this time one looks bad and is really good, while the other looks good but is really no good at all.

Beginning on the titular sun beaten slope, the film opens with a young woman, Takako (Mie Kitahara), entering the frame as she searches for an address on a piece of paper she is carrying. She finds the house – a large Western-style mansion, but is prevented from entering by a young man who mistakes her for a saleswoman and instructs her to use the tradesman’s entrance. The young man, Shinji (Yujiro Ishihara), continues to taunt her with lewd language before poking at her breast. Takako tries to leave but is persuaded to come inside to meet the lady of the house and the young woman, Kumiko (Izumi Ashikawa), whom she has come to tutor.

The Tashiro household is a strange one. There are three almost grown up children – oldest brother Yukichi (Yuji Odaka) who is a medical student, middle brother Shinji who is a painter, and the youngest daughter Kumiko who is approaching the end of high school and is a little over sensitive about a mild limp which is the consequence of a childhood accident. Takako nearly turns the job down when she realises that the family want less a teacher to help with Kumiko’s studies, than a kind of big sister to help her navigate her way into the adult world, but eventually warms to the Tashiros and decides to give it a go. A college student in need of money, Takako is currently living in a boarding house where she is friends with the older lady next door, Tomiko Takagi (Hisako Yamane), and her 18 year old musician son Tamio (Tamio Kawachi).

In contrast to the earlier Sun Tribe films, A Slope in the Sun is much more subdued though it does maintain an upperclass atmosphere filled with bored young people who struggle to find purpose in their lives through having no particular economic or social worries thanks to the protective cushioning of their wealth. The central issue is a common one to the familial melodrama – middle child Shinji has always felt disconnected from his family and has discovered that the woman who raised him is not his birth mother. He wants to know the truth of his family history but is also a kinder soul than his outward behaviour may suggest and does not want to hurt anyone or risk destroying the otherwise pleasant enough family life he enjoys as a Tashiro.

As expected coincidences abound though the truth is obvious seconds after Takako tells someone the name of her new employer causing them to gasp and draw pale with shock. It seems that everyone in the family already knew that Shinji is only a half brother except Shinji himself – their overcompensation in treating him kindly was the initial tipoff for his suspicions, but this question of blood relation turns out to have a surprising dimension. Oldest brother Yukichi is, outwardly, the model son – handsome, clever, gentlemanly, but on closer inspection his veneer of respectability turns out to be just that. The boys’ mother, Midori (Yukiko Todoroki), knows this well and partly blames herself for allowing Shinji to take the blame for a childhood accident rather than forcing her own son to confess. For all his seeming goodness, Yukichi is an amoral coward, womaniser, and habitual liar whereas there’s a kind of honesty in Shinji’s lewd speech and even in his own lies which he indulges partly out of a sense of smug superiority, as Midori puts it, but also because of the inferiority complex which has marred his life as he feels himself somehow lesser than either of his siblings.

Takako vacillates between the two brothers, taken in by the manipulative Yukichi but strangely drawn to the provocative Shinji. Unlike Nikkatsu’s other youth films, Slope in the Sun ends on a note of happy resolution rather than nihilistic suffering as each member of the family is encouraged to embrace their true natures, putting secrets to one side, and becoming closer in the process. Tanaka’s approach is a more classical one than Nikkatu’s usual fare, making use of silent cinema-style closeups and dissolves but veers towards the avant-garde in a brief flashback sequence offered in dreamlike widescreen. Despite the jazz clubs and subplots about misused geishas, this is a more innocent world than the post-war melodrama would usually allow, finding space for happiness and forgiveness in each of the conflicted protagonists once they each agree to submit themselves to the truth and meet the world with openness and positivity.


The Moon Has Risen (月は上りぬ, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1955)

the moon has risen bookletOne of the most celebrated actresses of the 1930s, Kinuyo Tanaka’s post-war career took a couple of unexpected turns. In 1949, she was one of a small number of performers sent to tour America as a cultural ambassador but the reception upon her return was anything but welcoming as her old fans openly criticised her “Americanised” ways. In the same year, she ended her long standing contract with Shochiku to go freelance which meant she could pick and choose her projects from across a wider field of directors and actors she wanted to work with. What she wanted, however, was somewhat unheard of – she wanted to direct. The second woman to ever helm a feature film in Japan, Kinuyo Tanaka made her behind the camera debut in 1953 with the extremely impressive melodrama Love Letter which was penned by the ever supportive Keisuke Kinoshita. Tanaka’s directing career was almost derailed by her good friend and long time collaborator Kenji Mizoguchi who, for reasons which remain unclear, attempted to block her acceptance into the directors guild of Japan (ending their working relationship in the process), but after eventually joining Nikkatsu as a director she was able to begin work on her second film – The Moon Has Risen (月は上りぬ, Tsuki wa Noborinu), ironically enough scripted buy Shochiku stalwart Yasujiro Ozu.

In the classic Ozu mould, The Moon Has Risen is a family drama but Tanaka pulls the focus a little to home in on the central three sisters. Cared for by widowed patriarch Mokichi (Chishu Ryu), the Asai family consists of widowed oldest sister Chizuru (Hisako Yamane), reserved middle sister Ayako (Yoko Sugi), and the exuberant youngest sister Setsuko (Mie Kitahara) who is in a kind of relationship with the currently out of work intellectual, Shoji (Shoji Yasui). When an old school friend of Shoji’s, Amamiya (Ko Mishima), pays a surprise visit whilst he’s in the area to take a look at a broadcast tower, Setsuko sees it as an opportunity to set him up with her shy sister Ayako once Amamiya makes a few wistful remarks about remembering her from their school days.

The first part of the film stays firmly in the realms of comedy as Setsuko sets her plan in motion. She and Shoji do everything they can to find out whether there is any romantic possibility between the pair – baiting Amamiya to come to a non-existent clandestine meeting and then timing him to see how long he’ll wait before giving up, and convincing each of them that the other has something very important to say which can only be said under the romantic light of a full moon. Youthful as she is Setsuko’s plans largely backfire but then the moonlight gets inside them and something shifts.

The courtship of Ayako and Amamiya is quiet and restrained. They keep their romance a secret, communicating with each other through secret codes leading to poignant passages from the Manyoshu – the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, which everyone in the family is desperate to figure out but can’t quite get to grips with. Chizuru can’t decide if this painfully innocent path to romantic connection is very old fashioned or very modern but it certainly captures something of the cultural shift of post-war society – the marriage is “arranged” in a sense with Setsuko as a matchmaker but it’s also self determined as Ayako and Amamiya come to recognise their mutual feelings for each other, embrace their love match, and make their own independent decisions to marry.

Modern girl Setsuko has also made a proactive decision in her attachment to Shoji but their shared matchmaking quest eventually drives a wedge between them. As she later puts it, they spent so long worrying about Ayako that they forgot all about worrying about themselves. Shoji’s problem is a common one in being both out of work and soft hearted as he proves when he finds a job but decides to recommend a needier friend for it instead. A blazing row nearly threatens to end things but, again, the pair rely on gentle, well meaning advice from their elders and eventually realise they’re about to make themselves miserable in a fit of pigheadedness.

Though Tanaka mimics the veteran director with iconic Ozu-inspired compositions and frequent use of pillow shots, her emotional canvas is more direct than her mentor’s stoical resignation. Steering clear of Ozu’s trademark tatami mat view and preference for direct to camera speech, Tanaka’s lensing is shier and avoids faces altogether to focus on the physical. She lingers on clasped hands, or on uncertain feet, as they hug the ground unwilling to stay or go. Having ignored her for most of the film, Tanaka turns back to Chizuru whose lonely widowhood seems like a forgone conclusion, as her eyes brim with tears on hearing her perceptive father’s acknowledgement of a possible new suitor.

Mokichi’s inevitable loneliness is background rather than foreground as his daughters take centerstage, leaving him to wonder why young people prefer the “dusty, dirty Tokyo”, to his peaceful Nara but in any case he remains perfectly content for each of them to find their own path to wherever it is they’re supposed to be. In her attempt to film Ozu’s script with Ozu’s camera, The Moon has Risen may seem like a step backwards for Tanaka following the more inventive Love Letter but even while working within such constraints she manages outdo the master in her essential emotional immediacy and well observed depiction of lives and loves post-war women.