A Hen in the Wind (風の中の牝鶏, Yasujiro Ozu, 1948)

Sometimes melancholy as he might have been, the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu leans toward the wholesome. His families may experience crises, but they are good people who have generally learned how to be cheerful in the face of adversity. 1948’s A Hen in the Wind (風の中の牝鶏, Kaze no naka no Mendori), however, is unusually dark though perhaps not inappropriately so as it tries to make sense of a painful moment in time by re-envisaging it in terms of a marriage. 

Set very much in the immediacy of the contemporary era, the film opens ominously with an intimidating policeman taking a local census which introduces us to Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) who lodges in the upstairs of a small, run-down building along with her young son Hiroshi while her husband Shuichi (Shuji Sano) has not yet returned from the war. Times are tough for everyone, and Tokiko is finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet with her seamstressing job as prices rise everywhere. She’s down to her last kimonos which she asks an old friend, Akiko (Chieko Murata), to help her sell. Akiko turns to broker/madam Orie (Reiko Mizukami) who feigns exasperation to advise that a pretty woman like Tokiko, still comparatively young at 28, could make more money in her line of work. Akiko is offended on her friend’s behalf and the two laugh it off together, but when Hiroshi suddenly develops colitis and needs to be admitted to hospital Tokiko is left with no choice but throw herself on the mercy of Orie. 

Akiko scolds her friend, hurt that she didn’t come to her first and disappointed that she has chosen to degrade herself. Tokiko is sorry too, worried that if she had asked Akiko for the money she’d have found a way to get it even if she had none to spare and Tokiko would rather carry the burden herself. She wonders if she made the right choice. There was still furniture she might have been able to sell, but she wanted to keep it so that her husband would have a home to come home to. What else could a mother with a sick child do? This way at least she got the money quickly and Hiroshi recovered. It was a one time thing already in the past and no one needs to know. The friends agree to put it behind them as just another minor humiliation of life in the immediate post-war period. 

And then less than a month later Shuichi returns. The joyful reunion is disrupted when he idly asks about Hiroshi’s health and then becomes fixated on how Tokiko managed to pay the hospital bills. She doesn’t want to lie and would rather there be no secrets between them so she tells him the truth. Shuichi does not take it well. He tries to readjust to their married life but finds himself consumed with rage and unable to sleep. Intellectually, he knows his wife had no choice given the situation she was in and in one sense does not blame her but in the other he cannot accept it. 

Tokiko’s transgression undermines his fragile sense of masculinity in every possible way. He feels partly responisble. He wasn’t there to protect her because he was away at the war. If he’d returned a month earlier, she wouldn’t have needed to make such a sacrifice. Unlike many late returning soldiers, Shuichi walks straight back into his old job, easing the family’s financial hardship even as its harmony is strained by his ongoing resentment. Shuichi cannot help making this all about him. His wounded pride, his broken future, his romantic disappointment. He becomes obsessed with the idea of his wife defiled, insisting on tracking down the brothel where Orie brought her to ask if it really was just the one time while exploring the business for himself.

While schoolchildren sing cheerful folksongs in the playground behind, Shuichi talks to a 21-year-old who has only contempt for customers like him who ask too many hypocritical questions. She explains the she didn’t choose this sort of work, it’s the only way she can support her family, once again, ironically, because of a male failure in this case her father being unable to provide for them while her mother has passed away. Shuichi didn’t come for the full service, and so he eventually leaves, discarding money as he goes partly out of pity and partly in atonement. He runs into the girl again later and even shares her lunch during which he talks to her in a more fatherly fashion, encouraging her that she is not ruined and still has the right to strive for a brighter future. To further prove his point, he commits to finding her an “honest” job, asking with his friend at the company who is sympathetic and also wants to help. Only, his friend can’t understand. If Shuichi can sympathise so much with this young girl why can’t he forgive his wife who, to his mind, has done nothing wrong? 

Tokiko is perhaps a symbol of the pure Japan debased by the male violence that is militarism. Shuichi has come home from the war but carrying trauma of his own which he projects onto the loyal self-sacrificing wife who waited patiently for his return. Yet Tokiko blames herself, she begs him to beat her, hate her, only not to leave and not to be unhappy. Shuichi only comes round after accidentally pushing her down the stairs in a rare moment of shocking domestic violence totally unexpected in an Ozu movie (even if not quite unique). Suddenly overcome with post-war humanism, Shuichi forgives his wife essentially giving her the same speech he’d given to the girl only with greater emphasis. Life is long and their path is hard. They need to “be more accepting and love one another”, “conquer hardship through laughter and trust”, so that they might have a “true marriage”. Tokiko’s redemption, and perhaps that of her nation, is dependent on the former soldier Shuichi’s forgiveness, and of her acceptance of it, rather than a recognition of her blamelessness. In any case, a line has been drawn. The future starts now and it’s going to be a better one built on compassion and mutual forgiveness rather than selfishness and resentment.


A Hen in the Wind screens at BFI Southbank on 10th/14th September as part of Kinuyo Tanaka: A Life in Film

Record of a Tenement Gentleman (長屋紳士録, Yasujiro Ozu, 1947)

There are no real villains in the world of Ozu, though the immediate post-war world does its best to create them despite the best efforts of those quietly trying to live amidst the devastation. The misleadingly titled Record of a Tenement Gentleman (長屋紳士録, Nagaya Shinshiroku), the Japanese title a more ironic “a tenement who’s who”, is, like Hen in the Wind, a kind of manifesto statement for the postwar era only a much warmer one which looks forward to Ozu’s celebrated family dramas as its decidedly frosty heroine finds her emotional floodgates breached by the unexpected arrival of a problematic little boy. 

The little boy, Kohei (Hohi Aoki), is brought home by tenement gentleman Tashiro (Chishu Ryu) who found him wandering around in the town after becoming separated from his father. Tashiro’s roommate Tamekichi (Reikichi Kawamura) is unwilling to shelter the boy and so they decide to foist him on the grumpy old woman opposite, Tane (Choko Iida), who doesn’t want him either but is left with little choice. Tane is quickly angry with the boy because he wets the bed, ruining her spare futon, and tries to convince another neighbour who already has three children to take him in instead but is tricked into taking him back to the place he was previously living after Tamekichi rigs a game of straws. Travelling with him in the hope of finding his father, Tane wanders bombed out Tokyo and comes to the conclusion that Kohei’s dad has most likely abandoned him. 

A widow with no other family, or so it would seem, Tane is a cold and wily woman supporting herself with a small tenement shop. A sharp contrast is drawn when a childhood friend of hers, Kiku (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), arrives to ask about the best way to acquire a hose and shares some dorayaki sweets which have become a rare luxury in an age of rationing and privation. Kiku has married well and become a fine lady, not quite boasting but obviously very pleased with the walnut dressing table she had made with the mirror Tane helped her get on a previous occasion. Still, Tane is not embittered or especially unhappy just cynical and used to practicality. She didn’t see herself as the maternal type and had been intent mainly on ensuring her own survival.

Even so, she is touched and saddened to think a man might abandon his child even if she herself did not want to be burdened with him. She often scolds Kohei, frightening him with her stern expression, but later apologises when Tameshiro takes the blame for supposedly eating some of the persimmons Tane was drying at the window, even handing him the remaining fruit from the line. Talking with Kiku she recalls her own childhood as happy and carefree, tugging on her parents’ sleeves asking for pocket money while Kohei’s pockets are filled with cigarette butts and nails for the carpenter father Tane is sure has abandoned his son. This last fact is the one that finally touches her heart. Despite his fear and his hurt, Kohei has continued to think of his father and has been selflessly collecting little presents on his behalf to give to him when they are reunited. 

The innocence and selflessness of children is further emphasised by the son of a neighbour winning a prize in the lottery leading some of the other residents to insist that children are more likely to win precisely because they enter with a pure heart not with the intention of winning or monetary gain. Tane tries the theory out by making Kohei buy a lottery ticket with money Kiku had given him as a treat but of course he doesn’t win and Tane is upset, blaming him for not being as goodhearted as she’d assumed, but later giving him the money back when he bursts into tears (which is something he does often, perhaps understandably but out of keeping with the mentality of the times). Nevertheless, despite herself Tane becomes fond of the boy and even begins to think about adopting him as her own son. 

Eventually Kohei’s father returns, but Tane’s conversion is so complete and absolute that the tears she cries are not in lament for herself but in happiness to know that the boy’s father was not the awful man she thought he was but a doting parent distraught at the thought of his missing son. She is moved by the happiness they must feel in their reunion and realises that her time with Kohei has taught her many things, not least among them that she has allowed the times to cool her heart. The post-war world, the ruins and devastation we can glimpse beyond the tenement, has forced people to become self-interested, little caring if others starve so long as they aren’t hungry. She regrets that she wasn’t warmer to the boy when he arrived, and wishes we could all be more like children kind to others without thinking of ourselves. Cementing what would come to be his iconic signature style, Ozu ends, somewhat uncharacteristically, on a melancholy scene of street children, a crowd of war orphans abandoned by the society which created them through militarist folly. As much a chronicle of everyday life in the ruins of a major city, Record of a Tenement Gentleman is also an unsubtle argument for post-war humanism in a society it sees as in danger of failing to learn from past mistakes.